Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Origins & Influences

This past weekend was spent conducting cast interviews for the Women's Studies "September surprise." A big thanks to Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley, who you'll be getting to know better in a future blog. He trounced around a hundred miles in two states and the District of Columbia helping me gather footage of the wonderful cast which the world will be meeting very soon.

During my own interview I was asked, "How did the idea for Women's Studies come about?" I gave a pretty long winded answer that kind of answered the question, but not really, at least not to my liking. There are a lot more influences, ideas, and strange twists of fate that occured than a short interview would allow. I figured the blog was as good a place as any to go into further detail.

My first brush with academic feminism was some essays from Camille Paglia's Vamps & Tramps. Paglia has a lot of things to say about gender relationships, the media, and socialization, but I sum up her Vamps & Tramps thesis as such: Madonna in her "Justify My Love" heyday was the most powerful woman in the world because of her embrace of her feminine sexuality and ability to translate it the way she wanted through the media. If you find that an over-simplification, hey, Paglia wrote a whole book on it. You can get the sticky details there. She's quite funny, and I think much of her analysis is spot on. Alarm bells may ring with hardcore feminists who find Paglia to be something of a "male sympathizer," whatever that means.

My interest in feminism is borne from an interest in psychology, specifically the emotional and psychological difference between men and women. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that because of our unique but very specific biological engineering, men and women's brains are "hardwired" differently. This isn't to imply that one is better than the other, just different. We think differently. We feel differently. We approach matters of the mind and heart differently.

Anyway, in the summer of 2000, I was living in my parent's basement after what can only be called a failed excursion to Chicago. I had lived there for a year managing a coffee shop, writing screenplays, being poor, and smoking too many god damned cigarettes. Lack of funds and a death in the family brought me back east, and I spent a good amount of time feeling depressed about being no better off than when I had left college two years before. (Am I showing my age, sonny boy?)

For some reason, a buddy of mine had given me a VHS copy of Night of the Living Dead, which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. At that same time, my eldest sister was doing clerical work for a now defunct culture magazine called Gadfly. She had given me a subscription and one of the issues contained a long, rather academic article on George A. Romero's "dead trilogy." (That's Night of the Living Dead, the original Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead for the non-horror fan.)

Suddenly, I got it into my head that I was going to "research" horror films. I'd do it simply for it's own sake and to give my slacker existence some kind of meaning. I had been a horror junkie as a kid, but in my search for "meaningful art," had abandoned the genre for the most part.

During my new "studies," I read quite a few non-fiction horror books including Danse Macabre by Stephen King and Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. I read classic horror novels. (Couldn't get into Lovecraft, but I loved Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.) And I watched horror movies. Universal's monsters, Hammer films, I Was a Teenage Werewolf/Frankenstein/Zombie, 70's exploitation flix, slashers, big bugs, blobs, and Body Snatcher movies; I watched so many horror movies that for a four month period, I was scared of my own friggin' shadow.

Finally, I took a crack at writing a horror screenplay. Was that my intention all along? Consciously, I don't think so, but the wounds from a failed comic book project had really just healed. I think my brain knew I needed to move on somehow, and the horror overdose was the only way to make myself do it. The screenplay I wrote was about a haunted corn farm and though I may be biased, I thought it was damn scary. For awhile, I toyed with the idea of trying to shoot it, but soon realized I wasn't quite ready for that.

I sent the script off to a few friends to read, including an old college professor. He liked it and came back to me with, "Hey, I shoot a short film with some of my students every year. Do you want to write a script for me? I need something less than fifteen minutes with lots of female characters that takes place on a college campus."

During this time, I had recently watched the 1975 film version of The Stepford Wives, based off the novel by Ira Levin. In the film, Katherine Ross plays an urbanite, amateur photographer whose husband moves his whole family from New York City to the suburban "paradise" of Stepford, Connecticut. In Stepford, the lawns are perfect, the houses are huge, and the men all belong to some weird Elks club housed in a creepy mansion on top of a hill.

The women of Stepford though, they're something else entirely. They clean and cook as if every scrub is pure ecstasy. Exciting times are heading to the grocery store to meet the other wives and talk over dish detergent. Ross finds this to be a little strange to say the least, especially after she meets another recent city implant, played by Paula Prentiss, who feels the same way.

Prentiss, Ross, and another woman played by Tina "Ginger" Louise of Gilligan's Island fame, seem to be the only normal women around, at least until Ginger starts to behave as strangely as the others. Soon Prentiss becomes a mindless "Stepford Wife" as well. It's then that Ross discovers Stepford's secret: the men of the town have had their wives murdered and replaced by look-a-like robots. Ross eventually comes face to face with her own robot doppelganger whose bosom is far more amply endowed than Ross's.

The Stepford Wives
mixed around with the prof's suggestion of a short script with lots of women on a college campus. I thought, "What if there was girl's school that kidnapped and murdered men, a sort of anti-Stepford?" I don't remember there being any sort of "Eureka" moment, just that the idea seemed like a good one. I sat down to write it, and instead of the fifteen page script my old professor had requested, I turned out a forty page short version of Women's Studies.

The original script had Mary (who was really what is now the character of Beth) and her EX-boyfriend Zack picked up by a group of college girls (Judith, Diane, Melissa, and Sharon) after their car breaks down, and taken to their secluded women's academy.(The school was named "The Ross-Prentiss Women's Academy" as a homage to The Stepford Wives.) Once there, the academy girls take turns having sex with Zack before realizing he's sterile and killing him. Mary realizes the women are a man-hating cult and tries to escape.

My professor couldn't use it. The subject matter was too much for a small religious college. I was glad too. Even then, I realized that the story had potential beyond the slapdash short I had written.

Later, as I revisited the script, cult ideology and social theory informed the story quite a bit. Most notable were Charles Manson's "Helter Skelter" cult, and Patty Hearst's "Stockholm Syndrome" after being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. I also did quite a bit of reading on Al Qaeda and the methods they use in indoctrinating suicide bombers.

That's the way the Women's Studies story happened. It didn't appear suddenly as much as it evolved from a variety of different influences over a period of time. And that's the way it should be. To me, a writer's job is less about having a good idea than it is recognizing the elements from his/her own experience that combined could make a good story. I'm glad I had the wherewithal to catch this one.

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Hopefully, next Tuesday will be the first of two blogs introducing our cast members. We're still working on a few things that may delay that one more week. If that's the case, we'll have some Q&A with Women's Studies Director of Photography, Aaron Shirley.

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