There have been few films in 2019 that have received as much…chatter as Blumhouse’s Black Christmas. Everything from casting to content, ratings to rationale has been up for public debate since the moment the project was publicly announced. However, despite the continual swirl of discussions, the focus, vision and execution of the film is one that has remained steadfastly clear. Black Christmas is a movie with equal parts motivation and message, never once shying away from it’s intent and unique re-imagining.
In Black Christmas (2019), “a group of female students are stalked by a stranger during their Christmas break. That is until the young sorority pledges discover that the killer is part of an underground college conspiracy”.
“We’ve had a century of horror movies that are trying to bury these messages into the films […] fuck subtlety. It’s 2019. We don’t have time for this shit.”
While the finished product highlights some truly great performances, the film is anchored by it’s powerful script written by director Sophia Takal and April Wolfe. Together, they crafted a script that both shocks and engages in it’s frankness and sincerity. A mix of genuine emotion, experience and passion, the result is one that’s certain to garner opinions on both sides of the fence. However, as a former film critic for the LA Weekly and Village Voice, April Wolfe is no stranger to opinions and certainly isn’t afraid to talk about her own.
Along with screenwriting, Wolfe hosts a successful podcast called Switchblade Sisters where she discusses, dissects and celebrates the art of filmmaking with an impressive roster of female filmmaker guests. An eternal and enthusiastic advocate for the craft, her intelligence, humor and passion oozes out of every project she touches. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Wolfe and we talked about her latest film, Black Christmas, what’s next for the ‘Final Girl’ and what the future holds for horror.
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: How did you first get involved with this new Black Christmas project and what was the experience like co-writing with Sophia Takal?
April Wolfe: Around last year at this time, in 2018, I was having kind of a life crisis. I needed work and I’ve been trying to be a screenwriter for so long, my entire life. I was even writing screenplays when I was living in Boise, working at the record store, just writing in my free time. I really just didn’t think it was ever going to happen or work out. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I should just start sending screenplays to directors.’ I went to see Sophia’s opening for her Into the Dark episode, New Year, New You at the Blumhouse offices where they screened it and it was great! But the thing is, we just really liked each other. She’s so strange. Just a genuinely weird, great artist and I have immense respect for her. And on January 3rd, I sent her a screenplay thinking, ‘Maybe she could direct this’ because I love her work.
So I sent her the screenplay that I wrote and was just like, ‘Tell me what you think.’ And she wrote back a few days later saying, ‘I love it. I would love to direct it.’ But then she had to drop out for a little while and Blumhouse had contacted her in the meantime saying, ‘Look, we loved your Into the Dark Episode. We can give you Black Christmas. It’s yours if you want it.’ Which is insane. So she was like, ‘Oh fuck. This is a huge opportunity.’ And at that time, she was thinking about where she wanted her version of Black Christmas to go.
So around the middle of March, she asked if I would give her notes on a really rough draft on a script she had. Mainly just outlines of ideas and characters. And so I gave her a long list of notes that were really just questions. Like, ‘Well what about this?’ and ‘I like this, but what if this?’ Then, like two days after that she came back and said, ‘Do you want to co-write it with me?’ And so I came on to the project officially April 1st. And we had 7 months at that point to completely concept, write, produce, film, edit, score, everything for release on December 13th.
“[…] it’s something that you’re going to have to live with for a long time, so it better be something that’s in your style and that makes you happy,“
NOFS: It’s got to be an intimidating thing working with a pre-existing property, and especially one I know you personally love so much. What were some of the perks and challenges to writing in the Black Christmas sphere?
AW: I didn’t re-watch the original before we started writing because I didn’t want to be clouded. I think that Sophia did earlier in the process. But I think that was one of the things I was able to bring on was the idea that, you don’t have to stay close to the original. You just have to take the really, really key parts of it. The spirit of it. Because ultimately, it’s something that you’re going to have to live with for a long time, so it better be something that’s in your style and that makes you happy, and try to work from joy.
I think that really opened things up for Sophia because then both of us were able to just be like, ‘Oh! Well, we love the original! If we can incorporate things from the original but still have this very unique, very different vision for it then we’ll be successful.’ But you can’t really think about the original too much. You can’t really think about the expectations because you’ll never satisfy them. Because the original movie, to me, is perfect. It’s perfection. What Bob Clark was able to achieve on that budget with this amazing cast, with this time frame, it was kismet. And you can’t recreate that, you can only do what you want to do.
NOFS: There’s a moment where Lindsay is walking home at night and she sticks her keys through her fingers when she thinks she’s being followed. This really got to me as that’s an action and feeling so many women have experienced. Why was it important to you and Sophia to blend these real everyday horrors within the surreal nature of a slasher film?
AW: Sophia and I just felt bad. We were just really depressed. (Laughs) I mean, 2019 has had the highest highs and the lowest lows. And I think that’s the way a lot of marginalized people feel. You have these really immense victories, but also these extremely crushing defeats. And that’s something we were really feeling hard. And so it felt really natural to put in these very small things, these small anxieties that we feel every day, into the script. And people are like, ‘How is this separate? Why did a woman need to write and direct this?’ And it’s really just the small things. It’s the tiny details and the weird thing of having a Camille Paglia burn in this movie. And we’ve also got a running gag about a DivaCup which is not going to happen with a guy necessarily. Or at least a cis guy, you know.
I’ve said this before, but we also didn’t know or think about that being particularly female or a particularly marginalized people kind of thing. It’s just our experience, so we put it in. We had a bunch of older cis head guys reading this script and they were like, ‘Whoa, this is very um…political.’ And we were like, ‘What? It seems pretty normal to us.’ (Laughs)
“Horror is already trying to dig at your worst fears. If it’s not, it’s not really succeeding.“
NOFS: That’s one of the benefits I think of Blumhouse being the machine that it is. They’re able to turn out movies so quickly that you’re able to stay on trend and write about something that’s modern, relevant and still very much at the forefront of the conversation. What do you think it is about horror that lends itself to these kind of complex, emotional conversations?
AW: Horror is already trying to dig at your worst fears. If it’s not, it’s not really succeeding. So it’s already luring you into this kind of false comfort. And that’s maybe the best way to get into talking about deeper things in your life. The kind of stuff that’s hard to talk about even with friends, or to talk about in public. What we did with this movie too is…and I think some people will appreciate it and some people will be like, ‘Why didn’t you make Get Out?’ We made something that might be part of the subtext, the text of the movie. Because it felt like, we’ve had a century of horror movies that are trying to bury these messages into the films and we were like, ‘Well…people don’t seem to be getting it.’ (Laughs)
So, we’re gonna make it the text so you can’t escape it. You can’t pretend that it’s not there. And those people that are bothered by the text are probably going to miss the layers underneath, the subtext layers underneath because they’re just not ready to listen to it. But also, we felt like couching these ideas and these messages was like…we don’t have time right now. You need to get it. And if it’s making you mad you need to examine why it’s making you mad. I think people might be shocked a little bit by how forward we are with some of our ideas. Our producer was calling it, a ‘hammer-to-the-nose’ script. And yeah, fuck subtlety. It’s 2019. We don’t have time for this shit.
NOFS: I had a question about casting and the writing process. Once you have the perfect cast, how does this affect the script? Or does it? Did anything change for you once casting was completed?
AW: One of the things we had going in was an idea of who was going to be a queer character, who was going to be people of color. Because I don’t think you should necessarily have colorblind writing in movies. I don’t think we’re there yet. Especially when it’s horror because people are going to read into all of the baggage that is there because we all have baggage from that. Once casting was done, we sat down to have dinner, and it was the weirdest fucking experience because I was talking to these people and I couldn’t not think of them as their characters. They were so much like their characters! I had to ask Sophia if they were doing a character improvisation game and she was like, ‘No. This is just who they are!’ We just found the best people that inhabit these bodies. It felt so strange.
For instance, Aleyse Shannon who plays the character of Kris, is one of my favorites because she’s pushy and sometimes she pushes too far. But she’s also right about things. And her conflict of, ‘Well, should I be less pushy because the world doesn’t want me to? Or do I push harder because the world needs to hear these things?’ I love her. And I was talking to Aleyse at dinner and her mannerisms, the way she was just so blunt about things like, talking about being a mixed-race woman and what that means in the Hollywood world. How it gets her more roles than other darker skin women, and she was just so on point for who Kris was of just calling out hypocrisies. I was just like, ‘Ahh, I just want to listen to you Kris. I mean Aleyse!’ These actors were so perfect for these roles that we didn’t really have to do much after the casting.
NOFS: The idea of the ‘Final Girl’ is one of the most prevalent, overused and simultaneously iconic in horror. How have you seen this idea evolve and where do you think that it’s heading?
AW: I think that we’re about to be, well I hope, we’re going to be re-imagining what anyone’s marginalized role is in horror. The thing is, we’re so attached to these tropes. And often they have to do specifically with the slasher genre because it’s so emblematic of American horror and in our cultural critique of horror. And specifically, the ‘Final Girl’ and these ideas around it. But I’ve been so sad that in terms of slashers we’ve been mostly stuck in a meta-narrative because we know things need to change, but we can’t help but comment on them constantly. So it’s self-referential. And I think that’s where you get into trouble and you find a lack of creativity for a way forward. I think that probably, the ‘Final Girl’ is going to disappear in coming years or kind of reinvent itself. Myself, I would love if we had fewer meta-narratives until we had something else to comment on in a meta way.
However, I am looking forward to- for instance, there’s a really fun movie coming up with Vince Vaughn and it’s a body swap horror movie. Some friends are making that movie and I’m so psyched for that. Like a Freaky Friday the 13th movie. I’m so into that. And that’s a different kind of meta that we haven’t really seen commentary on. But the final girl I think is kind of done and it would be great if we could kind of move away from that. I don’t know if the slasher even has to continue on as a genre. I think that there’s going to be more sub-genres of the slasher and perhaps that one might fade away a bit. Unless we can find a way to reinvent it. There’s just so much that is in flux right now. I feel like also, there are so many people that are making films that are on the festival circuit that are just about to come out. Like in the next year or two. It’s going to change our idea of what horror is. It’s going to change our idea about what mainstream horror is.
“I think that probably, the ‘Final Girl’ is going to disappear in coming years or kind of reinvent itself.”
NOFS: What do you think the next trend in horror is going to be?
AW: I see hybrid movies as being on the forefront of things. I think that there’s going to be people who mix and match certain things. I think it’s going to be a bit wild and a bit ‘kitchen sink’ because I think that people are a bit frustrated with staged narratives right now. So that’s where I see things moving. Where genre will kind of be on the margins of every movie that comes out. So it’ll be horror…but maybe not all the way horror. Or maybe it’s action with a horror twist. I think that we’re going to be blurring the boundaries of genre more and more and more coming up. All of these things exist right now in certain ways, like Jennifer Reeders movie Knives and Skin is one that really connected with me cause you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be like, a mystery horror about this missing girl.’ But instead it’s like, a melodrama musical that also has horror elements. And you’re like, ‘What the fuck is this!?’
Any movie that makes me wonder, ‘What the fuck is this?’ is something that I’m going to gravitate towards. I think that horror is still going to be the thing that gets people into the theaters. I hope that people are taking cues from the successful horror movies that have been coming out and seeing, ‘Oh. This is extremely wild.’ Like, Peter Strickland’s In Fabric has sold out screenings at whatever small amount of theaters it’s been playing at here in LA because it’s about a haunted dress that fits everyone! It’s like, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets fucking Christine. It’s insane! It’s so amazing! Horror I hope will help keep theaters in business.
NOFS: When people leave the theater after seeing Black Christmas, what are you hoping they take away from the film?
AW: I hope that people talk. I hope that it makes people talk about things. Even if they don’t like it. And I think that we wanted, in the end, for people to leave the theater smiling and energized. And so that was very much on our minds every time we were doing a draft. It was like, ‘Ok, where is the joy in this. Where can we find some kind of joy.’ So I hope that people are smiling but also feeling like they want to talk about what this movie stands for and what we were trying to get at.
NOFS: You’ve interviewed so many incredible women on your podcast Switchblade Sisters and have had so many amazing conversations. Who are some of the women that inspire you?
AW: Well, for one, and at this point it kind of sounds cliche, but Ava DuVernay is extremely inspiring. She is the epitome of a good role model when it comes to filmmaking. Because she did not really pick up a camera and do this work until she was in her mid-30’s. I talked to her a little bit about it too in terms of ‘When is it going to happen?’ and she was like, ‘Well, you actually have to make it happen.’ And that was actually one of the reasons why I sent my script to Sophia. So she has always been very inspiring for me and I hope to god she makes a horror movie someday because I think that she could kill it.
Having worked with Sophia, she is obviously so inspiring. And same with Debra Granik who directed, most recently, Leave No Trace. It’s so weird. She doesn’t direct horror movies, but her movies totally terrify me. Because they’re so much about loneliness and feeling outside of yourself and helpless and having to fight through that and find your way. Especially for young women. And Debra Granik is just, the most kind woman. Her perseverance I think is what really gets me. She’s been doing this job for a long time and she should have been nominated for an Academy Award when Winter’s Bone was nominated for Best Picture. But they fucking decided no one made that movie. ‘Oh, it just exists! It had nothing to do with Debra Granik!’ I felt the same way when she was cheated out of any awards for Leave No Trace. And yet, she just gets up every single day and she follows her passions wherever they may be. She also directs documentaries about subjects that really matter to her constantly in between her narrative work. I just think that she’s so, so inspiring.
“I hope that people talk. I hope that it makes people talk about things. Even if they don’t like it.”
Black Christmas is now playing nationwide at a theater near you. And make sure to check out April’s incredible podcast, Switchblade Sisters. Available through your chosen podcast platform of choice.