Chelsea Stardust has had a pretty killer year. She’s had not one, but two feature-length projects come to fruition. With Hulu’s Into the Dark: All That We Destroy we saw her explore the concept of modern motherhood. And then, we were introduced to the upper crust Mill Basin chapter of a Satanic cult in her collaboration with Fangoria on Satanic Panic. While it would be easy for anyone in this position to get a little ego on them after such a successful sequence of events, Chelsea Stardust remains one of the most humble, relatable and genuine creatives out there. With her charming demeanor (and stunning signature locks), Chelsea has managed to strike an impressive balance of undeniable talent and vision while retaining her nerd-next-door qualities. She’s a horror fiend through and through…and also a certified bad-ass director.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Chelsea while she was a featured guest at the Idaho Horror Film Festival in Boise, Idaho. While she was in attendance for the last festival screening of Satanic Panic, Chelsea was also the recipient of IHFF’s yearly Trailblazer Award. The award is one that acknowledges a woman who has made considerable contributions to their craft and is a touchstone for other women in the industry. While her rise may seem sudden, Chelsea is a filmmaker who has certainly paid her dues with time spent working alongside industry greats like Jason Blum, Ivan Reitman and Judd Apatow. She’s a true fan of the genre and her passion, knowledge, skill and personality oozes from every project she touches. Read on to check out our full conversation as we touch on her inspirations, the intersection of horror and comedy, women in horror, living that Halloween-365 life and so much more!
“I’m so honored to be getting the [Trailblazer] award. I haven’t even thought of myself as a trailblazer before! […] I just hope that inspires a future generation of filmmakers to see that, ‘Yes! You can do it!”
Rachel Prin for Nightmare on Film Street: So, you are here at IHFF for a screening of your film Satanic Panic, but you are also receiving the Trailblazer Award! Congrats! Who are some of the women that you consider trailblazers or that have inspired you along your journey?
Chelsea Stardust: I’m so honored to be getting the award. I haven’t even thought of myself as a trailblazer before! So when I was told that’s what I was receiving I was like, ‘What!? Me!?’ I’ve had a lot of young women come up to me at colleges and fans who have seen the movie (especially from my Alma Mater) say, ‘It’s so cool to see someone from our school out directing movies and that’s a woman!’ I just hope that inspires a future generation of filmmakers to see that, ‘Yes! You can do it!’
For me personally, oh my god the list is so long…but one of the biggest inspirations is Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break). I idolize her so much and her career path has been a pretty incredible one. Also, Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body), Jane Campion (The Piano), Antonia Bird (Ravenous), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), the Soska Sisters (Rabid, American Mary)…I almost want to say there’s so many, but there’s not as many as there should be. But, I’m so thankful to be among so many incredible filmmakers and to be part of the group.
I grew up watching movies and grew up as a cinephile and I’d watch something like, A League of Their Own and see that Penny Marshall was directing and be like, ‘Oh shit! A woman directed this!’ Even seeing things like The Virgin Suicides which Sophia Coppola did. She is a big inspiration too. So, seeing these films and seeing them directed by women, it never dawned on me that I couldn’t do that. Seeing these women go out and do it, inspired me to go out and do it. We’re out there. We’re just not getting as many opportunities as male directors are. Hopefully it’ll balance out one day. We’re still working on it, but every day it gets better and better. Right now I think is a great time to be a female filmmaker. This has been an incredible year with so many incredible films coming out. Rabid is coming out which the Soskas did! I’m very lucky to be among these awesome trailblazers.
NOFS: It’s gotta be kind of crazy. These incredible women are your peers now!
CS: It’s so surreal. I don’t even think of it like that because I get so starstruck by it. I just saw Rabid when it played at Screamfest in LA and I met the Soskas. Even though we’ve interacted on social media and they’ve been very supportive of Satanic Panic, when I finally got to meet them it was so surreal! I remember seeing American Mary when I was working at Blumhouse and thinking ‘Oh my god, these women are so badass!’ And now we both have movies out this year. So surreal, so crazy.
NOFS: As someone who is knee-deep in the field, in what ways have you seen positive shifts for women in the industry and where do you see work still needed?
CS: I’ve been pretty lucky in terms of my crew for Satanic Panic and my first movie, All That We Destroy. Almost all the department heads were women with the exception of one or two, but every time I see female DP’s and gaffers and grips, it’s really awesome. I think that women make really great editors as well. So, I see those opportunities coming up more and more for women, and them getting hired! Because they do exist! They just need to be given the job. So when they do, that’s always really cool to see.
Also, as much as for women, it’s also the LGBTQ+ community, it’s people of color, and Hollywood can always do better. It’s going to take a long time before I think things will balance out, but I’m excited to see these people getting some of these opportunities. Finally.
“I think that horror is a very cathartic outlet for women, and for me I find it very cathartic to watch.”
NOFS: Despite popular mainstream opinion, horror is a genre with a huge female fan base. Why do you think so many women are drawn to the genre?
CS: As a woman growing up with horror movies, I learned we always survive. We’re always the final girl. Yes, we’re also victims too, but it’s that idea of the Final Girl trope. We always survive. And I love the Wes Craven quote, ‘Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.’ And I think for women, on a different note, women live in fear every day. It’s something that we’re surrounded by, all the time. So I think that horror is a very cathartic outlet for women, and for me I find it very cathartic to watch. Also, women have a relationship with blood that men will never understand. There’s a lot of layers to it. And for me personally, I love the release that comes from watching a horror movie. Plus, I think there’s such incredible stories we can connect to.
In All That We Destroy, the story is ‘What will a mother do for her son? What will a parent do for their child?’ It was inspired by incredible female characters like in Poltergeist. The mom goes to another dimension for her kid! In Cujo, Dee Wallace’s character takes on a rabid dog for her kid to live and The Exorcist! I think what the mother is going through there is way scarier than what was physically happening to Regan because she’s helpless. She doesn’t know how to help her kid. So she says, ‘Ok, I guess I’m going to entertain the idea of an exorcism’.
Similarly, when I read the script for Satanic Panic I thought, ‘Oh my god. Women run this movie!’ Not only are they good, but they’re also evil. I thought that was so cool and that the men kind of take a backseat. Most of the men are actually pretty toxic too. It was one of those things where I was thinking, ‘These women are so fierce, and they’re so powerful, but they’re not perfect’. I thought it was really interesting to look at their flaws and figure out, ‘How do we make this relatable?’ Because everyone is flawed. Also, seeing a cult run by women. A Satanic cult run by women! We never see that! We never see this kind of high fashion version of it. We see it in the woods or in a basement. I loved this kind of ‘What Would Martha Stewart Do?’ take on that sub-genre. Women rule the world in this movie and I wanted to be the one to bring that to life.
NOFS: Along those same lines, I wanted to ask you about the term ‘strong female character.’ It’s one we see thrown around a lot in films, literature and television but one that has become dulled with overuse. What do you think that term even means any more?
CS: Strong doesn’t mean perfect. It’s like, with Satanic Panic, strong doesn’t mean these characters are perfect, they’re flawed. And I try not to use that word because all women are strong. It’s like, strong female character? Well, Nancy is a strong female character. Laurie Strode is a strong female character. Yeah! All these women are strong, what are you talking about? Almost all the horror movies like, forever, have almost always had strong female characters in them. So that’s nothing new, but people are trying to put this spin like, ‘We want to be hip so we’re going to call these women ‘strong.’ Yes, all these women are strong. You have to be strong to be a woman.
So for me, I choose the words carefully. Like, powerful. Fierce. Even with Haley’s (Griffith) character Sam in Satanic Panic, she is pretty naive. But she’s a survivor. She’s been through cancer. She’s never seen a world like this before. She’s never had money. So, when she goes to Mill Basin she’s exposed to something totally new and totally different. And when she has the skin sealing scene with Judi, Ruby Modine’s character, it’s the first time she’s verbalized what she’s been through. She’s probably never talked about it before, ever. So, that’s the first time she’s talking about that with this girl she just met and it’s probably the first time Judi has had a conversation with someone that wasn’t superficial.
This girl is telling her her story and that’s not lost on her. So that’s why that moment in the kitchen where she says, ‘You’re a blue collar bad ass who just won’t quit,’ that’s the heart of the movie for me. She realizes this is probably her first real friend and that really seals their friendship I think. They grow a lot in that moment despite the fact that they were ‘strong female characters’ to begin with. The emotional journey for both of them is a part we had a lot of fun working on together.
“Women rule the world in this movie and I wanted to be the one to bring that to life.”
NOFS: A good character is more than just what’s written in the script, even when it’s an incredible story crafted by Grady Hendrix. How do you as a director help develop depth with your characters and the actors who play them?
CS: Grady Hendrix is amazing and the words and worlds he’s able to create…and it all starts with a great script. Taking Grady’s script, he and I (him in New York, I’m in L.A.) got together on the phone and went through each scene, line by line. I did this because, I knew what was on the page but I wanted to take it one step deeper than that. I wanted to really get into, what is the core of this scene? What is the core of this character? What is happening in this scene and how will it affect this scene and that scene? So we worked through that. And I took lots of notes. Then, I sat down with my actors and went through all the scenes that they were in. I said, ‘here’s what’s happening on the page, and here’s what’s happening on a deeper subconscious level for your character’. Because, we shot the movie in 18 days. We did not have time on set to go through those things. We did it in prep and we didn’t really have rehearsals.
We did have a rehearsal for the skin sealing scene, because I needed that. We needed that as it’s a huge emotional scene in the movie. So, I got to go through that stuff with each person and say, ‘Now you know what I want. Now, you take all that information and think about how you want to adjust yourself and bring that to your performance.’ Because as an actor, that’s what they do best. So when you’re on set, it’s really just adjusting an inflection here, a little thing there, but they already know what I want and they know that I would expect them to bring their side of it too. Also, it was an embarrassment of riches. I got really lucky with my cast. People always ask about the tone of the movie because horror-comedy is so difficult. And honestly, between Grady’s words and these amazing actors who have worked in comedy, even if they haven’t done horror before (like Rebecca Romijn hadn’t done horror before), she has done ‘genre’ and sci-fi. They made my job pretty easy when it comes to that stuff. They knew tonally exactly what to do.
I was also giving references, like Jennifer’s Body. That was a huge reference for the movie. Diablo Cody’s dialogue can be similar to Grady’s and you’re dealing with evil and satanic things. So, I gave that as a reference to Ruby and Haley. And I had them read My Best Friend’s Exorcism because I really wanted them to study the female friendships. Also, when you look at Jennifer’s Body, Needy and Jennifer are totally different women who come from totally different backgrounds. Very similar to Sam and Judi.
NOFS: I find your background so interesting, especially your time spent working with Ivan Reitman and Judd Apatow. Comedy and horror are such an odd couple, but one that totally works. Talk a little about the intersection of the two genres and in your opinion, why the two work so well together.
CS: It’s a couple different things. One is timing. The time to laugh and the time to scare. It’s all about construction and where to make a laugh land, where to make a scare land. There’s so many things that go into making that work. And also, usually, when you go to see a horror movie, what do you do after you scream? You laugh. You’re releasing fear and you’re getting it out. Whatever you may be dealing with that day, you’re letting it out thanks to the movie. And honestly, having watched someone like Judd Apatow shoot Funny People, dealing with improv and watching him and his actors work (of course, they’re incredibly talented comedians). And then, going and watching someone like James Wan construct a scare in Insidious. With both of them, it’s an art. Creating a scare is a total art and very difficult to do. But they are both masters and I got to learn from them. I’m still learning. But because I got to witness both of those things and also watch Leigh Whannell work and Adam Robitel and so many incredible horror directors, I felt ok. I’ve learned so much from these people and am definitely stealing a lot of things and applying it to my own work. (laughs)
NOFS: There’s a lot of moving pieces that go into making a film. Why did you want to be a director? What attracted you to it?
CS: I’m a bossy only child! (laughs) Both my parents are artists so I grew up in the art world and they are both cinephiles. So, I knew I would do something in the arts. But I can’t draw or paint for shit, so that was out. And I always loved movies! I also loved theater, but I never felt comfortable on the stage. I liked the idea of putting all of the pieces together. Growing up I would read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or Goosebumps and I’d visualize what that would look like, as you do when you read a book. And then I’d think about, how would I bring that to life? That’s sort of where it started. How do you make that work? How does that special effect work? So, I just started thinking about it and I was always obsessed with watching the Oscars and the Emmy’s. I loved movies so much. Then I finally thought, I want to make movies. And so I picked up a video camera when I was in high school and just started shooting stuff on a Super 8.
Whether it was my pets at home or asking teachers if I could turn in a video instead of a paper, I would do that. And learn from my mistakes and what worked and what didn’t. I also knew that the director was the boss and I thought that was pretty cool. And that this group of people, all together, help this person bring their vision to life, I thought that was so amazing. A lot of times when people talk about a movie they talk about the director, but it takes a whole team of people to make that happen. The director doesn’t do all the jobs necessarily. I mean, when you’re starting out you do. (laughs) But when it gets to a feature, you need these people to help you. It’s the ultimate teamwork and the ultimate form of expression within the art world and it is forever. We are only on this Earth for so long, but art and cinema and books, that all lasts forever. It’s an ego thing too. You’re immortal in a way.
“We are only on this Earth for so long, but art and cinema and books, that all lasts forever. It’s an ego thing too. You’re immortal in a way.”
NOFS: Final fun question. We are on the cusp of the spookiest day of the year. What are some of your go-to Halloween movies?
CS: Well, I lead a Halloween 365 life. My life is Halloween. But! There are some movies I save specifically for October. I love Night of the Living Dead. That’s one I watch in October. Texas Chainsaw Massacre I love…but that’s a summer movie. The Universal Monster movies I watch in October. Dracula is my favorite, but I’ll watch Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Wolfman. On Halloween proper, I’ll watch my favorite cartoons that I grew up with, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Legend of Sleepy Hollow and also the original 1978 John Carpenter Halloween and Halloween III. I love Season of the Witch and I think it’s so underrated. I also love the WNUF Halloween Special, Haxan, Mike Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat. I love the documentary American Scream and I usually pair that with Haunters. What else…The Witch, Hocus Pocus of course. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. And I watch a different movie every single day of the month. I make a little chart of what I’m going to watch every day. Donnie Darko is another big one. I’ve got it all planned out like a crazy person. Very Type A. Or some years I’ll go all alphabetical. Or I’ll start with Haxan and then go chronologically. Or I’ll focus on a specific director. It’s so great to revisit all these movies that I wait all year to see. Obviously, you can see I’m obsessed.
NOFS: I love how easily you just rattled those all off!
CS: Halloween was a big deal in my family. I’ve grown up with Halloween parties every year since I was born and it was always my parents favorite holiday. I’m a huge nerd. Horror is everything to me and this is the most magical time of the year!
“Horror is everything to me and this is the most magical time of the year!”
Just in time for your own Halloween movie marathon, Satanic Panic is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and was even available on VHS! (Sold out now of course) Keep your eyes peeled this winter for a vinyl release of the soundtrack as well courtesy of Burning Witches Records. You can also check out Chelsea’s episode of Into the Dark: All That We Destroy on Hulu.