In Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes’ Sisssy, a self-help influencer goes off the deep end at a bachelorette party for an old friend. It’s a smart, fun slasher with complex characters and some great practical effects. It also has a thing or two to say about the darker side of social media.
Sissy recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. We were fortunate enough to sit down with writers/directors Kane Senes and Hannah Barlow (who also stars in the film) to discuss the making of the film, it’s nostalgic influences, and something they call “Disney Psycho Pop”.
Read Nightmare on Film Street’s full review of SissyHERE.
“Disney Psycho Pop […] It’s gory but it’s also like Fantasia glitter.”
Jonathan Dehaan for Nightmare on Film Street: I really enjoyed how sweet Sissy is, especially for how dark it gets.
Hannah Barlow: Yeah, we were trying to mash up our common interests and our individual experiences growing up. I think Kane was very much a cinema fan in the truest, purest sense of the word-
Kane Senes: Well, yeah, but I was also a slasher fan. […]I was a fun of the campier stuff and so I think we just kind of wanted to, in a way, just make a film that doesn’t really get made that much anymore, especially not in Australia and just kind of modernize it.
Hannah: But also those sort of Y2K coming-of-age movies like Crossroads which isn’t super referenced but for my generation it was huge. [An] awful movie but awful to the point of being fantastic, you know? That sort of campy teen, we’re all going to bury our memories in the pacific ocean, and also Australian iconography. Muriel’s Wedding is a huge reference for us. We couldn’t escape it growing up, it was on the tv every single night. It’s the most depressing film, like most Australian films and so we were like, okay, Australian films are like “Horror” or “Kitchen-Sink Drama”.
Kane: The funny thing about Muriel’s Wedding is that it’s a broad comedy but it’s pretty dark. Like, spoiler-alert, but her mom dies and she’s treated like shit by her father-
Hannah: Running into all the old friends from high school who she never really fit in [with]-
Kane: And so, what if Muriel snapped and she just started killing everybody. That was always kind if the idea.
Hannah: That’s basically what Sissy is [laughs]
“…there’s nothing like a good practical effect. It always looks more real. It’s visceral, you feel it more than if it’s CGI.”
NOFS: What’s your writing process like? How do you both tackle a story?
Hannah: I think, with Sissy at least, I did the vomit draft but we break the story together.
Kane: Yeah, we kind of write the outline together, and Hannah’s just very good at staring at the white page and pumping it out. I love going in there and adding all the details and structure. I’m very big script structure and sometimes I actually feel like I need to kind of let go of the reins on that a little bit but we-
Hannah: We like the same things. We get along. We trust each other’s opinion and I think we kind of debate the idea until we both agree that it works, which is our form of foreplay [laughs], not to be gross, but it’s just what we love to do. The writing process, and the filmmaking process, it’s like the third leg of our relationship. We have a lot of fun working together.
Kane: Yeah, we like the same references, and we rarely have a differing opinion on a movie which is not necessarily a good thing it’s just [that] we work kind of seamlessly that way. So I would say that not just the writing process but all the way through, all the way up to the color grade of the movie, we just have fun jamming with each other’s ideas.
Hannah: I think there was maybe 1 disagreement in the whole process.
“The writing process, and the filmmaking process, it’s like the third leg of our relationship. We have a lot of fun working together.”
NOFS: How do you divide roles on set? Do you just shoot from the hip on who does what or do you have specific roles each of you take on?
Kane: I mean, we’ve only done it once before with our other film, For Now, which was very different in the sense that it was like a cast and crew of 7 people in one mini-van. That’s including four actors, 1 cameraman, 1 sound guy-
Hannah: Shot in 7 days, improvised the whole thing, shot for $25,000. It was like a Duplassian/Joe Swanberg/Lynn Shelton experiment.
Kane: Real Mumblecore. But we were both acting in that, so that was a different experience. With this one- I mean, Hannah is one of the leads, she’s in like 80% of the film so she was in front of the camera most of the time. We would do all the prep together and then on set she’d be acting. We would definitely chat a lot between takes and things but a lot of the time she would talk to the rest of the actors, I would have to go set a practical effect up with the prosthetics guy or the cameraman or whatever.
Hannah: It was like Cast and Crew essentially.
“Just playing around in the nostalgia of it all.”
Kane: Yeah, we divided it somewhat on set but I really do think that the shoot is really just collecting the pieces for the edit. I think it’s glamorized and a lot of people kind of think that that’s where all the directing takes place but so much of the movie comes together in post. I mean, we were in post for like a year. We were only on set four for weeks. We [found] the film together in post with our editor Margi Hoy. She was kind of like a mother to both of us.
Hannah: Yeah, truly a great collaborator and, you know, you kind of re-write the film in the edit. She was kind of like a third writer, and really forced us to look at what we actually had and leaning into that glitter bomb time capsule; That’s actually Cecelia’s brain and we need to bring that out into the external. She coined this great term, “Disney Psycho Pop”, and as soon as we had that we were like oh! that’s what the film is. It’s gory but it’s also like Fantasia glitter.
Kane: Not stuff that you would think would be in a horror film.
Hannah: Which is what I think makes it unique.
Kane: So yeah, on this particular one that was the approach. You need to tailor it each time. If Hannah is acting as much in the next one, if she’s not acting as much, things will change, you know, so-
Hannah: Never again [laughs] Not happening.
Kane: Yeah, it was a big job.
NOFS: I was actually curious if you wrote with music in mind because you have a really great needle drop in the finale that I loved.
Hannah. Yes. Of course, we had our Giallo score but where we started was more with Angel Olsen who’s an incredible Australian artist and Wolf Alice, who’s one of my favorite bands out of England. There’s a lot of songs about female friendship and friendship breakups.
Kane: Well, “Sister To Sister”, which was kind of the main track of the film that they sing at karaoke, that was something that was written into the script because we were looking for a daggy millennial era song.
Hannah: Well, that song was the Millenium anthem, Sydney Olympics 2000s, that song was big for my generation when I was like 9. So, literally, me and my best Molly would go in our backyards and choreograph entire routines to that song. You hear it now and you’re like, ‘God, it’s so evil,’ like twee pop candy ad music [laughs]
Kane: Yeah, I think our composer, at one point, was kind of like “It’s an interesting choice-
Hannah: “-but do we really need this song?” and I was like “…Yes”.
Kane: I think for Australians- because he’s American- it was just a big deal at the time.
Hannah: [A big deal] that’s been buried through time, but I’m really hoping there’s a revival of this song. It’s just gleeful, you know? But it is twisted.
Kane: Basically, just trying to find songs that- because we’re a *little* bit older than the characters in the film- songs that we were into growing up but there was also a window there that also kind of might work for those characters when they were that age. And then just playing in that ten year span of Millenial pop.
Hannah: Just playing around in the nostalgia of it all.
“[social media] allows us to connect as human beings […] but then also destroy each other.”
NOFS: Social Media plays a big role in Sissy. Do you think social media makes us all bad people, or do you think it just makes it easier to hide the worst parts of ourselves until we boil over and explode?
Hannah: Both. And also, it allows us to connect as human beings. I think it’s kind of like the next wheel. It’s like the next tool we use to connect with other human beings but then also destroy each other.
Kane: It’s the biggest thing since the internet, socially, so yeah it’s both. A lot of good comes of it too though. It’s put the power in our hands to disseminate information, to take the power out of the media but it’s also give the rise to the notion of Fake News and this whole Post-Truth era which is just kind of ridiculous.
Hannah: And also mental health, before social media, wasn’t something that a lot of people talked about. Now, people are using the stories function as a virtual diary and sharing the most intimate deep parts of themselves which is inherently mineable, comedically, but it’s also really brave and kind of an incredible outcome. but then also, conversely, is really really bad for us because things should be private and we shouldn’t know so much about people we’ve never met on the other side of the world. That being said, we saw this incredible film Nika by these beautiful Russian directors, Vasilisa Kuzmina and Yulia Gulyan, and I never would have met these people and I wouldn’t be able to stay in touch with them without social media.
Kane: It’s a gift and a curse […] I think we just live in a world where there are no longer black and whites, and good and evil. I don’t think you could make Star Wars today where it’s the Rebellion and The Empire. I mean, it still speaks the truths today but we’re just living in an era that’s just a lot more complex and I think it’s only going to get more complex from here on out.
This idea of villains and heroes, that’s part of the reason we wanted to make the film because Sissy, in a traditional slasher film she’s Michael Myers, she’s Jason Voorhees, but in today’s day and age you can’t embody all the evil in one person anymore. It’s almost like it’s too easy. That’s not the world that we live in, it’s more complex. So, we’re stuck with it whether we like it or not. I just hope there’s something done to educate. Just like with alcohol and drugs with kids. We just have to teach people that this is a weapon in your hand. It’s a tool but if misused it’s very dangerous.
“Just like with alcohol and drugs with kids. We just have to teach people that this is a weapon in your hand.”
NOFS: Can you talk a little bit about your makeup and special effects? I was really surprised how gory Sissy became in the 2nd half.
Kane: Yeah, Larry Van Duynhoven from Scarecrow Studio who did the creature effects on Relic, which was a great Australian horror film. We saw that and we were just like, wow […]And so we just kind of tracked him down. He was just so happy, cause he had just been coming off Mortal Kombatwhich was shot in Australia. He was disappointed because he did a lot of practical effects and they ended up kind of replacing a lot of it with CGI, I guess out of fear that this might look too old school, but I still think there’s nothing like a good practical effect. It always looks more real. It’s visceral, you feel it more than if it’s CGI.
Hannah: We have some CGI elements in our movie. It was a nice melding and Larry and his team are so talented. We had like one take to get it right, and they got it right every time.
Kane: He’d spent months making a fake head and hand inserting every hair and we maybe had one take and ten seconds to ruin it. There’s a deep respect for what those guys do, for sure. I love working with that stuff, you just need time and our schedule was so short that we maybe had like 1 take for each of those things.
“I love working with [practical effects], you just need time…”