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The Room at the Top of the Stairs: An Interview with Briony Kidd

Before she became director of the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival, Tasmanian writer and filmmaker Briony Kidd directed a short film in 2010—The Room at the Top of the Stairs—which has recently become available on the genre streaming service Shudder. The film follows an unnamed young woman (Fiannah de Rue) who moves into a room for rent in an old Victorian house. Her roommates are friendly enough, but she seems shy, awkward, and unable to really fit in. She’s particularly alienated by the memory of a girl who lived in the room at the top of the stairs before her, a girl who was apparently mad and whose eerie artwork and strange holes in the wall serve as constant reminders of her presence.

The short’s Gothic influence is pronounced and it’s really more of a Gothic drama, rather than an overt horror film. Coupled with moments of tongue-in-cheek humor and a distinct visual world—split between a stark, almost black-and-white look for the house and more colorful scenes dominated by artwork—The Room at the Top of the Stairs suggests promise for Kidd’s future directorial projects. It’s also an interesting precursor to her work with Stranger With My Face, which has put a particular emphasis on women’s explorations of genre cinema.

Briony Kidd was kind enough to speak to us about The Room at the Top of the Stairs, the inspiration behind her work as a filmmaker and festival programmer, and future projects to get excited about.

Diabolique: I loved the Gothic notes here, and I feel like a connection could be drawn to the sort of filmic tradition that includes everything from a lot of Polanski’s films to Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (2013). Could you talk a little about some of your influences for the film?

Briony Kidd: Thank you, that’s very nice to hear. My touchstone for this is the Hitchcock film Rebecca. Apart from directly drawing from it for the narrative (I’m proposing that the experience of being the “new girl” in a share house is similar to the young Mrs. de Winter’s sense of insecurity and paranoia), it influenced the style of the piece as well.

Broadly speaking, the kind of precise, formal filmmaking you’re alluding to is what I most enjoy as a viewer, and what I’m interested in making. What I really like about films like Rebecca and Stoker, in particular, is that they feel bold and modern in attitude but they’re consciously drawing from 19th Century sources. In the case of Rebecca, in fact, it’s about working from a female gothic tradition (the story is by Daphne du Maurier and heavily influenced by Jane Eyre, as well as all the literature that influenced Charlotte Brontë). I love that this mode of storytelling doesn’t die, it continues to evolve as it moves across eras and art forms.

Diabolique: The visual world of the film was really rich thanks to the tension between the stark look of the house and some of the very dramatic artwork. Was the look of the art (and the importance of art to the plot) something you had in mind when you first began writing the script? Did you work with any specific artists?

Briony Kidd: It was always my intention that art would be central to The Room at the Top of the Stairs. For one thing, it’s inspired by my own experiences of being that age and living in that kind of environment, spending time with art students and film students, people who were exploring their creativity on a daily basis. Sure, young artists can take themselves too seriously, and there’s definitely a tongue-in-cheek aspect to this. But at the same time, telling a story about the struggle to find your creative “voice” within a thriller framework just makes sense to me. Art is life and death, in a way, because it’s that important. Very few artists are in it for the money, that’s for sure. The motivations are more complex and mysterious than that.

Some of the artwork (for example, Carmen’s portraits) was created specifically for the film but most wasn’t, so it was a process of curation. It was important to me that there was an authenticity to it. A number of artists contributed to creating the world of this film. Sean Meilak (http://niagaragalleries.com.au/sean-meilak/exhibitions-363) was the production designer, my sister Madeline Kidd (http://www.madelinekidd.com.au/) was the art director, and there were paintings included by my brother-in-law Masato Takasaka (http://studiomasatotectures.com/) in the final scene. There were a lot of other bits and pieces in there too, even some lovely sketches by my aunt, Jocelyn Loney (they’re on the wall in Sadie’s room).

Diabolique: I know you made this back in 2010, but it seems like the type of film that would be perfect for your Stranger With My Face film festival — not only because you directed the film, but because of its largely female cast, gender themes, etc. Were you influenced by the types of films you like to program? Or were you consciously trying to fill a genre gap?

Briony Kidd: I made this film before we founded Stranger With My Face, so I didn’t have any sense of what film programming was really all about back then. But there is a connection! What I found with The Room at the Top of the Stairs was that a lot of “straight” festivals didn’t really get it or appreciate it at all, but that genre festivals did (even though it’s not technically a horror film, and is a weird genre hybrid). It struck me then that you could do more adventurous stuff in the genre space and there was a market for it.This short was also programmed by a few festivals that focused specifically on women directors, such as the Viscera Film Festival. I found out about the “Women in Horror” movement through that experience, and found it to be a really energising, inclusive community. So, indirectly, making The Room at the Top of the Stairs let to the Stranger With My Face International Film Festival. Originally SWMF was just going to be a screening of short films to celebrate Women in Horror Month but it snowballed from there.

Diabolique: Is your second short, Watch Me (2016), also destined for Shudder? And any plans to make a feature sometime soon?

Briony Kidd: Of course I would love it if Watch Me ended up on Shudder but I have no idea if it will. It’s nothing like The Room at the Top of the Stairs but it’s another genre mash-up. The writer, Claire d’Este, is a good friend of mine and she wrote something exactly in my sensibility (it’s a thriller with aspects of melodrama) and it was cool to get music by Miles Brown for it (I had heard his retro synth/theremin music with The Night Terrors).

I’m currently developing a feature film project with producer Catherine Pettman that we’re calling a post-apocalyptic psycho-biddy thriller. It’s been supported by Screen Tasmania and Screen Australia to date and is attracting some attention, so fingers crossed we’ll be shooting it sooner rather than later.

Diabolique: Finally, can you tell us anything about what to expect for SWMF 2017? Any particular titles you’re trying to get or directors you’d like to feature?

Briony Kidd: I can’t tell you what we’ve got lined up for SWMF 2017 quite yet, but we’ll be able to make some announcements soon! Sign up here to get news and updates: bit.ly/2520No8.

Anyone who’s in Australia in May should come down to Tasmania for the festival, from the 4th to the 7th. It’s the kind of event where you can get a festival pass and see everything, including films, symposium talks, panel discussions, music, art, and theatre. It’s four days of genre immersion and, best of all, you’re surrounded by passionate, talented people. Our programmed filmmakers, speakers, VIPs, and audiences get to hang out together and get to know each other. It’s very social, it’s an exchange of ideas, and it’s welcoming to newcomers. We’d love to have you here.

In the meantime, we’re still on the hunt for dark genre films by women directors. Submissions are open and the regular deadline is coming up on 15 March: http://www.strangerwithmyface.com/submit/

Thanks Briony and hopefully we’ll have some Stranger With My Face coverage of our own here at Diabolique!

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is the Associate Editor of DiaboliqueMagazine.com and hosts their Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Satanic Pandemonium, has contributed to Fangoria, Paracinema, and Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, among others, and she's currently writing a book on WWII and cult cinema.

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