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“Lyle” Director, Stewart Thorndike, talks Pregnancy Horror and Gendered Genre Discrimination

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Horror films have hit a point where reinterpretation and adaptation—if not full-blown recreation—have become standard practices. Trends form and filmmakers are quick to follow. Homage has been replaced by imitation; the boundaries between creative and derivate severed. That is why when I first heard about Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle (Free Online Now) I didn’t know what to expect. The film has been—understandably so—hailed as a modern retelling of Rosemary’s Baby or as Thorndike jokes a “gay-lesbian Rosemary’s Baby.” But, as the interview below will reveal, too strong an emphasis on the connection between Lyle and Rosemary’s Baby does a great deal of disservice to Thorndike’s unique film. Past the clear similarities in the plot, the films operate on completely different spectrums. Lyle is anything but derivative, in fact, it is one of the most unique and chilling horror films to be released in some time. Funding the film through Kickstarter, Thorndike was able to create a horror film about gay characters, where the conflict didn’t reside in their sexuality. In light of our current theme, we reached out to Thorndike to talk Pregnancy Horror, the gendering of roles and genre in Hollywood, and where her future in horror is.

Thorndike (right) on set with Rebecca Street (left) and Gaby Hoffman (center)

Thorndike (right) on set with Rebecca Street (left) and Gaby Hoffman (center)

Diabolique: How did the idea for the film come about?

Stewart Thorndike: I’ve always liked horror and genre stuff, but Lyle came really fast. The whole story was, I was in the shower—I was dating Ingrid (Jungermann) at the time, and I wanted kids and she didn’t. She had just gone on some vacation, or she’d left town I remember—and all of a sudden, in my head, I thought, ‘she’s bad, she’s stopping me from having kids.’ I suddenly had this whole story and I just wrote it down really fast. When I looked at it I realized that I had just written like a gay-lesbian Rosemary’s Baby.

Diabolique: I feel like at this point you are kind of sick of talking about the connection to Rosemary’s Baby, so I’ll try and not push the point too hard, but when you went to adapt the idea into the script for Lyle were you actively trying to rework Polanski’s film?

Thorndike: Well, you know actually the way that it was the most like Rosemary’s Baby was that your partner had done something terrible; that you found out your partner was basically the devil, or working with the devil. But, the original version I wrote was actually a bigger budgeted film—still low budget—but it didn’t really have as many parallels. Then when I decided to make it—originally it was going to be a web series and we were going to shoot it really cheap and really fast—in Manhattan or Brooklyn—before it was in LA in a house—and then it started becoming more like Rosemary’s Baby; and that was more of a production requirement. But, your question was did I try and either make it or more like Rosemary’s Baby or less like Rosemary’s Baby?

Diabolique: To clarify my intent—when you realized the connection was there did you try and make a revisionist version of the film?

Thorndike: I never thought about it at all. I did recognize that there was a parallel, and that was it. In fact, I didn’t watch the movie again. Originally, the character of the landlady was a young girl who wanted to be an actress, and­—I don’t remember at what point—I changed it into an older woman. I realized that could be compared to Ruth Gordon, but it was never my intention to be completing reacting, either for or against, mirroring or not mirroring, to Rosemary’s Baby.

Lyle_CoverDiabolique: I’ve read that you were very adamant that the film would be about gay characters where the conflict wasn’t tied up with their sexuality. Do you have any issue with films that create conflict out of the homosexual lifestyle, or is it just not something that you are interested in writing about?

Thorndike: I have no opposition to it. I don’t relate to it, much, as a grown up woman. To me, they always felt like coming of age stories, which kind of also bore me. I feel like they are more for teenagers or something. Maybe because, personally, I didn’t really have an issue coming out, I did it late in life. I didn’t really even come out. I feel like it is no big deal. I just date cool people, it never seemed like a big deal for me. When I watch other people’s stories I can feel moved by them, some of them. But, some of them, I don’t relate to it.

Diabolique: Do you think that, in a way, having the conflict of homosexuality be non-existent in a film does more to make it acceptable? By this I mean, the viewer isn’t posed with the moral question of whether homosexuality is right or wrong, it is just a fact of the film that there needn’t be any reason to question it.

Thorndike: Absolutely. I think to normalize it is to promote it—or just to recognize its existence. I think it works on two fronts, like feminism. There is the old vanguard that wants to really fight for women’s equal rights; and, then, there is the other side that is like ‘well, if we just act like we have them, we have them.’ I think we need both actions out there.

Diabolique: Which leads me to my next question, have you received any backlash from any gay communities that think the film is trying to hetero-normalize the relationship and not try and fashion any gay identity to it?

Thorndike: No, I haven’t at all; although, I sometimes wonder if the gay community is into not having that aspect in it. Stuff like that was cool when OutFest invited it to play. So, I haven’t gotten any backlash.

Diabolique: Unfortunately, we caught Lyle after we had already programmed the current issue, which focuses on the theme of pregnancy in horror. One of the clear issues that we had is the lack of a female voice in our films, all of them being directed by men. As a female, how did you approach the themes of pregnancy in Lyle?

Thorndike: I didn’t really have any intellectual conversation in my head about it. But, I think that pregnancy is terrifying and powerful. You know, it is interesting that you’re asking that because I am writing a little article, right now, about women in horror. And, I was talking about pregnancy and how, even in Rosemary’s Baby, they don’t show her birth at all, but they really linger on the rape, the devil rape. So, the argument is that she is in this drugged-out state. I feel like there is a lot of magical and frightening parts of birth and just the female human experience that are missing from horror films. Like, I don’t know why we don’t see more tampons and leaking breasts, it seems like it is scary and there is blood, it should be all over the place in horror. [laughs]

Diabolique: [laughs] It probably has to do with the overwhelming number of men working as horror directors, who probably either fear being ousted for making feminine traits horrific, or simply it is just not part of their language and experience.

Thorndike: Why is it all men?

Diabolique:  I think it is probably a problem with Hollywood in general. There are fields that have a strong female presence, like editing or producing. I think that there are talented people across the board, regardless of gender, but the industry likes to segregate people into gendered roles. I think that it is changing, and things like social media fundraising—like what you are able to do with Lyle—are going to break that tradition. With hopes it is going to be a way for strong female directors to be noticed, by creating and disseminating their work without the need of being overlooked by Hollywood.

Thorndike: Why do you think women have been able to get more funding for other genre films?

Diabolique: That is true, I mean, Horror is a weird thing. I think that the horror genre offers a great starting point for theoretical thought. I think a lot of people tackle important issues in the horror genre because of the fantastical element of it.

Thorndike: Yeah, that is what I think too. It is the most exaggerated test of your ideas.

Diabolique: Yeah, you can do anything with it. You can throw rationale completely out the window, because it doesn’t matter that much. But, because mostly men have driven it, there have been so many problems with the sexism of the Horror genre. It is a complicated discussion, and I don’t think there is an easy answer for it, but it is strange that it is a genre that seems to have a stronger underrepresentation of women, until very recently. I think that films like The Babadook, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, and your film Lyle are going to be projects that force the industry to see the overlooked, under-appreciated talent of female directors.

 

To divert things back to Lyle, one of the scenes that I think resonates strongest is Lyle’s death scene. You appeal to that kind of found footage sentiment, but with a nice, modern spin—Skype. There is something about the use of off screen space that I always found more terrifying. Was this scene the result of early intention or was it a budgetary choice to keep the action off screen?

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Thorndike: No, we actually shot it too, but it works better not to have it. And, that was my hunch. That was my entry point into the scene; just a normal chat. It seems like it was almost ridiculing the most terrible thing to ever have happen, to have it happen on Skype. That aspect was horrific to me. I guess it is kind of a perverted reason for liking it. I never think, ‘what will be the scariest?’ I just try and tap into something that makes me feel something.

Diabolique: It is definitely effective. I don’t want to give away the ending, but that scene and the ending scene are very effective in eliciting a strong emotional response. Utilizing a removed style you create a feeling of helplessness, distance in the viewer. One of the things about the ending, that really distances Lyle from Rosemary’s Baby, is your more ambiguous treatment of the “hysterical woman” trope. Where Rosemary’s Baby gives us a more concrete conclusion, you allow more room for interpretation. What was your reasoning behind keeping the film more ambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural?

Thorndike: The main story—the thing that made me want to tell the story—was about a woman who has all this great potential and she is making some compromised decisions in her life, and that leads to horror down the road. It wouldn’t have made any sense, I would have betrayed what interested me, if I had just had a big plot reason that didn’t make you think about her being a participant in what happens to her family. I would never be interested in a story that was about, ‘there’s a devil and we need to figure out how to get away from him.’ I wanted it to explore something that was troubling me about myself, or about the world. If she were blameless, it wouldn’t be very interesting to me.

Diabolique: Which makes me think about the kind of secondary theme I saw in the film. That question about how much are you willing to sacrifice for fame and wealth. Is the film a criticism of that selfish desire to quickly move up the social ladder?

Thorndike: Well, I am really interested in class movies. I like that as a topic, I am interested in it; I am very comfortable in my lower-middle classness. But, I don’t relate to that for Lyle, I feel like Lyle is more about—when you look at it from June’s perspective—Lyle is more about, ‘what would you do to be able to be a full recognized artist. [Laughs] I feel more empathy for that than I do for her trying to get rich.

Diabolique: The film is only a little bit over an hour. I know the film went through various stages, but, at any point after deciding to turn it into a feature, did you think about extending the length? Looking back, do you think you could have shot a little more, or are you happy with the result?

Thorndike: No, there is stuff I would have wanted to shoot. I feel like I compressed some scenes into one. I feel like it would have been really exciting to see the relationship between Leah and June get tested, build, and unravel a bit more. I would want to be alone with her, because it is mainly through Leah’s perspective—except for one tiny moment—but I would have like to have seen [June’s] career advancement a little bit and her being curious about going up to see the model more, stuff like that.

Diabolique: So, you have the kickstarter currently going for your next film, Putney, can you tell us a little about the project? (Link to Kickstarter)

Thorndike: Yes, we are [two days away] so we are doing a big push. [Putney] is about a haunted TED Talk, again its women, gay women; and, I want to do a third one too, called Daughter.  So, I am trying to do these three female horror films.

Diabolique: Is the plan to self-finance/self-release, through social media platforms, all three films?

Thorndike: No. I mean we will do whatever it takes. So basically just hustling and scraping to get them made however we can. I’m in the ‘I’ll do anything to get them made’ mentality. So far, raising money has been difficult.

Diabolique: And, you are aiming for a bigger budget with Putney?

Thorndike: Yes, but still scrappy.

Diabolique: Where do you see the future of Lyle going? I can imagine that distribution on the film will be tough, because of the short runtime?

Thorndike: I think you are right. We have definitely had a lot of people reach out  to us about distribution, but we knew we were going to do this launch for free thing—this radical new thing to try and get our next film get made. It is really fun to see Lyle in a theatre; it is awesome for me. I would love to have it on Netflix or something like that, that would be so cool.

Diabolique: We can only hope to see that become a reality. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Lyle is currently streaming for free at lylemovie.com, and the kickstarter for her new project, Putney, is still running here.

 

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About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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