An Interview with Viscera’s Founder, Shannon Lark
Shannon Lark and the ladies at the Viscera Organization are some of the hardest-working people in horror. In addition to being the founder of the Viscera Film Festival and the Viscera Organization, Lark is an actress, writer, producer, and director, and she knows first-hand what the stumbling blocks can be in terms of making one’s way through the viscera (in heels) of an industry that’s male dominated. Here she speaks with Michele Galgana on the many tentacles of her film festivals, what makes Viscera different, vagina dentata, organ harvesting, and what it’s like to be a lady drenched in red. Also look for Michele’s feature article on Viscera in Issue 13 of Diabolique Magazine.
DIABOLIQUE: What inspired you to create Viscera?
SL: In 2007, I was making a short film in San Francisco. I was just starting my filmmaking career and I collected a bunch of female friends, went to a park in San Francisco, and shot a little short film. While on set, I had an epiphany about how there really isn’t a proper platform at least in the horror genre specifically, for women to really be helping each other and promoting each other in a positive light. You know, really having their work shown, coming together and the public really understanding what women go through. For women in the film industry, I think it’s important for the public to understand that because there is still a lot of discrimination. That night, whenever I got home, it just all came together and within 24 hours, I had created a festival.
MG: That’s a pretty swift turnaround.
SL: Yeah, I’m kind of like that. I just dive into things, then they get really big, and I always have to include people, because I started the Chainsaw Mafia before the Viscera Film Festival. The Chainsaw Mafia helped underrepresented artists in the genre, so it doesn’t just mean filmmakers. It could mean painters, photography, life sculpture. It was along the lines of what I already did, but I saw that there was definitely a need for females in the genre, too. To be positive with each other and help each other out, we need to mix those sorts of stereotypes where women are cat-fighting. Kitty-fighting [laughs].
MG: Is the Chainsaw collection an arts collective in L.A.?
SL: No. Actually, it no longer exists. But I started that in San Francisco and I ran it for a good six years. [When] I started online there weren’t a whole lot of websites that would help artists connect. So I created a simple board at first, that had job postings, and that really helped a lot of people in San Francisco who were specifically interested in making horror films or genre films in general. [We found] screenwriters, directors or effects artists, and then it grew from there, and we created a shop. The Chainsaw Mafia I left behind, because Viscera really took over.
MG: What made you choose horror as the focus of your film festival?
SL: I’ve always loved horror films. I would force my friends to watch Full Moon marathons or Children of the Corn marathons whenever I was growing up, so I’ve always been interested in the macabre and have always loved it. I created the Viscera Film Festival because I also love to act in films. I’ve acted in over 35 features and shorts, and I also direct, write, and produce. So it came out of my own interests and love for the genre, and seeing the way women are portrayed through the years, not only in the genre, but in the film industry. We just created the Etheria Film Festival, which [focuses on] fantasy and sci-fi films, and we’re creating Full Throttle, which is all action. These are all films by women, so we’re not just doing horror anymore. We’re expanding to [different] genre films and encompassing everything.
MG: What has attendance been like between now and when you originally started the festival?
SL: It’s been incredible. With the Viscera Film Festival, I started it in 2007; I had already been running festivals for a couple years, and I was like, “I’m going to do this a different way, and build support for it before I do a ceremony or an official screening.” I hooked up with Heidi Honeycutt, who is now the Director of Programming, and we contacted different festivals and said “Hey, we have these films by women, do you want to see them and possibly screen them at your festival?” That’s how the Viscera Film Festival got its start, because it was screening at festivals in Australia, South Africa, and all over the U.S. I go to them sometimes and talk, and have [Viscera] as a very specific part of their program dedicated to female horror filmmakers. That worked out amazingly well, because the films were screened in all these different geographical areas. People all over the world started to get to know about VFF.
In 2010, Heidi and I said, “Okay, we need to throw a carpet ceremony. We need to start doing this every year.” It was three years of building on that. The films were already getting screened at festivals, but the filmmakers didn’t have to do any work. No submission fees. The festivals have to waive their submission fees. It worked out really awesome. In 2010, we did our first carpet ceremony in Los Angeles, and that had about 160 people. We screened about 26 films. It was the longest day ever, but everybody was super-supportive. So many people turned out for the festival. We had three special guests who came up, three women working in the genre, and they made speeches for each segment and each block of films. We had an after-party. It just went so great. We were like, “People are still talking to us!” [It] was obvious that we were on the right path because people were so passionate about it. In 2011, we were sold out. People were sitting in the aisles. And just this past year in July, during our third carpet ceremony, we were able to book the historic Egyptian Theatre, and the American Cinematique co-presented with us. We had more people there than we’ve ever had before.
MG: That is amazing, considering it can be very hard to get people out.
SL: Yeah, people can be very finicky. It’s interesting, because you see a lot of people say “Yeah, I’ll support independent film,” but you have to put your money where your mouth is. But the support has been incredible, and we’re never going to stop the tour. The tour is just as important as the carpet ceremony, because we get so many amazing submissions every year. This year we got a mind-blowing amount of submissions. Are more women making films in general, or are we just finding out about them? It’s really fascinating to see it grow. Digital equipment is now available to women, and a lot of women are picking up cameras. [They] now have access to that sort of thing. Before, it’d be, “You’re not a man, so you’re probably not going to be able to handle it. You don’t look like a director.” All of these different excuses. Women didn’t really get access to film, because film was so expensive. But with digital equipment, everything is changing. I think that’s one of the reasons why Viscera is so successful.
MG: Would you say there are more female horror filmmakers than even five or ten years ago?
SL: Absolutely. The Internet’s really helped with that, too. You go on social networks and see that, “Oh shit! There’s a woman in Fiji who loves the same sort of movies that I do. Let’s do a project together.” There are all sorts of different ways to communicate and collaborate. I’m actually going to Canada in November to work. I’m acting in Maude Michaud’s first feature film, DYS-. I am blown away that she wants to include me. I never would have met her if she didn’t become involved with Viscera. She submitted one of her films, but we have had no money for marketing and we’re a startup non-profit organization. The only way we could have reached her is through the Internet. She’s working with us now. We’re never going to let her go!
MG: Viscera’s a traveling festival. Where can horror fans catch it?
SL: We go all over. Our tour coordinator really focuses on museums, art galleries, and universities even though we have several partner film festivals, and festivals keep coming to us. We have a private archive online that organizers —anyone wants to throw a festival — can go and look at all these films. In the VFF archive, we have over 70 films by women. They can go, they can peruse, they can say “I want this one this one and that one,” or I can create a program for them. I mean, even if they’ve never thrown an event before, even if they were just having a movie night with their friends — we want to get these films screened as much as possible. There is a tour page on our website, viscerafilmfestival.com, and you can see what the upcoming tour dates are and what has happened in the past. We had over 30 events both domestic and international last year, and so just this year, I’ve gone to Dublin, Ireland, and did a two-day screening and roundtable symposium at the University College of Dublin. I did Penn State University and there’s there’s also several partner film festivals that have screened.
MG: What did you think about the “legitimate rape” zinger from Congressman Todd Akin and the recent comments from his assorted associates?
SL: Those guys are such fucking douchebags. They’re so stupid [laughs]. Unfortunately, once you leave the bigger cities around the coast, there are some diamonds in the rough. The country is full of these types of people. We’re waiting for them to die off. I mean, I don’t want to be an asshole, but…
MG: Yeah. It’s frightening as hell. When I was 18 I took a Greyhound bus from here, Boston, to New Orleans. And I was wearing head to toe black and I got off in Mississippi to use a rest stop. It was straight out of Deliverance. I swear to god, there wasn’t even running water in the bathroom. There were all these good old boys in plaid staring at me, and I got right the fuck back on the bus.
SL: Yeah, it’s really good that you weren’t broken down, or, you know what I mean… I grew up in NM. The Hills Have Eyes people – I grew up with people like that as my neighbors. I’m sure that definitely fuels what I’m doing now. I think cinema is a way to not only heal from traumatic experiences, but also to exploit them.
MG: In your opinion, what makes a film or story truly horrific? Is it about using your experiences? Is it about something you read? What’s your take on it?
SL: People are incredibly terrifying. What people will do to others is one of the scariest things there is. Humans are the real monsters. We have incredible abilities to be compassionate, but if you push someone so far, they can completely change into something else. Their brain can shut off, and they can basically do things that no one ever would’ve thought they’d do. That is incredibly terrifying. You know, I’m really desensitized because I’ve watched so many horror movies since I was a child. My first was The Elephant Man. I was seven years old. So you can see where I’m going with my thought process — [the film] holding up the mirror, [John Merrick] screaming at his own reflection, this man who was so terrorized throughout his entire life just because he looked different.
It’s that sort of thought process that I’m drawn to. I love monsters, vampires, zombies. I love it all. I really enjoy B-movies, and I love slasher films, especially really good slasher films. Euro-slashers are fantastic. But I think the most terrifying [things are] humans. Like Irreversible. I love that movie.
MG: Have you seen Gaspar Noe’s earlier film, Base Moi?
SL: I’ve heard of it. I’ll definitely check it out. In my own directing work in the past few years, I’ve been really interested in gender relations and really, really fucked up sexual experiences. The way our genders relate to each other, whenever you bring in disturbing sexuality and how that can all play out on our psyches, either against each other or within ourselves. I made this movie called Lipstick for like five bucks. It’s about a woman in a hotel room who is basically experiencing a form of vagina dentata. It was my response to Teeth, which is super cute, but it’s really light. I think it played really safe.
MG: As safe as vagina dentata can be, I suppose. What percentage of men attend your fest? Is there a good amount?
SL: Oh yeah! I don’t have the exact number in front of me, but it’s between 40 to sometimes 60 percent. You have the diehard horror fans, and you have a lot of women who are like, “Oh, I don’t like horror.” Whenever you start to talk to them and ask, “Did you like this movie? Did you like that movie?” they’re like, “Oh, but that’s a thriller.” I say thrillers — yeah, they call them their own genre — but really it’s a subgenre of horror. And they’re like, “Well, I had no idea.” So, you know, I think with low-budget B-movies and slashers, there’s so many of them now that the mainstream people who pretty much just watch mainstream films think, ”Oh well, if it’s only about blood and guts, that’s horror.” They don’t see that horror is many different subgenres.
MG: How does Viscera differ from Women in Horror Month?
SL: WiHM is actually a service that the Viscera Organization provides. We’re non-profit, so we have our umbrella providing services to the public, and to filmmakers, we have film festivals. Then we have WiHM and the Mistresses of Horror Alliance (MOHA), which is what Maude Michaud is creating. I’m sure that we’re going to have tons of other services as well. We provide education; we’re going to be doing a mentoring program. WiHM takes place one month out of the year, every February. It was founded by Hannah Foreman. She created it, and then a year and a half later, Viscera took it on as a non-profit. It can also be protected legally. It was so popular that it just spun out of control. There were a lot of people doing self-promotional things, using the label of WiHM.
What WiHM is supposed to be about is doing events or projects, or even if you just want to create a piece of art or a film. To promote women who have worked in the horror genre in a respectful fashion. But they have to be under-represented. So we’re not talking actresses – we’re talking directors, writers, producers, special effects artists, people who work behind the lens. The events have to be for charity. No one is allowed to make money from doing anything. They can’t be like, “Hey, I’m going to throw a WiHM seal or stamp on a book and be like, yay, and then sell it.” They can’t do that. We brought in WiHM to really negate all of that, and to bring in this idea of charity, for women to support each other in a positive fashion. It plays within Viscera’s mission, but it’s two different things.
MG: And where do the proceeds the charity receives go to? To support women horror filmmakers?
SL: No. They can choose whatever non-profit to give to, or whatever charity, if they do make money. A lot of these events don’t really make money – they come out even, or maybe with a little bit extra. They can choose whatever charity they want. Or, they can even give to WiHM. We’re a charity.
MG: What can you tell us about the new Mistresses of Horror Alliance?
SL: Oh my god, it’s so awesome. I contacted Maude about running this service that we would provide to women horror filmmakers. It’s a membership-based service. We just announced that we’re doing this at the VFF red carpet ceremony in July. Members have to pay an annual due, but it’s pretty small. Part of that money will go into an annual grant that all the filmmakers can write proposals to try to get. It goes before a celebrity board, a board of female filmmakers who have been working in the horror genre who have been successful at it. There’s a voting process, and they choose one production per year to give the money to. Then all of the MOHA members become producers on that film.
We’re starting out small and creating events like networking parties, going out to dinner, movie nights. We’re hoping that eventually we can get feature films made. Each major city will have a MOHA chapter that female horror filmmakers can come to network. We’re doing a mentoring program as well. We’d really like to reach out to the younger generation. I get a lot of e-mails from 14-year-old girls, saying “I want to be an actress. What do I do? Where do I start?” We’re [doing] workshops over Skype with female filmmakers who have made successful features, [and can] explain the process, any discrimination or issues they’ve run into on set and how they dealt with them. We really want to create a network of professional, hardworking female filmmakers.
M: Aside from being female and working within the horror genre, what are the criteria for being accepted into Viscera?
S: [All films] have to be directed or produced by women. If it’s produced by a woman and directed by a man, that’s great, but it needs to have a female writer. It needs to be at least 50/50. We love men, and as Heidi likes to say, she likes to fuck men. Men have been such amazing supporters, and there are so many men who really get it. It’s amazing, the sort of films that are created when a man and a woman work together. We definitely don’t want to negate that. But we want to encourage women to take leadership positions, to be the ones calling the shots.
M: How many features does Viscera play?
S: At the most, one. Then, on the tour, we have about 26 short films. I think about 12 or 13 of those played in L.A. and then the rest go on the tour and those filmmakers get the exposure, because we can’t pass it up. That’s actually why we created Etheria and Full Throttle, because we’re getting these films and they’re amazing! “How the hell did this filmmaker do this? But the film is not really horror. It’s more fantasy.” So we created Etheria. Or action-y, so we’ll program that in Full Throttle, which will premiere in Austin, Texas.
MG: Where can filmmakers submit, and what’s the deadline for Viscera 2013?
SL: Go to www.viscerafilmfestival.com and check out our submissions page. The submissions are free to all filmmakers, and we’re starting to show features as well as shorts. We prefer films no longer than 20 minutes for the short films, because we have a very tight schedule in Los Angeles. We only have a two-hour block, so we have to kick out a lot of really good films. A lot of films that are amazing but aren’t going to fit into L.A., we put that on our tour, so those filmmakers still get the exposure they deserve. Our submission phase starts October 1 and lasts until February 28. It ends when Women in Horror Month ends. We’re going to go to completely digital submissions.
MG: Should filmmakers keep anything specific in mind when preparing to submit a film to Viscera or any festival?
SL: Quality over quantity. Festivals actually prefer shorter films. A lot of festivals won’t take a 30-minute film. They want a great, quality short, even if it’s just 25 seconds long. We screen the crap out of 20 or 30 second films, because we can fit them all in. People just love them, because they’re short, they’re to the point, and the filmmakers can really focus on honing their skills, as opposed to stretching themselves out. Production quality is important, and storyline is one of the most important things. If you have an amazing storyline, but your production quality is not so good, the storyline will make up for that. You can edit around the actors. Even if you have a really low budget, as long as you have a fantastic storyline, your film will most likely get accepted into various film festivals.
MG: Which countries would you say submit the most films?
SG: Actually, the international films kick the Americans’ ass [laughs]. They really do. We’ve got a few submissions from France that were incredible – smart, with great storylines and character development, and pretty brutal as well.
MG: Do you find any similar themes among them?
SG: I don’t know if they have a running theme. As a whole, the films that we get each year do have a running theme, but we haven’t been able to pinpoint it down to “Oh, this country has this theme.” This year, a lot of zombie films and spider films are out, especially in the mainstream — and it goes across the board. Specifically with short films, we’ve noticed last year that we got a lot of violent children killing parents. We got eight or 10 of those from all different areas – and it’s like okay, but what the hell is going on here? Some of them were very good, but we can’t have a lineup where it’s all about kids killing parents. We had to be very careful about what we chose.
MG: What makes Viscera truly different from other horror festivals?
SL: An important thing is that, whether you get accepted or not, you can get access to the judges’ notes. We have celebrity judges. This past year we had Mary Lambert, who directed Pet Sematary, and Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight. We had Rachel Talalay, who did Tank Girl, and she actually helped judge Etheria as well. We have a really wonderful roster of fantastic directors who are willing to sit through all these films — sometimes by first-time filmmakers — and give their own ideas and opinions, saying “Okay, this is what you can do to make it better.” It’s all digital, so they can watch it straight from their computer. For any filmmaker who wants the notes, it’s like “Hey, we’re all growing here as filmmakers,” so even if your film gets selected, maybe there were a few things the judges didn’t like. Maybe it’s like, “This one shot was really shaky, and that didn’t seem very professional,” or “The music wasn’t my favorite, I wish they would’ve gone with a more classical theme,” or whatever. Any of the filmmakers can get notes and learn from the process.
MG: Do you have any favorite festival memories?
SL: Running festivals takes an enormous amount of work. The organization has over 20 staff working. Specifically during the VFF, our biggest festival yet, a lot of us get together. People like Maude fly in and help out wherever it’s needed. We’ve really created this wonderful, professional family, and I think that’s one of the most incredible things about the festivals. Every time we have one, there’s all these awesome people here. I noticed that for the past few years, that’s really what has stuck out to me. It’s not just the staff and the volunteers, but the guests, too. Professionals who take time out of their schedule from working on film productions so they can take part in the weekend’s events to be supportive and see what we’re doing. I think that in every single festival, there are several moments like that. That reinstates my faith in humanity. We’re totally on the right path here.
MG: What do you hope audiences take away from attending Viscera, and what can they expect?
SL: We screen the very best horror films. You know, we’re very selective and the competition has gotten pretty fierce. Heidi, our Director of Programming, is amazing. She finds the most incredible films. She spends a whole year researching and finding filmmakers. Horror films can be so many different things besides slasher films, which is big for us. People are blown away by the high quality of the films, when the filmmakers had so little to work with.
MG: Have you secured any early programming?
SL: Heidi already has a list of about 25 films that we’re checking out – and that’s just before anybody submits. Last year we got over 180 films by women, so we’ve doubled in size. I’m sure that next year, we’ll get well over 200.
MG: Do you suppose if there were more female directors, there’d be more full-frontal male nudity?
SL: Absolutely. But otherwise, are women-created films different from male-created films? We’ve gotten so many films in the past five years that you wouldn’t be able to tell were directed by women or men. It’s just fantastic filmmaking. We love stories that have male characters; then it’s a woman telling the story behind the camera, but it’s male-character driven, and we really dig that. We think that’s really cool, and we should definitely playing with both genders, not just all women. We’ve also noticed that women, because of their perspectives, can differ on what horror can be. The horrors that they experience, like walking by a team of construction workers, stopping at a gas station on the way to New Orleans — generally men don’t really experience that. Themes take place like body modification; self-image; pregnancy; having a child; dealing with children; childbirth; rape. There’s plenty of horror in that. Female horror films are not all like that, but these films are really twisted, fucked up and disturbing – more disturbing than a guy running around with a knife slashing people. I think women have to deal with being terrified of their own image.
MG: Have you learned anything particularly interesting about your audience while touring with Viscera?
SL: We were at Penn State earlier this year in February, and we did the screening. Since it was an educational audience, I specifically chose disturbing films to screen. I showed the films and we got up and did a roundtable discussion and the students were pointing out how a lot of the films were about the management of horror, where you have to wake up everyday and you deal with horror and try not to let it show. That was really interesting.
For a lot of women, that’s true. I used to live in New Mexico, and I was working at this truck stop restaurant, and I walked home one night. I walked everywhere when I lived in San Francisco. I pounded that city in heels. I can fucking walk home. But I was warned, “No, you don’t understand. There was a girl walking that bridge, she disappeared, and a week later they found her dismembered.” In New Mexico, there’s apparently a black market on organs and sex slavery. Girls will get kidnapped and sold into slavery in Mexico. Organs and organ harvesting has gotten really popular, too. So it’s this management of “Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t do that because someone could basically dismember me. I guess I’ll drive or I’ll have to depend on someone to take me home.”
MG: What are your plans for the future of Viscera? What do you hope it grows into?
SL: I thought that we’d have a red carpet event when I first created it, and now it’s grown into a full-fledged, non-profit 501(c)3 organization, which has completely blown me away. It has already far surpassed what I thought it was going to turn into. Sometimes it’s taken me for a little bit of a ride. So what, wow, I don’t know. Dude, the sky’s the limit, really. I’d like to see us get money. I’d like us to get some serious money, and I want to open up a warehouse in Venice Beach and have a venue where filmmakers can come to do workshops and get equipment. I want us to have our own equipment inventory, and to have a space for filmmakers to have professional meetings with producers, hook them up with people who can get them services, give them money, give them opportunities, get them jobs, and let them use the facility for photo shoots and film productions. Because we’re having to work with such limited resources, it would be amazing if as a non-profit, we could be there to assist filmmakers. They wouldn’t have to come up with much to get it done.
*MG: If there are any rich backers out there, where can they contact you?
MG: How do you choose the locations where Viscera tours?
SL: Whenever we focus on universities, we look at their film programs and their feminist studies to see how active they are, and see if we have any ties. Screenings at universities are kind of difficult. It’s very bureaucratic, so it takes forever to get something written in stone. That’s kind of across the board, with any industry. We want to focus on international countries. In Ireland, we did our first screening. We also like to focus on where the filmmakers are located. Let’s say we have a filmmaker in Scotland or Hong Kong who sent us a submission, we loved it, and we’re screening it, but the filmmaker is unable to come to the festival. What we try to do then is create a festival near them, so they can come and be honored at the festival in their own environment, to be “Yeah, I’m part of this entire network, and my film screened with all these awesome films, and it’s in my town.” We try to focus on really honoring the filmmakers, and promoting them as much as possible.
MG: Finally, since Christmas will be upon us by the time this goes to print, is there anything you hope will be beneath your gory little Christmas tree?
SL: [Laughs] Oh my goodness. Wow. I haven’t even thought about that. Dude, I’m so bad at holidays. Apart from the non-profit, I just hope the productions I’m working on are great. That’s the best gift you could give me. If I could be on set on Christmas, I would be so excited.
~ by Michele Galgana
Top photo by Shersy Benson. 2012 poster art: (photo by Kerry Beyer, manipulation by Irene Langholm, design by Matt Orsman). As of this interview, Galgana has begun working for the Viscera Organization as their marketing director.