Horror Films, Identity and Generational Trauma: A Miniflix Interview with Zandashé Brown
Southern Louisiana Writer-Director shares the genre influences and thematic concerns that went into her newest short, "Blood Runs Down"
Zandashé Brown has always been a lover of horror films. But it wasn’t all about just the scares and atmosphere (though those were certainly important). She became obsessed by the themes lying beneath the superficial elements and let it inspire her own thoughts on the genre’s ability to reflects truths in our own lives. On her website, Zandashé shares her belief that:
“…horror has the tools to craft a story in which the viewer can confront and better understand their own fears and make for more sympathetic and empathetic human beings.”
Surely inspired by this realization, she has written and directed her first southern gothic horror short film (and first narrative short) Blood Runs Down. As one of five films funded by the New Orleans’ Tricentennial Story Incubator Grant, Blood Runs Down has played Austin Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, Final Girls Berlin Film Festival and more.
Zandashé talks with Miniflix about her fascination with horror as it relates to real-life issues, the importance of keeping effects practical and overcoming production challenges.
Miniflix Interviewer: What is it about the horror genre that fascinates you most? Were you inspired by any particular horror films, or did the themes that can come out of horror attract you most?
Zandashé Brown: I grew up with horror more so than I did Disney. It’s a genre I watched a lot with my mom…I grew up on Wes Craven and John Carpenter; movies like Halloween, Scream Carrie, It, (a lot of Stephen King), stuff like that. I’ve always been drawn to things paranormal and the themes that lie within those genres. I think that has a lot to do with being in Louisiana, because there’s a lot of spirituality and mysticism here.
Those things have always sparked my interest, especially some of these older horror films that really dive into exploring fear. What I loved about Halloween was the character of Michael Myers and how John Carpenter tries to depict evil through a person. That kinda stuck with me, and attracted me to scary movies that can affect you emotionally in other ways.
Miniflix: Blood Runs Down is the rare short set in a contemporary setting that also feels like it could be set in the 19th century. How conscious were you of trying to make the film feel like it’s taking place in both the past and the present?
Zandashé: One of the biggest themes of the film was generational trauma and how it affects black girls and women. Because of that, I didn’t want to nail it down to a particular time period. That way any girl could find herself in that world, and so could their mothers and their grandmothers.
We tried to keep everything inside of the house as much as possible to create this structure that was both warm and loving, and also confining….to be stuck in this space with Ana’s perspective. The one person who is your caretaker, who you look to for your own wellness, becomes a potential threat, those walls suddenly feel less like a home and more like a prison.
M: So much of the film revolves around candles as sources of light and shadow. Was this all shot with natural lighting? If not, how’d you pull off the look?
Z: Most of the sources were candlelight. There were some shadow gags that we had to do in the bathroom and bedroom, so we used different lighting techniques for that. But most things were just with candlelight, which was a little scary to work with at times.
M: How many days did you shoot? How large was your crew? What camera/lenses did you shoot on?
Z: We shot in three days. Really more like two and a half. The crew was maybe twenty people at most.
M: What was the collaboration between you and the composer, Sultana Isham, like? Did you already have a pretty good idea of what you wanted the music to be like, or did you open yourself up to different possibilities?
Z: Sultana Isham is a violinist. I wanted to work with her because I knew I wanted very eerie-sounding strings, but I also wanted something that sounded very diasporic and tribal. So I wasn’t quite sure what that would sound like. We exchanged ideas on that and I was really satisfied with what she gave me…what she gave me was a lot different than what I’d seen in other films. Ultimately it was nice to hear things I hadn’t heard before.
Eventually, we looked at the finished product and went through a couple of iterations of it. She found some different percussion samples and put violin over that and came up with a very moving, but also kind of dance-y tone.
M: What music did you have in your head before any of this original music was provided?
Z: I don’t know if I necessarily wanted this from my film but I’ve always been very in love with John Carpenter’s scores. He’s just really good at suspense, and the rhythm and pitch of the notes. So that’s one thing that always stuck out to me. Also, a random one: Insidious. I was really into that score.
M: Was the structure of the film as you wrote it the same as the final edit, or were any shots or story elements re-arranged by you and your editor?
Z: I think it ended up being edited pretty closely. I’m really thankful for my editor, Jalea Jackson, and my DP, Zac Manuel. They really kept me on track with certain things, because we were so pressed for time — I mean , two full days…However, on the last night we wrapped to shoot, I’m laying down to go to sleep, my eyes shoot open and I’m like “Oh my gosh, we forgot a setup!”
You see, we wanted the shadows to be persistent. There was this one scene where Elise, the mother character, is standing and leaning forward and getting very aggressive with Ana and the shadow on the wall is supposed to be still. The shadows in the script were such an important, ambiguous, ancestral thing. So we forgot that, and then another scene involving shadows didn’t quite get shot and edited like I would have wanted it to only because we were so pressed for time. In the end, it’s small things like that. After looking at it so many times, you start to lose sense of what you’re even looking at.
There were certain things that changed slightly in the edit. For instance, there was a zoom that we did because we shot on 4K — a ’70s or ’80s type zoom in the bathroom — that I fell in love with but my editor did not. We worked it out.
M: Can you talk about how you created the scene where Ana’s shadow picks up the bat before the real Ana does? How was this achieved with practical effects?
Z: Yup, it was all practical. It was a lighting setup. We positioned the lights and our actor in a way where the camera was filming her shadows on the wall and we gave her a little apple box to stand on. She mimicked the same motions and we overlaid that shadow onto the footage of her actually picking up the bat. I’m a big fan of practical effects. And Jalea did that so quickly. It’s funny, we shot it that day and she was editing on set a little bit so at some point during a break I check in on what she’s up to and she says “look, I’ve got it together!”. So, I’m thinking this is awesome, but by the time the clip ends I hear clapping behind me. Everyone else in the whole crew was watching.
M: What’s it like being part of a group like NOFS (New Orleans Film Society) Emerging Voices program? How did you become a member, and how has it impacted your filmmaking?
Z: I’ve received so much support from the New Orleans Film Society and from NOVAC (New Orleans Video Access Center) since I was still in school. I got into the Emerging Voices program my last year of college….I learned alot about what not to do, that I’m not very into docs and am more of a narrative person. It put me in the room with really talented filmmakers who I still keep in touch with and still work with. They’ve been nothing but supportive. The grant I got for Blood Runs Down was actually the Tricentennial Story Incubator grant, in honor of New Orleans’ Tricentennial year. They paid 5 filmmakers up to $5,000 to help kickstart their own project — it was a matching grant…I can’t express enough how grateful I am and how much I appreciate how involved these groups are and how they really get people into filmmaking.
M: Child actors can be notoriously hard to find and to film. How did you discover Farrah Martin, and how confident were you from the beginning that she could lead this film?
Z: We had an open call for non-actors and actors for this role. I was curious how it’d go because I hadn’t worked with child actors before, but I have worked with children in other capacities so I knew how to behave with people her age. What was promising about Farrah was her maturity. She was attentive, able to stay on task and was a genuine trooper in auditions.
The first thing we really did was sit down and have a conversation with her, ask her questions and she seemed really capable. Through rehearsal we talked about the script, about my background with the story, and about how she connected with it. And this was her first leading role, so it was a huge learning experience for her — learning how to interpret a story. Once we got on set, she was able to retain much of what we’d talked about beforehand. The key to the relationship was that we had our conversations off to the side before we shot anything. Just going through what this character might be feeling and why. I put a big emphasis on saying for her not to worry about acting.
M: What was the biggest challenge of the film and how did you overcome it?
Z: There were a couple of things. The biggest one happened for an outdoor scene and it was an issue of getting extras. Since I also served as co-producer, a lot of that was on me to get the extras. Originally I’d wanted extras in that scene that were older women, but I had no luck finding them. The other thing is, I needed them to prepare to be in water. So I’d gotten a couple of other extras and none of those ended up panning out. So my backup plan, which is what we ended up doing, was having our crew all be extras. We all got in the water, myself included, and we just made it work. And I still appreciate all of them for that.
The other major challenge came from my general anxiety about going onto set, just because of the way that we’re taught to understand how a set is run. My set isn’t like that. There’s no hierarchy, no rudeness. Even though this was my set, and I knew that we wouldn’t have that negative energy, I still was so used to getting on a film set and being nervous about doing the right thing or being in the right place. So I got there and I was surrounded by people I loved, who I’d worked with, and there was no nervousness in the end. There were a few times (I don’t think anyone noticed) that were challenging for me. It’s weird to write a script and have people speak the words out loud, especially whenever they’re so personal. So there were times when we were pressed for time, and I was directing really, really personal parts from another room — because there was just no space for me to fit.
I realize now, looking back, that I should have pressed the direction certain places to really get what I want, because my actors were great and so willing to push themselves. But whenever you’re shouting at someone from another room, there’s only such a level that you feel comfortable saying things.
M: What is your favorite short film? Why?
Z: Monster, directed by Jennifer Kent. It’s the short film on which her feature The Babadook was based on. This was very inspiring to me and was on my list of films I was watching when working on Blood Runs Down. I referenced that short film alot to see how they took this huge idea and condensed it into something that was a few minutes.
To stay learn more about all of Zandashé’s creative projects, go to http://www.zandashe.com/.