Caitlin Koller: Maid of Horror

January 13, 2019
The Australian filmmaker makes her feature debut in the US with indie horror, 30 Miles from Nowhere.

Recently premiering at Monsterfest, 30 Miles from Nowhere is a thrilling horror feature starring Carrie Preston (Claws), Rob Benedict (Supernatural) and various familiar US TV faces in a story of five college pals who return to the summer home of their youth for their friend’s funeral. What starts as an uneasy reunion a la The Big Chill, soon turns into a horrific fight for survival!

Written and Produced by Seana Kofoed, who also acts in the film, 30 Miles from Nowhere wears its ethos of giving voice to female creatives on its blood-soaked sleeve, and it was important to find an appropriate director to call the shots on set.

Surprisingly, acclaimed Melbourne short film maker Caitlin Koller got the gig.

“I became attached to the project through Elizabeth Schuch, whose beautiful and inspiring debut feature The Book of Birdie, had its Australian premiere at Stranger With My Face International Film Festival in early 2017, where my short film Blood Sisters was having its world premiere,” says Caitlin Koller, referring to the Tasmanian horror film festival with a particular focus on female filmmakers.

“We met in the festival’s master classes that were run for female horror filmmakers. While Elizabeth was offered the role of director by Film Camp Productions, she was already committed to another feature. After reading the script she informed Seana Kofoed and Kelly Demaret, the film’s producers, that the dialogue and character interplay reminded her of my film and contacted me about the recommendation. When Film Camp Productions offered me the job, I was so excited to be able to bring my horror-comedy sensibilities to a horror-thriller, it was a challenge that I knew I would face head on.”

Can you tell us about your trajectory to be making your first feature film?

I studied Film and Television Honours at Swinburne University which is where I made my Honours year film Maid of Horror, a horror-comedy about an unhinged maid of honour who kills off the wedding party so that she can marry the groom. Once it was finished, I sent it to festivals and was pleasantly surprised that it played at over 20 international film festivals, many in the US. Americans seem to really enjoy and appreciate horror-comedies. I was lucky enough to see the World Premiere in Louisville, Kentucky at Fright Night Film Fest. I then spent some time travelling Europe and completing a TEFL certificate in Prague which led me to teach English in Japan for a year. That year off filmmaking made me more focused and even more determined to work in film and concentrate on my writing and directing. After settling back in Australia, I made a short film Blood Sisters written by Hannah White, a horror-comedy about two friends whose attempts to dabble in witchcraft have unintended consequences, that I co-directed with Lachlan Smith. It was originally written for the Stranger With My Face Film Festival’s 48 hour script challenge which it had won 3rd place in, so it was fitting that our world premiere was on opening night at Stranger With My Face 2017. Briony Kidd, the festival director asked me to be part of the Attic Lab which is an intensive mentoring program for women genre filmmakers. I was honoured to be invited, especially with the calibre of filmmakers included, and the amazing mentors attached. It was such an empowering and positive experience.

Do you think you bring a different perspective to a horror film than a male, and can you pin that down to anything in particular?

In general, I think women filmmakers can bring a different perspective to horror. When female filmmakers have female protagonists in a horror film, it is often because we have something to say in terms of breaking, playing with or subverting known tropes and gender roles in film. For example, female relationships, especially friendships, were rarely explored in horror films until women started making them. In The Love Witch, Anna Biller critiques the common and misleading portrayal of women competing against one another with the relationship between Elaine and Trish. The friendship between Mary and Beatrice in the Soska Sisters’ American Mary and the familial bond between Justine and Alexia in Julia Ducournau’s Raw showed a side of female relationships that is underexplored in film.

What appealed to you about 30 Miles from Nowhere?

I am obviously a lifelong fan of the horror genre, and a film nerd to boot, so being able to direct a genre film as my first feature was a literal dream come true. The script is what initially drew me to the project. It had so many wonderfully written relationships and characters and the way a lot of dialogue overlapped and flowed naturally, gave it the kind of dynamic I love. The story is fast paced, populated by diverse characters and it had a sly undertone of comedy which really piqued my interest.

Caitlin Koller (right) on the set of 30 Miles from Nowhere

If you had to compare the film to any other films, how would you describe it someone who hasn’t seen it?

In terms of story connections, The Big Chill is an obvious parallel. A group of old college buddies who get together for a friend’s funeral but with a horror-thriller take. Most of my inspirations for the look of 30 Miles were horror or horror comedy films such as Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, The Loved Ones, The Evil Dead, April Fool’s Day, The Invitation and Poltergeist. Although not a broad horror-comedy, 30 Miles from Nowhere has a unique streak of black comedy running through it from the writing, something the cast really picked up and ran with. There aren’t many horror-thriller films with an ensemble cast as accomplished as we had with this film, or even with an ensemble cast. James DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy is a film that uses an ensemble cast in horror-thriller setting and makes the most of it. We tried to emulate that in the way in which we empathised with each character and spent time with them during their specific hurdles they had to overcome.

The producers were on board with my desire to keep the outdoor scenes feeling agoraphobic and then indoor scenes feeling claustrophobic with the look and choice of shots. The protagonists are not safe in or out of the A frame house, which becomes a character itself. The obvious parallels here being Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or Raimi’s cabin in the woods in the Evil Dead franchise, which were as much characters as they were a part of the horror overcoming the characters.

How did you find the difference between making films in Australia versus the US?

The main difference is that I felt that film students in America seem to select their chosen specialisation earlier, whereas in Australia we take longer to focus on one area of expertise; both approaches have pros and cons. This seems to have an effect on how crew members interact on set, whereas when I’ve worked in Australia it can be fluid in terms of moving between departments. It was great working with the US team however, everyone in the cast and crew was open, warm, hardworking and approachable. There was unanimous support for my vision and cast and crew worked together with an enthusiasm to create a film that I think we can all be proud of.

Your shorts were horror, so is this where you were always hoping to end up, and what about the future?

I am hoping to make a career in horror. When I was a child I was very easily scared, I liked scary stories but having a vivid imagination meant that I would get nightmares from any type of scary movie, television show or novel. Even just looking at the covers of the horror film section at the video store would make me shiver. To combat this, in my teen years I decided to try to desensitise myself by watching as many horror films as I could get my hands on in a very short amount of time, and it worked. I watched classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Ring, Scream and Candyman. I fell in love with horror because it had a consistently higher level of female protagonists than most other genres and gave them a character arc that didn’t mean falling in love was their only option.

Horror films gave women characters a chance to fight, to stand up for themselves and to overcome violent obstacles and become confident in who they were. They were characters who I could identify with and be inspired by.

I hope to be able to carry on this proud tradition while putting my own humour into my films. I have a couple of feature films I’m currently in pre-production with, one of which, Slammer Savages, I pitched at Stranger With My Face. Horror is the genre I keep coming back to, it constantly inspires and surprises me about the ways in which storytelling can evolve and reflect contemporary society.

30 Miles from Nowhere will be available on DVD and digitally in March. You can pre-order it on Amazon here.

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