by Anthony Frajman

One of the breakout films at this year’s SXSW, Hannah Barlow & Kane Senes’ Sissy has also played internationally at Sitges Fantastic Film Festival, where it won the Midnight X-treme People’s Choice Award, Festival Fantasia in Montreal, and Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, winning the Audience Award, to name a few.

Shot entirely in Canberra, and the second feature film [following 2017’s For Now] by directing duo Barlow and Senes, the Aussie horror slash comedy stars Aisha Dee (The Bold Type, Channel Zero) as an influencer who is invited away on a hen’s weekend by her friend Emma (Barlow), where she comes face to face with her high school bully Alex (Emily De Margheriti).

The film was also recently nominated for three AACTA nominations: AACTA Award for Best Direction in Film, AACTA Award for Best Film and AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in Film (Aisha Dee).

FilmInk caught up with Barlow & Senes to discuss where it began.

How did Sissy come about?

Hannah Barlow: “We were living in LA just as Trump was being inaugurated, and [at the time], were like, ‘Goodbye. We don’t wanna live here through this era [laughs], and it was time to go home’. And we thought, ‘we should be taking advantage of the government incentives and seeing if we can make a film on our own soil’. We came back and were just kind of looking at our generation’s and our own personal interaction with social media and reading about dopamine addiction and (this) epidemic globally for millennials and Gen Z, how our brains are changing physiologically because we’re morphing with social media and that’s only ever gonna continue to spiral out of control and have long lasting effects on our brains; all those big things.”

Kane Senes: “But, also just wanting to make an eighties movie, wanting to make a horror slasher, and to step into that incredible genre world and just have fun squashing heads [laughs].”

You’ve said you wanted to make a film that was scary for millennials?

Kane Senes: “Yeah. Even if you go back and look at Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween or any of these kinds of films that you’d grow up with in the eighties… The ones that have endured like those ones and others, it’s because they’re saying something about the era in which they were made. I think that’s what’s so great about horror, it’s able to entertain. But also, the best ones always have something to say about the time in which they’re made.

“For us, it was like, ‘well, what scares us today?’ And the reality is, the world’s a crazy place and there’s a lot to be scared about, but in our day-to-day existence, the idea that maybe our brains are getting morphed in some way and affected by technology that we willingly use and absorb and are addicted to, is kind of a terrifying concept. What happens when someone just has a little too much of that? And, what’s the worst case scenario of that? If we plugged that into a kind of ‘80s slasher film, but do something different with it… That’s where it all came from – those two forces meeting each other.”

Social media and its impact on mental health is a big part of the film.

Kane Senes: “That’s something that we talk about all the time – our mental health and the era in which we live in and the increase in anxiety that I think we’re all feeling, even if we aren’t aware of it or aren’t talking about it, just living in the modern world.”

Hannah Barlow: “Millennials are the first generation where we’re calling out mental health as a buzz word, a prevailing concern. We’re looking up at the boomers and the generations above and asking questions and it’s a priority. With Gen Z, it’s becoming even more of a priority. Now it’s morphing on TikTok into this generation of self-diagnoses. There’s this weird thing brewing online, where everybody thinks that they have a neurotypical disorder, which is good and bad because it means that people are getting diagnosed in the thousands, but it also leads to our health institutions considering ADHD as a neurotypical disorder, which gives people the chance to be medicated and to live with their conditions.

“(You look at) social media, what it’s able to do politically and socially. People have a voice now and the masses can rise up if they don’t like something or they don’t wanna be oppressed anymore. It’s a gift and a curse. That’s something that we wanted to demonstrate a little bit with the film – you can love this person, but she’s still doing these things that maybe aren’t okay. And that represents all of us in some way. We all have the good and the bad and we’re all trying not necessarily effectively or in the right way, but we’re reaching for something as opposed to just living under a rock. We’re reaching for self-actualization and self-acceptance and giving space to people living on the fringes of society to have a voice and to be seen and heard. But that’s also allowing for really toxic, dangerous people to emerge through the cracks. People like Belle Gibson who take advantage of vulnerable communities, and we’re creating a platform and a space for celebrating them and allowing these people to (prophesize) bullshit.”

You’ve said the film is a comedy first, horror slasher second. Can you expand on that?

Kane Senes: “It’s funny how people are reacting to the gore. Because in our minds, it’s nowhere near as gory as some of the films that we grew up with. But I think what is tripping people out is that when you typically watch Nightmare on Elm Street or something, you are expecting that kind of violence. But when you go into this film, it’s a hen’s weekend. Sorry to misuse this term, but it feels like a chick flick, and then suddenly it turns violent. And I think that’s a combination that people aren’t expecting. In many ways, it makes it feel more violent.

“And yes, there is definitely some shots where if you just look at the shot out of context, it’s an incredibly violent image. But if you take the violence, I think for us, it was always a little bit of a metaphor. It’s like, in order to cut off those toxic friendships in your life, sometimes it’s really painful and it’s like you’re ripping a piece outta yourself or you’re killing a piece of yourself. Like you are killing your past in order to move on. Sometimes, people just choose to ghost someone, right? And to just stop getting back to them and, and go to therapy and that’s a very passive way to do it, but it can feel very emotionally violent to the person who’s been ghosted. For us, it was like, what is a literal version of that emotional violence that we go through with toxic relationships? That’s why I think the violence grew out of the theme and why it’s warranted as opposed to just being or shock value.”

Have you been pleased with success the film has had internationally?

Hannah Barlow: “We never expected to get into SXSW, so that was a phenomenal start and that those audiences at our screenings were so fun. We went to Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea and that was just such an incredible experience getting to know the programmers and all the filmmakers from around the world and traveling with those filmmakers. And, then we landed in Sitges, and that was like a class of ‘22 reunion together; seeing how well everybody was doing, catching up with our peers. And, then we won People’s Choice Award in our section, which we never expected, because our film played at like 4am and we were the first called up onto stage in front of 1300 people. I had beachy hair and normal clothes on when everybody’s dressed up to the nines, it was wild.”

Kane Senes: “It played Sydney and Melbourne [film festivals] in Australia, and other festivals in Australia obviously, but it definitely also has been doing that kind of genre circuit, which has actually been the most fun out of all of them because it’s just such a community at those things. Everyone just loves the same stuff. Sitges was amazing. The audiences there were insane, really fun. It’s kind of like the most genre crazy audience in the world.”

You shot the film in 21 days. How difficult was this?

Hannah Barlow: “We shot it in 20 days with a one-day pickup. We had 11 days pre-production, which is actually the hardest part. I think if you prep a film for eight weeks and you have 21 days , it’s very different, you’re just executing in a short amount of time, but you’ve got everything laid out and ready to go. We were still prepping the film in many ways as we were shooting it. We had to improvise on set, which was really hard. Doing such short group production creates consequences for all the Heads of Department, and dumps into different people’s departments. But we managed, we survived and we luckily had very talented people in our heads of department and our cast that were able to deliver in one or two takes as an actor or in very short amount of time, like Michael Price, our production designer, Renate Henschke, our costume designer,  Steve Arnold, our D.O.P , and then obviously later on, once we got into the edit room, Margie Hoye, who also had to cut the film on a reduced schedule.

“But, I think as filmmakers, you’re very resilient and if there’s a window to make a movie and you are told, ‘Okay, it’s financed, we’re going in two weeks, it’s either that or it gets pushed a year or maybe it never gets made’. You take that deal 10 times outta 10 and then you complain about it and pull your hair out, but you somehow just group together to get it done. We’re here and the movie is done and it’s getting released, and so you kind of look back and go, ‘gee, it definitely was worth it’. But it’s always a bit of like that kind of stepping off the ledge, and just hoping that you’ve all got enough gas in the tank to get it done on a short amount of time.”

What was the biggest challenge making film?

Kane Senes: “It was difficult with Covid. We definitely were a height of Covid film, where everyone was kind of in lockdown in their homes and we were in a bubble in Canberra. So, if anyone got sick, if we got Covid or anything like that, who knows what would’ve happened. We would’ve had to have breaks in production, which would’ve been devastating. So, for us, it was just crossing our fingers, hoping that we got through without any real kind of damage to the film. It was a challenge all the way up until the last day of post. It was gnarly. It was very difficult doing a sound mix remotely with people in different rooms, not able to be in a theater together, it’s very hard to make a movie that way.”

Hannah Barlow: “You never got to complete the mix… And, as perfectionists, it sticks with you. But it’s done well regardless, so we’re just grateful. And films, at the end of the day, are a product of the circumstances in which they were made. There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of art. We’re just happy that we’ve gotten through that and that people don’t necessarily know that and they don’t care. They just judge the finished work.”

Sissy is in cinemas November 3, 2022