Vanity Fair: Let’s start at the beginning. When did you decide you wanted to do a horror film and how did the story come to you?
Tara Subkoff: I’m a huge genre fan—since I was a kid. My brother and I loved sci-fi and horror, and we’d spend hours in Forbidden Planet, which was a bookstore that’d we’d sneak into when my father George Subkoff was working at his antiques shop on 13th and Broadway in New York. He didn’t let us watch horror movies, so we felt like rebels. I loved early Wes Craven movies, like The Last House on the Left and The People Under the Stairs; Kubrick’sThe Shining; Hitchcock ‘s Psycho; The Exorcist and Poltergeist; and all of Dario Argento’s movies. These films are multi-layered, with flawed characters who all have real character arcs. They’re visual masterpieces and make you riveted in your seat in suspense. So I wanted to make something that was an ode to the horror movies I loved so much—but also told a more modern horror story. I wanted something that was more of a social commentary. Cyberbullying is a serious nightmare facing kids today.
Let’s talk about the bullying as it inspires the plot. How did you settle on cyberbullying as the impetus?
My friend’s kids were going through it when I was working on the script; I couldn’t believe how bad it got. One of my friend’s daughters changed schools—to a boarding school in another country. And the bullying got worse and followed her there! The horrifying truth about it is that it can follow you anywhere and doesn’t ever stop.
Were you ever bullied?
I was badly bullied from [ages] 10 to 12 on the bus. I dreaded it. I would count in my head the entire time while being taunted, and sometimes I was pushed and hit. But for me, that lasted 15 minutes, and then I was off the bus and I was at home. Kids going through cyberbullying don’t get that break. It’s constant and it doesn’t stop. Unlike my torture, theirs doesn’t stop and it’s public. It’s too much for any kid to handle, which is why we see suicide as a result. My friend has a woman from El Salvador who works for her, and her daughter attempted suicide from this stuff. There were over 150,000 attempts last year in the U.S.A. alone, of youths trying to hurt themselves and being admitted to E.R. rooms because of bullying, and the numbers increase every year.
When you were researching cyberbullying, how did you react?
After working on this movie, I joined and co-founded a project called Bridg-it. It’s an app that has been installed in 10 schools in the N.Y.C. area, where kids can safely report bullying, or a kid who is in trouble, with their phone. They’re not seen going to a teacher or being seen as a “snitch.” The report is also erased off their phone, like Snapchat, so no kid can grab their phone and see it either. Kids feel safer and are more likely to use this to report something than having to be seen talking to a teacher or the principle. The app is already helping to save lives and change the entire bullying climate in the schools where it’s installed. (Bridgit.comfor more info )
Everyone always says that as we get older, everything stays the same, and that we never really leave high school. What do you think about that?
I think in many ways that is true, but I hope that we all have better perspectives as we’re older, and better emotional tools of how to handle disappointment and frustration. I know it’s not always the case, but hopefully some of us evolve and learn how to handle our crap better. There’s therapy, and outlets like exercise and meditation.
What has been the reaction of some of your friends with teenage children?
Ha! Most parents have been horrified but also fascinated. I think they also gain perspective and insight. The movie is a wild ride, but it’s good for all ages!
What do the kids think?
The kids love this movie! I showed it to a group of 12- to 14-year-olds when I had my first rough cut, and their reaction was super-encouraging. I wanted the film to speak their language, and the fast pace and emojis to speak to their world. They all said it felt real to them and how they speak to each other when parents aren’t around.
The major difference between the generation portrayed in the film and my generation and your generation is the advent of social media. Are you inspired by some of those elements . . . the emojis, even the use of the hashtag in the title film’s title?
Yes! The onslaught of those characters blows my social-media mind away. So grateful to have collaborated on this with the artist Tabor Robak. His work encompasses all of the politics and insanity of social-media/emoji explosion. An animated-emoji explosion made by him is our title’s sequence.
How did you find these young actresses? They’re great little actresses.
I auditioned and auditioned like crazy. What young stars they are! They are like baby Jennifer Lawrences and young Anne Hathaways. I worked and rehearsed with them for over a month before we started shooting, and taught them a lot of emotional improv exercises I learned from a teacher named Silvana Gallardo. I had met her years ago when I did a class with Angelina Jolie, who was still a teenager at the time. This was tough, real, old-school method-acting exercises, and the girls totally got it and used it for this shoot. Also, when they worked with Chloë [Sevigny] and Tim [Hutton] they learned so much. I’m lucky to have had such a talented, brilliant cast.
I know a lot of the action takes places in suburban Connecticut, where you grew up. Did you apply some of your childhood experiences into the film?
Of course! There’s that saying: “Write what you know.” The action takes place in the winter too, which I can remember from when I lived in Connecticut as being a claustrophobic, suburban horror story just on its own. This was a very personal labor of love. I production designed this with my brother Daniel Subkoff, and all the furniture came from my dad’s store, in Westport, called George Subkoff Antiques. My husband Urs Fischer curated all of the art and much of it was his work. There’s also many longtime friends, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, Dan Colen, Adam McEwen, and Rob Pruitt, who lent work that became more like characters in the film than background. It was palpable, to have their work as a part of this story and to have it feel authentic. Francesco said, “Tara they never use my real paintings in a movie. They just tell the art director to make a fake Francesco Clemente.”
And he laughed. But it’s true. It’s too expensive to insure for most productions and easier to make a knockoff. But to have real art in a film gives it a different feel. And for this I am so grateful to all of the artists who lent their work and also Urs Fischer who collaborated and made the masks. And Tabor Robak, a fantastic video artist who made all of the social-media/game video-art elements in the film.
Your first gigs were in film, right? As an actress? And then you were sidetracked with a career in fashion. When did you decide you wanted to get back into movie making? Did you always want to be a director?
Ha! “Sidetracked” is a funny way to put it. I was a dancer, then an actress, and I’m so proud of what Imitation of Christ was in the fashion world. That label was really a project of politics, art, and fashion, and we were the first brand to coin the term “upcycling.” Sometimes I think I should bring that back because of everything that’s happening in the environment. But back to films: Yes, I always knew I wanted to direct. I’m glad I waited and made so many shorts and video pieces and directed so many shows and performances. It helped prepare me for this and made me stronger. I’m a huge fan of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, so I was inspired to see his work. The thing is that good taste goes a long way, especially with directing. Wes Anderson has the best taste of anyone I’ve ever met, and look how great his films are. I’m a huge fan of Sofia Coppola and she has also been a fashion designer. So I’d like to think I’m in good company.
I know this is a loaded question, but tell me the first things that come to mind: What’s similar about film and fashion? And what’s completely different?
They are both aesthetic-based. But film, even though it used to be called “moving pictures,” is so much about style and the details. The story is the most important, and what you say matters. This is why I love movies and storytelling. Fashion doesn’t encompass that deep of a story, or when it does, I find that the stories are more about fantasy. There just isn’t room to go much deeper than that, and trust me, I tried. I’m more of a storyteller, and I’m happy to be making movies. I want to make more. I’m writing another now.
I know you’re used to telling people what to do as the head of a fashion label (and just in life in general!). But how was being in the driver’s seat on a larger project?
Great! I’m very happy telling people what to do. Ha! But honestly, it’s more than that. It’s being honest and having integrity to gain people’s respect. To know what you are saying and why. To know what you are doing. So you can speak the language to the actors and the rest of the crew. There are many languages you have to know to gain this respect. It’s a very tough job and you have to make fast decisions about 10,000 times a day and live with those decisions. So it’s not the easiest thing to do.
My favorite line, which Chloë says, is: “Getting ready to go to the party is always more fun than the party.”
Yea, isn’t that the truth?