Earlier this year, a lovely little independent film came out by the name of Wild Nights With Emily. Starring Molly Shannon as famous 19th century reclusive and queer poet Emily Dickinson. The story is a comedy that challenges how history gets told, especially about queer folks, which, as you might know, is a soapbox of mine given my podcast History is Gay deals with precisely that topic. When I got the opportunity to talk with line producer of Wild Nights With Emily Creator Corner Alex Peace, an independent filmmaker herself, I jumped at the chance. With a queer horror short film under her belt as well, I knew she was just the person to have on to talk about queer media.
Gretchen: Let’s start at the beginning, what got you into film production? Did you always know you wanted to make movies?
Alex Peace: I actually didn’t. I’m from Northern England originally, from Manchester, and growing up my family all had really traditional jobs like construction going back generations. I didn’t even think you could do a job like film, that didn’t occur to me. I just thought I was a person who really liked movies and that that was just a hobby. I actually did law work experience; I shadowed a family lawyer for a couple weeks, and I hated it. So I was about to apply to university to do law, and I had to sit back down and be like, “what.” You know, I had a crisis at 17 and went, “What am I going to do?” I remember telling my parents I wanted to do film, and they had absolutely no idea what that meant. They were very confused, but they have thankfully come around to it now. So it was just this crisis of wondering, “What do I actually like?”
G: What is the most challenging aspect to working behind the scenes on independent films? Most exciting?
AP: You could say that the most exciting and the most challenging thing is how resourceful you have to be because the budgets are so small. Some of these budgets are well over a million, like, between one and two million, but that disappears so quickly. I basically just have to constantly come up with new ways to problem-solve some of the strangest things. I’ve literally had the most odd problems to solve on a daily basis. I remember once I got radio over the walkie on a particular movie that we had a period horse carriage running away with one of our actors even though the person driving it was the licensed owner of the carriage. So some of the strangest things happen because of the smaller amounts of money but that creativity and problem-solving make it more exciting than some of the bigger budgets.
G: Tell me more about Wild Nights with Emily; how did you get involved in that project andwhat drew you to participating in it?
AP: I remember I was in Spain for the summer and I got a phone call from my friend Max who I went to grad school with at Colombia. So he called me and said, “I’m producing this movie for the filmmaker Madeleine Olnek.” I’d actually heard of her because her previous two features had premiered at Sundance, one of which I’d seen—The Foxy Merkins—and loved. So when he said he was producing this queer movie about Emily Dickinson and they had just landed Molly Shannon I was like, “Where can I sign up?” He asked if I could fly to California the next week. I’d never done anything in California before, so I said yes. So I bought the ticket the day after and went straight out there. I had no knowledge of the project prior to that, but I trusted him in producing it. I knew I’d love to be involved if for nothing else than for the subject matter.
G: Speaking of the subject matter, were you aware of Emily Dickinson’s queerness before you started working on the film?
AP: No. I had no idea. It was all a revelation for me and then after reading her films I thought, “Wait, why don’t more people know about this?” It’s not subtle. None of it is that subtle, at all. Now I’ve read pretty much —I won’t say all because she has thousands of poems—but definitely a good portion of her work, and she is definitely hiding in plain sight with some of her phrasing.
G: That’s exactly how I felt when I first heard that. And then, being a queer woman myself, I was like, “Oh, no wonder I’ve liked Emily Dickinson so much since I was young.”
AP: Right! I was like, “No wonder she was always my favorite poet as a child. That’s so interesting.” Something must have struck a chord.
G: Exactly! Something resonated.
AP: You know, the movie jokes so much about that, which is cool. It’s a joke I always have with my family that unless someone has the most stereotypical markers in the world or is literally screaming, “I’m queer!” in your face, then most straight people, especially those who didn’t grow up exposed to meeting other queer people, have no idea. When I told my mother about the film, she was a huge fan of Emily Dickinson. I had to reread some of the poems to her and she was like, “Oh. Oh, well that makes sense.” But yeah, the movie jokes about that as well, about how obvious she was, about how everyone knew but how easy it was to hide it back then.
G: So, did being involved in the film change your view about the way we tell history?
AP: It did, yeah. I’ve always been very interested in how history is shaped by the way people want it to be read and how political that is. So, it was very interesting to me to find out more about this woman and how people had erased her entire history. Now, I take a little bit more of a second look at things, and I think that’s very important in today’s climate. So it’s been a very interesting journey to look at that and think about the steps that went into changing her narrative, basically.
G: Wow, I hadn’t thought about the resonance for today’s media culture until you just said that.
AP: Madeleine puts it more eloquently than I do, but I think the movie is timely for that purpose. Especially with the way things are across the world with women’s rights being still under so much contention in so many ways in so many different places. Thinking about how her story and how other women’s stories have been shaped is relevant. You know, I used to think of history as fact, but it’s not at all. It’s far from that. It’s always a story written by a particular person or several people. So it’s interesting to have that rediscovered and reclaimed for her.
G: You recently wrote and directed your own film. What was your inspiration for Held Down by a Shadow?
AP: I knew I wanted to tell horror stories, horror is my favorite genre. Growing up I used to suffer from a lot of sleep paralysis and night terrors, where basically you wake up unable to move and you often see something in the room with you. The movie is a lot more dramatized than I ever experienced, but that was the original idea. I wanted to tell something about sleep paralysis. And then I had this idea of a younger version of me who was queer and not really sure what to do with it or what was going on with that, so I married the two. Queer horror is so underrepresented that I wanted to incorporate that story into it.
G: That was my next question, why do you think it’s important that we have lesbian characters in horror movies, especially with much focus in media criticism recently being about telling happy stories for queer women?
AP: I always think about that because, spoiler alert, my short is not a happy story. When I was writing it I went back and forth with a queer professor of mine about the responsibility to tell a happy story. I had a lot of people tell me to make the ending a happy one because obviously we’re all so used to seeing queer characters die or be written off or ‘become straight’ miraculously. But I ended up making the decision I did because I believe the final step in this has to be telling more queer stories and representing things. That doesn’t have to represent these perfect savior characters or these happy narratives. At the same time, I do believe there is a responsibility to portray happy stories of queer couples because we don’t really get to see that. Horror historically as well hasn’t had the greatest track record in portraying women in general. It’s not even gotten so far as portraying straight women well, nevermind anyone else. Every time I rewatch some of my old favorite horror movies I think, “Oh wow, I didn’t realize or I forgot that this is exactly what this is saying about women.” Have you seen the new Netflix show Haunting of Hill House?
G: No, I haven’t. Tell me about it.
AP: It’s actually brilliant. It was based on a book by Shirley Jackson; it’s my favorite horror story, actually, and it’s really, really queer. The Netflix show is a spin-off of that and it has this fantastic story line. One of the siblings is a queer woman, and I thought it was done so well because it doesn’t really make a point of her queerness. She’s just a character who exists and is queer. When I was watching I remember thinking this was why I liked it so much, because it felt like representation, but it didn’t feel like fanservice just for the sake of it.
G: It sounds like she’s a character who happens to be queer but the story is more about her as person rather than being defined by her identity.
AP: Exactly. And obviously those stories need to exist too about what it means to be queer. I think there have been some fantastic examples of that recently, and we also just need more stories where people happen to be queer and that’s not the entire point of the film.
G: Which goes along with what you were saying about horror. That’s a genre of storytelling that we deserve to also have queer people represented in.
AP: Yeah. And, queer people can also be shitty people. They don’t all have to be fantastic human beings in films.
G: What would you like to see more of when it comes to the representation of queer female characters and stories?
AP: Honestly just more of them. I don’t know how else to put that more eloquently! I think if more people are telling more stories, that in itself is worthwhile. Honestly, I watch any movie or tv show that comes up with a queer character because I feel like I’ve been so starved for content. Even if it’s terrible. Hopefully the more content gets put out there in the world, the more discerning we can be in terms of what content we’re watching. Basically, I’d just like to see more people telling their own stories.
G: A real quick and dirty one before we wrap up. If you were stuck in a bunker with a DVD player and a TV, what three movies would you want with you and why?
AP: That’s a tough one! First off, I’d say The Witch. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s a couple years old now, but it’s a fantastic horror film. I think I went to the cinema 4 or 5 times to see it with my old roommate. So that would be one because apparently I can watch it over and over. Two, The Shining. I saw it for the first time when I was fourteen and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. Plus, it’s long, so it will help pass time. And then I’d say Mean Girls just for fun.
G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?
AP: I worked on a few features this summer that haven’t been announced yet. And earlier this year I did a pilot episode for a web series earlier this year that’s just been completed. It’s called Inpatient and it follows a group of people who are stuck inside of a mental health facility in New York City. Each episode follows a different character within that system. That was really interesting for me because it examines a lot of queer stories. It’s a sort of, well, I’d say dark comedy even though I’m not a huge fan of that term. Coming up next I have a horror film that’s going to be really, really fun. It’s a feature based on a Jewish folklore story. I’m really excited about it. You see so many Catholic/ Christian inspired monsters and stories, but I’ve never really seen horror rooted in Jewish lore.
G: Anything else you want to share with us before we go?
AP: I can’t think of anything.
G: Thanks again for talking with me, Alex!
AP: Of course! You’re so welcome.
About Alex Peace
Alex is a ﬁlmmaker originally from Manchester, England. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA Directing program. She has worked as a Producer and Production Manager on features, commercials, and other platforms. Recently she Line Produced Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily starring Molly Shannon, Amy Seimetz, and Brett Gelman which premiered at the 2018 SXSW festival.
You can find her body of work here.