Horror Movies, Music & More

Susan Adriensen—Follow the beat of your own drummer

Susan AdriensenSusan Adriensen might just be the busiest woman around.  Not only is she a writer, producer, director, cinematographer and actor—she also runs a production company and leads Mingle Mangle, a New York collective of horror filmmakers and fans. She recently made her feature debut with Under the Raven’s Wing, a psychological thriller that tells the twisted tale of a troubled girl named Raven and her friends Jessie and Angel. Right after she finished the first cut of her film, I managed to chat with Susan (who was on vacation at the time) about the supernatural, making movies and a parrot named Puppy.

Hi, Susan.  Thanks so much for taking time out of your vacation to chat with me.   Are you relaxing?

Supposedly, I am 15 miles from the worst weather in the world—Mt. Washington, New Hampshire.  We hiked today and the weather was great.  Snow all around.  It’s hard to believe that I’m 15 miles from the windiest place on earth, but it’s so incredibly beautiful, and the cold keeps me young!  We almost had to leave and travel seven hours back home because our parrot got out of her cage.  Little brat!

Your parrot?  Wow, that sounds like…fun?  Well, be careful.  Hey, congratulations on Under the Raven’s Wing.

Thanks. I’m excited!

Nature girlIs this your first film as a writer/director?

It’s my first feature that I wrote and directed.  Prior to Under the Raven’s Wing, I wrote, directed and acted in a featurette called Mavi Göz.  Mavi göz means “blue eye” in Turkish.  The movie is a supernatural drama based on my past paranormal experiences—few, but bizarre nonetheless.  I also created a few things in college—mostly god-awful stuff in a rush to get the grade.  But one film I did on Super 8 was from the heart—an eight-minute avant-garde film called Illusion of Reality.  It’s about a woman’s journey through life … only to ultimately face Death.

So you’ve been involved in the entire filmmaking process for most of your career.

Well, like many indie filmmakers, there are quiet times … and a need to make a living outside of the industry.  My “quiet time” lasted six years!  I worked as a secretary at a large commercial and industrial real estate company, but I took acting classes in the evening, got involved in other people’s productions and did a lot of imagining.  Creative juices were always flowing.

You mentioned paranormal experiences.  I’d love to hear about one of your encounters with the supernatural.  What’s your best story?

Wow.  They’re all so different.  Some are sad experiences.  Others have absolutely no significance.  I guess the most interesting one is the ghost at a relative’s house, as I still continue to hear him shuffle down the hall with his walker at night—but everyone has a ghost story.  The most emotional experience was when I visited my brother, who was drinking heavily.  Upon leaving and touching him to hug him, I started bawling my eyes out uncontrollably for no reason—out of nowhere.  Neither of us knew why.  It was weird and embarrassing.  A month later, my brother went missing and was found dead.  It was if I sensed something.

Under the Raven's Wing posterThat is sad. Tell me, Susan, did anything in particular inspire Under the Raven’s Wing?

Oh!  So many things inspired me to do Under the Raven’s Wing.  I don’t even know where to start.  The most important inspirations are my fascination with cults and religious fanatics … and my experience with zealot family and friends.  If you recall the scene of Raven’s experience as a six-year-old at a speaking-in-tongues prayer meeting—well, that was me, a terrified little girl trying to sleep amongst raised hands, swaying bodies and babbling chants.

It’s great you’re able to mine your past and transform it into art. Under the Raven’s Wing seems to be full of little details like that one scene you mentioned, and those really seem to add to the realism of the film.

Well, there is much from my imagination, but I think many filmmakers put a bit of themselves into their work.  If you look at the scene when Jessie talks about her past, it’s pretty much my life (except for the father with a stroke).  Yes, I had nightmares about my mother’s over-reliance on God, and Aunt Catrish [a character in the film] is actually a mix of friends and family I know.  I won’t go into detail for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely put myself into Under the Raven’s Wing.

Part of what makes Under the Raven’s Wing work so well is the performances.  Where did you find your three lead actresses?  They are really great.

Aren’t they wonderful?  I was truly blessed!  I found Kim Amato (who plays Raven) and Jessica Palette (who plays Jessie) on www.nycasting.com.  It’s free for filmmakers.  I found Kamilla Sofie Sadekova (who plays Angel) through Back Stage [magazine], and Coy DeLuca (who plays the unseen filmmaker/the Director) actually found me through my Mingle Mangle website.  Mingle Mangle:  Horror Filmmakers and Fans is a New York City based group I formed in 2004 for networking.  So, as for the actors, after I received their headshots and resumes, I held auditions.  They were the best for the roles and got the parts!

Kim Amato and Susan at workKim’s portrayal of Raven is quite nuanced.  Did you work closely with her on crafting the character of Raven?

Kim is very intelligent and has a master’s degree in forensic psychology.  She also has some comedic background as well, so she understood the script and what I was looking for.  Of course, we had discussions about Raven, but her audition and rehearsal made my mouth drop.  I thought, “My Raven’s coming to life!”  The biggest thrill for any writer: to see words come to life and—just as you imagined!  Actually, her performance was better than I imagined, so I had little to add.  Throughout the entire project, we were in close contact via e-mail and phone conversations regarding the many aspects of Raven as she was coming to life.  I suggested things.  She suggested things.  We work well together.

As a director, do you encourage improvisation on set? Is what we see on the screen exactly what was on the page?

About 98% of what you see on the screen is what was on the page.  The funny thing is, Under the Raven’s Wing was supposed to be all improvised!  But how would I get what I really expected from the actors for the characters and story?  I envisioned such details for each character.  So I wrote a script.  Originally my producer, Brian Jude, who came onboard just from a story outline and a character background, was disappointed upon hearing I was going to write a script instead of having the project improvised, but after he read it, he was like “YES!”  And loved it.  I was also quite happy and really didn’t want to deviate from my words.  I’m not sure the actors ever knew about the improvisation idea.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t allow the actors to replace certain words here and there, but all in all, things were true to the script.

Susie actsYou’ve done quite a bit of acting in other people’s projects lately.  Is it easy for the director in you to take a backseat while doing acting gigs?

Yeah.  I think so, especially if the director is good like Alan Rowe Kelly or Elias (of Biff Juggernaut).  Elias saw my potential and directed me well.  I respect him for that and for his patience.

We all know indie filmmaking is rough. What are some of the challenges you faced bringing Under the Raven’s Wing to the screen, Susan?

I think whether a movie is indie or big studio, there are tons of challenges.  Just because a studio project has money doesn’t mean it’s problem-free.  Sometimes the problems are huge and complicated, but the show goes on.  For indie films, lack of funding can bring everything to a halt.  So in my case, and for other indie filmmakers, the big challenge is usually the lack of funding for the project.  However, it causes us to be more creative—a very good thing.

Besides having a low budget and many other challenges, our greatest technical difficulty was editing in different frame rates while preserving each look and…well…each particular frame rate.  It made the editing process much more tedious, but I’m happy with the results.  It was worth it.

Susie vampsAll the different looks you achieved is one of the cooler things about the film.  It’s amazing what can be done in post-production these days.

Yes, post-production is amazing, but we also actually used real spy cameras for two spy-shot scenes.  The challenge was integrating those cameras, with their native frame rates, as well as the multiple frame rates we used from the main camera, into one movie while preserving the look and feel of each native format.  Tedious!

You’ve done a little bit of everything in the entertainment field over the years―TV, improv comedy, acting―but as you mentioned, you’ve had to take boring day jobs in between the glamorous showbiz jobs.  What is the worst day job you’ve had?

Ahhh.  I love your questions, Theron.  They’re always thought-provoking and always making me look into the past.  Let’s see, I can’t say that those many day―or evening―jobs outside of the industry were boring or terrible.  They got me through my high school and college years and beyond.  From working in a “five and dime” type store to fitting shoes on people’s feet in a high-class department store, I never hated the jobs.  I had a tough time as a waitress and got demoted back to kitchen, but it still wasn’t the “worst” job.  Even working as a secretary for six years wasn’t “terrible.”  It was a fast-paced commercial/industrial real estate office, and regardless of the male-dominated higher-ranked staff, I enjoyed the high energy and especially the office’s sense of humor in dealing with the everyday stress.  So, as you can see, even though these jobs weren’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, they weren’t so bad.

A serious sideI hate to say it, but some of the “jobs from hell” were jobs in the [entertainment] industry, and it wasn’t the work―it was the attitudes.  Why the attitudes?  They aren’t necessary and are a negative source that deteriorates the whole infrastructure of a company or project!  I’m the type of person who gives everyone a chance.  In the beginning, everyone has a clean slate with me.  I feel attitudes are like brick walls for everyone and stunt progress.

So, to answer your question the best I can about the worst day job I had, well, I’d have to say working as a waitress in an Irish-pub type chain was “the pits.” I got the lousy tables and…I just wasn’t good at it.  Another not-so-great job was actually an internship in the industry―television industry to be exact.  The regular staff at this large (now worldwide) financial television station was awesome and that’s whom I lunched with and hung out with, but I was interning for a start-up children’s show, and one of the freelance staff members had “the tude.” I began counting the days till the end of my internship.  I’d say those were the worst jobs I ever had.

So what’s next for you, Susie?  Besides surviving your vacation, that is.

As for what’s next, well, I’m hoping to start pre-production of another script I wrote, Inside Out—think Cronenberg’s Crash with a twist of a woman’s menstrual cramps!  The production will need a bigger budget so it may take some time to get off the ground.  In the meantime, I may have to do another smaller production.  I also have about four acting offers, so I may be busy with those as I plan what I enjoy most—the behind-the-camera roles.

A cosmopolitan sideI’ve noticed that, over the past few years, women are becoming a dominant force in the world of horror.  What are your thoughts?  Are you acquainted with any of the many female horror filmmakers on the scene today?

At the moment, I don’t know many female horror filmmakers.  Unfortunately, even my Mingle Mangle group is comprised mostly of male filmmakers in the genre.  I used to promote to a female filmmaker group I belonged to and still very few females in the genre―if any―attended our events.

But I am proud to say that of the few female filmmakers we have, they are brilliant.  One filmmaker is Jane Rose.  Her Lovecraft-ian short flicks have been awesome!  Look her up and be on the look out for her.  She’s up-and-coming.  I am also thankful for those who support female filmmakers in horror, such as you and Slammed & Damned (this interview means a lot to female filmmakers!) as well as Pretty-Scary and the magazine Sirens of Cinema.

I don’t want to blame the male-dominated industry for the lack of female filmmakers…and the lack female horror filmmakers.  There’s so much competition that even male filmmakers are competing with their fellow male filmmakers.  I think women need to do what they want to do, and filmmaking is difficult to begin with.  I have a great man behind me―my husband.  If there’s a great man or woman or father or mother behind any filmmaker, male or female, more power to ya!  We all need the support.  The only thing I advise to each and every filmmaker is to follow the beat of your own drummer! To pay homage is fine.  To use certain styles is important. But do it the way your heart and mind guides you.  Don’t do it ‘cause your friend is making a movie and now you want to also.  A little outside pressure is fine, but don’t let it take away from the creativity and the guidance of your drummer. Don’t mute your muse with what I call “ego clutter.”  Good luck!  Boys and girls alike!

Susie always bears giftsOkay, final question.  I have to ask about your parrots.  I know you love them, but you actually take them skiing?

Oh, no!  My parrots are being parrot-sat by my mother-in-law and the day after we arrived, the macaw escaped the cage while her food was being put in.  I thought there would be no way my mother-in-law could put that big bird back in the cage.  So, I started to cry as I paced the floor of our hotel, thinking we’d have to pack up our things and drive seven hours all the way back home and just end our very-needed vacation.  Well, sure enough, we guided mum over the phone—and an organic cookie is what lured Puppy (yes, the macaw’s named is Puppy because she acts like a dog) back into her cage.  Little brat spoiled bird!  Oh, I love her so!

Well, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, Susan.  Enjoy the rest of your vacation, and tell Puppy the parrot I said hello.

No!  Thank you!  Your questions have been interesting for me―and Puppy says “sqwaaaak!” and Einstein, the other parrot, says “go poop.”  Sorry. She doesn’t say much else. Oh my god.  Will you publish that?  It’s true though!  She says, “Go poop!”

Hey, we’ll publish anything…

~Theron Neel

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