Horror Movies, Music & More

Devi Snively—Sometimes you get what you need

A conversation with award-winning filmmaker Devi Snively is an entertaining, yet slightly overwhelming experience. Although she presents low-key, her incisive thoughts are communicated in a rapid jumble of penetrating insights, personal revelations, interrupted thoughts, humorous asides and pop culture references. She’s like that favorite professor you had in college whose class was always over-enrolled—which makes sense, because Snively also just happens to be an adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame whose class, Cultures of Fear: Anthropological Perspectives of the Horror Film, is always over-enrolled. I recently sat down with Snively for a talk about her life, her work and the philosophical significance of Harold & Maude.

Hey, Devi. Thanks for taking the time to gab. Let me start by welcoming you into a little informal group I’ve started called the Unusual First Name Club—your secret-decoder ring is in the mail, by the way. Tell me, is there a story behind your name?

Thanks, Theron. I’m honored. Actually, there is a story. My full name is Devorah, though it’s not my birth given name. I was born “Deborah” which led, much to my dismay, to folks calling me “Debi.” That’s a bit too “perky cheerleader” for my taste and I never felt comfortable with it. Then, at age 16 I was an exchange student in Venezuela, where they pronounced my name “THAY-vee.” I liked that a lot better. I liked it even more when in undergrad I took a course on Hindu goddesses where I learned Devi is this total kick-ass goddess, one incarnation of which bites the heads off men and wears them around her waist like a belt. My kind of lady! So, I changed the “b” to a “v,” kept the Spanish pronunciation [DAY-vee] and my name and I have been happy together ever since. And I do hope you’re serious about that secret decoder ring—sweet!

Now that’s a story! And, yes, check the mail: the Eagle has landed; repeat, the Eagle has landed. Okay, you’ve done stints as a ballerina, Spanish translator, hair model, video game writer and newspaper columnist, among many other things. This begs the question: Are you restless or curious? Or both?

When I was in Venezuela, I was invited by a band of gypsies to run away with them—to dance, make jewelry and travel the world. For a 16-year-old from Cleveland, it was a pretty romantic notion. However, I knew it was ultimately not a wise choice and respectfully declined. I think it was then I realized I have the heart of a gypsy with a more practical mind. When my knees already started giving me trouble by age 19, I decided to give up ballet as a career path and keep it as a hobby. How does Billy Joel put it? “She never gives out, she never gives in, she just changes her mind.” He totally gets it. So, I tend to follow my gypsy heart until my mind says, “Hey, babe, maybe that’s not the best choice,” and then I see where my heart leads me next or, in some cases, what odd opportunity should fall in my lap.

Nonetheless, I am guilty of extreme curiosity. I always order the weird thing on the menu—camel, octopus, sea snails—and constantly seek out new experiences. On those rare occasions I do feel restless, I consider it a failure on my part. Life’s too short to be restless; there are far too many fascinating things to keep us blissfully engaged and fulfilled. If we can’t find them, we’ve blown it.

As a child, were you one of those kids that were out and about, getting into everything? Or were you more the kid sitting at home with her nose in a book, reading about everything?

Are those mutually exclusive options? Honestly, I was both. My parents really encouraged my brother and I in all of our crazy endeavors. Mum helped me open a restaurant—no mere lemonade stands for me—on our front lawn and produce my first play in the first grade. My bro and I would make Super-8 movies in the backyard, and all the while I was in dance classes since age 3. But we also took weekly trips to the library, and I’d often spend entire weekends lost in book after book. Kids are lucky that way—endless time, endless energy. They can do it all.

But based on all you’ve done, it seems a bit curious that you would end up an academic, which is seemingly such an insular profession. Did that happen because it gives you a license to explore and learn constantly?

Academia, for some, is indeed an insular profession, but I think that is their shortcoming. True, one spends a lot of time alone in a room reading books and writing—and in my case watching horror films. But the social component is also imperative to the process. Otherwise, one’s work would suffer from a very myopic viewpoint, of which many academics are guilty I’m afraid.

When I was teaching my horror film class in the anthropology department at Notre Dame, my colleagues and I had regular “horror and cocktail” nights where we’d watch a horror flick and discuss it for hours afterwards. Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man spawned a super-fun discussion far more interesting, and even longer, than the movie itself. Man, whoever green lit that one is definitely leading too insular an existence.

Also, my teaching style is very interactive—my classroom is a three-ring circus of PowerPoints, music and movie clips, poetry readings, special guests, and I often even dress thematically—I have a great black and white “German Expressionist” outfit. So academia’s never felt insular to me. Rather, it’s a gateway to another world, a place where horror is cherished and filled with endless possibilities. It always opens new doors, poses new questions. Ultimately, I suppose I concur with Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” What we do is not nearly as interesting as why we do what we do after all.

So, that leads to horror filmmaking. How did a nice college professor like you end up making scary movies?

In short: poverty. As early as 10 years ago, I couldn’t even watch a horror film, if you can believe that—and even if you can’t. I was a total wuss. Even The Wizard of Oz freaked me out as a kid, though it was also my fave movie, interestingly. However, I wanted to “make it” as a screenwriter, and I didn’t want to move to L.A., meaning I’d have to start making my own films if I wanted to see my stories come to life. But with no money or connections, a filmmaker basically has two genre choices: documentary or horror. These are the audiences who forgive low budgets. I did make a documentary, but of course that didn’t further my screenwriting aspirations any. So, I treated it all very academically.

Ah, but of course you did.

If I had to make a horror film, I knew I’d better watch and learn about them first. I started with the early silent classics and worked my way up to post-post-modern horror flicks, and I read all sorts of literature ranging from Noel Carroll to Chas Balun and everything in between. Boy, did I show me! I fell madly in love with the genre and never looked back. I still write in other genres, but horror’s my favorite mode of expression.

Is that because you can pretty much hit any topic or examine any social condition through horror?

In part, absolutely. It’s so diverse and adaptable. I also love horror’s universality. Fear and repulsion are universal emotions felt across all cultures, and all mammals for that matter—it’s primal. Yet, as humans, we also have this wonderful ability to reason—though many choose to ignore it, alas—which allows us to rely on subtext, one of the most powerful devices in horror storytelling. It’s how all those Universal movies got past the Hays Code back when. The censors were too dense to see what was really going on in those films. Suckers!

Don’t get me started on Mr. Hays and Mr. Breen. Speaking of subtext, Death in Charge is a wonderful example of its use.

I like that some people watch Death in Charge as a “hysterical comedy,” yet others read the subtext and recognize that it’s, in fact, a darkly comedic tragedy. Horror plays on two levels. I like that in a genre.

I notice you consistently return to a couple of specific themes in your films. While I’ve hit on them before in previous articles, tell me what you think they are and why you’re drawn to them repeatedly.

Funny, I felt truly enlightened when I read your point about how a recurring theme in our films is that “life should be more than survival.” This is, in fact, my theme in life itself. My all-time favorite movie is Harold & Maude, with Maude being both my hero and role model. So, when others ask, “What would Jesus (or Brian Boitano) do?” Instead, I ask, “What would Maude do?” and find a way to work it into my own as well as my characters’ arcs.

However, themes had never been intentional choices in my films; they usually just emerged as I wrote. It’s only in recent works I’ve been thinking a lot more about themes before I start writing page one. The idea that the life must be more than survival is more prevalent than ever in my latest script, in which a young girl has to go through a zombie apocalypse to learn how to really live again and not merely survive like the drones all around her. And, yes, it’s autobiographical about my first year in L.A.

[Laughs] The perfect allegory. I want to talk about your latest flick, trippin’. You’ve just returned from a fest in France where it was shown, right? The Cannes Independent Film Festival? How was that experience?

Wow. Sigh. Gaze off dreamily. I love film festivals of any sort. Any excuse to hang with other artists, watch, discuss, eat, sleep, breathe films is fine by me. But Cannes? Mon Dieu! Words cannot describe. Cannes is fueled by the energy of people who are fighting for their dreams—it was positively intoxicating.

However, it was also super-educational. Talking with distributors, producers, financiers and more experienced filmmakers than myself really helped me gain a more international perspective on things. I feel a lot more prepared for the road ahead now. Every indie filmmaker should go to Cannes if it’s at all possible and, ideally, before she has a high-stakes project to promote. My experience was like “Cannes with training wheels,” and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect experience. Next time, when I go with my first budgeted feature, I will be much better prepared.

And upon your return, trippin’ won an award from a comedy fest of all things. Your work has often been accused of being too funny for horror and too scary for comedy. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s sort of silly, personally. Life shouldn’t be confined to one genre. I think a film succeeds when it creates a believable world with engaging characters and a compelling storyline. Tone should be relatively consistent for sure, but I tend to get bored by a film that’s too predictable and formulaic, which often happens when it adheres too strictly to predetermined genre guidelines.

Off the top of your head, can you give me a couple of examples of films that mix it up well?

Bride of Frankenstein is a fabulous black comedy, but is it not also horror? Rosemary’s Baby is one of the most chilling movies of all time, but Polanski’s humor is brilliant. And An American Werewolf in London is pure genius in my opinion—but try to separate the horror from the tragedy and the humor. It’s the perfect storm of all three that make it so wonderful.

Those are great examples.

Shakespeare wisely reminds us “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So people can choose the label they like, [but] it doesn’t change the fact that, ultimately, a movie should entertain. I love hearing the audience laugh when they watch our films. I adore the gasps as well. I don’t see why they should have to be mutually exclusive.

You recently completed another short film, Last Seen on Dolores Street. This flick has a slightly different feel for you, right?

Very different. So different, in fact, I honestly have no idea what to expect. It’s noir horror…I think. It all began after I walked to a bar alone in a questionable neighborhood one night. Somebody was walking behind me…faceless footsteps—creepy. A chill went up my spine accompanied by all sorts of paranoid fantasies. For the first time in ages, I felt actual fear. I wanted to somehow channel that and make a movie that is actually scary, as opposed to comedic, for a change.

However back in my lair, as I fleshed it out on the page, the characters, the whole world began to take on lives of their own and it went in a somewhat askew direction. Admittedly, I don’t feel like I ever truly write anything. I merely channel. Yes, I am my muse’s bitch.

It’s an odd little piece for sure, and I’ve no idea what to expect. It’s the first time I haven’t seen one of our movies in my head as we were shooting it. Much of it will be made in post [production] with editing choices, sound design and score. So, for me, this qualifies as an “experimental” film.

[Laughs] Kind of directorially improvisational.

Our fab editor, Lauren Schweitzer, from Death in Charge is currently cutting it. There’s almost no dialogue and so many choices as to how to arrange things—I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. The footage is positively gorgeous. I worked with a new [director of photography], John Klein, who was one of my best students at Notre Dame. He has a great eye and shot on the Canon 5D. It really looks stunning. It will have a very different look from our other films and, yet, there’s no mistaking some recurring Deviant tropes. How funny! My answer is longer than the whole film—how like me.

As much as your work reflects your particular vision, as you just pointed out, you don’t make it happen by yourself. I think this is a perfect chance to talk about Team Deviant. You’ve gathered a dedicated group of collaborators over the years. How did you assemble your crazy crew?

I would never put “A film by Devi Snively” on one of our films unless the DGA [Directors Guild of America] eventually forces me to, which is currently unavoidable if you’re in the union apparently. I find that custom terribly arrogant and insulting to cast and crew.

Yeah, film is absolutely the most collaborative art form.

I have never made a film by myself, and I know few who have. Everybody involved contributes to the final outcome.

That said, we have an amazing team, each member of which adds so much in his or her own unique way. Many we met at the auditions for Confederate Zombie Massacre! Some have been students of mine. Some answered ads we’ve placed over the years. Just like the Bradys, this group has somehow formed a family, and that’s how we all became the Deviant Bunch—alas, without Ann B. Davis as Alice.

It truly baffles me when I meet filmmakers who gripe about working with cast and crew and describe their filmmaking experiences as painful and misery-inducing. If that’s the case, why do it at all? Our team has a blast making movies together, and we have an ongoing talk of this studio we hope to all have in Michigan some day. As the family grows, it seems less and less like a pipe dream. Shared dreams are the best kind.

Yes, you’re a dreamer. And you’ve made a point of living your life doing what you love, which so far has translated to making only films you’ve written and making them your way. But on your blog, you’ve alluded to being offered “shiny,” tempting outside deals. Do you think you’ll ever do work for hire, on material you didn’t generate?

I would be totally into directing somebody else’s script if (a) I really liked it and (b) I felt I was the right person to do it—oh, and (c) somebody else was financing it. Similarly, there are many scripts I’ve written that I think will benefit more from somebody other than myself directing.

The thing is, I have a very distinct style and aesthetic, so even when I attempt to write or rewrite somebody else’s project, it comes out all “Deviant.” I imagine my directing style would be guilty of the same. My friends say I’m my own genre. Perhaps. You could give me a serious straight drama to direct, but chances are I’d see the dark humor in it, and probably find a way to toss in a dance number, body fluids and/or a puppet.

Yeah, you do love your puppets.

So, yeah, there have been a couple offers that haven’t quite fit yet, and I was the first one to say, “I am so not the right director for this project.” But I think it would be a fun and fabulous learning experience to give it a whirl under the right circumstances. Also, one of the most personal scripts I’ve ever written is now promised to one of my fave new directors with one of my fave new actresses set to play the lead. If that works out, I will be positively beside myself. They’ll do a far better job with it than I ever could and I can’t wait to see that movie.

To some degree, you seem to have a rather casual approach to your career, and life for that matter—sort of a “filmmaking Candide.”

Wow, third Candide reference in a week—sweet! I don’t know if I’d use the word “casual” per se. I’ve always believed that life is a black-tie affair and there’s no way in hell I’m showing up in mere jeans and a T-shirt. So, I try to approach everything with passion and conviction—whether it’s choosing what outfit I’m gonna wear on any given day, tackling a new script or exploring my career options. There actually is a method to my madness. But, at the same time, I have a very free-spirited approach for sure. My dear friend Wally the Bartender always says, “You should never be married to just one outcome.” I concur.

Still, I actually did attempt to be more conventional for a spell—that previously alluded to yucky first year in L.A.  I listened to others’ advice and tried to “do what one is supposed to.” Man, did William Goldman get it right, “Nobody knows anything.”

[Laughs] And those that do, know even less.

It was the first time I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block, under-achievement and general unhappiness. Not fun at all. But once I got back to doing it “My Way”—nods to Sinatra and Sid Vicious—my muse went into overdrive and it all became fun and meaningful again. Then, lo and behold, exciting things started to happen with my career. It was hardly a coincidence.

The thing is, I don’t feel “desperate” to “make it,” like so many folks I see who become broken out here. Nor do I have anything to prove to anyone. As such, I have the freedom to actually enjoy what I do. It’s nice to be free—insert a few bars of the Rolling Stones’ “I’m Free” here for best effect.

It sounds as if you like to see what the Universe throws at you and then react—so I have to ask: What would you like the Universe to toss your way?

Wow. That’s a mighty big question. And again I’m reminded of those wise sages the Rolling Stones, who philosophize, “You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.” It’s so very true. I’ve gotten things I’ve thought I wanted only to discover they were the last things I truly wanted or needed. I also haven’t gotten things I’d thought I’d wanted, only to ultimately wind up relieved that I did not get them. And I’ve gotten things I’d have never thought I’d wanted that turned out to be exactly what I needed and subsequently wanted. Then, of course, such questions always stir up The Monkey’s Paw superstitions to boot.

[Laughs] Of course.

But those disclaimers aside, as I watched our team dutifully and joyfully collaborate on our latest project, I felt this overwhelming desire for the day I can call each and every one of them and say, “Hey, quit your job and come check out to our new studio. We’re making movies full time now, and I’m gonna write you all big fat checks for it.”

However, I hardly expect the Universe to simply toss that to me; so it’s time to make even more movies. Oh, darn!

Damn Universe. But, hey, sometimes you get what we need…

~Theron Neel

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One Comment

  • Mim Blair
    Posted July 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m so proud of Devi. We have known her farmer parents, and know they are in awe.

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