I found the film fascinating and sometimes hilarious, but my overall response was revulsion, not to the film itself but to the attitudes your film highlights. Therefore, I loved it because I always want film to affect me strongly. Are there particular audience responses you would like your film to generate?
I want the film to make people think and generate discussion. And it certainly seems to have that effect. And taking people through a journey where they are not only being asked to look at certain aspects of our culture but to also feel something is definitely a part of how I’m trying to elicit dialogue and thought around the subject. I haven’t heard “revulsion” yet — it’s a great word! But certainly everyone has their own experience, depending on what they’re bringing to the story.
The film is a remarkable dissection of gender politics in the entertainment industry and more broadly. Was there a specific event or discussion which prompted the production of this film?
I don’t think it was one thing. I went to a women’s college, so none of this stuff is new to me. And I worked as a stripper for many years, so very early on in my career, I learned about and had seen sides of society to which most people aren’t privy, and because of that, I’ve always had a lot to say on the subject. Not the least of which is that straight white men aren’t always the villains in this story.
I thought the dismantling of female pop stars was a perfect way to look at a lot of the issues that women face daily because their (the pop stars’) lives are so public and their trials so familiar, it’s easy to satirize, and I had wanted to make something in that universe. But I think the real catalyst was that I had started feeling like my career as a director was being stalled in part because no one supports women making dark films.
So one day I said, “Fuck it. I’ll make a movie by myself in my apartment and no one can stop me and I’ll say all the things I’m thinking about what keeps women from having the same opportunities as men – all the hypocrisy, all the silencing, all the crazy-making, and I don’t care if anyone sees it, but I can finally say I directed a fucking feature.”
And the rest was history.
The film comes across as (justifiably) very angry about the treatment of women. Do you see it as an angry film?
I don’t think it’s angry. It’s honest. And in my experience, when women are honest, it’s perceived as anger because behaviorally we don’t accept honesty and directness from women. We have to convert women’s honesty into an emotion, such as anger, so that we can contain it in a package that’s easier to dismiss.
Considering the huge range of topics involved, how did you focus your attention onto the specific issues that you do here?
I think of the title as the thesis and the parts of the film as the case studies. I was looking at various ways that we eradicate the female subjective perspective.
Usually in films, you experience the film with the protagonist. You see things from their subjective perspective. But Junie’s story is told from everyone else’s perspective. All of her interviews are scripted. All of the images are editorialized, and the footage performed or taped/edited with a specific agenda. She’s “seen but not heard” like we expect from women. And that’s also how she’s destroyed, from the outside in.
I wanted to take that idea — of eliminating her perspective — to an unexpected but inevitable place, which is that she eventually had to be eliminated from her own story completely, as she is pushed aside in favor of the male subjective perspective. She had to become a “concept,” while she is literally being harvested for parts, which is not unlike what is happening in gender politics today.
Women have become a double negative in a misguided effort by some to be more “open-minded” and “inclusive,” the obvious consequence being the exclusion of women themselves.
Naturally, I want to ask about the puppets. At what point did you decide to tell this story with dolls and what was the response from your collaborators?
Certainly there’s a symbolic aspect. They really lend themselves to satire and the sleaziness of the pop world — women being treated like dolls.
But I’ve used dolls before and they have a certain way with audiences. They are disarming, I think more than other forms of animation, because puppets are real objects — they perhaps make people think of toys they used to play with, or of being children, and so somehow — while they are very funny — the puppets are also very moving.
Besides, I can take risks with the dolls that I couldn’t with humans. The film would be utterly unpalatable if it was live-action and dolls do point out the absurd nature of things that actors might not capture as well.
My main collaborator is my good friend, composer Jean-Oliver Begin, who does the music for all of my films. Our first film together was with dolls — it was his first score and he won a Student Emmy for it. The film, called “OPERATED BY INVISIBLE HANDS,” a sweet meditation on love, did very well on the festival circuit. So when I told him I was doing another doll movie, he was naturally very excited.
Were there particular challenges about telling this story with dolls, and how did you overcome them?
You have to make everything. I referred to this as the Michael’s Craft Project From Hell. It was a big undertaking, especially doing pre-production and production on my own. But other than that, I actually really enjoyed the process. There was a lot of room for discovery that I don’t typically have if I’m doing live-action because the process was a lot slower and I was literally building the world.
Sticking with the craft of the film, I thought a lot of the message came across through the editing. Do you storyboard or was a lot of the final form decided in the editing room?
I do storyboard and the whole thing is scripted. But of course a lot changes in the edit, too. It’s a plastic art. Some scenes were written in a different order and had to be rearranged for greater impact in the edit. Some things were cut. Some moments were found in the edit. It’s always a combination, in my experience. You get the best footage you can to tell the story, and then when you edit, you treat the footage like it’s a documentary and try to find the best film in the footage you have.
You filled many roles here, including director, writer, producer and performer. Did you find wearing these multiple hats challenging, liberating, or both?
Neither. It’s purely functional. If I have a team, great. If I don’t, whatever. I will make films regardless, however I can. My stepdad was a carpenter and when I was a kid and I wanted a stage to perform on, we built one. And I approach filmmaking from that perspective. If I have a crew, awesome, I’ll build a bigger stage. If I don’t, I still have a hammer and some nails and I know how to use them.
As you have guided this project throughout the whole production, what has the journey been like from initial idea to completion?
I had a few false starts, with the script and with the production, when I was trying to do a more traditional shoot, with producers and such. But once I determined that I was doing it by myself and what it was truly about for me, the rest was pretty straightforward. I just needed that thesis statement — that was the solidifying agent, and after that, everything else fell into place.
How has the response been from critics and festivals, such as Slamdance and Chicago Underground?
It’s been interesting, to say the least. Most people LOVE it. But the few haters really hate it. It’s very polarizing. I actually kind of enjoy that about the film — you shouldn’t set out to make movies with the intent of people leaving the theater and saying, “Yeah, that was alright” — although I have to be careful because there are some really unstable folks out there who hate women like me and it does become a safety issue sometimes. That’s one of the Five Faces of Oppression of course . . . violence.
Slamdance was a great place for the film because Peter Baxter and his co-founders pride themselves on standing by their programming decisions, even if a piece is controversial. Peter has been very supportive, and I had a wonderful time at the festival and won two major prizes — the Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize and the Spirit of Slamdance, the latter of which is awarded based on a vote by the other filmmakers in selection that year. A huge honor to win the Spirit. I cried. And people were really engaging and having interesting conversations about the film.
I met another filmmaker, Andrew, who did a film called “KIFARU,” while we were hanging out in the filmmaker lounge. He said, “Which film is yours?” And I said, “The one with the dolls.” And he said, “Oh! I’ve heard so many conversations about that film. I haven’t seen it, but I keep stopping to listen to what people are saying because I’ve never heard people talk about this subject matter in the way that they are about your film.” That was really exciting.
Overall, the press has been overwhelmingly positive, but there have been about three or four reviewers who definitely wanted to paint the picture that my film is hateful and exclusionary, which I find fascinating, because what the film is depicting are all the ways in which we deny women autonomy and a voice and authority over their experience and bodies and how we silence women who don’t fall in line with what we’re allowed to say these days.
Last year, Debra Messing issued an apology to the trans community for making vagina cupcakes to celebrate International Women’s Day. That’s the kind of atmosphere we’re dealing with, where women are attacked for daring to express what being a woman means to them. How is that not misogynist?
And the part of the film that the negative press tends to focus on is depicting exactly what they’re doing to me. It’s very ironic. My film isn’t about silencing others. It’s about not silencing women. And these detractors certainly seem to be seeking my silence. Two film festivals, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and the Duluth-Superior Film Festival even pulled the film after accepting it, claiming that they’d had complaints from trans activists.
Like I said, most people love the film and love that I’m saying things people are thinking but are afraid to say. For example, when I was being grilled on whether or not I had consulted with the trans community before I made the film, I said, “I don’t have to consult with anyone about my perspective and experience as a woman. They don’t consult me.” And people eagerly applauded. So hopefully things are changing.
Statements that engage with inequality, especially when they come from women, often receive hate messages. Have you experienced much of this, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Oh yes. People always wanna shoot the messenger in these matters. And I expect a second wave once the film is released. What happened at the Chicago Underground is a great example. There were some really aggressive trolls, about 5 or 6 (one of whom worked for the festival) who came to the screening with the sole purpose of “confronting” me and spent the entire Q&A heckling me, attacking me. One man suggested that my film is killing people. And another shouted, “You sound like Fox News!” One guy said in an accusatory manner, “You claim that everything in this film is based on real events, but when has a vagina ever been bought and sold?!”
The festival director, Bryan Wendorf, didn’t defend his own decision to program the film and rather absolved himself of any responsibility, avoiding me after the Q&A. I felt very unsafe and disrespected.
But when I stepped outside of the theater and waited in the hall to go into the after-party, quiet people started gathering around me, as if to protect me. They didn’t say anything, but the crowd grew, as the audience trickled out, until there was a substantial group and they quietly said, “Thank you.” And asked me the questions that they were afraid to ask before.
During the BLM protests, a lot of people were saying that Independence Day should actually be on Juneteenth. But no one considers that even on Juneteenth, women of any color still didn’t have the right to vote or in most cases own property, not for several decades after. We were still property (a.k.a. slaves) and still are in some ways. It’s funny how history repeats itself, especially for women. We just keep getting leap-frogged for movements that primarily affect men.
Aside from intimidation at the screenings, I get a lot of creepy messages on Facebook and Instagram. I get tagged and mentioned in stories, calling me a “terf,” a slur designed to segregate women and suggest that certain women who don’t behave are okay to vilify, harass, and silence. I’ve seen comment threads on sites where people who haven’t even seen the film said I must have sexual problems and that they hate women like me, etc.
What I find hilarious, though, is that they can’t stop talking about it. Whether or not they want to admit it, clearly the film is working. As a guy told me once, “You’re a true iconoclast. And the success of your film is that it enrages the very people it criticizes.” So be it.
“Dollhouse” feels like the epitome of an independent film, put together under restrictions that you used to your advantage, and engaging with contemporary issues. What advice would you offer to other filmmakers in a similar position to you, especially women?
Yeah, I always say I’ll make a movie even if all I have is a shoestring and a piece of gum. My advice to women: don’t be afraid of the tech. If you can shoot and edit, no one can tell you “no.” And it’s not that hard to learn. After that, embrace the limitation, don’t fight it, and you’ll find yourself doing something really cool.
What is next for you?
I’ve got a lot in the works, some TV, some Film. Mostly with humans, but a few with puppets. There’s a feature thriller I’m really excited about, based on my time working as a stripper called “THE NICOLE,” and project about a mathematician with some CBS showrunners, to name a few.