St. Vincent on making a horror movie in a time of “extreme turmoil”
St. Vincent recently made her directing debut with ‘The Birthday Party’, part of a new horror film anthology titled XX. Ahead of its February 17 release on demand and in select theaters, Laura Snapes speaks to the songwriter – real name Annie Clark – about the catharsis of horror, making the leap to movie-making and being “ready to get back in the ring” with a new album that has “something very worthwhile to say.”
Annie Clark’s contribution to XX, a horror film anthology helmed by women directors, isn’t strictly speaking a horror film. In ‘The Birthday Party’, a harried mother (Melanie Lynskey) wakes up on the day of her kid’s birthday party to find her husband (who’s probably been cheating with the creepy nanny) slumped in his office chair. Even his dead body isn’t gruesome. With his sculptured hair and waxen face, he looks more like a bad Gary Numan waxwork than a fresh corpse. The terror comes from figuring out what to do with him on the day of the party, especially when the vast windows of the couple’s swanky LA home offer their neighbours a voyeuristic glimpse into their lives. You could call it an allegory for the outsized emotional labour that mothers take on every day, but mostly it’s just mordantly funny, and as stylish as Clark’s stage presentation as St. Vincent. Who else would foreshadow a death with black stripy party hats, and dress the revelling children in giant foam costumes shaped like shrimp and toilets?
There’s a good reason that “The Birthday Party” (named in honour of Nick Cave) isn’t that scary. Clark hates horror films. “It sounds so obvious,” she sighs. “It’s too scary for me. I don’t like gore at all. I don’t like sexual violence. I don’t like blood and bone and sinew. I don’t like to see it.” XX recently premiered at Sundance. Although Clark had already seen the film, she found herself screaming and covering her eyes during its public debut. In Jovanka Vuckovic’s psychological thriller, a family stops eating, but a corporeal feast ensues. Roxanne Benjamin sends a group of trespassing campers into the midst of a Native American burial ground, with monstrous consequences, and Karyn Kusama reckons with Rosemary’s Baby all grown up. “They were all great, and all very different in tone,” says Clark. “I think putting mine in between two things that were scary made it feel more in the horror world than it would have been if you’d just seen it on its own.”
XX represents a swift broadening of Clark’s horizons. Over the past few years, bouncing between New York, Texas and Los Angeles, she’s designed her own guitar for Ernie Ball and built a studio in LA. She’s also currently finishing her first art installation, as well as her fifth album as St. Vincent. Despite initial reports that it was coming this spring, the record won’t actually arrive until later in the year. The installation and record were tantalisingly off-limits in this interview, though Clark conceded that album five, “especially with where we are in the world, [had] to be the best thing that I’ve ever done by leaps and bounds.” FACT found Clark in New York to talk about the high stakes of dead bodies, Bowie’s hair, and her personal “gnarly” essay-writing habit.
“In times of extreme turmoil, horror films thrive because it’s a safe space to take our social, psychological fears and exorcise them.”
Given how much you hate horror films, what made you say yes in the first place?
I just say yes to challenges in life, and I think it’s really rewarding. Do you know if you can do a thing? No? Well, why don’t you find out! And it’s so rare — first of all, I felt really lucky to be given the opportunity to have time and resources to just make something and I thought it was a very gracious leap of faith that the Magnolia/XYZ Films people took on me. I had so much fun. I just had the best time doing it, and I think everything is about collaboration at a certain point, and film-making is sort of the ultimate collaborative sport.
Control is a big part of your work as a musician, but when you’re making a film, you may have to let things go on the fly a little bit more. How did you deal with transitioning between mediums?
There’s a little kind of lexicon of film terminology that was completely new to me, so there was a language barrier at first. But then I really got the hang of it, and we shot it in three days. I mean, it’s really not that different in terms of juggling a lot of different urgent tasks and delegating and saying, “That. This. No. Yes. This one. The toilet.” You don’t have a chance to mull things over when you get on set. You’re just going completely on instinct, and actually that part of it felt very natural to me. It wasn’t that different from putting together a live show where there’s a million moving parts and you’re going, “Yes. This. That. Go. Okay. Let’s do it.” And also, the other thing about it is that the adrenaline of being on the set is similar to a live show or being in the studio. There are through-lines, for sure. And also I think one of things you just get better at with time and doing various creative projects is just knowing who to bring in. And that’s a fun skill.
Whoever was doing the styling really knows how to make people look evil via their hair. I admired all those sculptural cuts.
Oh, that’s Pamela Neal. She does my hair and she is a genius and I love her so much, and she has the best style of anyone I know. She used to cut Bowie’s hair, and she cuts Tilda Swinton’s. She’s just incredible. We definitely were channelling Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Melanie and we were channelling Paris, Texas for Madeline the nosy neighbour, and the kind-of evil nanny. Except for Melanie, they were all wigs that Pamela made. She’s just brilliant.
When you were approached about the project, did you immediately know what story you wanted to tell? You’ve mentioned it was semi-based on a real life story.
Yeah, it’s sort of based on a true story that a friend told me. It’s very, very, very, very abstracted, but it’s the idea of waking up with a death in the house and making a split-second decision to try and protect your children for as long as you possibly can. And I thought, the thing that makes any creative endeavour good is making sure there are high stakes. So I thought, finding a dead body in the house and trying to figure out what to do with it, you can’t really get any higher-stakes than that. But then it went totally in an absurdist, blackly comic direction.
Between making the film and it coming out, the world has kind of turned into what you were describing on Twitter recently as a “daily litany of horrifying things.” Are there any real-life parallels or allegories buried in the film?
I mean, if you wanted to get really broad, you could talk about a widespread pharmaceutical addiction that definitely has swept America and probably is sweeping the rest of the world. One of the subtle things in the movie — or maybe it’s not so subtle — is this unfortunate way that women get conditioned to be very cruel to other women. You see it with the neighbour character and the nanny and Mary, the main character, who’s just this sort of Job-like figure, where everything that can possibly go wrong for this poor woman goes wrong and she gets no sympathy and no support. Obviously she’s keeping a massive secret to try to protect her child, but that is endemic. Misogynistic females — that’s the opposite of where we need to be right now. There’s enough misogyny coming from, in this instance, the powers that be. The capitalist coup d’état that’s happened here in America. There’s enough misogyny coming from there. We need to stand together, women of all genders and gender-identities, creeds, religions, all of that.
“I could have put out three records by now. But I needed this one, especially with where we are in the world, to be the best thing that I’ve ever done.”
As somebody who is not a horror fan, do you think that horror can be cathartic right now?
I think that horror films are very cathartic and I think that history has shown that in times of extreme turmoil, horror films really thrive because it’s a safe space to take all of our social, psychological fears and exorcise them. Even though I am personally turned off by gore and things like that, I think everybody needs that kind of catharsis and art is a way to go to all the dark places, go to the precipice and explore the recesses and cobwebs of your mind and be safe doing it. And so I think people need that in general, and I think people will need that even more in this particular time in history.
How far are you willing to push yourself as a viewer? Is there something that’s right on the cusp of your boundaries that you’ll tolerate because it’s a good film?
I mean, I can’t say enough good things about Elle. Isabelle Huppert hung the moon as far as I’m concerned. It’s so darkly funny. And there is sexual violence in it, but it’s kind of stylised in this way that is, to me, way more palatable or watchable, even though obviously it makes me very nervous, than something like [Gaspar Noé’s] Irréversible that just feels like, hideous, misogynistic gore-porn. I love Michael Haneke, I would consider him one of my favourite quote-unquote “horror directors”, but I can’t watch Funny Games.
You said recently that you’d like to direct more. What kind of film would you like to take on?
I would like to either adapt a short story or just write something myself and direct it. That seems like the most natural way to go about it. That seems like the way to do it that appeals to me the most.
Do you write very much prose outside of music? You did a review for The Talkhouse once but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything else you’ve written.
Yeah, I do. I write a lot of essays.
“I like moving, I like being kinetic… I get twitchy if I’m not doing a lot of things.”
Just for yourself?
Yeah. I may release them in some form someday, but they’re pretty gnarly. They really are kind of just for myself. It’s one thing to position things in music and let there be a lot of interpretation and mist around things, but it’s another thing to write completely factual, autobiographical essays and release those. They’re funny and they’re fucking gnarly. Maybe someday. They’re completely autobiographical. I wrote a recent one about thinking I was going to get and help my friend pick up a car but it ended up that the person we were picking up the keys from was giving a wake for her mother. So I unknowingly walked into what basically amounted to a Bennigan’s, in the Valley, into a bunch of strangers eulogising a woman that I didn’t know. Experiences like that that you just have to remember because they’re just so insane. I definitely wanted to remember every single detail because it was just the most amazing and absurd thing that’s ever happened. So yeah, things like that. And weird sex shit.
After you finished making Strange Mercy, you went straight into making St. Vincent, but over the past few years, although you’ve had loads of projects on, it seems like you’ve let yourself have a bit of space. Has that changed your creative process?
Yeah, I guess I threw myself into some other creative projects like building a studio and making a movie and designing a guitar and working on an art installation that’s yet to come out. Obviously I’m putting out a record this year and I’m so excited about it, but I needed to do some things that were creative but not music and not touring and not performing just to get my bearings. I started really touring in bands in my very early 20s, maybe even before, and then toured really seriously for 10 years straight, pretty much. I like that, there’s nothing pathological about it — I like moving, I like being kinetic — but it takes a different kind of energy to perform and I needed to have something very worthwhile to say on a record. I used to be a little more utilitarian about it, but it takes time to cultivate [something worthwhile]. Based on the amount of material I have, I could have put out three records by now. But I needed this one, especially with where we are in the world, to be the best thing that I’ve ever done by leaps and bounds. And that takes time. That’s something I’ve never really given myself, but it was nice. Now I’m ready to get back in the ring, so to speak, because I get twitchy if I’m not doing a lot of things.
I’m not allowed to ask about the record. What are we going to see next?
I don’t know, actually. It’s yet to be determined and it will all be thoughtfully synchronised as far as the unveiling of the art piece or the record. They’ll both come this year but I haven’t figured that part out yet.
Is the art installation something you’ve made, or a curation of other people’s work?
No, it’s a thing that I’m making. And it doesn’t have anything to do with music. There’s no score. It’s completely unrelated to music. I don’t know that I can talk about that too much either, except to say that I’m very excited about it.