Husband and wife, Kevin and Jennifer Sluder, both own the award-winning production company Sunshine Boy Productions. Recently, their short horror film Heartless earned a place at the Oxford Film Festival and the duo are now on a festival tour promoting their work. We discuss with them the film industry of today, women in horror, life on set and their latest projects.
Thank you so much for agreeing to the interview – how has 2018 been so far for you both?
Kevin: Thanks for having us, Daniel! 2018 has been really great so far. We’re starting the festival tour with my directorial debut, Heartless, and I’ve been working on a couple additional projects. Right now, we’re preparing to attend the North Hollywood Cinefest where four of the films we executive produced (Heartless being one of them) are being shown. We love these films and we’re so proud of the filmmakers that made them happen, so I would say 2018 is off to an awesome start.
How do you feel about diversity in film at present?
Kevin: There have definitely been some strides in the right direction recently, but there’s still a long way to go. I feel like we’re in a really exciting time for film and filmmakers. More and more opportunities are emerging for different voices. And the cool thing is, it’s getting harder and harder for Hollywood to argue with the results. The fact that Black Panther has crushed all competition and crossed the $1 billion dollar mark worldwide.
Jen: And Wonder Woman directed by Patty Jenkins being the highest grossing superhero origin movie of all time.
Kevin: Exactly. That’s proof positive. Then, you have The Fast and the Furious. It’s arguably the most successful franchise this side of Star Wars and it possesses an awesome, diverse cast. I feel like TV has been paving the way with more diverse roles for a while. The film world has been lagging behind it somewhat but, with the separation between television and film becoming less and less broad, I think more and more diversity is going to make its way into studio filmmaking.
Why would you say Women in Horror Month is particularly important? What is it about horror as a genre?
Jen: Over the years there have been many strong roles for women in film, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Sissie Spacek in Carrie, and Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise to name a few. Ladies have also produced and directed some of my favorite films, Kathryn Bigelow, Mary Harron, Karyn Kusama and Debra Hill to name a few. Horror as a genre allows for some of the best storytelling of all time—the stakes can’t be raised any higher than life or death, right? It automatically pulls you in and you want to see the character survive and triumph over evil.
I think women in horror month is a wonderful tribute to all the amazing, talented, and hardworking ladies in front of and behind the camera. But I don’t think it needs to be limited to just one month, and I’d like to send a shout out to a few of the wonderful people we have met and their great work we’ve seen at festivals over the last year. We’re so stoked for The Ranger by Jenn Wexler, premiering at SXSW and Kevin is going to catch it at Chattanooga Film Festival in April. Izzy Lee is a super cool genre short writer/director with a definite feminist view. I know I’ll always be entertained by what she does. Jill Sixx is a great writer/director, whom we met and were hooked when we saw the Stylist with one of our favorite leads, Najarra Townsend. More is coming up for Jill soon and we’re excited to see what she does. Kim Garland wrote and directed one of my favorite shorts of the entire year last year (caught it at FilmQuest), she’s got a compelling sense of storytelling with truly striking visuals—great combo, and plus she’s part of a husband and wife producing team too! Shelagh Rowan-Legg is another one of my favorite genre writer/directors with an outstanding sense of humor about the female existence—horror comedy is one of my favorite subgenres and I can’t wait to see more of her work. Rebekah Fieschi is a writer/director who has a creative genius in imaginative worlds—she’s a strong force and I can’t wait to see her upcoming feature, Sylphania Grove. Ashlea Wessel wrote, directed, and produced a visually striking short we saw at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival and I know she’s got a bright future ahead. Laurel Vail wrote, directed and produced a short with one of our favorite people, Matt Mercer, in it and I love her take on the female in plight—she turns the tables on the convention and the last line of the short really hits its mark.
These are just a few of the great producers, writers, and directors we’ve met and I highly recommend checking out female-led projects—not just during women in horror, and not just because they are women—because they are great filmmakers.
Kevin: I totally agree. Women in Horror Month is a great way to elevate all the hard-working women in the horror industry. Awareness events like Women in Horror month shine a spotlight on those filmmakers and raise the consciousness of their work, which I think is really important. As do film festivals, especially ones who are keeping an eye out for female genre directors. And big-time directors are taking notice, which is really cool. One of the huge hits from last year’s festival tour was Issa Lopez’ incredible film Tigers Are Not Afraid. Guillermo del Toro just recently signed on to produce her next film. I think, as a genre, horror is moving away from the old boys’ network a little quicker than other genres. Maybe it’s the acceptance factor, the willingness to go with ideas outside of the box, I’m not sure, but the work speaks for itself. Like Jen was saying… Raw, The Babadook, the Invitation, Honeymoon, The Bad Batch, the list goes on and on. And the future is bright. Last year on the festival tour, we both saw so many short films directed by such talented women with such individual voices. Soon, they’ll move on into features and they’ll add even more great films to the list.
Let’s talk about your short film Heartless: How would you summarize it?
Kevin: Heartless is a horror short based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. It tells the story of an overlooked exec who is trying to complete a marketing presentation while a horrific secret eats away at her conscience. I would summarize it as a contemporary take on the classic, gothic Poe tale. We threw in an American Psycho vibe, a lot of blood f/x and some over the top dark humor. It’s a fun ride.
How does working as a husband and wife team benefit a project like this? Or any project, really!
Kevin: I’ll let Jen answer this one. Haha.
Jen: We’ve been married quite a few years (20) and just recently decided to combine forces to create film with Sunshine Boy Productions. And it really is as simple as that for us. We’ve always helped each other out with each other’s endeavors whether it’s Kevin running the last 5 miles of my first marathon to help get me through, or when I helped find the wardrobe for our first short, Play Violet for Me. We both seem to know what the other one needs and want to help make that happen. Fortunately, our skill set and interest in certain projects seem to be complementary and don’t overlap much—so there’s not much of a push and pull when a decision needs to be made. I always thought I’d be on the sidelines of his career, going to watch his films but not able to contribute in any meaningful way, then we made our first short and I was hooked. Listening to incredible professionals act out my husband’s writing was surreal and such a treat. I couldn’t wait to get back on set with his films and the collaborative nature of our relationship makes it truly special for me to be a part of it.
Kevin: In a nutshell, she keeps me sane and solves problems left and right. All the wardrobe for Heartless – the American Psycho/Wall Street dress shirts and suspender look – she provided all of that. Shopped for it. Matched it up so it looked sharp. She’s a badass and it’s been my experience that the more badasses you have around you, the better you do at life. So, she was a massive help on Heartless. Not only on set, but in all the promotional efforts, as well. We’re doing this interview because our unit publicist (that Jen connected with on Twitter) set it up. All the marketing in social media (outside of Facebook) is handled by her. So, the benefits are many. I’m looking forward to our next project to see what else we can do together.
[For Kevin] How was it taking the director’s chair for the first time?
Kevin: Daunting. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I mean, a week before the shoot I was laying on my living room floor trying to figure out if I had what it took to get it done. I think that’s the cool thing about it, though. You never know what you can do until you challenge yourself. It probably didn’t help my sanity that the first film I decided to direct was eleven pages long, filmed in three days, involving seven different, detailed blood effects. The way I looked at it was – if you’re going to do it, throw yourself into the deep end and see if you have what it takes. But I loved the idea and the script, so I felt that would carry me through it. The best idea I had, though, was surrounding myself with amazingly talented individuals behind and in front of the camera. They had so much experience on set, so they were a huge help when I ran up on obstacles in the shooting. And there were plenty of those. All in all, it was a really cool experience and watching the film come together in post was even more wonderful than I thought it would be. Kinda can’t wait to get back out there and see what else can come from that.
What was attractive about Edgar Allen Poe’s source material?
Kevin: I had this image in my head at first and it kind of stuck with me. It was the opening shot of the film. A seemingly clean-cut, innocent female exec is staring into a mirror, gazing at her reflection, having done an awful thing the night before. That was the thing about “The Tell-Tale Heart” that I always loved. Yes, this narrator did a horrible thing but he’s so so so proud of it. Which is totally insane. But, at the same time, his conscience keeps knocking at the door with these thunderous heartbeats reminding him of what he did. Which is so utterly human. That, to me, was dramatic gold. When a character is hiding something so sinister behind such a beautiful, clean façade and it gradually eats away at her? That was kind of hard to resist. Once I thought up that scene, I knew exactly who I would cast and what kind of film I wanted to make.
What drives the passion behind ensuring this film and others you’ve made have a strong female presence?
Kevin: That’s such an interesting question to me. I’ve always enjoyed writing female characters more than men. I find them to be more complex and, generally, more fun to write. I wouldn’t necessarily label it a passion so much as I want to represent the world the way I see it. I don’t go out of my way to make my female characters the next John Wick or John McClane or John Anybody. I try to put them in human situations and let them be as messed up as the male characters, if not more so, and have them work their way through it the best they can.
You know, it was eye-opening at one of the first screenings of Heartless, an actress came up to me afterward and thanked me for writing the role. It kind of caught me off guard. But it got me thinking. How much of “character depth” in a film is just the fact that some characters make decisions and some don’t? For so long, there have been these female characters that wait at the door calling out to their husbands, “Be safe”, as the guys go off on their epic journeys. There’s no decision in that. Now, if she’s saying that line to her husband while she’s hiding the guy that her husband is going out to capture in her bedroom, well… now, that’s an interesting character and that’s something I wouldn’t mind writing.
What was it like working with Stacy Snyder again? A lot of directors have actors they enjoy working with on multiple projects, and vice versa – is that the relationship you feel you have going forward?
Kevin: What can I say about Stacy Snyder? She was such a find. Before Heartless, I had worked with her (as an Executive Producer) on a horror short called Feeding Time. I was actually in the room when she came in to audition, plying my trade as “the dude who stands in the corner anonymously filming auditions for the director”. But, even in the audition, I was so taken with her presence. She’s intense, professional, but amazingly personable. As soon as she left the room, everyone was in agreement, she had the part. Then I watched her on set and was so impressed. So, a year later, when I thought up the shot of the exec staring at her reflection, naturally it was Stacy. She’s just so damn likable on screen. And I knew that would be a nice quality to have for someone who has done what the main character of “The Tell-Tale Heart” has done. Then Stacy went out and absolutely nailed the role. So, yes, I look forward to working with her again and again. She’s so talented and a joy to work with. And, in “real life”, she’s a friend, so the future is looking bright.
Jen: I actually met Stacy on the set of Feeding Time and immediately thought, “she’s such a pro!” It’s been an absolute dream working with her on Heartless. During the shoot and after. She’s a super cool gal with an amazing talent. I think we’re gonna see really big things from her.
Heartless recently premiered at the Oxford Film Festival. How did you feel seeing it shown to other audiences?
Kevin: There’s nothing like it. When you’re on the festival tour you get to see your film in these great movie houses and it’s so awesome! We played another fest after Oxford called Nevermore and we screened in this incredible old movie house in Durham, NC – the Carolina Theater. The picture and sound were just amazing. Next, we’re playing the North Hollywood Cinefest and it will be showing on a massive screen in the Laemmle NoHo 7. I can’t wait for that! Film fests are the best. It’s such an unbelievable opportunity for short filmmakers to see their work on screens where national releases are shown. You don’t get that posting a vimeo link online. It’s such a cool experience. Then, the festival programmers are always so nice and such huge fans of film and filmmakers, it’s really inspiring. Plus, you get to interact with other filmmakers and audience members. It’s so cool. Oxford was great. Nevermore was great. It’s going to be a really, really fun tour!
What future projects have you got lined up with Sunshine Boy Productions?
Kevin: Well, I mentioned the three other shorts that we EP’d that are playing at the NoHo Cinefest. That’s really awesome and we can’t wait to see where each of those films go from here. I have a low-budget horror feature script that I’m finishing up at the moment and its one that I may get the opportunity to direct so I’m excited about that. I also just optioned a larger budget sci-fi script and the producers are attaching talent to take out to investors, so that’s all very exciting. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing a lot more of us in the future.
Again, thank you for doing this interview – would you like to plug yourselves and your film?
Kevin: Haha. I feel like that’s all I’ve been doing, man, but I’ll give it a shot. We think Heartless is a really cool contemporary take on a well-loved Edgar Allan Poe tale. We think Poe fans will dig it, horror fans will dig it and maybe even some non-horror fans will enjoy the ride, so check it out. We’re hoping to play a bunch of fests throughout the year so if you wanna keep up with all that stuff, follow us on social media for all the info. And, since that isn’t necessarily my skill set, I’ll kick it to Jen.
Jen: We love connecting with filmmakers and fellow indie film fans. We’re all over social media so you can catch us about anywhere. For all our projects www.sunshineboyproductions.com and for upcoming screenings for Heartless www.heartlessmovie.com I’m on social media @jensluder for FB, Twitter, Instagram and our company @SunshineBoyProductions for FB, Twitter, Instagram and for Heartless FB @HeartlessHorrorMovie, Twitter @HeartlessMovie_ Instagram @Heartless_Movie (just look for Stacy Snyder’s stone-cold killer face hehe). Cheers everyone and look forward to your tweets/comments!