Shook: interviews with Jen Harrington and Daisye Tutor
The tense-but-fun thriller Shook is making its way to Shudder very soon, and I had the opportunity to talk with the director and lead actress this week.
I met – virtually, of course – Jen Harrington first, who directed and co-wrote the film. After brief introductions, I told her I enjoyed the film a great deal, and that one of the aspects which impressed me most was the way the content of the screens Mia (the protagonist) used was presented: I got right inside her experiences as a result. I asked what it had been like directing a film with so many elements like that added separately. Jen answered, “We had to think about that a lot ahead of time actually. I first wrote the script fairly straightforward, as far as the social media element goes; and then afterward, looking through it realized there was so much of it in the film and that it has its own personality, and so decided it needed to have its own treatment in the film. I started thinking about how I would represent that in a way that was a little different and also said something, not just “a cool way to do it”. So that’s how we came up with the projection that we have and the idea that your whole world becomes whatever you’re looking at on the screen. If you’re looking at your phone, it doesn’t matter where you are: you’re in that phone. So we looked at blending both the virtual and “real life” together, as opposed to having just text on screen. For me, it was about how it feels: these two worlds exist together.”
That was interesting: I wondered if Jen was talking as much about the editing (her background) as the direction. I asked whether it was tricky wearing two separate “hats”. “I’ve been editing for a long time, so I do tend to write and direct as an editor, and a lot of what works for me comes from that frame of mind. I think it helps because it’s an indie film and we had a limited amount of time to shoot. So I was really able to think “this is what it looks like when it’s done and I won’t need the whole shot because we won’t use all of it”: that made the production more efficient.”
I asked next about the writing process. “Alesia [Glidewell] and Tara [producer Tara L. Craig] came up with the concept and then approached me to write the script and direct it. We started with the influencer world and the social media aspect and kind of went from there. It was the first time I’d written something which I’d not come up with on my own, but it was great, a real collaboration. I added my own ideas to their starting concept, brought those back to them and we talked about it; and that was nice because writing can be a lonely process. If you’re stuck in your own head, you can’t tell if the writing is any good; but writing with others like that meant I had people to bounce stuff off in progress, and that strengthened the process and the end result.”
Taking the conversation back to Shook, I asked what was probably a cheeky question: does Jen have something against dogs? Fortunately, she laughed: “No! I love dogs, I actually volunteer at a shelter. I came up with that part because I wanted to think of the worst thing ever: someone must be really messed up if that’s what they’re doing. I think it was right after we shot it that I read someone in the horror world had declared “stop killing dogs!” and I felt oh no! Hopefully, the way we’re using it in the film isn’t supposed to be too off-putting: you don’t see too much on the screen.” We chatted briefly about other films with unlucky dogs and Jen commented that it’s funny how some people are more sensitive about what happens to animals than to humans on screen, perhaps because they’re so defenseless.
It was actually quite a contrast: plenty of tech in the film, and a fluffy dog as another focal point. I asked which was easier to manage… another laugh! “They both had their challenges. I’d not worked with dogs as a filmmaker before, and the one we picked as our “star dog” was a brand new dog actor. She did well, but it was hard, took a lot of takes just to take her from A to B. She was super sweet but hard. As for the tech, a lot of the screens Mia was looking at were shot later, so the actors had to react to a blank screen, and we did the projection live while we were shooting. So that was part of the whole shoot, whereas the dog was only with us for two main days; tough but then done with.”
The Devil’s advocate in me brought out another cheeky question. The majority of both the filmmaking team and the cast were female: were they as bitchy to work with as they presented on screen? “No, not at all! Honestly, I love working with women: they’re actually the calmest set, relaxed and the egos go away. You don’t get a lot of the posturing and politics, “your job, not mine” kind of tension that can often occur in the industry. It becomes very collaborative: I find if something needs to be found or done, we don’t need to rely on exactly the person whose job it is, but anyone will step up and help out. It was actually really wonderful.”
Having asked her feeling towards dogs, I had to also ask whether Jen had any problems with siblings. It’s fascinating to see how varied the sibling relationship is across many films I’ve seen (though they’re usually brothers, such as in Good Time and Goodnight Mommy), and it must be a tricky one to get right; in Shook, it was a painful one, right from the start. “I’m always fascinated with family relationships in general, and a lot of my scripts explore this, whether parents or siblings: these are the ones you have the longest and they tend to be the most complicated with a lot of things that go unsaid, obligations, resentment and so on. In this film, we looked at the issue of whose obligation it is to look after someone who becomes sick, and what obligations are there just because people are related. At what point do you have to give up something from their lives because something goes wrong for your mom or your sister? I thought it was interesting because you can curate and edit your online persona, and it can be a good way to ignore what’s going on in your own life that you don’t like. I think a lot of people don’t just create that persona but dive right into it, and it’s interesting to combine that with something that you really can’t escape: your family. It’s always there, along with complicated feelings.”
I asked how Jen feels about Shook reaching its audience via Shudder from next week onwards. “I’m really excited about that. I think Shudder has been such an incredible thing for genre movies in general, elevating how people see genre films. It’s given a platform that enables people to see them differently, and not just categorizing them like “that’s horror, I wouldn’t watch that”. They have such a huge range, and there’s history and basically a whole film education via their film categories. It’s pretty awesome to end up there.”
So where is Jen Harrington going next? “Well I sold a script last year to Jake Kasdan and Sony, so hopefully there’ll be news about that soon. And I’m working on another script right now with a different-ish style: much more humor and gross horror.” We were tempted to debate genre labels but had to leave that for some other time.
Next, Daisye Tutor who played Mia, the central character, came on to talk to me. I asked something that had been on my mind while watching Shook: what was it like being the only person on the screen for so much of the film? “I was the only person on the screen and, for the majority of shooting, the only actress on set as well; so it was me and the entire crew. This was something I’d not experienced before, such a lot of time carrying the movie as a lead. So I was excited and energized, but it was a lot of work: the amount of emotional stress that Mia goes through during the course of this film is something that I definitely took on, and I was very tired at the end of every filming day.”
Presumably, Daisye had to imagine the people her character was talking to, as well? “Yeah, though often it was Jen reading those parts off the script, and she and I had sat down and discussed what was going to be happening, that I’d be the only one there, that they probably wouldn’t have the voice-overs ready for me. We went through Mia’s journey, and what she’d be experiencing, so she made sure I was fully prepared. A lot of the acting was done directly to the director, which was great: Jen is amazing, such an encouraging director. The team in general was incredible. The cinematographer and I developed a great relationship because it was mainly just me and the camera, and he was able to give me the confidence that I was seeking, considering this was the first time I was a lead and I wanted to make sure I was carrying the film and presenting Mia in the way she needed to be presented.
“Our shoot dates only came to thirteen days, which was pretty intense, very fast-moving, and everyone was on top of their games. The production value for the film has got me so impressed, the text on the wall as I go down the stairs, and so on. We had to figure that out on the day of shooting, as we were going, and everyone was just ready to make art: it was so fun!”
I’m not terribly familiar with beauty influencers (too old for YouTube!) so asked Daisye did she think it was a realistic portrayal of that world or a caricature? “Like you, I feel like I’m on the outside of the internet circle of influencers and content makers. There are people who sit at home and make videos all day with alter egos for their fans online. For me was the biggest challenge, getting inside that mindset: why would you want legions of fans? To get into Mia’s head, I had to do some research online and found some make-up artists on YouTube who have thousands of followers. I did a deep dive into all their pages and thought about how I could capture that life. I tried to have as realistic a portrayal as I could, but did add a caricature spin to it as well: it is the craziest world. You ask a kid on the street what they want to be when they grow up and they say a YouTuber! It’s such a new phenomenon and I wanted to show that under a microscope.”
The opening scene – I won’t describe what happens, but if you’ve seen it, I’m talking about the stiletto – made me expect something gorier later on. I asked Daisye whether she’d like to carry on with horror and do something more extreme, and it turns out she already has: “So I do have a project I’ve just wrapped on in which my arms and legs get chopped off. That’s gore to the extreme, and quite fun for me: you have to take on experiences and emotions that you might – hopefully – never experience in real life. Plenty of special effects, fake blood; but I made the mistake of wearing my very nice Aloe sweatshirt to work one day and it was covered in fake blood when I got home, and so decided I need a separate wardrobe for when I’m working on horror films, because it’s messy, messy work.” I’ll remember this when I watch Angel of Death.
So I asked Daisye if she’d like to play a villain one day? “I’d love to play a villain. I think I’m still getting there, but yeah that would be so much fun. I’ve had a couple of auditions for the “evil girl” type roles and I like that: it’s very different to who I am, so I get to embody a different personality completely.”
Moving back to the themes in the current film, Shook, I asked Daisye which is more important: friends or family? “That’s a tough question! I’d say personally it’s family, but there have been times when friends come first: it’s kind of a cycle. I don’t know at all what I’d do faced with Mia’s dilemmas, but I think I’d choose my family.”
I commented that at times it was difficult to tell how trustworthy Mia’s friends were. “Yeah, Jen did an incredible job with creating the interesting characters to be Mia’s circle, who really are kind of suss. I’ve lived in LA for about six years and you see people that you run into all the time in Mia’s friends. They seem like they’re fully on your team and then they’d throw you under a bus for a blog, or an Instagram video.”
I asked what it had been like working in lockdown conditions. “It’s been strange, and sometimes hard to keep a positive outlook. I was scheduled to be shooting last year, but of course: the pandemic happened. In uncertain times, the sets got shut down, everything closed completely and I was lucky enough to work on a couple of films, which was kind of energizing as an actress to get my hands dirty for that brief time. But you know, we’re all just navigating things, keeping everybody’s safety in mind. I’m young enough to be able to bounce back if I got COVID, but I’d hate to pass it on to someone less resilient. Hopefully, we’ll find a great working way without doing nasal swabs with every walk onto set!”
Daisye then told me about a TV show that she’s been involved with: “We’ve shot four episodes, but it was put on hold before the other six could be made. It’s like The Office, almost “found footage” style, with strange quirky characters. It’s called The Car Lot, really silly and I play a car salesman. It’s been written and directed by Mark Brown, so it’s a very exciting prospect, but as I say on hiatus for now: just need to get those last six episodes shot.”