FILMMAKER Chelsea Lupkin joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her short film Lucy’s Tale, body horror, working with Irina Bravo and much more.
Q: Lucy’s Tale is the story of a schoolgirl dealing with bullies, a boy and body insecurity. What inspired you to write and tell this tale?
A: I always found coming-of-age stories compelling and it’s one of the few genres that have spoken to me as a creator.
That said, I recently came to the realization that I should be making films that I like to watch. For me, that meant also diving into the fantastical and dark worlds of horror and science fiction. I believe that the best horror stories are grounded in reality and I love when I can convince an audience that “this could happen to you!”. In my opinion, a great horror is one that disguises a real issue with relatable characters that you grow to care about. Ultimately, Lucy’s coming-of-age story is also her supernatural origin story.
Q: What is it about the experience of female adolescence that lends itself so well to exploration through body horror?
A: WHEN girls hit puberty, there’s a whole mess of confusing things to worry about: We get our period, our boobs get bigger, our hips get wider, we get too tall or not tall enough. We suddenly worry about what we look like to boys and how we are perceived by our peers.
When writing Lucy’s Tale, I explored the societal pressures of looking and behaving a certain way and thought of them as rules that my character should break in a fantastical way. So while Lucy was faced with entering her womanhood, she was ultimately also coming into her villain-hood, being supernaturally different than the other girls her age.
Frankly, I’ve always been a champion of fantastic stories, especially those about characters who had physical manifestations of their flaws or internal state of being. Body horror gave me an avenue to tackle the very real and relatable issue of puberty, which is a horror in and of itself.
Q: Please tell us more about the tail – why you chose it over other body transformations and how is worked practically?
A: THROUGHOUT history, female sexuality has been perceived as inherently evil. Particularly in Norwegian folklore, I read about beautiful creatures that looked like women, who would lure men into the woods to suck the life out of them. They also happen to hide tails under their skirts, and thus sparked the idea for Lucy’s body transformation.
Disfigurement has long been associated with evil and social exclusion – monsters or demons are often portrayed as ugly creatures with ill intent. Sometimes these disfigured characters are naturally disfigured and sometimes that disfigurement happens upon them by outside forces, like the mean acts of teenage girls coupled with something supernatural.
But Lucy isn’t really a villain or the one to blame for what’s happening to her, is she? Lucy’s transformation is a byproduct of her social status and stunted sexual growth, giving birth to the telekinetic powers and its hideous physical side effect. When Lucy finally accepts herself for who and what she is, her tail is fully grown and she has come into her female sexuality.
To pull off the visuals, we resorted to practical effects. A huge horror fan and a veteran in special effects fabrication and design, Anthony Giordano was our secret weapon. We took Irina Bravo (Lucy) to his shop in New Jersey and began the tedious and hilarious process of creating a custom tail just for her. He made a casting from her spine in order to build the various stages of each tail. Finally, we had the fortune of bringing on Paul Mason, who applied all of the tails on set. Both he and Anthony puppeteered the final scene.
Q: Irina Bravo leads a brilliant cast. What did Irina bring to the character of Lucy and the project more generally?
A: THE film’s producer, Sarah Kalagvano, really took charge of the casting process and saw something special in Irina. I remember how excited Sarah was when we watched her reel and finally met her in person at a small taco joint in midtown. What was the most special was that Irina was the only principle cast member who didn’t know the other actors because I thought it would be smart to actually have a lead who was an outsider like Lucy.
The rest of the cast was then pulled from my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, where they studied and worked together for four years. The chemistry of the actors was therefore real in every way!
Irina’s talent truly shined in her silent scenes. For the most part, the script was very tricky because Lucy doesn’t have many lines, but Irina absolutely lit up on camera. I remember how many questions she asked me to really understand who her character was and I think she really became Lucy, diving into her brain.
Q: Can you tell us about your approach as a director and the people – like creative producer Sarah Kalagvano – that you try to surround yourself with?
A: SARAH is a ROCK STAR. We really hit it off while working on a very stressful shoot together and I knew she was someone I wanted to surround myself with. Knowing her creative background and seeing how organized she was in comparison to my disorganized self, I asked her to read my script.
Correction: I cornered her and demanded that she read my script! Thankfully, she dug it and the task of pulling off the production in only three months was attainable. She even got her parents to location scout with her, which is absolutely adorable and a testament to her dedication to get it right!
I always try to surround myself with passionate and ambitious people who believe in the projects they work on. While we only had a handful of people work on Lucy’s Tale, everyone brought exceptional talent to the production and it wouldn’t have been a success without them.
I’ll admit I’ve never been asked to explain my approach to directing and it’s quite hard to put into words. I grew up participating in theater and found a knack for cinematography once I moved to New York City. When it comes to directing, it’s my job to be able to communicate a cohesive vision across the board, so I work with everyone in a very collaborate way.
While I have a vision, I also believe in the team I bring on and trust them to also bring something extra to the table. Working with my cinematographer, Jason Krangel, was a dream because we create on the same wavelength, have similar taste, and he informed quite a bit of my style in earlier years.
When directing actors, I tend to have conversations about what characters are feeling, their motivations, and how best to convey that on camera. The film’s antagonist, played by Mary Nepi, was particularly receptive to this style of directing and she really personified her character. I also have a tendency to act out line delivery and try to come up with different ways of performing with them. Again, it’s a very collaborative space.
Q: The poster for Lucy’s Tale is brilliant. Who put it together?
A: VERONICA Ettman, a graphic designer I met through shooting grassroots drifting in New Jersey, called Club Loose, is low key famous. The amount of cover art she designed for the Universal Music Group is astounding. I can guarantee you’ve seen her work and will be equally impressed. I ended up asking her to design the poster because I knew she’d make it kickass – she did.
Q: We heard about the film through Fantasia. How was your experience in Montreal? Were there any films you were particularly impressed by?
A: TO have a world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival was overwhelmingly exciting and humbling. I knew the festival was a big deal in the genre scene, but I didn’t realize that the Born of Woman shorts program was particularly coveted. Just being able to screen with such powerful films, like Nose Nose Eyes and Petite Avarie, was a trip. Being able to meet a handful of those filmmakers was equally inspiring and I look forward to following their work.
The film festival experience was intense and I quite literally talked myself horse meeting filmmakers, horror fans, producers, and curators. The biggest takeaway, is that I know what’s going to come next and that a feature is eventually in my future.
Q: I believe you work with the team at ShortoftheWeek.com. Why do you believe in short film, especially in an age of endless content on Netflix and YouTube?
A: YES! I’m a contributor and writer for Short of the Week. To me, short films are our current reality and I love them dearly. When I watch a great short film, it feels like a bigger payoff than sitting through a long feature film.
Being a fan of short stories, I’m always impressed with how storytellers can convey so much in such a little time frame. As tools and skills become more accessible, the films become more impressive. I’m particularly excited when a science fiction comes through Short of the Week and the production value is so great, that you forget that you aren’t sitting in a movie theater experiencing it.
Q: Do you plan on making more short films? If so, are there any themes or subjects you would love to tackle?
A: OF course I plan on making more short films – they are lovely little slices of filmmaking! That said, I feel like I’ve just tapped the surface of my love of horror and science fiction. With that as a jumping off point, I plan to make more films with female central characters in those genres. I’m currently writing a short and one feature script at the moment, but obviously the latter will take some time.
Q: I know you worked for MTV in the past. Can you tell us more about your background and how you have developed as a storyteller?
A: HOW much time do you have? Here’s the cliff notes: I didn’t go to film school, instead studying fine art at Carnegie Mellon University where I learned to not take criticism personally and that filmmaking was my calling. I was able to later capitalize on the wonderful School of Drama once I realized how to use video cameras.
Once I graduated I started to learn more about filmmaking, shooting drifting at Englishtown Raceway Park upon my boyfriends insistence. He seemed to think I’d be good at it! From there, I knew someone who knew someone, who knew someone at MTV and I was given an opportunity to work with amazingly talented people. I like to think MTV was like glorified grad school for me, where I had a crash course in everything production. I was shooting comedy sketches, interviews, live music shows, and generally soaking in every piece of knowledge I could.
If those experiences helped me figure out how to be a visual storyteller, working at Short of the Week helped me figure out how to be a writer. In short, filmmakers can submit their films and request feedback on the site, which forced me to think critically about what made films successful. The more I was essentially teaching someone, the more I was learning for myself as a byproduct. After a few years, I was ready to start writing. I’m certainly not perfect at it, but I’ve come to realize my voice.
Q: I noticed you have a credit on Robot and Frank. Any memories from that project that you can share?
A: THE most important one! I met Anthony Giordano on the set of Robot & Frank, who would later be my special effects artist for Lucy’s Tale. I vaguely remember being a fresh out of college, know-it-all, annoyance to him but we eventually bonded over our love of horror. As his assistant on set, I remember working closely with him and the actress who wore the robot suit that he was responsible for. All things happen for a reason, eh?
Q: Lastly, what do you hope people take away from Lucy’s Tale?
A: YOU saved the hardest question for last, I see.
I hope people realize how much they can affect others as a takeaway. After all, bullying, body insecurity, and abandonment served as a catalyst for Lucy’s supernatural happenings. Furthermore, women can be hard on each other and sex can be scary if you lack the confidence.
But ultimately, I hope people realize that they should embrace who they were meant to be, even if that means the are the bad guy. That last bit comes from my love for the macabre and a good villain.