Interview: Karen Walton

Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps, a small and relatively independent Canadian horror film, became this country’s first major franchise for the new millennium, and rightfully so.  Shot in and around the Greater Toronto Area, this tale of two death obsessed and very close sisters coping with one of them becoming a lycanthrope became not only one of the most memorable films of the past twenty years to come out of Canada, but it endures largely on the strength of the material that still plays remarkably well today without feeling dated. It’s one of the best werewolf films ever created anywhere, and one of the most intriguing and surprisingly emotional coming of age tales to boot.

A lot of the success of the then controversially Telefilm funded $5 million production comes from not only the talented leads (Emily Perkins as the kindly sister trying to help her changing titular sister, played by Katharine Isabelle embodying the ultimate nightmare of puberty), but from director John Fawcett and his writer Karen Walton. It was a job that Walton – who will be presenting the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Halloween night at 8:00pm and part of the Canadian Open Vault series – almost didn’t take.

Hesitant at first to work on a horror film due to the genre’s generally low opinion of both storytelling and its aditude towards female characters, it took some convincing on the part of Fawcett to make her see that Ginger Snaps was going to be a different kind of film. Not the cheapie slasher that some feared was being a waste of Telefilm funds that could have gone to “worthier” projects, and a marked step away from the kind of self-reflexive “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” tone that was cropping up in the wake of the successful Scream franchise in the States, Ginger Snaps wasn’t just a groundbreaking success because the leads happened to be teenage girls, but because their trials were framed in such a light that it all seemed terrifyingly believable and sympathetic.

During a break from her current work on the hit TV series Orphan Black – another series currently raising the bar for female characters in genre based entertainment – Walton chatted with us about the long life her first feature film has been blessed with, why her initial hesitation to write the film seems somewhat silly in hindsight, how hard it can be to be honest in horror movies, and why she’s moved by the analysis the film has received over the years.

Dork Shelf: Several years ago I was asked to take a poll by a place I was working for of what people thought was the best Canadian film of all time, and Ginger Snaps was the fourth highest vote getter…

Karen Walton: Oh my goodness! Oh my gosh!

DS: It wasn’t a poll where we gave people choices because the goal was to see what titles were the most memorable. It was just for any Canadian film regardless of genre or theme or whatever. Then for the same company I was asked to do the same sort of thing, but the question was what the best coming of age film was and Ginger Snaps came in 9th or 10th among Canadians who responded, again without any choices.  While I love the film, I think there’s something that has to be said about just how well this film has endured. I know when you write something, if you’re doing it right and putting your heart into it, you always write something so it will last and stick around, but have you ever noticed that this film seems to be in some ways still growing in terms of its reputation even today?

KW: Absolutely. I’m always amazed and delighted by the afterlife of Ginger Snaps. I’m obviously thrilled, and maybe thanks to the internet and third, fourth, fifth, and sixth kinds of viewing windows has definitely helped to ensure the longevity of the film. It’s just delightful and so encouraging in terms of Canadian film. Very encouraging.

DS: And I think that when Ginger Snaps came out it was a really opportune time where VHS was just at the end and DVD was just starting to come in, and it was one of the last real movies that were part of a culture where teenagers would actually be able to watch with their friends in someone’s basement. It was at the time when these kinds of movies still weren’t as available to people as easily and watching these kinds of movies were still a bit of a communal experience. And that used to be how these kinds of films sort of gained their legend.

Karen WaltonKW: That could be. That could be part of it, but it definitely skewed to a pretty wide audience age-wise. I remember going to the premiere at TIFF in 2000 and being amazed at how many really well rounded film fans had made it a point to make time for the movie and to come up to us after that mad dash to let us know how important the film felt to them. So it was a movie that was designed pretty much for anyone but horror fans in terms of the design, so it’s always a big surprise for me thinking about that and the longevity of the film, and especially now looking at who those audiences have become. The age range for Ginger Snaps is as big as you want it to be and as big as you could hope, and that’s really nice. It’s unexpected but really delightful.

DS: I think when you go into something like Ginger Snaps there always has to be a kind of hesitation, and I had read and heard that you yourself needed a bit of convincing and were a bit apprehensive before tackling the material. Looking back on it now, do those apprehensions seem silly to you or do you think they were necessary for the film to become what it was?

KW: Well, actually in hindsight, as with many things that people look back on, my apprehensions in many cases were ridiculous. (laughs) By the same token, that’s really indicative of any artist really starting out. Ginger was my first feature film, and so of course writers are always the first to complain about whatever boxes they find themselves being put into, or how their told when they are breaking in to address market concerns rather than their own interests and whatnot. So as an artist, what I see in hindsight is just how fast I was to put myself in my own little box and narrow what I was looking at and what I was thinking about rather than addressing what the story should have been about. With Ginger it really opened me to those things that I don’t know about, and really that’s the passion that’s carried me and the lesson that was most valuable. I think really long before saying no to anything no matter how remote it might seem from my own tastes and interests. That was a big, big learning curve for me as a writer and an artist and producer. I learned a lot through the process of Ginger Snaps because I didn’t think I was the right writer at the time, but if it wasn’t for doing it, I wouldn’t have learned what I know now about myself as a voice and as a professional. I learned to not prejudge what a concept could or should be, and that’s an important rule to learn. I think I have a career because of that decision.

And a lot of that’s to John Fawcett’s credit for keeping after me. He was so patient in terms of me developing, and allowing me to grow along with Ginger Snaps. I was actually pretty unfamiliar with contemporary cinema at the time, especially with regard to what was possible in terms of horror. I had some extremely adolescent ideas from the 80s of what a horror film was, and therefore based on that my first reaction was “I’m pretty sure I know what that is and I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t write it.” (laughs) It just wasn’t my flavour or the kind of film that I could really support. But the most absolutely wonderful thing about horror cinema is that as soon as you say that, you realize you are only limiting yourself and not the cinema. Especially when it comes to genre it leaves almost every possible door open, and that was the real discovery for me with Ginger Snaps. John was pushing me constantly to make sure it was a movie that I could enjoy.

DS: I watched it again for the first time in about five or six years last night, but one of the things I think that makes it something people want to come back to or discover for the first time, is that it has a very unique female perspective, but aside from the werewolf thing, the problems they face are timeless. And that’s kind of a lost art today to create something that’s a genre film based more in reality than genre clichés. Ginger Snaps really lands on the right side of that fine line because these problems are coming from two characters who were their own individuals despite being really close to each other. Was there ever when you were making a film like this for a commercial audience where you had to actually convince people you were going in the right direction with the material?

KW: No, never. Thankfully it was such an artist driven, independent film that we were people who wanted to partner with people who actually got it and could understand it. We wanted people who could carefully steward the opportunity to make the film in a way that we wanted to make it. We really just wanted to say what we wanted to say and present the characters that we wanted to present. No, we didn’t have those ever present Hollywood trappings of a behind the scenes struggle to ever get the film to screen how we wanted it to screen. That wasn’t the case.

For us it was really more about holding each other true to the vision, and we all enjoyed that immensely. We were all very lucky that early on we could just say “This is the tone. These are the characters. This is the message, and this is what we want to say.” We had a great amount of success staying true to John’s original vision and the screenplay as it was. We had that luxury because it really was our project and no one else’s going into it.

DS: It still surprises me watching the film just how much growing up hasn’t changed at all, really.

KW: It’s a universal biological thing. We all know it because we all lived it. How could you not know adolescence? Adolescence for both women and men have a few fundamental conflicts for everyone, and I like to think I was pretty smart about all the things people see in the film, and I am so grateful for all the really thoughtful analysis that’s come as a result of the film with regards to gender, sex, and adolescence, and so on. And that’s great because at the time I was really just writing from my heart. I did not enjoy being a teenage girl, so I think that’s what most informed the creation of this. (laughs) These girls are very much in part many of my own adolescent experiences, and it’s no real coincidence because I’m really not all that special. I just kind of love that this time in my life has struck a cord with some really cool people. (laughs) I feel really lucky about that. I wasn’t purposefully angling it so that everyone would get it, because that would have once again been some kind of market driven, Machiavellian products. It wasn’t ever going to be created that way. It was going to come from our heart and the joy we were going to take in transforming what would be these typical everyday experiences and turning them into a nightmare. That was the first note I wrote down in my notebook, right at the top when writing this. “Being a teenage girl is a nightmare.” And that was what was true for me and what I infused both of the characters with; their just utter contempt for the situation they find themselves in. (laughs)

DS: It sounds like you were kind of taken aback by the number of people who have analyzed the film over the years, because as a writer myself I love to analyze horror films. I can’t think of another genre outside of documentaries and musicals that are as fascinating and as spot on of a reflection of the time they are made in than horror films. And if they aren’t a reflection of the fears of a specific time period, they are definitely borne from something far more personal, like Ginger Snaps was. And that seems like a harder film to make because there might be more of a temptation to mask what’s going on.

KW: I think you’re absolutely right. You know, it’s always hard to just be honest, especially when you want to tell a story and just hope that other people will care about it enough to get through it. It’s always most challenging to be true to yourself and to tell a story the way you want to tell it and with the ending that you could relate to. It’s always a risk. It’s even like that on Orphan Black, because it’s all about creating the stories that you yourself would want to go and see. We lucked out on Ginger Snaps because we had that combination of talent and wherewithal to allow ourselves to do that. To me, that’s the whole point of making movies. You put together a band that plays the kind of music that you really, really, really want to hear over and over again, and with Ginger I completely lucked out that John Fawcett saw me as someone who could play in a band like that.

It was wonderful to learn all of these things about myself and about genre, and the one wonderful thing, particularly with horror cinema in general, is when you do it right it always sounds like it’s coming from a specific voice at a specific time that’s very honestly trying to move people with the story you’re telling while including all the stuff that’s titillating and enticing and exciting things that horror movies are supposed to do. It’s not an excuse to get to a killing as a goal. The goal while I’m writing should be to give them enough passage to make sure they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. (laughs) I’m so grateful for any time someone can devote two hours to any of my work at this point in today’s society, so I take that privilege very seriously, and I want people to have a good time, and I want them to do what I do when I have a good time, which is to make noise or just feel rapt or have some sort of reflection on the experience.