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Interview: Alexandra West – Author (Films of the New French Extremity)

Alexandra West - Author Films of the New French Extremity    If there’s one thing horror fans love, it’s originality in our scares…if there’s another thing horror fans love just as much, it’s going behind the scenes. Whether we’re talking documentary films on the history of horror, or reference books going in depth on one specific genre or director, or just simply looking at the plethora of DVD extras so many of our favorites bring us, commentaries and behind the scenes footage and deleted scenes, it’s clear that we as horror fans always want more information. I’ve personally got a whole small bookshelf dedicated to the horror film reference books; Carol Clover is on there, Russ Meyer, John Waters, and I was happy to make room for Alexandra West.

Because the only thing greater than reading a book all about our favorite movies is reading a book all about a bunch of potential new favorites. And that is exactly what Alex West’s debut, Films of the New French Extremity, is all about.

This is a book that I was anxiously awaiting ever since I first heard the details of it, and it did not disappoint in the least. West has a conversational way of writing that feels like you’re having a conversation with a friend about movies. At the same time, she isn’t afraid to break the surface and dig deeper than simply pointing out what actors are in what film and what other work the director has previously done. No, instead we learn a little about the history of France and how the events of the past have created the current climate of which these films are responding to. We look further into the films, searching for meanings that aren’t necessarily spelled out for the audience. And we get a long list of movies to add to our “to be watched” list – I kept notes on my bookmark as I read, movies I needed to check out, and that list ended up longer than I expected.

Films of the New French ExtremityIf you enjoy intelligent, in-depth discussion of film, especially about French films, then Films of the New French Extremity is a must read. But don’t take my word for it – Alex was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about her book and about horror in general.

Horrornews.net: You are an accomplished podcast host, horror writer, and now author of a brand new book…but how did it all start? What got you into horror films, and then what got you into looking deeper and more critically at horror films than the average fan ever would?

Alexandra West: I started getting into horror films because I loved films and when I was little Disney princess movies were all the rage. While I enjoyed them I was always a little weirded out by how happiness seemed to be attained by getting a boy to like you. Around that same time (late 80s, early 90s) there were a ton of great films with a gothy-macabre bent like Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, Edward Scissorhands, and The Addams Family which I cut my teeth on and when I got a bit older (around 10 or so) I discovered slashers through films like Scream and my local video store.  It was like finding my people. I never looked back.

When I was in my teens my sister gave me a book that she found at a second hand store called Dread of Difference: Gender in the Horror Film which is a collection of essays about a variety of horror films and it really opened my eyes to the possibility of not just horror criticism but also film criticism.

HNN: Faculty of Horror is easily one of my top 3 favorite podcasts (of any kind, not just horror) because it is well researched, and intelligent, and organized, and fun, and…should I keep going? Anyway, how did you and Andrea (Subissati, co-host of the Faculty of Horror podcast) meet, and how did the podcast then come to be?

AW: Before I ever met Andrea, I heard her on another podcast and she was talking about feminism and horror and I can’t articulate how important that moment was for me. It was like all the things I had been thinking and feeling were being fully articulated by someone else which was incredibly powerful for me. We met shortly thereafter and almost immediately became friends. I was really getting into podcasts at this time in 2012 and I wasn’t finding a lot of female led podcasts and I brought up the idea to Andrea and she jumped on board. In December 2012 we recorded our first episode.

HNN: You just recently released the book Films of the New French Extremity, a book that covers a lot of territory. So, let’s say we’re at a party and it’s loud and I’m drunk and asking you what your book’s about and not able to understand clearly…how would you define what New French Extremity is and what films belong under that umbrella?

AW: In situations like that I’ve been saying the book is about “French horror films.” But if that doesn’t scare you away, I elaborate that it’s French films that are the opposite of films like Amelie and Before Sunset, films that explore the social and civil unrest in France which have plagued the country since its inception.

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HNN: What was the writing process for this book like? I assume there was a lot of serious movie watching involved, and I think I remember seeing a photo of a detective-style wall of notes outlining the book…

AW: When I approached my publisher McFarland about it, they were on board. That was in the Spring of 2015 and I said I could get them a completed manuscript by mid-November of that year. What followed was a crash course in French Extremity. I had my ideas and thesis but I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of fully familiarizing myself with the politics of France. I was watching and rewatching the movies throughout those months. I have a bookshelf in my bedroom the side of which faces my bed, so as I was mapping out the chapters in terms of content I would write them out on Post-It notes and stick them to the side of that bookshelf which faces my bed so every day I would have to look at it when I woke up. It was a little obsessive and a little serial killer chic but it worked! As I completed each chapter I would check-off the Post-It note. And since I’m superstitious I left the Post-Its up until I received the proofs back for the book. Ultimately it was a lot of discipline to write it, and while it could be lonely sometimes it was also one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

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HNN: I’m sure you already had a good handle on the subject French horror world going into your research, but did you learn anything surprising in your research for the book?

AW: I realized how little I knew about French history. I had a bit of knowledge from when I was in my pre-teens and I got really into Joan of Arc and read everything I could on her life. I think one of the most interesting periods of European history is when the Nazis occupied France which I had read up on in high school so I had some of the big brush strokes but I had to fill in a lot of the gaps, particularly in terms of beefing up my knowledge of the French Revolution, decolonization and the politics of the French film industry. I was inspired reading interviews with many of the filmmakers who saw making their films, which were at odds with what the rest of the Western world knew about France, as a radical act and they didn’t care who they pissed off in the process.

HNN: One of the (many) things I really like about Films of the New French Extremity is that you touch on the obvious films that horror fans expect to find in there – Martyrs, High Tension, etc – but you also delve into some less familiar territory, films by Marina de Van and Bruno Dumont and Catherine Breillat and others not as well known to the horror audience. Do you have favorites? A favorite movie and a favorite director of the bunch?

AW: I really fell in love with each and every movie in the book as I got to know them better. Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms is probably the most affecting films I’ve ever seen. It really felt like being dragged over the coals because it was so chaotic and powerful, but one I’ve returned to a lot in my mind is Baise-Moi because of its brutal social commentary. It took real guts to make that film (a lot of filmmakers have attempted to make something similar but don’t go anywhere near as far as Baise-Moi does). The directors Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi weren’t afraid of their subject matter and created something so singular and brutal that it’s untouchable. They are filmmakers who I admire not only because of their talent but also because of their lack of compromise.

HNN: Having now gone through the process, would you be interested in writing another book, be it non-fiction horror or something else? If so, do you have any ideas, anything you’ve already started working on?

AW: Absolutely! I’m taking a break from writing something of that size because I need to give my brain a chance to reboot and I want to make sure I can usher this one into the world but I have a topic in mind and I’m hoping to start work on it at the beginning of 2017.

HNN: I have become fascinated with the horror “scene” in Canada; all the film festivals and the fantastic movies being made there and the great horror writing coming from up north. Tell us about the Canadian horror scene – is it as amazing as it seems to someone who’s never crossed the border? (Feel free to drop as many names as you want)

AW: I feel insanely lucky to be Canadian and not just because of the universal health care. The Canadian film industry is a fascinating beast. There are and have been so many up and coming filmmakers in Canada that it feels like a secret club we get to say we’re part of. Everyone from Cronenberg to Ivan Reitman to Sarah Polley has done such interesting and varied things. But, as many of those filmmakers can attest, they’ve had to get funding via the Canadian government which is not always interested in funding genre films (Cronenberg ran into this in particular). A lot of classic slashers were shot up here because of the tax credit system which I think gave filmmakers a sense that they could develop a career out of horror. My friend Paul Corupe runs a great website called Canuxploitation (http://www.canuxploitation.com/) that details this movement really well. And because our dollar is lower in value than the American one we get lots of films that shoot up here so there are amazing crews and actors throughout the country. We’ve also got terrific film festivals like TIFF which has given many of the New French Extremity films their North American debut and others that have a genre film focus like Fantasia and Toronto After Dark among many others. There is a lot of stuff going on in the scene here. It’s exciting and exhausting at the same time but I’m very happy to be a part of it.

HNN: Wrapping things up, and speaking of horror in general, what are some things that are going on that make you happy to be a part of the big picture?

AW: I’m excited by the way I see different horror fans, writers, and creators crafting their own spaces. Obviously there are big horror institutions that a lot of us aspire to, but I get inspired seeing what people are creating among themselves to increase their representation or amplify different voices. It’s the way Faculty of Horror started and the way I’ve built my career. I think everyone is slowly grasping that an increased diversity in content creators leads to more exciting and dynamic content.

HNN: And finally, aside from the podcast, where else can people follow you, keep up with your writing, etc?

AW: The easiest way to follow me for what I’m doing now or any musings that pass through my head is Twitter, you can find me @ScareAlex.

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