Alexandra West is one of my favorite people in the world. Granted, I’ve never actually met her in person, and have only spoken with her over email and Messenger a handful of times, but I’ve been listening to the podcast she co-hosts with Andrea Subissati for over a year, now. The Faculty of Horror (FoH) isn’t just your typical horror podcast. Alex and Andrea pick apart with microscopic detail and analyze some of the greatest genre movies. The way these two breakdown a film like, let’s say, Gremlins, is art in and of itself. I guarantee you will see these films in a completely different light after listening to these two dissect them. You can listen to my interview with Andrea here.
Alex’s book, Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity was released in May of 2016 to critical acclaim. She got her start by interviewing bands and reviewing albums in her hometown of Toronto, and has written about genre films for The Toronto Star, Rue Morgue Magazine and Offscreen Film Journal. She regularly contributes to Shock Till You Drop, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Diabolique.
What got you into the horror genre in the first place?
For little girls growing up, Disney princesses are where it’s at or at least where we’re directed, and I never really connected with them. Narratives about women connecting with men as an end game never appealed to me. Luckily, I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s so there was a lot of weird stuff out there – from Tim Burton’s early work, to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to Drop Dead Fred. I always liked off-kilter stuff because it felt like the most honest. I liked seeing people confused and scared because it was something I could relate to. Having all your problems solved by getting married seemed deeply irrelevant to me. When I saw Scream, it was probably the year after it came out and I could see it on VHS, Sidney Prescott was the character I had been waiting all my short life to see. She was scared but independent and ultimately very strong. That’s what set me on the path to watching every slasher film I could and branching out into horror in general.
I am a lover of theatre, and actually write musicals. Andrea (I think) told me you had a bit of a theatre background. Tell me about that?
I do! I did my undergrad and Masters degree in Theatre and worked in the industry on and off while I was doing those programs but essentially, upon completing my MA, I just had no interest or energy to pursue theatre in any capacity so I took a lot of what I learned in terms of analysis and research and applied it to what I really loved which was film, especially horror films.
Could you expand upon this? Specifically the analysis and research part.
When I was in my undergrad and MA degree the expectations were that you would spend half your time on a project doing research, reading and seeking anything you could get on the topic before sitting down to write the essay. If I was researching a Shakespeare play to write a paper on it, I would start with the historical background, production history of the play, the culture of the time, reviews it received, its genre, and any controversies that surrounded it. I apply those same tactics to anything I write about now because nothing exists in a vacuum. There are many outside forces that influence and impact it, and my understanding those elements helps to inform my take on it and gives me the research to help back it up.
Why did you two decide to start a podcast?
Back in 2012 when we started, podcasts were still just becoming a thing and while I was getting into them I wasn’t hearing voices that I could easily identify with reflected, so that was part of the impetus to start FoH. Also, I was just becoming friends with Andrea and had the biggest friend crush on her but she was so busy (and still is), so our monthly FoH recording session was also our opportunity to catch up and hang out.
Tell me a little about the book. What is it about French Extremity films that made you decide to write a book about them?
They were films I couldn’t shake. Seeing them, they stayed with me not only because they were shocking and dealt with explicit materials but because there was an ideology that I couldn’t place working through them. I have written a few articles on them, but I wanted to explore them in an in-depth way, and a book made the most sense to me.
For you to invest such a large amount of time and energy into a project, what is it about that ‘thing’ that needs to grab your attention?
It needs to stay with me. And I can’t be able to explain it right away. Part of the process in writing for me is taking an idea that seems insurmountable and distilling it down so it’s understandable. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with me, they know where I’m coming from.
Tell me about your writing process. For some people, something as silly as the setting needs to be just right. Are you constantly jotting notes in your phone or a notebook? How long did it take you to write the book?
It took me about eight months to write the book, keeping in mind I used the first few months for research and had done research on the topic prior to writing the book. I’m big on organization, so I try to keep everything to one notebook per project and my online draft and notes contained and organized on my computer. I also have post-it notes on my wall outlining all the chapters that I tick off as I go through them. I’m very methodical when it comes to process, but that’s because it puts me at ease and sets me up to be the best writer I can be.
What are you working on now? What type of research are you doing?
I’m working on my second book about the 1990s teen horror cycle – before Scream and after Scream. I started by doing a lot of general research about the history of the 1990s and North America in general, which has led me in certain directions. Then I research the particular films that I’m writing on and themes that come up within it. (i.e. if I’m writing about The Rage: Carrie 2, I’m also reading up on the Spur Posse whose actions inspired the film)
Has there been anything shocking (good or bad) that you’ve discovered while doing research for your new book?
I’ve done a lot of reading and writing about Clintons working on the new book and I feel like I’ve gotten a much clearer picture of them. While Bill did some awful, unforgivable things, it became clear to me how much Hillary Clinton has had to go through – things I’m sure she didn’t agree with or felt comfortable doing, but her whole career she was criticized for not being something – not feminine enough, too bossy, too unlikeable. She was put in situations that rendered her silent. She did all of this so she could run for President and make real and progressive change in the US while understanding what the job of the President is. And throughout that whole campaign she was dragged but she kept her head up and did, what I thought, was an exceptional job.
Are you a goal oriented person? Do you have any long term plans?
I’m deeply goal oriented; it’s what works for me and what keeps me motivated. My last couple long term plans have involved my books but after that, I don’t know. I like to give myself downtime in between projects to rest and reset, but my current goals are to keep everything I have going on still going.
What motivates you? For anyone struggling to make a creative breakthrough, do you have any advice?
Sit in yourself and be honest with yourself. If you feel frustrated and overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, take a beat. And that beat could be a few seconds, or a day, or a week. Be honest with yourself and ask yourself what you want to do and be honest with how you can get there. For me, it’s making lists, getting organized so I know where I’m headed, which all frees up space in my brain to think and write creatively.
If anything, what breaks your heart about the entertainment business today? Any suggestions on how to possibly fix that?
That it’s still so dominated by the white cis boys club – a club that will protect people like Woody Allen, Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski but will not deign to give people of color, women or the LGBTQ community the same protection. Yes, there are films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures which seem to break through, but they have to be the best of the best. Meanwhile film studios are happy to drop a billion dollars on films like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Anyone outside of this aforementioned boys club has to prove themselves again and again.
The best ways I’ve seen to overcome that is to call it out and to support people who are calling it out. It’s an industry that has existed for a century so unfortunately, change won’t come overnight. But if we stick with it and support each other, I hope we’ll see continued change for the better.
Are you happy with where the horror genre is right now? Where would you like to see it go it the coming years?
Everything comes in ebbs and flows so it’s a bit hard to say. I’m very lucky to live in a major city which has multiple film festivals so I can see films that come through the festival circuit with a lot of hype. I think there are some really interesting indie filmmakers, and the last few years I’ve had some really surprising moments watching horror films, which is amazing. Every time I think I’ve seen it all, I’m surprised, which is what keeps me coming back for more.
What makes a great movie?
A great movie is a combination of well drawn characters who inform a narrative, and a creative team which realizes this narrative in an appropriate way which can be anything from extreme realism to hyper expressionism. One of the last movies I saw that I really enjoyed was Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother. It’s incredibly stylized but grounded in a story which kept me guessing. All the elements of the film informed other elements in a really satisfying way. It also came in at a lean hour and fifteen minutes, which I appreciated. It’s rare these days to see a film that knows when exactly its finished its story and not drag it out for the sake of proving something stylistically.
I want to thank Alex for taking some time to talk to me. Please pick up her book, Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, and head to facultyofhorror.com for one of the greatest horror podcasts out there.