Director Natasha Kermani and writer-star Brea Grant discuss their slasher horror-comedy Lucky, a film that makes the horrific impact of daily microaggressions visible. This is part of our coverage of the Fantasia Festival.
What if you had a stalker who tried to kill you every night? And when you tell your husband, he responds, exasperated, that of course you do? That’s the premise of Natasha Kermani’s new film, Lucky, with a script by the film’s star, Brea Grant, which is equal parts funny, creepy, and wise.
When May (Brea Grant) is awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of someone breaking into her house, she wakes up her husband (Dhruv Uday Singh). When he tells her, with bored seriousness (and great deadpan from Singh) that, of course, it’s the man who breaks into their house every night to try to kill them, she’s not sure she heard him right — or that she’s even awake. Neither are we, and this moment was my first big laugh of the film, feeling equal parts extremely amused and absolutely terrified that someone would make light of something that horrifying. With a score that occasionally evokes the shower scene from Psycho, we’re primed to expect a straightforward slasher film, though the humour tips us off that there may be more going on beneath the surface.
As the slasher’s presence becomes a nightly ritual, May not only gets good at quickly murdering him herself, but it becomes rote. At the beginning of the film, May dutifully calls the police each night to report a crime. But when the body disappears each night, they offer little help, and start to treat her like she’s crazy. So eventually, she just sticks to fending him off. The ordeal of an ordinary woman fighting for her life nightly, only to end up covered in someone else’s blood, starts to feel routine.
The indifference of the world to May’s struggle, and the fact that she can’t really tell anyone about it makes it feel all too real. Living under patriarchy can feel like death by a thousand papercuts, an extreme annoyance that wears you down but is invisible to everyone else. What Lucky does is take this up a notch, suggesting that facing misogyny isn’t just a minor annoyance, but a literal fight for your life (and sense of self) on a daily basis, for which there is no reward and no reprieve. It’s not coincidence, then, that May never actually removes her stalker’s mask until the very end, because he could be anyone. The problem with patriarchy is never just one bad egg; it’s systemic, and so is May’s struggle to survive in her own home. In the film’s final act, Grant opens the story up more, bringing in other women, other victims, and extending her metaphor to a problem that is much bigger than May’s individual struggle.
The horror of the slasher film is usually visceral. As Grant commented to me, what woman hasn’t been followed by a man who scared her? But with Lucky, Grant and Kermani do something different: by the third night, the suspense isn’t whether May will live another day, so much as whether she’ll eventually get burnt out.
The stalker isn’t the thing that goes bump in the night; it’s the thing that takes up all her energy, when she should be or could be doing other things, like writing her next self-help book. It’s the thing that alienates her from her already problematic husband and his family. It’s the thing that makes survival a pain in the ass, which you can’t just accept and ignore, because you still have to keep fighting or you’ll die. And Grant and Kermani do a remarkable job of making the horror of microaggressions that kill visible.
When the film premiered online at the Fantasia Festival in August, I talked to Grant and Kermani via Zoom about how they teamed up, how they approached telling this particular story that is so familiar to so many women, and why casting comedians in a horror film was the right thing to do.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Lucky?
Brea Grant: It came from a personal experience that I had involving someone showing up to my house, and they say, “Write what you know!” (laughs) I was trying to grapple with my experience and dealing with the American court system.
And then there was my experience of talking to other women about their experiences. It’s really rare to find a woman that doesn’t say, “I had a similar experience.” There’s very few women who will say, “I’ve never been followed down the street.” Every woman has a similar story. For me, it was the need to tell this story in both a personal and also a universal way.
7R: Natasha, how did you come on board as director?
Natasha Kermani: A producer sent me the script. I knew Brea socially, but we had never worked together, so this was the first time I was hearing her voice as a writer. I was initially drawn in by her way of bringing me into this very dark issue in a satirical, clever way. I was laughing while I was reading it! It was a dark chuckle, but I was laughing.
Then there was a point when she moved into the third act, where the film really expands in scope and widens out. At that point, I put the script down, emailed her, and said, “Hey, I really want to do this.” I felt like, if I can come to this material and bring the audience on the same journey, and use this piece as a window to a larger conversation, I think we can do something really special and exciting.
7R: It’s fairly rare to have a writer-star in a film. How did that affect your collaboration?
Natasha Kermani: I had worked with a writer-star in short form capacity, so I wasn’t completely scared off by that. Brea herself is a filmmaker; we had a lot of transparency and honesty at the beginning of the process, to know that we were a duo going out into the world to do this thing. I know that’s not always the case, so I got lucky.
Brea Grant: No, I got lucky! (laughs) After Natasha and I worked on rewrites together, it was really important for me to just be an actor. I’ve worked with people who are actors but also writers and other kinds of collaborators. It works sometimes, and it doesn’t work sometimes. It was really important for me to take a step back and help her achieve her vision. With film in particular, it is collaborative, but you need that person with a singular vision or else your movie is going to feel fractured. It needed that very specific Natasha Kermani vision.
7R: Did you rehearse, or did you feel like you’d already gotten that space to think about the film together in the writing process?
Natasha Kermani: On a movie this small, you’re fighting for every single piece of prep. We definitely tried to be really conscious with our casting, to have actors who had thoroughly read the script and who we could have thorough conversations with. We were able to talk through some scenes together, but we really didn’t have extensive rehearsals, which was really difficult. It was a really fast pre-production phase.
The process of rewriting was really important for us because that was the draft that went out to the other actors, and then there were conversations happening with those actors on top of that draft that we [Kermani and Grant] had already workshopped through. So the script revisions were almost like a pre-workshop phase.
Brea Grant: We met with a couple of actors and did some read throughs.
Natasha Kermani: For specific scenes.
Brea Grant: Yeah. That was helpful.
Natasha Kermani: That’s true. We read with Dhruv [Uday Singh], who plays Ted. We were able to work through some scenes together. And the character of Sarah. We did a few specific scene read throughs.
Brea Grant: It wasn’t like we got to sit around and work on them for hours, which would be the dream. On movies this size, it’s so unfortunate because you only have a certain amount of time. You have to hire actors who know what the hell they’re doing. It’s helpful because Natasha had a really specific vision, so we could just come in and achieve that. If she didn’t, it would have been a disaster.
7R: How did you think about developing the film’s aesthetic?
Natasha Kermani: The movie is sort of like The Twilight Zone. It’s a descent into a bizzaro version of our own world.
I was really excited to work with a DP I’d worked with before, Julia Swain, and so a lot of my early conversations were with her, talking about lensing and lighting choices. We made a really early decision to go with] anamorphic [lenses], which sets the audience into a very cinematic world. Off the bat, we’re not trying to convey hyper-realism. We’re very much leaning into the fact that this is a movie and weird shit is going to go down.
We leaned even more into it with our production designer. We had a lot of conversations about how the space is sort of adjusting itself over the course of the film. There are items in May’s house that are changing and shifting. I thought of it as Alice going through the looking glass. Every step she takes, and with every scene, we’re being propelled further into this nightmare reality. The movie really isn’t that dark — it’s really fun — but the aesthetic was a dark nightmare.
When you read Brea’s script, the sense of claustrophobia and descent into an underworld parallel to our own world is really strong, and it really stuck with me. All of our decisions branched out of this descent into a bizarro world, even down to casting.
Brea’s very funny, so I thought it would be interesting to look at comedic actors. There’s something about comedic actors. They just see things from a different angle. I thought it would throw the audience off even more.
Brea Grant: All of these comedic actors that Natasha cast have improv backgrounds. It’s such a great cast, and it works so well because horror and comedy are just two sides of the same coin when it comes to acting.
7R: I’ve definitely heard talk about horror and comedy being kind of similar as genres because they both offer a kind of release. But I’ve never thought about it from an acting perspective. How do you feel like these genres are different sides of the same coin?
Brea Grant: I think they’re all about timing. Comedy is about timing, really, and it’s the same with horror. It’s about the beats and understanding each beat. And there’s a heightened state in both of them. With drama, you’re going to play everything down here, but with horror and comedy, things start to get elevated really quickly. You need an actor who can go there.
Natasha Kermani: And they’re both expressions of tragedy, right? They’re both expressions of very dark material and dark truths. I also felt, if we went too dramatic, we’d kill the movie. There’s some lines where, if you say it too heavy, the whole thing completely tanks. I was very aware of avoiding that.
We were cracking up in the edit, by the way! Some of the stuff that didn’t even make it into the edit was really very funny. That’s what drew me to Brea’s script. It’s a funny way in. You’re allowing people to giggle at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, you understand you’ve actually been watching something very serious the whole time.
7R: How did you manage tone both on set and in the edit? It’s both uproariously funny and really terrifying at the same time.
Natasha Kermani: Honestly, Brea brought it. She’s the centre of the movie. I love movies that have a really singular primary character. My first film is also designed around a single actress. That’s really fun, because you really get to live in that person’s skin.
What Brea as May was bringing to the table, the other actors and set were able to adjust to. There are definitely some sequences that are very serious and intense. Keep in mind, we shot this movie in 15 days, so the tone was, “Let’s get this shit in the can!”
Brea Grant: You did one take, and that was enough!
I’m real goofy on set, too, because I’m just so happy to be there. Every time I’m in a movie, I’m just like, “Will this be the last time I get to be on a set?” So when I’m back, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m back! They haven’t knocked me off yet!” Because it was so much darkness [in Lucky], I felt it was good to have silly moments and be able to laugh on set.
Natasha Kermani: I come from crew, so while I did always have a focus on writing and directing, I was working a lot on the below-the-line side all through college and then out of college. So I’m always aware of the spirit of the crew and trying to make sure that people are engaged and understand what we’re trying to do. It’s very much about the people you hire, and the people they hire — making sure you hire people you trust and who are loyal. From there, the tone should be spread in good faith.
This was a small set and a small crew, and most people had read the script, which, by the way, is not normal. Usually, below the line, you don’t read the script. You show up and ask what you’re doing that day. I used to play a game when I worked on camera crew where we would make up the story that was happening [in the film]!
Brea Grant: My favourite thing is to ask the sound team, a week in, what they think the movie’s about!
Natasha Kermani: Yes! It’s hilarious.
Brea Grant: They’ve gotten pretty close!
7R: I was actually going to ask about how you thought about the sound and the music in the film.
Natasha Kermani: We have an incredible composer who was very much out of our league. Jeremy Zuckerman is his name. I am so fucking thrilled that we got Jeremy! I came to him and said I really liked his avant garde stuff. I first heard his music because he did the soundtrack to the TV show Scream, which is beautiful and very melodic, with a full string ensemble. I told him we didn’t have the resources for that, and it’s also not what I’m interested in doing.
I gave him a few cues. I knew I wanted to be very specific about the instruments that you hear, one of them being a female voice, and to have extended vocals, which is almost the sound that your voice makes when it’s still inside of your throat. It’s very much the sounds of choking and gurgling. He said, “Great, I have a vocalist.” Then, we pinned down the other [musical] voices we wanted in the film. I knew we wanted cello as one of the voices.
There were different sounds for the man versus for May, and then those two sounds start to combine over the course of the film, until the third act, where we have the biggest expression of music, which is their two musical identities merging. He [Jeremy] was really into that, and he was really into the idea that I didn’t want the typical, ultra-melodic, John Williams or Ennio Morricone soundtrack. He was like, “Great, this is my opportunity to do something wacky.”
It was a very fast, intense collaboration, as with everything on this film, but it was super important. I have a music background myself. We started before filming.
It’s really important for it to have a thick, multi-layered sound design, especially as we move into the third act. In the third act, you want this really twisted sound. The house itself sounds different at the end of the movie versus the beginning.
7R: Different in what sense?
Natasha Kermani: At the beginning, it’s really realistic. When you’re inside the house, you hear traffic outside. You hear everything happening in the house. At the end of the film, it’s really just her breathing, ambient sound, and specific cues of him [her stalker] coming in.
The whole movie is the journey from the beginning to the end, which is obvious to say, but it’s not what a lot of movies are about. We’re trying to take us from the reality May is living in at the beginning to this twisted reality at the end. The music develops, but also the sound design is going in almost the opposite direction, where we’re stripping it down.
The [scene in the] parking garage is the most important scene to me. There’s a lot of wacky stuff in there. When she’s running, there’s actually some sounds of earthquakes happening. There’s all sorts of layers in there. That is the peak of the sound. If you look at the sound designer’s file, that’s where [the highest number of sound layers are], and then when the movie ends, it gets very stripped down until at the very end, literally all there is is the music and her breathing. That’s it. It’s just May and the man.
7R: The movie begins with the idea of being stalked, but the metaphor expands by the end to be about May fighting her stalker every night and killing him, only for him to come back. It’s this traumatic thing, but it becomes rote. And then she discovers that lots of other women are going through the same thing, and she can’t help them because she’s trying to save herself. That works as a metaphor for so many other things, for misogyny and patriarchy, in general. How did you think about what those layers were?
Natasha Kermani: One thing I will say is I really like that May is not perfect, which I think is also what you’re saying, that you become numbed by your experience, whether it is your experience of gaslighting or actual external threat on various scales. We can all relate to the banality of abuse and how it changes who you are as a person. That’s very dark. She makes some not-so-great decisions. I know Brea was interested in having her be a self help author, which I think is also quite funny but quite dark: she’s literally making money off of telling people how to help themselves, and she’s almost incapable of doing it for herself.
Brea Grant: I wrote the whole script, and I couldn’t quite figure out who May was. I did it backwards, where I gave her that job and realised how that affected her.
I do have an interest in the self help world. I love a self help book. (laughs) I find them fascinating on so many levels, but I’m also really interested in the people who choose to write them. You’re telling people how to improve their lives.
It always makes me wonder about them and how perfect or imperfect their lives are, because nobody’s perfect. Nobody is able to live by their own structured rules. I guarantee they’re not all doing the things they’re advocating that we all do.
I have an interest in perfection, in general: people who present ideas of perfection and how difficult it is to live those out. What happens if you’re a person who is so structured and focused on perfection that you end up being somebody that you don’t want to be?
7R: What was the editing process like, given that timing was so important on this film?
Natasha Kermani: I worked with an editor named Chris Willett, who’s great. We worked on a short film together so there was a shorthand there. He has a fair amount of experience with comedic stuff so he and I wanted to respect the timing of the actors on set. It was a fast turnaround, again, because we shot the movie so fast. There’s only a few ways to put it together. It was really just about fine-tuning the action sequences and the more suspenseful parts. We worked closely for several months.
All temp music was from our actual composer, Jeremy. It was a real shortcut to be able to use music from his musical vernacular. There’s a lot of music in the movie. I don’t think we use it as a crutch, but it’s part of the film’s DNA.
We did an interesting and helpful test screening. As you might imagine, there was a real gender divide. It was fascinating. The men really liked it, too, but the women really got it and were laughing. Men were being very literal about it and asking what happened to the husband. Women got on board with the metaphor within the first few minutes of the movie. That was really helpful because we were able to nudge the film a little bit in the direction of accessibility.
7R: Brea, were you involved at all with the editing?
Brea Grant: No.
Natasha Kermani: She was editing her own movie!
Brea Grant: Yeah, I was. Look, there’s enough Brea Grant in this movie! (laughs) I was in the first movie I directed. As much as I like to think I’m objective, it was very hard for me to be objective, so I saw cuts along the way, but generally my notes were, “You’re doing great!”
When you’re making a movie on this budget, I don’t think you should have to conform to everyone else’s ideas. You shouldn’t have five producers or your writer-producer-actor giving you notes the whole time, because Natasha is making this movie, getting paid less than what she can survive on for a month, and she works on the movie for a fucking year. You have to put your heart and soul into it.
I believe in a singular vision when it comes to filmmaking, and I think that, at the very least, an indie director should get to have final say on what they’re doing because they put so much work into it for so little reward.
Natasha Kermani: And that’s what we go to independent films for, right? To not have the super filtered-down too-many-cooks approach. We want to see a single chef.
Brea Grant: That’s how you end up with these weirdo crazy movies that we love!
Lucky will be available to stream in Canada, US, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand on Shudder in early 2021.