In the mockumentary I Blame Society, writer-director Gillian Wallace Horvat plays a murderous version of herself who makes a film about being a serial killer.
I Blame Society is now available on VOD.
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When I first covered I Blame Society, at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, I wrote: “I still haven’t quite figured out what the film is about in a broad sense: is it a critique of narcissistic artists who’ll do anything to make a good film, or a takedown of the gatekeepers who have driven this struggling female filmmaker to insanity? Or both?” A couple months and a rewatch later, I’ve come to love the fact that the film is both. I Blame Society is that rare thing: a genre film about a woman fighting back against the patriarchy that also acknowledges her own privilege and complicity.
“That’s why the film is called I Blame Society,” writer-director-star Gillian Wallace Horvat told me. “It’s a bit of a lie coming from the character’s perspective. She blames society, but really, she should be blaming everybody, including herself. She has to take some responsibility. And she doesn’t.” The character in question — an LA-based filmmaker named Gillian — is a fictionalised version of Wallace Horvat. “I was in a bar with a couple of friends a few years ago, and they gave me this compliment that I would make a good murderer,” Wallace Horvat explained. She went on to make a short documentary that explored the qualities that a good filmmaker and a good murderer share. That doc was shelved until a few years later, when Wallace Horvat’s producers saw it and encouraged her to incorporate that footage into a feature-length mockumentary. Thus, I Blame Society was born.
In the film, we track Gillian’s journey from a slightly narcissistic but mostly harmless aspiring filmmaker to an all-out serial killer. She’s spurred to make her low-budget murder documentary after a string of industry gatekeepers deny her funding for her first scripted feature. First, a potential producer turns away her script for being too political and complains that the female lead is unlikeable. Next, two clueless and cocky male studio execs call her in for a meeting, but instead of offering Gillian support for her feature project, they ask her to do some glorified paperwork. Gillian is at both a professional and personal crisis point — her boyfriend is unsupportive and her best friend, Chase (Chase Williamson, who also co-wrote the film), has stopped talking to her since Gillian tried to break up his relationship with his girlfriend. All this comes to a head about halfway through the film in a reconciliation-turned-confrontation with Chase, which sends Gillian off the deep end and into a killing spree.
I spoke with Wallace Horvat about the documentary short that formed the basis of her debut feature, how she approached shooting the film from Gillian’s perspective, and why she prefers mannered performances to naturalistic ones.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of I Blame Society?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: I was in a bar with a couple of friends a few years ago, and they gave me this compliment that I would make a good murderer. I took it as a compliment, because when anyone tells you that you’re good at anything, it’s a compliment! We were talking about what traits a good murderer has: having a vision that they carry through from start to finish, improvising around obstacles, being resourceful, and having the nerve to stick something through to the end despite self-doubt and criticism from other people. Good murderers share a lot of qualities with good directors.
I thought about it a lot, and eventually, I wanted to make a short documentary about the compliment. I interviewed friends and colleagues. I took them to typical murder locales, like the middle of the forest or the docks. I interviewed an ex-boyfriend in an empty parking lot; I was in the backseat of the car. I asked them if I had the qualities of a good murderer.
I edited the film, and I liked it, but I didn’t think it was substantial enough. Maybe I had too high expectations of what a short documentary is supposed to be. I was like, this is cute, but does it just feel like a Buzzfeed piece? Does it feel like a viral video and not like, “You should watch this short documentary”?
I put it aside, and then years later, I was working with my current producers, Mette-Marie Kongsved and Laura Tunstall, and I was telling them, “There was this project that I never finished about what a fucking maniac I am.” They watched it, and they really liked it. They found things in it that were compelling that I didn’t find, because I’m on screen, and I find that awkward. They were like, “There are some images here that are really interesting, like you in the graveyard in disguise. You seem so deranged, and I really want to know who that character is.”
At the same time, we were experiencing unexpected hurdles in trying to get a different film of mine financed, and facing a stigma toward me being a first-time feature filmmaker. People were very loath to give a budget to a female director who had the experience level I was coming from: having had two shorts at SXSW, one of which won an award there and was a Vimeo Staff pick. I’ve worked with experienced actors before. We were seeing guys who weren’t bringing that to the table walk away with huge budgets. The rage was filling up in all of us.
7R: The film is quite critical of both the film industry and of your character. How did you work out the tone of the film and who it would take aim at?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: I wanted to centre this character’s culpability. That’s why the film is called I Blame Society. It’s a bit of a lie coming from the character’s perspective. She blames society, but really, she should be blaming everybody, including herself. She has to take some responsibility. And she doesn’t.
When I felt the rage that I did, at the time, I also felt a sense of self-awareness, which is maybe the quality that makes me not a murderer. The self-awareness that there was a certain level of entitlement that I felt, where I felt like I deserved a seat at the table, and I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting it. I saw certain people thriving with less credibility and without as much dues paying. I wanted it to feel even-keeled, in that sense, and not like a vindictive, self-justifying screed.
7R: I imagine it’s quite hard to write an oddball comedy like this and be sure that what’s on the page will work and be funny in practice. Could you tell me a bit about working with your co-writer, Chase Williamson?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: Everything I’ve done is kind of in this same tone, for better or for worse. Now, I think I am spreading my wings more and trying to do different things, but everything that’s come out has been in a similar tone of polemical vulgarity. As long as I’m in that lane, it comes easily enough.
It was really fun having a writing partner on this film, too, because I usually don’t. I really wanted to bring Chase Williamson, my co-writer and my co-star, into the writing process, because he is a true crime expert, and I don’t know anything about that stuff. I knew a lot about the personal feelings that my character goes through: her insecurity, her ambition, and her confusing friend and boyfriend relationships. But there needed to be a nonfiction grounding to that, something authentic to build off of, which Chase really brought.
It’s ended up resonating with audiences that I don’t think the film would have hit otherwise, which is the passionate true crime fanbase. They recognise the authenticity that Chase brings, because he really knows his shit.
7R: I really like the first scene of the film, where Gillian films herself talking to Chase on a rooftop, explains the concept of her murder documentary, and then tries to convince him to break up with his girlfriend. Can you talk about crafting that opening and why you wanted to start there?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: [I wanted] to begin the film with the ambivalence of whether she is an aggressor or a victim. The truth is, she’s both. I think that, when you see the first scene, there is an impulse to sympathise with her and feel bad for her, because she feels guilty and she’s lost her friend, even though what she does is totally unconscionable. Although I’ve seen people get forgiven for a lot more. I don’t know. I think Chase was being a little insensitive. [laughs] I think they could have made it work if they really wanted to.
7R: She went a little bit far by murdering him.
Gillian Wallace Horvat: The person that she breaks the seal with, the one that she kills first, is really the one person she didn’t want to kill. Some people have brought up her ambivalence in the question of whether she accidentally-on-purpose forgot that he was allergic to sesame seeds. That’s a great point that I didn’t even think of.
When I was writing it, and when I was playing it, she’s telling the truth: [Sesame seed bagels] are the only bagels that they had left. She thinks he just doesn’t like sesame seeds. She didn’t mean to give him anaphylactic shock. But she senses an opportunity to do good, to extract a promise from him in order to save him.
She really does feel those things passionately. And in a way, she’s right, it would be good for him to leave an abusive relationship. But you can’t make people make good decisions. You can’t force someone or threaten them with a slow or awful death to do what’s right for themselves. People have to do that [by choice]. Otherwise, it never sticks.
7R: Do you think that if she hadn’t accidentally killed Chase, she wouldn’t have gone all the way and become a serial killer afterwards?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: Absolutely. I think that she’s already under enough stress with her feelings of failure and insecurity, and the pushback that she gets from her boyfriend and from her meetings. When this silver lining happens — a possible opportunity to mend her relationship with her best friend — she puts her whole heart into it. She’s so vulnerable at that point.
When he dies in front of her, it just shatters her. She’s already at the breaking point, and this is the one good thing that she thought was going to happen for her. Finally, a friend, somebody who did like her work and somebody who did support her, in a way that her boyfriend can’t, or won’t.
That manslaughter is the last and final gateway step. We’ve been seeing that she builds up through a progression of shoplifting, stalking, breaking and entering… then manslaughter? There’s nowhere to go after that except [serial] murder. She’s already off the deep end, so she’s going to go there.
7R: How did you decide how far into the film she would reach that point?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: I definitely thought by forty minutes in, if I was watching this movie, then I would want somebody to be dead. So I knew that it had to happen before forty minutes. And then, after that, I wanted it to feel very accelerated. This feeling of, she’s going out of control, is the film going out of control? The body count just shoots up after that.
7R: What’s so interesting about shooting a mockumentary like this is that the shot choices themselves are supposed to be being made by the character herself. How did you work with your cinematographer to figure out how to shoot, frame, and cover the film as the character of Gillian?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: I think, to [cinematographer Olivia Kuan’s] credit, she found that to be a really interesting challenge artistically, to create a visual character arc. She [Gillian] starts off as a beginner not really knowing how to work a camera or light, and then, over the course of the film, she becomes more ambitious, adept, and sophisticated, which therefore, changes the look of the film. It starts out as a kind of Dogme 95, very naturalistic-looking mockumentary. There’s then a sharp tone change where it starts to look more quote unquote cinematic, because it’s how the character conceives of what a movie looks like, and that’s what she wants her life to look like.
7R: Your performance is very deadpan. How did you think about how this character would speak and move?
Gillian Wallace Horvat: For the first part of the film, I wanted it to be a bit more naturalistic. But at the same time, you do have a character who is constantly filming themselves and knowing that they’re being filmed, so there has to be a level of performativity there. There has to be a level of self-consciousness and awkwardness that comes with the feeling of simultaneously living and also viewing your own actions after they’ve happened. That kind of split mindset, I think, gives the impression of someone being vaguely abstracted from reality. But I also wanted to give the film real emotional moments. I wanted the audience to feel for what Gillian is going through, even though they may not approve of what she’s doing.
When Gillian does have that breakdown and transformation, the performance gets more mannered. I personally prefer mannered performances. I know that it’s hard for actors to be natural on camera, and what we recognise as naturalism in cinematic performances is also total artifice, as much as anything else. I like bigger, more interesting performances. I like actors like Crispin Glover and Susan Tyrell. I like people who make big, compelling choices that are worth filling up a giant screen with. I wanted to bring a level of performativity and mannerism to the second part [of the film].
When I saw some of the footage, I was amused by how gawky and gangly and awkward I look on camera. I look very jointed, like a marionette. So I wanted to play that up by having the character look even more odd and attenuated as the film went on. I was thinking about, as a reference, the way that the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari moves. It was something that I wanted to mimic, or make my own.
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