Sometime ago I was fortunate enough to weasel myself an invitation to the cast and crew screening of Family Demons, a low budget film shot on the streets of Adelaide during one of the worst heatwaves in recent memory. I knew nothing about the film and was pleasantly surprised to find it was a taut little horror/thriller that transcended its budgetary restrictions. It delivered in most every way. The cast, despite their relative inexperience were convincing, this was especially true of young Cassandra Kane. The film looked great and there were a couple of genuine scares and a twist that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Chubby Checker concert.
Crimson Celluloid: Can you give readers of Love & Pop a little information as to what Family Demons is about?
Ursula Dabrowsky: It’s a psychological horror film about a teenage girl. Her name is Billie and she lives with her mother who is an alcoholic and treats her daughter really badly. So badly, in fact, that Billie plans to run away from home with her new boyfriend, but her mother discovers the plot and is about to chain her daughter up again and hold her prisoner, when Billie snaps and murders her mother. And then what happens is while Billie is waiting for her boyfriend to come and get her so they can run away together, the mother’s vengeful spirit returns to haunt Billie. She still refuses in death to let go of Billie.
CC: It was shot on an ultra LOW budget during the worst heatwave in recent memory, do you think this added to the atmosphere on-screen?
UD: I don’t think so. In the end, I think the atmosphere that was created on screen was because the entire cast and crew all worked together to pull this off, regardless of the budget or weather. We all worked within the given constraints. If it was freezing cold and snowing outside, I still think it would have turned out well. It would have just affected wardrobe.
CC: Many scenes belie the budget constraints and the film looks great on the big screen. Did you have a vision in your head as to how the film should LOOK and how it came across? How close to your vision is the final product?
UD: I had two of the best actors in Adelaide performing the lead roles, an amazing DOP who is strongly influenced by European cinema, and the music score is just brilliant, and I think I did a good job of directing. I was quite confident on set. Very organised. I knew what I wanted. But to be honest, the film turned out heaps better than I expected. I had never worked with Cass or Kerry before as actors, or Hugh as the cinematographer or Mick, the music composer or most of the cast and crew, bar Scott Venner and Tommy Darwin. When I started, I had no idea whether the film would work or not. It was a leap of faith and I’m still to this day blown away by what everyone’s contribution to help make this film turn out as it has.
CC: With the benefit of hindsight, what mistakes did you make on this film that you will endeavour not to repeat on your next film?
UD: If there are flaws in the film, it’s the script and I’m entirely to blame. I look at the film now and I only see the things I could have done better to strengthen the story. Particularly the relationship between Sean and Billie. I would have liked to develop this more and this is exactly what I’ll be doing with my next film which is develop a stronger love story, wrapped in a psychological horror film.
The other thing I’d like to say is that a $6,500 production budget is definitely not enough. Neither is a two week shoot. I’d be interested to see what I could do next if I had some upfront financing and a longer shoot.
CC: The film is definitely scary in parts. Which films have inspired and scared you?
UD: First and foremost, The Grudge by Takashi Shimizu. I watched that for the first time back in 2003 and it blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it before and that film definitely inspired me and stuck with me for a long time. The other film I saw for the first time around that time was Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Despite being an old film, I had never seen it before and man, I was glued to the screen. It’s no wonder it’s a classic. I loved the documentary feel of it. That scene when the brother in the wheelchair and sister are waiting by the kombi, not knowing what to do cuz their friends hadn’t returned. I couldn’t wait to see what happened next even though I was terrified for them. And I loved the ending. Both those films inspired me to make Family Demons.
CC: Your lead actress, Cassandra Kane, did an amazing job on the film. You certainly put her through the ringer emotionally and physically. Were you concerned about her welfare at any time?
UD: Yes I was. I fretted like a mother hen. But she was unbelievable. She never once complained. She ran a lot, in the heat, she jumped over fences, she crawled, she cried, she hit. She gave 150%. It’s amazing how unsure she was before we started shooting; she didn’t think she could pull it off. But she did, in spades. I admire that woman so much. She’s smart, she’s talented and she’s gorgeous, inside and out. I think she’s just gold. And I can’t wait to work with her again. Kerry who plays the mother is also amazing. I hadn’t worked with her before and I didn’t audition her. Just went with Kerry on another actor friend’s recommendation. I couldn’t believe my luck when I started to see what she could do on set. Lucky, lucky me.
CC: What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the whole filmmaking process?
UD: I love directing and editing. But I have difficulty with scriptwriting. Writing good horror scripts is really challenging. They say ideas come cheap. But great ideas, especially in horror, are rare. So difficult to come by and when you write a 90 page script, every single scene has to be a revelation and interesting, something done differently, cuz everything has been done before. And that’s very, very hard. I’ve thought about just being a director but because I can’t find scripts written by other people that excite me, that speak to me enough for me to want to make them, I have no choice right now but to write them myself. Producing is something people say I’m good at because I can pull off a feature with very little money, but producing is a means to an end. I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I do it, same as the writing, so I can get on to doing the things I enjoy and that’s being on set, working with people, or being in post production and watching the film come alive.
CC: You’ve had some great feedback on the film from various festivals and the like. This must be very gratifying?
UD: I’ve only had one screening so far, the World Premiere at A Night of Horror International Film Festival where I won Best Australian Director. And I just found out that Family Demons will be screening in August at both the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and the 5th Annual Fright Night Film Fest in the States. It’s also screening at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival in the UK in October. I’ve submitted Family Demons to quite a few film festivals overseas but still haven’t heard back from the majority of them but so far, so good. So yeah, I’m really happy this little film is making its way into the world.
CC: What advice would you offer a first-time low budget film-maker?
UD: Don’t go ANYWHERE near the set until your script is as perfect as you can make it. Show it to people who can give you feedback. Work it and rework it. Don’t waste your time and your cast and crews and your money with a story that isn’t working. And get people who know what they are doing in the top jobs. And above all, make sure there is good food on set and don’t overwork your cast and crew. 10 hours a day MAX.
CC: What can you tell us about your next project?
UD: Well, right now I’m working on two screenplays: Demons Voices and Demon Drug, both once again psychological horror films and they are coming along, even though liked I’ve said, writing them is like pulling teeth. I’ll get there cuz I can’t wait to shoot another film. I’d like to work with Kerry and Cass again and Hugh the DOP is hounding me to get the script written cuz like me, he can’t wait to get back on set. So I’m motivated to get things happening and work with these talented people again. When I make Demon Drug and Demon Voices and combine them with Family Demons, they will form part of Ursula Dabrowsky’s Demon Trilogy. It’s pretty clear I’ve got demons in my head but I’ll be a good girl and I’ll just get them down on film.
LEAD ACTRESS CASSANDRA KANE.
Firstly congrats on your performance in Family Demons, for someone so young it speaks volumes that you carried the whole film.
Crimson Celluloid: What are your lasting memories of making the film?
Cassandra Kane: It was hot! I remember being exhausted at the end of every day and, because the character was often in some sort of distress, my own emotional state was very tenuous – it had to be for the character to work. Other lasting memories include acting with Kerry Reid, Alex Rafalowicz, Tommy Darwin and Chrissie Page. It was a great privilege to work with these very talented actors and I learned a great deal from them. Overall, I look back on the making of this film as a very challenging and exciting time. I’d do the whole film again in a heart-beat!
CC: It was your first lead role. What preparation went into your character and getting ready to shoot the film?
CK: The first thing I did was study the script. I read and re-read the material, and got between the lines until Billie started to grow under my skin. And the script was challenging. For instance, I found it difficult to grasp the unusual relationship Billie shares with her mother. Even though Billie is abused by her mother, there are real tender moments between them in the film. It’s a common dichotomy in abusive relationships, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand.
CC: You were certainly put through the ringer in the film, both physically and emotionally. What was the hardest part for you?
CK: It’s an incredibly intrusive experience, being an actor, and this character is always being exploited or abused. A film set, even a low budget one, is always filled with people, all of whom are focused on their role and on the scene playing out. So an actor is forced to reach a very personal place in a very public environment, where he or she is watched carefully and scrutinized. I’m not naturally someone who finds it easy to ‘bare their soul’, but the camera picks up anything false, so reaching that place is essential – but it’s never easy.
CC: What would you say were Ursula’s strengths as a director? Any weaknesses?
CK: Ursula and I have an excellent relationship, both professionally and personally. I think an important part of the actor-director relationship is mutual trust. The character I play is very raw and she suffers a lot of humiliation and degradation, but Ursula trusted my instincts with the character and was careful to ensure that I felt as comfortable as possible. Despite the unpleasant things I had to do in this film, Ursula always looked out for me, and I trusted that she would respect me as an actor in the way the scenes translated onto film.
Another thing about Ursula is the way she communicates with cast and crew – she gives generously to each of them, and her warmth as a person comes through. Ursula is so inspiring that she makes people want to work for her – even for nothing!
Weaknesses? Nope. Can’t wait to work with her again!
CC: The film was shot during one of the worst heat-waves Adelaide has ever experienced; do you think this added to the atmosphere the film created? Did it make it even harder to shoot or add to your performance?
CK: Both! Actually, one good thing about the heat was that it brought out the flies – which I think is great. Very Texas Chainsaw. They should have received top billing. The heat certainly had an effect on my performance. It made it easier to play exasperation. But other than that, it drove us insane.
CC: It’s a genuinely eerie film, was it ever scary shooting it?
CK: Yes. I was terrified throughout the entire shoot that I was going to ruin the film. Apart from that, no.
CC: Despite the ultra-low budget the film transcends its budgetary constraints and looks great on the screen. What did you think when you first saw it?
CK: It was surreal, but to be honest I spent most of the time squinting. It’s awful to have to watch yourself! But I knew that Ursula and the crew were going to do a good job on the movie. It didn’t come as a surprise to me that the film overcame it’s budgetary constraints.
CC: What advice would you give a young actress about to make a film debut?
CK: I’ve always been told that to survive in the film industry you need to be tough and ‘thick-skinned’. But I don’t necessarily believe that. I think it’s an asset to allow yourself to be sensitive and to feel, and that vulnerability is often the key to a good performance. So I’d tell young actresses that it isn’t necessary to become some sort of hard-nosed, psycho-ambitious bitch. Just be truthful to yourself – I believe that that can get you just as far.
CC: Rumour has it that despite your wonderful performance you don’t even have an agent. What’s the story there?
CK: I don’t know, I suppose I should have one but I would want someone I could trust. It isn’t a decision I would take lightly. Perhaps I’m just waiting to meet the right agent.
CC: If you’re a horror movie fan, here’s where you list some of your favourite films.
CK: Well I love Brian De Palma’s Carrie – Sissy Spacek in pig’s blood is iconic horror. Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacreand John Carpenter’s Halloween are classics also. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Kubrick’s The Shining are two more. I could go on forever..