PopHorror had the pleasure to interview Filmmaker Elizabeth E. Schuch about her aspirations, her inspirations, and her latest creation, The Book of Birdie (2017). This groundbreaking director delivers a visually stimulating experience that meshes Catholic ideology, feminism, and a girl’s fascination with blood to deliver a spectacular film that defies categorization. It was an honor to learn more about the person who created such a magnificent film.
PopHorror: What inspired you to create The Book of Birdie?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Well, I had this flash of inspiration about a girl who bleeds. But to her, it’s a superhero power and she’s proud of it. And then I thought, “Where is she?” She needed to be trapped or somewhere it would need to be a kept a secret. My co-writer, Anami Tara [Shucart], and I took the idea of this bleeding girl and ran with it. Some of it comes from personal experiences, and some of it was inspired by Catholic mysticism and imagery.
PopHorror: Ilirida Memedovski gives a spectacular performance as Birdie. How did you come to cast her in the film?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: The whole film is centered so heavily on Birdie, getting the casting right was critical. It was Ilirida’s first time on screen, and the camera just loved her face. I thought that finding the right girl to play Birdie was going to be tough. I’d contacted local colleges and posted ads in backstage.com. We were so lucky to find her, especially in a small town in the Midwest. There’s a good amount of theater kids, but acting in film is so different. I needed someone innocent, ethereal and otherworldly.
I saw her waiting in line at the auditions, and it was immediate for me… she was Birdie. Then she came in with those eyes and nailed the audition. I had them interact with and sing to jars impromptu, since so much of the movie is silent acting with props. And she was a natural.
PopHorror: What made you choose Kemper Center in Wisconsin as the location for the film?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Kenosha, WI is my hometown, and I grew up about a few blocks away from Kemper Center. It’s a beautiful, unique building, and it always intrigued me. We heard the ghost stories from the days when it was a convent, and I’d often ride my bike there and stare out at Lake Michigan as the girls in the film do. When we were writing the script, this building was in my head the whole time. It was a real convent and school, and closed around the time the film takes place. The chapel, lake, tower, rooms, and peculiar hauntings ended up in the story.
PopHorror: The movie has both religious and feminist undertones. Are these topics something you are passionate about?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of directors, and in about 95 times in 100, it’s a guy. When I started to see the statistics on the number of women in film – both on screen, behind and directing – it was a shock, and I thought, “Fine, I want to do this! Let’s get those numbers up!” Director Gaylene Preston had some great advice: do your best work and help other women. I would strongly encourage other women to consider directing as an option and not to wait for anyone’s permission to go for it. And it’s not just about women. We have a long way to go to redress the balance of underrepresented groups in filmmaking across the board. This past year, I started a writer’s residency in Bruges for underrepresented voices in genre filmmaking. It’s only one small thing, but I’d like to do more in future.
Religion is always a sensitive subject and very gingerly, we take it to some strange places in The Book of Birdie. I was raised Catholic and went to all Catholic schools, so the language and symbolism are all familiar vocabulary to me. I’m a happy existentialist, and I don’t pretend to know the answers to what life is or what anything means. That said: the nature of belief, the historical idea of holy visions, and the rich imagery – these are all fascinating. And also, there’s women’s roles in the church in the past. If you heard voices from God, you could actually have a line of power. The majority of stigmata is experienced by women… to me, there’s some intriguing connections to be made in all of that.
PopHorror: Are there any directors that have inspired or motivated you to want to pursue a career in film?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Directors that inspire me are Alfred Hitchcock for his dark humour, suspense, camerawork, lighting and visuals; Baz Luhrmann for his exuberance, colour and design; Jane Campion for her beautiful, strong visuals and subtle, emotional performances; Guillermo Del Toro for his fairytale beauty, incredible design detail and darkness; Terry Gilliam for his absurdism and design; Franco Zeffirelli for his epic opera scale, light and design; Peter Greenaway for his composition, theatricality and sensuality; and Emir Kusturica for his gritty realism mixed with magical realism.
My personal heroes are Theater Director Holly Stanfield, who plays Sister Mercy in the film, and who first cast me in lead role as a kid despite my shyness. As a teenager, Scott Seidl taught us about showmanship, timing and energy. In Chicago, David Cromer was such a brilliant example of working with actors and detail-oriented directing that I really admire.
As far as motivation, I would never have thought directing was possible if I hadn’t read Rebel Without a Crew by Robert Rodriguez.
PopHorror: What achievement are you the most proud of in your career so far?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Getting Birdie made, despite it’s crazy low budget, freezing cold filming temps and really long odds. Then seeing that ovary fly on screen… that is my favorite moment so far. I’ve done a lot of different yet artistic jobs over the years, and making our own films from scratch – my husband and I trade off directing – is absolutely the most challenging thing, but also the most rewarding. Also, at a storyboarding workshop in Berlin last January, we had an 8 year-old girl giving it a try, thinking like a director. That’s the next generation, and it means a lot.
PopHorror: What advice would you give someone with aspirations of writing and directing film?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: Do read Rebel Without a Crew first. And then, start with what you have, assess your assets and strengths: Do you have friends who sing? Family with an old cabin in the woods? A minimalist apartment? Circus acrobats? A really great shoe collection? Lots of records? Three typewriters and a laundromat? Write something with elements you have access to.
On the set, in my mind – you need to have a plan, but also be able go with the flow of what magic pops up, and be ready to have answers to a lot of questions all around. Being from theater, my approach is collaborative. If you can learn a little bit about each department, you can communicate with them and understand their needs better. I like to keep an open mind so good ideas can come from anywhere.
PopHorror: What would you say is your favorite horror film?
Elizabeth E. Schuch: The Changeling (1980). As a kid, I had a babysitter who woke me up in the night to watch it with her because she was too scared to watch it alone. It terrified and stayed with me for years. As an adult, I rewatched it and I could recall every shot, burned into my memory… that ball bouncing down the stairs… that’s the film that had the most impact.
I keep rewatching What We Do In the Shadows (2014) for the pure joy of it…
PopHorror wants to thank Elizabeth E. Schuch for taking the time to speak with us. Stay tuned to PopHorror for more news on this talented director, as well as all of your horror news, reviews, and interviews!