I don’t understand influencers, and I’m okay with that. I don’t follow them, and I don’t feel the need to be one. I don’t really think they have any longevity and will eventually become irrelevant. Tell you how I really feel, right?
I was lucky enough to check out the new film, Sissy (our review), when it premiered at SXSW 2022, and it showed again at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. The film is spectacular. It’s about Cecilia (played by Aisha Dee, who is ah-mazing in The Bold Type)—Sissy to her friends—”a successful social media influencer living the dream, until she runs into her childhood ex-best friend and is invited away on her bachelorette weekend. Suddenly, Sissy finds herself stuck in a remote cabin with her school bully… and a taste for revenge.” Sissy has already been acquired by Shudder, so it will be available soon. To celebrate the film playing Fantasia, I chatted with writer/director team Hannah Barlow (who also starred in the film as Emma) and Kane Senes via Zoom about how the project came about, why they love horror, what’s up next, and more!
PopHorror: I loved Sissy so freaking much that I am super excited to speak with you. What inspired the film, and how did the project come about?
Hannah Barlow: The major themes are childhood bullying, female friendships, toxic or otherwise, the dangers of social media, and the self-victimization culture. So, there are a lot of entry points.
On a personal level, it started from a place of how these echoes of my childhood are still affecting me today, and how they’re affecting our generation in general, and the generation beneath us. How is social media making mental health worse?
Kane Senes: And what happens when you don’t deal with those root traumas in your life and how they can manifest later on. That’s something that we both deal with all the time.
Hannah Barlow: And we all deal with it because we all have parts of our personalities that are repressed and still regressed because it takes a lifetime to evolve out of trauma and triggers. So, I think we were trying to make a film about those things.
Kane Senes: Yeah, and just with how crazy the world is today and how anxiety inducing it all is.
Hannah Barlow: And what happens when you don’t deal with yourself. It’s your job as an adult to clear your wounding and to heal aspects of yourself, but it’s hard to do that if you’re only presenting a filtered version of yourself online and then believing that that’s who you are.
PopHorror: I agree 100%. I think I resonated with the film a lot, because I was bullied all the way through school. I’m 41, and I still hate everybody. I’m not going to be friends with bullies on social media. I’m not friends with those people. You people made my life hell for years. I don’t need you in my adult life.
I think it resonated with me because it was after high school and had adults dealing with it. It really hit a personal spot, and I appreciate everything that you just said and you wanting to convey it in a relevant and relatable way.
Kane Senes: Thank you.
Hannah Barlow: I think those people who affect us in our childhood live with us on a daily basis. We’re just trying to turn the dial up on that in Sissy. I appreciate that you resonated with that.
PopHorror: With this film touching on these delicate themes and subject matters, how did you convey your vision of the film to your cast and crew?
Kane Senes: Well, it starts with the script. I think the tone of the movie was already embedded there in the script, and so, when our cast and crew read it, they all got it that this is a satirical slasher movie, essentially. A lot of our cast and crew grew up with movies like Carrie, Halloween, the Friday the 13th films, and Scream, everyone I think we worked with…
Well, not necessarily. Our editor, Margi Hoy, is more of a drama editor. She doesn’t come to things with a horror perspective, but that’s another story, because you ultimately want someone in the editing room that can go straight to the heart of the human drama of it all and isn’t concerned with having to hit the right stereotypes and things of the genre.
But our cinematographer, Steve Arnold, definitely got it. He shot Man-Thing for Marvel comics a while back now. He got what we were trying to do. The same thing with Michael Price, our production designer. They got that we wanted to make a colorful kind of ’90s-inspired slasher.
Hannah Barlow: And Renate just understood.
Kane Senes: And Renate Henschke, our costume designer. They all got the aesthetic.
Hannah Barlow: We shot this film so quickly. We had like 10 or 11 days pre-production, which is crazy, and then 21, 22 days for the shoot. We were doing table reads. Kane was doing camera tests. I was in costumes with Renate. We were checking in. Then all the cast was coming in. It happened so quickly we kind of had to rely on people’s natural talent.
Kane Senes: And a script that conveyed, like I said, the tone and the approach to the film. It was pretty much in there from the beginning.
Hannah Barlow: But we didn’t have really any room or time to be altruistic about it.
Kane Senes: It was just run and done. And I think from the casting front, what the actors all responded to again starts with the script, especially someone like Aisha [Dee], who played Cecilia/Sissy. From the beginning, she loved the satire of it. She saw what we were doing, but she also really wanted to—authentically and honestly—bring Cecilia to life. She felt that she was that character, that she went through bullying as a child. She got it.
She wanted to approach it like, I think, any good actor does. You play the role straight. You approach it as a human drama. You root for the character that you’re playing, and that’s how everyone felt. And all the actors gave us their blessing to push the individual character and to not feel like we have to treat anyone with kid gloves. Turn the dial up. They all just kind of relished the opportunity to play those roles, which they don’t get to do a lot, especially in Australia.
These kinds of movies get made more in the States than they do in Australia, typically because we’re a government-funding based film industry. We have to have convey a sense of Australian culture in most of our movies to get the funding, whereas in this case, we felt like we were making a universal movie that, if you played it on mute, could really be from anywhere. They all really relished the opportunity to do something fun and a little more genre based than what they typically get to do in Australia.
PopHorror: Oh wow, I did not know that. And Aisha was incredible. Perfect casting. Hannah, not only did you co-write, and co-direct, but you also starred in the film as well. Was it always the plan for you to star in it?
Hannah Barlow: Yeah. I became a screenwriter out of necessity to cast myself in roles because living in LA wasn’t working for me. So, yeah. I stepped behind the camera for my own selfish means, I guess.
Kane Senes: I don’t know if it’s selfish. It’s just that our generation, that’s kind of what-
Hannah Barlow: You have to become a slasher.
Kane Senes: Not that kind of slasher.
Hannah Barlow: Not that kind. Different.
Kane Senes: Writer/director/actor. That’s what is seen with a lot of actors these days. It’s because technology is cheaper, and it’s possible to be able to do it. You have to write yourself the roles that you want to be able to play, and that’s what Hannah did. I take my hat off to her, because she didn’t give up from that perspective.
PopHorror: That is amazing! You did what you had to do to get what you wanted, and you’re like, “Fuck it! I’m going to write my own.” That’s truly amazing.
Hannah Barlow: Thank you!
PopHorror: What is it that draws you to horror?
Kane Senes: I think for us, it’s many things.
Hannah Barlow: You can say what you want without the consequences of another genre. I think you can cross the line. I think you can approach the line, you can cross it, and you can dance on it.
Kane Senes: You can dial it up to 11 and really tackle a subject matter head on in a way that might seem too over-the-top or unbelievable if it was drama or even a thriller.
Hannah Barlow: And the audience wants you to do that. They want you to delight them, shock them, and surprise them. I think that we’re film fans first, especially Kane’s nerdom of all genres, but horror in particular.
Kane Senes: I’m a bit of a ’70s, ’80s kind of horror guy. There’s nothing better than a Friday night at home with a pizza and a schlocky movie.
Hannah Barlow: To experience in some way.
Kane Senes: Yeah, to experience. What I think horror does so well is that it thrills you, and it gives you a kind of experience unlike any other film genre. I’m not sure if it’s scares, or cringing, or being grossed out, or being disturbed by an idea, deeply disturbed.
Hannah Barlow: I think what it does is the experience you have when you’re a kid, and you’re watching films for the first time, it puts you back there.
Kane Senes: That’s right. I remember being in the video stores—rest in peace—and walking into the horror section was almost a bit scary, because you’re in an aisle where, no matter where you look, there’s scary things on video boxes that are looking back at you. It’s almost like there wasn’t a light over that aisle, and as you walked into it, it got darker and darker.
But there was a thrill associated with that, right? With picking up A Nightmare on Elm Street and looking at it and just having nightmares about Freddy Krueger’s face, and then saying, “I need to go back and get that video next time. I’ve got to convince my parents to rent it for me or get it somehow.” There’s a thrill associated with that, and I think that’s where it starts. That’s where it starts from the youngest age.
Hannah Barlow: The fandom of it all.
PopHorror: I love watching things now that I haven’t seen and recognizing the cover or the poster from seeing videos when I was a child, things that I never would have been allowed to watch at that time. It does bring you back to childhood. What is up next for you both?
Hannah Barlow: We’re writing our next script.
Kane Senes: We won’t go into too much, because we don’t exactly know what it is yet.
Hannah Barlow: Sissy is our first screenplay together, so we’re just really excited to be in the writing headspace again and coming to festivals like Fantasia. We were at BIFF recently in South Korea, in Busan. We’re having the time of our lives, so I think that’s reignited energy to do this all over again.
Kane Senes: And just our love for genre cinema. When we premiered the film at SXSW… a wonderful festival and the Midnighters section is great, but you end up just going to those five or six films in the Midnighters section because, at the end of the day, that’s what we target when we go to a festival. But being able to come to genre-specific festivals like Fantasia where everything they’re playing is genre related, it really inspires you so this next thing we’re writing and staying in that genre space.
Hannah Barlow: Genre mashing.
Kane Senes: Then genre mashing like I think we tried to do with Sissy. That’s something that we’re interested in, like putting genres together in a way that they say you can’t do, because horror comedy doesn’t sell. It has to be straight horror. And our whole thing was always if you can make someone laugh, and then make them jump—
Hannah Barlow: Question how they should be reacting.
Kane Senes: Cringe or be grossed out. If you can somehow get that variety of conflicting reactions, that’s a satisfying cinema-going experience. As filmmakers, all you can really do is try to make the kind of movie that you would line up to go see as a fan. We want to do that again, so that’s what we’re working on.
PopHorror: Well, I can’t wait, because if it’s anything like Sissy, I know it’s going to be fantastic. I have just one last question for you both. What is your favorite scary movie?
Hannah Barlow: Okay, well, I have to go with my first. I’m a huge Zemeckis fan, so I love Death Becomes Her. It’s my favorite film, but I also really love What Lies Beneath, even though it’s more of a thriller.
Kane Senes: Alien. I always go back to Alien. It’s just my favorite horror film of all time and probably one of my top five films of all time.
Thank you so much, Hannah and Kane, for taking the time to speak with us. You can catch Sissy now, currently in the festival circuit and coming soon to Shudder!