The Weird Women of Winterbourne

The Toronto Indie Horror Fest shared an Indiegogo link that caught my eye one day (the Winterbourne series that I’ve previously mentioned). I was curious to find out more about the creators and how they came to be doing a web-series adaptation of Robert W. Chambers, and they were gracious enough to meet with me.  What follows are a few of the questions I asked over an hour’s conversation and their answers. The following may contain some mild spoilers. You can also see a theatre screening (probably the only time) on Thursday April 12. I spoke with Michal Heuston (M), Director/Showrunner,  and Leah V. Smith (L), Head Writer, at a small cafe just off campus. Any comments from me are identified (A)

Q what is a good book/movie/TV show or podcast you’ve consumed recently?

Leah (L): I’m halfway through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I didn’t think I could take it on because it is a monumental, huge book, and it looked intimidating. Most recently I re-watched the 1985 Clue movie with Tim Curry… I absolutely love Alice Isn’t Dead. It’s honestly probably one of my favorite podcasts of all time. Limetown is very good.

Michal (M): I`m in the midst of re-reading the King in Yellow again. I just finished reading the Handmaid`s tale, which was dark but definitely not horror. I`m  halfway through the series. I don`t watch movies as much as I watch TV. [American Gods is] the next book I`m going to read. Ì should really read all these books before I watch the TV shows. I’m starting to get into Blood Drive, which is Mad Max meets grindhouse.

Q What Scares You

(L) Existential dread for me, actually…  [like] Lovecraft where underneath what we know is something more horrible and incomprehensible and we’ll never fully understand it. I’m a fan of Japanese [horror movies] stuff where it has that kind of signal degradation look.  Where the monster appears to not be really physically there and is jumping back and forth like the TV isn’t working.

(M) Mine is not knowing what’s coming next. Whether it’s something as simple like a horror film where they’re building up the suspense and something’s going to jump out.  [W]hen I have 500$ in my bank account, rent is due tomorrow, what’s next? That’s terrifying. True life horror. Or Not getting out  of this small town or moving on is a huge fear of mine. There’s so many people I grew up with who are still there, and I’m sure they’re happy,

The uncanny valley. Anything that looks human but is not. The best example I can think of is from the anime, Full Metal Alchemist, where this guy fuses his dog with his daughter.  It sounds human, has some human traits, talks like a human, but is absolutely not human. I was 11 years old and my sister had left the room because she got scared and I was just flipping channels and there’s a strange dog creature on the TV. That stuck with me for sure.

Q How do you use that (or not) and what are you trying to evoke

(L)Michal had an interesting vision when we started. Michal, Ayah [secondary writer] and I, we all sat down and talked about the kinds of things that we’d like to see in our episodes. We have an episode where someone gets buried alive, and that’s a very fundamental human fear, but we also have an episode where a young woman is trying to get her aunt to leave her house, because she’s sort of become a recluse and has locked herself away from society and she’s afraid of moving and letting go.

For all that we have supernatural elements we do really try to scare people.  I started off with a base human emotion and sensation, so that all the stories were in some way kinda grounded.

(M) The episode we’re shooting this weekend is about a guy who’s in love with the girl next door, and when he finally works up the courage to go talk to her, it’s too late.

Q What about adaptation? [I forgot to ask about this but it came up naturally – A]

(M) It was the dragon story. The guy with the cat, and he goes next door to return the cat… It’s essentially the same, yet modernized.

(L)I think that episode was the most closely mirrored to Chambers’ work

(L) That was the only one really where we followed the plot quite closely.

The others… originally was Michal’s idea, and they brought it to me and asked “are you willing to come on as a writer?” And there’s quite a few things where they gave me a theme, and Ayah and I just ran with it instead of just sticking to the original as closely as we could.

(A) the original idea was yours [Michal]?

(M) Just to adapt it… very loosely. The series itself is a manifestation of my love for classic horror literature and my former small-town life. Originally I had wanted to do something related to Edgar Allan Poe, but once I started doing more research, I realized that I could do so much more with the Robert W. Chambers story in a small town setting.

(L) And there was that feeling, that I think we brought into the writing process of the stifling  environment of a small town, and that is uniquely Michal…. You can feel you [to Michal] in it.


(l) I do feel there’s a kind of feeling of stasis that hangs over the town

Q What is weird Fiction?

(M) I’m not defining it, but what makes something weird fiction for  me, is taking something that we know and changing it a slight aspect of it to make it truly unsettling. It makes you really think “What if this was real, what would I do?”

Q How is it different from regular horror

(L) I feel like regular horror builds up to that moment of scare and it exists to entertain and frighten for perhaps 2 hours. It’s a movie or a TV show. But weird fiction is something that’s meant to sit with you and settle into your bones. And that years later you’re still thinking about it. It’s not meant to be a passing two ships in the night, which some movies are.

(M) The best example I can think of is the first story in the King in Yellow, where it’s a completely normal society but they change one aspect of it, and it is that  people are now legally allowed to commit suicide in this chamber. And it’s so strange and so bizarre and I’m still thinking about it. It’s taking what we know as normal and changing it.

(L) And that’s what I think really makes Weird fiction better. It’s meant to make you feel something beyond the short rush of sensation. It’s a more intimate connection between creator and the audience.

Q Are there any particular Weird Fiction writers you enjoy? And are there weird TV Shows or movies that you can think of.

(L)I worship the shrine of Neil Gaiman. So I’m a little biased there. I think for him the Graveyard Book – it’s a children’s book, along with Coraline – and the movie did not just do it justice, but when you really love something it can’t be adapted right. Weird TV shows are like XXXX [inaudible] and movies like Valkyrie Rising with Mads Mikkelsen, or Thelma, which was a Norwegian horror film revolving around a young woman’s coming of age story.  It was different, it went on for long enough where you had those moments were you went “what is going on?” It drew you into that world deeper and deeper It was very satisfying.

(M) I watched a movie High-Rise. [J.G. Ballard] took classism and stuck it in a high-rise apartment. It was very unsettling. And Black Mirror is taking the world we know and then changing a slight aspect.

Q What do you think about the Weird seeping into the public consciousness.

(L )I ‘d say Hannibal did it a little earlier. For all the Silence of the Lambs, and Manhunter, were in the public consciousness, they were 2 hours vs the TV show. And it is surreal, which really appeals to me.

(M) Surrealism was something I wanted to put into our series as well.

(L) The third season of Hannibal was the most surreal, abstract TV I’ve seen in my life. But I think that’s a weird breakthrough and it didn’t succeed in the end, but it was beautiful to watch.

[I totally forgot to ask about Twin Peaks here. -A]

(M) I think we’ve been in a period of the weird for longer than we would like to think in terms of media and what’s out there. I definitely think experimenting with the weird is not a new concept, as you can see in Robert W. Chambers’ work.

Q Indie vs Foreign vs Hollywood

(L) I think Hollywood had it’s heyday in 60s to the 80s. Maybe a few good 90s hits but they were more satirical. Where there was more room for new ideas, and I guess there was a little more creative freedom. Now there are so many adaptations of already successful things, or reboots, because it needs to make money no matter what it is. The budget can be a lot less, it’s more experimental, and doesn’t follow the same strict American mortality. Get Out is a good example of that. If it was done as a Hollywood movie, it would have flopped. It needed to have that heart, and saying something different.

(M) Another really good one is Ink . Which was entirely crowdfunded, well maybe my sources are wrong on that. It’s what I heard. It has this really grotesque creature.  Our king in yellow isn’t based on it, but they’re very similar in many ways.

Q How was it helpful/a hindrance to have all the stories set in one town.

For the writing it was a bit challenging at times . Right now I’m writing a blog for the website. I have ideas, and it doesn’t fit. It’s perfectly scary but it will not work. But at the same time, I do feel the setting  grounded my ideas for the episodes. It had to have an element of realism to it with people you might encounter

(M) I feel like we set the boundaries fairly tightly around the town. There’s lots of things Winterbourne doesn’t have – It has a church, it has one or two suburb streets and there would be a couple of small businesses run out of people’s homes, but there’s not even a convenience store.

(L) I’m hoping that visually when the final product comes out it creates a feeling of claustrophobia. All our episodes are short.  I think the entire experience with it being shorter  should feel a little constraining.

(M) Once we go into production. I think the really big issue will be because we have so many locations: Milton, Cambridge, Richmond Hill, Hamilton… [T]he issue will be making it all look cohesive in the end.

Q You’ve highlighted the rarity and importance of female crews. Does race or gender make any impact on your work? How about influential female creators.

(L) I think people are letting themselves be weirder too. As part of an all-female led team, women are into horror, but now women’s voices and what they want are getting heard more. Like XX. A lot of women are really into true crime, myself included.

With the acknowledgement of what people actually want, and having so much available to you, you can really choose what you like, and being less afraid of saying “ I love this,” and “I want that.”  I’m really glad that women are allowed to be more weird these days.

(M) On the note of XX, CW has a show in the works now called Black Rose, which has an all female  executive team, and its’ a horror anthology series.

(L) I binge listen to My favorite Murders, so I’d say Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgareff . It’s run by one female comedian, and a former host on a cooking channel, I think. And they talk about their love of true crime. It’s something I can feel comfortable discussing my stuff now, instead of just keeping it in certain circles. So I really admire them and their ability to be strange in public.

Q Why Chambers?

(M) The series itself is a manifestation of my love for classic horror literature and my former small-town life. Originally I had wanted to do something related to Edgar Allan Poe, but once I started doing more research, I realized that I could do so much more with the Robert W. Chambers story in a small town setting. I grew up reading Poe, I love him. I had been thinking of making a series based off Poe since first year.

(L) The impression I got when you were pitching the idea, that you were a bit too close to Poe’s work. And you were afraid of that, an adaptation – changing characters, setting… everything had to be the way it was it was.

(M)  I had been looking at Lovecraft… I didn’t tell you this [to Leah], I was looking at Anne Radcliffe, something really Gothic horror literature, but again I wasn’t as familiar with Radcliffe, and I wasn’t even familiar with Chambers  until I came across it on a website with public domain horror. That was a key requirement. That it be public domain.

Once I started reading it – He really does play off of natural human fears, losing someone you love, finally getting the confidence to do something and it’s too late, paranoia…stuff like that. I felt I could really run with it.

L)What I liked was it didn’t have jump scares, or get in your face,  but it was hard to sleep after reading. It wasn’t so much because I was picturing something in particular, there was that creeping uneasiness that something’s about to go wrong.

(L)While there is never quite the same jump scare, you have  no relief, actually, so it’s building in anticipation of that relief.

(M)  Each episode ends on such a heightened moment of suspense. When I was pitching [the project for school] in LA.  I told the story about the invitation,  and people asked “and then what happens?”  I think from that tiny test audience, it did get the unsettling anticipation.

Q Last thoughts about the series…

(M) Our series, although it is a modern  adaptation of Robert W. Chambers, it is very loosely inspired. It’s not word for word. It still has those connecting elements like the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign.

(L)We left a lot of stuff purposefully ambiguous in the writing process, and only recently, Michal and I were talking. We interpreted him [Chambers] completely differently.

(M) [E]ven members of our group interpreted him very differently. It’s what you want it to be – whatever’s creepiest, or scares you the most.

(L)I’m hoping that people can apply their own fears and see something that is uniquely horrifying for them.

You can see the first 360 video on YouTube,

Note: As I am untrained and inexperienced as a journalist, I took inspiration from Rob Mclennan’s 12 or 20 questions. There’s a lot of questions from my list I missed, and things that I would’ve liked to expand on, but didn’t see until after. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The screening is THIS Thursday (April 12) at 7 and 8 at the Carlton, and as of this time tickets are still available. More info at the Facebook event.

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