For a woman pursuing a career in telling horror stories, Jovanka Vuckovic is living anything but one. A horror journalist and Rue Morgue editor done good, Vuckovic has been the driving force of her filmmaking career, having garnered high marks for her short film THE CAPTURED BIRD before making her big-screen debut in the all-women horror anthology XX. With her segment, “The Box,” Vuckovic introduces a loving family to a devastating terror that refuses to show its face, and it’s guaranteed to get under your skin. With XX creeping onto screens next weekend, Terror Time spoke to Vuckovic about adapting Jack Ketchum, thematic bleedovers, and what just might be in “The Box”…
TERROR TIME: So how did you first get involved with XX?
JOVANKA VUCKOVIC: The project actually originated with me and Todd Brown in Toronto, Canada, because we both had a similar idea at the same time to do an all-women’s horror anthology. I originally was going to crowdfund it, but then Todd Brown, who works for XYZ Films and was the white male feminist unsung hero behind XX, basically came to me with the same idea and asked if I could be a part of it. So I said, “Yeah, I was planning one of my own,” but then I ended up abandoning my project and joined forces with him on XX because he could bring in financing, and let’s face it, he had a better title for the concept.
So we started making a list of filmmakers and we were off to the races, and that was 4 years ago, if you could believe it! My segment was actually finished 2 years ago, and Karyn’s was finished over a year ago. So XX has been a long time in the making.
TT: What inspired the decision to adapt Jack Ketchum’s “The Box” as opposed to writing an original segment ?
JV: Well, the original story that I was going to do ended up being too expensive; Hopefully I can return to that idea in the future. So I started thinking of what I could do within the budgetary and time restrictions. I had loved “The Box” when I first read it when it came out in Peaceable Kingdom, which was an anthology from Jack Ketchum. The story really stood out to me because, as you know, Jack Ketchum is more well known for doing splatter fiction. His normally very dark and violent, and “The Box” was an existential horror story that doesn’t have a single drop of blood in it. I always thought it would make a great episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY, so I saw XX as an opportunity to go back in time and do an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
TT: Were there any talks with the producers or your fellow filmmakers about shared themes between the stories? The theme of “Motherhood” presents itself throughout the anthology quite a lot.
JV: That’s a good question because it was a complete coincidence. We didn’t consult with each other about what we were going to do; we were given creative freedom by Magnet so we didn’t really talk to each other about what we were doing. So it was a complete surprise when most of the segments turned out to be family dramas, so make of that what you will. I did not consciously set out to make a film about motherhood because, in my case, “The Box” originally had the father as the protagonist as well as the one who was incapable of making a connection to his family. I had to change the gender of our protagonist as to meet the rules of the anthology; we only had three rules, which were it had to be directed by a woman, written by a woman, and star a woman in the lead role. So to fit the requirements of XX, I had to write “The Box” with the mother as the main character.
The good news is when I rewrote the segment, a lot of interesting storytelling opportunities arose where I could say more about motherhood, like the idea that not all women are meant to be mothers and the ways some women respond to the demands of motherhood. Plus that brought a very interesting angle to the domestic horror of watching your children starve to death. But the fact that motherhood became this overarching theme was a complete accident.
TT: How did actress Natalie Brown get involved? She’s made quite an impact on the genre as of late with THE STRAIN and CHANNEL ZERO: CANDLE COVE, but you must have cast her before those projects.
JV: Yeah, it was her first lead role in a horror movie. XX with shot over three different countries and between three different unions, and in my case, I was shooting “The Box” in Canada, so I had the generous support of ACTRA. But that meant I had to cast Canadian actors, and Natalie was at the top of my list because she’s a great actress. She was a complete trooper; she didn’t complain about anything including being trapped in a table, covered in blood for the entire day. She was amazing and I hope to work with her again.
TT: What was your experience like dealing with the practical effects sequences in your segment, especially since “The Box” leans so heavily on the use of dread?
JV: If you read “The Box,” you know that there is one scene that I added that is not in the short story. [laughs] I felt the segment lacked a cumulative “Christmas Dinner” scene where the family was gathered around a “turkey” of sorts in a very civilized way, eating it with their knives and forks. Plus once I started massaging the story so that it could become a woman’s story, I felt that “The Box” needed an image of what the character was feeling, and what the entire segment was really about. The emotional center of the story is in that scene.
So a part of me felt that it was in service of the narrative, but then there’s the part of me that grew up watching horror movies and reading Fangoria. Practical effects guys were my heroes, and the most fun moment I had while making this movie was shooting the gore scene. I was like a kid in the candy store; everyday I would look at the call sheet and go, “Oh man, is today a practical effects day?” I was super excited about it, so it was twofold.
TT: The ending of “The Box” is very open-ended and leaves the central mystery lingering with the audience. Was there ever a discussion about revealing the truth behind the segment’s horror?
JV: I wanted to retain the same ending from the short story; Jack Ketchum wrote “The Box” that way, where the actual box is a MacGuffin. I know that some people think that MacGuffins are cheap, lazy devices, but I liked it and it always stayed with me. It must have stayed with other people as well because it won a Bram Stoker Award in the year that it was released.
For me, it was never a question about if I was going to tell anybody what was in the box. It’s more interesting when people tell me what they thought was in the box because everybody says something different. Some people think that the movie is about child abuse, where bad things are happening to a child and the mother is turning away from the truth. Some people told me they think that it’s a curse, which is a more traditional, TWILIGHT ZONE-esque answer. It’s more fun for me to wade through the responses than to tell you what I thought was in the box.
XX will hit select theaters and VOD this Friday, February 17th, from Magnet Releasing. New York-based horror fans can catch a preview screening of XX on Wednesday, February 15th, at Brooklyn’s Nitehaw Cinema; details and tickets can be found HERE.