Interview with horror writer, actress, producer and model Kelsey Zukowski

By Jonathan Weichsel
MoreHorror.com

Kelsey Zukowski is a horror writer, actress, producer, and model who has been gathering a solid fan base over the last few years due to her passionate dedication to horror, her deep understanding of the horror genre, and her modeling work, which is some of the most unique, character-driven modeling being done in horror today. I sat down and had a lengthy chat with Kelsey about her short film Words like Knives and her feature Within These Walls, both of which were written by and star Zukowski, as well as her modeling and her feelings about her work.

So read on to get a look inside the mind of this passionate and driven artist. At the very end of the interview is a special treat for fans, the free online premier of Kelsey Zukowski's short film Words Like Knives.

JW- I really liked your twenty minute short film Words Like Knives. I am wondering what you were trying to accomplish with the film.

KZ- Words Like Knives started from the idea of a rumor spinning out of control. From there I thought, what would be the most vicious rumor someone could spread? I wanted the rumor to be something where, whether it was true or not, the person spreading it would have to be extremely cruel and a bit sick for either making it up or making light of a truly horrible thing.

JW- The film is a very raw and real portrayal of high school and the effect gossip can have on somebody.

KZ- Words Like Knives presents real life horrors in the way it portrays different forms of abuse and bullying, where people are subjected to pain and torment as part of their everyday lives. Bullying wears a person down and can lead to even bigger tragedies like people harming themselves, school shootings, or suicide. Words Like Knives shows how someone can be driven to something like that when they’re so completely victimized and at a certain point can’t deal with it any longer.

JW- Of course I loved your acting, and especially the writing, which I found had a lot of depth.

KZ- I think we were pretty successful at making Words Like Knives very psychological, surreal, and ominous. We shot a lot of things to leave different possibilities open: it could be that this was a made up rumor that became real in the main character’s mind, pushing her to insanity, or it could be that this was a repressed memory that she had to live in denial of or it would destroy her. It’s a film that asks a lot of “what ifs” and really explores all angles of if this were to happen, what might the different realities consist of. I think there’s a lot of different powerful and eye opening themes on hand.

JW- Tell me about Within These Walls.

KZ- Within These Walls was a mutual collaboration between James Tucker and I. We were both attracted to the idea of a more disturbing haunted house story than some more recent ghost movies, which seem to focus more on sudden jump scares without much depth or really bringing anything new to the table. We really clicked from the beginning on our vision for the story. I wrote the script and then we got Ryan Baker involved, who took on a much bigger role in the film. Everything that happened from then on was the three of us bringing this vision to life.

JW- Obviously Within These Walls is a bigger film because it is a feature where Words Like Knives is a short, but it is also a much more mature film that explores many more lofty themes.

KZ- One of the most haunting questions in the film is just how much the human mind, body, and spirit can take. Our main character is really pushed to the edge in every way possible, her control being ripped away as she is utterly dominated. How long can you try to fight when the thing that has trapped and is tormenting you endlessly is something you can’t even see? It’s enough to drive anyone insane or to simply beg for an end.

There’s an element of the unknown in the film that is really frightening. The character reaches out for help when she can, but she learns on her own that the strength she needs to fight the entity has to come from within the house where she is trapped and within herself.

I wanted to explore a lot of different compelling themes that are very inherent in horror; the basis of fear, and how your fear can own you if you let it. There are so many very real human emotions in the film: loss, suffering, trying to hold on to hope when hopelessness is threatening to fill you up, the past coming back to haunt you, the hunger for truth and survival, and finding one's strength when it seems every bit of strength has been sacrificed in the suffering. A lot of those are very real things we as humans experience outside of the horror realm, yet by putting it to the extreme, it puts it into perspective and makes it that much more hard to endure and resonates that much more.

JW- What is it about horror that attracts you to the genre?

KZ- I love so much about the genre. The dark exploration, the creativity and endless potential to really showcase something powerful, the amazing horror community and the passion they hold, and how it has become such an essential part of my identity and life. Horror understands me, it comforts me, it disturbs me, it challenges me, and it absolutely empowers me.

I think horror gets wrongly judged a lot. Horror is so much more diverse than people think. It’s more than the mostly mediocre sequels, remakes, and films lacking depth, and it’s more than just slashers and torture films. That’s not to say I don’t like some of those sub-genres, but they aren't what defines horror for me. They are simply parts of something much bigger.

There is so much creativity that needs to go into horror in order to make it great, and so much potential in examining the darkness in human nature and exposing injustices in human society. I see horror films as intense, visceral, eye opening metaphors.

Sometimes you have to look a little further in order to recognize certain emotions and to see how they relate to the struggles of everyday life and the complexities of the human condition. Sometimes horror movies are more literal, showcasing a truly horrendous fate of being utterly dehumanized and put through unimaginable amounts of pain and suffering no one should have to go through. I quote this all the time, but it’s one of my favorite quotes from a horror master, and one that really inspired me:

“Horror films don’t create fear, they release it.” – Wes Craven

I think that’s really true. Horror films can showcase us being utterly ripped from safety, but the audience is able to view them through a safe place. We can put ourselves in certain positions and experience the dread, desperation, and unrelenting hunger for survival and life through watching horror movies without truly having to wear the scars ourselves.

I tackle the subjects and scenarios in my films that terrify me the most, because they tantalize me with such satisfying areas of exploration. I can go places in storytelling that I can’t in real life, and probably would never want to. It can be extremely therapeutic, because what I find in the fictional world, I then take with me back to reality.

JW- Many horror actresses promote themselves as "scream queens." Do you consider yourself a scream queen?

KZ- I really don’t. "Scream queen" gets associated with the victim or ‘final girl’ role in one horror film after another, which is certainly some of my roles, but not all, as I have played plenty of vicious and villainous characters too.

JW- Well, the term has evolved to mean an actress who is deep into the horror genre regardless of the specific role, and is now used to describe an iconic actress in horror.

KZ- I think 'iconic' is the key word here. It is an honor to be referred to as a scream queen, so I have no issue being labeled as that. However, I will never be the one to call myself a scream queen. Not anytime soon, anyway. I firmly believe it’s a title you can’t just give to yourself, and within indie films the title has been abused by so many girls who get some kind of part in a horror film and then try to claim it for themselves for selfish reasons. That is much more common than someone deserving being given the title. In some ways the title scream queen has become a joke, since most of the time these actresses are misrepresenting themselves. I’m all for women showing their dedication to the genre, but I think it’s important to restore the title to its original meaning.

You didn’t see Jamie Lee Curtis bragging about being a scream queen in the 80s. She’s probably one of the first people who comes to mind when hearing the term scream queen. Curtis actually had many iconic horror film roles and deserves the title because of her reign of being terrorized and giving us strong female characters who face the unspeakable evil haunting them.

Maybe when I’m in my forties and have twenty years of blood, sweat, and tears worth of films to show for it, I will truly earn scream queen status. For now, I’m focused on continuing to do what I love more than anything; feeding my need to create compelling horror films. Call it what you will, it’s the act that matters more than the label.

JW- I know that you are very passionate about screenwriting. What drives you to write?

KZ- I’ve been fascinated by stories for as long as I can remember, and have always identified as a writer. I have a very active mind and writing is the best way for me to communicate my thoughts and express myself. When I was fourteen, I became heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s film reviews. He’s really the one who got me to look at films as something more than just entertainment. He awakened me to the emotional experience and depth a good film can hold. His writing instilled in me a determination to always find just the right words to really allow the audience to feel the weight of what you’re saying or feeling, almost as if they were the ones experiencing it. Writing is putting puzzle pieces together, which can be a challenge, but when the right words are put together you feel a wonderful satisfaction.

Within the screenwriting context, it’s a way for me to create and tell stories. There’s a lot of different reasons why I write. I want to write films like the ones that really had an impact on me, that inspired, intrigued, disturbed, and exhilarated me in one way or another.

I write very thematic scripts. That's my focus and I build everything else around that. With each script, it’s the message or perspective that really fuels it. It can expose evils or bring out justice, a freedom you only have in the fictional world you create. There’s almost always some relevance to something in the world we live in whether it be something in society or inner demons within us all. My writing is also very psychologically charged and often surreal. I like to play with that line of fiction and reality, sanity vs. the feeling of insanity when you lose your grip on reality, or perhaps just what you perceived to be real. I really love being able to take any human struggle and bring to light how troubling it can be, or to give strength to it.

JW- Lately you have been producing your own films, which is the rout many horror actresses have been taking. What made you decide to do this?

KZ- I really only started producing out of necessity. When you have a script you really believe in and want to bring it to life, often times you just have to make it happen yourself. Luckily, I’ve been able to find the right people to collaborate with who share in my visions, determination, and passion to help me make those films happen.

JW- Was part of your decision to produce based on a frustration with the lack of good parts for women and good stories out there?

KZ- There is a lack of good roles and stories, not just for women, but both genders. Obviously I believe the roles and stories I create are strong. I try to write the types of characters and material I want to explore and dive in to, and to bring out the horrifying reality these characters have to endure and fight against. I definitely don’t have any ambitions of being a producer, the creative and content-based aspects of filmmaking are much more my thing.

JW- I really like your modeling work. It shows a lot of creativity, imagination, and expressiveness. I feel like your modeling work is unique to you, in that I haven't really seen anything quite like it.

KZ- Modeling as an artistic form of self-expression is the only type of modeling I am interested in. I look at modeling as a form of storytelling, developing a character, showcasing the emotions that character holds, and creating a snapshot of that character's world, which is no easy task. I approach modeling with an actor’s technique. Every look has to showcase so much more than in a film though, because each look potentially tells an entire story.

JW- I am wondering, what is your process in coming up with the concept for a shoot?

KZ- Sometimes the concepts are the photographer’s idea and I connect to it and bring my unique perception of that to the table. Sometimes the concepts are me paying homage to horror films and characters that really made an impact on me, where I feel there’s an element of that character’s spirit that I really want to showcase. I obviously gravitate to mostly dark material, either emotional avant-garde pieces, gothic beauty, or gritty horror concepts that explore the many themes that endlessly intrigue me. Some of this is born from brainstorming or from images that come to my mind.

JW- Where do you take it from there?

KZ- Once I or the photographer comes up with a concept, I find what element of the concept speaks to me the most. I then throw myself into the concept, and create a character that really lives and breathes.

I like to create characters whose emotional states are either tragic or fierce. Most of my shoots try to showcase one of those two extremes, either bringing to light extreme sadness, anger, and desperation from being tormented or misunderstood, or bringing out a strong, ferocious creature or women. I feel no shame in being either tragic or fierce, and try to utterly embrace both as I ask the audience to imagine the reality built around my characters. It’s really quite extraordinary to embrace a part of myself through these shoots, but then to take on this other character so outside of myself at the same time, to create something bigger than myself.

JW- What are some of your favorite shoots that you have done?

KZ- Over the past year or so I have had so many amazing shoots with Toxic Love Photography, which is the photographer I work with most often. The avant-garde String Theory set has a few of my favorite shots, the Twisted Circus, Dark Alice, and Bright, Bold, and Beautiful sets were fantastic as well. We really have the same taste and goals with the work we want to bring out: edgy, daring, dark, and beautiful.

Another favorite was the shoot I did was with Hannah Verbeuren Photography, which was inspired by Vampira and Wednesday Adams. These shots have unbelievable energy, and Hannah and I worked off one another perfectly. Both Hannah and I were totally going there and the shoot took on a life all of its own, resulting in so many outstanding images. The shoot focused on the creepy/ crazy tone that I do quite well.

My favorite shoot is probably the Bride of Frankenstein set I did. This is partially because I identify with that story so completely. The material deals with such alienation, abandonment, and heartfelt, emotion, pain of being an outcast, and unleashing the monster within me was a really incredible experience.

I identify with so many aspects of The Bride of Frankenstein and took on the character’s mentality completely. The set we used was absolutely perfect, and the group of photographers all helped capture so much. Already having a full story established, that shoot was more acting than the average photo shoot, but there was certainly a strong mix of acting and modeling. I could really relate to both the fragility and the primal fight of the character that was displayed, a fight I think is universal in a way. We all hurt, we bleed, we’re emotional creatures, we struggle, we can be taken advantage of, but there is another part of us, the monster within that protects and honors the humanity that it resides in. The monster is misunderstood, but it is our strength, not something to shame, but to show the utmost pride in.

JW- The finished product aside, what makes a successful shoot?

KZ- I think the most successful shoots are when you’re not in your head too much and not thinking “does this or that look right?” It’s when you really allow yourself to go there, when you’re daring yourself to go further and letting your body just move on its own and let your expressions showcase the character, all based on what you feel, that you come up with your best work. It’s almost not your conscious mind that's at work anymore.

Of course, those type of shoots also seem to happen when you are really collaborating well with a photographer. You know you are completely on the same page creatively so you aren’t questioning if they’re getting what they want. You’re totally in sync with every moment and every click of the camera.

Makeup artists and costume designers are a huge part in creating a character too, and letting you feel it yourself. Modeling is a real collaborative effort. When all these elements really come together those end up being the most impressive and personal images.

A big part of modeling is being comfortable, trying new things out, finding out what looks good and what doesn’t. To find that out you have to be a bit daring and not question yourself. Doing so many shoots, some with the same photographer again and again, I’ve been able to do that. I’m lucky in that almost all of the photographers I’ve worked with have a very similar creative energy as me so it just clicks. It has allowed me to have a natural flow in front of the camera and really become a stronger model. I have always enjoyed doing photo shoots, but lately it’s become an addiction. I do one amazing photo shoot and I’m always hungry for the next, and I have more and more ideas constantly coming.

You can be one of the first to watch Kelsey's short film Words like Knives for free here: https://vimeo.com/57167416

Keep an eye out for her feature Within These Walls. It is sure to play at film festivals across the country and around the world.


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