The Female Gaze
A series of interviews with Women In Film.
Welcome to The Female Gaze, in which I talk with women from every walk of the creative process of film and television. Over the course of this series, we will explore every facet of the film industry, and go in depth into the thoughts and processes of women at every level within the film community, from writers, directors and actors, to editors, cinematographers, marketing consultants, PR, and critics.
Within every interview, you will be introduced to the experiences and unique perspectives of the legion of talented, professional women who shape the cinema that we love.
You would be hard pressed to find a better authority on a particular genre than Zoe Rose Smith. A writer and critic, Zoe also works in PR, repping for films that are firmly rooted in the genre that she adores: horror.
Horror has, over the past 10 years, entered a certain type of renaissance, firmly rooted in a generational fondness and nostalgia for the 70s and 80s, considered the heyday for the genre. I spoke with Zoe about the challenges of marketing these types of films, what she thinks about female representation within a category traditionally unkind towards female characters, and the politics that often go into having a voice on such a large subject, in an online context.
But I didn’t have the guts to ask her what her favourite murder weapon would be.
Q. Horror, of course, for anyone that knows you, is your forte. What is it about the horror genre that you love?
I love being able to experience an emotion that isn’t felt on an everyday basis. Fear isn’t something that we get to go through many times, and it’s an emotion full of adrenaline, excitement and sheer terror. It’s something that is completely different to any other emotion because it causes us to react in ways we might have not thought possible, physically and mentally, and it can drive us to be stronger. It’s that feeling and emotion that makes the horror genre unlike any other and one that’s so addictive.
Q. Do you have an all time favourite?
Tough question. This often changes from time to time dependent on how I’m feeling and what I’ve seen recently. However, my all time favourite has to be The Evil Dead. It’s one of the first horror films I ever watched and terrified me upon first viewing. I remember my Dad letting me and a couple of friends secretly watch it at a Halloween party and we were all shocked by what we had witnessed.
Q. Is there a particular sub-genre of horror that you prefer?
Most people already know this as I never really shut up about it, but it has to be extreme horror. Admittedly there are aspects of the genre that I’m not always feeling, as it’s a very heavy and dark sub-genre that often gets under your skin a little too much. I find it fascinating to see how we can push ourselves mentally past our own boundaries and shock the senses, however, that can take a toll on your mind. There are often times when I have to take a break from extreme films as it is admittedly quite tiring on the soul.
Q. There seems to be a nostalgia for 80s horror at the moment, what’s your take on that?
80s horror will always be a very special part of the horror genre as a whole; it helped to define many different styles and subgenres and holds a special place in many people’s hearts. There are a lot of 80s horror films that I love, however, may were slashers which are me least favourite so I wouldn’t say I’m super nostalgic about it. Also, I was born in the 90s so it doesn’t have any nostalgia towards my childhood like it does for many others. That said, I still think it’s great!
Q. Horror is particularly hit and miss, of course. Would you say you see more bad horror than good horror in any given year?
It really depends on where you’re looking. As a reviewer of films you end up seeing a lot of bad horror films, but you also get to see a lot of independent films that are amazing and don’t get as much recognition as they deserve. So I would say it’s about even. I’d also like to mention that even though I’m often harsh when it comes to critiquing a film, I’m always impressed that there are filmmakers continuing to work on their passion and deliver audiences with more films.
Q. What’s your take on the awards season, and its continual snub of the genre, particularly when the quality and artistic merit of films like Hereditary prove that these films are legitimate works of art?
Most the awards are trash in my honest opinion. For so long now they’ve completely disregarded the horror genre, which is an insult to filmmakers across the board. Horror is a hard genre to get right, and when it’s done right it should be given credit for that. The awards is all to do with mainstream popularity and politics, they rarely want to notice horror. I’ve always been a little anti-establishment so for me, awards that don’t recognise certain genres shouldn’t even be considered as reputable.
Q. What about female directors within that genre? Do you find their take, or POV, creates a different type of experience?
There are aspects about womanhood that a man could never possibly know or understand. We could spend the rest of our lives explaining it, but someone who hasn’t lived it and felt just would not understand. The same goes for mens experiences – women won’t understand many of them. Because of this it gives a POV and storytelling that resonates with women, the struggles they go through and the very real emotions they feel. Raw from Julia Ducournau is a perfect example; it gave women the gory, bloody horror that we so often crave combined with a coming of age story that represents the struggle of coming to terms with sexuality, being an outcast and finding your way in the world. It’s an outstanding representation of all those frightening feelings that happen when you start to become a woman and how you have to try to find a way to approach them. Another film that I think is a great example is The Babadook from Jennifer Kent; it’s all about psychology and really focuses on how being a mother going through turmoil can turn monsters into reality. Being a mother is fucking terrifying at times, and even more so when you’re left to do it on your own, that paired with grief, guilt and trauma can send you into madness. Kent really plays on the emotions of women and mothers, and presents it as a horror film.
Q. Are there any particular films by female directors that you feel subvert the genre?
I felt Revenge from Coralie Fargeat completely subverted the genre. There was a lot of talk about it being really empowering for women, but I felt quite the opposite in this sense. It’s start out exceptionally strong, with the lead being flirtatious and teasing the men and then going into the awful sexual attack. But instead of showing that regardless of how you act, rape is rape, they went on to give scenes that were completely unbelievable and to quote my friend Chris Nials from The London Horror Society “she could only survive through fantasy”. Fargeat stripped away the realism (I’m trying not to give too much of the film away!) and made it seem that a woman could only survive a horrific attack like that if she could basically not die in a situation where anyone would 100% die. That film really infuriated me, and took away the sense of empowerment.
Q. Other than horror, Is there another particular type of film that you gravitate towards?
The sci-fi genre is another one I gravitate towards, however, it’s a genre that I feel is even harder to execute than horror. Many of the aspects covered in sci-fi needs a budget behind it to be delivered well, and therefore that often means that smaller independent filmmakers aren’t able to do it. Even though, there are films like Primer that are out of this world when it comes to sci-fi and didn’t use a big budget. Another genre I really enjoy is war, and not many people know that!
Q. Where are you based?
I’m based in London, but I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in a smaller town just North of London called Hemel Hempstead. There was never really much to do there and so I escaped for the city as soon as I could.
Q. You work in digital content, what led you to this line of work?
Being a creative has always come naturally to me; my mum was an interior designer and my Dad is a graphic designer. I always knew I wanted work in a creative industry and had many options available to me. At one point I nearly went down the science route as I had a love for psychics at school but then realised I’m awful at numbers. Writing was my chosen creative passion and after being introduced to the world of Marketing, I realised that I could use my words combined with creativity to work in creating digital content. I guess I’m a millennial, and therefore I loved this new way of marketing content through digital outlets and then I was h
Q. Did you study in digital content, or marketing?
I studied Journalism at the University of Westminster. I always believed that I would only work for a magazine or newspaper, but then I discovered there’s a lot of room for creative writing outside of those two industries.
Q. Your work in a PR capacity interests me. Can you talk a little about the company you work for and the films you rep?
I’ve been doing PR for a few different companies of the last few years, helping to spread the word about films, projects and campaigns. The most recent company that I’ve been working for is Loose Canon Films and in particular their horror film Charismata. They are an independent London-based company film production company, and they are just great. They all have an amazing understanding of what makes film so great and apply that to everything that they do; it’s a company that I really support and can get behind. I rep Charismata (which is an awesome horror film that you obviously have to check out haha), and will be repping some upcoming films that are currently in production.
Q. You run your own website, is that an offshoot of your PR work?
Actually I started running the website before doing PR work. The website has been running for about 7 years but I moved sites a couple years back and lost all of my content. I also refreshed my name and look, so with that in mind, just a couple of years. It’s my personal project that has fortunately led to great opportunities for myself.
Q. You also write for a number of different sites, as a critic. What qualities do you think make a good film critic?
Honesty and an ability to understand. You need to be able to give constructive feedback, but you also have to be honest when you think a film is just not good. However, even if a film is awful you should be able to understand what the filmmaker was trying to do and say.
Q. You and I talk often on twitter, mainly about films and film making. Can you remember at what point you realised that you wanted to pursue the role of a film critic?
It was in my secondary school actually, before Twitter even existed. We had a project to write two film reviews, I chose Into The Wild and Lords of Dogtown. I felt so captivated by both of those films and just wanted to find a way to express the emotions they had made me feel. The film reviews were quite atrocious, but I realised that being a film critic was so exciting and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Q. What are some of the films that opened your eyes to the knowledge that you could dissect the art behind the medium?
Obviously the two aforementioned films. I think one film that really showed me how to dissect something was Cannibal Holocaust. In University I decided to write a piece around found footage films and stumbled upon Ruggero Deodato’s horrific masterpiece. I was shocked by the content of the film, and realised that I needed to find a way to dissect the film and look at how it could be considered an art form.
Q. Do you have a process when you write? For example, do you prefer a deadline, or no pressure?
Deadlines work better for me otherwise I become very distracted. Most people that know me know that I have a strange obsession with being very busy. I’m an energetic person and don’t like to laze around. When it comes to writing, I like to write in the morning after running; I feel my mind is very clear and knows exactly what it wants to say. I always try to finish writing something (unless it’s very long) within a day or I lose my flow. Then I like to edit a day afterwards so I can have a fresh perspective. I also quite like writing when I’m drunk; sometimes I’m a little more honest and free flowing.
Q. Do you appear on any podcasts?
I’ve been a guest on a few and there are some coming up. I’ve regularly been on the Lambcast, The Asian Cinema Film Podcast, Cinema Recall and Talking Stars. I was recently on Strong Language and Violent Scenes talking about Teeth, which was super fun! I’ll be on The Evolution of Horror, Talk Filmy To Me, Cinemania World and a few others.
Q. If so, Do you find it a different discipline to talk about film, as opposed to writing about it?
Most certainly. I actually find it quite difficult to talk about film as I’ve always been better with writing my thoughts rather than saying them. This would come as a surprise to most as I’m actually a loud mouth for those who know me. Gradually I’m improving how I speak about films but sometimes I’m not as coherent as I’d like to be, plus I swear too much.
Q. Have you ever felt marginalized within the film community or critics circles because of your gender? If so, is it a frequent thing?
Quite the opposite! When I was at University I met a film critic and he said how the industry needed more women to talk about film. That comment always stuck with me, and as soon as I entered into the community I found myself welcomed and surrounded my amazing people. Some people have been inappropriate before, but I’ve had inappropriate cashiers in Tesco so it’s not exclusive to this community. Honestly, I feel so appreciated within the community and have only met amazing people.
Q. What do you think a female perspective brings to the critical process, that a male perspective doesn’t?
Often in horror films the female is the victim, that’s a fact that can’t be escaped. But being a woman you can take that negative connotation and see how it can perhaps be turned on its head and swung in a different direction. I wrote a piece about 80s horror and the female; although you always think of the girl being a blonde bimbo who gets killed, what you notice if you pay attention is there is always a strong woman and she’s always the one saying something isn’t right. A male perspective could pick this up too but I think it becomes more prevalent if you’re a female yourself and trying to see it in a certain light. I try not to make too much of a fuss about having a female perspective though, as I think to just think we all have perspectives regardless of if we’re male or female!
Q. What about Film Twitter? We are both members of that community, and you are very active on social media platforms, but it seems like it also comes with as many cons as pros.
Everything comes with pros and cons. People can be cruel at time, and when it comes to having an opinion, sometimes people really dislike you for it. I think as part of Film Twitter it’s important for us to point out when someone is being a dick to someone else, because the culture of bullying is easy to do on a platform such as Twitter but shouldn’t go unnoticed. If I think someone is being out of order, I will be very blunt and call them a douche. You have to remember that it’s online and you never had to tolerate anyone or anything you don’t want to.
Q. What is the toughest aspect, for you, in writing freelance?
Time! I’m thinking that as soon as cloning becomes a thing I’ll make another couple of mes, lock them in my basement and get them to write more content for me. That way I can approach world domination…
Q. How often do you pitch to magazines and websites?
Not as often as I should. I’m very critical of my own writing and always feel that I need to drastically improve for a website or magazine to be interested. It’s not awful thing to do, but we all do it to ourselves! This year I’m focusing on being more confident and positive about myself and my writing and therefore I hope to make some more pitches soon.
Q. Have you attended many festivals in a film critic capacity?
Most of the film festivals I’ve attended have been as part of press with films I’m doing PR for. I’m hoping this year I’ll attend some more film festivals as a film critic rather than PR.
Q. Would you say that you watch the majority of films in the theatre or at home?
I would say at home. I love the theatre and go as frequently as possible, however, it’s also expensive and I love the comfort of my home. Many of the screeners I’ve been sent are online and therefore I can comfortably watch them at home with a bottle of red, lots of snacks and my kitten. I also really love watching screeners at the gym, however, my fellow gym attendees don’t seem to appreciate decapitations at 8 in the morning.
Q. Do you think, with all the streaming services now available, that the theatre experience is dying?
Yes and no. Being able to stream at home from the comfort of your sofa is wonderful, especially after a long day at work. However, you don’t get the same experience as you do at the cinema. I think that the cinema takes the piss a bit with single ticket prices, but that’s why there are limitless offers etc which make it more affordable. Most people I know who love film still really appreciate the cinematic experience.
Q. What do you think an audience brings to the experience of watching a film?
It’s all about that atmosphere. You know when you’re sat in the cinema and you suddenly hear bloodcurdling screams from a group of girls at the back of the cinema, it makes it so much more enjoyable. I went to see A Quiet Place with my little brother and it was the first horror he’d seen in the cinema. He was TERRIFIED (he’ll kill me for saying that…), and it was the entire atmosphere of being in the dark, and unknown place with loud noises. Watching him and the rest of the audience experience sheer terror made it more enjoyable for me.
Q. Do you harbour any desire to write, say, a screenplay and put your film knowledge into practice? Or a novel, perhaps?
I’d love to do it all! I have a big desire to write a screenplay and have a couple of ideas, but putting that on paper is easier said than done… It’s a work in progress but behind the scenes I’m also working on a novel (don’t get too excited, this would be years and years away) about a genre of cinema I really love; it would be more academic than fiction. Who knows, I love writing and would love to explore pretty much all the avenues there are.
Q. Outside of cinema, do you have any other artistic passions?
Does drinking wine count as an artistic passion? Other than writing I don’t really have any artistic passions as such. My only other passion is exercise; I run pretty much everyday and am addicted to the gym. If I’m not watching a horror film, I’m usually sweating it out somewhere.
Q. And finally, what is your main focus for the future?
Try not to get murdered… No but seriously I’m really keen on focusing on my writing this year and finally spending more time doing what I love. I’ve started writing for a few new outlets and I’m keeping my own website up to date. I’m hoping to launch a podcast soon, I’m just taking my time as I don’t think I need to rush. I’ve got a cool video project coming with The London Horror Society, so keep your eyes peeled for that. Further than that is focusing on the PR side of films and helping independent filmmakers spread the word about their artistic creations. And after? Zobo With a Shotgun will start world domination.
You can follow Zoe via her twitter page @ZoboWithShotgun as well as her website.