In Conversation with Clara Gabrielle & Marie Laurin filmmakers behind ‘The Uncanny’

Trauma and all of its terrifying friends raise their ugly heads in an exquisitely creepy psychological horror ‘The Uncanny’, by mother-daughter duo Marie Laurin and Clara Gabrielle. ‘The Uncanny’ marks the directorial debut by Clara, whose background lies in acting, as she shows off her skills behind the camera while adding a very personal tone to her first piece of work. The writing feels real and is given an authenticity by their diverse and fascinating characters, all of whom are inspired by real people known to the filmmakers and the issues addressed which originate from Marie’s real life experiences as a mental health professional.

Marie plays art therapist Zouzou, whose life is shattered by the suicide of a young charge and, trying to escape and reset her mind, moves to new surroundings – only for a deep-seated and hauntingly familiar presence to plague her new existence. Clara’s painstaking and detailed research shines through with subtle nods to different horror tropes and a clear vision of what the film represents. 

‘The Uncanny’ will be showing at Hastings Rocks International Film Festival in April and we can’t wait to host this formidable mother-daughter filmmaking duo which will undoubtedly enthral and delight our audience. 

I was looking for tropes that I could try to invert and play with as much as possible. I was excited to find things that are like a language in terms of how audience members interpret them and how society interprets a certain genre, and then finding new ways of using that language to talk about things. The whole idea of the film was to use the genre of horror and the psychology behind it.

Video Interview with creators Clara Gabrielle & Marie Laurin

I really enjoyed all of the different horror elements you drew together in the film.

Marie Laurin: Thank you very much. We had never done anything like that, we’re actresses. I’m a little bit crazy, I’m sort of reckless, I get this big idea, big plan or dream in my head and say “let’s do it”, no thinking involved, just pure impulse.

Talk me through the initial stages of the process.

Clara Gabrielle: It was originally conceived of as a short but there were so many things that we wanted to incorporate that it became really evident that it had to be a feature.

ML: It took on a life of its own. My boyfriend, Michael Schulte, the editor of the film who also played my love interest (so that was easy casting). I remember going out to lunch with him, I said, “I have this idea for short.” and I started telling him about it. He immediately saw that it was a feature and not a short. I’ve never written a short, never mind a feature, but Clara is a wonderful writer, she’s extremely artistic and creative. So I said, “let’s do it together.”

So how did it work with you two writing together?

CG: It worked so well, it’s probably the most peaceful and co-experience we’ve ever had together. We would essentially pick scenes that we felt like we wanted to write for whatever reason or just divide them. Then one of us would take a first go at it and then we would pass it back and forth between each other. In that way we were editing each other’s work and then putting it all together. The most difficult part was definitely putting all of the scenes together. It was similar to a jigsaw puzzle and definitely came back to us in the editing room too.

ML: Mother-daughter relationships are very complex, but when we work as a team, as creators, we had no issues.

CG: It was really effortless, we really saw eye to eye in terms of what we wanted it to look like and be about and what the vision was. The most difficult part, and when the mother-daughter dynamic reared its ugly head, came whilst shooting and watching a parent in distress. I felt such guilt every single time she would have one of these big dramatic scenes. I just wanted to run out of the room and I wanted to fix everything, but I was the one causing everything. It was a really strange internal juxtaposition with these competing desires and goals. 

ML: For me, it’s acting, it’s pretend, and Clara has seen me in filmss since she was a little girl. Getting blown apart, turning into a zombie, having a blowtorch in my face and catching on fire.

There are lots of different horror themes and tropes that come in. Where did these all originate from and how did you put them all together? 

ML: The impetus of the film was that little doll that you see. I found that little doll in a dusty thrift store by Palm Springs. I have laser eyes for antiques and I’m obsessed with that stuff. I saw this little doll and I knew it was very special, but I had no idea what it was. Years later, I finally got a computer and I did an online search and I found out they are grave dolls, mourning dolls. Replicas of a child who died with their real hair and I thought that someday I would use it for something which is where it all began

CG: For me, using this ghost girl as a starting point, I started researching ghosts and the beliefs around ghosts. Whether they’re a recording in a space or whether they’re searching or feel they have some kind of duty. I was just drawn to all of those ideas as well as alternate dimensions and different times being able to exist, like in a parallel universe. For me, the most interesting parts of horror films or any kind of mystery thrillers, is when they kind of delve into that kind of stuff – I just eat it up. I wanted to incorporate that as much as possible. 

I was looking for tropes that I could try to invert and play with as much as possible. I was excited to find things that are like a language in terms of how audience members interpret them and how society interprets a certain genre, and then finding new ways of using that language to talk about things. The whole idea of the film was to use the genre of horror and the psychology behind it.

ML: The characters in the film are real and people we know. Perhaps it’s a lazy way of writing because we’ve never written scripts before. When we wrote the dialogue, we could hear them talk in our head. For example, the characters of Deja and her husband used to live next door to us and she was very much convinced that our house was haunted. She was pregnant and kept telling her husband who would pass on her beliefs and tell us we needed to move out. Writing draws from life you start digging in and stealing moments and things from people and use it in your writing. Daniel was based on a combination of two different neighbors of ours, one was fairly autistic and his brother was taking care of him. He would come over our house all the time and walk in and show us things he was doing and in the writing, the brother became a sister instead. 

In regards to the ghostly elements, I experienced something very strange which also fed into the storyline. I’m agnostic and I’m open to anything. I lost my parents within a year of each other and soon after, I started experiencing bizarre interactions. I would awaken, in the middle of the night and sense a female presence in the room enticing me to commit suicide. I’m terrified of death, but it was a very soothing, very calming sort of a presence. It was not scary at all, like a siren song. I would snap out of it and it would linger in my mind for the rest of the morning. It was really unsettling and I only experienced it in one particular bedroom.

This house we are in now used to be owned by a prominent local family who ran funeral homes. The local neighborhood rumor states that, when they bought a house in the 1930’s, they used it as a funeral home and did embalming in the basement. When we bought the house the owner told us that it was haunted. Their daughter wouldn’t even come to visit as claimed to feel somebody feeling her legs in a certain bedroom. That experience I had with the presence then started again in this house, to the point that it became so overpowering that during COVID I started sleeping in the living room on the couch. Then my boyfriend, who was staying with me, started feeling the exact same thing. So we use things we have experienced, people we have met and put it all on a big pot and cook it. 

CG: There’s two sorts of ghosts that we regularly kind of encounter. The spaghetti ghosts and old lady perfume. Maybe twice a year there are these great wafting waves of marinara sauce and now and again, the whole house fills with the smell of an old lady perfume out of nowhere. We don’t own any perfume, we don’t wear perfume at all, isn’t that crazy? It’s actually surprising what a high percentage of people do believe in ghosts, I think it’s about 50%.

There are certainly swathes of people interested in ghosts and supernatural elements so it is a fascinating subject matter to delve into …

ML: I don’t know if it was evident to you as we tried to be subtle about it, but there are lots of little hints and subplots we planned in the film. The little girl and her mother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. We don’t specifically say that’s when they died from but put the year at 1918. 

CG: There’s a lot of things that are implied in the film and are not blatantly stated.

Alongside the overarching themes of horror, the film itself is very light and you use soft, gentle hues. What made you decide to go with that sort of tone?

CG: As much as I love the grays, blues and greens that you see in horror, I wanted to explore a different route. I felt like the film itself wanted something that was different and I knew it was gonna be a challenge to make that. We have natural associations around those  colors that mean things are spooky, things are going to be dark and dealing with mental illness or depression. But I wanted the film to also reflect sort of the more discreet ways that someone who is battling mental health issues will try to heal themselves or will try to find some comfort. And one of the things that I know I’ve dealt with in darker moments is gravitating towards the cutest, sweetest, most little twee things that I could possibly get my hands on because I’m so hungry for dopamine and serotonin and anything that could possibly give me any comfort. Depression is not an easy thing to portray in a film in terms of a character arc because when you’re depressed, you’re essentially not doing anything. I had to find other ways to portray the inner turmoil that was going on in terms of the fight, or some sort of closure, some sort of sanity. 

So that’s actually where that came from as well as wanting it to be really representative of this sort of girlishness, childhood and femininity. One of my absolute favorite horror films is ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ And I love the juxtaposition that it creates. You have this really horrific storyline within this preciously beautiful world.

ML: From my side of things, I have worked in mental health for 23 years, working with severely abused and neglected children in treatment facilities and whilst I have never lost a patient, it happened to some of my coworkers. We would have kids who were seemingly so full of joy. Painting colors and rainbows yet the next thing you know, they go to their room and are cutting themselves. It’s amazing how people can camouflage their pain. We assume that people who are severely depressed appear that way but it isn’t so. We are trying to emphasize that pain is not just black and gray, it’s a whole rainbow of colors which are used to camouflage and self-soothe.

I particularly enjoyed the dark and violent flashbacks punctuating the film, counterbalanced by those lighter tones. Were they worked into the film during your edit? 

CG: During the writing we had the idea of really cutting between scenes, periods and flashbacks. It was really important to me that the flashbacks were jolting because that’s what trauma feels like. A lot of that was already in the script, but once you get into the editing room, everything changes. Some things work perfectly as they were on paper and others, you just have to tweak and play with until you find what works with what you have now.

ML: A scene which completely changed is where Lili’s brother comes over and to give me a necklace. This was originally written for someone else with various other subplots but the actor could no longer do it. Our director of photography, Bianca Butti, suggested this terrific young actor named James Paxton so we re-wrote the scene. James’ performance just totally changed the scene. We had no rehearsal and we met 10 minutes before we were shooting but we hit it off right away, we totally connected. He was grieving the death of his father and I was grieving the death of my parents. I asked him if there was anything his siblings did which really upset him and not to tell me but to save it for the screen. So, he tells me the story about his sister who cut up his baseball card collection, which was a real story. It was totally improvised and it added a totally new dimension which is the beauty of filmmaking. It’s magic because you never know, right? You really have three movies, the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit.

A high percentage of our cast never acted before. It was a casting decision we made in order to add another element of realism to the film. Bjorn Reddignton who plays Uncle Duncan is our neighbor. He was cast when he came over for our Christmas open house. As soon as he walked in, Clara and I looked at each other and knew we had found our Uncle Duncan.

Have you seen the film with an audience?

CG: Yes, it’s exhilarating, frightening and terrifying all at once. Every single time you watch a film that you’re working on you learn new things about it and find things you want to change, and also find things that you’re not sure about. When you’re watching with an audience, you find points of comedy you didn’t know were there. We were worried about putting humor in the film as it is a little tricky when you deal with something like depression and suicide. No matter what it is when you’re in the editing room, you stop having the same emotional reaction towards it, but you really feel it with humor. And when humor is flat, it’s probably the worst. When you’ve been sitting with these jokes for so long you really start to feel like they’re not that funny anymore. 

ML: The audience laughed at all the jokes and we ran Q&As which were great. We asked our crew and cast to bring friends because we wanted people who didn’t know about the film and we were very, very happy with the way it turned out. 

CG: If I could, I would have been looking around, but I didn’t. I was sitting in the back and trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, being able to hear the audience’s reactions. Since we’re both actors and we have experience in the theater, you really learn to feed off of an audience. They give you so much life and you have a really dynamic relationship with them. Even though the film is not alive and it can’t change, there’s still that sense that things come alive and are reinvigorated when it’s in front of people who have never seen the film before.

What do you hope for your film?

Even nowadays, depression and suicide are still very much taboo and considered shameful in many families and cultures. They are kept hidden, hushed or whispered about… they are what cancer used to be like in previous centuries… met with silence and denial.

With ‘The Uncanny’, we hope to normalize conversations about such themes and open up possibilities of constructive discussions, exchanges and the message that it is ok and safe to reach out if you need help.

On a practical level, like any filmmakers, we would love to find a distributor. Of course we are aware of the challenges involved in the process, especially in a world where only action and superhero movies seem to hit the big screen. But mostly, by attending film festivals, we look forward to meeting other creative types, exchanging ideas, brainstorming and hopefully finding collaborators for our next project, an indie feature set in Los Angeles during the early 90s, about teens in foster care struggling with life during the AIDS epidemic.

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