Someone to Watch, Closely: I Blame Society's Gillian Wallace Horvat

I Blame Society
February 1st 2022

Gillian Wallace Horvat’s micro-budget horror movie, I Blame Society, about a fledgling filmmaker in Los Angeles who becomes a murderer and makes a movie about it, starts off in hybrid non-fiction mode and slowly but surely descends into total madness, a film about homicide that itself begins to seem criminal. Along the way, it performs a daring deconstruction of the film industry’s hypocritical “strong female lead” obsession, leaving in the dust other obvious examples of films that tried to do the same thing. It came out last winter after playing festivals in 2020, went straight to streaming, and was pretty much unnoticed, though it was exceptionally witty and original. I thought it was one of the best films of 2021, an unsettling mind-blower about ambition and daily life in Los Angeles among young creatives.

Horvat stars in the film as herself, and co-wrote it with Chase Williamson, who appears in it too. In addition to several shorts and this feature, Horvat has worked as a producer, writer, and director on dozens of video bonus features and short documentaries about Hollywood directors and actors. Her IMDb page is a dizzying list of titles that covers everything from Frank Capra movies to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Now she has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award as a talent to watch. The ceremony for her category will be held on February 10, but the luncheon for it has been canceled because of the pandemic. I spoke by phone with Horvat in Los Angeles.

A. S. Hamrah: I saw you're nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. And the category is called “Someone to Watch,” which sounds slightly ominous, like “Someone to Keep an Eye On.”

Gillian Wallace Horvat: The “Someone to Watch” category is for a director whose career has not yet received enough recognition.

ASH: That's accurate because I Blame Society was one of the best films that came out last year, I thought, but it didn't get a lot of notice.

GWH: No, it did not receive a lot of notice. And in a way that was definitely to be expected considering the scale of the production, the fact that there are no recognizable actors in it, the fact that it was released in a pandemic. I think under different circumstances it could have attracted a bigger audience. It met with some critical acclaim. It didn’t really take off. But that will hopefully change, because as of today, I'm allowed to announce that it’s going to be on Shudder next month. Shudder has amazing programming and they've got a million subscribers. That'll also change the kind of discourse around the film, too, because it's going to land in the lap of a different audience. And I'm interested to see how that turns out.

ASH: Where has it been available before this? On Amazon?

GWH: Yeah, you can rent it for $3.99 or $4.99 or something. It takes a certain confidence from a viewer who has no idea what they’re getting into. And I am not the kind of person who just throws down $3.99 or $4.99 on a streaming service for a movie that I know nothing about. I still have a video store membership, and I will rent anything at the video store. I guess this comes from having worked at a video store. I buy, you know, a chunk. And usually there's incentive built in because you pay X amount for X amount of rentals, and you get some free rentals in there. And it makes me feel incentivized to take a chance on weird things and bootlegs and I scrape up stuff knowing that I may not love it. And it may be of varying quality. They just haven't figured out how to do that with VOD yet.

ASH: You mean because you can touch the box and read the copy on it?

GWH: I think tangibility is a big factor, yeah. There's a video store really close to me in South Pasadena called Vidéothèque. It's a great video store. They have an amazing selection. It really reminds me of where I used to work. I used to work at Kim’s on St. Mark's. It's very much a similar organizing principle. I worked there when I was in college for a couple years.

ASH: So you're one of the alum of Kim's?

GWH: Yeah, it's a dark cabal.

ASH: Scary. I had a question about the genesis of I Blame Society. Did someone you know actually tell you you’d be a good murderer?

GWH: Yes. It's even the same people that you see in the film, my friends Scott and Stephanie told me that I would make a good murderer. Not to go into too many details, which, you know, are legally incriminating and, you know, could end up in a deposition, but yeah, we were having that conversation. And what ended up being the interesting thing about it was that when they said, “Actually, you would make a pretty good murderer,” I was flattered, because it's a compliment. And I'm very susceptible to compliments. And I coyly said, “You’re right!” And we ran through the reasons of what makes a good murderer. And it became very clear that the same reasons that somebody would be a good murderer are the reasons that you would make a good filmmaker. It's the same skill set, you know, being able to create a project from conception to completion, being able to improvise around obstacles, having a vision, being able to carry it out, being impervious to criticism, having faith in what you're doing. Because it's really that, the doubt, that always betrays murders into getting caught, and it's doubt that stops filmmakers from making films.

ASH: So you think being impervious to criticism is one of the hallmarks of a good murderer?

GWH: Being able to be resilient in the face of criticism, and taking that criticism and using it to improve your skill set, rather than letting it annihilate you and discourage you.

ASH: I see. Annihilate you instead of somebody else. I've noticed you do a lot of work making bonus features about canonical filmmakers. Do you think that every filmmaker that you've made one of those about would have been a good murderer?

GWH: Mostly the work that I've done has been about films made between the 1940s and the ‘70s. And I think that it was a different system back then, in terms of what you needed to do to break in. Hollywood at that point was basically like a factory and moving your way up through it, it would be like moving your way up through any kind of factory apparatus like that. That famous Bordwell and Thompson book, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, I can’t remember the exact title, it basically looks at the Taylorization of the studio system. And that was how people entered. Filmmaking is so different now.

ASH: But there's a difference between Samuel Fuller, to pick someone who you worked on a film about, and someone who was just kind of working on the assembly line at Warner Bros.

GWH: Well, I don't think Sam Fuller would ever have, I don't think he could have ever been a murderer. I mean, he did completely work within the Hollywood system, right from the start of his career. He started as a crime reporter, and became a successful stringer, riding the rails across America in the 1930s and selling stories, and then he landed in Hollywood and got his start through Gene Fowler, getting credits on Warner Bros. stories, in a factory environment, just like any other writer there. He wasn't somebody who broke in with a novel or had a sweet deal from that. He really did start from the bottom. And then he worked his way up to having his own perfect deal. Darryl Zanuck really let him do what he wanted at 20th Century Fox. But then that time passed, and he went to the independent model. The fact that he was making his films right until the end like that, I guess that proves he was one of those people who had the moxie to function in any kind of system. So I don't know whether he would be a murderer or not, but he did survive and make films.

ASH: It wasn’t whether he would be a murderer or not, but whether he would be a good one if he decided to become one. That was what you set up with the filmmaker/murderer analogy.

GWH: I just have such a sweet place in my heart for Samuel Fuller; I adore him. And he seems like such a delightful person, especially as opposed to other filmmakers from that period who really were psychos and tyrants. He is not anything like that. So I think that it's really hard to say, but I believe that some of those, I think Otto Preminger, you know, don't sue me, but he probably did have what it takes to be a murderer. He seemed pretty ruthless.

ASH: And his father was an attorney general in Austria, so he knew the law. Supposedly Fritz Lang’s wife died under mysterious circumstances in the early 1920s.

GWH: Isn't that interesting?

ASH: You’ve made something about Elaine May, too. What about her?

GWH: It's funny because it's kind of like the inverse of A New Leaf (1971). To say that Elaine May could murder somebody—I think Elaine May could do anything that she put her mind to. And I think she would be very choosy about what she put her mind to.

ASH: Okay, so I guess what you're implying is that there's a certain point in film history where the qualities that make a good murderer apply more to filmmakers than before.

GWH: I don't know. I never tried to make this thesis historical. And I really should have. But I suppose at a certain point, when the barriers to entry around studios changed, and things became more decentralized, the onus became much more on the filmmaker about how to break in, rather than there being a good apparatus on how to discover and bring in and nurture talent. And I think that does transfer the weight onto the filmmaker to have a different skill set of hustling and networking. And it does, I think, change the profile of the filmmaker, and what kind of people are allowed in and what kind of stories they tell.

ASH: Maybe this is why Easy Rider (1969) is such a dividing line between eras.

GWH: I definitely thought a lot about underground filmmaking when I was making I Blame Society and I kind of aligned myself with Robert Downey Sr., thinking I would be an outsider figure. That could just be my path. And I would be over the moon to have a body of work like that. That way you're always going to be an outsider and have a certain standard of living. Unless I have a child who is the linchpin of the Marvel Universe to take care of me.

ASH: I hope that doesn't happen to you. Maybe you could be more like Joe Gibbons, you know, an underground filmmaker who robbed a bank.

GWH: I read about him. And he was teaching as well. And he made it art.

ASH: He did go to jail, though. That was the downside.

GWH: It's interesting that he did that recently, not in a time where crime was more mixed up with art and politics. In the 1970s with Patty Hearst and the SLA, the line between politics, art, and crime all seemed very vague and bleeding into each other.

Filmmaker Gillian Wallace Horvat in I Blame Society
Filmmaker/star Gillian Wallace Horvat in I Blame Society

ASH: In I Blame Society, there's a scene where your character forces herself to shoplift, but then decides to return what she’s stolen.

GWH: That was me trying to show there are certain ways that character is transgressive, and there are certain ways that character is not transgressive. She's not trying to turn over capitalism. She's not trying to question the value of commodity. She's very self-involved in what her quest is, and she’s transgressive only insofar as that. She's not a radical in any kind of political sense. So it seemed to me what would ring true to her, and insofar as she's based on me, is that I would never want to shoplift something. It just becomes a thing of cost-benefit analysis. I don't think it's worth it. It's not worth getting caught over something like that. There's some people who in a politically radical way understand that property is theft. If it’s very important to them, and if they're artists, it's a part of their practice. To that character, not so much. She's razor-focused on what she's trying to do, which is succeed as a filmmaker.

ASH: And yet by the last scene of the movie, her work does seem to become politically transgressive when she goes to the meeting to show her film to the two producers.

GWH: That’s because she is in a very divided mental state at that point. She doesn't really know what her intentions are. There are a million possible outcomes because she is unhinged and delusional. She definitely sees that there is a path where they look at the movie, and they love it, and she has a movie career, and she is prepared and ready for that and excited. She also foresees an outcome where they are going to reject it, and that’s why she's carrying a knife in her purse. So she is ready for that as well. And she anticipates they're not getting it and not understanding her. And she's ready to end it the way she wants.

ASH: The ending is so great.

GWH: To quote Sam Fuller for a second—I think Sam Fuller took it from Howard Hawks—but he always said that to have a good movie, you need a good beginning, a good ending, and three scenes in the middle that are good, and you've got a good movie, and that's all I ever aim for. And so I think that a movie that just kind of ends meh is not a movie. You've really got to go out with a bang. The Fury (1978) is a perfect example. You just cannot leave anybody with less than their jaw dropped.

ASH: I think the film also had the funniest line that I heard in a film last year, which was “Your suicide note practically writes itself.”

GWH: Glad that you think that's funny.

ASH: There's so many great lines in it. I don't want to ruin it for people who haven’t seen it by quoting them. But that one stands out to me, as you know, worthy of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. What is your next film?

GWH: Well, that's a good question. Do you mean next in terms of what's actually going to get made, or what I'm going to work on?

ASH: What is actually going to get made.

GWH: For many, many people in-between their first and second feature, the second one is just as hard to make as the first. A lot of people look at your first feature and they see it like: that was an interesting anomaly. I think in my case, it's very easy for people to do that. Then they look at the scale that it was made on. And they look at the subject matter. And they think, Well, I guess that's what she does. And that's all she can do. Instead of saying, This person took very little resources and made something which had a surprising footprint for something that was made with spare change from inside a couch. And I bet if they had a bigger budget, they could really do something with it. People only think that they'll get what you made already when they hire you. I think the thing about I Blame Society that makes it work is that the format fits the idea. And that's something that I always want to do. It's why I don't repeat myself, I'm not the kind of person who takes a short and then turns it into a feature, and then turns it into a TV show. I think each idea has its format that works best for it. And so when I put my soul into an idea, I make sure that I'm choosing the format that is right for it.

ASH: So what are you up to now?

GWH: I don't know whether it's the pandemic or whether it's just the jump from the first to the second, but I have some things that I've been hired to write, and I hope that those happen. And I have a TV development project that has been going on for a long time, and I'm very proud of it. We're always on the verge of taking it out, and then the pandemic surges, and we have to cool our heels for another few months. But there are a couple of things that I'm proud of. A lot of them have to do with baseball. I'm kind of in a baseball phase right now. I think it's an interesting swing from micro-budget horror to baseball.

ASH: So to speak. When I saw I Blame Society, I did not think that you could only do that. In fact it made me think you could do anything. But I would not have predicted baseball.

GWH: Baseball has really kept me going during the pandemic. I relied on it. Spring training couldn't happen soon enough. The winter was a time of complete desolation, counting down the days till spring training. And then I love every day of the season, which for so many people is too long. During the pandemic, I just have needed it more than ever. And so, to kind of, I guess, give back to the emotional equilibrium that it's given me, I've been trying to make some really radical and fun and transgressive baseball stories, both fictional and non-fiction. I just think it's a really cinematic game. There's so many excellent baseball movies out there and a never-ending wealth of interesting baseball history. The characters that are involved in it are just incredible. Every pitcher has a name that's worthy, no, that's better than anything you'd find in a Thomas Pynchon book.

ASH: What are your favorite baseball movies?

GWH: My favorite really is Major League (1989). I love Eight Men Out (1988). I think that movie is brilliant. I guess the second time I watched it, I realized that not one character actually hits a baseball. It’s just a sound effect and swinging the bat toward the camera. John Sayles comes from the Roger Corman School of production. That's how he kept his costs down because he wasn't waiting for anybody to connect with the ball.

ASH: What do you think is the worst baseball movie?

GWH: A lot of baseball movies are disappointing because they don't have enough baseball in them. And I think that kind of shows the trickiness of making a baseball movie, because you're trying to please fans and people who don't really give a shit about baseball but maybe are just there for Brad Pitt or whoever. And so those people who love baseball are going to complain and say, I didn't get to see Tom Selleck hit the ball enough. And that’s frustrating. And I think actually Tom Selleck does hit the ball enough in Mr. Baseball (1992). But there's some movies like The Scout (1994). For me, it does not have enough baseball in it. It is devastating, the lack of baseball in The Scout.

ASH: That's the one with Albert Brooks? I know someone who went to see it at a movie theater and was the only person in the audience, and when she came out she looked unhappy, so they gave her her money back. But I’ve never seen it. What about Fields of Dreams (1989)?

GWH: I love Field of Dreams. I cannot believe that movie was such a hit. Because it is so weird. It is batshit.

ASH: Is it more magical than weird?

GWH: It's not the magical realism. It's the tone that is so odd. The delivery of some of the lines is so odd. But it works and it made me sob. There's those parts with Ray Liotta. We live in such a toxic social environment where there's so little compassion left for anyone. And then the thesis of redemption inside of Field of Dreams hit me so hard. I was sobbing.

ASH: Now that you're going to have a film on Shudder, do you think that you're going to go back to horror?

GWH: I Blame Society is enough of a horror movie that some of my mom's friends say they won't see it because they'll be too scared and they'll get nightmares. And it's not enough of a horror in other ways, so that people think there is not going to be blood. To Shudder’s credit, they have an amazing range of films, different levels of gore. Originally the plan for I Blame Society was for there to be more gore. It ended up being a budget thing. I would not wish making a low-budget horror movie on anybody, because really, you're always waiting on blood and things that people promise you are going to turn out a certain way and do not turn out a certain way. You end up having to do some of them digitally. Except for the last shot, which is a mix of practical and digital, where obviously it's supposed to be over the top.

ASH: That shot is fantastic.

GWH: We tried it many times.

ASH: It's maybe the only digital thing like that I've ever seen and liked. I’m not sure what you're talking about, because the organ harvesting scene was gory and realistic, I thought.

GWH: That one is. I would love to go back to horror. I would love to do another horror movie. It's so challenging to do horror well on a low budget. And I think well is really the operative word because in a lot of ways, horror is one of the most welcoming genres to low-budget filmmakers and to first-time filmmakers. For a range of reasons, from financiers feeling like that's a comfortable genre to take a risk on somebody where they can make their money back just by the genre having a passionate fan base, to there being a built-in set of tropes to play with, and that immediately formal language within to create commentary. So horror is really welcoming to big ideas, which are the essence of low-budget. But at the same time, there are things that are really difficult that have to do with production value. So I think that if I went back to horror, I'd have to do it at a higher budget level, because I don’t want to go back to something that’s so difficult my pubes start going gray again.

I Blame Society is available to rent or buy on YouTube and elsewhere. It will also stream on Shudder starting 2/8.