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BHFF interview - THE BOOK OF BIRDIE director Elizabeth E. Schuch

Introverted teenager Birdie (radiant newcomer Ilirida Memedovski) is forced to live inside a quaint, Lake-Michigan-situated convent by her concerned grandmother. Grandma’s hope is that the strict nuns will change the teen’s outlook on life. It doesn’t take long, though, for Birdie’s obsession with blood, via her inquisitive reactions to such bloody noses and her own menstruation, to rock not only her own world but those of the convent’s inhabitants, including the groundskeeper’s young daughter, with whom Birdie sparks a romance.

A storyboard artist for big Hollywood films like this year’s WONDER WOMAN, UK-based writer-director Elizabeth E. Schuch brings her visual flair to this beautifully shot and colorfully hypnotic debut. Schuch’s decision to cast only women wasn’t by accident—THE BOOK OF BIRDIE applies Gothic horror and Shirley-Jackson-like fantasy to a quietly unnerving story steeped in feminism.

How are you today?

Great! Tired! Full of beans. We are screening the film at SITGES and MONSTERS OF FILM this week, with BROOKLYN HORROR up next, and starting the edit of our latest film so it's pretty full on at the moment.

Thank you for taking time out of your day to do this I really appreciate it. THE BOOK OF BIRDIE is your first feature, but it feels like the work of someone who has been making films for years. It's visually striking but restained at the same time. The style never gets in the way of the story. Can you describe your process in balancing the visual elements of the film with the narrative?

Thanks! Keeping it simple was crucial: one location, limited cast, and then in the restricted environment you can let the imagination run wild. What would you do if you were trapped in a convent with all the rituals and creeks and squeaks and an overactive imagination? I'd start seeing things in the night.

My co-writer (and costumer) Anami Tara Shucart is drawn to the scenes that make the spine of the story and stitch the details together, and I tend to have these flashes where scenes appear in visuals to me, then I have to figure out what they mean and where they fit: I started with the idea of Birdie gleefully painting with blood in the sink, and I'd had a vision of the final scene- then we needed to figure out together how to get her there. Although we both love jumping to the design elements right away, we try to be strict and rule out things that just look interesting but don't serve Birdie's story. Keeping a sense of the real practical world in all the fantasy was key to that. The visions she has are constructed from materials in her immediate surroundings.

You and your DP Konstantinos Koutsoliotas have impressive film resumes but this is the first time you've directed a feature and this is the first time he's shot one. You were both taking a chance on each other. What led you to both take this leap of faith in one another?

Actually, it's easy for us to trust each other - we've been a couple for over 10 years, and we produce the films together. Although Kostas and I each have different obsessions in our films- we have a very similar aesthetic - I love his eye when he directs, and we have a shorthand in communication when we work together. That said - we did a test shoot to make sure we wouldn't fight, and it was really fun, so we went for it.

The film was shot in Wisconsin, at Kemper Center. How did you hear about and decide to shoot in this location?

I grew up about 5 blocks away from Kemper Center, a beautiful building that really called to me. There were many stories of the ghosts of the nuns and students from the time it was a convent school that I heard growing up, and that became the starting point of the script. I knew the rooms, the lake, the church and the tower- so they became key elements of Birdie's world.

Did you have Suzan Crowley in mind when you were writing the film because I would never have thought of her for the Mother Superior role but it's a perfect fit for her?
First, we wrote the role of Mother Superior and then the hunt began for someone with the right wit, warmth and sternness. Suze was a family friend of Anami Tara. I was thrilled when she agreed to come on board, it had to be a strongly grounded role to frame the flightier Birdie world. She's clever and a total hoot on set - the best outtakes are in the film from her scenes for sure.

Ilirida Memedovski gives a layered performance that's dripping with humanity, something often lacking in genre filmmaking. How did you find her?

We were so lucky to find Ilirida- she's a delight. I held an open audition in the local area, and when I saw her in the line of girls - I thought she was perfect. Then she nailed the fragile spookiness of Birdie in the audition (in which I had girls pretend to listen to a jar and sing a sad lullaby.) Poor thing, we had her do a lot of weird and wacky things but she was a total trouper.

I really enjoyed THE BOOK OF BIRDIE and I'm looking forward to whatever you do next. Do you think you will continue to work in genre films? Is there a dream project that you'd like to direct?

Genre is my favourite style of cinema, and I tend to gravitate to it naturally, especially when it twists into something like magic realism/surrealism. I'm currently writing my next feature, which is dark, feminine and set in a more adult world then THE BOOK OF BIRDIE. What I'd love to shoot? Anami Tara and I have written a colourful and weird circus thriller that would be ridiculously fun to direct. I can't wait.

Everytime me and my wife watch a Werner Herzog film we end up doing terrible impersonations of him for days. Asking each other questions like "did you take out the garbage" in our best (albeit, atrocious) German accents. He seems like such a larger than life character. When you worked on QUEEN OF THE DESERT did you have a chance to meet him? If so, can you describe what that was like?

I love that you guys do that! To be fair, I was an art department carpenter on that shoot for a few days, so I didn't expect to see the director at all. But Werner did come around to every crew member to say hello, which was lovely. He was very gentle and soft-spoken.

THE BOOK OF BIRDIE will be playing at BHFF on Sunday, Oct. 15th. For tickets click here.