Inspired by the famed vampire novella, director Emily Harris’ Carmilla is an 18th-century coming-of-age romance chronicling the relationship between sheltered teen Lara and a mysterious young woman who arrives at her remote estate after a carriage accident nearby. The girls share a powerful connection, but with rumors of supernatural activity overtaking the land, Lara’s devout governess eyes Carmilla with great suspicion and jealousy. We’re thrilled to welcome Harris and her seductive, candlelit fable to our city for the 55th Chicago International Film Festival.
What initially drew you to adapt Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella for 21st-century audiences?
Carmilla is one of those books that has attracted the attention of all sorts of artists and filmmakers—perhaps because it’s the first known vampire story to have a female vampire as its protagonist and also predates Dracula—so, initially there was a general intrigue to look at the original source material. I was curious: where did that image or idea come from, what does it symbolize or signify, and what’s the human story underneath it? What I saw was a cautionary tale about demonising anyone we don’t understand, anyone different, the ‘stranger’, the ‘other’… and that felt really relevant today! Peeling back the layers of sexualized vampirism, what lay beneath was a beautiful coming-of-age love story set against the backdrop of religion and fear of the unknown. So, I was keen to dive deeper into the motivations and behaviors that turn love and openness into hate and destruction and how that can so rapidly spread and infect the masses like a virus. The fact is that we are living through extraordinary times. We are witnessing real and terrifying expressions of exclusion and ignorance. Our world now and the remote fictional gothic world of Carmilla feel more connected than ever, and steering it away from its supernatural tropes and re-telling it through this lens feels vital.
What was it like to work with Academy Award® winning costume designer John Bright (A Room with a View)?
John was one of the first creative Heads of Department to board the project. Those early discussions about costumes were critical, because, by analysing in detail what the characters were wearing, how they looked, how they moved, color, texture and so on led to relocating the entire story to another time period. John immediately saw that the image I was describing for the look of the film would not be possible in its original 19th Century setting, because I was aiming for a more subtle, softer look than that period could provide. It was extremely important to me that the costumes didn’t get in the way of the storytelling and John really listened to what I was trying to do visually and was able to pinpoint exactly which time period would suit the visual ideas for the overall film. So, we shifted the story back in time to the late 1700s. From that point on, it was incredible to watch John’s mastery and attention to detail bringing the characters to life through their clothes long before there were even actors to step into them. Coming at the visualization through costume with John was a revelation because exploring the color palette and texture of what the characters were wearing gave clarity to other aspects of the film’s environment and informed such things as the color of the walls, furnishings, hair, how we would approach the lighting and so on.
What excites you about bringing your film to the Chicago International Film Festival?
My early artistic passions can easily be traced to Chicago. As an art student, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago held a very special place in my heart, and later, working in theatre, I admired and looked to what was emerging from Chicago stages over the decades. So, to bring my own work and artistic expression to a Chicago audience is really thrilling for me.
Your previous film, Love is Thicker than Water a collaboration with Ate de Jong, was an official selection of the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival. What has changed for you as a filmmaker since then?
Chicago was the first US audience for Love is Thicker than Water and thankfully not its last. Premiering at CIFF kick-started a lively festival circuit for the film, led to distribution, and now the film can still be seen on VOD platforms such as Amazon Prime. The other terrific thing that came from that for me personally, was that it earned the trust of a financier to believe in me enough to fully fund my next film, which is Carmilla. So, it feels very fitting to be introducing Carmilla to a US audience here first.
How have audiences responded to your film?
So far, the reaction has been exactly what I’d hoped for because any art that polarises its audience is a good thing. I have seen that when an audience comes to the film with an open mind, able to shed mistaken expectations about horror or isn’t looking for a literal interpretation of the book, then they are in the right headspace to receive the film’s deeper message. The urge to put the film into a predetermined category and judging or prejudging it accordingly is funny to me because the entire theme of the film is exactly about the dangers of doing just that in life. Thankfully, I know the Chicago audience is smarter than that!
What other films are you excited to see at the festival?
What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
I hope the film stays and lingers in the psyche for a little while. I hope it conjures memories of first love and inspires future hope. And I hope it reaffirms that acting with empathy and compassion towards the strange or unknown is a far better modus operandi!
Carmilla screens Thursday, October 17th @ 8:15 pm and Friday, October 18th @ 6:00 pm with Emily Harris in attendance, and Tuesday, October 22nd @ 1:45 pm. Purchase tickets here!