Filmmakers find both inspiration and awfulness online. Travis Stevens is a long-time film producer who recently turned writer/director for his feature debut, Girl on the Third Floor. The flick is an indictment of the toxic masculinity poisoning our culture, which most definitely includes social media. It also features a gnarly, viscerally goopy haunted house. I love it.
A virtual realm is a strange place for filmmakers. After all, as recently as 15 years ago, when would the average consumer have a chance to interact with actors, writers, and directors? These days, both artists and fans are on social media interacting with the world at large about whatever gets their creative impulses pumping. Social media, with its instant gratification and interconnectedness, is an engine for extreme emotions.
My FSR compatriot Brad Gullickson and I had a chance to chat with Stevens at the Chattanooga Film Festival about his new film. As our own Rob Hunter said in his review: “The supernatural threats are definitely creepy and grotesque, but as is often the case, it’s the living who continue to do the most damage.” Maybe that’s why we kept coming back to the topic of social media.
Brad: Certain people are going to receive Girl on the Third Floor and go, “Social Justice Warrior horror? I don’t need this.”
Travis: Good. Fuck you! I mean, that’s it. I’m sorry. Regardless of where things are twenty years from now, right now, we need art to stand up and say, “This is right, and this is wrong.” Or, this is what I think is right. And we need art to try to make our current environment better.
And, you know. Yeah. Fuck the haters! The punk in me is ready to fight. Fuck anyone who feels like trash-talking the desire to make art a little bit more representative. I love seeing filmmakers call out poisonous swill when they see it. We’re not going to get the revolution we need with please and thank you.
On the other hand, Stevens – much like myself – is a straight white dude. Social media is the water in which we swim. The way we react to the weird mix of hyper-closeness and isolation has become a defining characteristic of the time. But, the virtual realm is also a product of an existing society which is itself strongly biased in favor of white men. Let’s keep the real talk going: it’s a lot easier to say Fuck Those People when you’re a cisgender, heterosexual, white male.
Kelly Marie Tran received a deluge of death threats because people didn’t like the way a character she played – informed by her own personal experiences – was constructed. In return for her excellent performance as Rose Tico in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Tran was harassed into quitting social media by racists and misogynists.
When we talk about the friction of intersecting cultures, we’re really talking about the human cost that people like Tran are forced to endure. If you haven’t read Tran’s New York Times piece where she talks about her online harassment, I strongly recommend it. She is brilliant.
Yet, for better or worse, these platforms are today’s major stage for the exchange of thoughts and ideas. Stevens would rather talk about big ideas and the value of saying something worth a damn to improve our world than film gags or movie stars. He’s no stranger to the fact that his own demographic of the population has an easier time using their voice.
Social media has become a bit like the house you’ll see in Stevens’ film. The walls can be repainted and the holes patched, but that won’t cover up the slop of human sins undermining its foundation. People in privileged positions, white men in particular, should be addressing these experiences. And, at the very least, identifying them as problems.
Roger Ebert had a great line about the value of cinema: “Movies are empathy machines.” And they are. Movies give us this illusion of a shared experience that helps us open our hearts and de-objectify the Other. That’s essential because the journey to empathy is the most important human endeavor.
Unfortunately, the consequence of pursuing that in the age of social media seems to be a campaign of salted-earth annihilation. Art is often very exposing for the creators, especially as they grapple with terrible personal experiences involving bigotry and hatred that impact large groups of humanity.
In that sense, every piece of art is the exploration, representation, or interpretation of an idea. Whether we mean it to be or not, the creators have been steeped in the doctrines and beliefs of their time and their output is essentially a reflection of those ideas. Which is exactly how you get to the idea of a house haunted by the gooey drippings of toxic masculinity.
This is a damning indictment of our culture and that certainly extends to the way we interact on social media. In this crush of shittiness on social media, is there value? There are more than a few flowers in this desert. There’s a push and pull to the immediacy of social media. The barrier to entry is so low. There are so many niche communities thriving, evolving, and making the weirdest, most awesome new shit. There’s so much to love. For Stevens, Instagram has become home of the New Weird, pushing his creative interests onto something new.
This is unsurprising for some so passionate about a visual medium. It’s validating, in a way, for those of us who throw our passion projects onto social media for free. There is a community of artists making some gnarly work. Nightmarish artistry is thriving in a hellscape.
The poster for Girl On The Third Floor was done by Serge Serum, an artist Stevens first encountered on Instagram.
Stevens and his team also found inspiration on Instagram when it came time to design the delightfully gory look of some of the ghosts. Sara Sitkin shares her gnarly latex sculpts via her Instagram. Dan Martin ultimately did creature design for Stevens’ film, but according to Stevens, he was wholly inspired visually by Sitkin’s work. This exchange of ideas and sharing is a major part of how we advance.
I’ve seen the radically vicious art out there that gets me excited for the future of the horror genre. There’s a lot of muck and shit to forge through. Art and the real world intertwine, each having the power to change the other. Women are already out there on both fronts, making rad art and fighting to make the world a more hospitable place for themselves. While women are doing the work, men have a role to play.
Men have to be open to hearing the truth of other people’s experiences. We have a responsibility to both listen and engage. Men, particularly those steeped in toxic masculinity and oblivious to their privilege, listen more closely when other men are doing the talking. It shouldn’t be so, but it is our current reality in social media and in life. Use your time to say something worth a damn.
You can check out our full chat with Travis Stevens here.