From Samantha Kolesnik and Vanessa Ionta Wright, co-founders of the Women in Horror Film Festival, comes I Baked Him a Cake, an atmospheric horror short film about a young girl preparing to celebrate the birthday of her father … who has recently gone missing. The short features deadpan performances, sepia-hued visuals, and a sombre score composed by Ross Childress, the former lead guitarist of Collective Soul.
WARNING: SEMI-SPOILERS BELOW.
Starring Fleece as Mother and Lillian Grey as young Lenora, the film is presented through the eyes of the latter as she tries to normalize the unsettling circumstances under which her father has disappeared. Why is the bathroom covered with blood? Should she be worried that Mother is acting so strangely? All she can do is go through the motions and hold faith that small rituals and joys – like balloons and birthday cakes – will bring her father back home.
Currently, I Baked Him a Cake is making the rounds on the festival circuit, with a recent Award of Excellence win at the Southern Shorts Awards. Upcoming screenings include the Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival and Buried Alive! Horror Film Festival.
I chatted with Samantha, who wrote and produced the film, about writing versus filmmaking, the challenges that independent artists face, and the Women in Horror Film Festival.
Suri: Hi, Samantha! I Baked Him a Cake is a based on your short fiction piece that was published in Hypnos Magazine in 2016. What motivated you to write the story?
Samantha: At the heart of the story, I Baked Him a Cake is about family dysfunction and abuse. A young girl awakens to horrifying circumstances and is expected to view everything as normal. There is always the implicit threat, most notably at the shot at the end of the film – an ominous glance from “Mom” – that if the daughter speaks out, the consequences will be dire. Everything is expected to appear normal even though life for this little girl is anything but.
Suri: When did you decide to become a filmmaker? Do you find that your production experience informs your fiction writing, or vice versa?
Samantha: I’ve always loved film. You don’t stick it out as an indie filmmaker at my level unless you love what you do because it’s a lot of work for rewards that are often intangible. I made the leap to make my first one a few years ago after realizing that the medium isn’t as inaccessible as I had previously thought.
There’s very little overlap between my prose writing and my film production work. The most overlap is in whether or not something gets adapted from prose to screenplay, and the only consideration I take into account, then, is how viable the story is with my limited resources. If I’m writing a fiction piece which takes place in the rainforest, for example, and the protagonist gets eaten by a lion, that’s going to be very expensive for me to adapt, so I probably won’t bother. I don’t write prose, though, with the intention to make films from the stories. When it comes to prose, I write what I want to write, and think about what I can adapt later. If I’m writing screenplays, I do think about production viability from the jump. They are two different forms of storytelling and I treat them as such.
Suri: Tell me about the script-to-screen process. How did you and Vanessa Ionta Wright, the director of I Baked Him a Cake, collaborate to bring your story to life?
Samantha: Filmmaking is difficult and expensive, even for shorts. Vanessa and I love what we do, and we know it takes hard work and a whole lot of initiative to even make five minutes of film happen.
I Baked Him a Cake is a very short film at just five minutes, but we still had to pool considerable resources and I self-funded a couple thousand dollars to make it come to life. We talked about the story, the characters, the tone of the film … Vanessa and I are very open with each other. If I don’t like something, I tell her. Having that kind of egoless collaborative process is so rare. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree – we do often – but we’re always able to remain close friends at the end of the day.
Suri: For such a short film, it packs quite a punch with many themes. Abandonment, loss, coming of age… An allegory, if you will, of puberty being a horrifying experience for young women. Was there anything else that you were trying to convey?
Samantha: It’s not intended to be about puberty at all. There definitely is symbolism of abandonment, though. The father being absent (in a bit of a darkly humorous sense in the film) is certainly symbolic of an enabler in an abusive family.
Suri: It’s impressive that all of the special effects are practical. Was this a huge challenge? It seems that many films these days are overly reliant on CGI; it’s become a joke for directors to say that they’ll fix whatever mistakes they make on set in post-production.
Samantha: Thank you. I personally don’t think it’s impressive, and that’s not to undercut our film – it’s just that we had really limited effects needs. We had a wonderful FX artist, Nadine Al-Remaizan, and she understood I just wanted some very realistic blood and that I wanted it everywhere. In order to get the color right, I looked at some real murder scene photos. They were haunting, but informed the look and consistency of the blood. It was meant to be somber and real.
Yes, “fix it in post” is so much of a joke – mostly because fixing it in post, especially on tight indie budgets, is a really bad decision. It’s expensive as hell unless you can do it yourself or have a friend who will help out.
Suri: How did Ross Childress come on board the project? Did he attempt to channel any particular film with his music?
Samantha: Vanessa introduced me to Ross, and we became friends. His talent is indescribable and I consider myself very fortunate he agreed to work on our film. We gave him some guidance on what we were looking for in terms of themes, but we let him have majority creative input as to the score. It’s a collaborative, team-oriented process for us.
Suri: Regarding the Women in Horror Film Festival, it’s wonderful that you and Vanessa are pushing for more female representation in horror cinema, which – too often – is perceived as male-dominated. How did the festival come about? What has the response been like?
Samantha: The response has been tremendously positive. The purpose of Women in Horror Film Festival is to recognize, encourage, support, and celebrate women in genre filmmaking and screenwriting. We’re open for submissions right now and already we are receiving triple the submissions we received opening month last year. We’re excited about providing opportunities to women in genre filmmaking, as well as to the diverse teams with whom they work!
Suri: That’s definitely encouraging and inspiring to hear. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and positivity. Congratulations on the success of your film, and best of luck with the festival!