A haunted TED Talk? Filmmaker Stewart Thorndike on her new horror film

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Stewart Thorndike, pictured above, makes horror films about women. Her latest revolves around a "haunted TED Talk" which begins to inspire terrifying events as four women retreat to a country hotel on a trip.

Stewart Thorndike, pictured above, makes horror films about women. Her latest revolves around a “haunted TED Talk” which begins to inspire terrifying events as four women retreat to a country hotel to bond.

Writer/director Stewart Thorndike is working on a trio of female-driven horror films — sharp, low-budget psychological thrillers. Her first installment, Lyle, stars Gaby Hoffman as a mother trying to protect her toddler from sinister forces. Thorndike is now running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the second film, Putney, which is billed as being about “a haunted TED Talk.” We wanted to know: what does that even mean?!? So we called her for a chat.

Can you tell me a little bit about Putney?

Putney tells the story of four women who go to the country to bond. The main character is inspired to do the whole trip because of a TED Talk, which is a hybrid of someone like Brené Brown’s, on vulnerability, and my own imagination. It gives her an idea to reconnect with her girlfriend of four years and their estranged best friend. They all go to this hotel where they used to go, the Putney — and an uninvited guest comes along and sort of ruins the dynamics. All these things go wrong, so the main character keeps retreating to go watch this TED Talk for advice. And the talk starts to give her stranger and stranger advice.

Do you watch a lot of TED Talks?

I am a big TED lover, but I don’t watch as many as many people I know. I think what interests me about messing around with one is that a lot of the horror I make is about taking contemporary, safe things and fooling around with them so they become scary. I didn’t start the story with the TED Talk craziness in mind. But when I started to think about the things that you might turn to for counsel and support, I thought of moms, and friends, and therapists, and TED Talks. A TED Talk is stamped with intellectual and pop-culture legitimacy. So it’s funny for me—and perverted and interesting—to mess around with that.

This is your second female-driven horror film. Why is having a female-driven narrative important to you?

Well, I’m a female writer and director, and I don’t write many stories with guys in them. So I have never even questioned it — I just make movies with women, because they’re the people who interest me. When you start looking at it, it’s like, man, we need them. We need so many more stories with women.

Why are you drawn to horror?

I was always drawn to the dark stuff, ever since I was a little kid, and I think women need horror just as much as men do. I think people need to test their philosophies and belief systems in the most exaggerated ways. Plus, I always argue that horror is the most sensual of all the genres. People are in a heightened state, everything’s a little altered, and you don’t know what’s real or what isn’t. It’s visually exciting for me to play with horror.

That’s really interesting. I am a very easily frightened person, and I tend to shy away from horror films.

I hear that sometimes. I’m really curious if women don’t like horror because men have taken over the brand and made a certain kind of movie that we just don’t want to watch — horror that’s geared towards 18-year-old boys. I think that the type of horror that is out there right now is about sadism, and a bad guy, and it’s very simple and thin. It’s a very clear sensation of: “I’m glad I’m not the character in this movie, running away from the chainsaw.” It’s a weird pornographic kind of sensation. You’re not thinking about anything. Sadism is simple; there is nothing there.

Right. When I think of watching horror, I feel disgust and fear. It’ll just be these unpleasant feelings, and I will want them to end.

But if you felt disgust and fear over what it’s like to take care of your dying father, and all those complications, it might be more interesting.

Very possibly. So how is the Kickstarter campaign going?

It’s awesome that Kickstarter exists. Films like this haven’t gotten made, and you wonder if it’s because there isn’t an audience, or because the machine that has been in charge of making movies has just decided there isn’t an audience. So being able to control how you’re going to show your movie, and find your fans and have them support your next movie—it’s really empowering. We’re down to the last days of our Kickstarter, and it’s exciting and cool that we have a way to get funding for a film without the usual, traditional models.

Will you find a way to make the film if you don’t make the Kickstarter goal?

I’m used to hustling, so we’ll certainly try.

Want to see this movie? Support Thorndike’s Kickstarter, which ends September 18. In the meantime, she invites you to watch
Lyle for free.