Karen Lam has worked full-time in the film and television industry since 2000. Starting her career as a producer and entertainment lawyer, Karen has produced four feature films, eight short films and three television series. Her first short film as a writer/director, The Cabinet won the NSI Drama Prize in 2006. She has since written nine feature film screenplays, and directed eight short films, a music video, and two feature films, Stained (2010) and Evangeline (2013). She is currently in production on her first web series, commissioned by Telus Optik TV.
Women in Film + Television Vancouver board member Sharon McGowan spoke with Karen about the importance of genre filmmaking from a female POV.
What is genre?
Films and storytelling that has a surreal bent to it, a hyper-real quality.
Why is genre important?
It is a place where we can play out our most interesting, challenging ideas and darkest fears and we can let our imagination run wild without worrying about reality. It allows us to explore controversial ideas, without letting our own prejudices and biases get in the way. For example, in a Sci-Fi film like District 9 it is easier to talk about race relations, because we are dealing with aliens and not people. We can detach ourselves from our own personal biases, and explore the issues in a “safer” way.
What’s in this for women?
Genre allows women to be able to depict ideas, like gender inequality, in a medium that is more acceptable to audiences and less polarizing. It is an important avenue or tool to talk about our stories – and one that is commercially viable. Audiences respond very well to genre, no matter what issues underlie it, so there is opportunity for commercial success for women, which is a problem we’re still trying to solve. Genre has a commercial value to distributors and sales agents internationally as they can sell it more easily than straightforward drama. You get to hide the cod liver oil, so to speak.
What makes an exciting horror?
Great horror involves a lot of atmosphere and dread, white-knuckle suspense, and blood. In my films there’s always a lot of mouth blood. I used a whole bottle in my last feature film. Usually you give actors a tablespoon to work with, and it lasts for a while, but I do like having a little bloodshed…
What makes an exciting sci-fi?
The same as above – atmosphere and dread, but you also have a fantastic idea and suspenseful trip. I like when I get to enter worlds I haven’t seen before, and explore really inventive ways of seeing the world. Also, it’s important to remember that science fiction means more than spaceships. It is telling a story using a scientific hypothesis in a specific direction. “What if…” is a good starting point.
What makes an exciting fantasy?
The same as above, but with the addition of beautiful imagery. Fantasy is generally a more expensive genre to make. Horror can be gritty and low budget, Sci-Fi is about the ideas, fantasy needs higher production values. Dark fantasy should transport you to another world. It’s also a place where magic can exist. And I love that.
What makes an exciting thriller?
The same, but it is also all about the pacing. It’s feeling like there is an adrenaline rush. Twists and turns. Danger piled on danger. Out of all of the genres, it feels like a rollercoaster ride.
Where do we find out about these genres?
You can learn a lot if you Google the Top Ten horror, fantasy and thriller films and see what all the bloggers say. Thank goodness bloggers like putting Top Ten lists together. You get a lot of recommendations – the tried and true and then others that surprise and expand your conceptions.
How did you get started in genre?
I’m a bookworm, and was into genre from the beginning so most of the genre I got as a child was through literature– Edgar Allen Poe, Grimm’s fairy tales and Stephen King. And the first film my dad took me to when I was five was Jaws. When I asked him why he would take me to such a scary film, he replied it was because I liked fish.
Why do you stay with genre?
It’s the place that I like to tell stories from. Everything I write, everything I conceive of is genre. Sometimes it falls into more than one category. I like to have a story that combines more than one kind of genre, kind of mash them together. It’s where I get the most pleasure as a storyteller.
Why are you involved with this contest?
It’s so important. Having gender equality in media is so important to me. I like that this contest is about women helping women. I have a number of young girls in my life and it’s important to show us doing it. Unless young women can see us doing it and telling our stories and telling their stories, they won’t see it as an option. When you look at what has happened in fiction, especially in fantasy for young audiences, women have been writing great books that incredibly successful movies have been made from. Women are great storytellers in genre and I want to see us not just writing them, but making those movies too.
Who are some of the filmmakers or artists who inspire you?
I start with literature: Daphne du Maurier (The Birds, Rebecca), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Ellen Datlow, who is an editor of science fiction, fantasy and horror for over thirty years and has published over fifty anthologies. She has impeccable taste when it comes to the genre stories that she carries. For filmmakers, Jennifer Lynch (Boxing Helena, Chained), Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl, Dr. Who), Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) love her work – she’s a photographer, video artist and feature director.
Q&A By Sharon McGowan
Sharon McGowan is a filmmaker and an Associate Professor at the University of B.C. As a member of the Board of Directors of Women in Film + Television Vancouver, she is the producer of the Genre Script Concept Contest and chairs WIFTV’s Advocacy Committee.