A Night of Etheria: Amber Benson and the darkly delightful Shevenge
Ms. Benson shares her love of film and a few life-altering philosophies. No big. :)
Last time, I shared Jane Espenson’s wise words to aspiring writers and now for an actual review — along with a fun and insightful interview with multi-hyphenate (actress-writer-director-producer) Amber Benson.
“I think that is the beauty of film. It’s that you really do have that transmogrifying experience. You come out different than when you went in.” — Amber Benson
I was particularly excited to meet Amber, being a long-time Buffy fan (not that Amber hasn’t been working her tail off since, but Buffy is definitely a touchstone for me and many others) and having seen the trailer for her short film Shevenge, which looked to be hilarious and disturbing at turns (spoiler alert: it was), I was all over it. To sum up: three best friends bond over bad boyfriends during a slumber party, where a little too much wine brings out each woman’s twisted revenge fantasy. It’s definitely a must-see and quite a few other people agree. With a concept from lead actresses Jessica Sharif and Megan Lee Joy and a screenplay by David Greenman, and Amber’s deft hand with pacing, it’s just… Well more on that as we go.
During the festival, the filmmakers and actors were all being herded from pillar to post and none more so than Amber! It took a bit before she had time to sit down with me, but I was so pleased to talk to Shevenge’s stunt coordinator America Young and one of its lead actors Dove Meir. They’d worked together in the first segment, “which is more in the Kill Bill genre,” she said, “doing the fight choreography, so I got to beat him up or figure out how to beat him up through the actress.”
“Watching her put together a fight was amazing,” Dove said, not holding a grudge, “and the artists and the makeup of the other scene was great, sort of a Mad Men style. We had different genres in each scene so to be able to see the difference in transition was amazing. It’s a lot of fun.” I was relieved. I’m definitely a horror kind of gal, but with an entire night of darkness and disturbia, I was glad there’d be a film to take the edge off and give us a few dark chuckles. “It’s dark comedy, but it’s comedy,” America assured me. She was right. The audience (myself included) barely went 30 seconds without a good belly laugh.
Besides Etheria, Shevenge was an official selection of Dances With Films, The Los Angeles Film Festival, and The River Bend Film Festival just so far, gaining great press and an award for best actress at River Bend. It’s obvious that Emme Rylan’s hilariously stiff-upper-lipped fifties housewife in the second revenge fantasy is definitely a standout and relied on a performance that was understated and seething under the surface. When I sat down with Amber, she couldn’t be prouder of her own film’s success, though she also had a great deal of respect for the other films: “The fact that women are sort of embracing horror and the thriller genre makes me really happy because I feel like there’s a lack of that and we need to own it as women. We have stories to tell in that genre. You’re going to love them all. We’re among hallowed company,” she promised. And she spoke true.
“It seems like there’s a lot of genre hopping and playing around with style. Was there like a style and genre that you most liked playing with when you were filming?” we wanted to know.
“You know, we set it up so that it’s three separate sequences, three fantasy sequences. The first one is sort of an homage to Buffy and to Kill Bill. I’m a big Quentin Tarantino fan and I love that I’m homaging Tarantino who is homaging all the exploitation and Kung Fu films. I’m like a copy of a copy in that sequence, but we had an amazing stunt coordinator, America Young came in and she and Jessica Sharif came up with the fight sequence and I was just lucky enough to be able to put it on film.” It really was a lot of fun to watch Jessica beat up on her bad boyfriend (Dove Meir). “It’s a beautiful sequence. It opens our film. It’s just a lot of fun. Sort of my tip of the hat because I love how much fun the sequences are in Kill Bill, so that’s the first sequence.”
Our second is sort of a tip of the hat to Mad Men.” That’s the aforementioned scene where Emme Rylan seethes and shines opposite Eugene Byrd. “That one has sort of a Douglas Sirk hothouse drama feel to it, very fifties.”
“And then the third piece,” starring Megan Lee Joy and David Blue, “is sort of an homage to the seventies really grainy horror.” It definitely put me in mind of The Wicker Man — the excellent 1973 film with Christopher Lee (alas, no longer in this mortal coil), not the unintentionally hilarious Nicholas Cage remake from 2006 — which was the intent. Amber’s definitely well versed in classic horror. “I love horror. I’m a horror junkie!”
I had to know, with her having worked on novels, comics, web series, music, TV and film, what her favorite medium was to work in. “Sadly, it’s film. I say sadly because that’s everyone’s paradise, but there’s just something about going to a movie theater, the lights go down and you’re taken into another reality for an hour and a half or two hours and you come out having had an experience. And I remember being a kid and in the summer time my mom would take my sister and I to the theater and we’d see two or three films in a row. And I was so moved and changed by that and I want to do that for other people. I want to give that experience to other people. I think that is the beauty of film. It’s that you really do have that transmogrifying experience. You come out different than when you went in.”
“Oh, definitely. I saw the feature earlier tonight and I’m still shaking it off a little bit,” I had to say (I’ll be getting into that one near the end of our Etherial journey). “What came first for you? Acting, music, crafting your own stories?”
“I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. And for me, the first thing that I did was… well, I wrote a lot of bad poetry and weird little short stories and plays, but there was this thing called Town and Gown and it was a clearing house for all the kids that wanted to be in theater and be actors and to play and to be part of the theatrical world.” I had one of those in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, too. No wonder I like talking to Amber so much. She’s a fellow play dork! “That’s what I did growing up,” she went on, “I did all these plays and I did a lot of children’s theater and it was like joining the circus. It was like running away and becoming part of something bigger than yourself. And that is what I love. I love being part of the circus. I’m a circus person. Let’s get lost. Let’s go, like, enjoy being crazy and fun and making stuff. Life is too short. You want to enjoy it!”
I definitely agree, being a bit of a circus type myself. I don’t often share it in my writing space, but I sing for a living. And it started six years ago on the street. Like an old timey prostitute, I stand on a corner of the mean streets of Laguna Beach dressed up like it’s 1943 and sing old jazz and French chansons at the people strolling by for tips and promo. Sometimes dance floors would spontaneously appear! (see image. LOL) I mean, I do it mostly indoors now, but I don’t want y’all thinking I’m super fancy. It’s just senior homes, restaurants, and parties, but it’s a very freeing job. I can’t physically work more then 15 hours spread over a week without doing my voice an injury, so I get lots of time to write here and in other places (*cough* fanfic *cough*) and pursue other creative outlets (I started a Youtube channel. It’s called FatLadySings. I’ll let you know if it ever has more than one video).
Okay, enough about me. I only have to mention it because Amber got a kick out of my day job. “You’re Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose!” It’s pretty spot on for her to mention that. It was because of that movie that I decided to start doing this crazy thing. I also mention it because Amber and I both agree that, if you want to do something, whether it’s singing or writing or providing those transmogrifying experiences, you have to stop dreaming at some point and just start doing it, start putting it out there!
Amber’s certainly been putting it out there for years. “You now have thirteen years directing under your belt,” I start, “so are you one of those who just enjoys your works as they’ve progressed or do you want to reach through the screen and reshoot?”
“I hate everything I’ve done,” she laughs. “Not that… I mean, I love everything I’ve done, they’re like my children, but I am always like, ‘I can do better.’ I can always do better. If you stop changing, if you stop growing, then it’s over. I always want to be growing. I always want to be changing. I never want the last thing to define me. I get bored. I want to be doing fifty different things at once.” Hell, if anyone has the energy for it, she does.
We part on Shevenge. “It’s a lot of fun. It should make you laugh. It should entertain you and you should walk away feeling slightly disturbed.” She was right on all counts. It’s a damned lot of fun, but with fangs, if you will. As far as audible audience reaction, it was right up there with Chloe Okuno’s Slut (we’ll get to that one, too). The distinct look and pace of each segment was perfectly pitched and David Greenman’s screenplay… I didn’t time it or anything, but it had to be three or four laughs per minute. I kind of wish I had a copy to rewatch because I’m pretty sure I missed a few things in the wake of the audience response. Here’s hoping the film casts a wider net after the festival circuit as I need to see this film at least ten more times before I die! Perhaps that’s a little dramatic of me, but this definitely isn’t a film to see just once.