Exclusive Interview with Director and Cinematographer Melanie Aitkenhead
Born and raised in Guatemala, director Melanie Aitkenhead’s deep love for and fascination with movies started when she was very young. However, it wasn’t until she was able to attend her first film class that she discovered that directing was something that she wanted to do. From there, she attended the University of Southern California, from which she graduated with her Master’s degree. As a director and cinematographer, Aitkenhead is best known for directing one episode of the television show Sroloc, the television movie Shang, the short film Moments De La Ville and a film adaptation of James Franco’s popular novel Actors Anonymous. Her latest project, a creative reimagining of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger written by Amber Coney and James Franco for Lifetime, recently premiered on Lifetime to rave reviews and excited fanfare. I had the pleasure of chatting with Aitkenhead about her experience working with James Franco on this project, her surprising cameo in the film and what’s next for her on the horizon. Check it out below!
What inspired you to want to be a director?
Ever since I was a young kind—I was born and raised in Guatemala—and I was fascinated with movies. There really weren’t a lot of film schools or places that I could study film, so it was always this dream that I wanted to be a part of movies. I didn’t really know what a director did, or even the difference between a director and a producer, so when I took my first film class in which we had to make five short films and we had to alternate roles—we had to direct, produce, act, edit—through that, I was able to learn what each role does and figured out that directing was what I wanted to do. It was the most fun and I love working with actors, and the director is the only one who really gets to work directly with the actors.
How would you describe your own directorial style?
You know, I love the hand-held approach. My style would be to always prioritize actors’ movements and not use lighting in the camera. The focus is on the actors’ movement. I love to rehearse with the actors and see how they’re going to move, and then sort of approach it the way David Russell approaches his movies. I find that kind of film-making style to be very fascinating.
What appealed to you about this remake of “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?”
The fact that it’s a lesbian vampire story—how fun is it to direct that!? (laughs) I also love female-driven movies and this movie deals with some relevant topics that are very prevalent today: issues of identity, coming out to your family, and sexual assault.
You have to separate the fun part from the actual issues being tackled because although it is a lesbian vampire movie and it’s fun, you need to use the media and any sort of platform to communicate important messages. What really attracted me to it were the messages that were weaved into it.
Are you a huge fan of vampires and their mythology?
To be honest, I like vampires—I’ve seen all of the “Twilight” films—but I wasn’t obsessed with them like some people are. I have colleagues that know everything about vampires. I wasn’t one of them (laughs). Now I can say that I love vampires!
Doing this film was so much fun; I’d love to do another vampire movie. But, it wasn’t one of those situations where I knew that I was going to go down that path. Do you like vampires?
I do! I have a friend who is way more obsessed than I am, but as an English major, I really like to trace how the idea of vampires has changed over time—how they represent different things for different time periods and yet how certain things remain timeless. I really liked how you pointed out in this movie that one of the timeless aspects is the expression of sexuality and society’s desire to repress sexuality, especially in women.
Yes, yes. Exactly!
How did you come to work with James Franco on this project?
James approached me. I was doing my Master’s degree at USC and James was doing this thing where he picked ten directors and they each got to direct a sequence of this feature, and this was called “Actors Anonymous.” It was based on his book by the same title. So, I worked with James about a year and a half ago for “Actors Anonymous,” and then another movie, and later that year, he reached out and said, “Hey, I have this idea for a Lifetime remake of ‘Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?’ Would you be interested in directing? I’ll send you the script.” And I was like “Yeah! What’s it about?” And he said, “It’s a lesbian vampire story.” To which I said, “That sounds amazing; I want to read this.”
(laughs) So then, I got the script back in September or October, I think, and from there, we dived right in with Amber and James and started developing it more. I’m very grateful to James for opening the door for me to be able to direct and for giving me my first directing gig in TV. James is so generous and really helps women filmmakers—he helps a lot of filmmakers, but I’m really grateful that he helps women filmmakers when he can.
What do you think fans of the original are going to enjoy the most about this remake?
We kept little things where, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll see them immediately in this one. It’s obviously a complete remake but there are certain things that we kept in there, like the dinner scene in which the mom, this time played by Tori Spelling, doesn’t cook so she has this take-out dinner where she’s taking the dishes out of the containers to serve Leah and Pearl—that was taken directly from the original. So I think fans will enjoy those similarities while others will find it to be a complete remake.
I thought that it was really cool, too, that you guys brought back Tori Spelling and Ivan Sergei for this remake. It was such a nice touch to see them in it.
Yeah, it was so great working with both of them. When they approached James, he welcomed them aboard but he did tell Lifetime that he wanted to completely revamp the original—
Yeah! (laughs) Literally; this was a literal revamp (laughs). It was his idea to do the whole lesbian vampire story and I think it fit.
Given what’s going on in the world right now and especially considering what recently happened in Orlando, does this remake carry more weight for you?
Yes, definitely. It’s so sad what just happened, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families. I think it is more relevant because even though we have shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “Transparent,” and this remake of “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?” there’s still a need for more outlets to explain and tell stories about gay relationships. We’ve been doing a lot of it but it’s almost like we need to do more. What just happened in Orlando proves that these stories need to be told more.
On a lighter note, do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories that you could share?
Yeah, I have a couple funny stories that I can share. One that was particularly funny for me started when I was directing James during the theater scene—James plays the professor—and we were rehearsing the scene and sort of talking about the characters, and somewhere in that conversation, we decided that James’s character needed an assistant. You know, because if you’re a professor, you need an assistant with you to be taking notes, right?
Then he gave me this look, which meant “You will be the assistant.” And I started laughing and was like “Go away, go away!” But then he got me where we had like ten minutes until we started shooting, so I was like “Yes,” and the next thing I know, I’m going through make-up and everything and the end result was that I was the one sitting next to him in those scenes; I’m basically his assistant in the movie.
It’s a funny story because I’m always asked if I would consider acting down the line, because directing and acting tend to go hand-in-hand, and I’m always like “No, I’m good behind the camera. That’s where I feel good.” So it was nice to be challenged that way. And then another one would be doing that scene in the theater when Leah gets blood tossed on her from the bucket. She had to go shower because she was completely immersed in blood and we could only do it twice. We were like “Ok, we can only do it twice so we better get it right!” So we did the bucket throwing and it turned out good, and we were like “Thank god! Let’s just do one more.” We went and showered and then we did it one more time, and it was one of those moments where we all cheered because we were so glad that we got it.
Just out of curiosity, what did you guys use for the fake blood in that scene?
(laughs) I think it was fake corn syrup diluted with water…I’m guessing but I think that’s what it was.
I also love that this movie included a remake within a remake, with the characters in the movie doing a radical remake of “Macbeth.” Where did that idea come from?
That came from James. It was his idea to do “Macbeth” and then he was like “We should do a more modern version of ‘Macbeth.’” Through the creative conversations surrounding the scene, we all started giving out ideas, with some of us wanting to do a more traditional ‘Macbeth’ and others wanting to do something more gothy—basically making it similar to the Nightwalkers, this mixture of punk and goth. We wanted to incorporate that into the theater and into “Macbeth,” especially since the vampires are in the play as well, so we wanted them to mesh together.
What was it like filming some of the films gorier scenes, like the eye-gouging scene? Was that fun for you?
Yes! So much fun! During that climax in the cemetery, it was so much fun because we had to make those scenes as believable as possible, and there was so much blood. Those were the types of moments where you realize how fun it can be to make a movie. And it was freezing! The actresses were so brave and so amazing because it was really cold—I think it was December 21st or something at like 4:00 am—in L.A., so it was cold but they stuck it out!
What brings out the nerd in you?
I’m a complete nerd in the sense that I watch movies all the time. Even when I was a kid, my parents would have to tell me to go play outside or go play with your girlfriends or go to a party. I’m nerdy in the sense that I don’t discriminate when it comes to movies. I’m not one of those people who only like comedies. I find that I enjoy old movies, new movies, weird, in any sort of genre. Because there are so many movies out there, I find myself devouring movies all the time.
I’ll sometimes watch five or six movies a day, when I have the time. So that’s my nerd side. And, I’m always looking for inspirational talks from filmmakers and actors that made it. There’s this one speech from Jim Carrey that’s amazing. So I’m always looking for more positive encouragement that you can make it.
What’s next for you, directing-wise?
Well, I’m working on another project with James right now—I can’t say much about what it is—but I can say that there will be more blood and gore!