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An Interview with Kelsey Zukowski, Writer and Actress

by Mike Haberfelner

February 2013

Kelsey Zukowski on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Click here to read more about Kelsey's current brilliant film Words Like Knives - this is part two of the (not so) little interview on that movie.

 

Let's start at the beginning of your career: As far as I know, you actually studied screenwriting at university - so what can you tell us about your training?

 

I was a Digital Cinema major with a concentration in Screenwriting at DePaul University in Chicago. Writing, Film Studies and Criticism, were my focus, but I had plenty of classes in more technical aspects of sound and editing to producing, giving me a well-balanced education within film, although writing and more content-based creative material is where my home clearly is. I had one screenwriting teacher in particular that was a breath of fresh air. There are a lot of film schools and books that rely on a certain format or structure. Sure, itís important to be aware of these things, but I really appreciated that this teacher encouraged us to think of the most obscure or unique script ideas we could. Everyone came up with such different ideas, tones, and styles within the same assignment, which showed we really all had our own voice. There are so many things re-used, watered down, and done over and over again within the same, unimaginative format in Hollywood. Especially as emerging talent, itís essential that we have our own inspiration, spark, and creativity to dare to do something different.

 

DePaul is probably the most liberal and progressive Catholic university out there, based on some of the classes I took and the fact that I always wrote very brutal yet intriguing horror scripts. Some of my classes included Vampire (screenwriting) class and Cult Cinema class. I was reading early Victorian gothic literature of the vampire myth first coming into existence and how it reflected on the religious fears of the time. I learned how many different cycles it had gone through as it was constantly re-invented, watched everything from Nosferatu to the sexualized Hammer vampire films to True Blood as a metaphor for gay rights (which is up for debate). I have watched and/or read so many different vampire stories, with completely different strengths, weaknesses, and rules, in completely different realities. I still strive to create my own, unique perception of vampires and supernatural creatures.

 

Iíve always been more in the counter culture and inspired and passionate about darker material. I even wrote a research paper in the Cult Cinema class about the rape/revenge sub-genre as an overlooked meaningful examination of horrors humankind can commit given social pressures. Soon after college, this encouraged me to write a feature-length rape/revenge screenplay, heavily inspired by films like I Spit on Your Grave, that was both an example of what this wrongly judged sub-genre was capable of while also serving as a way of portraying some of the horrible traits I had seen in others and having a sense of justice as a writer and say that you donít have in everyday life.

 

What can you tell us about your passion for writing, and how would you describe yourself as a writer?

 

Writing is really just who I am. I really think and operate like a writer. Naturally, Iím a person who is always thinking, my mind really never shuts up! I like to think things out fully and write in a colorful and descriptive way to really engage readers, almost as if sharing in a second hand experience; that they can experience something through my writing as if theyíre a part of it.

Iím so passionate about film, which my life really revolves around. At first, when I was about 14 and started writing movie reviews and a few years later when I started writing screenplays, writing was a way to share and almost have a release for that love, spark, and intrigue the cinema has always had in me. I was lucky enough to find a community of aspiring film critics that I could share, interact with, and feel encouraged by.

 

My style of writing varies based on the type of writing it is. As a film journalist, Iím extremely thorough, looking at all angles, trying to give credit where credit is due. Even with a really bad film, I try to find potential or something positive. Iím just a lover of film and I know how hard it is to make a film so I tend to be a positive and fair critic, compared to most anyway. As a screenwriter, my style is disturbing, surreal, intense both through brutality and the emotions and levels characters are pushed to, but also very heavy on themes. The themes or exploration is the reason Iím writing the script in the first place and why Iím passionate about what I write. Thatís the entire point, everything else is just a creative way of approaching and bringing out these things.

 

What got you into acting eventually, and did you take any classes and the like? And would you like to talk about some of the films you acted in?

 

I first started acting when I was about 10. It was through a school production and I just fell in love with the stage and that form of storytelling. I took a lot of acting classes and camps for years. It was kind of my gateway drug into the arts as prior to this I was more into sports and was definitely a tomboy. From there on, the arts and creative expression were pretty much all I had an interest in. Around high school, I veered away from acting and concentrated my efforts more on writing. I acted in a number of shorts in film school, but it really wasnít until after graduation that I re-visited the idea of pursuing acting again. A huge part of that was crime writer/director, Kevin Jamison, who I was in contact with after reviewing his gritty short, Serial: Amoral Uprising. He shortly after offered me a role in one of his upcoming films, which then made me look more aggressively for roles. From there I got involved with an absolutely amazing independent horror community around the Chicago area. I was able to get involved with some great projects and people, which also garnered more interest for my scripts.

 

As far as I know, the first film you scripted was What They Say, based on a story by that movie's lead Heather Dorff [Heather Dorff interview - click here]. So what can you tell us about that movie, and your collaboration with Heather?

 

What They Say

Heather is one of my closest friends and one of the most talented, hard-working people I know. She wrote a dark, depressing, but incredible 1 page short story, which What They Say was based off of. Like myself, she had met a great deal of really talented people working on films in the area, and wanted to have an outstanding film in every way with all of the cast and crew just as remarkable as the film. Heather asked me to adapt the screenplay from her short story. I worked very closely to her to understand every aspect of what she wanted to portray in the film, even visually to create this surreal and haunting story. There were definite challenges, especially since the main character (played be Heather) barely says one word out loud during the entire short. Sheís very solitary, dealing with this constant torment that everyone around her is completely blind to, caught in their own superficial and self-absorbed lives.

 

We had to tell her story with her having little interaction with any of the other characters. Even the script had to be very visual and dynamic using very colorful and beautiful language to depict the mindset of our character who was so alone, but could still find beauty in getting release from her pain. That being said itís really not your typical cutter story. Thereís something completely possessing, draining the fight in her every time that razor drains another drop of blood from her arteries, which is ironically her only moments of peace.

 

As far as I know, you have also written a few segments of and star in the upcoming Scream Queen Campfire - you just have to talk about that movie for a bit!

 

Yes, I wrote three of the segments actually, hitting on different styles and tones within the horror genre. My segments included, Scream Queen Bloodbath, Wrong Number, and Night School. Night School is probably the one I am most proud of. Especially with shorts and tackling a horror anthology I think itís really important to portray different tales of horror and to do something new with a monster that has had so many variations and interpretations. Night School feels like a fun, witty film with classic vampire characters and villains. However, it goes in a very different turn and explores something entirely different. With all of the vampire stories I have consumed over the years, itís a turn that I have never seen before.

 

Any other future projects of yours you'd like to talk about?

 

Itís more of less in the development stage now, but The Hazed is a psychological slasher film I wrote and will be starring in. Itís another very brutal, surreal tale about someoneís past coming back to haunt them. It centers on very cruel pranks, which turn to eventual torture, in a sorority who use hazing to get revenge on our main character. Iíve never understood why anyone would put themselves through something like that for acceptance, ďsisterhoodĒ, or even career connections. In the case of the main character itís her way of proving that sheís not afraid and is willing to take whatever torment she has to in order to put one mistake in her past where she would like to keep it. There are still so many engaging yet inconceivable mindsets involved such as once you go through this type of torment, being demeaned as a person, and many are physically and mentally damaged (if not killed, which has happened more than you would think), how could you do this to another person? Is it the only release? The only way to feel like you are no longer the victim to have the illusion of control? Either way, itís a horrendous cycle that continues, scarring all along the way. Weíre currently exploring the best options in how to go about funding before we move forward, but there is a teaser trailer and posters for the film which were shot last June to be released soon.

There are a few other projects in the works, but theyíre in earlier stages right now so itís better not to discuss. I will make sure to keep everyone up to date when things are closer to production!

 

Inhumane

One can't help but notice many of your films are of the horror variety - coincidence, or is horror a genre especially dear to you, and why (not)?

 

That certainly would be quite the coincidence! With my light skin and darker features, I suppose it would be possible since with looks alone Iím a good fit for a number of character types in horror films, but no, itís an active pursuit of all things horror. I first got involved with acting and films due to my involvement with horror through writing for horror websites. It is something I have immense passion for and look forward to exploring in many ways.

 

I think you can get a sense of my passion and desire towards horror. Itís a horribly misjudged and looked down upon genre, and yet, I understand why it is. There is a lot of crap out there and majority of it is Hollywood remakes or just flat material that they think will make money. So if thatís whatís in the mainstream of course most people are going to think thatís all horror is capable of. Boy are they wrong though! I think thereís just so much more creativity in depicting something ugly, uncomfortable, or dark within horror, even if it is an extreme example of what you are trying to portray. You can either make a point of the evils or injustices within our world or you can take charge and make your own brand of justice through the medium. Honestly, the possibilities are endless and I find it more effective and inspiring than a more straight forward drama for example. Iím a little more centered on horror as a writer. I want to create different tones, styles, and realities (although often blurred with fiction or fantasy), but to mostly stay within the horror realm. As an actor, Iím more eager to dabble in different genres, characters, and stories, although a strong female character in a horror script will often be my first choice.

 

Besides acting, you have also done a bit of modeling, right? So what can you tell us about Kelsey Zukowski, the model, and how does this compare to acting?

 

I first got in to modeling due to being an actor and simply needing as many images and looks of myself as possible. Modeling is kind of like capturing all the emotion and story that you would in acting, in a series of snap shots. Generally, I am very particular about modeling shoots. The modeling I have interest in is very creative, atmospheric, and tonally artistic. Anything revolving around fantasy, twists on material such as films I admire or dark twists on fairy tales or supernatural creatures, definitely intrigue me. I also am interested in shoots that can capture emotions, intrigue, and beauty - not so much a fan of modeling that doesnít have substance to it.

 

Somewhere I've read that you made it a point to review every episode of the TV series The Vampire Diaries - what do you find so appealing about the series, and what can you tell us about your background as a film/TV reviewer?

 


You are correct! Oh wow, you just really want me to go on and on, making this the interview that never ends, donít you? Haha. I have very strong feelings about this show and quite honestly I already have most of the written material to write a book on it since I have written about it so much! I also read and reviewed all of the books before the show aired. I quickly fell in love with the show, even more so than the book series.

In my opinion, The Vampire Diaries is the best written and best acted television show on now. The writers are always 5 steps ahead, constantly weaving this complicated, deceiving, alluring, and always shocking web of what happens for these characters and the town of Mystic Falls. At the same time there is so much human emotion at hand that makes you feel so much for these characters. Damon Salvatore simply oozes with passion, loyalty, and sincerity-especially towards Elena Gilbert. He is really my ideal vampire, conniving, impossible to resist, and really embraces his blood-thirsty, powerful nature. Even Stefan, who was intended to be the ďgoodĒ vampire at first has gone through so many interesting stages, pushing his character to levels that you never would have thought he was capable of. Really, all of the characters are like this. They are interesting and layered, but as time goes on, they are affected by things and are developed so completely itís nearly as shocking as some of the plot twists. Elena has really grown in to a strong, fiercely protective character, and with her becoming a vampire this season, she has realized these things and is at her best. Iím so invested in Damon and Elenaís happiness and passion through one another, which can be both an aggravation, when they like to yank you back and forth, and a completely blissful thing to experience through them.

 

Kelsey with Ron Fitzgerald in 

Afraid of Sunrise

Klaus is another wonderful example of the killer characters on the show. He really stepped up when Damon became less of a villain and more of a rough around the edges character. Klaus is selfish, power hungry (and heís already the first and most powerful vampire/werewolf hybrid in the history of vampires), yet wickedly charming, incredibly smart, and finds endless glee in the suffering of others and his own superiority. All of his negative, evil qualities really make him all the more alluring as strange as that might sound. Even with his crush on Elenaís sassy, sensitive, and strong vampire friend, Caroline, I find myself endlessly rooting for him. I donít even know what his intentions are, whether they are pure and thereís something in Caroline that speaks to him, or whether his intentions are malicious. I love Carolineís character (except for when sheís being judgmental of Elena and Damonís relationship - then I canít stand her!), but I kind of donít care what Klausí intentions are because he is just so damn engaging and alluring, I know thereís always going to be dark yet intriguing material with him. In a way heís hard to read so you never know what he might be capable of. Then of course thereís the rest of the original family (the family of the first vampires ever created - Klausí brothers and sister). His sister, Rebekah along with Klaus are two of my favorite vampire characters, especially in TV or film. Rebekah is fiercely loyal, but she is forced to come to the realization that no one has treated her with enough care or respect to be worthy of this loyalty. She has very strong emotions whether through hate and revenge or love and insecurities. Rebekah is a powerful vampire that enjoys toying with others and embraces being a blood thirsty beast, but when it comes down to it she just wants to be loved, appreciated, and to experience the human life she was deprived of.

 

Kelsey in Monster Mash

I really appreciate that the series stays true to the book and characters, but it is its own entity. Most of the storylines are unique to the show. So even for fans you still never know whatís coming next or the direction they might go. A good number of main characters have been killed off. I donít think they would kill any of the main three, but in a way no one is really safe or off limits. They are constantly dealing with age old curses, dealing with damaging dark magic, fatal creatures that can easily end their supposed immortal existence, and so many deathly people and situations that not only might wipe out them and who they love most, but further destruction from there. The story is constantly moving, pulling at your emotions and investment in this world in nearly every way. Even if you have no interest in vampires, drama series, or you donít think this is your thing, incredible writing and out of this world development and realizations of characters in such stellar storytelling should be everyoneís thing.

 

Any other talents of yours you want to talk about?

 

Well letís see we covered acting, modeling, screenwriting, film reviewing, film in general, artistic goals and projects, horror, vampiresÖ yeah I think we pretty much covered everything! My life really revolves around film as a fan, writer, actor, etc. Itís both work and play for me.

 

Writers, actors, filmmakers, whatever else who inspire you?

 

Kelsey's hommage to 

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Iím heavily inspired by Wes Craven. A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my favorite films. He took away the safety net of it being ďjust a dreamĒ. Craven created a world that didnít seem real and therefore there was no hope for outside help in this realm where victims had no control and Freddy was a complete master. I also admire Nancy for being such a strong female character compared to most who were being portrayed in slasher films at the time. The fascination with survival and fighting through outsmarting a very psychological monster, is very interesting to me as well. A lot of Cravenís most horrifying and all-consuming villains are most terrifying because they haunt through the mind such as in Serpent in the Rainbow, mentally tormenting his victims after zombifying them. Craven has created so many cases of encompassing terror and villains that are larger than life and completely vicious. He uses the sphere of horror to explore fear, blur the lines of fiction and reality, and dive in to the darkness of humanity and society. From hearing about my films and what I set out to create, I think you can see the similarities.

 

In relation to my writing and emergence in to film, Roger Ebert was one of the largest inspirations to me. I respect that he is much more open and receptive to films more so than the average mainstream critics, many who only like a very certain type of film that they think they should like. Ebert judges every movie for what it is and the experience that film gave him upon watching. What I really love about Ebert is how vivid and powerful his writing is. He really makes you feel like you experienced that film with him for better or worse. You understand it in a sense and have dived into his perspective with a likeminded and brilliant film fan. His reviews really inspired me to write my own reviews, to take a closer look at movies and the emotions they sparked in me. Heís a major reason why I become more passionate about film and become more and more involved in a number of ways. Iím really blown away by him considering all of the sickness and pain he has battled over the past few years, yet he still had the drive, love, and need for film to keep on watching and writing about them. That is completely shocking and beautiful to me and shows what a strong person he is and how deeply a part of him being a film critic is to him. Completely breathtaking.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street - surprise, surprise. I could go on about all the things I love about this film, but I think I have hit on most of the elements. Enticing villain, encompassing surreal horror, strong characters, and a vision in horror that will live on forever.

 

My other favorite is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Both films as a collective, but especially Part I. Iím a massive Harry Potter fan. I grew up with the books and films. I was 12 when the first film came out and Iím the same age as the actors. As I grew with the characters, I grew with this world which became increasingly darker and more adult. I love exciting, fantasy worlds. I especially enjoy those that offer a magical, whimsical escape, but also are relevant to the world we live in and things we are have to deal with at some point in our lives.

Deathly Hallows is not the fun, magical, anything is possible, we can defy the odds, Harry Potter film. Itís grim, bleak, incredibly depressing, showing all of the light being closed up by the overwhelming darkness. They run out of their luck and are faced against the torture, brainwashing, and eventual destruction of both the magic and muggle worlds if they donít succeed, Harry and his friends are the last chance for the world. Everything is total anarchy; fear is flooding through, and hate and death is all that seems to prevail. All hope is lost, yet giving up is not an option. There is nothing left to do but keep on trying and fighting no matter the consequences or the cost. That is one of the most inspirational things I can think of. Like anyone, I have gone through difficulties and hard times in my life. This film is one of my go to movies to both indulge in its darkness and relate to their struggle while also reminding myself giving up is never an option. Also, it makes life look pretty easy in comparison to what theyíre dealing with.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

There are plenty of films I have hated, but the types of films that frustrate or anger me the most are those that are just pointless or lacking any substance. Now some films can just be entertaining and that is perfectly fine, but Iím talking more about films that have potential and just donít do anything with it. The Human Centipede comes to mind. I was intrigued by it and interested to see what could have been done. The answer is a lot, but there was no exploration of the villain, why he was doing this, or any reason to the madness at all. There was room for interesting exploration and themes there, but thatís not what it was about. Iím actually very enraged by the film and think itís an insult to art and artists, especially considering it was a recent success story of horror that blew up in pop culture. That is just a shame considering how many more deserving gems are out there.

 

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Iím not too fond of found footage films or horror films that rely on jump scares or random loud noises to shock the audience rather than building authentic suspense for example. I enjoy every genre, but itís going to take a lot more than some explosions or car chase scenes to impress me in an action film, it needs to stand out or be dynamic. How much I can invest in a character, how well a story is told, and if any themes resonate with me are the most important factors in whether I enjoy a movie or not. Falling drastically short on any or all of those areas can definitely make me dislike a film.

 

Your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

My website: http://kelseyzukowski.com

My IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3857479/?ref_=tt_ov_wr

Words Like Knives IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2624690/

My Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kelsey.zukowski

Words Like Knives Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RumorsCanKill

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

I believe you have covered it all! Thank you for your interest in Words Like Knives and taking the time to interview me. I enjoyed contemplating the world of horror, film, and intriguing exploration with you!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

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written by
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starring
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Rudy Barrow

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