Bringing a Dark Fairytale to Life without a Budget: Guilhad Emilio Schenker on 'Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club'
A film so tasty that the menu could only consist of....people.
This was the year for women-led films at the Austin-based Fantastic Fest, one of the nation’s largest genre film festivals. David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel opened the week-long event, with Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria filling in the highly anticipated secret screening spot. But there were other small budget treasures shining just next to the Hollywood productions, including the Lord of the Flies-influenced Ladyworld, the in-depth dystopian thriller Level 16, and a black-and-white coming-of-age dramedy Slut in a Good Way.
Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club is a title that stands out even on a crowded marquee. Guilhad Emilio Schenker’s film is a steampunk-tinged fairytale about a group of women who lure men into their book club, where they then kill and turn their guests into sausages. The ladies later sell off their homemade goods at the local fair. In this cannibalistic society, women who are no longer youthful looking enough to entice a man to his doom are forced to work as domestic servants. To avoid that grueling fate, they must have brought 100 men to their group in order to be crowned a Lordess, a privileged class within the literature club who no longer have to harvest men to earn their keep.
Schenker and his co-writer and co-producer, Yossi Meiri, clearly had fun with the concept of man-eating matriarchs who compete against each other to bring handsome men to their table. At Fantastic Fest, the Israeli director told No Film School how he came up with the idea for his feature debut, creating a fantasy world on a budget and working with his family and nonprofessional actors.
No Film School: I have to ask...How did you come up with your movie’s title?
Guilhad Emilio Schenker: I had so many fights with my producer and my distributor. Everybody said, “No, you have to do it a little bit shorter. You can't do such a long title. And I said "that's the title." I don't know how, but the first thing I wrote on my laptop when I started to write the film was, Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club. That was the idea of it. I don't know how I thought about it, but that was the title. I never allowed anyone to change it, and I had a lot of fights with my producer.
NFS: What does he think of it now?
Schenker: I think that he understands that some things are bad about it, but there are also some good things about it. Sometimes you just know that this is the right title for it.
"I always preferred friends who are female than friends who are male. I found them much more interesting, and I get along with them better than with men."
NFS: How did you develop that story from a title to a fairytale about a society of women that lures men to make them into meals with an invitation to their book club?
Schenker: I grew up surrounded by women. I have one mother, two sisters, and one grandmother who turned 97 a few days ago. She was one of the actors in the film, as the head of the Sanitation Department, Babushka. My mother was in the House of Lordesses. My aunts were there. I took all my family to be in this film.
I always preferred friends who are female than friends who are male. I found them much more interesting, and I get along with them better than with men. One of the things that really inspired me to write this story was my best friend, Segal. She is my muse. Everything I write, I write about her and about her life. Once in a month, more or less, she invites me to her house to eat dinner, and every time she makes the same thing: schnitzels with mashed potatoes, salad, and wine.
While I was eating the schnitzel, I asked her, “So, what’s going on with this guy that you are dating over the last two or three weeks?” I was in the middle of chewing the schnitzel, and she looked at my plate. She gave me a very scary look: "That's the guy. And he deserved it.” I was choking from my schnitzel. I was shocked! I know her very well, and I know that it might be a true story. I never finished the schnitzel and I don't eat at her place anymore.
I came back to my house and started to write about Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club. She is Sophie, in many ways. My grandmother is Madam Yankelova in many ways.
NFS: Ageism is something that affects men and women, yet in your movie, you approach some of the gendered ways it costs women more. Why did you decide to incorporate that into your story?
Schenker: That's a subject that was around me all my life. Aging, femininity, friendship between women and competition between women. I lived in Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club, in many ways. I remember once my sister broke up with her boyfriend when I was 10. They were [in their] 20s, my sisters. My sister and her friends got together. They took all his stuff from my sister's room—like pictures of him, his clothes, and his shoes. They took me with them to this ceremony and they burned it [his belongings].
My sisters are very strong women. My mother is a very strong woman, and especially my grandmother—she's the head of the family. Nothing goes on in my family without asking my grandmother. To be honest, my grandmother is my best friend.
"I think that there is not a lot of violence in the film. We really wanted to leave the violence inside of the head of the audience. I really wanted to make it like a dark fairytale for grownups."
NFS: Are you interested in continuing to tell women’s stories?
Schenker: Yes, writing about men is really boring. I think that men are really boring in general. I'm really attracted to stories that are in the border between melodrama and camp.
NFS: You worked with untrained and professional actors for your movie. What was that like on set?
Schenker: It was amazing. All the actresses are real actresses. They are the biggest ones in Israel, and we had almost no money to make it. It's a very, very low-budget film. I think that also the cast was amazed by them. When a professional actor comes to play in a film, usually they don't pay much attention to the extras. But we were all like a very big family. My mother cooked the food in the film. They [the professional actors] told me that this is the most amazing atmosphere they have ever had in a film.
NFS: Now that your family has seen the film, what was their take on it?
Schenker: My short film was very violent, and my mother hated it. Lavan was in 70 festivals around the world. It was even shortlisted for the Oscars, for the short film category. It was a really successful film, but my family and my mother hated it. She said, "It's too violent for me. I can't stand it."
One of the things that I wanted is that my mother would like it. I think that there is not a lot of violence in the film. We really wanted to leave the violence inside of the head of the audience. I really wanted to make it like a dark fairytale for grownups.
NFS: Did you draw from particular influences to create the visual style of your film? The costumes are a mix of modern and Victorian styles, and the interiors range from an ornate dining room to a Brutalist library.
Schenker: I'm very much inspired by Tim Burton and his work. I consider him my father in filmmaking, although I’ve never met him. He's a big inspiration for me. The problem was the budget. We didn't have the budget to make it. This friend of mine gave us this warehouse her family didn't use, and all my friends and I cleaned it up.
We needed to build a set, but we didn't have money. I knew that this soap opera was finishing shooting and that they were going to throw the set in the garbage. We went in the middle of the night with a truck and we stole it. We built it again. We painted it and we did a completely different set than we imagined.
We really wanted it to be disconnected from time and space. We didn't want it to have any connection to Israel except for the fact that the characters speak Hebrew. We wanted to completely make it like a fantasy without time, without space. You don't know where you are and you don't know when you are.
"It’s like a tailor-made film. Every frame in this film, we touched it. We colored it. We added things that didn't exist in the real set."
NFS: What made you decide to build your world to include places like a library or fair?
Schenker: The library was invented because Segal, my friend, her dream was to be a librarian. She would say that she wants to be like this very tough librarian that yells at people to shut up. I wanted to build a library, and I went to all the libraries in Israel. I have a small fetish about libraries. I really like to go to libraries in Europe and to see the beautiful and big libraries that we don't have in Israel. All the libraries in Israel look very bad. I didn't want to shoot in a real library, so we had to build it. You remember the film Seven?
Schenker: Yeah, with Brad Pitt and David Fincher. That was the inspiration. Of course, we did it with $10, more or less. We had to build it from nothing.
The amusement park, we also built it. We built it outside of the set, and we did most of it in 3D in post-production. One year after filming, we finished editing the film. Then, we sat alone every evening until the morning to do it alone, me and him [Meiri] on After Effects.
It’s like a tailor-made film. Every frame in this film, we touched it. We colored it. We added things that didn't exist in the real set. Because if you want to make a fantasy film with no money then you have no other choice than to do it alone.