We speak with writer/director Axelle Carolyn about her new Blumhouse feature!
It's October, so you know what that means—new horror projects for us to enjoy! One thing we've been excited about is the horror series, Welcome to the Blumhouse, a film collaboration between Amazon Prime and Blumhouse. This year's films explore themes of "institutional horrors and personal phobias."
The Manor, out Oct. 8, is part of that series.
In the film, Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) has suffered a stroke and is moved into a nursing home. But soon, she begins to believe that a supernatural force is preying on the residents. In order to escape, she needs to convince those around her that she is sane and in danger.
We hopped on Zoom with the film's writer/director, Axelle Carolyn, about her experiences in the horror genre, how she learned the necessary skills to be a director, and more! Dive into Carolyn's insight below!
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I love horror. I get so excited about new horror films, and people in horror. I wanted to start there—what excites you about the genre?
Axelle Carolyn: Oh, wow. I've always loved horror, in one way or another. I obviously was not allowed to watch any horror movies when I was little, but I was obsessed with ghosts and skeletons. And I remember, I loved drawing when I was little, and I loved writing. And so I would make those little books that I would illustrate, and they were all ghosts and skeletons and spooky things. And I actually remember my granddad saying, "Oh, you might grow up to be a writer." And I remember laughing, like, "Haha, that's such a stupid idea." And there we go, here I am.
It's always been there. And whether it was reading books, or it was later on discovering things, just going through Tim Burton and then going more into proper horror.
I'm very visually inclined, and there's something about the way that the worlds that it creates, and the atmospheres that it creates, and it's very often very beautiful.
And I also feel like I love the idea of finding comfort in the supernatural. I find that there's something—I don't have faith, I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in ghosts either, but the idea of playing with the fact that my loved ones might not be gone. I'd rather know that my grandma is a ghost somewhere, happily haunting people and terrifying people, than thinking that there's nothing at all.
NFS: I was not allowed to watch scary movies until I went to college, where one of my friends introduced me to The Shining. And so that was my, "Oh, this is a great genre. I really, really love it, and let's explore it more."
Carolyn: When I was little, I was aware that there were horror movies, I just wasn't allowed to watch them. But I would see those thumbnails of when a videotape would come out, there would be a little picture of it in TV Magazine. And I would cut them out and then I would try to picture in my head what the movie was. And I remember having this whole version of what Hellraiser was all about. Which obviously, when you're seven or something, is clearly nowhere near what Hellraiser actually is. But there's a version of Hellraiser in my head somewhere that's completely different.
NFS: What about your path as a director? How did you get started?
Carolyn: Well, I grew up in Belgium, where there's not much of a filmmaking industry. And when I kind of understood that my passion was not only horror but also not just literary horror, but movies more specifically... I've always known I wanted to do something in that space, and I didn't know exactly what. And my parents, again, because there wasn't much of a filmmaking path that seemed obvious when you grow up speaking French and living in Brussels and very isolated from anything that's related to the industry, they wanted me to go to law school, which I did. And at the end of law school, I said, "I still want to go and make movies."
The first job that I got to do was interviewing filmmakers for magazines and then visiting film sets for Fangoria and IGN and the SPEC and a lot of horror publications. And that was my first step into just seeing how a movie is made and having a slightly better understanding of who does what and what goes into the job. And then from there, any opportunity I would get to do anything that was film-related, I would try. I was a film publicist very briefly, actually for the same company that's now representing me as publicists. I worked for a film financing company. I very briefly, very badly acted.
And anytime someone would present an opportunity to learn a different facet of the industry, I would go for it. But I think I always had a little bit of trouble realizing that directing was my path. It just seemed like it was something that all my friends around me wanted, to be directors, and they worked so hard, and I felt like it wasn't my place. And one of the things that I realized, later on, was that, unconsciously, none of them were women. And if you don't see people like you in the job, I think it's harder. If you see yourself in the job and then, thankfully, things are changing.
But I do think that it delayed my decision to start directing by a few years. But then one day I wrote a script that I really liked and I thought, "I can't. I can't give that to someone else. I have to make it myself," and I made it. It turned out to be my first feature, which was made for very little money.
But that was just my kind of, "I have to do this now." I mean, a few short films before that, obviously, that wasn't the first time I directed a film but that was a big decision that made me realize, this is what I want to do. And from my first day on set, I realized thinking, firstly, on set, on my first professional, short film, it was just like, that just clicked. And I was like, "Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be."
NFS: I really like your point about the importance of seeing yourself in the job, which is one reason I'm excited to be speaking to you. I just want to highlight diverse filmmakers, not only in the broad sense but in the genre, because I don't feel like there's a ton of ladies in the genre that are visible.
Carolyn: Unfortunately not, but I think there's a lot of women who—and we see a lot more of them now that now that those gates have been slightly open—that we can slightly see a path to make the career in this industry. But, I think a lot of women, I often hear guys saying, "I wish I had known someone like you when I was little, because there were no girls into horror."
And like, no, we were there. We just didn't share the same spaces, but we were there. And maybe we didn't see ourselves on the same path, but I think that's changing now, I think thankfully that's changing. And I think that's also why it's so important for female filmmakers to have that visibility.
NFS: I also feel like there were very specific nods to horror fans within your film itself. The exterior of the building being from House 2. I saw Mick Garris, I think, in that last scene.
Carolyn: Yeah. Bill Malone is in the same shot, actually.
No Film School: And then even like Jill Larson, I was really happy to see her in this because I loved The Taking of Deborah Logan. Loved it. Why do you feel like aging, getting older, is such an interesting space to play in for this genre? What did you like about that world that brought you into the story?
Carolyn: I think that people always say that you should write about what scares you and about what you know, and ever since I was little, I thought the idea of aging was terrifying, and seeing your loved ones age and change. And I think we can all relate to how terrifying that is. That idea of your own mortality and the mortality of people around you. And seeing just kind of that there's something broader than that, about the way that we classify people according to how old they are.
And as I was seeing someone else yesterday saying, who was asking this question, "When you're on a dating site, is it acceptable to lie about your age? Or is that a lie right away? Should you not do it?" And I was thinking, "There's a third option here, which is stop asking people for their age."
Like, it's the first thing that defines people. Asking for someone's name is great. Trying to figure out what they're passionate about, what they like, where they're at in their lives. All that is interesting in that, but each person, the fact that we also think that we greet information about someone's personality just by getting the number that's associated to them is just profoundly wrong in many ways, and I think that most people don't—you always hear people saying they don't feel their age. And of course, we all are our ages to a point, we are sort of defined by that.
But that should not be the thing that makes people see you differently. If I told people that I'm making this movie and I'm 25 or 35 or 45, they will interpret that differently, as well. And so I think everything is seen through the prism of something that you have no control over and all those questions are very, all those ideas are very scary to me.
And the fact that whether you like it or not, whether you change or not, people will see you differently the moment they know that you're 40 or you're 50, all of that feeds into that same idea of defining yourself and becoming someone else and of being treated differently. And so now on top of that, it was seeing part of this. Some people in my family ending up in nursing homes and being confronted through that, the cold fact of mortality and where our body kind of ends up, and all those ideas fed into—I just needed to have a way of expressing all that somehow. And because I'm such a huge horror nerd, it had to be through a horror movie.
The idea of not being believed, the idea of being gaslit, the idea of being—even the people who mean well think that you have dementia or that you're vulnerable, that they don't know how to protect you adequately. And they put you in this house where you can't escape. And if something happens in that house, there's no one there to save you. All of those are classic horror tropes that just felt like there were thematically, and from a storytelling point of view, perfect for a horror movie.
NFS: In addition to the exterior of the house being so iconic and these faces that are familiar to horror fans, what were some of your visual inspirations for the film?
Carolyn: Well, that's the other side of it that I didn't—as much as those themes are dark and scary and very serious and very depressing, I didn't want the movie to be sad and depressing. I simply did not want people to leave the story, and I'm hoping that's not what people take away from it, feeling bad about aging or feeling bad about themselves or feeling—I didn't want this to be a miserable experience.
So I told it through the language that I'm familiar with, which is horror, Gothic horror really. And so finding a house that doesn't look like, it's not an old hospital setting, it's a beautiful Gothic house where, you know, I want to end my days in a house like that. That's gorgeous, I totally understand people who make the choice of wanting to get there.
But then at night, it looks like this completely different thing. That's much darker and much scarier. And so, that's such a classic Gothic idea that I wanted to play with and make everything look a little bit of mended, a little bit more beautiful than a reality, having beautiful lighting, just making it look inviting and having creatures and having supernatural things that I can't fully reveal, but different elements that bring you into a slightly different world.
And so you're not just stuck with the cold reality of the themes that we're dealing with. And that's one of the things I think is so great about horror, is that you can talk about all kinds of subject matter without them ever feeling like you're beating people in the head with them or you're depressing them, or you can use that metaphor, the monster or whatever supernatural element you want to put in there, to express all kinds of things.
NFS: Was there anything that was a challenge on this film, and how did you overcome it?
Carolyn: In some ways, one of the biggest challenges, and this is not something you can give much advice on, unfortunately, at a time when we did all post during COVID just when the world shut down, I'd just finished my director's cut and we had to invent the ways to do everything. But I think there's better ways of working now remotely that make more sense. But I had to do all the color correction and all the sound design on an iPad, so I can only pray that the movie looks decent when you see it on a bigger screen, because who knows.
You know, since I shopped this, I had the chance to do a lot of TV and a lot of really cool TV, like really cool horror. I got to do a Haunting of Bly Manor, and then I went back with Mike Flanagan to do a couple of episodes of a show that comes out next year, called The Midnight Club. And I'm finishing my second episode of American Horror Story.
And what's interesting is learning about prep and about the different ways that you can prepare. I think I would probably prepare for The Manor differently. I think that you always learn more and you adapt to the circumstances. But learning, for example, seeing how Mike Flanagan preps for his movies and how thorough he is and how specific, and he doesn't just shot list, he shot list's with his DP very closely. But they have plans, they build the sets according to what they have decided the shots would be. They know exactly like, before they show up on set, what lens they're going to shoot it on, how long the shot is going to take, what they're going to light it with. It's so incredibly prepared and specific, and so they know exactly what the day has in store.
I'm not at that level. And I very rarely get the luxury of prepping with DPs. On The Manor we had a couple of weeks to prep together, but even a couple of weeks to prep a whole feature is not that long when you think about it.
But learning the extent to which you can be prepared before you show up on set and then trying to be a little bit flexible when you show up and adapting to circumstances. And you can't always have the luxury of doing the entire shot list that you planned or every single shot that you'd planned. I feel like every project teaches you a little bit more about the technical side of things.
I didn't go to film school. So there's a lot of things I've had to pick up over time, making features—which is kind of what can you achieve with the jib? What kind of crane do you need? iI you're shooting at night outside, are you going to need a balloon? Are you going to need a condor? It's all those little things that when you can express the kind of look that you have, and you have a very specific vision, you learn the tools that you need to request much more specifically. And I think those are all things that help you become a better filmmaker.
That's kind of more the technical side and the other side, which is something I've always worked on, is also knowing which emotion you want to achieve for every scene. That's the joy of being a writer, as well, when you're on your own projects, but being able to analyze each scene and being able to know what you want the audience to feel like watching the specific scene. And not just how it's going to propel your story forward, but also really, how do I want them to feel and how do I achieve that, and discussing that in those terms with your DP as well, and just saying, "How do we make this something where they feel nostalgia, they feel it?" You know, those kinds of discussions I think are very, very crucial before you get started.
NFS: That episode of Bly Manor was one of my favorites of that whole series. It was just such a unique way into that backstory.
Carolyn: Oh thank you. It was such a joy to make, I can't tell you enough.
NFS: I am a big fan of both of those seasons of Haunting. And so I'm excited to hear that you're working with [Flanagan] again. I'm going to be watching that a hundred percent.
Carolyn: Very, very different show. But I think that Mike is—one of the things I admire the most about his filmmaking, and that I tried to bring into what I do, was that he leads with emotion. He leads with emotion and characters, and he has great ideas for scary things. And he's very, very good at achieving them. But they only work because they come from a place of, "I want people to feel this way and we want these characters to be these types of people," and kind of very, very specific about those elements first.
NFS: That's really good advice from a writing standpoint. Anything else at all you want to discuss?
Carolyn: I think one thing that another piece of advice maybe that I would give—I mean, I could spend all day just giving my two cents on things and they're worth what they're worth, who knows.
But it's having an idea of who you are and why do you want to tell. And at the end of the day, and I know some people would hate this because they feel like they would be pigeonholed, but I know what I love. And I would like people to look at my resume, and whether it's an episode of TV or whether it's a feature or whatever it is, something I wrote, something I directed, something, whatever. I want people to have an idea of like, "Oh, I see who she is. I see the kind of person she is and the kind of thing that she's attracted to and interested in."
And I think that's important, especially when you're navigating that world of TV and the writing assignments, and people having an understanding of who you are and what they can offer to you. I would hope that people know that if they have an amazing episode of Gothic television or an amazing play, that's entirely my jam. Gothic horror is very, very much what I'm into. And it's horror of other styles and other types, and what we're doing with American Horror Story is very different right now, for example, and I'm having a blast doing that. But it's having a clear sense as a filmmaker of who you want to be and what your goals are, and who you are.