John Fawcett: Meeting the man behind Ginger Snaps

Ginger Snaps is a feminist-horror-romp that pushes all the right buttons. But its director, John Fawcett, and rising star, Katharine Isabelle, seem disappointingly straight. Until, that is, the talk turns to Chris Penn.

Charlotte O'Sullivan
Sunday 16 February 2014 05:00

The film Ginger Snaps gives new meaning to the term period drama: it has nothing to do with tight-lipped suffering in crinolines and everything to do with "geysers of menstrual blood". Oh yes, and werewolves and sexually transmitted disease and the latent, narcissistic attraction between two twisted sisters, one of whom (Ginger) gets bitten by a mad beast on the very night that she's struck down by the curse, the other of whom (Brigitte) has to watch in horror as her sibling is transformed from a mouthy virgin into a hairy, homicidal vamp. Ginger Snaps, you see, is no gushy celebration of womanhood either. As Brigitte tells Ginger, "Something's wrong – like, more than you being just female."

Feminist horror already has its classics and admittedly this no-budget offering from Canada isn't quite up there with The Company of Wolves and Carrie. But it comes pretty close. By the end you're desperate that its teen-goth heroines survive, particularly Brigitte, whose Marilyn Manson eyes, hunched back and split-plum mouth remind you how delightful the sullen can be. Writer Karen Walton has also inserted some great lines for Mimi Rogers, who, as the girls' mom, takes suburban dizziness to cynical highs not reached since Todd Solondz's Happiness. I can't wait to meet Emily Perkins, the actress who plays Brigitte. I can't wait to meet Karen Walton.

Of course, they're not the ones who've been brought over by the production company. Instead I'm to meet 18-year-old Katharine Isabelle, who plays Ginger, and the director, John Fawcett. Katy, who has been doing photo shoots all day, appears somewhat dazed, ("It's Emily who did all the women's studies courses. I'm not very analytical – I mean, I could relate to Ginger, because I'm a double Scorpio and stuff, but most of the time I was just trying to hit my marks"). Fawcett, meanwhile, is a jaunty little hobbit of a man, with a pragmatic attitude to the business. "Yeah, it's a little sad to say, but Katy's the good-looking chick. And she has the more in-your-face role. Ginger's the sexual component to the movie, so I think naturally people gravitate towards her."

Fawcett, it turns out, has something of a preoccupation with babes himself (though he's "very married", he's got a huge crush on Lucy Liu). He also likes to talk about women's "racks" – the very word used by the adolescent boys in Ginger Snaps as they ogle the girls. And he admits that his sensibility can tend to the crude.

There's a wonderful scene in the film where Brigitte tapes Ginger's new-grown werewolf's tail to her leg, so that it won't flap around while they're playing games. Anyone who's ever tried to keep an old-fashioned sanitary towel from flying into the sports ground fray will shiver with recognition at Brigitte's grim concentration.

But Fawcett's mind was on other things: "I wanted the film to be this exploration in sexual repulsion and the big influence on me was actually Return of the Living Dead Part III" he giggles, "'cos there's a character in that, who's like really beautiful, but she's a zombie – she's this zombie punk with like pieces of glass through her nipples and I don't mean to be crass, but as a guy you look at her and you go 'I think I'd have sex with her, but maybe not.'" He also considered having Ginger's blood-lust taking a more physical turn in relation to Brigitte: "Women getting it on with each other, there's not a man alive, not even a gay man, who doesn't want to see that," he says excitedly, "I think in one version of the script we actually had a little grope or two."

Thirty-three-year-old Fawcett, I'm beginning to realise, is not exactly a foot soldier in the fight against exploitation. Raised within a strict Mormon family, he says he was a "problem child" who did everything he was told not to do. Might Ginger Snaps be his latest attempt to shock the folks back home? When Emily Perkins was first sent scenes from the film, she apparently thought, "What is this? This is some kind of semi-pornographic movie geared towards 15-year-old boys." The original distributors, Lion's Gate, also saw it as straight-to-video fare (it's still touch and go whether the film will get a theatrical release in the States). Panic is setting in – maybe these people were right and I, like the Sight and Sound critic who called Ginger Snaps "radical", have been duped.

Fawcett's laddie act, however, doesn't quite convince. When he and Isabelle are having their pictures taken, she immediately arches her back and assumes a siren's pout. It's a good look – Isabelle's pointy face has something of Kathleen Byron's unhinged hauteur – but also very conventional. Her mother is standing nearby: "You look beautiful honey." Fawcett, by contrast, looks deeply uncomfortable throughout.

There's a point, too, where the talk gets on to Chris Penn. Ginger Snaps is Fawcett's second film, his first, The Boy's Club, starred Penn and when I ask about Penn, Fawcett squirms in his seat. "I had some problems with Chris. Eventually we found a way of working together, but he didn't really trust me." Why not? Fawcett squirms some more. "Well, he's such a guy's guy." And he, Fawcett, isn't? "Oh my god, I'm afraid of guy guys. I don't like power tools. I don't like to drive cars." I say I've interviewed Penn, and that I too found him odd. Fawcett can't hold himself in any longer. He explodes with the words: "Chris is very much a big pig of a guy", then looks in horror at the tape recorder sitting between us.

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It does sound a stressful shoot, but Fawcett's best story actually makes Penn appear rather sweet. The actor, apparently, had a habit of touching his nether regions while holding a conversation. "So, I'm working with these young actors, who, like, don't have a sense of the consequences of their actions. So, we're waiting for sound to be set up and one 15-year-old boy says 'so Chris, why'd you keep rapping your nuts?'" Fawcett chokes with laughter at the memory. "I thought Chris was gonna like smoke this guy's head. But he didn't. He explained himself." So, why did he do it? Fawcett gets himself comfortable. "OK – he says it's a nervous habit he got into when he was boxing – you know he trained as a boxer. You do it to check your..." Fawcett's brow furrows as he searches for a suitable word... "cock is protected". Isabelle and her mum have just joined us, but now look as if they wish they hadn't. Isabelle looks at her mum as if to say: "We are out of here."

They're a strange bunch, this Ginger Snaps team, not at all the right-on pioneers I'd expected. But Isabelle probably will be a big star. And Fawcett is adorable. For all his attempts to divide the world into guys and dolls, what he really communicates (in his film and as a person) is that women and men aren't so different; that, give or take a few hormones, we're all just a bunch of wierdos yearning to have a good, long howl at the moon.

'Ginger Snaps' is released 29 June

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