If you are from Winnipeg, Canada, you can become a pro-wrestler like Chris Jericho or, like Danishka Esterhazy, you can get into filmmaking. Esterhazy is a graduate of the Director’s Lab at the Canadian Film Centre, a renowned film school founded by Norman Jewison, and was part of the pUNK Film Femmes Lab — a screenwriting initiative for women filmmakers founded by Ingrid Veninger and funded by Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo. In addition to those accomplishments, Esterhazy has been writing, directing, and producing film and television since the early 2000s and building a filmography that is filled with incredible projects spanning multiple genres. In addition to directing multiple episodes of SurrealEstate, Esterhazy’s latest project is a remake of Slumber Party Massacre. Wanting to learn more about Esterhazy and SPM, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some shows and movies you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Danishka Esterhazy: I was a big fan of retro science fiction – especially reruns on late night television. So, I watched films like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green and the original Westworld many, many times. I was also in love with ghost stories. Any story set in a haunted house had my attention. The Screaming Skull was a favorite of mine. A weird 1950s slow horror about gaslighting and femicide. (Clearly, my parents did not monitor what I was watching.) Those movies don’t really hold up when I re-watch them as an adult. But the themes and the style of those films are a definite influence on my work as a director.
Yanes: When did you decide to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment this goal crystalized for you?
Esterhazy: The inspiration came to me quite late. I didn’t grow up in a film industry family. I didn’t grow up in a film industry town. My school did not offer any form of film studies. But I was always a writer. A storyteller. I had a group of friends in junior high and high school who were my writing community. We wrote fantasy stories, multi-generational epics, that we never showed to anyone. We wrote for our own enjoyment. Then I went to university and studied history. And I wrote songs, formed several bands. I think I was always looking for an outlet for storytelling. When I finally made my first short film – everything clicked. It was what I had been searching for. Filmmaking is an intense and difficult career. But it was exactly what I needed.
Yanes: Reflecting on your favorite stories, which ones do you think inspired you the most?
Esterhazy: When I wrote my film Level 16, I was inspired by Jane Eyre and Logan’s Run. Combining my deep love of gothic fiction with my passion for dystopian thrillers. But, in general, I am inspired by female-driven stories. A story where a woman faces peril, faces patriarchal barriers, and breaks through the danger and the obstacles to create her own life. The film industry has been (and continues to be) a male-dominated world that deeply underestimates women and denies them opportunities. So, these themes, alas, continue to resonate for me.
Yanes: You have been celebrated for your female-driven stories. How do you define “female-driven” in regards to narrative?
Esterhazy: I look for stories with multi-dimensional female leads. The protagonist doesn’t need to be perfect. Indeed, I hope she is flawed, very human. I’m not interested in Mary Sues or Pixie Dream Girls or Fighting Fuck Bots. Even in the most fantastical story, whether it be horror or science fiction, I want the story to say something truthful about the human experience. And women’s stories have been so neglected for so long. So, there are lots of good stories to tell.
Yanes: I first learned of your work from SurrealEstate. Pound-for-pound, which actor do you think is the best fighter?
Esterhazy: Ha! My money is always on Tim Rozon. There is nothing that Tim can’t do. He’s an incredible actor, a generous scene partner, great at stunts, and just a first-class human being. But Sarah Levy’s Susan does have pyrokinetic powers, so that does complicate Luke Roman’s odds!
Yanes: Your latest project is a remake of Slumber Party Massacre. What attracted you to this franchise? Was there an element of it you thought you could do a lot with?
Esterhazy: The SPM trilogy is something I knew quite well because it stands out as the only horror franchise entirely written and directed by women. But, I’ll admit, the first time I watched the movies I was disappointed. I had imagined them to be deeply subversive. I thought they would offer a feminist antidote to the overpowering juvenile male gaze of the 80s slasher era. For many reasons, the films don’t deliver on that promise. But they offer so much possibility. Which I found very inspiring.
Yanes: This franchise has been around since 1982 and it is still enjoyed by fans. Why do you think Slumber Party Massacre is timeless?
Esterhazy: When Amy Holden-Jones directed the first Slumber Party Massacre movie she broke down a lot of barriers. She brought a woman’s voice to horror films, to slasher films. It was her first time as a feature director and the film is full of great moments. I am particularly fond of the sequence which intercuts Neil’s murder and Valerie watching an old black and white horror movie. It’s brilliant. I think horror fans really appreciate SPM’s place in horror history.
Yanes: While directing this remake, did an element of it take on a life of its own?
Esterhazy: I really wanted to include Courtney’s goose lamp from the original film. But we couldn’t find one in Cape Town – where we were shooting. So, my art team had to create one from scratch. It’s just a small moment of homage but it makes me very happy.
Yanes: Reflecting on the time you spent directing this movie, is there a specific moment that you loved the most?
Esterhazy: I love how much we laughed on set. The actors and the crew understood my plan and they committed 100%. From spraying blood, to pillow fights to sexy pajama dancing – it was all ridiculous fun. Every night ended on a high note because we had so much fun recreating those classic scenes. And turning them upside down!
Yanes: When people finish watching Slumber Party Massacre, what do you hope they take away from it?
Esterhazy: Suzanne Keilly’s script is multi-layered. You can enjoy it just for the jokes or just for the gore. But it also has a lot to say about the ridiculous gender constructs we celebrate in film. And it explores the power of friendship and love. It also says some very interesting things about internalized misogyny. I hope people will find the film rewarding on repeat viewings.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Esterhazy: I’m currently working as Producing Director on a new series for SyFy called Astrid & Lilly Save the World. It’s a fun supernatural comedy about two fabulous young women who become monster hunters. It’s hilarious and subversive and has a lot of heart. And it’s coming out early next year!