With a background in classical acting as well as training from the London Dramatic Academy, the American Shakespeare Center, the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival, and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Lee Ann Kurr is an up-and-coming writer and director who has just captained her first feature film, Student Body (VOD). Starring Christian Camargo, Montse Hernandez, Harley Quinn Smith and other great talent, Student Body is Kurr’s feature film debut as well as a love letter to old-school high school slasher films. Wanting to learn more about her background and this film, I was able to interview Kurr for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you can still enjoy revisiting?
Lee Ann Kurr: I grew up very much addicted to the filmography of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as Agatha Christie murder mysteries. I think both of their catalogs influence me to this day– and to me, Vertigo is one of the greatest films ever made.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment in which this goal crystallized for you?
Kurr: I grew up in the theater, acting onstage. I ended up getting into classical acting in high school and pursuing acting in undergrad at Drew University. Because I went to a wonderful, thoroughly liberal arts school, I was also exposed to playwriting, which opened up a whole new world of expression for me. After graduating, my interest in playwriting quickly shifted to screenwriting, and a film class I took my senior year really piqued my interest towards filmmaking. I soon realized that film was the medium I ultimately wanted to work in.
Yanes: You have studied acting and theater in both the United Kingdom and the United States. What are some cultural differences you noticed?
Kurr: I think in the UK there’s a big emphasis on starting in the theater, with the classics. Many of the UK-based actors we know and love, that do big projects in film and TV in Hollywood now, come from incredible stage backgrounds, playing all kinds of wonderful roles in Shakespeare, the Greeks, Chekhov, Ibsen, etc.
Yanes: Student Body is the first feature length film you wrote and directed. When did you realize you were ready to level up to full film?
Kurr: I directed a short film, a web series, and a music video beforehand, and also worked for three years in NYC as a nonunion script supervisor. I was right alongside directors, working very closely with them, for several indie features, short films, and commercials. By the time I stepped on set the summer of 2019 as director of a feature, I felt that I really had my sea legs.
Yanes: On this note, what was the inspiration for this story?
Kurr: In middle and high school I struggled with social anxiety – I didn’t really feel like I fit in anywhere, and at times had trouble making friendships that felt substantive and genuine. I also felt pressure from other adults and mentor figures to constantly achieve, so I felt like I had to constantly get straight As, excel in all my extracurriculars, and kind of be an achievement machine. A lot of that was also the pressure I put on myself. So, I really wanted to make this story be about the anxieties, fears and pressures of being young, and particularly a young woman, and how school can be both an isolating and claustrophobic place. All of the genre/ slasher elements of the film are in service of expressing that idea of high school being a rather scary experience.
Yanes: The entire cast is incredible. I didn’t see a weak performance or someone phoning it. How did you get this amazing group of actors?
Kurr: Christian Camargo was always at the very top of my list for the role of Mr. Aunspach, so I felt very lucky that he responded to the material and accepted the role. It was an honor and a dream working with him. For the five young leads, we had a rewarding and thorough audition process in the spring of 2019, working with my wonderful casting director Russell Boast. Some of the actors read in person, and I gave some adjustments and saw how they responded in the room. I also read with a couple actors over zoom who couldn’t make it in person. For each of those roles I was really looking for actors that could show the vulnerability of the character beneath the cool front that they project to their peers, and all of the members of the final cast do that so beautifully in the film.
Yanes: The feelings in a horror scene – the anticipation, the dread, the panic – are so difficult to do well. How did you go about crafting the moments of horror in Student Body?
Kurr: I was very inspired by Lynne Ramsay’s film You Were Never Really Here, which is a film that implies a lot of violence, but really doesn’t show it onscreen. Her work showed me that leaving the moment of a kill up to the audience’s imagination can be a powerful thing– letting the audience’s own impressions fill in the gaps became an interesting concept for me that I explore with several moments in Student Body. What’s left is as you say, the anticipation, dread, and the horror of the aftermath of the event on the characters’ psyches.
Also, for me, much of the horror of the film is psychological, rather than traditional jump scares.
The main character Jane Shipley doesn’t know if any of her “friends” are actually her friends, she doesn’t feel connected to her childhood best friend anymore, and she has this would-be mentor figure in her math teacher demanding perfection from her in a very invasive and upsetting way. I think her conundrum is pretty horrifying before the genre elements come to the fore, and then when they do, they’re there to externalize what she’s already grappling with internally.
Yanes: There are a lot of incredible shots in the film. Is there one that you are particularly proud of? For example, was a there shot that was unexpectedly harder to accomplish than the rest?
Kurr: Thank you! I’m proud of many moments, but the first “kill” scene, which takes place in a locker room bathroom, ended up being what I had always envisioned from even a script phase. It’s wonderful to see those moments onscreen pretty much exactly as I imagined, with the wide shots, the pacing, the buildup of dread, the reveal of a rather frightening character. One of the shots in that scene turned out to be tricky because we had to actually remove part of one of the bathroom stalls to get the shot! It ended up taking not too much time, luckily, but when you’re on a production schedule as fast-paced as ours was, every little hiccup can really matter! But I had a great crew so it all worked out and we were able to nail the shot I had always wanted.
Yanes: While Student Body can stand on its own, a part of me wants to see what happens next for the survivor and the community. Are there elements of this story you’d like to revisit?
Kurr: I love that you ask this question, because I agree. I actually think a sequel would be really interesting for the survivor– kind of a reverse Terminator effect. In Terminator the original, the hunter is the villain, and in the sequel, he becomes the hero. In Student Body, the hunted are the protagonists. I’d love to do a sequel where the hunted becomes the hunter, and explore how violence and abuse towards young people affects their entire lives.
Yanes: When people finish watching Student Body, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Kurr: The film isn’t a traditional slasher by any means, and uses genre elements more as a pressure-cooker for the characters and their relationships. I hope that audiences feel a deep connection to the characters and mull over the morally gray zones that they inhabit in the film. I hope the complex relationships stick with them.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Kurr: I’m aiming to make a ghost story as my second feature film, so hopefully that’ll be coming everyone’s way in not too much time!