Horror films aren’t exactly the first genre I seek out when looking to sink into my couch and watch a movie, more so because of the blood and gore and well...clowns. Sure, I grew up with the classic 80s and 90s horror flicks, and campy early '00s remakes, and had front-of-the-line tickets to haunted houses (more on that some other time), but I never really tapped into how truly vulnerable these stories are. It’s becoming more apparent that of course, these stories would directly come from personal places of fear such as abandonment, pain, death, loneliness etc. These primal fears are what horror filmmakers know how to finely tune and make us cringe.
That’s exactly what we get in the new film Phobias from a creative collective of filmmakers brought to us by the producing teams at Radio Silence and Defiant Studios. Phobias is an anthology horror film made up of five short films about five unique characters suffering from extreme phobias at a government facility, while under the supervision of a crazed doctor on a quest to weaponize fear.
Maritte Lee Go is a Filipino-American filmmaker. Growing up as a professional actress, she found herself cast in stereotypical roles such as the Geisha or Nail technician. Upon seeing there was a lack of representation and opportunity, she attended USC and got her MFA in Film and Television. She has made it her life goal to create content that breaks the mold for people of color and puts them into leading roles. Maritte is a Project Involve Directing Fellow and won the Barbara Boyle Excellence in Filmmaking Award. She is also an HBO Visionary award winner for her short film Remittance.
Maritte recently received the CAMERAderie WIM grant for her short film Illipino which premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival and Holly Film Festival.
Maritte recently finished shooting her feature directorial debut called Rise. The dramatic thriller is inspired by the real-life conflict between the Nigerian people and the Boko Haram insurgency, the jihadist rebel organization responsible for kidnapping hundreds of girls and women and enslaving them in the sex trade. She also recently finished a horror film called Black as Night, for Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios. It will premiere on Amazon Prime in October 2021.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with one of the creative minds behind Phobias, Maritte Lee Go, who directed and co-wrote with Broderick Engelhard, one of the short five phobia films Vehophobia, starring Hana Mae Lee. We tapped into her background as a filmmaker, her approach to writing and directing, and her goal to change the landscape for diversity on screen. Plus, she offers inspirational advice that'll surely inspire any creative to keep pushing forward.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Jumping right in, I noticed that you've worn many hats in the filmmaking world, predominantly as a line producer. How has that helped inform you as a director?
Maritte Lee Go: Oh my god, so much. Being a line producer, especially in the indie world, you're doing every single job and your hand is in every single thing. There's just not enough money to hire enough people to quantify. And so, having produced almost a dozen features and hundreds of commercials, in that role, I've been able to observe other directors and other department heads and see, you know, what works and what doesn't work, and what really inspires a crew and actors to really put their heart and soul to ensure that you get something really great on the screen. And not only that, just like have a great working experience together.
And so having all of that kind of experience in seeing so many different directors work, it really, really, has helped me become, I think a really strong director in that I use all of that knowledge and communicate to my crew what I need and want in a timely fashion so that we can bring about an amazing movie.
Sadie: I think that's super beneficial, especially as an indie filmmaker. You never want to go over budget and over time.
Sadie: With Phobias, how did this project get on your radar? Can you give some background on how the project came to be and how everyone was brought on board to write and helm?
Maritte: I’ve been producing movies for a long time with Eric Fleischman, we both went to USC together. And I had line produced almost ten features for him. But my real dream was to write and direct. I started on the side directing horror shorts for CryptTV and started shooting my own shorts on my own time. And finally, I was kind of like confident enough to be like, “this is what I really want to do” and I told Eric and showed him all [of] my shorts, and he was like, “Let’s collaborate, let’s make something.” I had always wanted to do an anthology horror film. When I was 14 years old, living in Florida, and being like, “one day I'm gonna write and direct an anthology horror - Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt.”
And so when he came to me with that suggestion I was like, “Yes, absolutely. Let's do it.” And, you know, we kind of pitched a bunch of ideas out there but the one that really kind of stuck is what he picked which was phobias. And as soon as he said it, my brain started going off and I remembered one of the scariest nights of my life, where literally I thought my car was possessed by a spirit. [laughs] I was dropping off my ex-boyfriend at LAX airport. And as soon as I dropped him off and closed the door, I felt something in my car sitting in the backseat. And I felt needles in the back of my neck. And I just couldn't shake the feeling that something's sitting in there and I never experienced that in my life. I just knew something was in there and I kept looking back and looking back, nothing was there. So, I get on the highway and I'm driving, and all of a sudden, my brand new car starts acting on its own. Like all the radio stations kept switching, the lights were turning on and off, they kept speeding up and then slowing down and speeding up and slowing down, like I seriously felt like it was possessed and I was terrified, I thought I was gonna die. And finally, after a while of screaming and crying, I was able to pull the car over. And I was like, praying to God that it would just stop and that whatever was in my car would leave. And I don't even know how long it was, probably half an hour of just waiting and praying, I felt it leave. I didn't feel anything anymore and so I drove back home.
It's never happened again, my car never acted like that. So, the short is inspired by that event, because it was one of the scariest nights of my life. And, then you know, working with the other directors and kind of hearing their stories to kind of know that they're out there trying to figure out a storyline so that we could all kind of come to a world of its own.
Sadie: Well, that's amazing that you took that personal experience and made that come alive. Or your car could have just been possessed by LAX.
Maritte: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
Sadie: That's really cool that you guys are able to do that with this movie. It's very cohesive, from the story and acting and the look of it. How did that work out? Were you guys treating this like a TV writer's room? Were you sharing scripts and storyboards?
Maritte: Yeah, thanks for asking that. We did a lot of work to try to get on the same page and be able to have a very cohesive look and feel to it. Working with the other producers of Radio Silence, they have such a huge repertoire of making this kind of thing doing VHS and Southbound, they gave us so much great advice and taught us, of all the things that they learned that made their features successes and things that really didn't work as well. And one of the things they said that was very, very important was that in each film look as one movie.
So, all the directors, we would go do camera tests together, and we would compare lenses and we'd have discussions on like, why we want certain lenses and why we want a certain camera, and we all kind of did it by committee and decided what would serve a story the best. And then we have one editor so that really helps you know, keep that same type of rhythm. We have one composer and we had two DPs, which we would alternate on just because of schedule, it was shot like a television show, so we didn't have any breaks except for weekends. But being able to, kind of, you know, as one DP preps with one director, and the next one goes and so on and so forth. But we did a lot of work to try to get on the same page. And it's difficult with, you know, five different people, you know, a ton of producers but I'm really happy with how it turned out, and hopefully, we just get to keep making more.
Sadie: Just out of curiosity, who got the final say on the overall picture cut in story, was it the Radio Silence team or was it more of a collective?
Maritte: It was both Defiant and Radio Silence, as producers they had final cut. I think that we all did a lot of work to get the story to the best of our abilities. But at a certain point, the producers always have like the last say.
Sadie: Sharing the same team, how you described it, it sounds like a very intense master filmmaking boot camp for all of you.
Mattie: Oh my gosh. I pity the crew because it was just so difficult. We did have two DPs but the rest of the keys weren’t the same. The same costume, same stunts team, production designer and you know having so many different directors and so many different locations, it was very, very, difficult. But they worked it out. It's a small budget. We didn't make this for over a million dollars. This was way under that and so having to make that money stretch and do the craziest things like have a stunt car spinning and do crazy makeup and, you know, there was a lot - a lot for them to handle. They really did an amazing job.
Sadie: It definitely feels like a contained thriller, with one maybe two locations. So you definitely get that indie feel, that you’re trying to use everything you have and then some.
Mattie: [laughs] Exactly, exactly.
Sadie: I really enjoyed that there was both diverse representation on screen and behind the screen, especially in the horror space which seems to be very rare. Do you hope to see more of that and continue to be part of that renaissance?
Mattie: Oh my god. One thousand percent yes! I came from an acting background and so I came to Los Angeles bushy-tailed hoping to be an actress. I trained my whole entire life to be doing theater and coming to LA I was really typecast to these roles as Geisha or nail technician. So, I was really frustrated that there weren't any options for me out there, no representation on the screen and that's why I decided to go to USC so that I could learn how to become a filmmaker and create roles for people who look like myself and for people who are completely underrepresented, and for women who just don't have lead roles.
Now, everything I'm doing is tailored to that goal. And I've been able to keep to that goal. I did it another feature after a Phobias called Rise, black female protagonists. And then the next feature after that I just wrapped up a movie called Black as Night, produced by Amazon Prime and at Blumhouse with another black female protagonist. I’m developing a show called The Tales We Tell, with all Asian American protagonists, horror anthology. It really is my goal and dream to broaden what it means to be American. I just think that now is the time, politically, it's opened our eyes that there is a lot of imbalance in our culture and now people are seeing that there is work to be done, and telling these stories I think opens the eyes of people and you can grow empathy and understanding and understand humanity through horror. And that's my whole goal.
Sadie: Well, thank you for doing that. That's amazing.
Maritte: Awesome, thank you!
Sadie: As a writer, what's your writing routine like?
Maritte: I write every single day. I'm developing a show and writing a horror film right now, and my filmmaking partner Brody, he's also my fiancé, we wrote Vehophobias together. We collaborate on every single movie together, or we try to. Sometimes he gets to shoot other things and I get to shoot other things. But we write every day, we live together and so we're always writing. We treat it like a job, honestly. We've got our whiteboard. We've got our list of projects on the board and every single day we dedicate a certain amount of hours to each project so that every day we're kind of like ticking off the boxes like, "Okay we've finished the first sections on that and we've got to do a pitch packet for this." We treat it like a nine-to-five job.
Sadie: With COVID and everything, that's awesome that you've been incredibly busy and making content still. Have you had any setbacks because of it or have you just been full steam ahead and being safe about everything?
Maritte: It’s been an amazing and terrible pandemic experience. I was shooting the Blumhouse movie during the pandemic. And it got shut down. I was in New Orleans shooting it and was sent home for a while and it was a good four-month break. But within that break, it was amazing because I really got to slow down for the first time, just get healthy, worked out, and really kind of recalculate what's important in life and really start to pursue the projects that really light me up. And so, after the four-month break, we were able to finish the movie and I went back to New Orleans and we shot through COVID which was really, really, difficult because New Orleans has hurricane season and so we went back during hurricane season, there was lightning, it was storming we had COVID restrictions. And it was a vampire movie! [laughs] Not being able to like kiss or bite people during that and try to figure out how to like angle your head correctly so it looks like it. [laughs]
It was such a crazy adventure trying to finish that movie and do post completely online which was really hard. And then after I finished that movie, we've just been writing and writing and writing. It’s been kind of great. I really love slowing down. I've been able to take walks and focus on my health and not be running fast like a thousand percent like I was before. So, t's been good.
Sadie: That's good to hear and that you're taking time for yourself too. I think a lot of people forget to do that. It's very important especially as a creative.
Maritte: Yeah, absolutely.
Sadie: Any advice for budding filmmakers that are multi hyphenate’s who are just starting out in this crazy industry?
Maritte: Oh my god, so much. But I think it’s first and foremost starting with yourself, and internally loving you. And when you come to know yourself and love yourself, I think the inspiration comes from within, I think there's a lot of young filmmakers who are looking for, like, “What do the studios want?” “What does the world want?” But you know I think when you start from yourself and know what you're passionate about, what lights you up, then you'll find that subject, and you'll be able to tell that story like nobody else does because your originality and your voice will make that come alive.
And also again, speaking to creating a schedule for yourself and treating it like a job because there's nobody who's going to tell you, you know, you've got to go make this movie now and you've got to go write the script. This is an industry that is very difficult, and it rewards the people who hustle and create their own paths and forge their own ways. That's my biggest advice. I think that you know, when I first graduated college, I sat there for a long time wondering what the world wanted from me. And I think with the years and my experience, now I'm asking myself, "What do I have to give to the world and how can I make that impact?" And that's just been kind of the most empowering way to look at my career and my future.
Sadie: I love that. That is amazing. Maritte, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to tracking your career and the trail that you're going to blaze on fire for all of us female filmmakers and I look forward to watching your movies on the big screen when that time comes.
Maritte: Thank you so much!
Phobias is available On Demand and digital March 19, 2021.