“Joy takes us into a world of ancestry and race and makes us wonder about the power of karma.” — DTLAFF
Los Angeles-based film director Joy Shannon in her new film, My Dead Selfie, has entered the world of filmmaking with confidence, talent, credentials and tenacity. After acquiring a BA from Howard University and a Masters degree in film from The American University, she was, as the saying goes, fired up and ready to raise the bar on under-represented women directors in Hollywood. Knowing the history of challenges for African Americans in film has not deterred her. Today, she is doing something even rarer – directing in the supernatural horror genre, which (the numbers prove) was once exclusively reserved for male directors.
I sat down with Joy, excited to be talking to a new breed of filmmaker. In front of me sat a confident, intelligent woman who was defying the odds by becoming one of the few African American women lighting the torch in horror films for others to follow. The question is, why did she decide to venture into the world of horror and then launch her film entitled “My Dead Selfie”. It was a gutsy move for a female with no proven stats to ease the minds of investors and theater owners. But she knew she had a good product and an audience who would enjoy the film. Joy also felt that this extremely expressive genre allowed her to release some of her frustrations toward racism. The film alludes to the social problems of race relationships through this dramatic horror story. “I loved ‘Night of The Living Dead’ and ‘Get Out’,” she said, “because both films took us into the frightening world of racial dynamics.” In “My Dead Selfie”, the antagonist is racism and its undying spirit, not just someone running around with a “cliché” axe.
To date, “My Dead Selfie” has premiered to a receptive audience. Joy says she is on top of the world after winning The Best Experimental Feature Film Award from the very competitive and prestigious, Downtown LA Film Festival which Movie Maker Magazine named as one of the 25 best festivals in the country. Joy felt nothing but validation that day when people in the audience came up to her and said, “It creeped me out!” or that it was “a very strong film”. One woman told her that it reminds her of the work of Octavia Butler! Joy was humbled and blown away by that comparison. When an attendee approached her and said the film “could be a cult classic”, she felt her presence was completely justified in the popular horror genre market.
The audience also loved the music score by Chris Amato. For Joy, it worked well and was one of
her favorite and most proud elements. The film opens with sounds, combining the supernatural
with historical events. The haunting acapella slave song added to the suspense of the film; it was
written and sung by by C. Felicia Val’Rey.
I asked Joy if she would continue to make horror films and, without hesitation, she said, “Absolutely, but not exclusively.” She very clearly stated that she is not bound by any genre. Already, her resume consists of a feature teen crime drama called “3rd Generation Female Gangsta” and a short sex comedy called “Sexless After 45”, in addition to other films.
We also spoke candidly about how the African American community would receive this type of film and why a large number seem to avoid the world of the horror found in cinema. Joy, like many African Americans, understands that for some, life has given way to feelings of entrapment similar to those in a horror film. She further elaborates, “that perhaps this is why African Americans avoid the world of the macabre in cinema.” On a microcosm, it’s the same dynamics: constantly being watched, afraid if we move too far one way or the other that we might be attacked so we ‘stay in our place’, and we have been witnesses to a long history of perpetrators often walking away free to attack again when we are attacked (individually or collectively), and there’s little that we can do about it. So yes, we might avoid horror films because the feelings portrayed are too real to be enjoyable or entertaining. Also, many of us don’t have the appetite for the blood and gore that modern-day horror filmmakers seem to love. And finally, our religious beliefs make us hesitant to tap into the world of the supernatural. This genre gets deep in our psyche in ways that makes us feel uncomfortable.”
Given the fact that the supernatural horror genre is nontraditional for African American writers and directors, Joy took a leap of faith without mimicking other films in that genre. She was taking a risk by diving into the horror genre. First, because it continues to be dominated by White males, and second, because African Americans are very conservative when it comes to supernatural films. She could have gone a more traditional route, choosing to stay with comedy or romance, but she opted out since the market seemed to be crowded with African American female filmmakers who the industry expected to make comedies, love stories or films on the dating process. She was not against these types of films, but for her, it was a decision to exercise creative freedom like her White predecessors. With limited finances, she didn’t want to make a standard ‘chick-flick’, so she opted for something daring and something that a Black woman wouldn’t normally pursue.
Joy knew early on that she would face unsurmountable challenges as a director in the supernatural horror thriller genre. Undeterred, she felt she had to do it. After all, it is one of the most vivid styles of cinema. The films that have had the biggest influence on her career thus far are: “The Exorcist” (Joy feels it’s the all-time best horror film – hands down!), “Rosemary’s Baby”, “Paranormal Activity”, “Get Out”, “The Others”, “Insidious”, “The Conjuring” (1 & 2), “The Blair Witch Project”, “Night of The Living Dead”, “A Quiet Place” (and Joy grew up in the Quad Cites, which is also where Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, two of the three screenplay writers are from), “The Birds”, “Psycho”, “Lifeboat”, “The Shining”, “Bird Box”, “The Babadook”, “Da’ Blood of Jesus”, “Tales from the Hood”, “Carrie”, “The Omen”, “Poltergeist” and “Ringu”. Jordan Peele’s “Us” has not been released at the time of this interview, but she can’t wait to see it.
Joy’s leap of faith came from her desire to be unique and creative. She was drawn by the freedom to cinematically experiment with the horrors of being Black in today’s America. When asked what guidance she would give to women filmmakers pursuing Hollywood, she offered very prudent advice. “I would tell them that the casting couch is real.” Then added, “Keep yourself afloat financially, because success might take longer than expected.” She emphasized the importance of saving when at all possible. And something you don’t hear often from those who are already entrenched within the industry is the best advice possible, which, according to Joy is, “to team-up with other women filmmakers and support each other. If you have a position of power, fight for women directors! Fight to hire women writers and fight for Black women directors, writers and producers!”
Joy believes that any woman who is tenacious enough to pursue a career in Hollywood should think commercially and, for Black women filmmakers, “remember that racism is also present in Hollywood, although sometimes masked by the dollars.”
There will be three complimentary sneak preview screenings of “My Dead Selfie” at different Laemmle Theaters on the following days, and all of Los Angeles is invited! Please join Joy and her cast & crew.
April 13, 2019, Sat, 10:30am, The Town Center Theater, 17200 Ventura Blvd, Encino (lower level)
April 20, 2019, Sat, 10:30am, The NOHO Theater, 5240 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood
April 27, 2019, Sat 10:30am, The Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles
The running time is 98 minutes. No tickets needed. First come, first seated. A brief Q & A will follow.