Portrait of a Filmmaker: Alice Maio Mackay

Illustration for Portrait of a Filmmaker, an interview with Alice Maio Mackay

It’s clear from your work that you have a deep investment in and affection for horror. At the same time, your films unabashedly and radically challenge the genre, queering it in a profound and exciting way. When you are making work, do you think of it as a political act?

I don’t set out to make political films, but I think it comes naturally because of who I am as a person and as a writer. When I set out to make a movie, I’m thinking about what I want to see and what I find enjoyable, and the political elements come through naturally. Especially with T Blockers, people often say it’s very political, which it is, but my motivation was to make a trans hangout film. I wanted to create that experience of a trans and non-binary friendship being shown on-screen. But because that hasn’t been done a lot before, especially with a trans director, it’s political just by being what it is.

So often, especially in the canon of Western cinema, filmmakers presume a straight, white, male audience. Your films seem to presume a trans, queer audience.

Obviously, I want people outside of those communities to be able to enjoy the films as well, but with films like T Blockers and Satranic Panic, there are story elements that cis audiences might not understand, unless they have a specific knowledge of or interest in trans people. For example, even within the title of T Blockers, not everyone knows what testosterone blockers are. So yes, I do set out to make films for the people I surround myself with, my community.

Your films produce a feeling of deep connection between the audience and your characters. It feels like you are hanging out with them. Is that central to your work as a director?

Yes, a lot of my work falls within the horror genre, but at the same time, I don’t just want to make a horror film with the aim to scare people. That’s not the kind of work I’m interested in. I want to make hangout films and road trip films that have horror elements infused with the everyday.

I want to talk to you about camp, because it’s so foregrounded in your work. How does it operate for you?

It’s the work that I grew up watching, and it’s the work I want to make. When you’re making queer art, it often goes hand in hand. Gregg Araki and John Waters are my inspirations. They’re what I grew up with and what I love.

I’m so struck by your use of color. Color feels like its own character in Satranic Panic. Can you talk about your use of color in each of your films? 

Because the tone of Satranic is more comedic, I wanted a heightened, vibrant mix of color to make it feel hyperreal. Everything is so over the top, except for the funeral scene which is more grounded. When I made So Vam that was just pop-y in general, whereas Bad Girl Boogey was more serious in its subject matter, less campy, and had more of a grunge, punk, Rob Zombie aesthetic. In T Blockers, the bedroom was filled with pink and trans flag colors, and the real world was different. I wanted the characters’ safe space to be a colorful queer haven and for the outside world to be more realistic.

I can definitely see the influence that Araki and Waters have had on your work. Is Buffy an influence for you as well?

Yeah definitely. I love the TV show, but I love the movie so much. It’s one of my favorite films. Buffy and the Scream TV show were my gateways into more mature horror when I was growing up.

Like Buffy, your films use horror to literalize the trauma of growing up and finding yourself. But mutual care is an important undercurrent beneath the hell demons and vampires.

Yeah, with Satranic Panic, as campy and demonic as it is, it’s primarily about trans friendships. Take the conversation in the motel with Aria (Cassie Hamilton) and Jay (Zarif). One is a trans binary woman and one is a trans non-binary femme person, and although their experiences and dysphoria differ, and their transitions are different, at the end of the day they need each other to thrive. They are both dealing with grief, and despite their differences, they are both on a similar path.    

There is such a tragic lack of trans horror films, and trans films in general, but the ones we do have are often made by cis filmmakers. As a result, the narratives feel very watered down, and are usually filled with trauma porn and violence against trans bodies. In your films, there is certainly grief, but there is no trauma porn.

Of course I want cis people to depict trans people and stories on-screen, but at the end of the day, no matter the intention, if you’re depicting some of the things that I depicted in So Vam or T Blockers, it’s going to feel a little bit exploitative coming from a cis director. No amount of research can give you that experience or authenticity. A lot of the films you see with trans people feature a singular trans person, which I find very unusual. I love The Craft: Legacy, but you have one trans woman in a group of cis people – which is great – but at the same time, it’s not how real life works. You are going to have more community around you. It’s not horror, but I love Veneno, the Spanish series, because trans women are surrounded by other trans women, at different stages of transition and life. It’s really beautiful. You don’t see trans friendships a lot on-screen.

Community and friendship seem to be at the heart of your work. Do you primarily work with your friends when you make movies?

They’ve come to be my friends. When I made So Vam I was sixteen and I had just dropped out of school, so I didn’t really know these people. My DOP was in his forties, the other camera assistant was in Uni, the makeup artist was also in Uni. But a lot of the same crew has worked on each film since, so they are definitely my friends now. I went to my DOP’s wedding the other week. We’ve all grown together.

You must be sick of talking about this, but you’re very young and you’ve made four features. For many filmmakers, that would be a lifetime’s worth of work. How do you do it? I can’t imagine shooting a feature in a week!

Well, my rationale behind it has been, there is no budget, it’s all coming from crowdfunding, and I want to be able to pay people without making them take a bunch of time off work. Right before I made So Vam I made a 30-minute short film in three or four days, so in my head I was thinking, Well, how long is a feature? 70 or 80 minutes? I’ll just add a few more days. On a practicality level, that’s just how I had to go through it. It wasn’t until I shot my fifth film in August of last year that I actually had twelve shooting days. I don’t want to go back to shooting a film in seven days, but it’s been out of necessity.

Wait…you have a fifth movie in the can already?

Yeah, I’m hoping it will premiere in April. Vera Drew, who made The People’s Joker, is editing it. It’s a Christmas trans melodrama horror film called Carnage for Christmas.

Don’t tell me you’ve already started shooting your sixth feature!

No! I do need some time.

What gave you the confidence to dive into features at such a young age?

We’re living in such weird times politically, and no amount of time is guaranteed, so I’m not going to wait around until we get funding. I’m not going to spend four years getting one film made. If I have a story I want to tell now, I’m going to get it out there, and there seems to be an audience that appreciates it and a market for it. So, when I want to tell a story, I find a way to make it.

The subject matter is urgent, which seems to dovetail with the urgency of the filmmaking. But your films don’t feel like they’re made in seven days, or on a shoestring budget. Are you influenced by Ozploitation, where there’s a legacy of genre films made on tiny budgets?

I don’t consume a lot of Australian media. Moreso, I feel influenced by filmmakers like Gregg Araki, whose first film was made for a few thousand dollars. The Living End was made for around $20K.

What is the Australian film community like?

It’s small and it’s not small. A lot of productions are here because of tax offsets. Mortal Kombat was filmed in my hometown. But those aren’t Australian productions. Talk to Me recently put Australia on the map, but I find that film quite interesting. I love the performances. It got heralded for its queer representation, and it had a trans actor who is amazing, but at the same time the directors are doing The Joe Rogan Experience podcast and are best friends with Logan Paul. So the juxtaposition of what they’re putting on screen versus who they actually are is worth considering. My friends are more in the TV producing and playwright communities, so I don’t see much of the film community.

What are your long-term ambitions, or goals for your next movie?

I’m taking it moment by moment. With each production I hope to elevate my craft and reach more audiences. I think I’ve done that, from So Vam to Carnage for Christmas, which had twelve shooting days, an actor from LA, and is being edited by Vera Drew, who has an Emmy. It’s my most elevated production to date, and I’m excited to take it out to festivals soon. I’ve got some other stuff I’m writing, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, but hopefully with more money.

I’m so excited to see what you did with a twelve-day shoot! What were the most notable differences from your shorter productions?

More takes, allowing time for rest. More time for setups, more time for rehearsal. We even had time to celebrate my nineteenth birthday! When you’re filming on such a tight schedule, you’re always just thinking about the next thing – especially when you’re producing. With this film, I was able to focus on the scene in front of me, without thinking a million other things about what’s next.

I know you write, direct, and produce. Is there one role you feel most passionate about?

Personally, I hate producing. I never want to do that ever again. I love directing. I direct stuff that I haven’t written. I love being on set and communicating a vision. I’ve always been interested in writing, and I will continue doing that throughout my life. But directing comes first.

There’s an ease to your actors’ performances, which has a lot to do with your directing. Do you like working with actors?

Yes, I do. I used to find it quite intimidating, especially before I made my first feature. I was working with professional actors in their forties and fifties. They were lovely and taught me a lot. But I was in eighth or ninth grade, and it felt odd. But now I love working with actors, and a lot of them have become close friends. I love collaborating and making art; I think it’s really beautiful, especially when you’re working with your own community.

Are there films by trans filmmakers that you feel are underseen or underappreciated that you’d like to recommend to our audience?

Yes. The People’s Joker and the new season of Venino. I saw My Animal recently, which isn’t by a trans director, but by queer and non-binary people. That was one of my favorite films last year.

Are you seeing more films with trans, queer, and non-binary characters and filmmakers on the festival circuit?

I don’t know if I’ve seen more trans people onscreen, but definitely behind the scenes. At Outfest, I saw a film called Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe which I loved. It was really cool to see a story that stars a young queer man directed by a trans woman. It was really beautiful.

The theme of our second issue is “Phantoms.” Can you recommend any films that you feel are related to that theme?

Phantom of the Paradise! I love that film!

Alice Maio Mackay’s career is the stuff of filmmaking legend. At just nineteen years old, the Australian filmmaker has made five feature films, including So Vam (2021), Bad Girl Boogey (2022), T Blockers (2023), Satranic Panic (2023), and the forthcoming Carnage for Christmas. As a transgender filmmaker, Maio Mackay embraces camp and comedy to radically queer the horror genre, creating color-drenched horror hangout films that are at once riotously fun and fundamentally political. Her film Satranic Panic premiered at SXSW Sydney, and her films So Vam and Bad Girl Boogey are available to stream on Shudder. 

Interview by Ariel McCleese, founder & editor-in-chief of Bloodletter Magazine.