Director Ursula Dabrowsky, I am surprised to find, is the alter ego of producer Sue Brown. Hailing, originally, from Canada, she studied film at university. Settling in Adelaide, she worked in Australia on the series Chuck Finn (1999) and made her first feature entitled Getting the Dirt on Trish in 2001. She also starred in that film which gained interest in her work. She then made Family Demons (2009) on less than a shoestring which won her an award for Best Director at The Night of Horror Film Festival. Her follow-up movie Inner Demon (2014) won Best Picture and Best Director at the same film festival. She is working on a third part to her demon trilogy. Here is an interview with the underrated director.
Before we look at your movies, tell us about yourself… Is Ursula Dabrowsky and Sue Brown the same person? I hope I’m not revealing too much…
My real name is Sue Brown. Ursula Dabrowsky is my alter ego, a pseudonym I use as a screenwriter and director. Back in 2004, when I was planning to write my first horror screenplay, Family Demons, I decided to use a pseudonym because I was a bit nervous about moving into the horror genre. Not many women were making horror films in Australia at the time. By using a pseudonym, it gave me the freedom to write Family Demons without any inhibitions. When Family Demons was completed and released into the world, the response was very positive, and I became more confident about continuing to work in the horror genre but I decided to keep the pseudonym when I wrote and directed my second horror film, Inner Demon. I also plan to use it for my next project, Ruby, Ruby as there are horror fans who are now familiar with Ursula Dabrowsky’s work. I’ve also spoken about Ursula Dabrowsky’s Demon Trilogy in several interviews. Ruby, Ruby will be the third instalment of the trilogy. Family Demons, Inner Demon, and Ruby, Ruby are all stand-alone films but they all share similar themes that I am clearly obsessed with exploring in my work.
Are you an Adelaide girl? You seem to know the legends of the underbelly of the city as if you’ve grown up there. Do you necessarily have a fascination with these events? Or are they like scar tissue on the city’s inhabitants?
I’m not an Adelaide girl at all. I’m a half French-Canadian and half Scottish-Canadian girl. I was born in Montreal and I grew up perfectly bilingual in a small Quebec town called Tracy, a 45-minute drive outside of Montreal. When I was 11, my family left Quebec and moved to Vancouver. I did my first degree at UBC in English and French Literature. At 22, I missed my French-Canadian grandmother that my family had left behind, so I moved back to Montreal and I graduated with a BFA in Film Production at Concordia University. In between film school, I went backpacking one summer in Europe and met an Australian who suggested I visit his country. When I graduated from film school in 1992, I moved to Adelaide and I’ve been here for 27 years. Thus, my entire film ‘career’ has been spent in Adelaide, but I still consider myself very much a Canadian who just happens to be making feature films in Australia. I definitely love living here and even more so since I moved to our 1.5-acre property in the Barossa Valley.
I’m aware that South Australia is a place where many of Australia’s most bizarre and macabre crimes have taken place and these stories have and continue to inspire my work, but what I am obsessed about exploring in my films is female rage. The only palatable way I felt I could do that is with the horror genre. I am interested in exploring the truly terrifying parts of the female experience, like being a teenage girl and having a mother who is a psychopath or being abducted, raped, and killed by a serial killer.
The main characters in Family Demons and Inner Demon respond to their abusers by transforming either into a killer (Billie) or a vengeful ghost (Sam). I’m looking at similar themes again with my next project, Ruby, Ruby, a supernatural horror story about two high school friends who are curious about a local urban legend and travel to a remote cemetery that is haunted by the vengeful spirit of a murdered girl, only to find themselves in a fight for their life against evils both supernatural and human.
How did you get involved with filmmaking? Did you study it?
I took an introduction to filmmaking course at a community centre back in January 1990 and I made a short super 8 film. My instructor, Guylaine Dillon, had only recently graduated from the Concordia Film Production program and she encouraged me to apply. I was accepted into the Experimental Filmmaking program and that allowed me to learn how to write, direct, produce, shoot, and edit my own more personal films on a Bolex as opposed to making narrative films with a designated crew role. Three years after I graduated and moved to Adelaide, I decided to self-finance my first short narrative film, the award-winning suspense comedy, Snoop, that was picked up by the AFI Distribution branch.
The success of Snoop led to the South Australian Film Corporation financing my second short, the award-winning action comedy, Grunt. Then, at the end of 2000, I completed my first self-financed micro-budget feature film, Getting The Dirt on Trish, a comedy thriller about two feuding sisters who are forced to live together when one desperately needs to hide from a vengeful lover. The World Premiere of Getting the Dirt on Trish was held at the 2001 Flickapalooza International Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Australian Film Commission, which is now Screen Australia, supported me with post-production funds to complete the film and to attend the festival in person. Getting the Dirt on Trish went on to screen at several national and international underground film festivals and won Best Female Director at the 2001 Melbourne Underground Film Festival.
Let’s talk about Family Demons (2009)…What inspired your script?
In 2003, my partner brought home a horror film on DVD that was called Ju-on (The Grudge) by Takashi Shimizu. I was so inspired after I watched that film that I decided to start writing my second microbudget feature film, Family Demons. I knew that it would be a challenge to get financing for a genre film in Australia, especially a horror, so I decided to self-finance it myself through 10BA and write it as a contained screenplay to be shot mostly in one location with few actors. The idea was inspired by an article I found in the newspaper about a male teenager who is accused of killing his father and at the time of reading, I thought to myself, what if that teenager was defending himself from an abusive parent? It wasn’t until the Family Demons screenplay was completed that I realised that there are also many elements from Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) that inspired the story.
How long did it take to write the script and how many drafts were there?
I started writing the screenplay in early 2005 and we shot the film in January 2006, so it was a fast process. Can’t remember how many drafts I wrote. There were many!
What was the budget on Family Demons? And how long was the shoot?
I had a $6,500 cash budget. We shot the film in January 2006 in 11 days in one of the worst heat waves to hit Adelaide in 30 years. I remember three days straight shooting outdoors in 40 plus degrees. One day was so hot that I almost fainted on set. Somehow, my tiny cast and crew managed to push through. Shooting Family Demons remains one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. To this day, I don’t know how we managed to do it, but we did. I then edited the film for a couple of months on Final Cut Pro and we went back to shoot another 2 days of pick-ups. So we shot 13 days all up.
What sort of camera did you use to film the movie? It’s obviously not 35mm…
Family Demons was my first experience shooting a film on video. We used a Sony Z1P that we hired off the Media Resource Centre. It was also the first film that I edited on Final Cut Pro. Before that, all my films were edited on a 16mm Steenbeck that I had purchased off Mike Piper, a local producer.
Family Demons is more than a murder story… it’s essentially a ghost story. Adelaide is supposed to be one of the most haunted cities in the country… Have you had any experiences with ghosts yourself? Do you believe in them?
The ghost in Family Demons is a metaphor for the psychological trauma endured by Billie, my main character. I didn’t explore the afterlife per se in that film.
With Inner Demon, I wanted to show the transformation of an ordinary teenage girl into a revengeful ghost and, in this way, I aligned that film more closely with the premise found in Ju-on (The Grudge) where a traumatic event such as a murder or a traumatic death creates a curse that revives the main character into a vengeful ghost.
My next project, Ruby, Ruby, is based on the urban legend of Ruby Bland, a legend that originates from Kapunda, one of the most haunted towns in Australia. The depiction of Ruby Bland’s vengeful ghost in Ruby, Ruby is inspired by vengeful spectres that are more prominent and visible in supernatural horror films such as Jennet Humfrye’s ghost in The Woman in Black, Bathsheba Sherman’s ghost in The Conjuring, and Sadako’s ghost in The Ring.
I do believe in ghosts. I worked at the haunted Adelaide Gaol back in 2007 and what happened to me there inspired another horror screenplay I’ve written called The Temp. You’ll have to see the movie when it’s done to find out what happened to me. It was quite a terrifying experience. Suffice to say, it made me a believer.
How did Family Demons end up getting released? I think it’s a very good movie and one that gets better with each viewing. However, I stumbled on it by accident when a friend picked up a copy at a charity shop and gave it to me… I didn’t know it existed… Did it make you any money?
Family Demons screened at several national and international film festivals and hard-core horror fans who attended those film festivals would have discovered the film that way. When Tony Ginnane of IFM Films picked up the film and released it in the States, it got the name Ursula Dabrowsky out there even more. I also found copies of the DVD in Blockbuster video stores here in Australia but both Family Demons and Inner Demon are small films with tiny budgets. Small Australia films notoriously get overlooked. Even Australian films with bigger budgets get ‘lost’ with all the films that are released every year. Australian distributors have always struggled to compete with big budgeted Hollywood films. It’s just the way it is. You have to make a feature film that is a huge smash hit overseas for it to get noticed here, like Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek or Jen Kent’s The Babadook.
Having seen Family Demons, I immediately sought out a copy of Inner Demon (2014) and lo and behold I think it is your masterpiece… When did the idea for the screenplay come to you?
In 2008, the South Australian Film Corporation (SAFC) created a new low budget feature film initiative known as FilmLab. The $4.2 million scheme was designed to develop the next generation of local filmmakers through the production of eight low budget feature films over the next four years, from initial concept to delivery and marketing of the final projects.
I wrote the Inner Demon screenplay for this initiative and I applied and was successful. As I mentioned already, the premise for Inner Demon came out of a desire to write about the transformation of an ordinary teenage girl into a revengeful ghost. It’s an origin tale that shows how Sam’s tragic accident leaves her scarred but also results in giving her supernatural powers.
How long did you work on that script? Was it green-lit fairly quickly?
The idea came to me in 2009 and I applied to the SAFC that same year. I spent 2010 and 2011 developing the screenplay with Stephen Cleary, a script consultant from the UK, who was running the Filmlab program.
You had the backing of the South Australian Film Corporation which must have helped the budget… What was the budget in the end and did you have more time to shoot it than Family Demons?
We shot Inner Demon in January 2012. It wasn’t as hot as the January shoot in 2006 but it was still hot. You’d think I would have learned! The budget was 350K which allowed me to shoot the film in 20 days over 4 weeks with two days of pickups in December of that year, so I had 9 more days to shoot Inner Demon. It was still an incredibly tight timeframe. The difference this time was that cast and crew were paid award wages.
You also have an experienced executive producer of horror in Michael Robertson…
Michael was particularly helpful when it came to marketing and distribution advice as he had a lot more experience of overseas film markets, sales agents and distributors than I do.
Where did you discover Kerry Reid? She was in both of your films and is effective. And Andreas Sobik – what a monster?! Are they from theatre?
An actor friend recommended Kerry to me back in 2005 and I knew as soon as I met her that I had found my “Ma” for Family Demons. I love working with Kerry which is why I also cast her as Denise in Inner Demon. Andreas is both a film and theatre actor and I discovered him in a play he did in Adelaide. He was extraordinary. I wasn’t sure when I first approached Andreas whether or not he would be interested in playing a serial killer. I was very wrong about that. He relished every moment playing Karl.
We mustn’t forget your leading ladies Cassandra Kane, who won an award for Family Demons and Sarah Jeavons in Inner Demon… both are capable actresses. Are they from Adelaide? What became of Cassandra?
In 1999, I met Cass on the children’s TV series, Chuck Finn. She was 13 years old and she had been cast in one of the lead roles. The series was shot over two years and I also got to do some acting on the series. I remember Cass and I acted in a scene together and we couldn’t stop laughing despite pissing off the director and the rest of the crew. We finally got it together but yeah, we had a lot of fun working together on that series.
When I wrote Family Demons, I had Cass in mind for the lead role. I had seen what she was capable of doing on Chuck Finn. Her worth ethic impressed me. She came to set and always knew her lines and she consistently gave a strong performance. I knew that I’d have to push her acting skills further in Family Demons as this was not a children’s show and Cass herself was concerned she wouldn’t be able to deliver, but I had faith in her and after the first day of shoot, everyone on set knew that she was killing it. Cass has since focused on her career as a psychologist, but she is still interested in acting. In fact, I hope to cast her in a small part in Ruby, Ruby. I’m very much looking forward to working with her again. She’s crazy talented.
As for Sarah, bar acting lessons with Ann Peters at SA Casting, she had never acted professionally before she was cast as the lead in Inner Demon. She was only 15 when she auditioned for the part of Sam and I knew it would be a huge punt to cast her in the lead as she needed to carry the entire film. Before I made a commitment, we shot a teaser trailer and Sarah’s performance convinced me that she was going to blow it out of the water. Which she did.
Was there much improvisation of the scripts of Family Demons and Inner Demon? Or were the scripts followed to the letter?
What I tend to do is follow a screenplay to the letter so that I know that I’ve at least got all that I planned to do in the can. After that, I definitely do allow for improvisation and leave room for new ideas. For instance, there’s a scene in Inner Demon where we had laid out the tracks out on the front porch for a particular shot. When we finished that, I came up with an idea to get Denise to sit in a rocking chair, looking traumatised, as this scene would follow her witnessing Wayne’s horrific murder at the hands of Karl. This scene was not scripted but it ended up being a very powerful moment in the finished film. It’s important to leave room for improvisation as a lot of magic can happen on the spur of a moment.
You seemed to have a vision for Inner Demon, it was inspired… did you know you were doing something special? Or was it just plain nose to the grindstone? You had definitely grown as a filmmaker although your talent was obvious with Family Demons but you had the luxury of a budget…
When I came up with the idea of having my main character stuck in a closet for the most part of the film, I was definitely inspired by the film Buried. The Filmlab initiative was a very low budget initiative so I was also thinking about ways to tell a story and keep the budget down. I didn’t know how the film was going to turn out. You never do. It is a slippery beast. There are so many elements that can go wrong. But I like working with constraints. I like the challenge. You do the best you can with what you’ve got and when things turn out well, it’s an added bonus.
There’s the Truro Murders reference with the road sign. I remember as a child as it unfolded in the media… it seemed like a new skeleton was being found each day. It really was horrific… Have I missed any other references? There seems to be at least a couple of references to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in Inner Demon… Yes? It’s seminal to this day… And Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone?
Yes, the road sign was definitely a homage to that gruesome South Australian crime. The other reference was the serial killer couple, Karl and Denise, that were inspired by the Perth serial killer couple, John and Catherine Birnie. Hounds of Love is another Australian film that came out a few years after Inner Demon that had a much higher budget and hence more exposure than Inner Demon, but both films are inspired by the Birnie murders.
You even get to do special effects with the eyes in Inner Demon, something you wouldn’t have dreamt of for Family Demons…
Yeah, and I probably would never do that again. The Evil Dead remake came out around the time I was doing post on Inner Demon and that film inspired me. The CGI worked for the Evil Dead remake, but I’m not convinced it worked as well for Inner Demon. I got a lot of flak for not using practical effects from hard core horror fans, as you do!
The end of Inner Demon is almost enigmatic. Watch it with a few wines again and again and you see something different… It’s like the revenge of the Truro victims!
Yes, but I’m aware that the ending confuses the audience. My intention was to show Sam leaving the closet and confronting her evil side, the vengeful supernatural side that killed Karl and Denise and I took a risk with some of the shots we used. That’s what the Filmlab program was all about: taking risks. If I had to do it over again, I would probably spend more time on the action sequences and less on the supernatural but we simply didn’t have the funds to do that. Overall, we still made a pretty unique, emotionally powerful horror film despite the budget and time constraints and we’re all very proud of what we achieved.
I love the artwork for the American release DVD of Inner Demon… it’s very effective… Did the film get a cinema release anywhere? Festivals?
The film was picked up by Terror Films, an LA based distributor, who cut a trailer and did all the artwork. They didn’t release the film in cinemas, but it’s been streaming successfully on many streaming platforms including Shudder and Amazon Prime. I’m very happy with the work that Joe Dain and his team have done and continue to do at Terror Films.
And as we draw to a close, what do you say to people who want to start out with a good script like Family Demons? How do they get started?
I didn’t start writing Family Demons until I had quite a lot of filmmaking experience under my belt. Making films is like any craft. You only get good at it with lots and lots of practice. Some writers can write an amazing screenplay, right off the bat, but they are the exception, not the rule.
And is writing for you a ritual? Or is it just coffee and cigarettes?
I find scriptwriting gruelling. It’s such a chore. Probably because I’m such a hard task master and I want the script to be perfect. Having said that, I’m hard of myself. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come up with my next project, Ruby, Ruby and that is the best script I’ve written to date, by far. I just kept pushing through and I got it done. I’ve had excellent feedback and script assessments by both The Black List and Script Central for this screenplay so I’m feeling confident and looking forward to getting back on set and shooting this one. I’m just looking for money people to back me and, despite all the films I’ve made, it’s never easy to get people to back you financially. But I’m hoping to get there.
Finally, do you recommend Adelaide as a tourist destination? Tee hee!… My cousin wants to take me on a ghost tour next time I’m in town… Maybe go to the Barossa… Kapunda way!?…
I definitely recommend going on any of Alison Oborne’s Haunted Horizons tours. Alison’s the leading South Australian paranormal investigator and she knows her stuff. I’ve yet to go on any of her tours. I’ve seen her website and her videos freak me out too much. I’m still working up the courage to go on one.