Filmmaker Caryn Waechter Talks ‘The Sisterhood of Night,’ Social Media, Friendship and What It Means To Be A 21st Century Teen Girl
Our teen years are filled with some of the most memorable points in our lives: blossoming friendships, first loves and kisses, and the discovery of who we are. Everything is heightened, from our emotions to our self-awareness, as we leave the innocent childhood days behind us. However, with the advent of social media, millennial teens experience the world differently than any adolescents of the past. Web sites and apps like Facebook and Instagram may have connected us globally, but they’ve also put our existence on display for observation, admiration and critique. Often, it can seem that our lives are simply popularity contests. The fear of missing out is one of the most overwhelming feelings that have come out of today’s technological climate. For teen girls especially, living up to or falling short of particular standards of beauty and likeability can prove to be both exuberant and devastating.
Caryn Waechter’s female-driven The Sisterhood of Night explores many of these very themes. Her feature debut follows the uproar that erupts in Kingston, New York after a teenage girl claims she has been abused by a secret group who call themselves “The Sisterhood.” This is not your typical teen girl film with a romance at its center. Instead, it’s a movie that celebrates girlhood, friendship and what the nuances of being a teen in today’s world are.
GALO caught up with Ms. Waechter coming off of the Ivy Film Festival and the film’s debut weekend to talk about the topics that permeate throughout this poignant picture as well as the effects of the Internet on young girls today.
GALO: Congratulations on the film premiering at the Ivy Film Festival. I really enjoyed it, and I felt that it was a film made for the teenagers of this time.
Caryn Waechter: Well, thank you so much. I’m proud of it.
GALO: As you should be! On your Web site, I saw that you did several photo series surrounding the lives of teen girls. Have you always been fascinated with teenhood? What is it about that period of our lives that intrigues you the most?
CW: Yes, it’s such a poignant point in our lives. It’s a time in my life where I really remember things and the feelings that I was feeling at the time. And it’s a great time to always remember. When we get older, we get busy with our lives.
GALO: And we forget.
CW: Yes, we forget. I am actually a teen at heart and I feel like when you get older, you always have to be curious and keep learning. So I’m definitely fascinated by teenagers and how smart they are — especially in today’s age, they have so many amazing tools that they are able to play with. When I was working on the movie, I was inspired by a lot of teen photography and teen artists that I found online. I was really inspired by the work and I wanted to involve teenagers in the movie, so we got creative artists involved. Photography is a big part of my art as a director and a visionary. I learned a lot about myself by being around [teenagers] and photographing them. They are just very honest, vulnerable, sensitive and strong. They’re so powerful — and they don’t even know their power, which is amazing but also scary.
GALO: The marketing for The Sisterhood of Night was amazing. From the “Wanna Know a Secret” promotion to the Kickstarter campaign, there has been buzz surrounding the film for a couple of years now. How did you come up with these ideas? And can you tell me a little bit more about how the art from “Wanna Know a Secret” was incorporated into the film?
CW: When we were getting the film together, getting the financing was difficult, especially because it was a female centric movie. I mean, I hate to say it, but it’s the truth.
GALO: That’s so true, unfortunately.
CW: So it took a number of years to get the financing, and there were ups and downs. We decided we would do a Kickstarter campaign to get that last piece of financing. It’s a lot of hard work to do a crowdfunding campaign, but it was great because it got us in touch with our audience. It also forced us to really think about the movie we were making. But teenagers don’t go on Kickstarter. So at the same time, we launched “Wanna Know a Secret,” which used all of these social media outlets to reach out to teenagers so that they could be involved in the movie. We found talent by connecting all of these social media platforms together, so it was a big experiment.
GALO: It was very successful!
CW: It was great. We got young actors, fashionistas, musicians and photographers, all because of that contest. It was exciting to do it because we wanted this movie to be authentic to today’s teenager, and we wanted them to be a part of this movie. I didn’t want to just say, “Oh, this is a movie, and you’re going to like it.” [Chuckles] I wanted them to put their creativity in the movie because the movie is a lot about our uniqueness, talents and creativity, and [it is about] celebrating that.
GALO: And like you said, it’s coming from a very specific view. Twenty-first century teenagers are unlike any other group of teens in the past, so that aspect is definitely important to the film. Your screenwriter, Marilyn Fu, won an award for the film’s screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2007. How did you come on to the project as director?
CW: So before Tribeca, we actually went to film school together, Marilyn and I. We went to Columbia and we were in some classes together. She’d written this script — she found this short story by Steven Millhauser and she adapted it into a screenplay. She saw my thesis film at Columbia and she loved my vision, and so she approached me with the script. We met up and I remember it was a very dense, detailed script — but I loved it. I was laughing and I was crying, and it was so visual [that] I could see all of the shots on the page, so we worked together in developing it. I also wanted to collaborate with a writer because I knew that making your first feature would be a lot of hard work, so I wanted a partner in crime. She was the best person to be with [for that]. I was just really inspired by her. She’s really just such a master with writing. And she was inspired by me because I’m very visual, so we worked great as a team. Then we went to Tribeca All Access, and that’s where we met Lydia Dean Pilcher, our first producer. [Marilyn] won the award, and that was when we got Elizabeth Cuthrell, who is our other producer, on board. So we formed our own “sisterhood” in making the film.
GALO: That is truly fantastic! Speaking of which, the true nature of “The Sisterhood” is not revealed until the very end of the film. Was that a conscious choice to keep the audience in the dark along with the townspeople?
CW: Yes, definitely. The movie is a mystery and there are a lot of characters in it. In the short story, there is this reveal of what they do in the woods. It’s based also on The Crucible, which is the Salem witch trials, and we modernized it. So that’s the whole beauty of this movie — taking the world on this wild ride, which hysteria and fear does. I wanted to create this ride that wants you to know what they are doing.
GALO: In the film, the girls were facing various issues: Mary Warren (Georgie Henley) with parental abandonment; Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell) is confronted with her mother’s illness; and Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) is unable to move forward after her parents’ divorce. And yet, they could only speak about these things within “The Sisterhood.” Why do you think there are so few safe spaces for teenagers (both girls and boys)?
CW: With today’s teenagers, there is very little privacy — everything is online. A lot of their lives are lived online. Their acceptance and fears; a lot is online. I know when I was a teenager and when hormones kicked in, I wanted that independence from my parents and that privacy. But it’s a whole different world with The Sisterhood of Night and today’s teenagers because there is no privacy. So it’s all about finding that safe space where you can share with the people that you really care about, your special circle. And it’s hard finding that, especially when it’s all about how many friends you have on Facebook or Instagram. There is a huge pressure to be liked, to be popular and to be loved. And it’s a world where there is a lot of bullying that comes up because we all have this mask, which is the computer, so we really wanted to explore that with this story. It’s so important because it’s just a whole other scary world for today’s teens.
GALO: Yes, and for adults, too!
CW: For sure, adults, too. And I really hope this movie shows that there is such power in holding back and being mysterious. I think that if you’re online or offline, there is a power that we women can have. I really want teen girls to come away with that. The whole world doesn’t have to know everything about you because the Internet is FOREVER — forever and ever, and if one image is out, it’s out there, and you can never get it back. The same goes for your words. It’s a scary world. But in the movie, we show the positives and the negatives of the Internet. How it brings people together. I didn’t want to make the Internet the villain because we have to live with it and it’s our way of communicating, so I hope people take away the positives and the negatives of the Internet and finding the balance within it. Making this movie, we used the Internet a lot — we’re a little indie movie and we got it out by using the Internet. We got funding through Kickstarter and we reached out to teenagers by using social media, so there are great positives to the Internet, but if [you] misuse it, it can be dangerous and haunting.
GALO: And also, like you said, things tend to live on the Web forever, which I think is the scariest part for most people.
CW: [Chuckles] I know.
GALO: Well, speaking of villains, the attack on “The Sisterhood” stems from Emily Parris’ (Kara Hayward) jealousy, which spirals out of control. As a viewer, I found her obnoxious and needy at the beginning of the film. And yet, by the film’s conclusion, I sympathized with her plight. Why did you choose to humanize Emily instead of making her a “true” villain?
CW: I purposely didn’t want to make “the bad guys” and “the good guys,” because that is such a movie fantasy thing, its not real. We all have dimensions to ourselves. I actually really related to Emily. I’ve felt jealousy. I don’t think a lot of people are going to admit, “Oh, I relate a lot to her.” But that was a huge part of my process of really getting in-depth with the characters. I had to relate to each character. And you feel sorry for Emily because she wants to be a part of something so bad that she loses focus of herself.
I want girls to also see that in order to be accepted, you don’t have to be somebody else — you have to be you. I believe in forgiveness. We all make mistakes and that’s part of life, and you have to live, learn and grow. So just like with the Internet, I didn’t want to make Emily the villain. It’s all about balance, and she definitely redeems herself by the end. That’s part of the story; you have to figure out who is actually “bad” at first. We’re playing with a lot of things that you have to figure out, and looks are deceiving.
GALO: For sure. The Sisterhood of Night touches on so many different subjects: bullying, depression, loneliness and friendship. What is the most important message that you want your audience to take away from this film?
CW: The movie is very dense, and there are so many things to talk about after you see it. I purposely wanted that because that is the world that teenagers live in [today]. There is so much going on, it’s a thousand miles per hour; versus back to when I was a teenager, and it was a lot calmer. And my brain is working so differently now because of technology. Everything is “now, now, now!” A huge thing that is important for me in the movie is about celebrating your uniqueness and your strengths — to have power in that — and also working closely with your friends, because together you can make something even stronger. That’s the power of friendship and sharing with your friends, your trusted circle. And another thing, too, is that I wanted to show a diverse world. There are so many different types of people [in the film], which I felt was a very well-represented picture of our world right now.
GALO: I will say that I loved the fact that boys weren’t necessarily the center of the film. I thought that was very different from what we are used to, especially in teen movies.
CW: Exactly! I grew up with movies where there was always the Prince Charming fantasy, and it’s really shown me the power of media. I’m in my 30s and I still hope for this “Prince Charming will save me” fantasy. It’s so ingrained in the movies that I grew up with; these Disney movies. I was really excited about this script because the center wasn’t involving a boy. It was about your girlfriends and other stuff.
GALO Yes, other “real things,” so to speak, that are occurring in your life as a teen. As a teen, everything is heightened, especially your emotions. I can remember feeling all of these different things quite vividly.
CW: Yes, and boys are in it. It is a little part of it; we all desire and love deeply at that time, too. But I didn’t want that to be the focus and the center of this story, which is exciting because you don’t see much of that in teen films.
GALO: Not at all.
CW: I hope that breaks that mold of “another person will complete you.” You are already whole and other people make you stronger. I’m so glad you pointed that out.
GALO: Yes, that’s so important. When the film festival ends, what is next for you? Do you have any new projects that you are currently working on and could share with us?
CW: Yes, I have three unique projects. I have an amazing script, which is a family Christmas story with a 10-year old lead girl. I’m super excited about it! It is in the vein of The Sisterhood of Night, but it is totally different; it will make you smile and cry. Another piece I’m working on is a crime-thriller movie with a female lead, so it feels totally different. I’m really excited about that because I love mystery and darkness. I see that in a lot of the work that I do, I love the dark. But I also love finding the beauty in the darkness. And another thing that just came up is that I might direct some Snapchat stuff for some actresses.
GALO: Oh, that’s really cool! Snapchat is fast becoming a significant medium for storytelling, and it can help in reaching a new audience, too.
CW: I want to do movies, but I also love playing with different forms of storytelling. So, I’m really excited about that. And I love social media and playing with different tools, like how we tell stories. I’m really into Snapchat. It’s really cool [figuring out] how to tell these little stories in a very fun and visual way. So Marilyn and I were asked to collaborate on that with an actress. And that’s very fresh and new, but I think that would be fun, using our creativity with this technology.
GALO: Wonderful. Well, everything that you have on your plate right now sounds absolutely amazing.
CW: Well, tomorrow should be exciting. Tomorrow the movie comes out. It just feels like everything has been leading up to this [moment]. It’s been amazing and I’m getting a really great response, and not [just] from teenagers, but from adults, [too].
GALO: The Sisterhood of Night is great; it’s a really fantastic film.
CW: Yes, so that’s what I really wanted to do it. I didn’t want to make another teen girl movie. I wanted to make a film that would give you insight into the teen girl, but that everybody could relate to and be moved by. So it’s an exciting time. I’m just proud of it, and I want to get it out and do more stuff.
GALO: Well, thank you so much for talking with me, and once again, congratulations on this milestone.
Video courtesy of MOVIECLIPS Trailers.
For more information about the film, including screenings, you can visit the official Web site by clicking here. The film is also available to watch on VOD, including iTunes, Vudu and YouTube. || Featured image courtesy of Olivia Bee.