Colin Minihan On Lesbian Horror Film ‘What Keeps You Alive’

“What Keeps You Alive” is a typical horror movie about a murderous psychopath trying to kill a woman alone in the woods…except that in this version, the victim is a lesbian and the bad guy is her wife.

Historically, horror has been a genre in which lesbian and bisexual women have been well represented. In fact, one might even say overrepresented when it comes to crazy, hypersexual (literal or metaphorical) vampires seeking to kill men and seduce women. Like 2016’s hilarious “Women Who Kill,” however, what sets “What Keeps You Alive” apart from the typical Hollywood horror movie approach to female sexuality is that the lesbian protagonist is 100% believable.

Jules (Brittany Allen, who is also an executive producer) looks like any lesbian you might find on the street: she wears skinny jeans and nondescript shoes coupled with an oversized t-shirt and a haircut straight from “Lesbians R Us.” And her wife Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) isn’t looking for a man to kill and a woman to convert, she’s a stone-cold killer just looking to add to her trophy collection.

The trailer for “What Keeps You Alive” leaves nothing to the imagination: this is the story of a woman who realizes in the worst possible way that the woman she married is determined to kill her on what should have been a fun weekend vacation to a lake cabin to celebrate their anniversary. This realization comes almost immediately after the movie starts, so the remainder of the movie is the thrill of watching Jackie and Jules play cat and mouse. An excellent review of the movie can be found here.

According to Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman’s 2004 book On Combat, the world’s population can be divided into three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Those who have no capacity for violence, who are potential sitting ducks for violence, are sheep, and they form the majority of the population. Those who are violent and have no empathy for others, a tiny percent of the population, are wolves. (Those with a capacity for violence but who use it to protect others are the sheepdogs, the guardians of society.) Jackie is a wolf, and intentional or not, watching “What Keeps You Alive” will have you questioning, like Jules, whether you’d be a sheep or a sheepdog.

Curious about the backstory of “What Keeps You Alive,” I spoke with writer/director/producer Colin Minihan about it, and here’s what he had to say. Okay, obvious question first: why make the married couple in “What Keeps You Alive” a lesbian couple? How is the story different if it’s Jackie hunting Jules vice Jackie hunting John or Jack hunting Jules?

Colin Minihan: The film was never, ultimately, for me, about the sexuality of the characters. It was about the betrayal of trust, as Jules thinks she is in an intimate and honest relationship – but is, in fact, most certainly not. The film had actually been developed as Jack vs Jules, as I wanted to write a role for a talented actor friend of mine whom I thought could play a fantastic psychopath. In the back of my mind while writing the film, I started to think it would be exciting to write the role for a woman instead – mainly because it would explore the relationship from an angle we haven’t seen a ton of in genre films and also because there are not many female characters in cinema that go as dark as Jackie ultimately does.

In the end, my actor pal booked a TV show so it gave me an excuse to rewrite the film for a woman. Jules’ character ended up the more substantial rewrite as a result. I had her coming from a very weak place off the top and then ultimately finding her strength in the 3rd act for the original take – however it changed so that her character very much thinks she is the sharpshooter and more able to assert power off the top, so that she had somewhere really to fall to. I think ultimately making the characters two women gave me the opportunity to dig deeper.

AE: Lesbian and bisexual women are actually a very common staple of the horror genre. To what extent were you aware of some of those historical tropes and depictions going into the movie?

CM: I generally don’t want to watch a ton of movies before a shoot because I will find myself wanting to copy certain shots or this beat and that beat. I want the film to be my own – the influences are still there but less direct perhaps. I wanted this film to be a unique relationship between two women, and I wanted to just explore that, and not pull from other works.

AE: My girlfriend and I 100% believed that Brittany was lesbian in real life until we discovered that you two were a couple. That speaks volumes to how realistic her character Jules is. What sort of thought went into trying to make the characters as true to the lesbian community as possible?

CM: I was very cautious to write a straight man’s version of what an “ideal lesbian” would be….that’s for sure! The relationship ultimately needed to feel honest and a lot of that was in the casting of Hannah and Brittany – they had great chemistry together and didn’t have to force feeling close to one another. By the end of the shoot – when we shot the black and white flashbacks – they had been living together for close to a month and were very in tune with one another. Britt is actually my partner so I know her as an actor very well and I would tell her to come at the role from a stronger place always – to fight her desire to be traditionally pretty or force a smile – which are tendencies she would say are ingrained in her and something she fights against. Ultimately, Brittany is a phenomenal character actor and she has the rare ability to completely transform from movie to movie. This is why I keep writing movies for her!

AE: Where did the idea of the story come from and what was the filming process like?

CM: In this case – on a narrative level – I was inspired by real life stories of husbands who had murdered their wives and gotten away with it many times over. I have always been on some level fascinated by psychopaths and wanted to explore their inability to feel for others and tie it into the theme of betrayal. I also wrote something I knew I could produce independently and something I was excited about.

Brittany Allen as Jules in Colin Minihan’s WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

AE: Although Jackie suggests the meaning of “kill what keeps you alive” is that as a hunter you have to kill an animal in order to eat and survive, retrospectively the anecdote seems to actually represent her first taste of the thrill of taking another being’s life, and it is this thrill that “keeps her alive.” Of course, the movie’s title also could be taken to refer to Jules’ efforts to survive Jackie. How do you interpret the title?

CM: Titles are a very hard thing for me. I have changed almost every movie title of mine last minute. This movie was actually called “Survive” until mid-way into post-production. I liked the double meaning of “What Keeps You Alive.” The survival element and of course the saying – being rooted in Jackie’s ideology.

AE: Metaphorically, Jackie is a predator (bald eagle) while Jules is not (crow). However, crows are among the most intelligent animals in the world. Does this metaphor intentionally foreshadow/explain the movie’s ending?

CM: Brittany has the crow actually tattooed on her back shoulder and that is partially what inspired the duel between these birds. I also was reading a lot about people who are considered technically to be psychopaths – often very rich businessmen – they have a strange obsession with predators on display in their homes, it would seem. So it felt fitting and the way it’s brought up initially is so playful – but later is used to seek revenge and perhaps get the last laugh. And yes, it does intentionally foreshadow the outcome.

AE: Jackie seems only partially aware of forensics. For example, she knows that black lights will reveal the presence of bloodstains, but she doesn’t know that the coroner will be able to distinguish between wounds received days apart. Is this an intentional breadcrumb suggesting her plan isn’t foolproof, or should viewers assume that the police would have bought her story of Jules’ tragic fall? And speaking of blacklights and bloodstains, what is the significance of the blacklight sequence?

CM: The blacklight sequence for me is Jackie’s cathartic ritual of clean up after killing someone. There is something strangely beautiful about it. In terms of the wounds – well, Jackie is not perfect – there are cracks for sure – but I like to think she would have fooled the police!

AE: Most male serial killers kill strangers, which reduces the chances that the police will find them. Female serial killers are a little more likely to kill the people around them, as is the case with Jackie. So in Jackie’s imagined backstory, how have all her killings not led back to her by sheer volume coupled with association?

CM: Jackie, in my mind, has had many names and many identities! In the world of psychopaths, she’s at the top of her game.

AE: Parting thoughts. What do you want viewers to take away from this movie?

CM: I want them to fear the one they love the most.

“What Keeps You Alive” opened in cinemas and on VOD nationwide on August 24th.

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