Black Horror Filmmakers: Interview With Monica Moore-Suriyage

I have been that painfully awkward girl who tried to get the guy of my affection to notice me. More times than I care to admit. Looking back, I think I would've loved a funhouse of terror, 28 Days Later-like, infectious outbreak to distract me from the neurosis of how hopeless pining for someone who doesn't even notice you has made us all feel at times. Watching Meryl (Chelsey Colosimo) stumble her way in a Argento lit, house party to finally (hopefully) get it in with Davey (Shaun Sutton) takes the complete plunge when carnage threatens their livelihood. Director and writer Monica Moore-Suriyage (@monicatweetsnow) has captured this universally insecure moment with a pleasantly gross origin story of a zombie apocalypse in her short, Black In Red Out.

Black In Red Out is Monica's first film fresh out of college. And honestly, I'm shocked. Along with a great crew and actors who sincerely embraced both the action and emotion of the story, under Monica's tutelage, Black In Red Out comes off as seasoned, indie promise that this is an artist to keep an eye on. The film was produced under Monica's own production company, Body Checker that's off to a strong start with a dedicated network in Los Angeles.

When Black In Red Out screened at the Ax Wound Film Festival last November, the audience was just as excited and squirmy because as a narrative, truly does something refreshing despite zombie fatigue with clever homages to what's familiar. I talked to Monica, fellow-Temple University alum about horror firsts, how being on camera is making her a better director, and upcoming projects featuring some supernatural mishaps.

Can you think of a moment from your youth when genre media (horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) made such an impact, it influenced you as an artist today?

I think the first genre media that really hit me was when I watched 28 Days Later. I think I was in 6th grade and I snuck downstairs to watch TV (don’t tell my mom). It had just started and Jim was wandering through the empty streets. I was so confused! It almost looked like a home movie. I watched the whole thing alone in the dark, sitting inches from the TV. I was in awe of Selena and how incredibly badass she was. She killed that guy Mark without a second thought! I had never seen a women of color survive past the first ten minutes of a horror film before then (I was also too much of a baby at the time to watch more than ten minutes of a horror film, usually). That movie and that character opened up a whole new realm of thought for me and shaped the creativity I use now.

Body Checker Productions looks comprised of all women who attended the same university (Temple in Philadelphia!). How did you all end up in Los Angeles to start this venture? I would additionally be remiss to ask how much of your college experience has made an impact on what you’re doing with Body Checker.

Even though we all went to Temple, I actually didn’t meet Kaitlin, Chelsey or Christa before living in LA. Everyone at Body Checker did the LA Study Away Program Temple offers. Christa and I did it in the same semester but Kaitlin and Chelsey did it a few semesters before us. When I returned to LA after briefly living in New York, I moved into the house where the other girls were living. We were all roommates for I think six months. In that time we became great friends and realized we all have different creative talents that combined could make for a pretty rad female production company.

Temple and it’s LA program really hit home the values of hard work and resourcefulness. I’m thankful I went there because I learned that success is not about being the best, it’s about being willing to work the hardest. There is a huge community of Temple alumni in LA hustling to make our entertainment dreams come true. I’m so glad to be surrounded by like-minded individuals utilizing a Philly work ethic. I encourage any film/media students currently at Temple to do the LA program and use the time to get their footing in this ruthless industry with some support from home.

With the core phrase of Body Checker being, “Making Films About Ladies Who Kill It,” what do you envision for the future of Body Checker in regards to this theme and the kind of stories you’ll bring to the screen?

We first and foremost exist to tell the stories of women, made by women. Ladies can kill it in our films in infinite ways, be it by being a strong character with a not stereotypical story arc, literally killing a scary alien creature that is stalking her disguised as a cute boy (idea in progress) or by being behind the camera and bringing the idea to life. We strive to be ladies who kill it in our every day lives by attacking each new project head on and making the best content we are capable of.

As for our future, we hope to grow our company to tell feminine stories across a wide variety of media, including documentaries, wedding videography, music videos, commercials, and narrative films. We have a development slate stacked with projects and we hope people will continue to enjoy our creations as we expand and take on more ambitious content.

If you could describe yourself, Chelsey, Christa, and Kaitlin with one film character, who would it be and how does that character fit their role with Body Checker?

Chelsey is definitely Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. Just like Furiosa, she fights hard for what she believes in. Chelsey Gets. Shit. Done. That’s why she’s our Director of Development. She knows how to close a deal and is sneaky when she needs to be (she could totally hide a bunch of girls in a war rig, no problem). She believes in Body Checker and works so hard to get our work noticed. She is gritty, driven and not afraid to get her hands dirty. Or her forehead.

I would say Kaitlin is Elle Woods from Legally Blonde. Kaitlin is so fun and often acts as social chair in our friend group. She makes sure everyone is included in whatever project we are working on and brings up points we might not have realized otherwise. She is also an incredibly talented writer. Like Elle, her fun exterior and bubbly personality gives way to an intellectual mind filled with creative (and sometimes horrifying) ideas. Kaitlin can always whip up a script if we need something to shoot and offers insightful notes on existing stories that need revision. Body Checker would be significantly less fun and innovative without Kaitlin leading the way on the story frontier.

Christa is Nala from The Lion King! Christa is rambunctious and often described as “scrappy.” She is not afraid to speak her mind and is quick to come to the defense of her friends. She keeps us together and on track, as an adviser and as our editor. Our projects would never get completed without the hard work she puts in. She is not afraid to give her opinion on what we’re working on or pointing out if something isn’t quite right, like when Nala gives Simba some real life talk. Her honesty and loyalty to our work/team is a vital part of Body Checker.

I think I’m Ellen Ripley from Alien. At first her potential is somewhat hidden by her by the book attitude. Later it’s obvious that Ripley was right from the start and has a lot offer (like fighting aliens). While I’m not always right (hardly), I have big ideas that might seem outlandish when I first express them. Ripley and I are both trying to forge a path in fields still dominated by men. I find myself split between being traditional and wanting to do everything my way. Finding a balance between these led to Body Checker. I want to make movies with my friends in a way that makes sense to us. Aliens, monsters, things hidden in the dark, they work for us. And no matter what happens, I’ll always be back for a sequel.

Black In Red Out is a definite leaf on the branch of zombie/undead/outbreak/infected narratives, but it’s also a part of its evolution storytelling wise. What was the journey like bringing an outbreak story and coming-of-age milestone piece (socially finding your rhythm with a potential suitor) together and why was it important to tell both of those stories in one short film?

Both the outbreak and romantic relationship aspect of the film were pulled directly from my own experiences. The mold is based on actual toxic mold that was growing in my house. My roommates and I bonded over not being able to breathe in that bathroom. The need for romantic interaction comes from the desperation I feel to be noticed by men at parties. I have quite often felt invisible in these situations and so became whiny about boys not liking me (or so I thought). For my first film it felt natural to combine these two woes. One is lethal while one is silly and somewhat meaningless. I like the idea of characters having their priorities in the wrong place at the wrong time, so making them more concerned about sex than if they live or die was hilarious and just right for me.

It looks as if you do some informative performing with Snarled. Have you always been the kind of person who is comfortable in front of a camera and has performing enhanced the way you write screenplays and direct?

Snarled is a YouTube channel featuring shows led by young women on various infotainment topics. I host a show called “Read It And Weep” where I read and review books written by celebrities. I actually used to tell myself I would never work in front of the camera, but the opportunity to work with Snarled came along and I couldn’t pass it up. Performing has definitely made me more aware of the way I write dialogue and work with actors. It’s very important to me that dialogue sounds natural and believable. I also try to put actors in the headspace of the scene they are in by relating the moment to their own personalities and experiences as much as possible. Starting from a place of reality both in writing and direction always makes for better content in my opinion.

What’s your experience with exposure and opportunities for women of color specifically in the horror community? Do you think there’s still a stigma about women of color horror fans, especially filmmakers?

As far as on camera, I have always been accustomed to the black female character dying first. In countless movies she is stabbed or hung or whatever in the first fifteen minutes. Behind the scenes, for most of my life I would be hard pressed to even name any WOC horror writers or directors. That’s awful! I think the stigma comes from fewer opportunities existing for women and POC in the film industry in general. However, I do think times are changing with a vengeance as black women work hard to start dialogues about our absence in media and create content featuring our stories as well. We’ve got a long way to go but I’m thrilled to be part of the progress.

Are you currently working on any new genre films that you can share some info on?

Yes! Right now Body Checker is working on our next short film called Bitchcraft, written by Kaitlin, produced by Chelsey and our friend Haley Lannon, edited by Christa and directed by me. Bitchcraft is the story of four girls. Some of them are claiming to be witches but it turns out lying about who you are has consequences for everyone involved. We’re also working on a feature film about alien abductions that will hopefully be terrifying in a way audiences aren’t expecting.

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