Axelle Carolyn on Exploring Themes of Aging in Gothic Creature Feature “The Manor”

Axelle Carolyn has directed episodes of FX’s “American Horror Story” and Netflix’s “The Haunting of Bly Manor.” Her other credits include Shudder’s “Creepshow,” Netflix’s upcoming “The Midnight Club,” and Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” In 2015, she created, wrote, and co-directed the Saturn Award-winning horror anthology “Tales of Halloween.” Carolyn began her career as a reporter for some of the world’s most respected film magazines and websites. She also wrote two non-fiction books on horror: “It Lives Again! Horror Movies In The New Millennium” and “The FrightFest Guide to Ghost Movies.”

“The Manor” launches on Amazon Prime Video October 8 as part of a new installment of “Welcome to the Blumhouse.”

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

AC: “The Manor” is a supernatural mystery about a woman, played by the great Barbara Hershey, who moves into a nursing home and starts to believe that the residents are being preyed on at night by a mysterious creature.

It deals with themes of aging, and how we treat the elderly, under the guise of a Gothic creature feature.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AC: Inspiration for this story came from my own fears and anxieties, and seeing loved ones moved to nursing homes — specifically, how quickly one can lose their independence. Spending any length of time in a nursing home visiting family has a way of confronting you to your own mortality, in a way, so it felt very personal, thematically interesting, and also ripe for a horror story.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film? 

AC: You know, first and foremost, I want them to have fun watching it! It’s a spooky mystery, so I hope they enjoy the twists and turns and don’t see the end coming.

I also hope they fall in love with our main character, Judith. As women especially, we don’t often get to see badass, charismatic older characters. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of older women in my life who are smart, hilarious, and sexy, yet over a certain age. Women who are still made to feel like they’re past their prime. They’re fairly invisible, especially in Hollywood. That needs to change.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AC: Finding the right partners for the movie was a challenge. Most places we took the script to liked it, but wanted to change it to younger protagonists, or make it about the grandson. They didn’t like that the main characters were almost all over 70. Amazon on the other hand saw that it was part of what made it unique, and that it didn’t mean audiences of any age wouldn’t empathize. They embraced it.

And then post-production was really rough. Lockdown started as we were still working on the edit, so we had to do everything remotely, and the logistics of that had not yet been worked out. I did color correction and sound design on an iPad. I’m excited and terrified to finally see what it looks and sounds like on a real screen.

W&H: How did you get the film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made. 

AC: We brought the script to Amazon Studios’ feature department. They’d just started a partnership with Blumhouse, so they decided to make it under that umbrella. It happened pretty quickly from there: I think I met with Amazon in April 2019, and we were shooting by October. We shot in LA over 20 days.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

AC: I’ve always been into horror, and always felt I’d be doing something in the horror genre. I wasn’t allowed to watch many movies as a kid, and certainly not horror, but I read a lot — including a lot of Stephen King. “Pet Sematary” made a big impression on me.

I started writing really early, but didn’t turn to screenwriting until my late teens or early 20s. One of the movies which made me realize I wanted to work in film was David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” But even as I started working in the film industry, it took me a long time to realize I was meant to direct, and I think unconsciously the fact that I was surrounded with men, with very few female role models directing, made it more difficult to picture myself in the job. That’s why I think it’s important for women filmmakers to have more visibility.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

AC: I’m not sure I’ve been given a lot of advice, really! Whenever I’ve asked for advice from more experienced filmmakers, they said very practical things. Wear practical shoes: your feet will hurt. Sit down a lot: your back will hurt. Both true!

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

AC: I have to be reminded of this one a lot, but trust your gut. Directors really only have their instincts to go on. And that also means trust your gut in your interactions with people. We’re brought up to be people pleasers, and to appease, and to second guess ourselves, and sometimes it seems to allow others to overstep. If you feel that’s happening, trust your gut and have a conversation with that person.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

AC: There are so many I love, but I’ll go with a classic: “American Psycho.” Guinevere Turner and Mary Harron put such a glorious, subversive twist on the story, and made it subtly feminist without altering its nature. It’s pitch perfect in tone, acting, and direction.

Lately, filmmakers I admire and want to see more from include Chelsea Stardust (“Satanic Panic”), Roxanne Benjamin (“Body at Brighton Rock”), Gigi Saul Guerrero (“Bingo Hell”), Leigh Janiak (“Fear Street”), Prano Bailey-Bond (“Censor”), Natasha Kermani (“Lucky”), Mali Elfman, Brea Grant, Alice Waddington, etc.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

AC: I’ve been busier than ever since the pandemic! When the world shut down last year, I’d just finished the director’s cut of my first TV episode as director on “The Haunting of Bly Manor” for Netflix. I was also in post on “The Manor,” so we had to figure out how to finish the film remotely. And since finishing post in July last year, I’ve shot five TV episodes, a few of which — “Creepshow” and “American Horror Story” — are also airing right now. It’s been good!

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