I AM DIVINE and Chastity Bites’ Lotti Pharriss Knowles Talks Feminism, Horror Films, and Pop Culture
“Soul sister, blood sister
Come and be my best friend, really
I really like you, I really want to be your best friend
Be my rebel girl”
-Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill
When I first discovered Emmy-nominated producer and screenwriter, Lotti Pharriss Knowles I had that “rebel girl” spirit running through me. I wanted to know all I could about this talented writer who penned the whip-smart feminist horror comedy Chastity Bites (2013). While mixing pop culture, feminist theory, and the horror genre we are given a treat along the lines of Mean Girls (2004) meets Elizabeth Bathory meets Heathers meets something you’ve never met before.
As the writer of Chastity Bites and producer of the wildly successful documentary I AM DIVINE (Dir. by Jeffrey Schwarz), Knowles is one of my favorite people currently making a name for herself in the industry. Plus, she was on an episode of MTV’s Catfish. Intrigued? You should be. Lotti is a whole Lotti of awesome (get it? get it?).
Hannah Neurotica: I read that your husband (John V. Knowles) challenged you to enter a screenwriting competition which required you to write a feature script in four weeks. The outcome being Chastity Bites. Did you go into writing this knowing you wanted to deal with feminist/political themes? What was that writing marathon process like for you?
Lotti Pharriss Knowles: Yes, that’s how CB first came about! We had been in L.A. for about a year after moving here from Chicago, and I just hadn’t been able to motivate myself to write anything. So John gave me the contest (Screamfest, I think) as a deadline to strive for, and I made it — albeit with a shitty first draft that was a bit different than what the movie ultimately became (and with a different title). That said, the concept itself was indeed born out of me wanting to purge some of my feelings about political issues. It was 2004, the heart of George W. Bush’s presidency, and I was just so depressed about what was happening in the country. Luckily those feelings collided with my obsession with the Blood Countess to form the basic plot — then it was just sitting down at my computer every day and banging it out (while sometimes banging my head against the keyboard!).
Hannah: Had you written a feature length screenplay prior to writing Chastity Bites?
Lotti: This is a funny question, because yes but not since high school. For a creative writing class I wrote a god awful (or brilliant, I’m still not sure) horror screenplay called GROUNDHOG DAY, that was just the most blatant rip-off of HALLOWEEN you can imagine. I even shot a couple of scenes from it with friends on weekends with a crappy old camcorder — they’re on YouTube now. Other than that, I spent most of my young adult life in theatre, writing, directing, producing and performing plays and solo performances. The film career started in earnest with the move to Los Angeles.
Hannah: In going from script to screen was there any point when your husband (John V. Knowles) had a different creative vision as you and did any conflict arise with this work/personal relationship?
Lotti: No, not really — mainly because we share a brain about a lot of things, and because I’d seen him direct shorts, music videos, etc. prior and trusted his talent. Then it was just me having to make a conscious decision to let him do his job without me being a control freak (not always easy for me!). Luckily I was also producing, so I had my own fires to fight on set and little time to meddle in his end of things.
Hannah: You write and produce- have you ever had the desire to direct?
Lotti: Yes, absolutely. I’ve directed theatre in the past, though it’s been awhile. I don’t think I’m as strong at that job as I am writing and producing, but I almost feel like it’s a political necessity for me to direct at some point because there’s still such a dearth of women doing it. I have a couple microbudget scripts in various early stages that I hope might lend themselves to me directing.
Hannah: What is it about producing that feels so comfortable for you? Is it because you are more behind-the-scenes just like as a writer? Directing (from my new and limited experience) is almost like being in front of the camera but unlike an actor who is told what to say/do your in front of a ton of people all looking at you for what to do next. Also, directing involves taking charge and that is something girls and women are not socialized to do. I feel the political reason to get behind a camera is valid and ultimately empowering regardless of the outcome.
Lotti: I think producing feels comfortable to me because I’m a total Virgo, in other words obsessive compulsive! Producing is checklists, organization, making sure the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. But producing also means wearing a creative hat at the same time, and having a certain amount of control (which I don’t shy away from!). I think directing is more scary to me because I just haven’t done it in awhile and feel rusty — and I don’t have all the lingo and technical know-how I feel I should. But that’s why with a microbudget I might feel less pressure, and could probably say Fuck it, let’s go for it!
Hannah: I am dying to know more about these micro-budget films you speak of…Are they horror? What sub genre? Shorts? Features? Does one of those scripts stand out over the others that you consider directing first?
Lotti: I have a specific microbudget in mind to direct, which I’m slowly but surely writing. It’s definitely horror, with Satanic and nun-sploitation elements, and is also a love poem to Lucio Fulci. Let’s just say if I get it made, the majority of the budget will be going toward gore FX! I kept Chastity Bites fairly tame in that regard, but I’d like to do something really balls-out bloody with all practical effects. There’s also a larger-budget movie I dream of making that’s a remake of one of my favorite 1970s horrors, which could go light or heavy on gore…and that’s all I can say for now. 🙂
Lotti: I’m always fascinated by why some people love horror so much and others don’t, and it usually seems to be a proclivity that starts really early. It absolutely did for me — I can’t remember a time when Halloween wasn’t my favorite holiday, that I wanted to dress as a pretty princess instead of a witch or a vampire, that I didn’t prefer a spooky book or cartoon or whatever to the alternative. Also, my dad loved horror movies and let me watch oldies with him from a young age (which is why I dedicated CB to him, and John to his dad for the same reason). Definitely by junior high I was obsessively learning the names of actors and filmmakers and reading FANGORIA (aka “fangirling”). The Hammer movies I watched with my dad made a huge impression on me, and then when I saw HALLOWEEN in fifth grade it was all over for me — I was officially obsessed.
Hannah: The protagonist in Chastity Bites is a whip-smart high school girl well versed in feminist theory and pop culture. I’ve never met you in person but from what I have seen of your work, read of your social media posts, and my general sense is that you put a lot of yourself into that character. Would that be semi-accurate? Totally crazy off base? I couldn’t help but think “it’s a Lil’ Lotti!” when I watched the film.
Lotti: LOL! Funny you should ask that… When Allison Scagliotti (who plays LEAH) saw the completed film for the first time, she joked with me, “Why didn’t you just cast yourself in the role??” So yes, I cannot deny that there’s a lot of me in there, and also a lot of a fantasy of how tough I wish I’d been as a burgeoning feminist nerd back in high school. That said, I also drew on other inspirations for the character — cool, smart girlfriends of mine, and bits of pop culture icons like Buffy, Daria, and Veronica from “Heathers.”
Hannah: There is this common idea that feminism and horror can’t mix. Have people in your life reacted oddly to finding out you enjoy/create this combo? How do you (or would you) respond to them?
Lotti: While there are of course some horror movies that are misogynistic, I truly believe that, overall, genre films are some of the most feminist out there. It’s 2015 and we’re STILL bitching our heads off (rightly so) about lack of strong female representation in cinema in front of and behind the camera, but horror has given us Ripley, Laurie, Nancy, Sydney, etc. etc. — all these kick-ass lead female characters who are ICONS and certainly empowered me as young woman. Also some incredible female villains: Carmilla, Contessa Zeleska, Annie Wilkes, Miriam Blaylock — that list goes on and on, too. I wanted BOTH in CB, and it was so much fun to write women going head to head!
Everyone has a slightly different idea about what feminism is, and so of course mine won’t always jive with everyone else’s. But I’m very proud to call myself a feminist AND a horror fangirl / filmmaker, and in my mind the two are like chocolate and peanut butter — two great tastes that taste great together!
Hannah: Let’s talk feature narrative vs. documentary. I Am Divine is utterly fantastic and was just so long over due. What brought you to get involved/produce this incredible doc? I won’t lie. Knowing you met John Waters makes me fan girl like through the moon. How did the process of producing the doc differ from the narrative film?
Lotti: Ha ha, thanks! I only briefly met John Waters, but it was a thrill for me, too. I actually said something super dorky to him about wanting to play Taffy in a remake of “Female Trouble,” but I digress… I’ve always loved documentaries, but I never saw myself working in that arena until my friend Jeffrey Schwarz asked me to come on board to help produce his third feature doc, VITO. We worked well together, so as that was winding down we jumped right into I AM DIVINE. Both of those movies are very special to me. On the one hand they were fantastic professional experiences: I mentored with an incredibly talented filmmaker (Schwarz), I learned a ton about fundraising and social media, and I moved ahead in my career in a way I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. But I also gained something personally in being intimately involved with the personalities of Vito Russo and Divine during that time, as they’re absolutely two of my spirit animals, and they both taught me something profound about bravery, overcoming obstacles and living life to the fullest.
Lotti: This is seriously a whole other article! My first and best advice is to start planning a crowdfunding campaign six months before you want to launch it — that prep makes all the difference. Also totally worth it? Pay someone who’s done it successfully to consult with you. I highly recommend Leah Cevoli, she’s one of the best around. I also recommend ME, and I have reasonable rates for low-budget filmmakers. 😉
Hannah: I can’t end the interview without asking you this next question: I go on TV show binges, one of them being MTV’s Catfish for a while. This is a show I was not expecting to see you on!! For those who haven’t seen the episode can you give a quick explanation on how you ended up on the show? Has the experience affected you now that it’s over? Has anyone contacted you because of the appearance?
Lotti: A couple of years ago I had a weird experience with a fan of Allison Scagliotti’s who had connected with me via the Chastity Bites Twitter account. The short version is that she pretended to be two different people: herself, and her best friend who was dying of cancer. I’m not usually gullible about internet scams, but the way I found out about the friend’s illness was somewhat organic, so I didn’t think twice that it wasn’t true. Cut to the day of the friend’s “funeral,” and I get emails from Allison and another actor, Tracie Thoms (who was also involved), that the friend never existed. Well, life goes on…until about a year later, Tracie emailed me that she’d met one of the “Catfish” producers while on tour, and that he was interested in doing a segment on our experience, and how fandom can cross a line in the age of the internet. I knew it would be good exposure for our little movie, so I took part. It’s an interesting episode, I think. I wish the girl well, and hope she’s gotten her act together and put her “creativity” to better use!
Hannah: Okay, so, what are you working on currently and how can people check out/keep up with your projects?
Lotti: Everything I’m working on creatively right now is somewhere in the writing and/or development stage, so stay tuned… Besides following me on Twitter (@LottiLuWho), you can check out weirdsmobile.net periodically for updates on what we’re churning out. There’s a really cool girl-power horror project I’m developing with a producing partner, and we need everyone’s fingers, toes and labias crossed that we can make it happen! In the meantime, I’ve been doing some paid producing, marketing and consulting work. It may shock your readers to find out, but indie film doesn’t always pay the bills! So it’s all about balance for me at the moment. And enjoying time with my cats.