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Spotlight: Monsterland NYCC Press Room - Creator Mary Laws and Star Taylor Schilling - 10/09/20

Taylor Schilling and Mary LawsRecently, Hulu premiered its new anthology series, Monsterland. The series, created, written, and executive produced by Mary Laws, tells stories of supernatural creatures, monsters, and the like, who push people to desperation. The series is based on North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud.

Laws and actress Taylor Schilling, star of episode five, "Plainfield, IL," took part in the press room for New York Comic-Con that SciFi Vision took part in. The two talked about working on the show, who they’re inspired by, and more.

They first talked about what attracted them to Monsterland. Laws said she was extremely inspired by Ballingrud’s book. "I absolutely love how human the stories in his book were and how they grappled with really broken people in a genre space, which I thought was very unique to the horror genre. It wasn't jump scares and cheap thrills-type of horror; it was really about the human experience. I thought that was a subject that was grounds for exploring a lot of really ripe material."

Schilling added, "On a similar level, I felt really intrigued by the notion of externalizing inner demons into external demons, and then I liked the idea of making physical the monsters we feel inside. That, for me, was very compelling."

Laws talked a bit about the common thread among the stories and how that interested her. "I think I'm particularly interested in exploring why people do some of the more monstrous things that they do. I think that we live in a very polarized country right now. There's not a lot of room for nuance within a person. You're sort of judged for the worst bad thing you've ever done, and I think that's dangerous. I wanted to tell stories that asked the why, that explored the the background, the makeup of a person, the trauma that someone had been through, their past experiences and unfolded why people make the kinds of desperate, awful choices that they do. So, I think trauma is certainly a theme that carries through all the episodes, but I think what makes the monster inside of us, is really something that all the episodes are talking about."

In episode five, Schilling is transformed for different stages of death. Laws talked a bit about the special effects team that created the look. "We worked with KNB, who are pretty famous for doing The Walking Dead. They're absolutely fantastic monster creators, and Jake Garber was our onset monster maker. I have to give some some props and credit to our AD team also, because there were so many different phases of Taylor's incredible makeup that they had a spreadsheet. It was just an epic process to know at what phase we were, because we, obviously, shot out of order, but it was definitely really extensive, and every layer was a little bit more decayed than the one right before."

Schilling originally thought the special effects makeup looked fun, but it didn’t turn out quite that way. According to the actress, "[The makeup] was really interesting. I've never done anything like this…I did a movie once where this actor was in the chair for hours, and I was like, 'That would be really interesting and kind of fun.' That was actually a draw, and I come to find out, I had a panic attack when they started to put it on my face at the end. So, that woman at the very, very end of that episode, when the character has gone full zombie mode, it isn't me, because…I started at the very beginning asking if [the visual effects guy] could expand the nose holes. He just walked me down to PA and was like, 'She's gonna tap out. We've got to tap her out. We've got to get the stand-in girl in here.'

"So, they did. They brought her in and took it off my face, and I didn't do it. I think he'd had enough experience to know that my kind was going to have a panic attack. So, I learned a lot for my career moving forward. I know my limits, thanks to Monsterland."

For the rest of the interview, please read the full transcript below and be sure to check out Monsterland on Hulu.


Zoom Call
Monsterland
Mary Laws and Taylor Schilling

October 9, 2020

QUESTION:  What was it that first attracted you to develop this project and, Taylor, to join onto this project?

MARY LAWS:  I was extremely inspired by Nathan Ballingrud's book, which this series is partially based on, and deeply inspired by [it]. I absolutely love how human the stories in his book were and how they grappled with really broken people in a genre space, which I thought was very unique to the horror genre. It wasn't jump scares and cheap thrills-type of horror; it was really about the human experience. I thought that was a subject that was grounds for exploring a lot of really ripe material.

Taylor?

Taylor SchillingTAYLOR SCHILLING:  On a similar level, I felt really intrigued by the notion of externalizing inner demons into external demons, and then I liked the idea of making physical the monsters we feel inside. That, for me, was very compelling.

QUESTION:   Mary, the original story was about a male. There was a man in the story, and you gender swapped it. What's the thought behind gender swapping the story?

MARY LAWS:  I wanted to tell a story about lesbians, because I am one.

QUESTION:   Okay, simple enough answer.

MARY LAWS:  Yeah.

SCIFI VISION:  In Taylor's episode, you have, not exactly a zombie, but obviously, dead makeup. For both of you, can talk about this and about the different stages, what you decided to do, and for Taylor, having it applied?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  The makeup itself? It was really interesting. I've never done anything like this, which was fun in and of itself, just thinking, "Oh, here's an episode of a show where I can go and pretend that I'm in –" What are those movies called? I don't even know, I can't even think of it, but where people are in - I did a movie once where this actor was in the chair for hours, and I was like, "That would be really interesting and kind of fun." That was actually a draw, and I come to find out, Jamie, I had a panic attack when they started to put it on my face at the end. So, that woman at the very, very end of that episode, when the character has gone full zombie mode, it isn't me, [laughs] because the visual effects guy - they had a really good guy who I've seen around New York a lot doing the visual effects - I started at the very beginning asking if he could expand the nose holes. He just walked me down to PA and was like, "She's gonna tap out. We've got to tap her out. We've got to get the stand-in girl in here."

So, they did. They brought her in and took it off my face, and I didn't do it. I think he'd had enough experience to know that my kind was going to have a panic attack. So, I learned a lot for my career moving forward. I know my limits, thanks to Monsterland.

MARY LAWS:  [laughs] You're welcome.

We worked with KNB, who are pretty famous for doing The Walking Dead. They're absolutely fantastic monster creators, and Jake Garber was our onset monster maker. I have to give some some props and credit to our AD team also, because there were so many different phases of Taylor's incredible makeup that they had a spreadsheet. It was just an epic process to know at what phase we were, because we, obviously, shot out of order, but it was definitely really extensive, and every layer was a little bit more decayed than the one right before.

QUESTION:  Beyond the horror - this goes for both of you - what would you say is a common thread in the stories as you've seen, from your perspective?

MARY LAWS:  Well, I think I'm particularly interested in exploring why people do some of the more monstrous things that they do. I think that we live in a very polarized country right now. There's not a lot of room for nuance within a person. You're sort of judged for the worst bad thing you've ever done, and I think that's dangerous. I wanted to tell stories that asked the why, that explored the the background, the makeup of a person, the trauma that someone had been through, their past experiences and unfolded why people make the kinds of desperate, awful choices that they do. So, I think trauma is certainly a theme that carries through all the episodes, but I think what makes the monster inside of us, is really something that all the episodes are talking about.

QUESTION:   Mary, how did you write the character of Kate, and Taylor, how did you prepare to play Kate?

MARY LAWS:  I did not write this episode; our wonderful writer Emily Kaczmarek wrote it. We did break the story as a writers’ room though. One thing that I think we were all really set on, in terms of Taylor's character, Kate, was that she was a well-rounded character and had a personality outside of her mental illness, which is something that I think is a pitfall that I see a lot of Hollywood stories that are discussing mental illness fall into; the character is their mental illness and nothing else. So, it was really important to me, to our writer, Emily, and to all of the writers that Kate had a more three-dimensionality, which I hope came across in the script.

Taylor?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  Well, I thought it was a very sophisticated portrayal of what it feels like to be in a codependent space with another person, and I was just really interested in exploring that dynamic. There was so much available on the page that it made the normal detective work of being an actor pretty straightforward.

QUESTION:  I love the whole series, but I really loved watching Taylor decay; it’s just emotional and really kind of creepy. So, my question is, you have such a great handle on the human aspects but also the horror aspects. Are there writers or directors in horror who are your favorites who may have inspired you while creating the series? And Taylor, if you can also go on and tell me about your favorite horror directors and writers if you have any.

MARY LAWS:  I am very moved - I hate my own answer to this. I love Roman Polanski, and I think that his horror, I think particularly Rosemary's Baby, but Repulsion is the one that I have always felt hugely, hugely inspired by, and I think, no matter what I do, will always - every project I've ever worked on, since I've seen that, I think of it when I'm writing, at some point. I think that it's an absolutely incredible portrayal of also perhaps mental illness, but just the internal experience. There are a million ways to break down that movie, but the internal experience of a person reflected outwardly, kind of what Taylor was saying earlier, and it's all done in a very, very compact pressure cooker. The imagery and the symbolism is so strong in that film; I think about it all the time, non-stop. I wish he didn't do so many terrible things, but I think that as an artist, I go back to that film over and over and over again.

QUESTION:  Taylor, do you have any inspirations?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  Well, actually…I saw Rosemary's Baby when I was like 11, the same time I saw Annie Hall, like within two days of each other. It just completely captured me, and it informed what I thought, informed my idea of New York City very, very heavily. But I'm not a huge horror person, so I came at this from very much the point of view of the relationship, and as an actor, I was coming at it from my little corner of the sandbox.

QUESTION:  You mentioned that this had a pressure cooker feel to it, and it is one of the more claustrophobic and, obviously unintentionally, timely episodes. Shawn (Roberta Colindrez)'s trapped in this relationship, and Kate's kind of trapped…Taylor, even though you said you hadn't really done horror before, you did The Prodigy, and Mary, you've done Preacher, which has horror undertones. What is it about trying to capture that claustrophobia within the canvas of horror that you found intriguing?

Mary LawsMARY LAWS:  …My experience of having sort of a horrific life experience, is that it does feel like a pressure cooker. I think moments of true horror can last a very, very small amount of time but feel infinite, but, really, it's all happening here and in the body. I think that probably that's why horror does so well in that kind of pressure cooker environment. So many wonderful movies in the genre are in a room, in a basement, in the house, because I think that there’s, you know, the struggle between the external and sort of like the body, the external and, I think, in the case of this episode, the internal, the mind.

So, I think, perhaps another answer is that the anthology series is incredibly hard to produce, and so it really made sense for us on the production level to have most of our episodes in one space. I think that the genre lends itself to that as well, to that pressure cooker environment.

Taylor, do you want to add anything?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  I totally agree with you. I think that what is so exciting to play in these scenarios, is, I think, the heightened reality of a crisis is deeply claustrophobic and something that we can all so relate to. That heightened experience of being alive is fun to play in, and like Mary was saying, I think really well-suited to a horror genre. I mean, we've all felt like our lives are horror movies at certain points.

MARY LAWS:  Absolutely.

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  So, it's fun to play that way. Yeah.

QUESTION:  Taylor, what type of research did you do to better understand what your character was dealing with, both in terms of having bipolar disorder and also turning into a zombie?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  [What] I thought was so interesting was that…I mean, I've had many moments where I felt like I'm experiencing my life as a horror film, and it feels that way, and it feels that heightened. I think a lot of times, when a script is very well written and feels very emotionally solvent, logical, it's really just a little bit of detective work to figure out, to connect the dots from what's happening there to what's happened in other places…Actually, this piece made a hell of a lot more sense to me than other more simple, seemingly simple, things I've done.

QUESTION:  Mary, what made you look at the source material and say, "This is perfect for an anthology series?"

MARY LAWS:  Well, the source material itself sort of feels like an anthology series. Nathan's book is, first of all, it's truly beautiful. The depth of character in his book is astonishing. As a writer, you get sent a lot of IP all the time, and I took one look at the first story in this book, which is our pilot episode, and I thought, "Oh, my God, I have to do this. I've never read anything like this." It was such an incredible portrait of a really complicated, young, single mother that I felt like I had never seen that person on screen before, and that's when I always know I have to do it, to put put things and people on screen that don't usually get that spotlight. But the book itself, it's a collection of short stories, and so every story felt like it was its own tiny little moment in time about a human wrestling inside of a pothole they had fallen into in their life. I felt like that was just an amazing stage to be able to play on and tell stories about a lot of different broken people and why they do the monstrous things that they do, a real exploration of humanity.

QUESTION:  Mary, being that you are the creator of the show, what is it that draws you to the supernatural and horror genre?

MARY LAWS:  Oh, my gosh, I just love it. Isn't it fun?

I was talking to a friend of mine a while back and said, "I just don't know how I would ever write anything that's just stark naturalism." I feel like I'm so fortunate to be able to put the way that I see the world, emotionally, into these metaphors of zombies, monsters, and demons, and I think that that's a really exciting way to talk about the actual horror of the world, through this lens. So, I'm just drawn to it. I think, as an audience member, I'm really drawn to actually a lot of naturalism though, maybe because it feels like something I can't do, but I don't know. I just I love it.

QUESTION:  Mary, when it came to the directors, what was that process like? How did you go about finding the different people to direct each episode?

MARY LAWS:  I just watched; I watched a lot. Some of the directors I had known through their work previously and felt so lucky to have a chance to work with them on this project. But then others, it was an exploration: recommendations from Hulu, recommendations from our studio, Annapurna, recommendations from our writing team. We were just looking for really incredible auteur-style directors who could come in and really put their fingerprints all over an episode, which is really exciting to me, because I think directors don't usually have that kind of opportunity in television. Everything is supposed to be in a style set, right? And this, I think every episode is a little bit different and quite unique, which I think is a result of us having all these eight really brilliant, different styles, different backgrounds, different kinds of directors come to the material. So, I just chose directors whose work I deeply, truly admired, that I wanted to learn from.

QUESTION:  Taylor, how do you get into the mindset of somebody who's physically and mentally deteriorating and losing herself as you're going along in this project?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  Well, I think it's closer than one would imagine. For me, when the external pieces match the puzzle pieces of the internal landscape, it's really fun. Everything coalesces, and then you just can kind of slalom down the slope. So, it was a pleasure.

QUESTION:  Was it easier to find her at the beginning of the character or the end of the character?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  I think that she was seeking freedom throughout the piece in an aggressive way, and she felt there was a sense of relief by the end of the thing, by the end of her story, and that was fun. There were no more constraints. That was really exciting. Fun.

QUESTION:  Taylor, you've played in a few psychological thrillers with Monsterland and The Prodigy, but you have mentioned that you are not a fan of the horror genre. So, what is it about psychological thrillers that you like, as opposed to anything that you don't like with horror?

TAYLOR SCHILLING:  I'm not opposed to horror films, it's just never what I click on. It's not what I immediately am tickled by. That said, any kind of psychological thriller piece where I feel bent emotionally, I feel emotionally manipulated and frightened, I am all in. I feel thrilled by that; I get scared by that. A jump scare, I'm like, "Eh, really?"  I mean, it doesn't really do much for me. I want to feel like I'm losing my mind; the mind is really what gets me.

That's how I felt about The Prodigy, too. I was fascinated by that woman. That's all you can do as an actor, is sort of see what comes and then say, "Let's give it a shot. Let's see how it turns out," but that's what I like. Both of those, they both related in that way that it felt like that razor's edge of reality was melting for both of the women in those projects, for the woman in The Prodigy, and for certainly this experience as well.

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