With more than a billion (and counting) banked at the global box office, Greta Gerwig's Barbie could be a gamechanger for female filmmakers seeking equitable employment opportunities in Hollywood. And that's true across all genres, not just toy-based blockbusters. Producer Zainab Azizi is already doing her part to ensure that her particular cinematic area of expertise — horror movies — sees a post-Barbie boom.
"The success of Barbie is so exciting," Azizi tells Yahoo Entertainment during a conversation about her latest movie, Boy Kills World, which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. "Especially in the horror genre, there's not that many female filmmakers — I'm always on the hunt for them. It's also hard meeting female producers and female executives in this space. On a lot of horror projects, I'm the only woman there! And these films are often about female leads, so I'm hoping we have more female filmmakers in horror."
Boy Kills World hails from Raimi Productions, which is run by Azizi and horror legend Sam Raimi. The duo first met six years ago when Azizi was a coordinator at William Morris Endeavor and the Evil Dead auteur was circling one of her projects — a short story called "Smooth Stones and Empty Bones" by Bennett North. "It was beautiful supernatural horror blended with a lesbian coming of age love story," Azizi recalls. "Sam came on to produce it and as we worked together, he said, 'You should be a producer.' And that was it!"
In her six years running Raimi Productions, Azizi has produced such diverse films as Iris K. Shim's Korean-American horror film Umma, starring Sandra Oh, as well as the Adam Driver vs. dinosaurs sci-fi picture 65. Moritz Mohr's Boy Kills World is another wild genre mash-up — a coming of age story set in a futuristic dystopia and featuring ultraviolent action sequences inspired equally by video games and movies like The Raid. Premiering as part of TIFF's Midnight Madness lineup, the movie is hunting for a distributor that will make it the cult hit it's clearly gunning to be.
And there's more on the horizon: Azizi says that the company has 20 films and TV projects in various stages of development, all of which place an emphasis on first-time directors and diverse voices. "We're developing a Middle Eastern djinn story and I just watched a film rooted in Indian mythology," she says. "Sam and I are always looking for multicultural mythologies, and I'm always fighting for more women behind and in front of the camera. He's so inclusive and has been an incredible mentor."
Azizi answered three questions about the state of the horror genre and the kinds of scary stories she's hoping to tell going forward.
1. What's the stamp of a Raimi Productions movie?
I'd say we're about original stories and diversity in front and behind the camera. We want to work with younger filmmakers who are trying to break through and tell original stories. With Umma, we had Korean-American director and our leads were Korean. With 65, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are young directors and we cast the great Adam Driver, but also made sure his co-lead was a young woman of color, Ariana Greenblatt. And with Boy Kills World, our cast is very eclectic.
Sam and I have similar tastes, probably because I grew up watching his films! We love mixing genres and we always think about two things. First, it's about the main character and their journey. What to they learn? And then it's about what what message we are conveying to the audience. Filmmaking has a lot of power, because you're teaching the audience what the film is trying to ay. And when you're finding material, it's really important to think what message you're conveying.
2. The bigger studios seem focused on remakes of established franchises like The Exorcist and Saw. Do you prefer original horror stories or would you consider working with pre-existing I.P.?
I completely understand the fascination of I.P., because it's what people remember from going to theaters as a child. I'll never forget the first time I watched The Exorcist, and that's the reason why I'll go watch The Exorcist: Believer in theaters. But I also think there's so much opportunity for original I.P. I just watched Talk to Me, and it's so incredible. It's also an original story that can easily be a franchise.
So Sam and I are always looking for original mythologies, but I have nothing negative to say about franchises. A Nightmare on Elm Street is my favorite horror movie of all time, but I would be too scared to touch it. What a brilliant original mythology — I would watch a [remake], but I'd be scared to touch that one.
3. Where do you hope to find the next generation of female horror directors?
Honestly, I find them at film festivals and through word of mouth from representatives who have relationships with agents and managers. They're always the ones that tell me who to look out for. But I also meet a lot of them generally, and that's really important to me. You want to get to know them, because if you're making a film, you're going to spend the next five or even ten years together.
After Boy Kills World, I'm very eager to do more action comedies and I'm specifically looking for one that's female-led. There's a script that I just got the rights to, and I'm hoping to find a female action director for that. We're already working with the incredible Kelsey Asbille from Yellowstone on a thriller, and we're developing an Italian horror film with Giada Colagrande, who is Willem Dafoe's partner and we hope he'll be in it. So we're very eclectic!