The Movie Waffler Interview - RIOT GIRLS Director Jovanka Vuckovic | The Movie Waffler

Interview - RIOT GIRLS Director Jovanka Vuckovic

jovanka vuckovic interview
Jovanka Vuckovic discusses her alternative '90s set post-apocalyptic punk thriller.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

After all the adults are wiped out from a mysterious disease, the surviving kids split into two groups: the have not Eastsiders vs. the tyrannical Westside Titans. When one of their own is captured by the Titans, it’s up to punk rockers and best friends Nat (Madison Iseman) and Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) to lead the East side teens on a deadly, high-octane mission that forever alters the future of Potter’s Bluff.

We chatted with director Jovanka Vuckovic about her feature debut - the post-apocalyptic punk thriller Riot Girls.

riot girls poster

Hi Jovanka! Congratulations on the release of your debut feature film Riot Girls. Your background is closely aligned with horror: you were the Editor-in-Chief of Rue Morgue Magazine, and your section within the portmanteau film XX is a faithful adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s bleak 'The Box'. However, although it has a couple of gory and tense moments, what struck me about Riot Girls was its energy and its outright refusal to settle into any one genre. It certainly has moments of horror, but within a classic teen film context (I’m thinking of the colour palette and certain retro-soundtrack choices). The film is joyfully pulpy and playfully aware of genre tropes. Could you please talk a little about the sui-generis nature of Riot Girls? And, how would you imagine streaming services would categorise Riot Girls?

I was thinking a lot about youth-in-revolt cult and coming-of-age movies like The Warriors, Class of 1984, Suburbia, Repo Man and Over the Edge, as well as '80s kids adventure movies like The Goonies when I was making Riot Girls. We were actively trying to create space in the kids adventure genre for girls because those types of characters did not exist when we were growing up. Of course, kids adventure films can be combined with other genres, in our case, sci-fi because of the setting and events that precede the film. I imagine the streamers would categorise it as action adventure or sci-fi action, which is probably fair. But if there were a 'future cult film' section and Riot Girls made it there I would be very happy because that is the type of film we set out to make.

riot girls

Your film The Captured Bird is one of my favourite short films (it is such a lovely caesura during horror marathons with pals). And, following other shorts and your aforementioned work in XX, Riot Girls is your debut feature. In what ways did the process of making short films prepare you for Riot Girls?

It prepared me in every way because I didn’t go to film school so everything I know about directing I learned from making short films. I didn’t have a lot growing up, we really struggled, and I had to prioritise basic survival above all else. I was actively discouraged from pursuing a career in the arts – even though I was writing, illustrating and binding my own choose your own adventure books by age eight. Making short films was the only way for someone like me – who could not afford or even conceive of something as privileged as film school — to learn the craft. By doing.

Speaking of The Captured Bird (sorry to bang on about it, but I do like it), it is such a sumptuous looking film. Riot Girls is also highly stylised and exciting to look at (Paloma Kwiatkowski/Scratch’s hair - yes mate!) but in a totally dissimilar way. You evidently have a very clear idea about how you want your films to look. What were your aims with the look and feel of Riot Girls?

Each story demands its own visual style. The Captured Bird is a silent fable, which required a more oneiric aesthetic, whereas The Box is about an unknowable woman who is disconnected from the people who are closest to her and playing the part of a mother, so I wanted her house to look like it was being staged for a real estate sale and framed Susan in windows and doorways, boxing her in. Every choice is deliberate, from the colour of the walls to the food they ate in each scene – it’s all designed to tell us about the inner life of this difficult woman.

As for Riot Girls, screenwriter Katherine Collins was inspired in part by Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl, itself adapted from a comic. So when I read Riot Girls, I thought of building it as a film that was also based on an indie comic from the '90s that maybe everyone had maybe slept on. And given that the famous feminist musical movement inspired the title, it made sense to populate the movie with cool punk and metal music I grew up listening to during that era.

As for the visual style, we knew we didn't want it to look like a typical urban apocalypse film, and thought the beautiful fall trees of Northern Canada would make a unique backdrop for a movie like this. It worked really well for me, because I had decided to set it in Potter’s Bluff, the small waterfront town in Gary Sherman’s 1981 horror film Dead & Buried. I wanted to suggest that this is in fact the exact same cursed town, only years later. I got Gary’s permission and we found the perfect little waterfront town of Parry Sound and shot it there, deliberately connecting the two films forever. This makes me very happy, as I am a huge fan of that strange horror film. It had a big impact on me when I was young.

Finally, adding the comic book framing device takes it a step further and lets the audience know from frame one that they are here to have fun the way that Walter Hill’s The Warriors does. By the time those Baseball Furies show up, you’re cheering the sheer audacity of it.

riot girls

Riot Girls has been favourably referred to as Riverdale meets Lord of the Flies. I can see why! When I was watching Riot Girls, I was reminded of this passage from 'From War to War: Lord of the Flies as the Sociology of Spite' by Bรผlent Diken and Carsten Bagge Laustsen, which runs: 

"It all starts when the boys find out that they are alone. They think that their life on the island will be like in a comic book, a life without adults. The disappearance of authority figures and the prospect of fun, however, also bring with them fear, for the boys are scared of the possibility of long-term abandonment… What promises escape can bring with is destruction. As the boys get more and more violent in the scenes that follow… the process of disconnection from civilization is complete."

How far could the above also be applied to the themes, ideas and characters of Riot Girls?

For sure Lord of the Flies is an obvious reference whenever you tell a story about a world without adults. I’m sure Katherine was thinking about that story but it’s also a class warfare narrative. Political conflict arises out of the imbalance – the rich keeping the poor down. But they fail to see where the battle lines really lie because the black gut rot is going to get them all on their 18th birthday. That’s how the disease works, you see… there is a switch that flips in their DNA when they become adults – that’s what’s happening to the oldest kid in Potter’s Bluff, the dictator Jeremy, and why he’s beginning to lose control. I remember an early draft opened with Scratch’s VO talking about the disease that wiped out the parents and that whatever it was doesn’t fucking matter anymore because they’re all gone and none of them are getting out of this alive. In the end, the girls get away and return to the East End, but social order is not restored, the disease remains incurable, the parents are never coming back and they are all going to die sooner or later. So, who’s really winning this war?

I really enjoyed Riot Girls and I am sure that our readers will too. But just in case they need a little push, it’s over to you: why should audiences take a chance on Riot Girls?

Riot Girls is in every way an underdog story made by a group of underdogs who never gave up on it. It’s funny and sweet and violent and especially tailored for people who have not forgotten how to have fun at the movies.

Riot Girls is in North American cinemas from September 13th. A UK release has yet to be announced.