The horror genre is a fun one in that it can go in many directions, but it is often dominated by men in front of and behind the camera. Hulu’s new anthology series Monsterland, which debuts Friday, subverts that expectation with a female showrunner and a cast and crew dominated by women.
Monsterland creator and showrunner Mary Laws was joined by actress Kelly Marie Tran and director of photography Anka Malatynska and director Desiree Akhavan at the virtual PaleyFest Fall TV Previews event to talk about the new series and how it champions female narratives.
“I think that its safe to say that as forward-moving as Hollywood is, I don’t think there are opportunities for women’s stories on screen, for women in leadership roles and for women protagonist roles,” said Laws. “I think so often I found myself in a room with a lot of men making decisions — especially men making decisions about stories about women. I didn’t want that to be the case in our series.”
She points out that the horror genre is often filled with women being chased around by chainsaws and scary men. While she has an appreciation for that, she wanted Monsterland to dive into a different kind of storytelling with women on screen and off — something the studio supported. Laws cites films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby as points of inspiration because they were horror films about real women and complex stories that went beyond visceral fear.
In the case of the episode “Iron River, MI” written by Emily Kaczmarek and directed by Akhavan, Tran dives into one of these stories, playing a woman who feels neglected and longs to live the life of someone else. Tran praised working with Monsterland‘s team of women (including her fellow panelists) and for telling these complex stories that aren’t normally included in the genre. She said the latter was something that drew her to the project.
“The subject matter of privilege and the intricacies of jealousy, envy and what happens when we let these animalistic human instincts do their thing was really compelling to me,” she said. “It wasn’t something I have addressed before in things that I worked on.”
She added, “There was a feeling for me on set the whole time that this is something that I have dealt with all my life. What would I do if I could have someone else’s life… it was really fun to play with that.”
For Akhavan, working on Monsterland was something different from what she is used to. In many of her past TV projects she said that it works like a machine: You are a cog that does its part and delivers a final project. At Hulu, the differences were refreshing.
“This was my first experience on a shoot where there were so many women in positions of power and I was so empowered to bring myself to the table,” said Akhavan. “I was empowered to make this my own thumbprint and usually, for better or for worse, it’s just the way the medium works — and that comes from the showrunner.”
She added: “Mary is someone who wants to incorporate all the different voices and utilize what you bring to the table and let it shine. That’s her style of leadership. I haven’t quite seen anything like it on a [television] set before. To me, that’s a very female point of view — to lead with an ego that’s not afraid to share space.”
Monsterland is based on the short stories from Nathan Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters. The series also stars Kaitlyn Dever, Jonathan Tucker, Charlie Tahan, Nicole Beharie, Hamish Linklater, Marquis Rodriguez, Bill Camp, Michael Hsu Rosen, Taylor Schilling, Roberta Colindrez, Adria Arjona, Trieu Tran, Mike Colter and Adepero Oduye. It is created, written and executive produced by Laws (Succession, Preacher) and executive produced by Lucan Toh (An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, Under the Shadow), Babak Anvari (Under the Shadow), Megan Ellison and Sue Naegle. Ali Krug is co-executive producer. The series is produced by Annapurna Television.
Videos of all PaleyFest panels, including this one, are available here.