Kevin Pontuti and Alexandra Loreth, creators of The Yellow Wallpaper (2021)
In conversation with Esmeralda Voegele-Downing
In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published a short story about a woman fraying at the seams in a life that offered such women no kindness. The narrator, Jane, was a new mother in mental anguish, gaslit by her doctor husband, and forced into bedrest inside a room afflicted with such nauseating yellow wallpaper that when she began to notice the figure of a woman in its pattern, she planned to free her. The story has come to linger at the peripheral awareness of social interest and academic study, creeping in the corners. Praised by feminist, horror, and classic literature readerships, The Yellow Wallpaper has always seemed under-discussed to me, and I've wondered whether the reason it still rests at the fringes is the same that drove Jane to madness at all - an unwillingness to understand women's pain.
Now, Director Kevin Pontuti and Actress Alexandra Loreth of Hysteria Pictures have brought the horror to life through a whip-smart, independent, feature-length adaptation. The film is a vivid love letter to Gilman's creation, seething with sickness and holding everybody accountable as a familiar tragedy sinks its teeth in. The film is here to remind us that repression is only ever temporary.
A breakneck history lesson: Charlotte Perkins was born in 1860 into poverty in Connecticut, and grew up working to be self-sufficient. Her father abandoned her family, and in childhood she spent much time with great aunts - a suffragist and an educationalist. Gilman was bisexual, married twice and the initiator of her own divorce, and she double-barrelled her name both times - once Perkins Stetson, then Perkins Gilman. Just five years before Gilman's birth, Lucy Stone became the first recorded woman in America to keep her matronymic name in marriage. While researching for this interview I found some recent scholarly misnaming of the author as "Stetson." To have resisted yielding to a patriarchal legacy so well for her time, this sits unwelcomely with me.
In 1885 Gilman gave birth to a daughter, and immediately suffered severe postpartum depression during the boom of the word hysteria. In 1887, she endured Dr Silas Weir Mitchell's new Rest Cure - a maddening treatment plan that confined women to stasis, isolation, and mandated that they were not capable of even bathing themselves. Mitchell himself told Gilman to "never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live," and after months of this, Gilman wrote, "[I] came perilously near to losing my mind." Five years later, The Yellow Wallpaper was published.
What does The Yellow Wallpaper represent now? For Hysteria Pictures, an opportunity to reopen a wound that still needs cleaning. Over a hundred years after Gilman took stock of a world in which women's cries for help were confused with the wails of a newborn, Drat had the chance to talk with the creators of 2021's The Yellow Wallpaper film about why it is here, how it came to be, and where the women in the walls are today.
DRAT: Where were you when you first read The Yellow Wallpaper?
ALEXANDRA: I was in a college American Lit class and it was maybe the first thing in school I was excited about. We watched the old movie, and the scene of her crawling has stuck with me for years, and years, and years. When we were looking for a project this just came to me. I said, "Kevin, I’m gonna lock you in the office and you have to read this.” He came out of the office and was like, "fuck... we're going to have to make this into a movie."
KEVIN: I read it when I was in college a lot longer ago, but I had only kind of remembered it… She was right, I remembered more about the story, and I could totally see why she wanted to do it. It was just a perfect fit.
Is it Hysteria Pictures’ first step into horror?
K: It comes up a lot, is The Yellow Wallpaper horror? We're often asked that. We do have another project called The Burning Branches, a smart drama-horror medieval period piece with a couple of witches - but not gory at all. It’s really simple and quiet. Not slasher horror... just the horror of life.
A: One term we’ve come across that we love to use is “Feminist Horror.” You know, is The Yellow Wallpaper, at the end of the day, really a horror film or is it just a story about being a woman?
"We thought about the wallpaper and the gardens - about whether they’re actually connected. When she’s restricted in the room, versus having any freedom."
Did the relative absence of other versions help or hinder your adaptation?
A: We’ve done a lot of research, and seen some very theatrical adaptations. That makes sense doing a literary adaptation in that way. We wanted to do something different, we wanted it to be… how do I say this? [Pause] We weren’t worried about upsetting people with it being different from the book, because this isn’t a short story, it isn’t literature, it’s a movie. We had to bridge that gap, and couldn’t worry about it not being exactly the same.
A word you’ve touched upon that I find myself using often for horror is “quiet.” The Yellow Wallpaper is quiet horror. So much is sensual; a fraying mind, or the described smell of the paper. Is it difficult to convey invisible terror - that which you can’t do with a jumpscare?
K: The written story is all told through a first-person narrator, with all these things happening over the summer. We had a lot to work with, like what’s she doing out in the yard? Is she really out in the yard or is that in her head? So there’s the unreliable narrator that we had to play around with, and we really wanted to do something that explored imagery, framing, and colour.
A: With his directing, and our Director of Photography Sonja, who’s super young and super fucking cool - the two of them together making visuals does more than any of the acting! [Laughs] That was a really big part of getting that subtlety across and not doing too much.
Speaking of the narrator, Jane, what was a priority in bringing her to life?
A: I was really nervous because I love the story so much, and the role was so intense. It ended up being the hardest thing I’ve done yet - it was very physically and emotionally exhausting. I just wanted her to seem normal as much as possible. I didn’t - at least in the beginning - want to come off as "crazy." I wanted the audience to really wonder, “is she crazy or is this just… normal?” I have anxiety, and I’ve struggled with depression in the past and I felt like there were a lot of things mentally I could pull from myself to give to this character. So, subtlety is something I really wanted to give to her.
Other women in the story are silently churning away at work in the background, keeping households running, which alludes to a conversation about class. In a way they’re like the woman in the wallpaper; creeping in the periphery. With the opportunity to actually expand on them, how did you go about it?
A: Without giving too much away, Kevin wrote some of those other characters in a really interesting way that I think plays into the story in a way that some people will interpret completely differently than others. That’s one of the biggest things I’m excited for - to see how people interpret these other characters. I don’t think there’s much more I’m able to say on this one!
K: One thing I will say is that it was a really small cast. We’ve got Jane, Mary, Jennie, John, and Jane’s brother… which is about what it was in the book.
A: We’ve probably even made the cast seem larger in the film than in the book - and it’s still really small. Sometimes when we were editing I was like: there’s so much of me! [Laughs] Mother, the Jennifer Lawrence film, was a huge inspiration because it’s just on her, the whole movie is just stuck on her.
Million dollar question... The house, and more importantly the wallpaper - how on earth did you pick them?
K: [Laughs] We adapted one! It was a long process - there was that whole visualisation question of; how do you represent her seeing a woman in the wallpaper? Like who is that, what is that? It was one of the more exciting things to figure out when we were writing the script and talking about the production design - for example, is it 3D animated? There’s all these options that come up, but we wanted to take a more naturalistic approach and we thought about the wallpaper and the gardens - about whether they’re actually connected. When she’s restricted in the room, versus having any freedom. The thing we landed on was that we wanted there to be a merging there. We did a lot of research looking through existing patterns, put a couple together and redesigned it with some of our own designs, and then we printed it from scratch!
You’d have to! The description is so elusive of any real form, and so gory. Also, who is making wallpaper that ugly on purpose?
A: Yeah, we always come back to the “bulging eyes!” Ours is not as literally freaky as that, but we’re all really happy with how it ended up. And our house - it’s amazing. We had to do movie magic and filmed in four different locations between the house and the gardens, but we were filming in an old convent in Ireland that’s now an event centre - and apparently haunted! We did that right outside of Limerick. We live in Northern California, and had done so much research trying to find a location... We looked in Iowa, looked in the south… but in the summer it gets so hot and so dry, everything’s brown. We wanted green, and Sylvia Moore - from the Limerick-based Emerald Giant Productions - who was scouting for us showed us this amazing convent… and suddenly we were like [gasp] “that’s our house!”
About the wallpaper itself - what’s so scary about yellow?
A: I think there’s many psychological ideas of what yellow means to people. It’s kind of funny, in our own house all the walls were this yellowish beige shade, even before we started working on The Yellow Wallpaper I was like; we need to get rid of this paint, it drives me crazy! I actually love the colour yellow, but it can gnaw at you.
K: It has a great range. You can have a warm, sunny yellow, but still you can take it into this sickly greenish yellow. We had a lot of fun with that in film, even with the colour grading. We tried to take advantage of that.
What ratio can viewers expect between practical effects and special effects?
K: In terms of digital effects we have very, very little. It’s almost all done practically.
A: Before, I would have thought it would have needed something, but now that it’s finished I’m really glad we did it the way we did.
I heard there were discrepancies in the original texts; in early editions “in marriage” would be missing from the sentence “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” Now, post #MeToo, women’s suffering is still often seen as a joke. What is it like knowing there will be viewers of this film who are determined to disrespect women?
A: [Pause] That’s a good question. I think what has probably helped the story itself become so popular is that anyone can read it as this horror, but we know that most women interpret it completely differently than men. In researching the story, we wanted to have as many women involved as possible. There were a few things we always came back to, being especially: does John care about her? Does he actually love her? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Men would sometimes say “he’s a good guy, but just doesn’t know how to be,” and most women would say “No! He’s a bad guy.” The difference is one of the reasons we were drawn to the story. Even our actor (Joe Mullins) struggled with this, which was an interesting thing to work with for it. I hope that, if anything, we made it more obvious in the film than it is in the story.
"I think there are still Janes in the world. I think there will be Janes in the world for hundreds of years."
In my research I came across Lucy Stone, who became supposedly the first American woman to keep her name in marriage, right before Gilman's birth. Stone said, “My name is my identity, and it mustn’t be given up.” It’s weird to see the fingerprints that unions leave on lineages in history. It got me thinking about preservation, and I was wondering how you avoided giving up the identity of this film, with so many hands needed to make it?
K: It was a big production, but not huge in comparison to most. It was a small team, funded ourselves and with crowdfunding, so we were able to keep pretty good control and have a lot fewer people to answer to than if this had been a studio film. We wanted something the audiences would connect with, and ours is a fairly edgy version. We took some liberties, but in terms of adapting something like this, what would even be considered accurate? While fleshing it out we tried to stay true, but I think there’ll be some surprising things, too.
A: Also - we produced it. Kevin wrote it, he directed it, we edited it together, I acted in it -
K: - She helped write it.
A: Looking back we would never do that again, [laughs] it was so much work. But we got to stay true to everything we wanted to do, even with our score. We had people tell us they hated the score, and we were like “we don’t care! [laughs] It’s our movie, we get to decide.” If we didn’t have that level of control we would’ve been bullied into doing a different score, something more classical, you know. It’s the small things like that that really make this movie what it is.
Speaking of integrity, historical accuracy has been important to you. Why?
K: I think we hold really well in the 1890’s, but we’re not trying to make it seem like we’re in Ireland. We’re trying to come up with this ambiguous country house, so it could be anywhere. We also really worked with the actors on coming up with even a neutral accent. We wanted to be somewhere in the period yet not really bring attention to it.
A: There was a version of The Yellow Wallpaper based in the 1950’s, which makes sense with those roles, but one of the most important things about the story is that this was over a hundred years ago, and all the themes still apply today.
Going from Jane’s treatment for depression and postpartum psychosis, it speaks to realities of every institution being male-dominated, especially medicine. With political rollbacks on reproductive rights, and the recent whistleblower at ICE, women’s bodies are still being treated like playgrounds. Is there some solace in this story, or is it fine that there isn’t?
K: [Pause] I think we took the tragic approach.
K: It’s a tragedy. In the edits we were thinking “how does it end?” I can’t give too much away, but I don’t think anyone could think this was a happy story.
A: Researching in preproduction, I was seeing the way women are treated in medicine and mental health, like with the whistleblower at ICE - women having forced hysterectomies done to them - and how Black women are, what, like three times more likely to die during childbirth in the US.* There are things that are so much worse than what we explore in The Yellow Wallpaper. One big thing that was nice to hear... there were so many women we talked to who were really excited that we were doing this story. Postpartum depression isn’t talked about - it isn’t shown in film, and so many women go through it yet it has to be a secret. I don’t want to necessarily look at our film as a piece of activism, there are people doing much more important activist work. But I’m glad that we are showing a part of something important.
* Editor's note: in the UK this statistic stands at four times more likely.
Gilman was writing about what was still only just being described a century later, by writers like Betty Friedan; an American Housewife as a tragedy of too much and not enough. Too much work to fulfil the role and not enough meaningful engagement with her own life. Coming up to another century on from that - do you see Janes in the world today?
A: I think there are still Janes in the world. I think there will be Janes in the world for hundreds of years, I don’t see them going away. The patriarchy that we have in our society is going to be so hard to get rid of. I had a pretty religious childhood and I think about some of the women in my church, and so many of them who are still like “you’re there to sit, and stay quiet, and cook and clean.” I look back on it now and I'm amazed it’s so normalised. How do you even begin to start breaking that down? I don’t know.
K: It seems like there’s this progress, but then it rolls back. We’ve seen it in the US, with these last four years. You start to realise - God, that's how it gets yanked back.
A: I was really fortunate to get out of the different bubbles I was in. I was really fortunate to meet women from different pathways than mine. One of the biggest ways to break down those barriers is through women supporting other women. I still see so many women saying they hate the idea of feminism.
Here’s a fun one... Jane’s stay in the room is completely characterised by isolation. Assuming you’ve been in quarantine at some point this year - how did reality measure up?
A: In the middle of March 2020 when the first few cases were starting to pop up I got into work and was like… [laughs] I don’t know how I’m going to be able to - one - be stuck in the house, and - two - be stuck in the house with Kevin. It’s been such a terrible year on so many levels, but at the least there’s been a lot of time.
K: We adopted a couple of cats during the pandemic… we’re very well entertained.
Do you think repression, even in this age that’s very saturated with extreme content, still has the power to make things monstrous?
Both: Absolutely, yeah.
A: It’s damaging to a lot of people, not just women.
For you, is good horror a shiver or a scream?
A: I think a shiver. I have such bad anxiety, I can’t watch anything with jumpscares. I get jumpscares all day long!
K: I’d lean towards the shiver, but below the shiver there’s that toothache… that really really deep, scary void. In some of our shorts there’s been this visceral sensation of “oh my God!” We’ve had people walk out of short screenings when its become too much.
A: I think it’s an interesting thing to explore. How do you make someone uncomfortable without gore or jumpscares? We love when people walk out of the theatre [laughs] and the reason we love it is because we don’t make our films to give people that reaction. So when they do have that, I’m like, ok we did something. We scared that person on some sort of level we don’t even know. I hope The Yellow Wallpaper does that.
The Yellow Wallpaper (2021) by Hysteria Pictures, is Directed by Kevin Pontuti. Starring Alexandra Loreth, Joe Mullins, Jeanne O'Connor, Mark P. O'Connor, and Clara Harte.
Stay up to date with news and upcoming screenings at https://yellowwallpaperfilm.com/, and you can follow their Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/yellowwallpaperfilm for further reading and updates.
Help is available for topics discussed in this interview:
Gaslighting information on a secure page with a quick-escape function.
Pre and postnatal mental health information.