Words by Carol Wright | Photos Courtesy of Pender PR

Director and writer Karen Lam chatted with us about her film The Curse of Willow Song and winning “Best BC Film” at VIFF.

Growing up was working in the television/film industry always what you saw yourself doing?

I actually never envisioned a career in film and television. I started off  playing classical piano from a young age and thought that music would be my career. In high school, I discovered fashion design and art — I actually attended a year at Ryerson University for fashion design before going to law school. So I  trained to be a lawyer and worked in insurance law before finally getting into  film and television from the producing end. So it was a very circuitous path into the industry. 

Tell us a bit about The Curse of Willow Song. What inspired you to create the film?

Whenever I start a new project, it’s after years of random research. I was  reading Lovecraft for an entire summer in 2017 including new authors who have taken on the mythology, which inspired the dark dreams of Willow Song, and the  monster. I was watching old Japanese ghost stories like Kwaidan, Onibaba, Kuroneko, and an experimental film from the 1920s A Page of Madness which is essentially the look of the film. I had a chance in the fall of 2017 to spend time  with a group of female inmates from the Coffee Creek penitentiary in Portland as  they trained to be forest firefighters, and some of the interviews with the women inspired the character of Willow Song. I finally wrote the novella that the film is  based on in the late fall of 2017 and we filmed it in the spring of 2018, although it took almost a year and a half later to finish the film. 

The film touches on racism and socioeconomic divides. Was it important for you to shed light on topics you want viewers to be more aware of?

I didn’t consciously write the screenplay to address the issues. I almost always start with the monster and the horror elements. But when I’m writing, it is almost always stream-of-conscious so a lot of the character ideas and themes  emerge from the writing itself. I have to be true to the characters and their worlds, and the politics emerge from the struggles they face.

You won “Best BC Film” at VIFF. How did it feel for The Curse of Willow Song to be recognized on this level?

It was an incredible honour to receive the award from the festival. Not only is  it a film I made in Vancouver, with all BC film and crew and personally financed, but it’s directly about the city and the politics I have been experiencing in the last  few years. It’s the first film that I directly that is so personal to my Chinese roots and I was quite nervous about going in this direction. But this feels like real encouragement for what direction to take next… 

You’ve worked in the industry for some time either writing or directing. How do you see the film industry changing as a result of COVID-19?

The way we traditionally work in film and television is very group-based. We  are literally on each other, and it’s the personal and social connections that make the process so dynamic and inspiring. The masking and protocols are absolutely necessary for everyone’s safety, but it feels like it would add a level of challenge to telling these very personal and intimate stories. As a writer, I’ve been at a bit of a loss as to what stories I want to approach. There’s something in the creation process that requires you to plug into some sort of worldwide creative space, and right now, everything feels unclear and  confused. The world is at a crossroads, and as an artist, I need a clear vision before I know which direction to take. 

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Film is just one medium for telling stories. At the heart of it, we’re telling each other stories, and being authentic to your voice and your ideas is crucial. The industry has a lot of ideas for how you, the little cog, need to fit in and it’s very easy to get sucked into the system and lose your voice altogether. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing stories and making the films you want to make, however, you can do it. There are so many platforms, media, technology to choose from so if you tell the story that is authentic to you, you’ll find an audience that needed to hear it.