Interview: Ginger Snaps
Screenwriter Karen Walton reflects on 20 Years of Ginger Snaps
As told to Katherine McLaughlin
Twenty years ago, at Munich Fantasy Filmfest, a movie was screened that would change the teen horror landscape for good. Werewolves had been used as metaphors for the onset of puberty before, but that kind of transformation had never been explored from the female perspective in much detail until director John Fawcett and screenwriter Karen Walton brought us Ginger Snaps.
The tragic story of rebellious goth sisters Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald, played by Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins respectively, was quickly embraced by audiences, and the girls were crowned as feminist horror icons.
Strong word of mouth from early festival showings ensured the film developed a cult following as it trickled into cinemas and on to video, DVD and HBO in the 00s. On its UK release in the summer of 2001, it was warmly greeted with a double-page review in the June issue of Sight & Sound, and it’s since gone on to spawn a beloved trilogy.
But though it has a passionate and loyal audience now, Ginger Snaps wasn’t an easy sell to begin with. A combination of moral panic after the school shootings at Taber and Columbine in April 1999 and the frank approach to menstruation and womanhood in Walton’s screenplay caused an uproar in the Canadian film industry. Local casting directors boycotted the film and caused delays in production.
Twenty years on, Walton talks us through her memories of working on the iconic independent film, from script to set and beyond.
“It was pitched to financiers & distributors as The Fly meets Heavenly Creatures. Cronenberg was a vital influence for the body horror themes. I recall being very appropriately beguiled by Dead Ringers in particular.
“I also clearly remember being blown away by BAXTER! Beware the Dog Who Thinks! The dog who is found dead in the first minutes of Ginger Snaps is named after it.
“Peter Jackson was well on my radar, and I was then and continue to be a loyal superfan of David Lynch. And I have a clear memory of rushing out to see Trainspotting while finishing this script – because it was also being weirdly maligned in Canada in advance of its release – and absolutely loving it. I’ve seen it many times since, as a reminder of how important a good underdog Fuck You flick can be to one’s morale.”
“Watching Katie and Emily manifest these roles remains a career highlight for me: from the moment we met, it was as if they had walked out of my head and into real life.
“Ginger Snaps was my first screenplay, so they frankly spoiled me for the gift of phenomenally skilled actors, and working with incredibly canny women in general, going forward.
“As an independent film, John Fawcett and I and our producers Karen and Steve had creative control over our story, the production elements, and a killer cast & crew who said yes to that. So from the earliest conversations to the final execution, we worked to create and honour a shared vision for this picture.
“What you see on screen is absolutely faithful to the shooting script.”
“John and I developed it in constant conversation, which is why I say the film is faithful to the script. John was the contemporary horror expert informing the genre elements of the story, and the making of this particular monster: he knew what was out there, he knew what he wanted to shoot as a director, and encouraged me to break the “stale pale male” werewolf ‘rules’ (nod to the writers of Succession for that quote)!
“We committed early on to the single, fatal transformation arc, in terms of cracking something original on lycanthropy. I then did a lot of research and many many drafts aligning the central allegory; that “females’ coming of age is a lot like becoming (our) werewolf” — in order to articulate that over the course of the story and the characters’ evolving relationship. I did do a lot of reading on sisters and womens’ biological and psychological adolescence: I remember John bringing me a copy of Dr Naomi Klein’s work on the subject, and that blowing my mind, for instance.
“Brigitte and Ginger are characters who revel in refusing to conform to the world they were born into. Their irreverence for all the trappings of a Nice Little Suburban Life, or Being ‘Typical’ Teen Girls I suspect reminds some of us of our own feelings of frustration with the status quo at that age.”
Iconic Line: “I get this ache... And I, I thought it was for sex, but it's to tear everything to fucking pieces.”
“As scripted and performed, that moment is intended to turn Brigitte (and us) away from the idea that becoming ‘an animal’ meant she’d become a sex-mad cis woman. That was a trope I wanted to burn down, ASAP. Ginger has discovered that her ‘appetite’ is not for sexual gratification.
“As she becomes something entirely else, it’s to admit and act on her rage. What’s alarming is, she’s acknowledging that her impulses, mid-transformation, are now violent. As dark and nihilistic as their cheeky school assignment on ‘Life in Bailey Downs’ had been, they were never previously intent on harm - of one another, themselves, or anyone else.
“For Brigitte, this line signifies the threat changing Ginger now poses to herself, to Bee, and to all the oblivious around them.”
“I deliberately sat down to write a movie about young women in which menstruation was not ignored. I personally found and find it still absurd this fact of life for half the planet’s population is routinely reduced to ‘mood jokes’ and ‘taboo’ in modern cinema.
“Telefilm’s Bill House was incredible with his public and frankly unflinching support at a time in Canadian cinema where what, “Canadian” meant was hotly debated in more than one quarter, socio-politically. The same was true of our original Canadian distributor: the gentlemen of TVA International were a great comfort to me personally through-out the process of getting Ginger made, but especially at that miserable and mystifying moment.
“Telefilm had already confronted more than one outcry on what was acceptable for women to do and say and show in our films enjoying public financing, in that decade. That there was a faux-outrage almost universally devoted to attacking and undermining women innovating speaks for itself, in terms of the middle class patriarchy very much in play in the politics of the day, here.
“For me personally, it was a terrifying introduction to the wider world of Canadian cinema; both as a new screenwriter and as a woman in a male-dominated profession. I was astonished at the script’s ill-informed and careless detractors, whom I did not know at the time. I went on with my career convinced I had few allies in my own country’s film scene - incorrectly as it turns out, but only time revealed that happy fact. In truth, I have never forgotten it: it changed my opinion of the world I would be working in.
“The Americans thankfully came calling immediately on the film’s success, but Canada did not. I have never made another theatrical movie here. The silver lining is of course, that experience armed me for all the writing I’d do anyway, after that. It became fuel for my fire.”
“I was lucky to be already busy working as a new TV writer when we went to camera. Simultaneously, I was shooting my first TV movie at the same time too. I did visit the production office during Prep, and went to set a few times; mostly at night because I was working at the TV show all day.
“John and I would communicate throughout, as required, but he had the script we wanted to shoot so there were no last-minute rewrites or unwelcome surprises to contend with. I did hand-double for Emily one night, in the shot where she’s marking up the calendar. That was the night the Creature walked out for its first shot — I shall never forget it coming out of the shadows in real life and my blood running cold: it was so entirely perfectly horrifyingly exactly what we all hoped for. Terrifying and perfect.”
Success and Legacy
“I was patently unaware that anybody would see my take on growing up Grrrrl as remarkable in any way. I just wanted to write characters in a story about being that age that bore any resemblance at all to reality, at least as I had experienced it. Being 15 was monstrous and absurd and pretty enraging, for me.
“But I did not have ambitions, nor any great store of confidence — remember, I was a brand new screenwriter. So that the audience found and still finds this a fun ride is an unexpected and deeply appreciated bonus, for me.
“The internet wasn’t then what it has become for fandoms and sharing news, so I mostly knew of and deeply appreciated articles and the fans’ own websites and gorgeous artworks and commentaries as friends sent them to me, directly.
“Over the first ten years, it was rare to meet anyone who had seen it in Canada, for me. I was most aware it was reaching people when I’d visit America, for work. I would meet people there I truly admired, and they would want to talk about Ginger - which always surprised me. I think it was Ginger’s 10th anniversary when I finally realized how fortunate we had all truly been. I’ve moved from shocked to very very pleasantly surprised, at Year 20.
“I have not watched the final reel of the film since the night it opened at TIFF in 2000. I still find how it ends personally emotionally overwhelming: it takes me back to finding that awful moment for the girls, knowing it was what had to happen - and as strange as it may sound, it’s not something I enjoy revisiting; I cried for days getting that right. I hated to say good-bye that way to Ginger and Bee, as their writer.”
“The best thing for me about writing Ginger Snaps continues to be the conversations it inspires, in the film business and among its fans. It has given me the gift of a wider world to know, and many treasured creative friendships and kinships. The entire experience has affirmed for me that my voice and point of view have value: this was not something to be taken for granted by women writing movies in Canada when I began this adventure.
“It has made me appreciate what doing the project taught me almost every day I sit down to write anything; I’ve become a keen mentor to all kinds of traditionally marginalized or historically excluded writer-creators, as I still remember what it was like to feel like everything I did was at best a ‘long shot/odds against’.
“It has made me choose very consciously what I write about and who I choose to work with these days. I consciously like to make room for radical rebels, to set a high bar for the ‘message’ of every story, because Ginger’s success is a parable for the power of what we all say. Writing Ginger taught me to respect that power. To take it seriously, as a moral responsibility.”
“My current favourite is my friend in freak-outs, Jeff Barnaby - Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Blood Quantum. I’m eagerly anticipating Michelle Latimer’s Trickster for television (debuts this fall in Canada on CBC GEM). I’m excited to see Jay Baruchel’s horror film shortly.
“I have been fortunate to be a guest two years in a row at The Dead North Film Festival in Yellowknife and am so excited about the extraordinary, excruciating horror coming out of Canada’s North: especially from our Indigenous filmmakers. It’s creepy as fuck, always bent in a fresh and fierce new way — and that community’s perspective is unique — always harsh, often hilarious and truly horrifying terrain.”