‘Phobias’: Writer/Director Jess Varley talks Atelophobia

Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Jess Varley really dives deep into what can happen if you let your fears get the best of you. She is one of the directors and writers for this year’s anthology horror film Phobias.

Phobias synopsis: Five dangerous patients, suffering from extreme phobias at a government testing facility, are put to the ultimate test under the supervision of a crazed doctor and his quest to weaponize fear.

Starring: Alexis Knapp, Martina Garcia, Charlotte McKinney, Hana Mae Lee, Lauren Miller Rogen, Macy Gray and Leonardo Nam. Directed by: Camilla Belle, Maritte Lee Go, Joe Sill, Jess Varley, and Chris Von Hoffman; each taking a phobia segment of the film for this anthology. The five phobias include atelophobia, robophobia, hoplophobia, vehophobia and ephebiphobia.

I thought that this film was incredibly interesting due to the fact that there are five of you directing and writing and kind of putting it all together. What was it like doing that?
Writer/Director Jess Varley. Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Jess: Great question.It was amazing. It was great and all of us are super close friends. All of the filmmakers and friends, I admire, not only as friends, but obviously as extremely talented filmmakers. The process was pretty organic. We started with Radio Silence, who are other producers who produced Ready or Not, they got all the V/H/S movies and we out found they’re doing the Scream reboot now. So, they had a lot of great advice for us. So, we first had all of the directors choose, like a handful of the many 1000s of phobias that exist, that felt genuinely personal to them, like they felt like they sort of suffered from in some capacity. And from there, we just kind of curated them down just to make sure there was no overlap and to make sure that we chose the ones that felt like they’d be best suited for the film. And then from there, everybody wrote their segments. And then the producers, you know, helped produce with the team, kind of like polishing the concepts, helping with the development of them, and then each director directed their own segment. So we’ve never had five directors all on set at once or anything like that, which was nice. 

And we also really, really made it our mission per Radio Silence’s advice to like, I keep jokingly saying it was like film communism. But basically, we had the same crew, we had the same composer, we used the same lenses, we all referenced the same tone and what our intention was. While there’s a diverse array of perspectives in the movie with the Phobias, we really wanted the movie to feel like if you didn’t know there were multiple directors, that it would just play like a great movie and not feel like a disjointed group of short films, all kind of piled in and branded as a movie. We really wanted a narrative story. We really wanted the through line to help bring everything together and really help it feel cohesive because I feel like that’s something that- sometimes when I watch anthology movies, as much as I love them, there are a few that have certainly done that very well, but I feel like it certainly takes, whether it’s somebody like Radio Silence advising you to do it or whatever, having that cohesive, sort of film communism kind of a vibe. So, we made sure that we were using all of the same crew, all of the same resources which really helped for then the final product to feel like a genuinely fun, cool, scary, cohesive film. 

Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
The phobia that you wrote and directed was Atelophobia, what kind of inspired you to choose this one?

Jess: So I chose Atelophobia. It’s the fear of imperfection and for me, it was definitely an exploration into the dangers of perfectionism, which I feel like is not something that I necessarily see on screen a lot. I don’t think it’s in any way specific to women, but I think obviously, as a woman, we deal more, maybe, with things like imposter syndrome, body dysmorphia, fear of not being good enough or feeling like we need to overachieve in order to just make the cut. But again, I feel like the segment’s certainly relatable to men as well, no question. But for me, it was kind of like, if you think about the body positivity movement and ‘embracing your imperfections,’ because obviously, that’s what makes everyone unique and special. 

My hope was to kind of to explore that through the lens of horror and explore those dark crevices of those moments where a lot of this stuff is the kind of thing that, certainly, I in the past, and I know so many people keep bottled up and don’t share, People can keep it in a very sort of isolated place and feeling, whether it’s a loop of negativity running through your mind, or whatever it is, feeling like, it’s something that, people really, I think, keep to themselves. It feels like you don’t want to tell people, I feel like I’m not enough. It’s possible to get into a vicious cycle of just telling yourself that you’re not good enough and that you need to change these things, or that you did things wrong, or if only you were this way, then you would be happier… and I think, with my own, growth and work on myself, doing this segment really helped me open up and share those parts of myself that I had certainly kept to myself for a long time. 

I think by opening up and sharing, I was amazed to hear not only did so many people relate, both men and women, but by bringing it into the light, it also helps me to heal those parts of myself and to do things whether it’s meditation, or just practices, therapy, things, things that that have helped me heal these parts of myself and feel more comfortable sharing them because these are extremely human vulnerabilities that so many people deal with. And obviously, the segment explores what happens if you do bottle these kinds of things up and don’t share, that you can turn into a serial killer. But yeah, it definitely helped me move forward with my healing in that arena, something that I’m still working on, but I feel like it helps me feel less alone by collaborating with people on it and sharing my struggles.

What was it like working with Macy Gray with this segment?

Jess: Honestly, so awesome. She’s incredible. I’m so excited for audiences to see her in a role that they’ve definitely never seen her in before. We went to great lengths, even in terms of her styling, you know, she’s a very iconic look. People have an idea of what she normally looks like, so, we styled her, did her hair and makeup, you know, everything in such a different way than we’ve ever seen her before. And then on top of that, have her explore all these complexities of her character, in the movie, she is a really high powered architect. She’s super accomplished, and yet she’s struggling so deeply with these dark practices and anxieties and they’re basically her downfall. 

But Macy is incredible. I mean, she came in with so many great ideas and she’s just endlessly fascinating to watchShe obviously made the role what it is. I think what Macy brought to the role is what just makes it so special and so unique and, in a way, her character’s kind of a villain but also extremely empathetic. And I feel like we get a glimpse into why she is the way she is in the movie and I feel like that’s where that relatability comes in. With feeling like, sometimes I feel that way or, whatever it may be, but she was incredible. She was so willing, and trusting because obviously, we had to go to some dark places for some of the material, but I was just so impressed with the fact that she that she was willing to trust me and to try and to explore and the outcome is this super fascinating, dynamic performance that I feel like, again, nobody has necessarily seen her ever do this type of role before. And I think it’s really a testament to her abilities. I want her to be starring in horror movies. She can bring something so fresh and unique to the genre, which I think is cool. And yeah, I’m just super grateful that she’s been a part of it.

Macy Gray in ‘Phobias.’ Photo Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Phobias?

Jess: Oh, just that we hope people will watch it March 19, when it drops and that if you watch the movie and you love it, or it speaks to you, please share it and tell your friends about it. We want to get as many eyes on it as possible. I think it’s certainly a unique way to do a movie and I’m just really excited to hear more about what audiences think of it. So please share it, please check it out.

Phobias will open in select theaters, digitally, and on-demand on March 19th.