Interview – Director Jess Varley Talks Confronting Her Fears in PHOBIAS & Working with Radio Silence

If you’re a fan of horror anthologies like me, you’ll be excited to learn that the insanely talented filmmaking team known as Radio Silence, made up of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella, who are responsible for the hit film Ready or Not (2019) and the eagerly anticipated Scream (2022), have executive produced a horror anthology film that’s being released this week called Phobias. The movie is the filmmaking collaboration of five directors and explores a group of patients suffering from extreme phobias who are being held hostage by a crazy doctor who wants to weaponize their fears.

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.

Phobias weaves together stories revolving around Robophobia, written and directed by Joe Sill, Vehophobia, written by Maritte Lee Go and Broderick Engelhard and directed by Maritte Lee Go, Hoplophobia, written and directed by Camilla Belle, Ephebiphobia, written and directed by Chris von Hoffman, and Atelophobia, written and directed by Jess Varley.

Dread Central had the pleasure of speaking with director Jess Varley about her segments Atelophobia and Outpost 37, collaborating with the other directors, working with Radio Silence, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!

Phobias will be available on demand and digital on March 19th from Vertical Entertainment.

Dread Central: Phobias is an anthology featuring five directors and Radio Silence, the filmmaking team behind Ready or Not and the upcoming Scream, are executive producers. This is your feature film directorial debut and I’m wondering what appealed to you the most about being a part of this project?

Jess Varley: A combination of things. Certainly, Radio Silence to start, knowing that they are the kings of anthologies, and brainstorming with them about how we could make something that that fell within the anthology world. With all of their direction, they gave us invaluable advice about how to make it cohesive and really feel like one film and not five separate films. Also, just getting to collaboratively work with the four other filmmakers, who are good friends, and also people I look up to, just getting to make it a really collaborative process.

Writer/director Jess Varley

Again, having the direction of Radio Silence on things like using the same lenses, using all the same crew, making sure our tone was really cohesive, so that, even though we have these five diverse perspectives in the movie, that the audience might think it was all directed by one person. We just really wanted to give the audience that experience of feeling like they watched a well-rounded feature, as opposed to something that was more broken up. It was great having all the filmmakers choose phobias that felt genuinely anxiety-inducing to them [laughs]. They’re all really based on our true fears, so I feel like that lends a deeper level to all of them.

DC: This film follows the story of five patients, suffering from five different extreme phobias, who are held hostage by a psychotic doctor who wants to weaponize their fears. There are some phobias in this film that I was not familiar with, including the phobia in your segment, Atelophobia, which stars Macy Gray and is my favorite segment in the movie. Atelophobia is the fear of not doing something right or not being good enough, it’s the fear of imperfection. You wrote and directed Atelophobia and Outpost 37. What was your inspiration for the story, and did you do any special research?

JV: Oh, yeah! Specifically, with atelophobia, that was definitely very specific to me initially, but then sharing the concept and finding that it’s something so many people struggle with. My angle was sort of how to explore the darker sides of perfectionism, whether that be imposter syndrome, fear of not being enough, or even some body image stuff. I think both men and women can relate to things like body dysmorphia, eating disorders, or comparison culture. I think by exploring the darkness and isolation of that, my hope is to bring it into the light, help people feel less alone, and then my hope is that everyone embraces their imperfections, because that’s what makes us all unique and special. Exploring something with such a heavy weight that I carried alone for so long by collaborating with my friends to bring it to light, working with Macy, and putting it all together really helped me begin to heal that part of myself as well. With good horror, there is always a little bit of therapy in there [laughs]. My hope is that it has a positive impact on people, even though it’s a dark subject, and to help people feel less alone.

DC: In addition to Atelophobia and Outpost 37, Phobias includes the segments Robophobia, written and directed by Joe Sill, Vehophobia, written by Maritte Lee Go and Broderick Engelhard and directed by Maritte Lee Go, Hoplophobia, written and directed by Camilla Belle, and Ephebiphobia, written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann. What was the creative process like making this film and how did you work with the other four directors?

JV: It was awesome. We’re all close friends and these are all filmmakers that I admire. Having them all choose phobias that were very personal to them was a good sharing point. Everything was a conversation. We all tested lenses together, we went in depth talking about score and color and it was awesome conversations to be able to have with these friends of mine who are also talented filmmakers. It also helped me to grow as a filmmaker to be able to explore things like, if you use this lens things will feel more claustrophobic or expansive. It was all ultimately what we ended up deciding but going through those overarching things together was fun. Just to put it all in our heads together and come up with something, and then we did it was like, so we know have this lens, this color palate, this is what the overall score is going to feel like. It really helps us all be in the same universe, even if we were directing our segments on different days, we all had that commonality running through everything.

Macy Gray in the Atelophobia segment of Phobias

DC: I know that you’ve been acting since 2008. When did you realize that you also wanted to be a filmmaker?

JV: When I moved out West, I had been wanting to write my own work more and I had also been working a lot in the comedy space for a while. I did the financing myself, I worked with a crew to get it all together and I just remember that first night on set of the short, being like, “My God, this is like connecting to my purpose, this is what I want to do.” For me a lot of that comes from genre film. I’ve always been a genre fan; I grew up on The Twilight Zone. I love allegory, I’m a huge fan of horror movies, but not just that component of it, the genre part, but the collaboration of directing because as an actor you’re involved in the acting element in the movie but that’s about it. As a filmmaker I get to work with the composer, costume designer, production designer, amazing DP and everyone in between and it’s so much bigger than myself.

Even since I started acting back in the day, I remember always being struck by sets that I’d go on. It felt like the crew was a family and these people really knew each other on a deeper level because they had all these shared experiences and shorthand. I really liked that family aspect. I was an only child, so I was like, “Yes, this is amazing!” I think for me, I know that the collaboration and the stimulation for all the different parts of my brain is great, and so many talented people in their specific arenas. It really just ignited my passion for directing and that certainly carried over to Phobias. I love writing but it’s also very solitary, as I’m sure you know. I could easily just spend all day in my pajamas writing.

If I’m lucky enough to have a day to do that but at the same time, I cherish my set time, being able to be on set with everybody and really bring everything to life in the moment. Then there’s the whole process afterwards. There is nothing about the whole filmmaking process that I don’t love and with directing, I think the fact that I get to work with so many talented people and use so many different parts of my brain, it always keeps it interesting, it always keeps it fresh, it really stimulates me. Again, it’s bigger than just me, so I like that about it too, being a part of something that hopefully is further reaching than I could ever do myself.

DC: You mentioned genre film and I know that you are starring in Mickey Keating’s new movie, OffSeason, which premieres at SXSW this week.

JV: I really have a small role; I wouldn’t say I star in it [laughs]. Jocelin Donahue and Joe Swanberg, they are the stars, but I am in the movie, I have a smaller part.

DC: I’m looking forward to seeing that one. I also read that you are directing two new horror movies, is that right?

JV: Yeah, I’m working on a film called Astronaut right now, a Sci-Fi, body horror movie which I’m super stoked about. I’ve been writing a ton, even the last day on the set of Phobias I was scribbling a ton. I’m just like, “Oh my god, I have to go onto the next one. I can’t let a day go by that I’m not doing this; I just love it so much.” Astronaut is hopefully going to be the movie that I shoot this summer but even going off of Atelophobia I have a movie. This one hasn’t found a home. I do think there’s something there, it’s called Hunger. It’s a possession movie that’s supposed to be an allegory for an eating disorder, but Astronaut is much lighter.

I think the subject can be so heavy handed that even though possession might be the right subgenre because in my experience and talking to other people who have suffered from that as well, possession is a very good metaphor for how that feels, but I’m still working with our producers to just kind of work on that context more. But Astronaut is hopefully going to be my follow up to Phobias. I’m very stoked about it, it feels very universal. I think it’s something both men and women will relate to, and it’s fun, but it’s scary and it’s also very Covid friendly, so that will be nice too.



Sign up for The Harbinger a Dread Central Newsletter