Last week I got a few moments to chat with Bomani J. Story, writer and director of one my favorite surprises of the year The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, which just screened at SXSW and is now streaming on Shudder. The film is an impressive take on Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, but through a more timely and relevant perspective. This story transpires in the present day in an inner city neighborhood overrun with drugs, gangs and death, and that’s where we meet Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) a plucky young black girl who’s spent her life haunted by death. First her mother, who was on the cusp of graduating from nursing school, and more recently her brother Chris who was gunned down by the police after getting mixed up with the gang that has a stranglehold on their development. Vicaria is obsessed with the idea that death is simply a disease that she can cure, and she does in fact do just that.
This was the Californian native’s feature length debut and it didn’t seem like it at all. The film showed a deft hand at work and it was great chatting with him about what it was like crafting his first feature, and tackling these heavy themes, while still delivering the gory goods for genre fans.
Dan Tabor: First off congrats on the film. I caught it at SXSW and it was one of my favorites. What I loved about it most is, based on the title you sit down expecting something a bit more campy, maybe a blaxploitation homage. But the film immediately hits you with the right hook, with the actual reality of it. Was that your approach and intention with the script and title?
Bomani J. Story: Yeah, I was going to try to tell this story in a contemporary way and ground it as much as I possibly can. When I read the book Frankenstein, which I thought was very profound and incredible, when I think about it coming out during that time, I felt like she was grounding it. Right?
Like, you know, I think we get caught up in the gothic nature of it, so it seems more fantastical because it took place in the past. I mean, you have your drawings, photos and historical things, but it’s just like, look, my grandmother wasn’t around when that book was written, you know. (laughs) So there’s like no touchstone, right? So there’s just kind of this fantastical element to me. She was trying to make this as real as possible when she wrote the book, which is one of the reasons I loved it. So, I wanted to bring that here.
Dan Tabor: So Frankenstein was the basis for your script. When did you sort of discover the book and when were you like, this would make a great film?
Bomani J. Story: When I originally read the literature when I was fresh outta high school.
Dan Tabor: Oh, wow.
Bomani J. Story: Yeah and after I read it again, I was blown away and I just thought like there was so much stuff on the floor that people weren’t using from the book that I thought was fantastic, you know. So to me, I just knew I wanted to do something with it. I just didn’t know how or what at the time. So I just lodged it in the back of my mind, you know. Fast forward, pretty much like a decade later, around the time of period of 2016 to 2018 was when the writing really started to begin.
I wish I could tell you how long I was writing, but I don’t remember an exact number. I just know that the process of writing it, outlining and all that stuff, like really started during that time period.
Dan Tabor: What was your biggest challenge writing this script?
Bomani J. Story: Just trying to find a translation of some of the components of the literature to like a cinematic language, you know? I think that was what was pretty tough and then discovering the mechanics of the story itself can be, can be rough.
Dan Tabor: I dug that you used a lot of practical effects here and you did as much in camera as possible on a monster movie. This being your first film as a first time filmmaker, what challenges did that present for you? And was there a learning curve?
Bomani J. Story: Shout out to my creature designer Christina Kortum she really murdered it. Hire that woman, whoever’s hiring, hire Christina Kortum!
She was a one woman band. She did all the gore effects and all the creature effects on there. She did it all. I was just in great hands with her, honestly. It didn’t even feel like a learning curve. I was just kind of constantly talking to her and just being like, this is what I’m trying to achieve. We didn’t have a lot of time, so there wasn’t really time for a learning curve. The shoot was about 20 days.
Dan Tabor: Wow, that’s not a lot. So I love your sort of Victor Frankenstein here, Leia, What was the casting process like and how did you find her? Cause she’s really great in this. Like, she kind of carries this whole film and she’s a bad person, but you really, you’re invested in her no matter what she does.
Bomani J. Story: (laughs) You know, my casting directors Alison and Jonathan, they brought her in for an audition. She came in and just, you know, cold read for the audition and it blew me away. I just knew right away that she was the one that I wanted. So it was history from there, you know,
Dan Tabor: She’s so likable, and she’s doing some really bad stuff, but we’re still along for the ride and rooting for her no less.
Bomani J. Story: Yeah. I thought she was excellent at riding that line between where she’s doing weird stuff, but you’re with her, (Laughs) but you’re not, you know, Leia was just phenomenal in this side, man. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner throughout this.
Dan Tabor: So, I love how this film sort of has this interesting relationship with violence and the cyclical nature of it. As a writer do you think that there’s a way out, essentially, do you think people like, that you portray this film are stuck in this cycle? Or do you think there is a way out?
Bomani J. Story: For in the story, there’s certain stuff like within the movie I gotta leave it open for interpretation.
Whereas I think a lot of the conversations that Leia, Vicaria and Aisha are having are gonna lead us to believe what we believe can happen for her and her family and things of that nature and what it means, and how people change throughout this film. I think, the answers to those quiestions can be found in those situations or those scenes, I would guess.
Dan Tabor: I also found it fascinating how you literally stack metaphors and sort of delve into the word “monster”. Just thinking back on it now, it’s like the way you sort of show us the many possible meanings, both sadly real and fantastical. I really think it’s a mirror that some people are gonna not gonna want to face.
From our protagonist, the people around her, to the cops, we see how that label can be unjustly affixed.
What do you want people to walk away from this film with, in your mind?
Bomani J. Story: I mean, I would hope that they take away some of the stuff that you’re talking about. My goal is always like some of my favorite films to walk in with expecting one thing, and leave getting more.
I hope that they are able to go on an emotional ride, or they laugh, they’re disgusted. It makes them think. (Laughs) It leaves them with thoughts after they walk out. So that would be my hope for this movie. Just like having a great ride, you know, with you going one way, and coming out with more.
Dan Tabor: It’s perceived by some as a bad word, but the film is very woke in its approach and it kind touches on that elevated horror in that you’re examining this from a young black woman’s point of view, and you also try to view her through the white police officer’s POV. There’s so much there to sort of chew on and experience because on top of that you add the metaphor of the horror aspect. While also dealing with her living in this low income like neighborhood and her experience with the violence that surrounds her and her trying to overcome that while also building a monster in her, in an abandoned building.
Bomani J. Story: (Laughs) I always think, the greatest stories ever told or whatever, are always wrapped up in more than what they’re presenting. You know? I always think back about even a story as grand as Le Mis, you know?
Dan Tabor: Yeah.
Bomani J. Story: When you read that book, uh, I mean, it’s more than a guy just, you know, trying to escape, this police guy that’s chasing him or whatever. That’s part of the story of him trying to raise this adopted daughter. I think it’s more than that, you know, it’s like that whole book is a near giant dissertation on France. There’s long passages about the Napoleonic War and how it went, how he lost. There’s long passages about the sewer system. He’s taking this huge collective approach to it, and it’s all wrapped up into this emotional tale about this guy trying to raise his daughter and save this orphan from these evil people
So stories like that really inspire me. Or even when I look at some of the seventies horror, eighties horror, like Black Christmas, you know?
Dan Tabor: Yeah.
Bomani J. Story: I always say it’s like there’s a pro-life/pro-choice debate happening in the middle of that movie, and that movie is very influential. And it doesn’t always have to be like a societal message or whatever, it can be something very human. Like, when I think about The Shining and I see themes of like child abuse in there. But for me personally, the stories that I love the most have some kind of emotional ride. And they also have this core, this subtext that’s going on that allows you to be able to think about things when you leave.
Dan Tabor: That’s sort of, when I pitch your film to other people, I’m like the title may sound campy or weird, but there’s a lot going on here. So, what do you have lined up? What are you hoping to do next?
Bomani J. Story: I got a script. You know, it’s like my, the best way I can describe it is Juice meets Lord of the Rings.
Dan Tabor: What?
Bomani J. Story: I said, Juice meets Lord of the Rings…
Dan Tabor: (laughs) That sounds amazing and something I NEED to see!
Bomani J. Story: I got that script and I am very excited about it. It’s fantasy, you know? So you could just imagine two Bloods find Gandalf’s staff and a book of spells.
So, you know, I’m manifesting it, baby. I’m manifesting it. Get at me!