backstories

The Unlikely Story Behind the Year’s Best Intersectional Feminist Vampire Movie

Photo: NICK CAFRITZ

Bit, an intersectional feminist vampire movie about an all-female nest of undead who will bleed out boys but under no circumstances allow them to turn into bloodsuckers, flew just under the radar this summer. The wry twist on the lesbian-vampire genre received a smattering of rave reviews, particularly among queer audiences: “I have literally never seen a gay meet cute with a trans woman like this on screen ever,” one critic wrote. “In addition to being a bloody good time, Bit is also a milestone in queer female visibility in the horror genre,” The Advocate proclaimed. Most recently, the movie earned honors for its lead performer at Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival — which is no small feat, considering the writer and director of Bit is a white, cis, straight man.

On paper, Brad Michael Elmore is not the first name you’d guess to be behind the year’s buzziest queer-friendly movie. And once you meet him and talk for a few hours, he is still not the person you’d think of for the job. Elmore loves Tennessee Williams, Richard Linklater, Easy Rider, the Rolling Stones, and punk. He grew up in rural Oregon, comes from a “hard labor” background, and will “throw a hook” to settle a problem if the occasion requires. Ahead of writing Bit, he says he was just tired of seeing the same kinds of heroes over and over again onscreen. So, he decided to approach his new project with one goal: The story’s heroine was going to be trans, and she was going to be played by a trans actress.

Elmore gave himself a crash course in gender studies, read up on books from trans authors, and conferred with friends in the trans community before finishing the script for Bit. He didn’t intend to direct the film, but when producers agreed to finance his vision, he decided he wanted to see it through. Vulture spoke with the writer-director about casting Nicole Maines (pre-Supergirl) as his lead, getting out of the way of his collaborators, and who gets to make an intersectional feminist vampire movie.

So, Brad, why an intersectional feminist vampire story?
I’d done two movies that had a very somber tone, and I wanted to do something fun. I also knew that genre would get financing, because at 30-something years old, I want a movie, damn it! I needed to prove I could get one of these through. No more little writing gigs that my name doesn’t show up on or anything like that. I needed this.

So, if I was going to do genre, I was like, How do I Trojan-horse some shit in it? I really love The Lost Boys. I really love Gem and the Holograms and glam rock and David Bowie. So it was like, how do we do Gem and the Holograms and The Lost Boys? And one of the big things was, I think we all kind of know that most R-rated movies are sort of coded for 13-year-old boys. I’m not saying 13-year-old-girls don’t like them, too! But I wanted to make a movie that was coded for young girls that’s just as R-rated as anything else.

There is a lot of anger in this movie, which is understandable given its focus, and most of that comes through Duke [the leader of the vampires, played by Dianna Hopper], who is like our surrogate for anti-patriarchal fury with her “No fucking boys” motto. Is this your anger she’s drawing from, anger you’ve seen in friends or loved ones? Duke is the closest thing the movie has to a mouthpiece for me, and the anger is twofold. I think I have a decent understanding of what unfair is, because in some respects I was born playing for the Yankees. I’m a white straight dude. But I wasn’t put on a socioeconomic level that some others are. I understand that level of unfair, but I never thought about the other thing. And then, you know, you grow and change and you meet people and you listen. I grew up in a small town, and I was always hyper-aware of the fact that I was being cheated out of what the real world was. I felt like I was stuck somewhere. I just was so aware the world is weirder and cooler.

In the early days of Twitter, a lot of the artists I followed were hipping me to different things that I never thought about, different types of voices, and now I have no interest in reinforcing my worldview. I just want to hear what the fuck anybody else has to say. So, following that conversation got me interested in feminism, and one of the things that started making me bristle was when people would say stuff like, “I don’t like radical feminists” or, “the feminazis,” which was a popular thing to say back in the aughts. I used to be that same person. “Don’t take it too far.” But then as I got older, I realized we need look at where the anger is coming from. Nothing ever gets solved until you throw the brick through the window first, right?

I don’t think Duke says a single thing that’s wrong in the entire movie. She’s the best, and I felt like with her I could indict myself.

How did you collaborate with the cast to create their characters, especially in the context of Nicole [who plays the lead character, Laurel], to make sure you were respectful of her experience as both a trans character and a trans actress?
Any actor-director relationship for me is collaborative. I gave Diana free rein on the lines to change them to whatever she wanted, and with Nicole, I was very adamant about the fact that the role was only to be played by a trans actress. It’s in the script, and it was a no-deal if it wasn’t. The script also makes note of the fact that I don’t care what level of transition the actor we get is. Because producers can be horrible, I didn’t want to pin it on anybody’s ideas of what should or should not be passing, what should or should not be considered trans.

That’s pretty radical, by mainstream standards.
It’s sad that it’s radical.

Oh, it’s terrible. But were you setting out to make something that was, just by existing, a piece of activism?
I knew what I was doing with the lead was in some way unprecedented, and unprecedented in a way that really bothered me. To me it’s like, can the world just get with the fucking program? It’s boring the fuck out of me. So yeah, it was born out of frustration, because I was tired of seeing things where the second or third lead — we’ll make trans. They’re not gonna make Spider-Man trans, ’cause they’re chickenshit. But your slasher film could just have a trans lead. Your bank-heist film can have a trans lead. It’s that simple. It’s almost dumb how simple it is.

I know people in my life who are trans, and one of the actors in my first two movies transitioned. So, I was aware of the conversations that were being had, and I’m also very firmly aware that I am taking on a sort of debt. Like, I’m inhabiting a space that doesn’t belong to me and some would say I shouldn’t inhabit at all. And I would not begrudge them that. If they’re suspicious or angry or upset, I’m not going to get mad.

How did your awareness of this debt affect the work?
I can’t pay it back, but I do my best to be honest about it. Laurel is trans in the movie, but I also knew I shouldn’t tell a trans story. I can’t do that. However, I cannot chickenshit out and make her character completely neutral. Her being trans has to at least affect the world around her in some way, because that’s honest writing, or at least as honest as I can get it. It’s a texture to a character, like any other lead character in a movie. And look, I did the work. I don’t want you to think that I just cynically did this. The research took longer than the writing.

Did Laurel change much from page to screen based on Nicole’s input?The only big change from the script version of Laurel to the screen version of Laurel is, as written on the page, I was very much going for Daria Morgandorffer. I love Daria so much. But Nicole is such a giant personality — what is that line from Sunset Boulevard? “The screen was too small”? All the screens are too small for Nicole. She’s just such a big personality.

A poignant moment happens in Bit, but it’s so matter-of-fact you can easily miss it. Laurel is trying to decide whether or not she wants to join this nest of vampires, but she knows the hard rule against boys and is suddenly unsure if she’ll be welcome as a trans girl. But Duke very dryly welcomes her without condition.
There are going to be people really waiting for me to drop the ball. I know they are. Even when they watch the movie, I can feel it in the audience the moment the conceit is “no fucking boys.” I can feel them going, “Is this going to be about Laurel’s identity?” In that moment it’s like, “No, guys. Don’t worry. I thought about that.”

Laurel asks, “What about me?” And Duke is almost confused by the question.
Yeah. Like, “You’re just a chick. Get over here.” That’s how simple it should be, which is the point. But audiences are waiting for me, the idiot — which I am in this regard — to expose my idiot self by going, “Look! I did this!” and just totally fuck it all up.

Given that this is a sexy, inclusive genre film, were there conversations on set around how the intimate scenes would be shot?
One of the things I was really proud of it was this scene where Laurel and Izzy (Zolee Griggs) are in bed together. We’ve got two queer-identifying characters, and nobody talks about it. Nobody cares. It’s not part of the text of that scene.

And I can’t not talk enough about my director of photography, Cristina Dunlap. Listen, I’ve got the male gaze. I can intellectually see where that is and try to avoid it, but it’s going to be a lot easier for me if I can bring aboard somebody who can mitigate or eliminate that. Cristina was integral to the whole of it … I’m not gonna lie, a woman as a director of photography was one of my stated rules. I wanted some buffers to help me, and she was probably the most important one.

Did you have to change course on anything based on her feedback?
It was preemptive. I was like, “Listen, these are the key moments, especially these moments of intimacy, where I need your help. What are your ideas?” And there was a discussion between the actors and her, and I watched the discussion. I like sexy movies, but in this very particular movie, I’m not trying to make Body Heat. I want to do one of those, too! I love the shapes of people, but in this movie I don’t want it to be exciting for the wrong reasons.

You said the research took longer than the writing. What was the research process?
I was like, I’m just going to the source. So, the first book I got was Janet Mock’s, and I started there. I went to the basics and was like, “Well, here’s the history of gender studies!” I’d already read Scum Manifesto and shit like that. I was abreast of feminist writing and literature, ’cause I’m just a fan of writing. Actually, Becoming Nicole was one of the books I read.

I’d already had the human interactions with my friends who were in that community, so I went to those same people and I sent them the script and said, “I don’t want story notes. All I want to know is, does anything in here piss you off? Am I wrong about anything in here?” Before I sent it to one person in any sort of development capacity, I vetted it with the trans people I knew. I asked, “Am I coding something in here that I don’t see?” And unanimously it was like, “No.”

Not to toot my own horn, but some of the responses were like, “This made me cry.” I was like, “I made you fucking cry? It’s a vampire movie!” And they said, “We don’t get to be the lead.” And that’s sort of the point. Everybody should have their own sexy genre films. There’s a lot of focus right now on how queer this movie is and that Laurel is trans, but honestly, it’s kind of just a fun vampire movie.

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