Actress Courtney Paige confidently took over the director’s chair for her debut feature, The Sinners. Focusing on a group of seven girls whose tight-knit religious community has dubbed them “The Sins,” the film tackles themes of bullying, sexual awakening, and revenge. Its cast of mostly unknowns – alongside a clever cameo from The Black Hood himself, Lochlyn Munro – is wildly likable, each Sin making her mark whether indulging in Jawbreaker-esque escapades or somehow ensuring their school uniforms look even cooler than those featured in The Craft.
Paige clearly intends to make a statement with her debut, with feminism and female empowerment at the forefront of her mind, but The Sinners is also wickedly fun, a teen murder mystery Riverdale might feature during a particularly dark week of story-lines. Indeed, much of its young cast wouldn’t look out of place prancing around the CW. Wicked Horror caught up with the burgeoning filmmaker over Zoom to discuss the difficulties of making it as a woman in the industry, group chats, why she hasn’t seen The Craft yet, and lots more.
WICKED HORROR: Where did this idea come from originally?
COURTNEY PAIGE: Honestly, it kind of just came to me one day. Seven years ago, the concept of seven girls embodying seven deadly sins. I was going to call it The Willowbrook Seven. But back then I was focused on acting and, although I was always writing at the same time, I had this one project called Neon Candy that was my baby and I really wanted to do that one. When we got an investor onboard, I thought okay, I want to save that one for later, but what if we brought up this concept and do it instead? And everybody really loved it. Then we brought on Madison [Smith] and Erin [Hazlehurst] to write with us and they were just incredible co-writers, they really took my vision and made it their own. It was very much a collaborative effort; us bouncing ideas off each other and giving the girls these unique and diverse voices while still telling these impactful stories that we wanted to within the 95 minutes that you have – there’s really only so much you can do – but also shining a light on religion and LGBTQ and this love story that exists between Grace and Tori in the film. It was definitely a fun one to do for our first.
WICKED HORROR: Was the religious element always in there, and as key to the story as it is?
COURTNEY PAIGE: I always knew that I wanted Grace to come from a religious household and I wanted the girls to grow up in this religious town. I love the idea of the schoolgirl uniforms and these rules that they have to abide by, and how they want to break them, and what good girls do when they’ve gone bad and how far you can push that boundary.
WICKED HORROR: Yeah, ‘cause I was talking to Brenna [Llewellyn, who plays Aubrey] and Kaitlyn [Bernard, who plays Grace] about the difference between something being sexualized and something being stylized. Particularly when it comes to the schoolgirl uniforms, that’s a very fine line to tread and you handle it really well here.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Thank you. I have to thank Kaitlyn and Brenna [Coates, who plays Tori] for that because they came to me and really stylized their love story. They wanted it to be so much about the love, which I thoroughly appreciated and encouraged, versus having this sort of sexualized storyline going on, which is more often how filmmakers handle these kinds of things. It just feels almost icky, so we wanted to make it clear that they’re best friends but they’re also lovers and they love each other so much. Loving another woman in the film and her father not giving her permission to do so is the pivotal reason for rebellion.
WICKED HORROR: How did you go about casting the seven Sins?
COURTNEY PAIGE: It was quite a process. We had over 300 girls audition. We watched multiple tapes, did multiple rounds of auditions, oftentimes girls would come in for one role and we would watch them and think they were more suited to another role, the girls were so malleable and so willing to just try things and play so it was really a fun experience overall. We knew quite quickly that we were casting Kaitlyn as Grace. As soon as we watched her tape, it took us about thirty seconds to realize that yes, this is her. With Grace, she’s so innocent but she also commands this sense of authority without having a big ego and she’s likable and relatable, too. There were so many elements in her that were finetuned and Kaitlyn brought everything and more to her role.
WICKED HORROR: Aubrey is the other key role here, because she and Grace almost share the Final Girl role, so once you get those two roles right, you’re flying.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Brenna Llewellyn was actually nominated for a Leo award for her performance as Aubrey. She’s a powerhouse, she totally nailed it, and her sheep in wolf’s clothing scene is my favorite of the entire movie. She’s got so much power as an actress. I think she’s going to have an incredible career. Not only that, but Brenna Coates and Carly Fawcett have a background in theater too and are incredibly talented as well. Kehlani [Elizabeth Rose, who plays Katie], Natalie [Malaika, who plays Robyn] and Jasmine [Randhawa, who plays Stacey] all put so much love and TLC into their work. Jasmine reminded me so much of Gretchen from Mean Girls; we actually told her to play it like Gretchen from Mean Girls and she really took the note and ran with it, so the entire cast was just so talented and such a joy to work with. They were very brave.
WICKED HORROR: They feel like real friends too. The girls were telling me they all lived together during filming and that clearly influenced them because you can feel that camaraderie, which is so important in a movie like this because otherwise you just don’t care what happens to them.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Yeah, originally, when they showed up day one at that town where we were filming, Kelowna, which is my hometown, I had them meet at the mall and take photographs with each other, go in the photobooths together and just have fun and get to know each other. I think that really set the tone and the chemistry, which is very organic and real, and established the friendship between them. They’re all still friends to this day, we have a group chat – we actually have multiple group chats, we’ve got a WhatsApp, we’ve got a DM one, we’ve got an email chain – and they’re so sweet, they call me Mama C and they’re The Sins, and they all came out to the festival screening and we had a blast. So, we’ve really built this incredible bond with each other and I think that’s something we’ll take with us, career-wise, into the future.
WICKED HORROR: We briefly mentioned Mean Girls, I feel like Jawbreaker and The Craft are definitely in there too, but what were the pop culture influences for you, if any?
COURTNEY PAIGE: For sure Jawbreaker. I also love Scream. I love I Know What You Did Last Summer, too. I keep getting The Craft but I’ve yet to see that one, so I’m going to have to go watch it. But I watched Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars, all these teen thrillers and things that are always going to be bouncing around in the back of your mind while you’re writing. There are several cult classics that came into play.
WICKED HORROR: You’ve got Lochyln Munro, too, who was actually in Riverdale. Those shows owe a lot to the nineties slashers, though, and I’m not sure the kids watching them fully understand that. Riverdale gets quite dark, even for someone who watches horror movies constantly, and your film shares a lot of that same DNA.
COURTNEY PAIGE: It’s dark but we also still wanted to be mindful that it’s aimed at a young audience, so we didn’t want to do too much that would eliminate some of the audience that we would want to reach out to, and that we want to see the movie, most importantly.
WICKED HORROR: You mentioned Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, but the body count is relatively low. Do you consider The Sinners a slasher movie?
COURTNEY PAIGE: I don’t think it has the same hardcore horror elements as a slasher; we envisioned it more as a murder-mystery thriller.
WICKED HORROR: That’s a good way of describing it actually. ‘Cause there are two Final Girls, the body count isn’t necessarily that high, it almost defies easy categorization in a way but that works in the film’s favor I would argue.
COURTNEY PAIGE: I think it definitely does. The difference between the horror and slasher stuff, even the thrillers, too, is the body count but also the blood and gore. We didn’t want to be too violent with it. The film actually started out more like a drama with thriller elements, but then we were told by our investors to up the suspense element, so we amplified that in a way that was still tasteful and appropriate for young audiences.
WICKED HORROR: Would you say it’s generally easier to get a horror movie made, as a female filmmaker?
COURTNEY PAIGE: I wouldn’t say anything in this industry is easy. I would say there’s a larger, more positive response to thrillers and horrors, especially if there isn’t bankable talent attached, you can definitely hit these sales targets and it’s safer for investors to recoup. I mean, it’s tough for dramas and comedies unless you have star names, so it’s definitely easier in a sense to get approval and get investors behind you when there’s a higher sales margin.
WICKED HORROR: It’s all about marketability.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Yeah, totally.
WICKED HORROR: I’m sure you’re as sick of answering this question as I am of asking it, but what were the biggest challenges for you, as a female filmmaker, in getting this film made?
COURTNEY PAIGE: Having men take me seriously. It’s interesting in this industry, after #MeToo, you would think a lot of that had gone away but it still hasn’t. A lot of men talk to me all the time and still want to say they’re investing and then will ask me out on a date. I’m just getting really sick and tired of it. When you’re a talented artist, it’s nice for people to just appreciate you for who you are and just let you work in an environment where you don’t need to be harassed. That would be nice [laughs].
WICKED HORROR: I think a lot of it, as well, comes from men thinking that just acknowledging there’s an issue and being aware of it is the work. They don’t want to do anything beyond that. So, they can be like “oh yeah, great, more women, that’s great” but they don’t want to put any effort in to change anything in real time.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Well, it’s interesting, if you think about it, for investors they need to buy their way into the project so there’s also that to consider.
WICKED HORROR: Your film is even kind of “worse” in a sense because it’s female led, there are predominantly women working behind the scenes, it’s very female forward in a deliberate, in your face kind of way.
COURTNEY PAIGE: I had a lot of female powerhouses behind me. Hanna [Griffiths], Siena [Oberman] Heliya [Alam], Suzann [Toni]. We had such solid female producers on this project and I think that’s really nice and protective in itself. Female director, all female cast, so this is a unique project where there are a lot of women involved and it’s nice to amplify them too.
WICKED HORROR: I asked Brenna and Kaitlyn if felt different working on a female led set and they said absolutely, it felt so much safer and more collaborative.
COURTNEY PAIGE: That’s so nice to hear.
WICKED HORROR: Especially on a film like this, where the subject matter is typically sexualized.
COURTNEY PAIGE: Absolutely. We were very good about having a closed set. And the men on the set were very respectful. Our crew and DP and others working on the set were some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever worked with. It was truly an incredible cast and crew.
WICKED HORROR: This is such a weird question to be asking during a pandemic, but what have you got coming up next, if anything, under the current circumstances?
COURTNEY PAIGE: Actually, we got a movie made during COVID. Details are under wraps at the moment, but we’re going to be doing a big announcement during EFM. The film is called Chapel, it’s my sophomore feature, so it should be coming out soon but I can’t say too much about it. We also have two others, there’s Neon Candy, the one I originally wanted to do, and then Croquet, so we’ve got a whole slate of films coming out.
WICKED HORROR: Neon Candy is such a good title.
COURTNEY PAIGE: I know! A few films have come out lately that are like neon this, neon that, and I’m just like “stop making it! Stop using our name!” We need to do it quickly before any more come out.
Catch The Sinners On Demand from February 19, 2021
** This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity