Juliet Escoria

Juliet Escoria is the author of Juliet the Maniac, Witch Hunt, and Black Cloud. She lives in West Virginia. Find her on Twitter and Instagram or try her website.

JULIET ESCORIA on film with Rebecca Gransden

What film, or films, made the first deep impression on you?

I remember watching Beetlejuice over and over as a kid. I got nightmares from things that kids aren’t supposed to get nightmares from, like The Care Bears movie, but for some reason this movie didn’t bother me? Explains my goth roots.

What films first felt transgressive to you? Do you remember being secretive about any films you watched growing up?

I wasn’t allowed to watch rated R movies for a long time (except my parents did let me watch The Shining and The Exorcist in junior high). When Pulp Fiction came out, a lot of the boys in my class—it was all boys—watched it and were talking about how cool it was and I was so jealous, Pulp Fiction seemed so cool and mature to me.

I also remember my parents having a recorded copy of Body Heat on VHS and I was under the impression that this was something they didn’t want me to know about because it was dirty.

Are there any films that define your formative years?

SLC Punk is a silly little movie but I have a lot of affection for it. The party scenes feel true-to-life, and when I was in my teens/early 20s it was really relatable to me. (Fun fact: writer Chiara Barzini appears in this movie.)

The Virgin Suicides made a big impact on me for a lot of reasons—its dreaminess, the images, the portrayal of teen girlhood, and the subject matter of suicide. 

I saw Donnie Darko when I was around 20 and it kinda blew my mind. I remember being like Wow, movies can do this! and wanting to talk about it with my friends but I didn’t have any artsy friends at the time and nobody cared.

Do you use film as a prompt or direct motivation for your writing?

Not entirely, but at one point during the writing of Juliet the Maniac I got this strange idea that I needed to match it with the color palette of East of Eden? This doesn’t even make sense. I don’t think it even made sense to me at the time. I was feeling lost in the manuscript when this happened. 

What directors, film movements, or particular actors have been an influence?

I want to use this question to talk about how much I love Riley Keough. I love Riley Keough! She’s amazing in everything I’ve seen her in. I love her voice. She’s hot. I have a big crush on her.

American Honey (with Riley Keough)—there are some scenes in Juliet the Maniac that take place in a van. I watched that movie and tried to get the van scenes to at least resemble the van scenes in American Honey. That movie got the milieu of “fucked up youths in a van for long periods” thing down perfectly.

Have you ever made a film? If so, has the process of doing that had an influence on your writing?

Yes, I made a bunch of short films directly related to my first two books. I don’t really think they had an influence—mostly I just found it exciting to work in a different medium. Writing is my favorite artistic medium and I find it to be the most… spiritual? in that you can directly inhabit another person’s mind and thoughts… but there are still limitations to it. There are certain things you can only do with film. It felt fun and freeing to be able to work with images and, especially, music. I’d like it if you could force people to listen to a soundtrack to your book. 

Are there films you associate with a particular time in your life, or a specific writing project?

I watched Drugstore Cowboy about a hundred times when I was dating this junky who was very bad for me. (Referring to him as a junky seems harsh but also accurate.) He’s dead now. Bad memories. 

Another dead boyfriend (different dead boyfriend) memory are the movies of Jim Jarmusch. I still don’t like Jim Jarmusch movies, excepting the zombie one. I liked the zombie one.

Thinking about the places you’ve lived, are there any environments that are cinematic? Have you lived anywhere that has been regularly depicted onscreen? If so, has this had an influence on your perception of the place, or how you’ve depicted it in any of your writings?

All three places where I’ve lived as an adult were cinematic. I grew up in Del Mar, CA, which is sandstone bluffs, blue ocean, bent Torrey pines, and that soft golden light that is distinctive to Southern California. The beach in front of the house where I grew up has always felt creepy to me, which I tried to portray in this movie and the corresponding story. It has a lagoon that gets misty and just looks vaguely ominous.

West Virginia, where I live now, is so beautiful that it feels aggressive. I regularly feel distracted while driving to work by the aggressively beautiful mountains and trees and rivers and sky. I have some stories in my new, not yet published collection that feature me writing about this aggressive beauty. It makes me kinda sad that movies set in WV are generally filmed in Georgia, rather than on location. I wish WV would get a decent airport and give out tax credits so they could be filmed here. Seems like a missed opportunity. 

And New York, where I went to grad school… I think the way it’s depicted in movies, books, and music is a big reason why I wanted to go to school there in the first place. I’ve tried to not write about it too much because it’s been covered so many times, but I also didn’t want to shy away from it either. When I had a story that I really wanted to write that absolutely needed to be set in New York, I let it be set in New York. 

Are there films you regularly return to, and do you know why?

I feel the need to watch Gangs of New York about once a year. I’m not even sure why. I guess because there are so many good characters, and it feels so ambitious in terms of scale. Goodfellas and Taxi Driver are other Scorsese movies I feel the need to watch fairly regularly.

The aforementioned The Virgin Suicides is another one. I’ve watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood four times and could watch it again (fuck the haters for this movie, you all are losers). It’s pretty much a perfect movie, from the editing to the acting. I am also really into anything related to the women of the Manson family—not Charlie, he’s boring, but the women—and anything that could be described as California Noir. 

Under the Silver Lake is another recent “California Noir”ish movie I could watch again.

And David Lynch movies, of course: Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart are movies I could watch over and over. 

I loved Midsommar (again, fuck the haters, you’re boring) and feel like that movie was kinda made for me, with the imagery and the weird nature/pagan shit and the woman character getting the upper hand in the end.

I saw Ganja & Hess for the first and so far only time last year but it really hit me hard. Like the other movies, I think a lot of it has to do with imagery/general aesthetic.

What films have roused a visceral reaction in you?

Waves was the most recent one. It gave me a stomach ache, big time.

Can you give some film recommendations for those who have liked your writing?

All of the ones under the “films I regularly return to” section, plus Good Time, The Neon Demon, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Ordet, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, The Hunger, American Honey, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely… I could go on but that’s a decent list. 

This series has not much to do with my writing, but I want to recommend Small Axe. That series was amazing and it got less recognition than it deserved.

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We waited all evening for Nicole’s parents to leave, a cord of excitement running taut between the two of us. When their Land Rover finally pulled out of the driveway, we waited ten extra minutes, just in case her parents forgot something and came back. Only then did we take the rolled-up scarf from Nicole’s closet, a neat package containing a lighter and two perfectly rolled joints, the result of Nicole practicing with tobacco while me and my clumsy fingers sat and watched. We took the bundle and crawled out her bedroom window onto the roof.

We pressed ourselves against the building in case her neighbors could see, lit the first joint. The days were finally starting to get longer and even though it was almost eight there were still traces of light in the air, the sky that cobalt blue right before it turns black. We held the smoke in, the way we’d seen people do in movies. It made us cough. It made us feel cool.

We’d gotten the weed from the Ryans, the only other friends we had at the Christian school. Except “friends” wasn’t entirely accurate. The less cute Ryan, Ryan M, lived down the street from Nicole, so the three of us carpooled each morning. Ryan D was Ryan M’s best friend. We sat together at lunch, occasionally hung out voluntarily after school and on weekends. We liked the same music and swapped mixtapes. We smoked. We got sent out of class for talking, sometimes stayed in at lunch for detention.

That was the friend part. But the Ryans could be mean. They liked to call us “flat-tittied bitches.” They made fun of my acne and Nicole’s thick thighs. They asked us if we liked non-existent bands and if we said we weren’t sure but thought we did, they called us posers. I tried to brush it off – maybe they saw us as their little sisters – but in truth their comments made me cry. I never admitted it, not to Nicole, not to anyone, but it was hard to go into the bathroom and be confronted with the smattering of red bumps on my forehead that wouldn’t go away, and not hear their nasty voices telling me I was disgusting. Saying things like “Hey pimple girl,” the way they did when my skin was especially bad. It made me envision stabbing my pencil into their eyes, blood running squishy and their screams.

Also, they were always going on about all the weed they smoked. But I never saw them do it, never saw them stoned either. I’d never smoked pot before but I wanted to. Same with Nicole. But we had no idea where to get it. Partially we didn’t ask them to get us some because I wasn’t sure the Ryans were telling the truth, but mostly I was afraid they’d make fun of us.

One day we were sitting around Ryan M’s room after school, video games because we had nothing better to do, and once again they wouldn’t shut up about how they’d gotten so high that weekend, drawing out the vowels the way the skateboarders did in the skate videos we sometimes watched. Finally I got to the point where I couldn’t stand it anymore so I just came right out and asked where they got it.

They were quiet for a moment, and I thought they were trying to think of some sick burns. But then Ryan D said, “None of your business,” at the same time Ryan M said, “From my brother.”

Then they called us dumb little babies for never having smoked pot.

“Fuck you,” Nicole said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Fuck you.” I was so sick of their shit, of them acting like they were so much better than us when they were two stupid junior high boys, with no facial hair and skinny chests. “You’re fucking lying anyway.”

“Let’s bounce,” Nicole said.

“Good idea.”

So we left. We went back to her house and watched TV.

The next day at school, they acted like nothing had happened. At lunch, they came and sat with us and were nice, asking us what we were doing that weekend and did we want to record Ryan D’s new Descendants album. Nicole and I just looked at them. Yesterday we had agreed we were sick of them. This niceness was fucking everything up. And then Ryan M said if we really wanted pot, he could get us some from his brother. We pretended it wasn’t a big deal, that we didn’t care either way, but I could tell by the look in Nicole’s eyes and the flutter in my chest that we were excited.

After we smoked the joints and felt nothing, and waited half an hour just in case, we took the rest of the “weed” and compared it to the herb jars in the kitchen. Just as we thought. It was oregano.

We should have known the weed was bunk when they didn’t try to smoke it with us. We should have known the weed was bunk when Ryan D said that sometimes you had to smoke weed a couple times before you got high. But we didn’t know any better, had no idea what weed was supposed to look like other than a dried green plant. And a dried green plant is what they sold us.

So we made a plan. On Wednesdays, Ryan M didn’t carpool home because he had tutoring. His older brother had baseball practice every day. His mother didn’t get home until at least 4. We didn’t know his dad’s work schedule but we figured it was a dad work schedule, and he wouldn’t be home until 5 or 6.

We told Nicole’s mom we were going to buy ice cream. The door to Ryan M’s garage was unlocked, just like usual, tools perfectly lined up on the wall by their hooks. From there we walked into the house, and then up the stairs to his room. I kept thinking someone would catch us, his brother home sick or the cleaning lady, but then I remembered what dickheads they were, the twenty dollars they’d stolen from us, and I told myself the house was empty and it was fine and he deserved everything we’d planned for him.

We opened the door to his room. There was underwear on the floor, dingy white boxers, and the bed was unmade, but otherwise it looked the same as it always did. Posters on the wall of hot chicks and Kelly Slater. A wall of CDs, a big TV, a big stereo.

We’d bought a can of sardines a few days earlier at the grocery store. I popped it open, the metal lid flicking the nasty oil onto my hand. We put the fish where we figured he wouldn’t look, grabbing them by their slimy tails. In the heating vent on the floor. Underneath the bed. I went into his closet, and Nicole boosted me up while I hid one on the top shelf, behind a plastic bin of baseball cards. His bookshelf only held old schoolbooks – a Latin dictionary, the textbook from Pre-algebra 1, To Kill a Mockingbird – so I pulled them out half an inch and tucked one behind. We put two behind his stereo.

Nicole went to put one in his desk drawer, but when she slid it open, she found a big rusty hunting knife. I wanted to keep it, but Nicole said she wanted it too. We stood there, trying to figure out who got to keep it. But I started thinking about Ryan M’s stupid face, his cocky smile, the fact that he seemed completely unaware he was an idiot with dirty boxers on his floor. And I took the knife and stabbed it into the desk, which looked expensive and heavy, pretending I was stabbing him. Stab stab stab. It felt so good. I imagined his screams.

Nicole laughed. The knife made neat little gashes, splitting the thick waxed coating of the desk. She took it from my hand, stabbed again. The wood splintered this time. Then I stabbed it, a whole bunch of times, hard, like I was trying to kill it. Like I was trying to get deep at the bones. Nicole did the same, yelping this time like a warrior. I was laughing. She was laughing. We were two maniacal bitches, and the Ryans would be sorry they fucked with us. I took the knife and stabbed it in the desk one final time, deep enough that it stood up straight on its own. Then we changed his radio from the rock station to a Spanish one, turned the volume up, so loud the bass crackled in the speakers, and then turned it off so the next time he went to play it, it would scare the shit out of him.

We left his house, skipping and laughing our way back to Nicole’s, throwing the empty can of sardines in the gutter. My heart beat fast in a way that wasn’t fear. It was beating fast with power, a warrior drum that kept me strong. It was the heartbeat of a maniacal bitch. I kept imagining Ryan M’s face when he walked in and saw the knife, when he turned on the stereo, when the fish started to rot.

I hoped it made him afraid.

I hoped it made him feel small.

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