INTERVIEW: Jessica Sonneborn
– By Bryan Stumpf
Was I tripping on something?
I had learned of Jessica Sonneborn’s work through filmmaker friends in the LA area, and I had actually chatted with her through social media a few times, telling her I was a fan of her work. Then, minutes after arriving at LAX, on the ride to the Opening Night Party for the 14th Annual Shriekfest Film Festival, I look through the fest’s schedule and I see Jessica’s film Alice D is scheduled to screen the first night of the festival. As my car pulls up to the club, I reach out to Jessica on Facebook: “Hey, will you be at Shriekfest’s Opening Night Party?” She replies with an affirmative. I ask next: “Can I interview you for the U.K.-based horror website, The Slaughtered Bird?” Jessica responds with another affirmative!
Smash cut to ten minutes later, I’m interviewing the lovely and scary smart Jessica Sonneborn – yeah, either someone spiked my drink on the flight, or best Opening Night Party ever!
The epitome of prolific, Jessica has been in 20-plus movies since the mid-2000s. As an actress, she averages three movies a year, and since 2010, she has also been a writer and producer on many of her films. And at this year’s Shriekfest, Jessica is screening Alice D, her directorial debut. In Alice D, a paranormal thriller, a young man invites his friends to a party at his recently acquired inheritance – a mansion that was once a brothel, despite the rumors of it being haunted by a young prostitute who killed herself there. And to make things interesting, for the occasion, the young man procures tons of booze and a handful of prostitutes.
Starring horror legend Kane Hodder, Alice D shows Jessica’s deft handling of an ensemble cast in a classic haunted house narrative, while also impressively interweaving genuine jump scares and insightful social commentary on the objectification of women. Jessica directs riveting performances from many in her cast – Juan Riedinger (Jennifer’s Body), Aaron Massey (On a Dark and Stormy Night), Eliza Swenson (The Penny Dreadful Picture Show), Julianne Tura (Chastity Bites), Kristina Page (Money Shot), Megan Hensley (The Crazies), and Chanel Ryan (Dead Sea) – all imbue their characters with nuances not often found in the typical paranormal thriller. And Jessica herself shines as supporting character Natasha – her solid acting chops prove irrefutable in an early dramatic scene.
Growing up in Connecticut, Jessica says about her childhood: “I was raised on a non-working farm, and was kind of a tomboy, but I always had an interest in movies and writing.” Her father was a film historian, so she grew up watching old movies with him. And Jessica shared her father’s love of Hitchcock. She tells me she used to pore through his collection of Hitchcock books, fascinated by the imagery: “To this day, Hitchcock remains influential to me – there are shots in Alice D that were inspired by Vertigo.”
After graduating from Wheaton College with a BA in Anthropology, and then earning a Masters in Education from Lesley University, Jessica went into acting. She acted in some films in New England before moving to California. She started writing and producing with 2010’s Lure, then again in 2012’s Money Shot. Jessica’s friend Alexandra Boylan (Home Sweet Home) recommended submitting Alice D to Shriekfest. When I asked Jessica how she thought Alice D might stand apart from other films screened at Shriekfest, she gives a thoughtful response: “I’m fascinated with relationships between men and women, and the different ways women empower themselves or find empowerment through others. This is a subtext you don’t find in your typical horor movie, but I made sure to bring that subtext to Alice D.”
Attending Shriekfest’s screening of Alice D and its subsequent Q&A, it was clear the audience caught on to Jessica going for something more than the typical “ghost in the house” scare fest. Many spotted Jessica’s references to Hitchcock and several lauded her on her directorial grace and aplomb. Afterwards, I admitted to Jessica that even as there were moments of elegant beauty in Alice D, I believe I genuinely jumped at every jump scare. And I was eager to talk with her about the twist at the end – a twist that is subtle, yet obvious after some reflection.
It was sobering, seeing Jessica’s directorial debut at Shriekfest. I’ve been a fan of Jessica and Shriekfest for several years, and she proved at the 2014 Shriekfest that she’s clearly a talent to watch. Since Shriekfest, Alice D has gone on to be lauded in other film festivals, including winning Best Feature at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival. As Alice D gets more international attention, expect the multi-talented Jessica Sonneborn to continue building an impressive portfolio of feature films with strong female characters.
Click these links for more info: