We had the good fortune of connecting with McKenzi Vanderberg and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi McKenzi, what do you want your legacy to be?
When I think about my goals, aspirations, and desired achievements I circle back to a fundamental question – was it done with kindness and was it done with respect? So much of the creative industry requires a level of cutthroat that I find unnecessary, and my biggest wish is to leave an impact through compassionate collaboration and respectful pursuit of filmmaking. To be a filmmaker is to tell stories (both my own and others) and I take that responsibility incredibly seriously. To not exploit but to amplify. I am very passionate about mental health both on set and within storytelling, and if I can be known and remembered for anything, it is to speak truthfully and deeply through my stories. Whether it be a horror story of facing a literal personal demon or exploring the nuance of the female experience – I hope to exercise that truth with grace and understanding.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
As a filmmaker, I look for ways to externalize the internal sense of self. Themes of loss, control, grief and self-actualization are crucial to me in pursuing a story. I am most drawn towards horror, as the genre presents itself as a never-ending sandbox to play in. What may be constricted by realism in a drama can be cracked wide open in a horror – there are no rules! I am incredibly inspired by filmmakers like Ari Aster and Mike Flanagan who use the creative, fantastical power of the genre to explore emotional nuance and the human condition. As someone who’s mother is a therapist, I understand grief can look like many different things, and sometimes the cathartic experience of facing the horror head-on is healing. It’s that laugh and sigh of relief that immediately follows a scream watching a scary movie. I consistently challenge myself to keep these goals in mind when writing horror, particularly engaging in the female experience. There are some elements of being a woman that are inherently terrifying, and I want to tap into that – not to remind us of that fear, but to subvert it, and use that fear to create power instead. That transference of fear into power has been one of my biggest lessons in being a female filmmaker. Take that fear and challenge it, use it to take that risk and put yourself out there.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Food is my love language – I will plan an entire itinerary around eating, truly. So, if I had a friend in town for the weekend, I would take them for ramen at Silver Lake Ramen and then pop next door for a bourbon neat at Thirsty Crow. Then we would wake up nice and early and head to Roscoe’s House Of Chicken And Waffles to beat the line before heading to walk down Magnolia Blvd in Burbank. I’d show them my favorite place to get a new deck of tarot cards, Bearded Lady Vintage & Oddities, and then we would pop across the street to get gelato at Pinocchio’s. I’d end our Saturday with gin cocktail and a classic burlesque show at Pour Vous.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Any success in my life is instrumentally tied to my loved ones. I learned to love film as a medium from ice cream & movie nights with my dad – utterly absorbed watching Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Kubrick, and Terrence Malick (at probably too young of an age – but see, mom, it worked out!). I learned to love storytelling from my mom, endlessly exploring Camelot, Middle Earth, and Narnia together over our shared love of books. From her I also learned the power of kindness. There aren’t enough words to describe my gratitude for my parents. Without discrediting my own hard work, so many of the opportunities I have had in my life have come from people willing to take a chance on me. The first short film I ever directed was a dare from an undergraduate professor who guessed I might fall in love with filmmaking. She was right. Through the highs and lows of pursuing my dreams, my partner, Gianna, has read endless drafts, problem-solved practical effects at 3am in our studio apartment, and gone into the trenches with me to help battle bouts of imposter syndrome. Thank you for encouraging me to embrace the spooky, my love. Lastly, I want to thank my creative partner, Nana Adwoa Frimpong – she encourages truth-seeking above all else in storytelling and I have become a better person, both creatively and spiritually, because of her.
Michael Liesch Eric Sutton