June 26, 2023

Alumni Spotlight: Anna Zlokovic ’14

By Olivia Kuhn

Anna Zlokovic ’14 is an award-winning writer/director whose work has screened internationally at festivals including Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Slamdance Film Festival, and Fantasia Film Festival. Anna was a fellow of Tribeca and Chanel's Women's Filmmaker Program: THROUGH HER LENS. Anna's debut feature film, Appendage, based on the Sundance 2022 short film of the same title, had its World Premiere at SXSW 2023 and will be released on Hulu in fall 2023. Anna was named one of IndieWire's 28 Rising Female Filmmakers to Watch in 2023. Anna joins us today to discuss writing inspiration, adapting Appendage from short to feature, and the lessons she's learned from her directorial debut.

What initially inspired you to become a writer-director?

When I was little, I had a Sony MiniDV handycam and I would make really embarrassing short films in the style of Austin Powers. I didn’t know at the time, but I think that was me wanting to be a filmmaker. I had no examples of filmmaking in my family or anywhere near me growing up, so, frankly, I didn’t know it was an option. I just loved movies, especially rewatching my DVD of Jurassic Park. My late mom, who was also an artist, told me I should be involved with movies, but I didn’t know what that would look like.

I came to USC first as a Music Industry major freshman year. SCA was just across the path there, and I was immediately magnetized to it. Something in my brain was like, "you need to be there, exploring that craft, right now." I was lucky enough to transfer into Film & TV Production my sophomore year. I started with trying all the roles– production sound first, then production design, cinematography, editing, and eventually found my path as a writer-director, like an accidental Harry Potter sorting hat.

While at SCA, what courses and experiences were the most impactful for you as a developing filmmaker?

There were a few really amazing courses that both pushed me and supported me at the same time. That combination was vital for me, personally. One of those courses was Directing for Comedy, taught by Barnet Kellman. It cracked my brain open in a way that still impacts me as a director working with actors now, especially as someone who directs horror and dark comedy. I learned to identify the event of a scene, how to craft a scene beat by beat to achieve that event properly, and, hopefully, get a response from an audience, whether that’s a laugh or a scream. I learned to cast well (the most important step) and developed script prep & directing techniques that were invaluable on a project like Appendage (my first feature) when we only had time for three takes on average and no budget or time for rehearsals.

Another course that really stuck with me was my 310 class with David Maquiling. It taught me so much about how to communicate as a writer-director on multiple levels, whether that’s pitching your concept to the class, learning to take criticism with grace, what it takes to get a film made (period), and most importantly learning to collaborate with others. Film is the most collaborative art form out there. Without a team, it does not happen. I still work with colleagues from that class. Lastly, the inspiring late Kenneth Hall, who taught Directing the Composer, left an immense impact on me. I looked forward to his class every week, where he would share his experience working with greats like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. We would break down score cues and he would share his approach on how to communicate with your composer – again, lessons I’ve integrated into my work now.

How do you find inspiration when writing? What was the initial inspiration behind your horror short Appendage?

Writing inspiration can be an elusive, mysterious beast. When I’m struggling, watching films almost always helps. Whenever I’m stuck on a script, putting on a relevant movie usually sets off a train of thought I can follow, even if it’s short. That train of thought at times leads to multiple ideas, like lily pads, that keep going and going, until I get stuck again. The most harrowing thing is opening Final Draft and having nothing to write down. So, I tend to avoid opening a script unless I have some creative juices flowing. Writing is hard y’all. Something that’s become really important to me recently is allowing myself to fail, on a micro and macro level. The biggest killer to inspiration for me is already judging my ideas before I write them down. So, let them suck. Have 10 ideas that suck. Maybe one of them will be usable, and move forward. Don’t be so precious. You never know how you’ll feel about it the next day. You can always come back and improve on it later. The script is not going anywhere.

The most important tool for me, however, is more spiritual– that is, connecting with something personal in myself, and how that relates to the material at hand. Why do I want to make this movie? What am I trying to say, metaphorically? How can each scene relate back to that, somehow? Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and specific. That was how the Appendage short film and subsequent feature came about. I was struggling with anxiety at the time, particularly with my career. 20th Digital Studio/Hulu had a really clear mandate on what they were looking for: horror shorts around 5 minutes that were scary or funny, or a combo of those tones. With that box in mind (boxes can be really helpful), I tried to access my stressed-out-work energy and pour that into the story of the short conceptually. It was important to me that the film wasn’t a bummer, so I tried to take a “wink at your own pain” approach to the storytelling. To make sure it honored the feeling of anxiety, while still being funny. It became a cathartic experience in that way.

How did you go about expanding on the story of Appendage to fit a feature-length script? Did you always imagine it as a feature?

Part of the Hulu Bite Size Halloween programming mandate is to turn shorts into features. I definitely had an intuitive sense of how to turn the short into a feature when I pitched the short film, but I didn’t start breaking the story until after the short came out. Without giving too much away, I always saw potential in the little speaking tumor from the short growing into something more impactful and powerful. So I followed that train of thought with the feature, while keeping the story structured in a way that was hopefully exciting and clear for audiences. I watched a lot of films that helped in its development — The Fly (1986), Raw (2016), Black Swan (2010), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), After Hours (1985), Teeth (2007), and How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989) — just to name a few.

What was it like directing a feature for the first time?

It was incredibly awesome. I had been working towards this goal for a while, and when it finally happened with Appendage, I felt very ready. Despite all the insane challenges that come with making a feature, I felt grateful to be on set every day and had a creative blast. Our cast was so top notch and were amazing team players, and I was able to make this one with my very talented, close friends as my HODs. That was what made this specific project possible and extra fulfilling. I can’t wait to do it again.

How did you come to work with a team of SCA alumni on Appendage? Was it intentional or a mere coincidence?

A little bit of both. I had been working with the wonderful Powell Robinson (DP), since college. We had 310 together and even co-DP’d a 480 together. We are basically a two headed serpent at this point. Our incredible PD, Michelle Patterson, and I crossed paths at SCA but didn’t start working together until the Appendage short. Our fantastic composer, Nick Chuba, and I have also been working together since college. He scored my 310. I met one of our producers, Katrina Kudlick, purely through this process and kismet. That is also true of our EP, Jenna Cavelle. I am sure there are even more SCA alumni on Appendage, which goes to show how often you can connect with your peers in this industry.

Congratulations on premiering Appendage at SXSW! What was the festival experience like, and how did it compare to screening the Appendage short?

Thank you. The festival experience was a dream. To see the film with a crowd in a packed theater was a bucket list experience. Hearing everyone laugh, gasp, and seeing folks tear up at times was an irreplaceable gift. Also, being able to talk to audience members afterwards who opened up about their own mental health struggles reminded me why I made the film in the first place. It was extra special because we weren’t able to see the short film at Sundance 2022, which was canceled due to COVID. So this made up for that and then some.

Looking back at this journey, from short to feature, what lessons have you taken away?

There are countless lessons to take away from this whole experience, but probably the most poignant for me is to only make projects you 1000% believe in. That your whole heart is in. Making movies is no joke. It sucks up a lot of your life, time, and energy. It takes you away from your family. It tests your endurance and mental fortitude. People who don’t make movies may not understand. So, you need that deep belief not only in yourself, but in the project, to propel you forward and guide you through the process (which can sometimes take multiple years.) Even if it’s a kernel of something in the story that you grip onto, hold onto that from development all the way to the end. I’m doubling down on this as I move forward in my career.

What’s next for you?

There are a few feature projects in the air at the moment. I am working and waiting to see which one lands next!

What advice would you offer to current students as they consider their career paths in the industry?

Most of this industry is rejection. 98%. Keep going. Know your values and what kinds of films you want to make and keep pushing. No one is going to believe in you as much as you believe in yourself– you have to show up and be your greatest champion.