“It’s a puppet,” I say coyly as the confused man in airport security inspects it. The puppet in question is a long green triffid-like tentacle. Inside its pod is what appears to be an alien green vagina. I’ve just landed in China after a long flight and am on my way to Australia for a film festival.
The security man is looking from me to the tentacle puppet, baffled. I offer some clarity: “I’m a filmmaker” (because this will clearly explain why I have that in my hand luggage, it’s something all us filmmakers carry).
My awkwardness with the word “vagina” is what took me on this whole journey
“I make comedy,” I continue. “It’s from my film.” He smirks. He probably thinks I’m lying and I work in porn. He gestures towards the vagina inside the pod: “And that?” I panic. Do I tell the truth here? I already feel I’ve made it so weird. I clear my throat: “It’s a, erm… a flower. Yeah, a flower.” I’ve never been a very good liar.
My overt awkwardness with the word “vagina” is what took me on this whole journey. I ended up making SMEAR as I was thinking back on having my first pap-smear test. I remember seeking advice from a friend who might as well have been dressed in a dark cloak, surrounded by mist and holding a scythe for the level of doom she instilled in me. She told me: “It’ll be the most uncomfortable thing that’s ever happened to you.”
The nurse was considerate, fast and trained to deal with an awkward human like me. A moment of minor embarrassment to be sure I didn’t have any signs of cancer and it was nothing compared to the space opera I had imagined in my head.
Along with the fact that I might have never gone because of my worry I started to think about what could have been the most horrifying thing to happen in there. Cue an idea about a woman with a monster in her vagina forming.
I took the initial idea to my writing partner, Briony [Redman] and we were surprised to discover that we’d both had similar experiences and feelings of angst towards our first smear test.
Cervical cancer is the most common cancer for women under 35. And as we did more research we discovered that the number of women between ages 25-29 attending screenings for cervical cancer is the lowest of any group. Research by cancer charities states that it may come from women being embarrassed, like I was, and a lack of understanding about the causes of cervical cancer.
We set out to make a film that would start a conversation about smear test anxiety
Every day nine women in the UK will be diagnosed and two women will lose their lives to cervical cancer. The good news is that “75% of cancers are preventable by cervical screening.” But according to the Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, only one in four women attend this potentially life-saving test.
With these facts in our minds we set out to make a film that would start a conversation about smear test anxiety and encourage more women to go.
The horror landscape right now is booming with exciting female voices. From Julia Ducournau’s cannibal coming-of-age Raw to motherhood in Alice Lowe’s Prevenge, we’re in an exciting time.
I felt encouraged by these women to use genre to talk about an issue, creating a creature (working with BIFA-nominated SFX Artist Dan Martin) that had a big personality and was inspired by my favourite horror-comedy movies like Tremors, Gremlins and Little Shop of Horrors – these monsters that will mess with you a little bit before going after you.
Comedy has always been a powerful but often overlooked way to talk about heavier subjects. Freud said “comedy helps us face our fears”. And, for me, the best comedy films are just as meaningful and important as any drama exploring the same topic – from ageing in Death Becomes Her, fame in The King of Comedy to female friendship in Mean Girls. Blending comedy with the horror genre felt like the way to go with bringing SMEAR to life.
And on International Women’s Day, a day where the focus is on women, whether you are female or not, think of the women you know – your mum, sister, daughter, friends – and encourage them to have the test. There is no way it will ever be as embarrassing or out there as in our silly movie. And going for your pap-smear might save your life.