Season 3, Episode 2: Shame Demons and Queer Sci-fi Horror with Mily Mumford

February 09, 2024

Stephanie Werner: Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast from SFU's Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. In each episode, we joined student hosts in conversation with alumni, as they explore career journey since graduation, and gather advice for the next generation. In this episode, host Torien Cafferata, MFA graduate at the school for Contemporary Arts, sits down with siet graduate Mily Mumford, an interdisciplinary artist and scientist who has made a professional in writing and directing for film, theater and new media. They have a particular passion for queering, sci fi and horror, which features heavily in their work, and want to see more queer and bipoc creators not just working in the field, but leading it recorded at the hosts home over tea. Millie shares their journey weaving between art and science, navigating neuro divergence, productivity and rejection in the arts, and the value of community over competition.

Mily Mumford: As soon as I started at sea it I felt right at home because it felt like there were a lot of other interdisciplinary science, engineering and art, hybrid rejects there who, like no one knew what to do with them, because we were all like, well, we want to do something artsy but we also like science and engineering. So it was nice to find a home with other people who were doing wildly different things to me, but we were all combining science, engineering and art in some way.

Torien Cafferata: That's Mily Mumford. Hello. They are an award winning filmmaker, theater creator, scientist, VR researcher and full disclosure. A dear friend and colleague, Mily and I have a lot in common. We're both nerdy non binary and Nero spicy or neurodivergent for the uninitiated. And we're both recent FCAT grads who work in theatre and new media, myself with an interdisciplinary arts MFA from the School for Contemporary Arts. And Mily with their MSc in interactive technology from SIAT.

Mily Mumford: Yeah, School of Interactive Arts and Technology. So kinda like the the sibling program, I feel like in many ways.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, like, feels like SIAT is like the creative science nerd. And SCA is like the weird contemporary arts nerd.

Mily Mumford: Yes, absolutely.

Torien Cafferata: Mily currently works as a writer, director, producer of film and theatre, but that isn't where their journey began.

Mily Mumford: I've always joked that I have like an academic background in sciences, so I can write better science fiction. And it has and horror, and it has really proved true.

Torien Cafferata: While they were always torn between their love of art and science, that began their formal studies in the latter.

Mily Mumford: Yeah, I did my undergrad in bio psych at UVic. My undergrad research was all around forensic neuro psychology. So looking at the neurobiological basis of psychopathy, oh, my god, looking at psychopath brains and seeing how they were different. And then I took that and was like, Well, I still want to work in cognitive sciences and mental health in some way. And so I ended up looking at VR for mental health support. And the population I worked with was astronauts and looking at long term space travel, and also learning a lot about how we can apply that to us down here on earth as well, which I'm now even more interested in.

Torien Cafferata: Knowing what I knew about Mily, I started to make connections, forensics, brains, madness, horror, space, sci fi cinema queerness performance, I felt my own autistic brain trying to understand what was at the heart of it all. And in Mily's line of work, putting your hearts on a platter can appear both on and off the screen.

Mily Mumford: Originally, I wanted to go to medical school, I was very much on a track to go to medical school and become a forensic pathologist. I was really passionate about forensics in that context and providing justice to people after they passed. And then I took a human remains recovery course. When my undergrad and went Oh, actually, this is not for me. I still want to go to medical school, but I want to focus on helping people while they're still alive. Because dead bodies. No, no hate to those lovely folks who have passed but their bodies can get gross, they can get gross. So I realized that was not for me. And then I was like well I'm going to become a neurosurgeon, and then started volunteering in hospitals. I realized that I actually wanted to do research instead. So I finished my undergrad and then continued on on the Research route.

Torien Cafferata: And I noticed this like, in the arts as well like how something that like draws you in and is like very alluring, like you. It doesn't necessarily mean you want to put your fingers in it, want to handle it, it's that you just want to be close to it, you don't have some kind of relationship to it. And sometimes you learn like, oh, actually, no, I don't want to be handling the dead bodies. But I'm still like, I want to think about dead bodies or have a dead like deadness or death is somehow needs to be in my life needs to be in my profession. I just don't want to actually, like, be touching.

Mily Mumford: Yeah, that was really what happened with me. And forensics was I the more I got into it, the more I was like, Oh, actually, I don't think I want to put my hands in dead bodies. But there was something still fascinating about forensics, the human brain has always been a huge passion of mine. So combining that with neuro psychology was really exciting.

Torien Cafferata: And now it's like, it's like you want to not put your hands into the bodies, but like, just like emotionally, spiritually, psychologically get get into Yeah, yeah. Right. Let's talk. Let's talk well brains. Talk about brain let's talk about brains and neuro spice, neuro spiciness.

Mily Mumford: Neruo spice. Yeah, it wasn't until actually my late 20s When I was starting my grad degree that I got diagnosed with ADHD formally. And my goodness, things started making sense. Just because I've always been, it's, I mean, it's also always been really hard for me to focus for any length of time. But it also really showed in how I am such an interdisciplinary person, I wonder sometimes if I am that way, because I can't focus on one thing for too long. And I get interested in so many different things, that I just am constantly bouncing between all of them. And I think that's also why when I was doing my undergrad and into my masters, I was still doing theater and film, because I still needed this creative outlet. And it was actually one of the reasons why I didn't end up going to medical school years ago, when I was sort of on the precipice of doing so and, you know, taking my MCAT, and all these different things, because I realized I would have to give up my creative life for the foreseeable future. And that was part of what made me realize that I think research was better suited, and could still tickle the science part of my brain that needed to feel fulfilled. But I wouldn't lose that creative part of my life. Because I think I would also be more nuts than I already am. I wasn't able to have a creative outlet.

Torien Cafferata: No, absolutely. I totally as someone who is also neuro spicy, also ADHD, autistic, I have also noticed that there's a lot of us in the arts, and there's a lot of us in the sciences for maybe different reasons, or like a blend of reasons like, you know, the scientists often come across to me as like, Oh, they're really hyper fixated, they're like really hyper focused on this thing. They'd like deep dive, maybe that's just an academic thing to and same with like artists switching between one discipline or another or one hobby in another and, and like mixing it all into their interdisciplinary profession, as an you're an interdisciplinary artist. To me, it's very like ADHD, makes total sense that it's impacted you in that way,

Mily Mumford: Constantly searching for the dopamine.

Torien Cafferata: And that sort of brings us to your work in film. Because when I think of film, and I think of someone with a passion for both art and science, well film kind of does encapsulate both those worlds. So yeah, well, how would you characterize your your current work, or discipline? Or maybe what you're working on right now as an example?

Mily Mumford: Yeah, in the film space, I'm really interested in sci fi and horror, I've always been a genre, writer and director, I've always been really interested in how we tell stories about our current worlds, and the social justice issues that come up in interesting parallel ways. And I think genre just really, specifically sci fi and horror, just really lend itself amazingly, to looking at all of those different social justice narratives. Yeah. And that's something I've also really discovered about my work across the years, both in science and art is it's always extremely community and extremely justice. oriented, like that is kind of the the beating heart of everything I do is there's always something related to something in the world is not going well for someone and that makes me mad. So I want to make it better. Right, and how do I how do I show that? How do I do that? How do I shed light on an issue, or empower different voices that we haven't heard enough from? And so that's kind of what I strive to do.

Torien Cafferata: And you mentioned like sci fi and horror, it makes so much sense why you'd be drawn to these because both of these genres get entangled with questions of like, just Does morality like sci fi being like, you know, where will this one particular practice or cultural thing go? And how dark can it get? Or how better can it get? How utopian can this get?

Mily Mumford: Exactly, how could we make this better?

Torien Cafferata: And horror is like who deserves to die?

Mily Mumford: Well, I think we're also has so many cool aspects of like, you know, in one of the horror projects that I'm writing right now, it's a summer camp, horror about queer folks returning to a conversion camp that they were forced to go to as children. And now they're adults and struggling, and they're wanting to take back this conversion camp, essentially, and turn it into a haven for queer youth. But they get attacked by I won't give away too much. But it's it's essentially a shame demon. It is a demon that has attached itself to the camp, and it feeds off people's shame. So there's also I think, there's so many different interesting, sort of cultural phenomenons that can be explored through horror, either existing cultural phenomenons that you might be attached to, you know, you might have that traditional knowledge, or things that you just invent, like my shame demon, but that is coming from a very real place of you know, that religious trauma and that internalized homophobia and transphobia, that so many of us have, and like, what would that look like as a creature?

Torien Cafferata: I love you. I love horrors capacity to ask, like, where are the real monsters? What are the monsters that we should be afraid of? And conversely, like, what are the monsters that are actually not monsters at all? Or like, you know, like, subverting that like the like the King Kong's, or the creatures of the Black Lagoon type? Versus like, you know, like, what is a, like a, like a modern like, demon possession movie. Like, I'm thinking like, hereditary and things. Yeah. midsummer. It's like, what are the where's the threat? Where's the perils? And and where did where are those like also like within us? Like, when you say like queer horror, I think of like, internalized queer phobia and shadow for sure. Yeah. What What? What is it? Like? What does it mean to be like, for this, like new generation of storytellers of queer, sci fi and horror, filmmakers, writers and directors? What? What does it mean to like, be queering sci fi and horror? What does it look like? Or did we just describe it?

Mily Mumford: I mean, I obviously can't talk for everybody. I think for me, it's really infusing that sense of being othered your whole life, sometimes even when you don't fully know why or how you're being othered. And you know, how you don't fit into the mainstream or kind of what is expected of you. And also stories of, you know, transformation and finding that power within yourself. And I think there's so many interesting ways that those narratives can be explored in horror and sci fi. But I also think, just stories coming from queer and trans writers, and directors are going to be inherently queered. Because we're speaking from our genuine experiences and our genuine viewpoints. And I think a lot of the time, that is sort of been what has been missing from a lot of works so far, that have been trying to queer narratives is, you know, you peel back the layers, and sometimes the people behind the camera aren't actually from the demographics that they're representing on camera. And this happens all the time with indigenous film, and other bipoc projects as well, you know, you peel back the layers and like, great, we have representation on camera, but who is actually creating the stories, and I feel like those gaps are hopefully starting to fill in a little bit where, you know, you get a project. That's about queer femmes, and lo and behold, the writer and director is a queer fan or a, you know, a trans femme person. And that's so exciting and satisfying as a creator, within that queer community of filmmakers to be like, oh, gosh, okay, now we're finally making our own story. It's all exciting!

Torien Cafferata: Right? Like, there's a difference between like, oh, there's like, visibly queer people in this sci fi or horror story, as opposed to like, Oh, this is a queer sci fi and horror story because of the way that it's being made or who's making it exactly how it's peeling back those layers.

Mily Mumford: Well, in for me also, like, if I say, Yeah, I'm making this queer trans led project. That doesn't just mean Oh, yeah, my lead actor is queer and trans. Like, I just finished shooting a sci fi short where I was like, Yeah, this is a Trans and Queer project. Not only is my lead of that demographic, but the writer director and most of the heads of department behind the camera are also queer.

Torien Cafferata: That's awesome. Is there anything maybe that you'd want to say to like queer sci fi horror artists or, you know, people out there who might want to be like starting a career in that?

Mily Mumford: For me, the most important thing is just following what I'm passionate about, and what gets me really excited, following the dopamine is inevitably what I will do. But I think also, this is advice that I've gotten a lot from people in my life where, you know, I will start writing something or I'll be diving into the research on a project. And I will get really tied up in making it not similar to things that have been done in the past or are trying to chase this like, original idea. And I think as humans, all of our stories are remixes and images of stories that have already existed. But the the advice that I have gotten is no one has told that story, from your specific perspective, before, you know, your own voice is going to make anything new. And I think that's especially true for queer and trans creators for bipoc creators. No one has told X story from your perspective before. And that's what makes it really cool and really exciting. So I think for people starting out, I wish I had followed that advice sooner, because I think it would have saved me a lot of heartache and fear. Just know that you know, whatever story you're going to tell if it's coming from you and your heart and your experiences, it's going to be different, because it's coming from you and not anyone else.

Torien Cafferata: I love that. Yeah, I definitely resonate so much. Because I also will like, like, go out and see like a bunch of fringe shows or something. And I'll be like, Oh, I, you know, the boldness and the imagination of that show. And then I'll go home and be like, Okay, I can't I but I have to make it unique somehow, like, you know, like you get in your own head of like, how do I make this original? And it's really almost like that question itself kind of like gets in your way, because it's like, well, no, but just do Just do what you love. And maybe that does mean that you're working in a particular like, genre or pastiche that has like, it feels very much like, oh, a mashup of these several things, but you still find your own voice in it just by doing it. Yeah, yeah, I, I relate to that. I'm kind of curious about the way that you, I asked this, because this was what my committee asked me my thesis, and they were like, how do you evaluate the success of your work? Because I'm really interested in Yeah, I'm really interested in like, like mad art and embracing things like failure and messiness, and different kinds of measures of success that aren't like, overly capitalistic. And, and so, but I was kind of stumped by this question. So I'm kind of curious for your for yourself, like, do you have like, an evaluative lighthouse that guides you of like, this is this is when you're, you know, when you're making progress, or when you're successful, whether that's like something you get from yourself or your peers or community critics? Is it pleasure? Is it understanding? Is it discomfort? You know, what does it look like?

Mily Mumford: Oh, that's a really good question. I have actually been struggling with this exact question a lot. This year, I've applied to more things and opportunities this year than I think I ever have in my life. And I've gotten more rejections this year than I think I ever have in one year in my life, like a hilarious amount. So I've been also kind of struggling with that. Feeling like I haven't made a lot of progress, and trying to figure out what my evaluation mechanisms are, that are outside of capitalism, and also this kind of like, rush for accolades. And you know, these status markers of like, oh, my gosh, you did it, you got your feature funded, you got your and these are still really important. I still want to get projects funded and be able to make them. But I've been trying to figure out like, Okay, well, you know, when these things don't happen, in the timelines that I create for myself, how do I still measure success? Because I think a lot of it, is that kind of that machine of comparing yourself to other people.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah. Repitition and productivity, so...

Mily Mumford: Yeah, which I hate? I still do it all the time. You know, I'm always comparing myself to other people. And I'm trying to get away from that. And

Torien Cafferata: And how do we? Give us, let's figure it out right now.

Mily Mumford: I don't know, I mean, I've been really trying to think about my favorite thing in the world is creating things with friends. Like at the end of the day, that's all I kind of want to do is be able to sustain myself and other people by creating things with my friends. And I really shy away from any kind of situation where I'm competing with friends as well and blank. No, you know, we're all on our own journeys and so trying to get away from it. Thinking about that comparison, I think the thing that I have had trouble shaking is sometimes I get timelines in my head of like, Oh, I've got to achieve this thing by this age or this thing by this time. And those self imposed timelines are almost harder for me to shake, then seeing what other people do at certain ages, because those I'm like, Oh, well, they're on a different journey, they had maybe different resources, or they worked on something harder at a certain point in time than I did. And like, that's great, they should have those things. But those self imposed timelines are extremely hard to shake. For me.

Torien Cafferata: And I think so much of that must come from just thinking this for myself as an artist as well I think of like, what are the ways in which my own metrics my own like self metrics, or my own timeline has been inspired by this like, idealized version of myself that is constructed out of these like a Blists going back to Nero, spiciness, the like very ablest and sanest kinds of frameworks or productivity standards, standards of success. And that's why this stumped me too, because I was like, Well, I know what looks like success in like my peers or my community, what they might look at and think like, oh, Torian is doing well or not well, but for myself, I realized that it's it's really hard to disentangle the ways we've been taught to like, punish ourselves. Yeah, going back to things like, like the shame monster, the shame demon shaman demons.

Mily Mumford: Yeah, um, yeah, I mean, for me, too, what I've been trying to figure out is, how do I find the joy in writing and creation again, because when I'm doing it, I love it, I'm having the best time. And I went for all these opportunities this year that I didn't get. But I also didn't actually do a ton of writing, I didn't actually do a ton of creation, I was spending a lot of time this year chasing things, and not sitting in the well, I'm really passionate about this idea, or this project right now. I'm going to kind of shut out the world a little bit and work on it. I did things that bring me joy a little bit less, like I didn't see people as often. For me, I think measuring success is also about being able to have conversations and share the joy of life, with the people around you and with your friends. So I feel like this year, I need to do more of that. So I'm a little bit more socially and creatively stimulated to be able to get things done. Because I think I went a little stir crazy, I spend a lot of long, lonely hours in my house, working on applications, when I should have been going for like tea with the PALS or, you know, having people over for dinner, so.

Torien Cafferata: I feel that I feel so much that like yeah, when you're when when like the amount of writing you're doing is like more for applications than it is for your own creative work. It could be like so, like, I feel like I'm an artist right now. I'm like, oh, producer. And what it produces is like, a lot of rejections. Yes. Like, that's the thing I'm producing my own rejection.

Mily Mumford: Like, oftentimes, these in the arts, these applications are so personal, you know, you're telling your own story about, hey, this is me, this is who I am. This is the kind of art that I want to create. And so when you get to know, you know, it's not personal, it has, there's so many different factors to it. It's so subjective and time based, but you still you can't help but feel it a little bit personally, because you're like, Well, I took my heart out and put it on this platter for you to be like, This is who I am. And you didn't like it. But I think I've really noticed that the things for me that helped me come back to who I am, are very community based. Like sometimes I actually just like I got a really big rejection. This year, I applied for funding for a feature film, and didn't get it. And I was a mess. And I went out for pasta and wine with a couple friends. And they just like, within two hours, kind of like beat that self hatred out of me. And you know, and I've also done that for friends on the flip side where I'm like, no, no, like, you're awesome. Like, don't, don't let this one rejection define you. And I think having that network of support and community is so important as creatives because I think without it, especially if you are neurodiverse or you know struggle with mental illness, struggle with these things. You need those other people to be your sounding board because sometimes it's really difficult when our brains attack us and tell us certain things that might not necessarily be true.

Torien Cafferata: The shame demons.

Mily Mumford: Shame Demons.

Torien Cafferata: More exorcisms of the Shame Demons with our friends.

Mily Mumford: With our friends!

Torien Cafferata: What is one thing you wish you could more safely fail?

Mily Mumford: Oh no. Um, probably writing, even though I feel like writing has been my first and main gateway into all the things that I do. I've written for as long as I can remember, I get very hard on myself about it. And it's very challenging for me to complete a first draft because of it, because I will be constantly going back, you know, while writing that first draft and trying to fix things as I'm trying to get this first draft out. And I think I need to be more comfortable with my first drafts being God awful, because they always are, you know, even if you're an amazing, professional writer, there's always going to be aspects of your first draft that are absolute crap. And I think I've also heard enough writers that I love and respect say that, that it's starting to kind of sink in a little bit. But yeah, I think first drafts are something I need to be more comfortable at feeling at because I spend so much time agonizing about making them better when I just need to get them out so I can make them better.

Torien Cafferata: Yeah, It makes me think of what we're, we were talking before about like, this, like pressure of a particular standard of productivity, we're so like, afraid of failure. And we have to shame around failure, because we never see, like the first draft that Jordan Peele wrote for, like, get out or us like, we don't know what that first draft looks like. Because, you know, he wrote it, and it was like, no one's reading this. And then like, what, and then like, rewrote it with his editor, dramaturge, et cetera. And it's like, the process can be so invisible. And it goes back to like, making stuff with friends and community and being like, hey, like, How's everyone doing? And realizing that Oh, no, we're all human. Even the ones we see as we put on this, like pedestal like, oh, no, yeah, they were also just like, making messes with friends. And, and they just kept doing it.

Mily Mumford: Yeah, exactly. I think that is also something that I've really realized is some of us get lucky early in the creative arts, you know, sometimes, some of us really start getting those bigger contracts earlier, but a lot of us get it just because we kept going and we kept working on whatever we were passionate about. And how much endurance is important in the creative and in the scientific? That's great.

Torien Cafferata: I'll be honest, the discussion left me tender, maybe it's impossible to dissect our brains without exposing them to the elements. But as any horror fan knows, darkness like joy is always better when shared and solidarity. And it was a vital reminder of how valuable it is to find those friends who can help you with your shame demon exorcisms. This has been Torien Cafferata. Thanks for dropping by After School.

Stephanie Werner : Thanks to Mily Mumford for letting us share in their heartfelt conversation on overcoming shame seeking community in the arts and following your dopamine FCAT after school is produced by Emma Jean, Torien Cafferata and Stephanie Werner. With help from Stu Popp and Tessa Perkins Deneault. We respectfully acknowledge the Musqueam  (mus-kwee-um), Squamish (squa-mish), Tsleil-Waututh (sail-wha-tooth), Katzie (kat-zee), Kwikwetlem (kwee-kwet-lum), Qayqayt (key-kite), Kwantlen (kwant-len), Semiahmoo (semi-ah-moo) and Tsawwassen (tsa-wah-sen) peoples, on whose unseeded traditional territories our three campuses reside, and we're many of the stories shared in our series take place. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure to leave us a rating and subscribe to FCAT after school wherever you listen to podcasts. You can follow us on social media at FCAT at SFU. That's f c 80 at SFU across all platforms for feedback or guest suggestions, reach us by email at F cat en All links in the show notes. See you next time.