Jessica Michael Davis’ new short film “Betty Bites Back” puts a surprising twist on female empowerment. Based on the short story Vagina Dentata by her favorite author, Mindy McGinnis, it follows a woman who visits a plastic surgeon with a strange request: she wants retractable teeth installed in her vagina.
This wasn’t the first time Davis had tried to adapt one of McGinnis’ works into a movie. The first time, someone else beat her to the rights. But that near-miss ended being for the best, because it gave Davis the chance to focus on her 2023 feature directorial debut, Escaping Ohio. It’s a nostalgic teen drama that stars Davis as a high school senior torn between staying in her home town with the boy she loves, played by her co-writer, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, and striking out on her own in California.
By the time Davis and McGinnis got in touch again about adapting Vagina Dentata into “Betty Bites Back” — a nod to the feminist short story collection it was featured in called Betty Bites Back: Stories to Scare the Patriarchy — she and McGinnis were in perfect alignment. The author loved her idea for the short film version and this time, Davis successfully got the rights to adapt it.
Jessica Michael Davis on Making “Betty Bites Back”
“Betty Bites Back” sticks pretty close to the storyline of Vagina Dentata. Davis was able to use a lot of the original dialogue from the short story, but she put her own spin on it by adding in flashbacks to her character Betty’s past negative experiences with men who took advantage of her. She also added in a nurse in addition to the existing doctor character.
In a Brooklyn dentist office in 2022, it took Davis and her team just six hours to shoot “Betty Bites Back,” thanks to the well-oiled machine they had become after finishing shooting Escaping Ohio in its entirety, including pickup shoots, only a month before.
“We were in such a groove that it was the easiest thing ever. Like, it felt too easy,” Davis tells MovieMaker.
Filming also took place just a single week before she moved to Los Angeles. So, the footage sat on her shelf for a year while she finished edits on Escaping Ohio. Then, when it was time to bring it back out, she found that her world had gotten bigger.
As a result, she got some really exciting people to work on “Betty,” including Danny Madden, who contributed 2D animation to Everything Everywhere All At Once; executive Producer Jeffrey Weber, who also executive produced Chasing Chasing Amy, and colorist Arianna Shining Star Smaller, who was also the colorist on Netflix’s Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer docuseries.
In the future, Davis is hoping to be able to make “Betty Bites Back” into a feature.
“What I’m starting to marinate on is this would be the beginning,” she says, imagining a whole trajectory for Betty post-op.
“Then we’ll go from there and see, okay, so now that she has this, what happens?” Davis adds.
She drew inspiration for a potential feature version of the short on a particularly poignant quote by Frederick Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Exploring how Betty might use — and potentially abuse — the power of not fearing men is what interests her the most.
“I think it’d be really cool to see what it looks like for a woman to have this power and not have any fear. Just being able to kind of live her life unapologetically,” she says.
Somewhat in the sphere of Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut A Promising Young Woman, Betty might begin to seek out men through the lens of vigilante justice, only to risk embodying the very evil she’s trying to stop.
“I kind of love finding that line and that gray area of, oh, she thinks she’s doing this to help other women and seek revenge when the justice system can’t protect them. But in turn, she starts to become a monster herself.”
“Betty Bites Back” is currently being submitted to festivals. You can see a teaser for the short on Davis’ Instagram here.
Main Image: Jessica Michael Davis in a still from “Betty Bites Back.”