Interview by Caryn Coleman, Director of Programming/Special Projects at Nitehawk Cinema
I am of the belief that there’s never been a bad time for horror films, particularly if you’ve known where to look. But there is certainly a moment happening where filmmakers are creating works that relate to audiences more immediately than ever before. Perhaps it’s that horror is becoming increasingly inclusive, offering us more diverse perspectives on the world around us. Or maybe the idea of a genre filmmaking is more fully embraced by a new generation of independent filmmakers. Whatever way in which we can think about it, there’s no mistaking that we live in a time when we are getting really fucking good and unique horror stories.
Films like Emma Tammi’s The Wind are a part of this genre revolution. It’s expansive and isolating; shot like a true-blue western, The Wind tells the tale of “prairie madness” in the 19th century midwest as it tackles the frontier, demons, gender roles, and the ever-maddening howl of the wind. It’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s the real deal.
I’m thrilled that Tammi took the time to answer some of my questions about her debut narrative film. Take a read and then be sure to see it in the cinema (as it should be seen) at Nitehawk Williamsburg this week.
Caryn Coleman: I’d love to start off by asking how you connected with The Wind’s writer Tessa Sutherland to develop her short film, based on such a fascinating aspect the western frontier in the 19th century, into a feature?
Emma Tammi: We connected through one of the film’s producers, Chris Alender (Soapbox Films). He and Teresa are both Florida State University alums, and he had seen her short film several years ago and encouraged her to develop it into a feature script. Soapbox Films had come on to help with post-production for a documentary (Fair Chase) that I co-directed a while back, and they thought of me as a potential director for The Wind. Teresa and I met, and hit it off. We shared a vision for what the film could be, and really enjoyed the process of refining the script together. I hope to continue collaborating with her on other projects for many years to come.
CC: Can you talk a little bit about how you approached marrying elements of the western genre with the horror genre exploring themes inherent to both like isolation, madness, and the female experience?
ET: At its core, this film is a psychological thriller. The framework is a western, and the brutality of our characters’ daily lives pushes us into the horror space throughout the film (sometimes even heightened by the supernatural). This is all to say, we were dealing with an incredibly fun mash up of genres! But the theme of isolation and the specifically female POV of our protagonist (Lizzy) was the guiding compass that held all these elements together. As long as the creative choices supported Lizzy’s journey and internal struggles – which often manifest externally, as well – the blending of genres worked to strengthen the whole.
CC: The Wind, much like Robert Eggers’ The Witch, visualizes stories from American folklore that involve conquering land, religion, and the effects of solitude. And it does so in a way that centers around the relationship between a woman and nature (and makes the audience question as to whether or not what’s happening to these women is real or imagined). What is it about this sort of historical storytelling that interested you?
ET: When writing this script, Teresa had been inspired by actual historical accounts of women homesteading at the end of the 19th Century. I loved that this story drew upon a folkloric element of American history – the belief that women used to go mad on the plains because of the incessant wind – and then jumped off the deep end, into a totally new realm. One of the books Teresa used for research (“Pioneer Women”) was coincidentally a book I had picked up as a teenager, after visiting the west (Wyoming) for the first time in my life. I also visited the location of the classic western film Shane on that trip, which was awe inspiring. On multiple levels, The Wind was tapping into things that had captured my imagination growing up – only this time, with a much darker lens! But the most surprising and compelling element of the story was that it also felt incredibly relatable today. Lizzy’s emotional arc resonates in 2019, and I think that is the most exciting kind of historical storytelling – when it taps into the now.
CC: How did you work with your cinematographer, Lyn Moncrief, to develop the visual language of this film?
ET: During pre-production, Lyn and I were referencing a bunch of different films (as well as paintings, photos, etc.) to develop the visual language of this film. We decided to shoot with anamorphic lenses, to convey the vastness of the landscape and also capture a lot of empty space within the frame for our characters to interact with – often times increasing the sense of solitude and isolation, which ultimately escalates to fright. Once we got to our locations in New Mexico, our shot lists changed daily. We were continually trying to find ways to film the same cabins in new and interesting ways, and help emphasize the emotional and psychological states of the characters within each scene.
CC: And lastly, the cast. Caitlin Gerard is a revelation! Can you tell us how she got involved with the project and how you incorporated speaking German into her character?
ET: She is a revelation! Caitlin was one of the last actors who auditioned for this role, and we cast her within an hour. She brought huge range to this role, upon which the whole film hangs, and grit. I don’t think the character of Lizzy would’ve worked without either of those things, and she nailed it. We had a last minute table read of the script in LA before heading to New Mexico to start filming, and in a side-bar conversation, Caitlin mentioned that her mom’s side of the family is German and that she spoke the language fluently. Teresa and I had previously discussed incorporating an immigrant background (very common at the time) to the character of Lizzy, adding another layer to her struggle with this inhospitable land. Caitlin presented the perfect opportunity to develop that idea, so we tweaked the script at the eleventh hour to incorporate that element.