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Antlers director Scott Cooper on the legend of the wendigo and working with Guillermo del Toro

Antlers director Scott Cooper spoke to The Digital Fix about the legend of the wendigo and working with Guillermo del Toro

Antlers poster

Scoot Cooper’s made no secret of his fascination with Native American culture. His previous film, Hostiles dealt with the dark realities of America’s idealised Wild West and the treatment of the Native people. Cooper’s new film Antlers, though, explores a different aspect of the Indigenous people’s culture, the terrifying legend of the Wendigo.

Antlers is a gruesome and harrowing horror movie that uses the Native American legend of the wendigo to tell a story about the wrongs people commit against each other and the planet. As scary grisly as the monster movie is, and it gets pretty gory, the film’s got more on its mind than scares.

So when we were invited to talk to Cooper about his new fiendish film, we jumped at the chance, like a hungry spirit desperate for more delicious morsels of Antlers info.  We spoke to him about his love of horror, working with the king of the creature feature Guillermo del Toro, how he found the film’s brilliant star Jeremy Thomas, and lots more…

The Digital Fix: Scott, this is your first horror movie. And I want to start by asking you the big question. Are you a fan of the genre?

Scott Cooper: Oh, yeah, it’s one of my favourite genres. I think. Some of my first and earliest experiences as a filmgoer were with my older brother, who would take his younger brother to see films he shouldn’t be seeing or watching on LaserDisc or VHS.

It’s stayed with me ever since. So, when Guillermo del Toro came to me and said, ‘Scott, your last three films have been horror films, and nobody knows it. Would you consider a horror film?’ I said I would love to.

A scary dark corridor in Antlers

[Laughs] Were you aware you’d been making these ‘stealth horror films’? Or when Guillermo said that to you, were you surprised?

SC: You know, in a sense, I knew they were horrific experiences. Christian Bale and I did discuss the horrors of Native American maltreatment. We discussed the horrors that Rosman Pike’s characters would deal with in Hostiles, and I knew that Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch’s brothers were quite horrific in Black Mass.

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But nothing that dealt in terms of the [horror] genre like we’re dealing with it now. I mean, look, Guillermo’s a very astute film watcher and one who can analyse film, so I think he’s probably right to some degree.

So what was it then that tipped you over the edge into making something more overtly supernatural?

SC: Well, I love The Exorcist, it’s one of my favourite films, and it deals with the supernatural in a very grounded way. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now also deals with the supernatural in a very grounded way. And so does Alien, one of my favourite horror films, and even Kubrick’s The Shining.

It felt to me if I was gonna make a horror film that felt quite distinct from the stealth horror of my previous films. That to do it with the wendigo, which as we know is born out of Native American folklore and mythology, and Native American issues are so important to me that it felt like the perfect film for me to express myself in yet another genre.

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I want to talk a little bit about your cast because we knew that Carrie and Jessie Plemmons were absolutely sensational talents. But I want to talk about Jeremy Thomas. He is fantastic. Where did you find him?

SC: Well, in rural Georgia, and it was not easy. I think I read about 900 boys from the English speaking world. And a lot of the actors that I saw, unfortunately, were child actors. And that comes with having kind of domineering acting coaches or parents who are their acting coaches and these kids are programmed not to listen or take direction, and listening is the most important quality a great screen actor can have.

I also loved Jeremy’s physicality. There was a haunted quality to him. The way he moved the way he spoke his reticence, he seemed to me like a very quiet boy, which he is. And it seemed to me that he had a very rich interior life, which most of my characters do, because in my film, I whittled the dialogue down to the core, and try to express things on a very interior level. And he had all of those qualities. And I think his performance is as fine as anything I’ve seen this year.

Three people walk down corridor

Antler is a tough watch. How do you approach directing a child through some of the more adult scenes? Are you just upfront with him?

SC: Well, very carefully. First and foremost, I knew this was gonna be very tough on Jeremy and the young actor who was seven-years-old Sawyer Jones who plays his brother. They were going to be in dark attics, very cold and dark mines facing a giant wendigo, and these are seven and 12-year-old kids.

They’re still babies, right, whose brains aren’t anywhere near being fully developed, and as a father who directed his daughters in the opening of Hostiles, and I’ve worked with a lot of child actors, it’s really important to make them as comfortable as possible. And also to know that this is a big giant sandbox.

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Everything that we’re doing [onset] is make-believe, and nothing is going to harm [them]. And I would very often just sit next to the camera and feed them lines or walk them through or talk them through what was happening, how to respond to one another, where to look, the emotion that I wanted to evoke.

I mean, that can be seen as is over directing, certainly with Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, or Christian Bale. But for unformed kids who aren’t actors, I thought it was the best way to get a very naturalistic and moving performance.

The dad becomeds a Wendigo in Antlers

Let’s talk a little bit about Guillermo. I can’t think of having a better producer to have on a film like this, the king of monsters himself! What was it like working with him?

SC: I wouldn’t have made the film if he weren’t involved because he is the foremost monster and creature creator. Clearly a world-class filmmaker, he and his partner Miles Dale are just wonderful filmmakers and great, great producers, great guys.

Guillermo knows, as a director, and as a writer, what I’m going through at all times. As I’m writing the screenplay, as we’re creating the wendigo, the research I’m doing with Native American consultants, shooting it. How’s it going to move? How’s it going to photograph? How is something that’s so supernatural going to integrate into a very grounded world?

You know, it’s a largely practical monster as Guillermo always uses. So how do you augment that with CGI? So his experience, his time, his ideas were invaluable. And it was really a great experience. I love him like a brother.

Monster drawing from Antlers

I didn’t realise the wendigo was a practical thing! It’s so ambitious and large I just presumed it was VFX?

We went to great lengths to create it. It was Dorian Kingi who ultimately was animating the wendigo. All of Guillermo’s monsters, if I’m not mistaken, are largely practical. I think that’s critical for him in the success of his monsters, and never more so than here.

It was not easy, I have to say. To get it to move like he wanted it to move and to perform some of the things that we needed it to do. But you know, making a film, it’s always a team effort, but never more so than this. And look, marrying my sensibilities to Guillermo because we’re such different filmmakers. It’s a miracle that any of it works.

A woman screams in Antlers

I’m a huge fan of wendigos, I know that it’s a strange thing to say, but I find Native American folklore absolutely captivating. What was your first exposure to the legend?

Algernon Blackwood’s short story, I would say. Then just in speaking to all of the folks that I met in researching Hostiles and the wendigo, every so often would come up in conversation. So it was kind of fortuitous that Guillermo would present this to me, knowing that Native American issues are so important to me and then in working with our consultant, Grace Dillon and Chris Eyre, who’s also a filmmaker, he directed Smoke Signals.

I wanted a monster that kind of reflects our own demons and feeds off of our worst potential. Grace Dillon said to me that the wendigo takes on many forms, it manifests itself in many ways, but first and foremost, it’s a. And I wanted it to be the spirit of lonely places, the small town Sisyphus Falls, Oregon, stood in for the issues that people would rather not confront. The pain and misery that lives in all of us, the wendigo represents that and eventually, it’s going to escape and you can’t escape it.

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We also wanted it to represent the destruction of our natural resources, which is why it looks like it comes from a mine. It looks like its exoskeleton is made from iron or mantle. It has these embers that kind of emanate off of it, but it also represents the destruction of, of our bodies.

We have an addiction crisis in America, opioids, and alcoholism. All of these sorts of things kind of weave through the story, hopefully, in a subtle fashion, because there’s quite a bit of ambiguity in the film. And I prefer to pose questions and allow the audience to answer them themselves. I think if you demystify everything, that’s not the key to a successful story.

Kid lifts lid on bin

You mentioned that the glowing inside the creature and I thought that was a really interesting choice. And you say that that comes because it’s supposed to be a spirit of destruction?

Yes, that’s right and how we have pillaged the Earth and its natural resources, which we’re continuing to do in a very vicious cycle, emit greenhouse gases that are ultimately suffocating our planet, right? That’s the biggest crisis and the biggest monster that we all face. And that’s what we felt this Wendigo should represent, which is why the denouement takes place in a mine.

Again, if it’s the spirit of lonely places, and it manifests itself in many ways, it can manifest itself in a man who’s struggling with methamphetamines, who allows his young son to, have to feed him and help him and take care of him until he ultimately can’t take care of himself. And it also represents the Native American folklore in the mythology…

Ah, we have a friend who entered, I see.

[TDF’s cat jumped on the writer’s shoulder at this point in the interview]

My cat just wandered in! Clearly, Scott, he’s a big fan. You mentioned Native American mythology there. I believe you had indigenous consultants work on the movie? How important was it while adapting these? I hesitate to call them legends because I know they don’t see them as myths…

SC: They believe in it quite heavily. Well, it’s critical to the success of the film. And also for someone who is white Anglo Saxon Protestant, who’s telling a story of Native American folklore, it was vital, much as it was with Hostiles for me to educate myself on their issues, and to have people guide me who had lived it and people who know it.

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Grace Dillon is the foremost authority on the wendigo in North America. So in every facet of the film, did she guide me. And I think that was the only way to make this film so that it felt truthful to me, and honest, and representative of the pain that they deal with, and continue to deal with.

My understanding of Native American folklore is that you shouldn’t talk about the spirits, like the wendigo or skinwalkers, because talking about them has the potential to attract them. Did that cross your mind while you were making the movie?

SC: Well yeah but because I believe so strongly and passionately about Native American causes and I care about them so much, that I felt like that very truthful representation, hopefully, would protect me in some way. Because I can never espouse the injuries that we’ve unfortunately placed on them enough. So I wasn’t too concerned, but I’m aware of that.

And on that spooky note that’s all we’ve got time for. Thanks so much, Scott. I really enjoyed the film.

SC: Beautiful cat. Thanks, man. Great questions.

Antlers hits cinemas on Ocotber 29.