Interview: Emma Tammi talks about her femme-focused horror Western ‘The Wind’

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Director Emma Tammi works behind the scenes of her horror Western “The Wind.”

Emma Tammi’s feature film directorial debut “The Wind” opens with a visceral, gruesome and distinctly feminine image: A plainswoman emerging from her frontier cabin, the front of her gown covered in blood and her arms holding a bundled baby.

“One of the things that really drew me to the opening was that it was so bold. And I thought, ‘If we’re gonna set the mood for what is certainly in the first half of the film is a pretty slow burn with something as graphic and gory, it should still have the stillness of imagery to really let us focus … and really let us settle in that moment on the characters,” Tammi told me in a recent phone interview.

“It added a little bit of mystery straight out the gate, because something horrific has clearly just gone down and we’re sitting in the aftermath of it – and we’re not sure what happened. And I think it lets you lean in as much as it lets you absorb what the tone of the overall film is about to be.”

The Western horror story, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, centers on Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard, “Insidious: The Last Key”), a capable German immigrant working to carve out a life alongside her God-fearing husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) on a remote stretch of the American frontier. When newcomers Emma and Gideon Harper (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee) set up homestead nearby, their arrival stirs up Lizzy’s dormant fears of a sinister presence haunting the land and sets off a harrowing chain of events.

Caitlin Gerard stars in the horror Western “The Wind.”

Western horror

After co-directing the documentaries “Election Day: Lens Across America” (2017) and “Fair Chase” (2014), Tammi made her solo directorial effort with “The Wind,” the first feature penned by screenwriter Teresa Sutherland. The movie finds horrific inspiration in real-life stories of women trying to weather the hardships of the American frontier.

“The premise is so compelling because not only was that theme of isolation so strong – and I think like inherently kind of horrific – but the fact that the script then took it to a much deeper horror space, I thought was really interesting and kind of an organic progression of what the character was feeling. Also, just revisiting that period of time which is so different than the one we live in right now and yet not that long ago. It’s kind of insane: I grew up in New York City and I live in Los Angeles now, and my mom’s from Oklahoma City and even going there a bunch growing up, these are all very populated areas. I just found something really engaging about getting into an environment where you saw so few people and trying to imagine what that might be like,” Tammi said.

“At times it jumps off into a more supernatural space, but I think at the heart of what is terrifying about this story is actually the everyday, mundane things that happened. Obviously, childbirth is not mundane, but it was an everyday occurrence out on the plains. Teresa had read several books that were compilations of women’s journals and diary entries from that time. And one of them is called ‘Pioneer Women’ and there’s a diary entry in that book where a woman accounts having given birth by herself. … This woman was completely by herself, passed out, woke back up, I think got water. You read these stories, these actual stories, and it’s mind-blowing. And again, the horror is in the everyday and the survival. We took it to more fantastical places at times, but it really was rooted in that. And I thought it was fun that we got to marry the real and the fantasy in this one.”

Caitlin Gerard stars in the horror Western “The Wind.”

Iconic imagery

Tammi opted to use iconic cinematic imagery – the lone cowboy riding across the prairie on horseback with the sun setting behind him, for instance – but to turn the story’s focus on the women who helped settle the West, instead of the men.

“I was so excited to dig into a Western in general because I think that’s such a fun genre and certainly one that I grew up watching. It was as exciting to me as the horror genre component of the film. What I thought was so great about Teresa Sutherland’s script was that she just basically turned the camera 180 degrees and just stayed with the women on the homestead. In some ways, it feels like such an obvious thing to at least make a couple of movies about not following the men into town and what were the adventures happening on the homestead – and yet I had never seen that movie before. So, I thought it was so simple in terms of its reinvention and really made it feel fresh and exciting to do,” Tammi said.

“I think it’s rare to get every range of emotion and character type and fully dimensional, fleshed-out female characters. … I loved that she (Lizzy) was just so complicated. She just seemed to embody every contradiction, but that was so true to life and fascinating to watch – and certainly fascinating to get inside of in terms of the performance. I think that’s rare in female characters that we see depicting in Hollywood time and time again.”

Tammi lensed her Western chiller in New Mexico, where she filmed the distance runners documentary “Fair Chase.” Her experience on that film was one of the reasons the producers brought her Teresa Sutherland’s “The Wind” script.

“Just straight out the gate, one of the reasons Chris Alender, one of our producers, had originally asked me to read the script was he really felt like this should be directed by a female,” Tammi said.

“From there, we kept looking for crew and creatives, heads of department, really based on our timeline and our budget. And I think a lot of women really gravitated towards this story and were excited by it, and it kind of ended up working out that a lot of women worked on it. But the producers were also trying to keep in mind that we really wanted to at least have somewhat of a balance on set – and we exceeded that – but I think it was a mix of intent and, again, just women being drawn to the story and wanting to work on it, which was so great. Really, it was such a strong crew and cast – both the females and males – in this production because I think everyone was really excited by Teresa’s script and overall vision for the film.”

Along with a female director, screenwriter and lead actor, the movie had women in several other key roles, including film editor Alexandra Amick, production designers Hillary and Courtney Andujar and set decorator Elsbeth Mumm.

“I think the strength of this story is that we’re able to go on the journey with Lizzy, our protagonist, as she questions and doubts herself, and as that wind – which … is really a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation that these women were experiencing out in the plains – as that starts to get to her and erodes her own sense of certainty and calm and trust, we really get to go on the journey with her through … questioning what’s real and what’s not.”

“The Wind” is currently in theaters.

-BAM

 

 

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