Whistle down the wind

Russell Friedenberg on America's troubled history, war, wild places and Wind Walkers.

by Jennie Kermode

"There’s the idea that they’ve brought back something from a foreign country but the challenge for the viewer is did they bring it back or has it always been here?”
"There’s the idea that they’ve brought back something from a foreign country but the challenge for the viewer is did they bring it back or has it always been here?”

One of the most hotly anticipated films at this year’s Frightfest, Wind Walkers is a tale of indigenous American cultures, centuries old curses, transgressions forgotten and repeated, invasion, infection and the damage done by war. It’s the first venture into horror for writer/director Russell Friedenberg, who took time out from travelling in the run-up to the festival to talk to us about the ideas behind the film and what it took to make it happen.

Russell’s first degree is in history and his father was a historian; it’s clear that an awareness of America’s past has always been important in his life, and he’s long had an interest in indigenous cultures. “I was raised in a hothouse environment where it was understood that we were in essence the bastard step children of European colonisers, as Americans,” he explains. “My wife of 16 years [producer and actress Heather Rae] is a Native American – Cherokee – and I have a child who is half indigenous. I didn’t have connections to that particular region [the Florida Everglades, where the film is set] but to begin with the film was going to be set in Idaho, in what was originally a Shoshone-Bannock area, and the claustrophobic element was them being snowed in. We couldn’t get the money there, and then when the financing came through and we realised it was gig to be shot near Tampa, I quickly realised that in that setting the Everglades could create that feeling of claustrophobia if they canoed in.

"They’ve gone overseas and done things that happened to their ancestors and now they’re the purveyors of this curse."
"They’ve gone overseas and done things that happened to their ancestors and now they’re the purveyors of this curse."

“I was interested in this idea about blowback when we colonise other cultures and what happens to us as a result. Of course, history is written by the winners so even within cultures their history is discarded. Indigenous cultures could not stand up against the firepower of the European colonisers so their traditions became more verbal and were passed down in a clannish way. For a lot of tribesmen, not medicine men, these stories are not known and are not told. I wanted to shine a light into the dark corners of that history.”

What we see in this film is complicated not just by the obscurity of history but also by uncertain personal histories.

“I’m always fascinated by the idea of the unreliable hero, heroine, protagonist or narrator,” Russell says. It’s interesting to me to have an untrustworthy lead character and in this story the perceived idea of insanity. We have to ask if we really know the exact truth about bringing back a virus, if you will. There’s the idea that they’ve brought back something from a foreign country but the challenge for the viewer is did they bring it back or has it always been here?”

Telling the story in this way meant that he could hint at a large scale disaster – we hear snippets on the radio in the cabin where our heroes are isolated – whilst keeping the drama personal and letting us get to know the people it’s affecting.

“For me it’s about the familial unit, led by the patriarch, and the ritual of going into the unknown world,” he says. “I wanted focus on the emotional relationships in the cabin and I wanted it to be a life raft, a free floating world while the wider world is falling apart.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick and his films always have this sense of a large world accruing mass against the central characters, so that was something I wanted to do here, so you don’t know if they can ever escape.”

As well as trying to survive physical dangers, some of the characters are struggling to escape from themselves.

"For me the transformation from human into wind walker is about asking ‘Who am I? What have I done? Where am I and where am I going?’"
"For me the transformation from human into wind walker is about asking ‘Who am I? What have I done? Where am I and where am I going?’"

“Through the story of the hunter that’s gone missing and is going through this burgeoning, cocoon like process, I wanted to find a first person way of vocalising what was happening. He’s excited that his hair is coming back and he no longer fears death but in a human, corporeal way it’s ironic and inconsequential at the same time. It’s why I wanted the hero to experience the transformation first hand. He is coming home from war and going through post traumatic stress disorder which means he’s really suffering from anxiety and just this feeling of being consistently displaced that for me was always the central feeling I wanted to give the film. For me the transformation from human into wind walker is about asking ‘Who am I? What have I done? Where am I and where am I going?’

“I have a number of friends that served, friends that have gone overseas and come back having to deal with PTSD and trying to reintegrate into their families in a world that is foreign to them. But I was also interested in the camaraderie that exists among warriors who are on their own island and unwilling to share their fears, doubts and beliefs with anyone that hasn’t gone through that same process, so it’s another life raft really, like the cabin.”

This is all fascinating stuff, but it’s notably not the kind of stuff that gets studios excited. Russell is amused when I ask if he had to pitch it differently.

“I pitched it in a completely different way! I always said to my wife, when making this movie, Europeans are going to get this better than Americans, because we’re a relatively new country so we don’t have benefit of hindsight on some of this So I didn’t pitch it as an indigenous film or an anti-war film or anything like that, I just pitched as horror film with supernatural elements, a slow burn character film that turns into an action film in the third act.

“I’m a theme based person so for me it’s all about the characters and the story is definitely secondary. For the hook into all that in this film I wanted to focus on the central family. Even though they’re indigenous they’re actually a very middle class American family, relatively speaking, and with that culture they’re distanced from their history, they’ve forgotten the stories, all except for the mother. So they’ve gone overseas and done things that happened to their ancestors and now they’re the purveyors of this curse.”

Wind Walkers poster
Wind Walkers poster

Russell notes his excitement at getting to work with Rudy Youngblood, star of Apocalypto – “he carried that movie from beginning to end” – whilst using a mixed ethnicity cast allowed for a more complex perspective on the central theme. “Kotz [played by Zane Holtz] is a character who went overseas with his best friend, who is indigenous, and he’s come back to family only to find his best friend gone missing. It sets up a lot of tension so it’s a good way into the story, for me. Being raised by this man and his family, partially, means they have this close relationship, and it’s partly due to his own responsibility that this young man has gone... Then of course there’s the internal antagonist of Sonny [Glen Powell] who is envious of those bold enough to have the balls to go overseas when he didn’t. He’s fighting a sense of emasculation so he’s constantly trying to prove himself within the group.

“I don’t think there really is plot, there’s only character. If you’re not emotionally connected to these characters you’re not going to go anywhere with them anyway. You’re not going to be ready for that change that takes place once they realise they’re being predated on.”

Next up for Russell is a thriller with Lena Headey which he describes as “like No Country For Old Men meets Vanishing Point,” but first there’s Frightfest. How does he feel about Wind Walkers screening there?

“I could not be happier!” he declares. “My independent film experience has been Sundance for the most part. Once I got involved in genre I quickly realised Frightfest is one of the best festivals in the world so I’m absolutely thrilled to have a world première there and I’m really looking forward to experiencing it with the fans.”

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