Unnatural colours

Jenn Wexler on punk movies, Chloe Levine and making The Ranger

by Jennie Kermode

Jeremy Pope in The Ranger
Jeremy Pope in The Ranger

The annual Arrow Video Frightfest has a reputation for picking out the cream of the horror crop, and that includes independent films that can more than hold their own alongside the big blockbusters but that might otherwise struggle to get the attention they deserve. This year’s opening film is The Ranger, and its plot – in which a group of teenagers in the woods find themselves hunted – might not sound like anything special, but its execution is something else. It’s set to give a big boost to the career of young star Chloe Levine, who plays pink-haired heroine Chelsea, and it’s the first Frightfest opener to be directed by a woman, Jenn Wexler. I asked Jenn about her original idea for the film and what made her feel confident that she could turn it into something special.

“For me what was really interesting was to make a cabin in the woods film but one that had this crazy colour palette,” she says. “I was really inspired by Lisa Frank, you know, the artist. I used to have all her folders and stickers and stuff. And I like that the movie is all about Chelsea’s childhood and trying to remember what happened to her when she was a child. She has those colours and aesthetics that I really liked from when I was a kid, I was excited to see a horror movie that had that aesthetic. I hadn’t seen a horror movie like that before.”

Frightfest opening film The Ranger
Frightfest opening film The Ranger

The other thing that marks the film out is how easy it is to care about the characters, who have much more going on than the usual slasher film axe-fodder. A gang of young punks on the run, they’re thoroughly obnoxious but also quite adorable and a lot of fun to be around.

“I think that my co-writer Giaco [Furino] and I just have a true affection and true love for these characters. We’re really into these punk series and movies like Suburbia and Class Of 1984 and stuff, and we just wanted to make a movie that embraces that. They’re juvenile delinquents but at their core they love each other and they’re friends, and they fight sometimes and they wanna kill each other sometimes but they’re friends and I think that’s something we all can identify with.

“It was a mix of wanting to combine those punk movies with the slasher element but also, I think, I watch lots and lots of movies – older movies and also new movies – so in the middle of mashing these Eighties genres together there’s also a character study of the Final Girl. We approached her storyline very delicately so there are moments where we’re lingering with her, staying with her, and I think that contrasts with the aesthetic that you see in a lot of those movies from the Eighties which are more objective. They don’t usually get so close to the main character... We just wanted to combine all those things together and I think that’s why it feels modern but also timeless.”

Chelsea seems a more rounded, complicated person than many horror heroines, I note. We’re invited to identify with her rather than just watch her running around.

“Dramatically something that was really important is that people around her keep trying to tell her who she should be, and she’s trying to cut through the noise and figure out who she is. She’s trying to find her path and make sense of the things that happen to her on her path but there’s just all this noise around her. And that’s something I think we can all really identify with – I know I really identify with it – just trying to listen to the core of Who am I?

"They’re juvenile delinquents but at their core they love each other" - Jenn Wexler
"They’re juvenile delinquents but at their core they love each other" - Jenn Wexler

“There’s also something in the context of punk versus park ranger. On the surface you could visualise that movie in this Eighties world, but there’s also something there in rebellion versus authority, and, you know, the punks wear their costumes and the park ranger wears his uniform as a costume so everybody has layers of what they’re trying to show to the world, like This is who I am, this is how you should see me. And meanwhile Chelsea’s not about that. She’s in that world and she feels those pressures but her journey is like trying to shed those layers.”

Both Chloe and Jeté Laurence, who plays Chelsea as a young child, are compelling in the role. How did she find them?

“We worked with a casting director, Lois Drabkin, and I was at South By Southwest last year, in 2017, and while I was there we were casting for The Ranger and Lois suggested I check out a movie called The Transfiguration and Chloe is one of the leads in that movie. So I watched it and although she played a completely different character her face was totally mesmerising and I could tell that she performed with so much nuance, and so I asked if we could have a meeting at South By and we met and she read the script and we talked about the character and we really bonded over the character of Chelsea. So after that I told everybody that she was Chelsea.

“Then in terms of young Chelsea, Jeté, Lois presented us with a couple of ideas, and we saw her performance in audition and it was just like, yet again, she was so young and yet she could play so many emotions at once, and I found that to be true also when I was working with her. I was giving quite complex directions because the character’s all about this inner turmoil, so I would gave her kind of conflicting directions and she was able to take those and perform like multiple feelings all at once. She’s a total talent and she’s actually currently shooting for the new Pet Sematary, which she has a main role in, so that’s really cool.”

The scenes she appears in in The Ranger are shot very differently from other parts of the film, and are differently paced. Was that important to making them distinctive and, perhaps to hinting at the unreliability of memory?

The Ranger poster
The Ranger poster

“Absolutely. For those memories we wanted it to have this like nostalgic Seventies feel to it, and then the movie itself is, like, I call it Eighties Dreamland because it’s not quite real Eighties, it’s just next to reality. they have this made up drug and we never see cell phones and stuff like that.

“In working with Chloe on Chelsea’s character, it’s all about Chelsea trying to remember this specific memory, and we were both really attracted to the idea that when something happens to you when you’re a kid, sometimes your memory will play tricks on you and you can’t quite remember exactly what happened so you fill in with false memory and you just keep thinking about it over and over. And although the ranger and Chelsea haven’t seen each other for a long time, he’s always been with her and he’s like the bogeyman figure in her mind.”

The film screened at Fantasia in Montreal earlier this year. What was that experience like?

“Oh, it was amazing! It was awesome. There were so many people in the room that there was actually no room for me or anybody from the film to watch it. We were all planning to watch it but literally the room was packed, there wasn’t even any standing space... It was so much fun. We had a really good time.”

And is she excited about opening Frightfest?

“Yeah! We’re so excited. We can’t wait. I’m going and so is Chloe, and Andrew [van den Houten] and Heather [Buckley] who are producers. We’re so honoured to be opening the festival. I haven’t been yet but I’ve heard some amazing things about it. Larry Fessenden, who’s one of the producers on the movie, has gone in the past and he raves about it, so just getting into the festival we were already so excited, and when we found out we were going to open it it was like insane.”

Does she have other films she’s working on now?

“I just produced Larry’s movie, it’s called Depraved, and shot it in the last couple of months. It’s a modern day Frankenstein movie that takes place in Brooklyn and I’m very excited about that and, yeah, just writing and stuff and we’ll see what happens next.”

Coming up – Chloe Levine on playing Chelsea and her own ambitions as a filmmaker.

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