Guess who's coming to dinner?
A remote cabin in the woods. A series of damp days and long nights of velvety darkness. Over elaborate candlelit dinners, two middle aged sisters on very different paths in life vie for the affections of an old friend who just might be a vampire. Mickey Reece’s gorgeously stylish tribute to Seventies cinema, Climate Of The Hunter, which stars Mary Buss, Ginger Gilmartin and Ben Hall, made a splash at last year’s Fantasia and is now getting a multi-platform online release. I caught up with the Oklahoma director to talk about the film and the impact of suddenly finding fame with his 27th feature.
“It was more of a hobby for a long time. Now it's kind of become more of a career,” he acknowledges, still coming across as a bit shy about acknowledging his own talent. I ask if there’s a Scott Walker connection to the film and he says no, not beyond the title, but shows me the Scott Walker tattoo on his arm. It’s clear that, for him, a lot of the filmmaking process is intuitive, bringing together influences and ideas from different places. In this case, what kicked it all off was the location, when he was asked if he thought he could film there.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I can definitely make a movie here’,” he says. “And I knew the actors I wanted to cast. So it was like the location came, then the actors, and then the story. Or, I don't know, there's not much of a story or plot going on in the movie, it's just the script.”
I ask if all the dialogue was scripted beforehand or if he gave the actors room to improvise.
Almost all of it was scripted, he replies. “Kaitlyn Shelby, our production designer, would make the made the food and then she would tell me what the food was. And I was like, ‘Ooh, we have to do a voiceover of you presenting it.’ And then then at that point, I was like, ‘You might as well just narrate this little section too,’ just because I liked her voice. So that was improvised. I think the vampires in the room [in a dream sequence], I think the script just said that there are vampires playing poker in the room. And one of them says ‘Shut the door.’ I'm pretty sure that was improvised. And everything else is pretty much straight from the script.”
I ask if there were any particular films that influenced the film’s highly distinctive style, and he cites Harry Kümel’s 1971 horror drama Daughters Of Darkness. “If it doesn't take place in Daughters Of Darkness, it wouldn't take place in our film, stylistically, you know what I mean? That's our guideline.”
How did he work with the actors to get such intense performances out of them?
“Well, I mean, you kind of have to figure it out as you go along, and kind of model your movie around the performances, because it's never going to be exactly as you pictured. But in some cases, especially this one, it's even better than you pictured.
"We were definitely cracking up writing Wesley’s character" - Mickey Reece
“You know, we definitely we did a lot of prep. We did table reads and read through the script. With Mary and Ben, I had already worked with them, so it was more like kind of just getting Ginger to trust me, you know? We didn't know each other very well, we just met like three or four times before the movie, but we actually went out there and shot and then all of a sudden we're spending two weeks together locked in this cabin. So you can see the progression almost as she gets it, it's great, because we almost shot it in order. You can kind of see her in the story arc as she’s going off the rails, you know, halfway through the movie. She started to loosen up and understand the character more and trust me more as the movie went on. So that was a very organic performance and a very authentic way that we communicated and worked together.”
It’s difficult to balance the performances in a film like this...
“I think [Ben as] Wesley does kind of overshadow them. But I mean, it's kind of written that way and that actually makes the actresses, Mary and Ginger, seem more nuanced, in that way, because he's so big. So I think it works itself out organically with everyone really.
“We were definitely cracking up writing Wesley’s character, and just how ridiculous he was, like, right now he's going to launch into some other pointless story where he's just going to name drop and then try to sound really smart. We based it on kind of the normal vampire tropes. But as far as the personality of the character goes, I mean, that's just kind of what came out on the page. To me, if you're writing a movie, and it doesn't write itself, then it’s time to move on. You kind of, you know, just work through your inner thoughts in putting them onto the paper. So I guess that's kind of how it went. You start writing and you keep writing and then when you go back and read it, you're like, ‘Oh, this is cool, but I don't even remember it.’ So it's not like this procedural like, planned out thing. It’s the only way of writing that I know, but it also, you know, I could see where the audience would find it aimless because we definitely never strived to put a plot in there.”
Ginger Gilmartin and Jacob Ryan Snovel
Some critics don’t seem to know if they’re supposed to laugh or take it seriously.
“I think it's just a matter of their hit their senses of humour,” he says with a shrug. “Some critics think it's really funny. It's just a movie that's not for everyone. I didn't even think I was making a movie for this many people! I don't really create with an audience in mind. Whoever latches on to it, that's great. But it's always been more of like, it's selfish, you know, and it's self indulgent, just more like an expression thing. This is my art. This is what it is. Take it or leave it. Which is probably why I'll never get to work with like, you know, really big budgets. But that's okay. I'm happy with what I’ve got.”
It’s impressive that he has managed to make so many films without making any apparent concessions to commercial concerns. How does he get away with it?
“I work with no money,” he says. “Very small budgets. A lot of the times – well, every time, every time I've ever made a movie it has been on a very small budget. We did get the opportunity to work with more money on the next movie after Climate. It's called Agnes. That's definitely the biggest budget I've worked on. And I don't, you know, I'm not really interested in kind of moving up the ladder.”
He’s unhappy with the idea of making compromises, he explains, because to him it’s the art that matters.
“I understand how fucking pretentious that sounds. And that's basically like, I'm Wesley here, waxing poetical, but it's just I the way I learned how to do this. I didn't go to film school or anything. The way I learned how to make movies was by making a million movies, you know, just for fun with my friends. So you know, when some more money gets introduced with more crew and just more responsibility over the project or just selling it or anything, I don't even think that I'm capable of that.”
"We drew on all the classic vampire tropes" - Mickey Reece
We discuss the interest that his film has aroused among feminists pleased to see older women in glamorous leading roles, but he says he wasn’t trying to make a political statement, just to choose the best people for the job. I tell him that it’s the dog I feel sorry for, being surrounded by handsomely dressed people but having to wear a cone of shame.
“I know,” he says, laughing. “But come on, I had to use that cone!”
So how did he feel about Fantasia? Did he expect the film to get the kind of attention that it did?
“Well, you know, we premiered at Fantastic Fest in September 2019 and then just played a handful of festivals leading up to Fantasia, so I was just kind of like, ‘I guess the movie didn't really do anything, but that's okay, on to the next one.’ And then all the reviews started pouring in from Fantasia. I never got that kind of attention for anything in my life. So it was good reviews, bad reviews, I was just reading them all.”
The pandemic – awful as it is – has given him more time to do interviews and deal with media attention, he says, so from that point of view things that worked out well – and it hasn’t stopped him working.
“I've got two scripts I’m working on but also I've been editing through a lot of quarantine. I was editing a movie called Agnes, the movie that we shot after Climate. And yeah, I was able to get a new movie off the ground. It's called Country Gold and we start shooting it next month. Okay, so I'm so busy, just not shooting.”
Climate Of The Hunter is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Vudu, Direct TV, Dish Network and all major cable providers from Tuesday 12 January.