Divine fury

Travis Stevens on artistic collaboration in A Wounded Fawn

by Jennie Kermode

The Furies in A Wounded Fawn
The Furies in A Wounded Fawn Photo: Tammy Scannavino

They say that those whom the gods wish to kill, they first make mad. Bruce (Josh Ruben) is such a man, a serial killer in the process of grooming his latest victim, Meredith (Sarah Lind). But what Bruce doesn’t know is that, in turn, he too is being stalked – by the Furies of Greek legend. A Wounded Fawn is a bold exercise in experimental filmmaking with expands upon a horror premise with elements of fantasy and dance. Its director, Travis Stevens, has worked as a producer for many years – we last spoke about his work on high octane heist thriller 68 Kill – so when we met to discuss this new project I asked him why, instead of playing it safe, he chose to make the leap into directing first with Jakob’s Wife and then with this.

“For me making a film, I think of it as making art, not just entertainment,” he says. “And if you think of it as making art, what is your emotional connection to the thing that you're making? The movies that I've made so far, they’re ideas I wanted to explore, and therefore they had value to me even if they were a little unconventional, thematically on the nose, or whatever. I'm like, ‘I don’t care, I'm making punk rock art over here.’” He laughs.

Josh Ruben as Bruce
Josh Ruben as Bruce Photo: Tammy Scannavino

So what was it about the Furies in particular that appealed?

“Well, I had been unfamiliar with them. I didn't study the classics in college. I came in completely blank. And so when I was trying to find my way into the story, the idea of using symbolism, both visual symbolism and narrative symbolism, was my flashlight through the story. What I was interested about with the Furies was what they symbolise. What they symbolise throughout the history of art, whether it was in the original plays, or in the paintings that have been done over the decades, and what they symbolise now.

“What I saw in my research was this idea of tormenting someone not being the same as physically harming them. Although, you know, in different offshoots, there's examples of that. But I like the idea of they are just there to point the finger at the wrongdoer and try to get the wrongdoer to admit what they've done. That seemed like something that would be really interesting for 2022, which is a different form of justice.”

There’s a Leonora Carrington quote at the start of the film - “I suddenly became aware that I was both mortal and touchable and that I could be destroyed” - which was actually written about her recovery from mental illness and the process of regaining her sanity. I tell Travis that it interests me because it suggests that perhaps what the furies are doing is not making Bruce more mad, but is making him more sane, and that that’s what he struggles to bear.

“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, I think this is a movie about two characters’ perceptions of the world. They have two very different subjective experiences of what is happening. And I think Meredith is, in the first half, clocking a sort of infringement on her, and she's trying to calculate whether or not it's an issue, not letting stuff slide. That's one sort of experience. And then in the second half, we have Bruce, and he has a completely different experience. But they're both the idea of the way they see the world, whether or not they're accurately assessing what's happening. And for me, the Leonora Carrington, that's sort of what she went through in her life. In terms of where she was in her artistic career, where she was in her relationship with Max Ernst, what happened in Spain in in that institution and how it changed her. I felt there could be a parallel to what Meredith as a character was also experiencing, and that could be an interesting way into the story.”

Sarah Lind as Meredith
Sarah Lind as Meredith Photo: Tammy Scannavino

Serial killers in films are frequently framed in the same ways, I note. It makes me wonder if there's an illusion or form of madness created by cinema, which tells men in Bruce’s position that they are invincible.

“Yeah,” he agrees. “I think Sarah, who plays Meredith, raises it the best, which is, the final scene of this movie is watching this clown eviscerate himself because he can't bring himself to admit the reality of who he is. And that was what was interesting to me. I mean, we've seen different types of serial killer films, and incredible films, so if you're going to make one in that sub genre, what are you going to do that we haven't seen before? And I thought that idea of getting inside his head and seeing the grandiose way he sees the world, and then just popping that delusion like you’d pop a balloon with a needle was kind of a fun, new way to explore that.”

I really love that final scene, I tell him. It feels as if the whole film builds up to it. Most directors will never keep the camera focused on one thing that's happening like that for so long, and it's that length of time that pushes it into a slightly absurd space and actually makes it work. Was that something which he felt confident about doing from the start?

“The way I try to schedule our shoots, to make sure that we have our rhythm by the time we get to the end of the movie, I try to do it chronologically. And I try to write the scripts with production in mind, so that the actors can be ready for those big moments. And by the time we got to that scene – I think it was the second to last day of the shoot – we were in harmony with each other. I was able to say ‘Hey, we're going to do this in one take. We're going to roll the entire roll of film on it. You know these characters. You know what the story is about. This is the last shot of the movie – go for it.’ And both Josh Rubin and Sarah Lind, they just nailed it.”

“For me to just sit back and watch those two performances and watch those two actors sort of play – it becomes like a theatre play, where it takes just two actors on a stage and nothing's happening other than what they're doing, and that was really fascinating. We left there feeling like we nailed a guitar solo or something, when we went home that day. That was awesome.”

Something in the woods is watching
Something in the woods is watching Photo: Tammy Scannavino

Sometimes being able to draw on his production experience is useful, he says, but he’s cautious about it.

“I think it definitely helps inform what I think is possible. I'm trying to box up my producer brain and put it away and just think more as a writer/director and not handicap myself with production reality, moving forward, but it definitely has helped because on me smaller budget movies I know what's possible if you hire the right people and you schedule it in a way that allows you to figure things out, even though you don't have all the fun toys. And, yeah, we are who we are as humans, and you take whatever your life experience has been up until the moment you're doing that thing, and it informs what you're doing.

“We have spent so much time together over the course of making the movie and the festival run and talking about it, and yet every time I talk about Sarah and Josh, the joy in my heart is so pure and immediate, I really think of them as true collaborators, real friends. They're so talented, they understood the movie, and the movie would not work without their brains, their passion and their hearts. It's a dance, right? What we made is basically like a dance piece. They're the two dancers, and they work wonderfully together. And they work great with me and I felt so comfortable working with them, because they're so smart. I talk a lot, and I'm talking in abstract concepts, and they could process that in a way that they could then enact. So I'm grateful to them.”

We talk about gender in the film, and the assumptions people make about gender, and how he also pushed the envelope in Jakob’s Wife by having an older female lead and a gender-ambiguous vampire.

“I don't know if I have a firm grasp on it, to articulate it well, but when you see what is happening in the world in terms of gender dynamics, or gender identity, and you see an opportunity to incorporate that into your world that you're creating in the movie, then I think you have an obligation to,” he says. “I think the power dynamic between people who identify as men and people identify as women has been in each of the films I've done, but on A Wounded Fawn, bringing in more of a non-binary element was” – he hesitates – “like I said, I don't think I can really explain why it seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, I'd say because we're in dealing with a character's id and their ego, and their sense of identity is kind of flawed, that seemed to make sense. But, you know, the performer who played the Red Owl is non-binary. I feel like we have an obligation to incorporate all the colours in the world into the stories that we tell.”

A different kind of darkness
A different kind of darkness

Is that also opening up new spaces to explore and stories that weren't there before?

“I hope so. Even if it's not my story to tell, cool. This actor now has been in a movie that has gotten a certain amount of recognition, and maybe that helps them work on other stories. In Jakob's Wife – we shot that in Mississippi – I had this directive of like, in all of the supporting characters, let's cast actors from the community so that then they are in a higher profile movie, and they get future opportunities. And I think that's just part of our job as as filmmakers, to try to open doors for people.”

We talk about the locations in A Wounded Fawn, and the house in the forest which allows for a great contrast between very clean modern spaces and the wild spaces, reflecting the dichotomy of the characters.

“It was a pretty simple creative thesis,” he says. “I wanted to start in an environment where Bruce felt in control: cold, clean, modern. And then I wanted to end it in an environment where he was not in control: more natural, you know? The woods, the wild. And the house is the train station between the two worlds. It is out in the middle of nowhere, but it still has a clean, modern feel. And once he leaves the house that he's in, he's in more a world that he can't control.”

Travis is overjoyed by the way that people have been reacting to the film.

“The thing that brings me the most amount of happiness is that the work of so many of the collaborators, whether they were the actors or Vaaal, who did the score, because Ksusha Genenfeld who shot the movie, Erik Bergrin, who did the costume design – the fact that when people watch it, they're not just being like, ‘Oh, I liked the story,’ but they're like, ‘I love this aspect, or I love this aspect’ – it really felt like a group of artists got together to make the movie and everybody's contribution is being recognised. And that feels like a huge victory. I'm glad people liked the movie as a whole, but I also really like that people recognise the details and are getting pleasure from that."

A Wounded Fawn will be available to watch on Shudder from Thursday 1 December.

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