Wind Walkers (out now!) was one of the stand out films from this years FrightFest and I was lucky enough to have a sit down with Russell Friedenberg the writer and director of the movie who also happens to star in it.
Chatting over coffee in the apt Café in the Crypt at St.Martin in the Fields with Russel and his equally talented wife actress and producer Heather Rae, we discussed among other things Native American myths and legends, the state of horror cinema, the end of the world and the perils of making his movie.
Enjoy although look out for a few spoilers!
Love Horror: Starting at the beginning how did you come up with the idea for Wind Walkers?
Russell Friedenberg: I have always been fascinated with Native American indigenous mythologies. My father was a historian and often times his work was very related to Central and South American indigenous cultures and my wife Heather, who is also the producer, she’s Native American so in my life there seems to be this continual discussion with indigenous cultures mythology and spirituality.
I was fascinated by the shape shifting myth in indigenous cultures, the Wendigo, the Wetiko, the shape shifter so I got into this idea where I really wanted to use that to make an anti-war film, that was my first thing. We don’t live in an era any more where you can make just a straight anti-war film, you’re not going to make Coming Home, you’re not going to make Deer Hunter, first of all in today’s culture especially in America where there is this sort of distance from it where no one will touch it because it’s too real.
I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of these indigenous myths because some of them talk about this spirit that was conjured to take redemption or revenge against the colonials, against the white man if you will or whatever shape or form that they come in, for taking their natural recourses’, their heritage , their culture, their land. That’s interesting for us as a modern culture because we’re continuing to do that in foreign countries. Now even indigenous Native American kids are going off and serving as representatives of this so they have forgotten those stories.
I made this link about Wind Walkers a spirit that was conjured back in time if you will to take redemption against the colonialists. In the night it would come and take them for what they had taken. Accessing this as a point or as a mythology I thought perhaps this myth exists everywhere. The ultimate point of it is, does the world know that we shouldn’t be doing these things.
Love Horror: So it’s almost like the Earths reaction to all the terrible things humans are doing to the planet and turning it back onto us?
Russell Friedenberg: There you go, absolutely. For me when I was creating the virus or this idea of how this gets into us it was all about consumption. Whether we are taking the culture, the heritage, the land, the natural resources of others we are consuming. So ultimately this virus makes us consume one another, it becomes a cannibalistic virus because that’s the ultimate consummation.
Love Horror: You spoke about real Native American myths, was the Wind Walkers legend a real one or did you invent it for the film?
Russell Friedenberg: That’s on me, that’s mine. In indigenous cultures there is not this separation that we have in modern Anglo culture between spirit and corporeality. Talking as an outsider, for them conjuring spirits is not something outrageous. They have the same relationship to the world as a whole to the biosphere to living breathing things to animals and birds that’s the same relationship they have like you and I are talking right now. They have the same relationship to spirits so them conjuring a spirit is them just saying to whatever forces that exist that they take care of and have a relationship with “look this is wrong and we are asking you to help.”
Love Horror: What I really liked about Wind Walkers is how it jumped genres all the way through keeping the audience guessing. What was great is that you never say “here is the answer to it all” you left it in the wind I guess so you can make your own mind up. It really elevated the film above a lot of other horror movies for me.
Russell Friedenberg: (Laughing at my bad pun) Thank you. The people that like the movie like it because of its ambiguity. Heather and I were talking about this on the way over and I said “the people that aren’t going to like this film are the ones that have to have an answer.” The human mind is a meaning making machine, we want to know all the answers. If you watch The Walking Dead they never tell you who created that. That sort of unknowing “how did it get here?” that creates its own terror.
Listen when the end of the world comes because you know every species has gone extinct on this planet and we will at some point too, we won’t know what happened. Something will happen, whether it’s the frozen tundra and some microbe that is released because of global warming and all of a sudden we are all dead in 24 hours. We are not going to have a moment to look around and say “what just happened?” It’s going to be ambiguous.
Love Horror: There are films that are too vague and if you can’t grab on to something it’s not scary. Wind Walkers had a great balance and in fact what you were afraid of kept changing as much for the audience as it did for the characters. At first it seems like someone is pranking them, then there is an actual person hunting them, then it seems supernatural, then it’s an infection…
Russell Friedenberg: Exactly and along the way the guys are blaming Kotz (Sean Kotz played by Zane Holtz) because they he knows something, he’s hocked into this somehow. He’s popping pills, he’s going through PTSD, he certainly has some relationship to Matty (Rudy Youngblood) who served with him overseas and what happened with him over there was a secret. Are they in cahoots together, did he set these folks up to bring them out here? I loved the idea of what they call in storytelling the unreliable protagonist. There’s all that stuff playing underneath it that I hope keeps you glued to the unravelling of the onion if you will.
Love Horror: It must be hard writing and directing and acting in a film and making sure to keep the balance between every element?
Russell Friedenberg: It is. To be honest with you I had such great actors and they understood subtlety. I am always amazed especially with the younger actors. Zane was 26 when we did this, Glen (Powell) was 23 Kiowa (Gordon) was 23, Phil Burke was maybe 30 and Castille (Landon) was 21 and I am always surprised at the ability of these younger actors to understand the subtlety of the work. There not trying to ACT. I’m older but I often find in my generation just in a 15 year difference that there is this real need with actors to really express and think “now we’re hitting that moment.” These guys really understand the sublime nature of those subtleties, they were very intelligent as a group of actors.
I was very fortunate to have time with them to talk about the film. Honestly if you’re not emotionally connected to these guys as a group if there not really connected to one another you’re not going to give a shit when things start unravelling on them you know? It was all about creating that relationship and spending time with one another and talking about the backstories and who screwed around with who and who betrayed who and who grew up together. Sonny (Glen Powell) obviously feels like an outsider even though he’s an insider because he never served over there and he feels emasculated in that regard. Perhaps he has something going on with Lexi (Castille Landon) behind everyone’s back. Those little things just create those moments. I think those where really important for the audience to connect with.
Love Horror: You have a great cast and some very interesting characters because they are the sort of macho guys that in a normal horror film would be the fodder that is bumped off in the first act. With those sorts of characters it’s all about not showing your feelings but in Wind Walkers you can see them unravelling emotionally as fear and suspicion sets in making it much more powerful especially in the scene between the father and son played by J. LaRose and Kiowa Gordon.
Russell Friedenberg: J. LaRose is great, J as a person is a real family man, he has 2 kids and he’s been married 25 years, he is a family man. We really worked with that and I said “you’re the patriarch of this group, you keep this group together.”
Heather’s from Idaho and we have 3 kids we’re back in L.A now but Idaho is an interesting place because extended family is just as important there in a lot of ways as blood family. For me when I was creating this group as a writer it didn’t matter that they we’re not all related.
Certainly you have Neelis (J. LaRose) whose lost his son Matty whose gone off and he’s taking his son Jake (Kiowa Gordon) on his first hunting trip and there blood related and of course he’s a little bit on the back of his heels because his wife is clearly emotional having a very stretched time because of the sons disappearance. Also she’s really connected to something gone awry. He’s culturally related to that but he’s trying to man up about it being ironical more than anything else.
So there are all these touch stones about him being this leader but it’s so interesting because the world in which we live in you don’t have to be blood related to be family and I wanted to really touch into that too. Neelis is older but he’s just as close to Kotz because he’s the same age as his son in a friendly way as he is to his son in a paternal way.
My character who is a little bit older than the rest of them, he’s connected in his own way to them even though he has a little daughter and a wife. He’s going off to hunt but it’s his time to free up and be a kid again in a lot of ways. I think those where all the little nuances that helped.
Love Horror: With that I guess you’re also reflecting the family you form in the military which is your unit and your loyalty to your brothers in arms and the people you are serving with. You see glimpses of Kotz’s time fighting overseas but again they only hint at the horrors he has seen which works brilliantly.
Russell Friedenberg: Right yeah. You know when he falls into that pit and he starts realising that what he’s seeing on the sides are the same hieroglyphs he saw in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever you think he went to war where he was a prisoner of war and where this disease was coming on, this manifestation of colonialism, this blow back if you will, and that Matty has created this world here and is trapping him in it I wanted little touchstones for people to pick up and I’m glad you picked up on all the subtleties.
Love Horror: Thanks but it’s all in the film and in the power of your direction to be drawn out by the audience. I think if you want to watch Wind Walkers as a straight up horror there are plenty of good jumps, tension and action it’s still entertaining if you don’t choose to see all these other sides to it.
Russell Friedenberg: That’s wonderful thank you. The idea was to make a really good genre movie, a popcorn movie but have something to say. I think that there is so much product out there and I could make a straightforward horror film like a zombie film with my eyes closed. I think it’s a little bit more challenging and a bit more necessary in today’s market to have something to say.
Love Horror: And horror’s a great genre for that as you can explore themes and ideas without overtly saying so.
Russell Friedenberg: You are probably much more literate in the genre than I am but I think it’s pretty safe to say that horror doesn’t get political too much these days. I think it’s a fertile ground for expressing politics the same way that science fiction is. I think it’s nearly almost impossible to do a science fiction film and it not to be political on some levels. Horror is recused from these things. You see mythology going into horror more frequently than politics because it lends its hand to it when your building the mythos of a creature or a place.
I was asked in the press line at FrightFest the other day my thoughts on horror and I said I thought it was an underused genre. You get these movies like Sinister and all these films that there’s a primal fear when you go to them and they’re scary absolutely, they have moments that freak you out. But what are you getting out of them? If you’re going to donate 2 hours of your time I want to leave there thinking.
Maybe that’s me, maybe I’m just a cerebral artist but I don’t want to leave there going (in a zombie voice) “man that’s was scary!” Why did it scare you? Did it scare you on a primal level because you’re really being challenged by something that could happen? Did it make you look at your world in a different way? I don’t know I think as artists we have to take responsibility for the medium that we’re in and say something.
Love Horror: It’s interesting you saying that because American horror has been extremely political in the past with Romero’s stuff and more but maybe directors are more afraid now as you pointed out with how hard it is to make a straight up anti-war film. Personally I see a lot of foreign countries where horror is only just emerging as a valid genre where they are using it to speak about their own experiences, cultures, religions and politics. It’s sad Hollywood horror is stuck just making safe sequels and remakes to get audiences spending more money.
Russell Friedenberg: Yeah I mean even when you look at classic stuff like Aliens right we all love that, Ridley Scott, that’s a brilliant piece of film making but what makes it brilliant ultimately is Sigourney Weaver’s character ends up on a primal level having to save Newt as a mother and the final showdown between her and the alien is the alien mother trying to save her own progeny. What he’s doing there is brilliant because it’s primal, its survival of the species, it has something to say you know.
Love Horror: It’s true. I think you would love some of the films at FrightFest this year. Have you had a chance to enjoy the festival at all?
Russell Friedenberg: We got the chance to experience the festival but we didn’t get a chance to see any of the films. Do you have anything you recommend?
Love Horror: There’s lots of good stuff but The Nightmare is fantastic, it’s about sleep paralysis and it’s by Rodney Ascher who did Room 237 The Shinning documentary.
Russell Friedenberg: I loved Room 237. I love that documentary. I taught the films of Stanley Kubrick so I am a big Kubrick fan. I thought some of his arguments where fascinating and some of them where just out there. I would love to see that! What was the directors take on nightmares, where they come from and everything?
Love Horror: Well in the film each interviewee has a very different perspective on it. One sees it as a spiritual thing, one thinks it’s interdimensional, one just thinks he could be mad.
Russell Friedenberg: Its interesting I had never heard of sleep paralysis and now two times in the last 12 hour period it’s been brought up. Our friend one of the gentlemen involved in the film, he had an experience what he thought was a spirit or an entity and he didn’t know if it was real or sleep paralysis. It’s like you know if you have an idea twenty other people have the same idea that day. It’s almost like there is a grid we are all linked up to.
Love Horror: You said how much you loved Kubrick did his films influence Wind Walkers at all?
Russell Friedenberg: How can you not be influenced by The Shinning. The thing about The Shinning that I love and I think you’ll agree with me because you seem to be connected with what I’m trying to do, is the ambiguity.
Love Horror: Oh yeah definitely.
Russell Friedenberg: The Shinning is an ambiguous film. You can watch that film 100 times and there are 4 or 5 different movies in there that you can totally go for. He breaks his rules all over the place I think in a lot of ways much more than I do in my movie.
He sets up this tragic character in the guise of Jack Nicholson and this kid who has already had a violent episode with the dad but he has these abilities to see things. Then coincidentally someone else has the same powers at the Overlook Hotel that the kid can connect with. Then Jack gets there and there’s this idea that he was perhaps already there before in the time continuum. There’s things that you go “What!” but there brilliant because they challenge you in terms of the film that you’re watching.
Love Horror: Did any other films influence you?
Russell Friedenberg: Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now is one of my favourites again horror in a way that’s deeply psychological and disturbing because it’s very odd, it’s a very odd film. It has that very strange ending which is brilliant and scary at the same time. The Changeling George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere, the claustrophobia of The Thing…
Love Horror: I can definitely see the link with The Thing in the characters relationships and the paranoia that overtakes them.
Russell Friedenberg: Absolutely I think Carpenter’s version of The Thing being made in 1982 was an allegory for communism, that was the height of the cold war and everything was falling apart and it’s like “who’s the communist?” It’s the red scare right. What does the virus in our movie represent in today’s culture? Maybe over time when we have some retrospective on it we will look back on this and maybe we’ll be able to pinpoint that more directly. I have my own ideas but I don’t want to say. (Laughs)
Love Horror: Hunting is a strong element in Wind Walkers. What’s your opinion on hunting in regards to the film and especially in the light of recent news stories like the one about Dentist and the lion that everyone was talking about?
Russell Friedenberg: The hunting is set up because thematically it really works when the hunter becoming the hunted. Also there is nothing more frightening on a primal level than someone with a gun and a band of young men with guns. There is also this bonding element in hunting that you don’t get anywhere else because hunting frequently doesn’t include women it’s a man group thing and walls come down because of alcohol so there’s a tradition that’s also about male bonding.
In terms of the politics of hunting to be honest with you boar hunting in Florida is a necessity because there are so many. It’s an over population like deer hunting in the East Coast. There are more deer killing people on the highways and there is a whole moratorium on hunting deer that needs to be lifted. And I’m speaking from a perspective of not being a hunter, I’m speaking from a practical sense.
In terms of that asshole big game hunter dick he should be shot you can quote me on that! (Laughs again)
Love Horror: It’s interesting as with hunting as you say it’s a fight again over the balance in nature as many people might say that the deer or the boar should be allowed to take back those areas again like in your film it’s the Earth taking back from human beings.
Russell Friedenberg: Chernobyl is a beautiful example of that, have you seen pictures of it? There’s moose walking down the street it’s like humans never existed. There’s a book that’s called After We’re Gone I thinks is the title and it doesn’t name the thing that happens, the apocalyptic thing but something has occurred and human kind has gone and it details over a period of a hundred years, ten thousand years what the earth will look like.
Literally in a hundred years there will be nearly absolute replenishment of most of the species on this planet. The planet is teeming with life. And something like in a million years after we’re gone which is nothing in earth time, nothing at all, the only sign of humanity being here will be the things we built in bronze. For some reason bronze will survive. Not steel, not cement, bronze. It’s almost like this weird Planet of the Apes thing.
Love Horror: That leads on nicely to talking about the locations of the film which were amazing. Was it a challenging environment to shoot in?
Russell Friedenberg: Believe me as a film maker I don’t think I will ever take this challenge on again but to shoot 7 actors in a freakin cabin and make it look somehow dynamic and to block that was quite a challenge. You’ll laugh at this but that cabin was built basically in a parking lot in down town L.A and there is a community all around it and there are parking lots all around it. That cabin that we blew up in the end that is actually right in the middle of town.
Of course the hunting sequences and the rowing and all the other sequences all of those where in much more riskier wild environments. Where the hunters shack was we did a deal with Sarasota county that if we could shoot there in this old hunting shack in the middle of nowhere in the backwoods all we had to do was get rid of it when we were done, they wanted it out of there! So we did that.
There are alligators and there are snakes and when you go into that swampy everglade environment you realise very quickly human beings without like a thousand years of training can’t survive there. You won’t last 2 days out there.
One time we had had a long day, we had done like 55 set ups shooting back to back and I was exhausted and I had left my backpack back there with my computer in it so I thought god damn it I have to go get it. So I borrowed a flashlight and walked back to set about half a mile and I literally bent over to get my bag and as I was bending over out of the corner of my eye I saw all these reflections. I came back up and looked over and there where hundreds of eyes looking back at me and thought “what is that!” I started creeping forward and it was hundreds of wolf spiders, they travel in packs and they jump. I picked that back pack up and got out of there fast!
Love Horror: God that’s a horror film right there! Speaking of other films what’s next for you? More horror I hope?
Russell Friedenberg: I have a drama that I’m going to do but my next film is a horror thriller with Lena Headey from Game of Thrones and it’s called Woman of the Woods. Heather is producing that, she’s amazing and she’s an academy award nominated producer and I very excited to be doing that. It’s a really cool story about a mother/daughter relationship which I wrote about the daughter coming of age and they have a strained relationship where you don’t know if the daughter is being pulled away from the mother by a supernatural entity or something else.
It becomes an investigative thriller too because the father ends up disappearing in the midst of this so it really plays itself out like a detective story against this child and the mother growing apart and perhaps something taking her away. It’s a really emotional story. We are filming that in February and it will hopefully be out the next year.
You know with the last two films I made, Among Ravens and Wind Walkers, I was lucky as as soon as we got done we got distribution and as soon as you have distribution it’s really hard to do festivals. We were lucky with FrightFest but because of the native American content we are going to take Wind Walkers to some native American festivals which will be fun.
Love Horror: How do you think that community will receive the film?
Russell Friedenberg: It will be really interesting to see how they receive it. I think it’s going to be subversive, it doesn’t just paint one people as a good person or bad person. We are starting off by saying we have forgotten the stories and we go over there and do the same shit which is real but we’ll see.
Love Horror: Well I thought Wind Walkers was amazing and thank you so much for talking to me.
Russell Friedenberg: Thank you it was so great talking to you and I am so glad you liked the film.
Wind Walkers is now available on DVD and download in the UK.