“I Don’t Want to be Brought on to This Just Because I’m a Female…”: Emma Tammi on Directing Her Horror Western, The Wind
It’s not until you approach a genre of film from a new perspective, and as filmmaker Emma Tammi puts it, flip “the camera 180 degrees,” that you see how one-sided that genre’s films have been. In her narrative feature debut The Wind, out now in theaters, Tammi brings a unique point-of-view to the 1800s American frontier story and all of its psychological terrors. Combining well-crafted scares with the complexity of Teresa Sutherland’s script, the film takes us on a journey of solitude, loss and the demons that can be dredged up in the Wild West.
Lizzy (a wonderful Caitlin Gerard), lives on the plains with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman), and we learn she has recently suffered the loss of a child. When a new couple moves in nearby, Lizzie’s anxieties amplify. She wonders if her husband is having an affair with the other woman, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles), or what her intentions are all together. The more isolated Lizzy becomes, the more she believes she’s being haunted by a devilish presence. Is it her own fears driving her insane, a supernatural force or is it just the wind?
I had a chance to chat with Tammi about her crafting of the film. At a time when more and more audiences are craving female perspectives behind the camera, Tammi brings her delicate understanding of the characters and situations to this horror landscape. When she was first asked to come onboard the project, she didn’t want to be hired just because they wanted a female director. “And then I read the script, and it’s not that a man couldn’t have directed that really well, but there was something I felt tapped into with the lead character.” We unpack how those emotional connections informed the direction, creating a period piece with universal relatable themes, and how going with your gut will always get you — and your audience — the best scare.
Filmmaker: Some of my favorite films, Black Swan and even Us come to mind, deal with the question of our “other selves,” and when we retreat to certain places of trauma, they come for us. I’d love to hear about what was on the page in Teresa Sutherland’s script, as far as the inner fear vs. the actual threat, and then how you brought that to life.
Tammi: Those are also some of my favorite types of horror and psychological films. Black Swan is such a great reference. I don’t necessarily think of that as a horror film, but it’s absolutely playing with these themes and going to that dark place. Teresa’s script had that in the fabric of it, and I tried to push it even further. When I first read her script I was so drawn to the drama of the characters and the inner demons Lizzy, our main protagonist, is battling with throughout in different ways. Whether it’s battling with the isolation of being alone out in the middle of nowhere in the late 1800s, having suspicion that her husband might be having an affair, or dealing with the grief of losing a child, all these things felt like they’re the most fundamental human emotions that we’re all grappling with. When those feelings, fears, anxieties take over and we start to doubt our very own compass, and how to move forward in this world in a way that makes sense, I think that all of those inner demons can haunt us more than anything that’s external. I loved that the script was playing with those things and then jumping into a more supernatural space at times. It was all a manifestation at the end of the day of these human emotions and experiences that we can all relate to.
Filmmaker: I feel like this part of history, the beginnings of America and the open frontier is left behind, or told through the male gaze in stuffy history books. What drew you to explore this period in time?
Tammi: I think I was drawn to it for that very reason as well. I hadn’t really seen this yet. One of the books Teresa had read for inspiration while she was writing the script was “Pioneer Women” — a compilation of diary entries and journal entries of women at that time. Ironically, I had picked up that book as a teenager. I grew up on the East Coast in New York City, which felt very different from anything I’d seen once I went to the west for the first time. There’s something that captivates our imagination about the Wild, Wild West, with all of its complications and all the ways in which it’s been depicted in film throughout time, there’s something that we still feel drawn to and invested in with that period of our history. Yet, here’s a side of it that we’ve never really grappled with. There were these women who stayed behind and had to contend with so much on their own. If it weren’t for them, that part of history would be really different. It was fun to be able to take that kernel of history that I feel like we hadn’t really seen depicted in this way on film before and take it to a place that was really fun and fictionalized.
Filmmaker: I was surprised how much I connected with Lizzy’s solitude while growing up living in major cities. How did you make the story modern, relatable and what were parallels you drew from in our modern time?
Tammi: I felt connected to her solitude as well when I first read it. I wonder what that is — I don’t know if I’ve totally unpacked it. Straight off the page, there was something that felt relatable in terms of that character’s journey. Not just the isolation she was physically experiencing being alone but that she was internally experiencing. That is is something that we as city dwellers and modern-day folk can still really relate to. I can spend 10 minutes on Instagram and in some ways I tap into 30 people lives within the course of seconds. And step away from my phone and feel completely isolated. There’s an interesting thing that’s happening right now with us in terms of our over connectivity and lack of human interaction at times. Weirdly, it felt like an interesting time to explore themes of isolation. Real human connection and how that keeps us grounded and sane is still something that we’re grappling with now, but in different ways.
Filmmaker: It’s not far fetched anymore to relate what we’re going through now to the new frontiers of America. The isolation is just in a different landscape.
Tammi: I agree. And at the core of Lizzy’s relationship with her husband, she’s starting to feel distance from him because they’ve gone through traumas together and then this new woman that shows up he may fancy. There are things that are eroding their relationship. The isolation that one can feel when you’re in a relationship where there’s distance and yet that’s supposed to be the most intimate connection that you have — that feels universally relatable throughout time and history.
Filmmaker: I’m curious about what movies you watched in preparation and your influences?
Tammi: Lyn Moncrief specifically, the cinematographer and I, were referencing a lot of films but also paintings and photographs. And then we took on a whole other level once we got to the locations and were able to re-envision it based off what was in front of us. In terms of westerns, we were referencing a lot of classics like The Searchers. There’s one frame in particular where Lizzy is saying goodbye to the men. It’s framed in a way that is kind of a reverse shot of one of the famous The Searchers frames. That was fun to play with. It felt like here are these western films that we all were really influenced by as kids and then adults as filmmakers, and yet they only showed one side of the coin. With Teresa’s script, she was really flipping the camera 180 degrees — being like, “Nope, I’m going to stay with the women who are waving goodbye to the men.” That was fun not only to be influenced by these great westerns but also have a dialogue with them and subvert those references a little bit.
Filmmaker: This is your first narrative feature. Tell me about the process of getting financing, and getting it made with Soapbox Films.
Tammi: This was a bit of a fairy tale in terms of how it came together, and I don’t expect it to be this seamless ever again. The fact that it was a smaller-scale budget wise helped. I had worked with the producers at Soap Box on a documentary previously and they set up a film fund that they wanted to produce three films out of. They knew they wanted this script to be the first film. When they approached me, they already had the script and the financing. I walked in with a lot of the tough stuff already taken care of. I helped bring in some other producers who were also doing the production services on it. Soapbox had previously executive produced and produced some features but their core is more of a branded content production background, so fully producing a feature was new to them. And now they’ve done three of them! We were all coming at it already knowing and trusting each other, and they were super supportive creatively. I was really lucky to pair up with them.
Filmmaker: That’s great to hear. It’s still new that people are even considering bringing scripts to genre female filmmakers!
Tammi: Totally. When Chris [Alender, producer] first mentioned the script to me and he told me the basic premise, which I thought was fascinating, he was like, I really think it could use a female director. I rolled my eyes a little bit, on the inside! I thought, I don’t want to just be brought on to this just because I’m a female. And just because it’a a female lead that doesn’t mean a man can’t crack it just as well and what not. And then I read the script and it’s not that a man couldn’t have directed that really well, but there was something I felt tapped into with the lead character. I don’t know if I would tap into this in the same way if I wasn’t a woman. I kind of got it in that moment. I think it was really smart of Chris as a producer to say I think there’s something that a female director could bring to this story that would be different than a male. I think we’re in this moment where people are trying to fill a quota and to ride a wave of popular interest of female perspectives, and I think that’s really great. But I also hope it’s something that’s sustained and not just a trend that we’re experiencing. I think it will be something that’s sustained as people step into good stories and prove themselves as good storytellers. It creates the stage for people to really shine and just be seen as good filmmakers.
Filmmaker: There are some awesome scares that build through the film. How do you craft a top notch scare? Can you break down a scene you feel comfortable sharing — from script to sound design?
Tammi: It lies in so many different pieces so there is a lot of trial and error that is at play in the post process. Starting with the page, Teresa, the writer, is a big horror buff so there were some classic tropes she was leaning into in terms of the scares and also some new things we haven’t really seen. I think some of the more subtle scares are in that omnipresent eeriness throughout the film and that’s something that feels unique. Then some of the jump scares feel familiar in terms of the horror genre. It was fun to lean into both of those things. There were things that I found frightening reading the script. But in terms of the jump scares, you really find those moments in post. In shooting, you want to walk away with as many pieces to the puzzle as you can. But I think as a viewer, 80% if not more of a scare is in the sound design. This film is named after a sound and was really that to an extreme. In terms of the edit, frames matter as much in horror as they do in comedy, the timing is everything. So adjusting the edit until you have that little goosebumps moment was the trial and error process as we were cutting the horror scenes. And then the sound design was really what brought it together.
Without giving anything away, there are ghosts that start to show up in this film. The first time we see one show up is one of the biggest jump scares in the film. I know it’s coming every time, and it scares me every time and I think it’s the sound! I’m not alone in this. Everyone else who was part of the creative team has also had the same experience with this particular jump scare. It’s like what’s in the special sauce of a jump scare? I don’t even know if I can articulate it. It’s a reflex, it’s almost something you can’t intellectualize. You need to keep trying stuff and when it hits you in your gut, that’s what you stick with.
Filmmaker: Maybe this is just because I’ve been spending a lot of time alone, writing and with my own thoughts. But when I saw The Wind, I found parallels to the life of an artist. Spending that much time in solitude, you can often spiral. Did you find those parallels in the work or in your process making it?
Tammi: I love that comparison! I also think what you’re tapping into fundamentally, I hope, is something that happens with audiences across the board. Because you’re an artist, you’re able to tap into it on that level. I hope someone who’s coming from a different perspective and background also is tapping into something that feels relatable to them. It does feel like a story where there’s, not a blank canvas, but a lot you can bring to your own perspective and journey. I think it’s again, a strength to the script. But that’s a hilarious comparison! I can certainly relate to that because you and I are coming from similar POVs. I think one of the best pieces of advice I got from a colleague before going out to New Mexico, where was shot, was: don’t go crazy on the plains making a movie about a woman going crazy on the plains. I think entering that headspace, which you have to do a little bit as a filmmaker when you’re making something, it was finding that balance between going there and also staying grounded and really focusing on the practicalities of making a film. Being an artist is an emotional journey, that if you don’t let yourself go to the place that is slightly terrifying and certainly uncomfortable and definitely risky, you don’t end up creating anything that’s interesting or powerful that you, at the end of the day, are proud of.