By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Emma Tammi’s quietly chilling feature directorial debut THE WIND is set in the late 1800s, but it uses a very modern time-switching structure to tell its story. RUE MORGUE spoke with Tammi about both sides of the film, how a past classic helped inspire her, and more.
Opening in select theaters and on VOD this Friday from IFC Midnight, THE WIND was scripted by Teresa Sutherland and stars Caitlin Gerard (INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY) as Lizzy Macklin, who lives with her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) in a small, remote house on the American plains. Lizzy finds relief from the loneliness of her isolation when another couple, Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) move into a nearby cabin. But the initially friendly Emma starts to seem a little off, and Lizzy also senses that there’s an otherworldly presence haunting the area, heralded by the constant, eerie wind. Prior to this feature, which has won acclaim on the fest circuit, Tammi helmed documentaries, starting with one whose themes are akin to those of THE WIND…
Your first documentary, FAIR CHASE, is about running as a survival instinct, so it’s appropriate that your first feature is about a woman who cannot run from what’s terrorizing her.
It is interesting! I also shot that in New Mexico, which is where we filmed THE WIND. A lot of parallels there.
Was THE WIND a project that was brought to you, or were you involved in the writing from the beginning?
It was brought to me, and then I had the opportunity to work on it a little bit with the writer, Teresa Sutherland; we did a couple of passes on it together. I was really drawn to the story, her writing style and the characters, which were so well-developed. On top of that, she had been inspired by actual historical accounts of women of that time, and one of the books she had used as her primary source of inspiration and research was one I had read as a teenager. I was already so interested in that time period and this experience she had tapped into.
Another reason I was so taken with this script was because it felt relevant, but it wasn’t trying to be; it wasn’t in a heavy-handed way. It felt like a very relatable human story. Lizzy’s character, and really all of the characters in the film, embodies so many different things. We feel sympathy for her, we feel anger for her at times, we question her. She goes through every range of emotion, and a lead character who’s that complicated is, for me as a filmmaker, something I’m very interested in portraying. That’s why it felt so relevant, but not because it was trying to embody contemporary themes. I think it just naturally did that, because it tapped into something about the very core of being human.
How did the period setting impact the way you approached it as a genre piece?
It was so refreshing, because we were able to strip down the tools we had to make it scary. There wasn’t technology back then, and we didn’t have electricity to mess around with or all the sounds that are in our environment nowadays. Going back in time and doing something period was such a cool challenge, because we were leaning into nature so much more heavily.
What is the importance of the wind itself, and how did you go about capturing that?
The wind is very nuanced in this film because it’s a character in and of itself, and we wanted to treat it as such. It’s also background, and it provides this environmental, atmospheric scariness, so we wanted to play with its range. We recorded sound on the actual locations we were using even before we started shooting, and then we built the sound design for months and months after we wrapped. We tried to find every range of “emotion” for the wind, so there are moments when it is tormenting, when it’s soothing, when it’s teasing. It interacts with Lizzy constantly, and we also wanted it to reflect some of what she was feeling internally.
How much of THE WIND was shot on location? Did you build a fully functioning cabin out there?
Yeah, it was all done on location. We were very lucky in the sense that the two properties we were primarily shooting on both already had cabins we really liked. That was a great base for our production design team to start building out these worlds. They did an incredible job of dressing both cabins, and the surrounding area, in a 360 way, which is so rare. We were on a set where most of the time, we could have pointed the camera anywhere and started shooting. That created an additional layer of authenticity for the cast: They were able to open drawers and discover things from the period, and feel a connection to that time.
How much of the time-jumping structure was in the original script?
That was how Teresa wrote it, though the order was a little different on the page than it is now in the film. We found some things that worked better in the edit, but that still captured the essence of what was on the page—and of course, you often find that in the postproduction process. On this film it was a little more extreme because of the nonlinear structure, and that was always going to be a challenge, but it was also the strength of the movie, because it brings you into the fragmented mindscape of our lead character.
How much work was required to make sure the audience always knows where they are in terms of the chronology?
That was a big deal. The costumes played a huge role in having a guidepost for when we’re back in the “present-day” timeline, because we jump around in time without really changing locations. The differences between ages are subtle, so we were trying to walk the line of not confusing the audience but also not holding their hand. We’ve got a very unreliable narrator, and we wanted to express that in the time jumps, and make sure the emotional arcs of the characters are what ultimately guide us as viewers in tracking the story.
One of my favorite moments is an early shot where you suggest a shapeshifter simply through the use of a small shadow. Can you talk about how you approached the horror content in general?
I’m so glad you picked up on that, because it is subtle. That scene is the first moment when we question whether or not there’s a supernatural presence in this house and the land. That being said, it’s coming from something that’s terrorizing Lizzy in the natural world, which is wolves. So in this first horror beat, and really in the whole film, we wanted to start in the natural world and just tip our hat to the fact that this may not actually be within the realm of our reality. We cut out on that moment questioning whether Lizzy is seeing what we’re seeing.
The film opens with a scene that’s pretty graphic and bloody, however. We’re you concerned at all that that might set up expectations that the film will be a lot more extreme than it turns out to be?
No, I felt great about starting on a bold note, and one of the things I was so taken with when I read the actual narratives of women talking about day-to-day life in this time was how brutal it was. And it was brutal in the mundane. Not that child-birthing is mundane—it’s something women do every day—but it’s a completely traumatic thing when you’re alone in the middle of nowhere, which a lot of these women were, and that opening scene alludes to a pregnancy gone wrong. I loved that we were going in, straight out of the gate, saying, “This is a brutal environment, not a life-sustaining one. This is an environment that’s trying to kill our characters, basically.”
I thought about CARRIE’s opening scene, which is the first blood of the film, and it’s just Sissy Spacek getting her period in a girls’ locker room. Everyone’s screaming and there’s blood everywhere, and nothing supernatural or overtly horrific has happened; it’s just an everyday thing, a teenager getting her period for the first time. And yet it’s pushed into the horror space by their reactions and the way it’s captured, and Sissy Spacek’s own fright. So I was really inspired by that moment, because I was like, “This is where THE WIND lives. It’s in the horror of what it was like just to live out there and survive.” And then, obviously, we jump off into much more supernatural spaces, which is the fun stuff.