Expanded interview and video: Filmmaker Emma Tammi channels women's experiences for horror Western 'The Wind'
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read my review of "The Wind," click here.
Against 'The Wind': Filmmaker Emma Tammi's horror Western channels women's fears
The affliction was known as “prairie madness” or “prairie fever,” with 19th-century settlers on the Great Plains suffering from depression, withdrawal, paranoia and even violence.
The extreme levels of isolation, the bleakness of the landscape and the harshness of the weather – especially the incessant wind – were often cited as causes, although little could be done about them except enduring or moving back East.
“Just revisiting that period of time, which is so different than the one we live in right now and yet not that long ago, it’s kind of insane: I grew up in New York City and I live in Los Angeles now - and my mom’s from Oklahoma City and even going there a bunch growing up - these are all very populated areas. I just found something really engaging about getting into an environment where you saw so few people and trying to imagine what that might be like,” said filmmaker Emma Tammi.
“I remember reading an article about solitary confinement years ago, and it was amazing what these studies showed in terms of really how quickly people deteriorate mentally. And part of that is also sleep deprivation and other things in that extreme of a condition, but I think at the root of it is really that we as human beings really need other people to thrive and stay sane and really exist. And when you remove that element, our very core really gets rattled quickly. And I think that we explore that in this movie.”
After premiering last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, Tammi’s feature film directorial debut, “The Wind,” opens Friday at OKC’s Rodeo Cinema. The Western horror story centers on Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard, “Insidious: The Last Key”), a capable German immigrant working to carve out a life alongside her God-fearing husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) on a remote stretch of the American frontier. When newcomers Emma and Gideon Harper (Julia Goldani Telles and Dylan McTee) set up homestead nearby, their arrival stirs up Lizzy’s dormant fears of a sinister presence haunting the land and sets off a harrowing chain of events.
“She’s being terrorized, but at the end of the day, she’s not sure by what. She’s not sure if it’s by herself, by her own inner demons, or by something supernatural that’s out there on the plains. So, we wanted to be on that ride with her, and I think as viewers questioning whether something’s real or not, it helps put us in her shoes a bit,” Tammi said.
“It was a line that we were trying to walk the whole time during production and then again in post and certainly before that in refining the script. But I think the strength of this story is that we’re able to go on the journey with Lizzy, our protagonist, as she questions and doubts herself, and as that wind – which … is really a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation that these women were experiencing out in the plains – as that starts to get to her and erodes her own sense of certainty and calm and trust, we really get to go on the journey with her."
Although “The Wind” is her solo directorial effort – she previously co-directed the documentaries “Election Day: Lens Across America” (2017) and “Fair Chase” (2014) – Tammi has plenty of experience relating to actors, especially her parents, Marcia and Tom Tammi, are both actors. Before she moved to New York in the 1970s to pursue her acting career, Marcia Tammi was an OKC girl whose father, Homer Hyde, founded and operated the Hyde Drug chain until it was bought by Eckerd in the 1990s.
“I would go there every summer growing up and it’s one of my favorite places,” the filmmaker said of OKC. “I also just feel like on some level, the plains - at one point, we were even thinking about shooting in Oklahoma, and I had my uncle sending me pictures of potential locations – and I think the vastness of the horizons and the sky and the landscape for me is also some of my childhood memories of being in Oklahoma. So, there were so many reasons this film was exciting to me, but the environment was certainly one of them.”
Tammi ended up shooting her Western chiller in New Mexico, where she had filmed the 2014 distance runners documentary “Fair Chase.” Her experience on that film was one of the reasons the producers brought her Teresa Sutherland’s “The Wind” script.
“Just straight out the gate, one of the reasons Chris Alender, one of our producers, had originally asked me to read the script was he really felt like this should be directed by a female,” Tammi said.
“From there, we kept looking for crew and creatives, heads of department, really based on our timeline and our budget. And I think a lot of women really gravitated towards this story and were excited by it, and it kind of ended up working out that a lot of women worked on it. But the producers were also trying to keep in mind that we really wanted to at least have somewhat of a balance on set – and we exceeded that – but I think it was a mix of intent and, again, just women being drawn to the story and wanting to work on it, which was so great. Really, it was such a strong crew and cast – both the females and males – in this production because I think everyone was really excited by Teresa’s script and overall vision for the film.”
Along with a female director, screenwriter and lead actor, the movie had women in several other key roles, including film editor Alexandra Amick, production designers Hillary and Courtney Andujar and set decorator Elsbeth Mumm. Tammi said she wanted to use iconic cinematic imagery – the lone cowboy riding across the prairie on horseback with the sun setting behind him, for instance – in telling a Western from a little-seen angle.
“I was so excited to dig into a Western in general because I think that’s such a fun genre and certainly one that I grew up watching. It was as exciting to me as the horror genre component of the film. What I thought was so great about Teresa Sutherland’s script was that she just basically turned the camera 180 degrees and just stayed with the women on the homestead. In some ways, it feels like such an obvious thing to at least make a couple of movies about not following the men into town and what were the adventures happening on the homestead – and yet I had never seen that movie before. So, I thought it was so simple in terms of its reinvention and really made it feel fresh and exciting to do,” Tammi said.
“I think it’s rare to get every range of emotion and character type and fully dimensional, fleshed-out female characters. … I loved that she (Lizzy) was just so complicated. She just seemed to embody every contradiction, but that was so true to life and fascinating to watch – and certainly fascinating to get inside of in terms of the performance. I think that’s rare in female characters that we see depicting in Hollywood time and time again.”
Focusing the camera on female characters allowed her to authentically portray a specific kind of horror: The film opens in stunningly gruesome fashion with Lizzy appearing the doorway covered in blood holding a bundled baby.
“One of the things that really drew me to the opening was that it was so bold. And I thought, ‘if we’re gonna set the mood for what is certainly in the first half of the film is a pretty slow burn with something as graphic and gory, it should still have the stillness of imagery to really let us focus on the … and really let us settle in that moment on the characters,” Tammi said.
“At times it jumps off into a more supernatural space, but I think at the heart of what is terrifying about this story is actually the everyday, mundane things that happened. Obviously, childbirth is not mundane, but it was an everyday occurrence out on the plains. Teresa had read several books that were compilation of women’s journals and diary entries from that time. And one of them is called ‘Pioneer Women’ and there’s a diary entry in that book where a woman accounts having given birth by herself. ... This woman was completely by herself, passed out, woke back up, I think got water. You read these stories, these actual stories, and it’s mind-blowing. And again, the horror is in the everyday and the survival. We took it to more fantastical places at times, but it really was rooted in that. And I thought it was fun that we got to marry the real and the fantasy in this one.”