Matching Gore with Glitter: Jenn Wexler on Her Debut Horror Film, 'The Ranger'
In the world of a good slasher, you can't tell someone to stay out of the woods and expect them to listen.
Friday the 13th had a vengeful camp counselor, Silent Night, Deadly Night had a maniac Santa Claus, My Bloody Valentine had a psychotic miner, and now, with the directorial debut of horror stalwart Jenn Wexler, the slasher canon can add a psychotic park ranger to its oeuvre.
The Ranger, an ode to glorious 1980s slasher flicks and punk culture, is a candy-colored, gory homage that follows a group of friends on the run from police. Looking for a place to hide out, our Final Girl, Chelsea (played by newcomer Chloë Levine) recommends her deceased uncle's cabin.
Blasting music and taking drugs, the group soon become terrorized by a local park ranger—a brute force who has read his ranger handbook inside and out and uses it to justify his questionable actions— who appears to be stalking the friends one by one. Practical effects, unsettling flashbacks, bear traps, hungry wildlife, and ax-killings follow suit, and if you think you know where the plot is going, that's part of the fun; the film is made for fans by one of its most passionate.
After The Ranger made its world premiere in the Midnighters section of SXSW 2018, Wexler sat down with No Film School in Austin to discuss her film's use of extravagant neon colors, the all-encompassing presence of the title character, and what she learned from being an independent producer before deciding to take hold of the directorial reigns.
No Film School: The screenplay for The Ranger was written by a fellow classmate you met while attending the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Had you spent the past few years mapping out how to get it into production?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah, my co-writer Giaco Furino and I were in this very small film program at the University of the Arts for their screenwriting major. At that time, I was really interested in how you make movies and felt the most important thing was to first understand how to tell stories (I knew it would be a long journey to discover everything about making movies).
We each had to write a feature screenplay during our senior year andThe Ranger was Giaco's. I was really into this idea that he came up with of "punks versus the park ranger," and I felt like it was something that should've already existed! I loved the rebellion-versus-authority idea, and by just saying, "punks versus the park ranger," you automatically have an image in your mind. I always thought it was cool, and yet we really didn't know what to do with it because, at the time, we didn't know how to make movies or raise financing or any of that.
Over the next few years, I worked for a company called FEARNet in Los Angeles, which was a horror TV channel. I learned a lot about horror marketing and it introduced me to the horror industry.
From there, I started working at Glass Eye Pix, and Peter Phok, who produced The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, and Stake Land—a bunch of movies I was obsessed with—took me under his wing and taught me all about producing. I was also able to learn a lot about producing from Larry Fessenden as I watched him and studied the way he talked about directing.
"By helping these directors, by supporting them, I was really taught how to make my own movie."
NFS: How do you feel you’ve grown being a producer at Glass Eye Pix? And how did working with other directors in the role of producer help you to feel comfortable enough to make your directorial debut?
Wexler: I have the personality of really wanting to fully understand something before I jump into it. When I was producing, I felt like I could really learn all the ins-and-outs of making a film, even if I wasn't quite ready to step into the director's chair myself.
By working with all these other filmmakers—Robert Mockler, Ana Asensio, Mickey Keating, Glenn McQuaid, and Graham Reznick—I was able to support their vision and watch (and go through) the process several times. I always think if you want to make a movie, the best way to learn how is by going out and actually doing it. By helping these directors, by supporting them, I was really taught how to make my own movie.
NFS: In addition to shooting the film in the Mid Hudson Valley in extremely cold temperatures and with a lack of cellular service, were there other production challenges that you couldn’t have anticipated?
Wexler: I was on cloud nine the entire time, so even if there were production challenges, it didn't affect me. I was in my weird headspace. People would look at me and be like, "Oh, there's Jenn. She's in the corner, walking, pacing, etc. She's just thinking about her shot list.” But a couple people got ticks. Sorry, we're in the woods! Nothing too serious.
NFS: Was everyone staying nearby?
Wexler: So, if you're going to shoot in Kingston, New York, a great place to stay that I would recommend is the Best Western Plus. It's awesome and tons of film crews stay there. They have a really good breakfast that we were all very excited for. We would all come home from an overnight and go and get breakfast for our dinner. We'd then just hang out and wind down before we went to bed from the hours of 8am to 2pm.
So yes, we stayed nearby, but not close. The hotel is about a half-hour away from where we were shooting, and so we'd drive through country roads to get to the woods. When we were shooting in the woods, there wasn't cell phone reception or anything like that!
"I really wanted to merge the classic kind of 'kids going into the woods' colors with, like, the colors of Lisa Frank."
NFS: The title character wears a creepily standard park ranger uniform throughout the film; it’s the clothes of the “friendly park ranger” archetype we’ve observed in state park ephemera on TV. How did you work to turn this from a welcoming wardrobe into a frightening one? Those oversized sunglasses he wears, for example, does wonders for his characterization (and for your camera).
Wexler: I had some ideas about it. I collected lots of images as I was developing the script and I really wanted it to be that iconic thing you remember from 80's PSAs and things like that. I worked with a costume designer, Samantha Hawkins, as well as her assistant costume designer Sara Lott, and they killed it when it came to all the costumes.
To make the park ranger kind of scary, we decided that Jeremy Holm (the lead actor playing the ranger) should wear a hunting vest. That way, when he goes into his "kill mode", he starts to wear this hunting vest and the viewer can pay attention to when it's on and when it's off (and they can pay attention to what he does with his jacket when it's on as opposed to when it's off). It's very subtle, but they were definitely active decisions.
NFS: The punk characters in the film sport bright dyed hair and wardrobes made of spiked leather jackets featuring colorful animations. How did that specific, candy-colored look inspire the color palate of your film?
Wexler: I really wanted to merge the classic kind of "kids going into the woods" colors with, like, the colors of Lisa Frank. As a child, I had Lisa Frank notebooks and always thought, "It'd be really cool if someone could put those Lisa Frank colors into a horror movie." I was really into the idea of matching gore with glitter. For instance, when it came to the hair, I just knew that pink and blue hair was something I was obsessed with putting against nature, against the woods. And then we're also playing with this drug the characters are on and what it looks like when they're on the drug.
NFS: And it gives more of a contrast between the nature aspect and…
Wexler: Yeah, like matching neon with the more rustic kind of thing. It serves as a visual representation for the park ranger and the way he lives his life. Once that's established, the viewer then begins to feel and see the loudness of the punks entering into his space.
"I really wanted to create the effect that the ranger could be everywhere at once. This is his mountain and the kids are on his turf. He can appear anywhere or be everywhere."
NFS: And in a scene early on where the police raid an underground show filled with drug-using punk-enthusiasts, the colors of the concert merge with red-and-blue flashes synonymous with cop car lights. How did you work with your DP to make that kind of transition where we are literally going from a place of fun to the colors morphing into something we associate with fear?
Wexler: James Siewert was our DP, Ben Duff was our gaffer, and Abbey Killheffer was our key grip and between all of us, we thought about scene transitions and how to get from one place to the next. The lighting, and particularly the red and blue lights taking over the space, was something I was always very excited about.
NFS: The film features a same-sex couple as two of its “main punks.” It’s not made to be a big deal and it’s presented pretty subtly (as it should). Were you thinking about representation—and perhaps a lack of representation in the horror genre—when you wrote this?
Wexler: The two actors playing those roles, Jeremy Pope and Bubba Weiler, read the script and were all into the idea of it not being a "thing". I kind of hate when it's a plot point or used as a device. It's life, and I think all we talked about it when we were shooting, was, "How long have they been dating?" And I was like, "Oh, it's the relationship [that matters]; you've been dating for, like, two years." And then that was it and they colored that in. In terms of representation, I don't know. I just wanted to make a movie where that stuff isn't a thing. It's just real life.
NFS: There are many scenes in which a character is tripping on illegal substances, and you depict that from the character’s perspective as well as from the viewer’s; the editing provides a second-hand high. How did you devise a plan to portray that in post?
Wexler: A lot of it's from the perspective of our lead character Chelsea and I really wanted you to feel like, if you're with anybody in the film, you're with her. She's your guide. I also wanted you to see what she was seeing and to also feel like you were on the drug too. My co-editor, Abbey, was just messing around with different effects and we liked this particular one. To me, it feels a little bit like a 3-D movie when you take off your glasses, but in kind of an organic way, for the image.
NFS: You feature a few moments of a subjective camera, usually of the ranger’s POV as he observes his next potential victim from afar. In your film and in horror of the past, how does subjective camera choices increase tension?
Wexler: I really wanted to create the effect that the ranger could be everywhere at once. This is his mountain and the kids are on his turf. He can appear anywhere or be everywhere. There's also a little bit of a storybook quality to the movie, with the kids walking through the woods and then suddenly the cabin appears and possesses this magical quality. So, for that element and for the ranger, that's why those choices were made, to give it that effect.
NFS: Flashbacks concerning Chelsea's past are interspersed throughout the film, revealing key narrative information as the story progresses. Was that something you worked with your editor on or was that in the screenplay from the beginning?
Wexler: While it was in the screenplay, certainly Abbey and I played around with it, and that's especially true of the montages later on in the movie. Abbey and I had a lot of fun putting those together. Yeah, the core thing is that while the film is an ensemble piece, it's also Chelsea's movie and you're discovering these things one little bit at a time because it represents a memory she can't quite face. And then as she begins to discover everything, as she uncovers the memory, the viewer is uncovering it with her.
"However people take it, I'm happy that they're watching and that it's out in the world."
NFS: With your first feature now out in the world, is there anything you wish you would have known beforehand?
Wexler: For me, the whole process has just been a dream. Every part of it has just been amazing. Now we'll put it out and we'll see what people think.
NFS: Do you think a lot about audience reaction?
Wexler: You know, you hope that people engage with it in the way that you want them to, but this was a movie that I couldn't not make. It's been with me and Giaco for a long time and I knew that it just had to exist. So however people take it, I'm happy that they're watching and that it's out in the world.
NFS: That's a perfect way to go.