Somewhere in the vast and promising territories of the Great American West circa 1890, the quiet life led by self-sufficient frontierswoman Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) and husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) is interrupted by the arrival of new neighbors. A fractured friendship develops, but then tragedy strikes — which is when a sinister presence begins creeping its way into Lizzy’s home and, perhaps, her sanity.
In director Emma Tammi’s “The Wind,” scripted by Teresa Sutherland, the western genre gets a fresh and provocative take. After Isaac rides off on horseback, the film’s focus remains at home with its heroine as she grapples with the disquieting solitude of the high plains and the invisible forces that haunt her.
Tammi grew up in New York City far from the New Mexico landscape that provides the idyllic, ominous backdrop for her narrative film debut. With a screenplay informed by period writings from women of the West, “The Wind” tracks the fraying nerves of its shotgun-toting protagonist and explores themes of paranoia, madness and trauma through a female lens seldom centered on the western genre.
The indie horror movie first debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now available both on demand and in select theaters via IFC Midnight. Before premiering “The Wind” at Hollywood’s historic Egyptian Theatre, Tammi unpacked her psychological western horror film over iced coffees at the Roosevelt Hotel. The filmmaker talked cinematic influences, Robert Altman’s “Popeye” and the historic accounts of pioneer women that inspired the film.
Your first feature, “Fair Chase,” was a documentary about long-distance runners. Why was “The Wind” the story you wanted to make as your narrative debut?
The themes — of the American West, of those late-1900s issues of forging a home in that area and the more evergreen themes of isolation — felt very relatable even in 2017, as I was reading it for the first time. In some ways, it asked more questions than it answered. But I also thought that the characters were so fully dimensional and so flawed and so heroic. The fact that Teresa [Sutherland] was inspired by accounts of real women who would homestead these areas was an extra dimension that made it exciting to dig into.
How did you first fall in love with film?
I grew up in New York City, and my parents were rock stars in that they would take me to different obscure film festivals. I watched films constantly at home [including] a lot of adult material that my parents really loved. They’re both actors, so I was exposed to a lot of theater. Going into narrative felt in some ways not inevitable, but something that was already in my gut.
Were they theater actors? That must have opened up your creativity so much as a kid.
It does! And it’s also weird! [Laughs] I think it becomes normal, and it’s absolutely not normal. It feels like filmmaking is a constant exercise in stepping off of a cliff. It’s a leap of faith every time. But you do it with people you feel will all have parachutes for you, and you do it together. And it’s a lot of hard work. I think, for me, that uncertainty felt normal because my parents were actors, and I grew up with that uncertainty being a part of the everyday.
What were some formative movies for you growing up?
I can think of the VHS tapes I just completely wore out as a kid, and that includes Robert Altman’s “Popeye.” … I didn’t even realize it was Robert Altman at the time, and I ended up interning for him later in life! He’s continued to be such a huge influence.
“Popeye”?! Of all the Altman films, that’s the one he was probably asked the least about and yet the one for which I would have the most questions.
Oh my God. Honestly, I think there were so many drugs happening on that set, I wonder what his memories are of it. I watched a lot of musicals growing up, because that was my mom’s thing. My dad loved Bergman. “Lawrence of Arabia” was his favorite film, so he took me to see that film on the big screen for the first time, which blew my mind as a kid. For “The Wind,” we referenced a lot of classics because it felt like a formalistic take on it was an interesting way to go in terms of the cinematography and finding ways to make it feel fresh, and our own original take was what we were going for.
Your sets look like found structures from the period, but using mostly practical effects to craft scares adds even more of a stripped-down verisimilitude. Why did you choose to go that naturalistic route?
Even the [visual effects] we tried to make look very practical because it’s a period piece. We’re working with elements that don’t even include electricity, and I think if you do something that feels at all computer generated, you’ve lost your audience. We were really working hard in post to pull back and make it feel organic.
You render the Macklin home as alternately haven and prison to Lizzy. How did you find your locations? Did you build out any part of it?
We ended up finding two properties that already had cabins on them, which was huge because it was a great canvas to give our production design team to build from. They dressed each of the cabins 360, so had we wanted to point the camera in any direction, we could have. It created an immersive experience for our cast because they were really able to feel the craftsmanship and the people behind the objects that were in this space. The quilts and the trunk, all period. It allowed so much for Caitlin in particular to discover. She could open a drawer and find something she could incorporate into a take. ... Being an indie with a short shooting schedule, you don’t have rehearsal, and we were often rolling on rehearsal.
And through Lizzy’s eyes, we are feeling our way through this journey with her. By the time we get to the film’s most deceptively innocuous moment — without spoiling the scene, Lizzy walks outside, sees a goat and does a double take — the effect is hugely disturbing.
Yes! In that moment, for instance, what is so terrifying about that? Put the whole thing on mute and it’s not terrifying at all, but her expression reads as total torment, and we’re in that moment with her. It’s a testament to [Gerard’s] performance. The score and the sound design as well are playing with the highs and lows of silence. Pushing the extremes of sound was a big component of this one.
What’s the secret to making something invisible, like wind, so terrifying?
Our sound designer came out to New Mexico before we started shooting and started recording on the property. It’s in the name of the film! [The wind] is mixed in there with a million other things. It turns out there are many different kinds of wind, and there are so many other things you can layer into the sound of the wind. By the time we finished post, I think our sound designers had bought like five more sound libraries just to get more wind sounds. We were still searching far and wide for the right ones. It was a relentless process, but it was really fun.
In 2019, what feels modern to you about Lizzy’s story? She’s a strong woman in a very foreboding world — she’s had to be, to get to where she is — but is also undone by certain microaggressions, gender roles and societal pressures that feel familiar today.
I don’t know if this is modern as much as it’s universal, but at the time I was reading the script I was going through a breakup. The suspicion that gets inside of Lizzie’s head about her husband and his lack of affection for her, maybe even a wandering eye, and how that festers and becomes something that is larger than herself, in moments — that felt so human. Each one of the characters is going through something that’s so challenging just on a basic level, whether that’s jealousy or fear or isolation. The internal demons that eat at us and become the dark shadows in this movie felt really universal.
That being said, I also felt like this moment where we are so inundated with media and noise and social media, and I think that there’s this over-connectedness that we’re all experiencing that is actually creating some internal isolation. I think we’re coming at it from a totally different space [in “The Wind”], being out in the middle of nowhere. But some of the human emotions are similar.
A religious pamphlet warning settlers — specifically, women — of the dangers of demonic temptation also figures prominently in the film. How did that deepen the complexity of the themes you wanted to explore?
We were trying to tap into the things that people look to for comfort turning on them. In Lizzie’s case, it’s definitely religion. Her backstory is that she’s an immigrant who came over from Germany… and she would have brought not only religion with her but probably some superstition and folklore. When there’s not much information to acquire, one of the primary sources of information is superstition and religion. These are things that people not only believed in but used as guiding compasses, and we still do.
What actually scares you?
I mean, our president. [Laughs.] It’s not lost on me that this is not my first horror movie. But one of the things I do find so totally terrifying is being alone. I’d done a lot of research on solitary confinement, years ago, and not only is there a sleep deprivation component to it, but it’s incredible how quickly we deteriorate as human beings being isolated. That’s the most terrifying thing to me.