Fantasia Gets a Southern Gothic Standout in Blood on Her Name

“Ozark” star Bethany Anne Lind turns in one of the standout performances at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival in Blood on Her Name, helmed by debut feature director Matthew Pope and written by Pope and Don Thompson. Blood On Her Name tracks the consequences of small town garage owner Leigh’s (Lind) killing—in self-defense—of an attacker who, in the way of things, is connected to some rather dangerous people in Leigh’s community. What follows is not a pulse-pounding bloodbath but a tense, Southern Gothic-tinged crime drama. Following the film’s world premier at Fantasia, Blood on Her Name has earned rightful comparisons to Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin in how it takes a concept right out of genre cinema and instead plays it out with a real-life protagonists—with all the flaws and difficult decisions that implies.

Blood on Her Name has the same basic concept as a lot of revenge movies, but it’s lacking the high-energy action that a lot of those movies would have. It feels very real-life. Did you set out to subvert typical crime drama conventions?

Matthew Pope: I don’t know if we were trying to subvert anything. We were trying to tell a story that would resonate with us. But, in particular, we love films that have a mix of genre and character elements. It’s been incredibly humbling to see Blue Ruin referenced in response to the film. We’ve called our projects “character pieces wrapped in genre film,” and [Blue Ruin is] a brilliant example of a film that did that. But I don’t know that we were trying to subvert, specifically.

Don Thompson: It’s along the edge of that. We were trying to take some of the fiction out of the genre. “What would this be in real life?” And chase that down and add in the layers of moral questioning and guilt and what builds these choices. For us, that’s more interesting than somebody slinging a gun. I love a good gun-slinging film. We just wanted to do something different.

I enjoyed that she made decisions in the film that—they may have seemed like bad decisions, but they weren’t wrong decisions, if that makes sense. They fit her character.

MP: She made decisions that were the right decisions for her top priority, which factored in things that sometimes characters in movies don’t factor in, like their conscience and what they can live with.

A lot of times it’s just, “Character makes X decision because we need Y to happen in the next scene.”

DT: We tried to stay away from that sort of stuff like the plague, because nothing will break the illusion of reality quicker than the writers’ heavy hand guiding the plot forward. All of the plot things that happened we tried to base out of her character and things she’s struggling with.

There’s a lot of backstory to what Leigh’s going through, but the script is still very spare—you’re not out there putting everything on the page in the first 15 minutes. Is that something you had to work on throughout the scriptwriting process, winnowing away all that extra stuff?

MP: Yeah, for sure. You don’t want to be boring. You’re trying to find that line where it’s grounded and human and yet still a movie. It’s still a story that an audience can be engaged with and has a reason to care about. We were always navigating that balance.

In particular, once we got past the script stage, there was a constant amount of navigating that had to occur with each new collaborator that we’d bring onto the project, because it was really easy for people to make their own assumptions about what kind of movie it was. How genre, how gun-slinging. And so there were regularly conversations with people, where it’s like, “No, let’s make sure we’ve making the same kind of movie.”

That’s one of the things that was great about working with Don. Because from day one we developed the story together and then wrote together, I knew that there was always someone else there who knew exactly what the movie was supposed to be. And I knew that we were trying to make the same movie. You want, as a director, to take notes from wherever they come. A good note can come from anywhere. But you especially pay attention when you know the note is from somebody who sees the same movie in their head that you see in your head. And that was one of the things that was really great about having that collaboration.

DT: I would add that, even in the scripting stage, we knew that we were casting Bethany. So it was easier. We had a good sense—especially Matt—of the kind of empathy she’s capable of, just as a human being, and what she can get out there on screen. So we felt really comfortable making those choices and getting those things into the script. Whereas I don’t know if we would have been so focused on that if we didn’t already have that piece.

You knew she could pull it off.

DT: We knew she could pull it off, and we knew what we knew that the film would be great with her doing it that way. So it took a little bit less winnowing and less wandering than we might otherwise have had.

Often the film that the writers initially conceive of is wildly different from what ends up on the screen. But it sounds like that wasn’t the case here.

DT: That was actually one of the really cool things. We had an absolutely brutal production. We shot in Atlanta, basically in thunderstorm season. So there were constant setbacks. During one of the setbacks, we were all sitting and waiting out the rain, and Matt did a little documentary along the way, asking, “How is this different than the movie you thought we were going to make?” And everyone said, “This is the movie we thought we were going to make.” It was hard, but I don’t think it ever deviated from what we wanted it to be.

“The thunderstorms—I could have done with a little less of that.”

MP: I think it rained on 18 out of our 23 days of principal shooting. There’s a lot of rain in the movie.

It’s very atmospheric.

MP: But none of it is real rain! We knew that we needed a lot of rain, but in the South rain comes with lightning. So we would be standing on a forced break for lightning, for safety purposes, thinking “Man, this would look beautiful if we could just shoot right now.”

In Blue Ruin, the movie is commenting on the character’s perceived masculinity, or lack thereof. It very much tackles idea of what it “means” to be a man. In Blood on Her Name, Leigh is mother, and so much of character is rooted in trying to protect her son. Was that always a part of the story you wanted to tell?

MP: We really tried to prioritize having every character acting out of their interests in protecting the people that they loved. And in this case it was typically all family members, parents and children. All the characters come from a little bit of a different perspective. Some of them have things that they are willing to do that others wouldn’t do or things they wouldn’t do until certain times. But they’re all coming from a similar motivation of, “I will do what I have to do to protect the people that I care about.” Family dynamics make that kind of story really interesting. For whatever reason, good or bad, people have a different standard for what lines they’ll cross when they think they’re protecting their family. And that is definitely part of what made it compelling.

You get a small town Southern feel from the clannishness of it, almost. Everything is rooted in the family and the community.

MP: When you’re in smaller towns, you don’t have as many options for community connections. This was set in one of those places where we saw it as following the trajectory of a lot of smaller towns that have seen those ties break down. And the things that connected people before, whether it was you civic organizations, religious organizations, etc.—when those start to go away, you don’t have much left besides family a lot of times.

DT: It’s the final support system, and in this film it’s absolutely frayed.

I’ve heard, here at the fest, that male critics and female critics are approaching this film differently. Obviously, men and women can and do like it, but what I’ve been told is that maybe it’s resonating more powerfully with female critics?

MP: Could be. I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion on a film. There are films that everybody loves, and I’ll look at it like, “Eh. I don’t get it. I don’t see it.”

We felt like there was something that would be interesting about having the kind of story that’s often told with a male protagonist seen from a different point of view. This could’ve been a father and son kind of story. But the mother/son dynamic felt really compelling. It was fun to explore that. These are characters who aren’t intending to end up in this situation. None of them want to be in this situation. There’s not really a classic antagonist. But they all find themselves there, doing what they have to do.

That’s one of the things I was wondering: Did this always have a female protagonist?

MP: In the early conversational stages, we were looking at it from all angles. But there was a component where we suspected, because of our relationship with Bethany, that this was something that she might be interested in. Whatever other options were out there, it was hard to avoid thinking, “Bethany in this role would be so much fun. She would do such a great job with it.” That kind of shed the other options for us. So it’s not that we ever really made a decision, “Do we want a male protagonist or a female protagonist?” We wanted to work with Bethany.

Sometimes people are more comfortable with a female protagonist if she’s kicking ass.

DT: And I think that’s cool. I think those movies are great. That’s not the story we wanted to tell. We wanted to dimensionalize the role and give something super meaty for Bethany to bite into. And she did. And I think, to your point, Bethany’s a mom. So some of those scenes were just brutal on her trying to get through. She brings such empathy to the role. The connection between her and Jared Ivers, who plays [her character’s son] Ryan, echoes through her thoughts about her own children. She brought a whole different layer of humanity that we really wanted to see.

MP: I like movies where there’s guys kicking ass and girls kicking ass. But I also don’t know why a movie that’s more complicated and has a character who makes all manner of choices—some good choices and bad choices, some right choices, some wrong choices. It’s fun to see men and women in those roles as well.

I know distribution is still up in the air for this one—but would you like to get it picked up for the big screen?

MP: Obviously, a lot of that is out out of our control. We understand that the nature of the world right now makes it increasingly difficult to justify theatrical releases for independent films. And I wish that wasn’t the case. That said, if these two screenings of have reinforced anything for me, it’s that movies play differently in that environment. It’s a different experience. The nature in a film like this of sitting on the edge of your seat, feeling the tension of the crowd, is not something that you can replicate when you’ve got your laptop playing while you do your taxes. Like I said, that’s outside of our control to a certain extent. But I certainly would love for people to be able to experience what we’ve experienced.

DT: To your point, with the communal aspect of it, there’s the watching of the film that’s a totally communal aspect, where you’re feeling the tension on all the people around you, which is amazing. But there’s also the walking out of the theater thing. We intended to craft, from the very beginning, a film that left you thinking and left you kind of in a tough emotional space. Having the ability to talk to people after that in a natural way is really cool. You don’t get that when you just stream it and sit by yourself in a room watching it on your computer.

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