Emma Tammi Melds Horror and Western with the Chilling The Wind

In theaters on April 5 from IFC Midnight, Emma Tammi’s The Wind blends Western and horror to tell a chilling, slow-burn story of a pioneer woman (Insidious: The Last Key‘s Caitlin Gerard) driven to the end of her psychological tether by the harshness of life on the prairie. The presence of a supernatural entity isn’t helping mattersespecially since her husband (Ashley Zukerman) refuses to believe she’s not just crazy. Heyit may be the Old West, but it still had gaslighting.

I read in another interview with you that you grew up watching silent movies?

I did. Yes.

Was Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind [a silent Western in which the endless winds drive Lillian Gish mad] something that was

No! I never seen it, and I didn’t even know it existed. And neither did the writer, Teresa Sutherland, when she wrote this script. And it wasn’t until I was telling my mom about the story and the script that she was like, “Oh, you know, there was a silent film called The Wind.” Telling me how amazing it was and all the people involved with it, and I was like, “How have I never seen this movie?”

There’s not a direct relation, but it makes so much sense. It’s such a compelling premise. Our film is almost a silent film. There’s very little dialogue. It tells a story, and it’s visual. That being said, the sound design is such a huge element of it.

I timed it; you take almost six minutes to get to the first line of dialogue. Which, as a fan of silent film, I thought was pretty neat.

It’s pretty rare these days. I was excited to lean into that a little bit.

You see a lot of directors who are influenced by films from the ’70s or the ’60s. Going back further, what lessons do you think filmmakers can take from silent films?

There are so many. It’s an interesting era to be watching filmmaking out of, because that sense of exploration of film as a medium was still so front and center. That that really comes through in all the silent era film. Trying different things, playing with the comedy of it, playing with the scares of it, playing with the romance. It’s all still being explored, and you can really feel it. The lesson for some of those films, for me anyways, in our age of being so saturated and so jaded with the medium and so savvy with technology, is to really strip it down and still be mesmerized by film as a medium.

The demon you see in this film, you actually don’t really see a lot. You do a lot without very much in terms of big, fancy, special effects spectacle.

Absolutely. We talked about this a lot before we shot, during shooting, and then a lot in post. There are some VFX effects elements in the film, and yet it’s a period piece. It’s set in the late 1800s. To lay anything into that environment artificially that that didn’t feel organic to either natural elements or shadows or something of the environment stuck out and felt wrong. So even in our VFX, we were really trying to channel things that felt practical and natural. We were always thinking of the more supernatural, tormenting aspects of this film as coming from the sound versus what we were seeing in terms of any type of monster or demon. That was the main way in which we felt the haunting elements, was through the sound, through the wind.

Can you talk a bit about how you came to work with your sound designer to develop that aural landscape?

I had worked with the same sound design team on a documentary several years ago, so that was nice to already have a preexisting relationship with them. They were so engaged with this one even before we started shooting. They came out to New Mexico during some of our pre-production, and they were recording sounds from around our locations prior to us even shooting. Afterwards, months and months of post production, we were trying out a million different types of winds. There are so many types to draw from. It’s a crazy process. Really every range of wind you can imagine. Depending on where we’re at in the timeline of the film, we were trying to evoke different things with the wind, and we were trying to have it interact differently with our characters. So it was the constant trial and error with different types of things and really talking about what direction we were going for in each scene and what the wind needed to achieve.

Were you drawn to Westerns before you started working on this film?

Oh, yeah. I love Westerns. I grew up watching them, and I also grew up pretty fascinated with the American West as a general concept. I read a bunch of Louis L’Amour novels as a teenager. My godfather was really into them. I remember the first time I went out West. I was 12 or 13. I grew up on the East Coast, so I hadn’t seen anything as dramatic as the Grand Tetons. Seeing the West for the first time was so impactful. And as an adult, I’ve loved consuming Westerns as well. I’m obsessed with the show “Deadwood.” I can’t get enough of that stuff. It’s amazing how the West really still captures our imagination. I was so excited to be able to do something within that genre, to be able to build on that and make something that I felt like we hadn’t seen before.

People are really playing around with the conventions of Westerns nowadays, specifically in terms of the stories of pioneer women. There’s the Zoe Kazan episode of Buster Scruggs. Slow West, to some degree.

Yeah, they’re getting a little spotlight right now.

These women went through a lot.

The daily hardships of life were pretty staggering. It’s very humbling to read some of these accounts and think how easy we have it now, in some respects. In other respects, it feels really relatable. Some of the loneliness and depression and isolation that they were experiencing, in very different contexts people are experiencing nowadays. From a totally different perspective, where we’re all over-connected on our phones and social media. And yet that’s leading to a different type of isolation, because it’s limiting some of our actual human interaction. It was an interesting time to visit those themes, because they feel like they’re cropping up in different ways right now.

Did you also have a history of liking horror?

I did, but not as consciously. I look back on some of my favorite horror films growing up, and they all leaned a little bit more towards psychological thriller, versus a slasher film. There was a learning curve on this one, which was really cool in terms of entering that genre space more, especially for some of the scare scenes and really trying to cut my teeth on techniques that are used to frighten people. The timing of everything is so crucial. We really wanted to nail those beats as much as we were nailing the landscape of a Western.

It almost feels like the horror is incidental. It’s just a natural offspring of the loneliness and the psychological torment felt by this character.

I thought that was a real strength of the script when I first read it, was that the horror was really borne from the dramatic arcs of the characters that Teresa had built so well.

I love that you got picked up my IFC Midnight. They do great work. Do you agree that this is a film that should be seen on the big screen, if at all possible? Because Westerns are made for the big screen.

Oh, yes, I really do! And I’m so glad it’s getting a theatrical release. We shot on anamorphic lenses, and to be able to see the film on a big, wide screen is-—you get so much more out of it. And that’s not to say that you don’t on a small screen. But it’s really a treat. Seeing any Western on the big screen is, generally speaking, a real treat. And on top of it, it’s so great to watch it in a theater for the sound. To be able to really immerse yourself in that soundscape for 90 minutes and feel the surround sound of it all. It transports you in a bigger way then outside of the theater. So it’s so great that IFC Midnight is putting it out theatrically.

It’s a mood.

It’s a mood, that’s for sure. And I think it is a move that sticks with you. It’s fun to get it in its full immersion for those 90 minutes.

And I loved that the film was 90 minutes. There are too few 90 minute films nowadays.

I agree!

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