I was fortunate enough to speak with Emma Tammi about her beautiful compelling horror-western The Wind (Film Threat Review) at IFC’s New York headquarters. Emma had a lot to say about the film and also has some great tips for filmmakers. I felt inspired to start working on all my long lost film ideas after meeting with her. SO, without further adieu, here’s what went down.
So, how did you get involved with “The Wind”, and also, as a subquestion to that, did you know Theresa Sutherland (the writer of the screenplay) before this?
Emma Tammi: I didn’t. So Teresa went to Florida State University and she was a film student there. The producer of our film, Chris Alender had seen that short film and encouraged her to develop it into a feature. Chris and I had worked together on a documentary I had directed and his company came in to do post-production on it. So, we all knew each other in different ways. When Teresa wrote the script—because she sat on it for many years and then wrote it very quickly, it was one of those things she had been thinking about for a long time—Chris was just in the process of setting up a film fund for three films and this was going to be the first one. We were all at Sundance and he was like, “I think you might be a good fit for this, do you want to read it?” and I did and I loved it. Then I met with Teresa and we really clicked, we shared a vision for what we felt like it could be. We did a couple of polished passes together, which was really great.
That’s cool because that way both of you can kind of have your stamp on it.
Totally! I was able to revisit all of the research that she had initially done which had inspired her to write it, and it was really cool. The cast and a lot of our other creative departments were able to look at all the research she had done.
I know that you didn’t do it, but what did you learn from her research that is relevant to what we see?
I mean, there’s just a lot of really great narratives and a handful of books about women in the West of that time period. So I think reading a lot of those first-hand narratives about what day-to-day life was like and that experience, which was so specific…so incredible. I think we all took different things out of it and those narratives also depict the world so well and completely along with the mental state that a lot of people were struggling with.
“I think reading a lot of those first-hand narratives about what day-to-day life was like and that experience, which was so specific…so incredible.”
That was something I noticed (the mental health struggles) that I put in my review that “The WInd” is kind of like “The Shining” took place in The Old West instead of The Overlook Hotel.
Oh my God, I’m so glad you said that because The Shining—for me—was one of the biggest references for this because I just felt that slow burn aspect of Kubrick’s pacing throughout the film and the environment ultimately coming in on our characters and transforming them.
Was there any other fictional reference point you had in your mind as you were working there. Any sort of influence, a movie, or a book?
Yeah, there were so many. You know, obviously, we were referencing a lot of classic westerns. The Searchers was a big one, and you know Lyn (Moncrief, cinematographer) and I were referencing a bunch of different filmmakers throughout and movies that we loved, throughout the process. Like Bergman was an influence. There were some shots from Persona that were direct influences. The relationship between the two women is also a thematically interesting homage to Persona and I also just grew up watching Bergman so, in terms of my cinematic language, it’s always back there somewhere.
I had interned for Robert Altman as a student. So his films were always at the top for me in terms of references and I think, you know, it was interesting with this one because there’s not a ton of dialogue but some of the way he played with his soundtracks in terms of the dialogue and also what we were doing with the sound design, I was thinking about that often, and really playing with the sound we’re hearing outside of the houses.
I liked that, the sound was all very atmospheric.
Yeah and we were really playing with the highs and the lows so the silence felt as important as the noise.
I feel like the sound had its own sort of character in a way.
Awesome. That was definitely the goal. I mean it’s called The Wind. (we both laugh). The wind is a pretty major character.
“The demons are real, the pamphlets fictional, the demons are real.”
The Demons Of The Prairie pamphlet, is that based on anything that actually exists? It’s fictionalized but Teresa was inspired by these actual trading posts that people would go through to get supplies on their way to their homestead. You pass through different stops and those stops would often be near a church, and I guess it was pretty common in that day for people to hand out little pamphlets and stuff like that, fliers, so the prop itself is something that could have existed in that world, in that time period, but the demon element was something she created.
I grew up in the South in churches so I know a lot about the Bible, so I was like “Those are all actually demons that are talked about in the Bible” so yeah…haha.
The demons are real, the pamphlets fictional, the demons are real.
The demons are real, yes! Anyway, where did you guys shoot this? A lot of the time I can sort of tell, but I don’t really know much about the Great Plains and such so I couldn’t tell.
We shot it in New Mexico, and it was a really great place to do it because they’ve got some really great film infrastructure. It’s intense but you’re always really able to get out in the middle of nowhere which I think was so helpful. I think we all thought we felt really removed from our modern day lives and technology. I think, particularly for the cast that really set the mood. The other reason why it’s so great is that so many westerns have been shot in New Mexico. So location scouting—it’s basically like going through a catalog of the history of Westerns shot in The States and that was just so fun. We were also able to find pre-existing cabins that had been used on other sets. That really helped because it gave our production design team a foundation that was, given our timeline and our budget and everything, a huge boost for them to be able to create the world with that already in place.
The whole film looks just about as much as I could imagine it looked like at the time. Obviously, neither of us were there (laughing) but it looked very authentic in my opinion.
Yeah and the production design team, they really sourced so many items that were of the period. I mean, it was incredible and I think it also added, and you can feel it on the screen, but I think our cast was also able to really feel it because the journals we have as props were like all written by people of that period. They were using trunks that were of that period. We would just open these things up and discover photos and wallpaper that’s put on something or whatever that folks of the period and people were crafting. All the quilts we used were of the period. It added a dimension and authenticity that’s really cool
“…we were really playing with the highs and the lows so the silence felt as important as the noise.”
Knowing as much as you do about actors and acting, how did that help you in your work with directing actors?
My parents are both actors so I grew up around theater and actors for my whole life, but I’ve done not so much acting myself. I think it was huge. There was something that felt intuitive about it for lack of a better word but I don’t think it’s necessarily intuitive. I think it’s because I’ve been lucky enough to be around actors for so many years and seeing them work and seeing so many different types of processes. I think actors bring so much to the table and really wanting to welcome everything and help them pull out everything that they can for their performance and for exploring different things within the character was such a delight and I felt like I was able to know that or tap into that because I’ve been around it.
Was there a lot of improvising with the dialogue or any kind of improvisations in the performances?
No there wasn’t a ton, and I think the script is so well-written that we wanted to get into what was on the page. The dialogue was so sparse, so every now and then if a line wasn’t landing right, we’d change it up or we’d do an alt just to have some options in the edit, but for the most part, I think where we found the spontaneity in the performance was within some of the staging and some of the different types of performance that the actors were giving in each take.
When I was watching The Wind, I thought “this movie could kind of be interpreted in many different ways, you could come to your own conclusions about what the message is”, or that’s the way I felt. It was saying a lot, there was a lot of subtext in my opinion. If you had to tell someone what your overall message, what would you say?
Ooh. You know, what I really liked about this script from the get-go is that I didn’t feel like there was a message. It felt like a real, brutal depiction of a woman’s life and within that life, it felt like it encapsulated so many things and I thought the script did a really good job of doing that organically. And so many things that felt like “Oh, that resonates with me.” you know in present-day 2019, and I love that. So I think some of those messages, quote-unquote, that might be coming through for other people, I hope that it’s a reflection of what resonates—of Lizzy’s life and her trauma at the end of the day—with them and that’s really an open-ended thing in a good way.
I agree. I thought that it, without being overt, it does have kind of a feminist vibe to it, so I really appreciated that.
Thank you so much! I was just talking about the end with someone else. I don’t know if it’s a message so much but I think one of the things I really wanted the end to communicate was that Lizzy embraces the thing that’s been traumatizing her the whole time. She steps out into the wind and she finds peace even if it’s within death, really for the first time. I think she sees everything for what it is and then sits in it. I think that’s a very—it’s a sad ending in a way but it’s also empowering and I think there’s a level of it that’s also triumphant in its tragic nature. So, I think that her power and bravery kind of comes through even in the midst of all the chaos at the end. And I love that she’s so flawed and we’re still kind of rooting for her.
I tend to ask everyone this question just because I’m curious, so your parents were actors so that might’ve informed the answer to this question a little bit, too, but what was the first film that you saw or maybe even a tv show or anything that made you realize that you wanted to make movies?
I don’t know if there’s one in particular for me. I think I did kind of take it for granted growing up because I was just constantly watching things. My dad took me to this amazing series of silent films, I think it was at the MoMA actually when I was like…super young. I think I was 12 or 13 and I remember seeing a bunch of Charlie Chaplin films that I think inspired me to…or drew me to the medium of filmmaking in a way that is so specific and I think that it’s interesting that I’m talking about this right now because in some ways The Wind is a silent film.
“…it’s interesting that I’m talking about this right now because in some ways The Wind is a silent film.”
It is! Yeah!
And there’s actually a silent film called The Wind which this is not based on but it’s kind of a similar premise, which Teresa didn’t even know about until after writing the script and everything. I think that there’s something so stripped down about watching silent films and something that’s also still—You’re watching a film at a time when people were still discovering it. So I don’t know if that was the moment where I decided to do it, but I think that from a filmmaking perspective that captured my imagination pretty intensely.
I can totally see why. And last, if you want to talk about what you’re doing now, you have the floor.
I’m developing a number of things that’ll be further down the line projects and some of them are with Teresa.
Yeah, and some are with other writers, but I’m also reading a bunch and trying to find the next script that’s kind of ready to go to jump into, so not sure what the next thing will be but I’m eagerly working towards it.
Would you ever consider writing your own script?
I would! I definitely would! Right now, I’m really enjoying working with other writers, and there’s not the one story that I feel like I absolutely need to tell as a writer. I would totally embrace the idea of doing that down the line if the story comes to me
Maybe this is reductive, but just from an outside perspective, insofar as I haven’t made a movie myself, it seems that it might be a little bit more difficult for women to be directors..or to be above the line in production. What would you say to somebody who wants to do that and what kind of advice would you give?
I would actually give this advice to either a woman or a man but I think, as you say, it’s probably more imperative for women…I think you’ve gotta make your own stuff. I wouldn’t have done this film if I wouldn’t have done a documentary that I basically set out to do with some friends on a shoestring budget because it was our passion project. I think finding financing for film is so challenging and trying to convince anyone to make a movie with you is a whole other level of challenge, so I think you need to go out there and self-generate a little bit at the beginning so that someone is open to giving you a shot, and then once you have the shot, you have to work your ass off and then after that, if you want to keep doing it…that’s only the beginning. You gotta keep, keep, keep working. It’s really hard for the directors and the producers, it’s a real grind but it’s exhilarating so it feels like a privilege to be able to do it. But it’s a marathon. You gotta really pull your boots up every day. Just the nature of it, not knowing what the next project’s gonna be and stuff, I think you continually come back to a point where you need to self generate projects if that makes any sense. I think it’s perseverance at the end of the day and you know if you don’t have a joy for it, I wouldn’t do it. It’s an act of insanity, but if you love it, it’s the best act of insanity.