A party is supposed to be a carefree and fun event for a group of close friends who want to celebrate life. That unfortunately doesn’t turn out to the be the case for the the protagonists in the new horror film, ‘The Ranger,’ which marks the feature film directorial debut of filmmaker Jenn Wexler, who also produced and co-wrote the script with Giaco Furino.
The movie, which was produced in part through the helmer’s production company, Glass Eye Pix, celebrated its World Premiere during the Midnighters Section at this month’s SXSW. After the punk rock drama held its first public screening on March 13, the close cast and crew celebrated how their efforts have actually benefited them, as opposed to the ill fates that bestow some of the characters.
‘The Ranger’ follows Chelsea (Chloe Levine) and her friends as they get into trouble with the cops. Trying to avoid being caught by the lawy, they flee the city and go on the run. Fueled by a hallucinogenic drug called Echo, they hope to lay low-and get high-in an old family hideout in the woods. But Chelsea has reservations about going back to nature, and the secrets she hasn’t been sharing with her friends. When a shot rings out, her past comes crashing back, and the punks find themselves pitted against the local authority-the title unhinged park ranger (Jeremy Holm), who has an axe to grind.
Several key cast and crew members from ‘The Ranger,’ including Levine; Holm; Granit Lahu, who played Garth; Bubba Weiler, who portrayed Abe; Amanda Grace Benitez, who played Amber; Jeremy Pope, who portrayed Jerk; Wexler, Furino and producers Heather Buckley and Andrew van den Houten, generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview at the Highball Karaoke Room in Austin, the day after the movie had its premiere at SXSW. Among other things, the actors, writer, director and producers discussed how the intensity of the characters and their situation drove everyone who worked on the drama to further respect, and care about, each other. The cast and crew also expressed their appreciation over being able to have the world premiere of their horror film at the Texas-based festival, and how they’re also looking forward to bringing it to other festivals across the U.S.
ShockYa (SY): Jenn and Giaco, you co-wrote the script for ‘The Ranger.’ Where did you come up with the inspiration for the story, and wat was the process of co-penning the screenplay together?
Jenn Wexler (JW): Well, Giaco and I went to college together at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. ‘The Ranger’ was his senior screenplay-we were in a screenwriting program together. I was really obsessed with it, and thought it was a great idea. But we didn’t know how to make movies at the time. So a couple of years later, after I figured out the process a little bit, I was like, “Giaco, find that script. We’re going to make it.”
Giaco Furino (GF): The bones of the original story are still in the script that we shot. But the story didn’t come alive at all until we dug it back up. When Jenn asked me if I could find the script, I really did have to find it. (The group laughs.) It was my senior thesis, and I got a B, by the way! (More group laughter.)
There were two acts on an old computer, and the third act was on a hard drive. So I really had to put it together like a Frankenstein monster. Once I put it back together, I was like, oh, this is bad, so I have to start over. So we pretty much burned it down, and started back up again.
SY: For the cast, how did you all become involved in starring in ‘The Ranger?’ What was it about the story, as well as your respective characters, that convinced you to appear in the horror film?
Granit Lahu (GL): I received an email from my manager about the project. One of my favorite casting directors, Lois J. Drabkin, was working on the film, so I read the script for a few days. I fell in love with the story, and knew that Garth was a character who I wanted to play right away. Growing up, my parents tried to keep me from becoming a savage, and Garth is full savage! (The group laughs.) So I could finally be me! So Lois then gave me a call and congratulated me, and then I met Jenn, which was a big pleasure.
Amanda Grace Benitez (AGB): I previously worked with Andrew, who’s one of our producers, about five years ago on the film ‘All Cheerleaders Die.’
Andrew van den Houten (AvdH): (Cheers) That was an awesome experience!
AGB: So we stayed in contact over the years as friends. He called me at about 11:30pm one night and was like, “Amanda, are you up? Well, I have to talk to you about something. There’s this script, and it’s amazing. Jenn Wexler is the director, and she’s amazing. I’m going to send you everything tomorrow.”
The next day, I received a message from Jenn, and she introduced herself. I’ve seen her shorts that she has directed, as well as all of the movies that she has produced, and they’re all incredible. So after I read the script (for ‘The Ranger’), I fell in love with it, because I was a punk kid growing up. Jenn then called me back about a week later, and said ‘I’d love for you to play Amber.’
SY: For the producers, how did you all become involved in working on the drama?
Heather Buckley (HB): Well, I knew Jenn before the production began, and she gave me the script about three years ago. She was like, “You’re punk-rock, so why don’t you read it?” A lot of the characters reminded me of my friends in New York City growing up, because I have identified with, and been a part of, that music scene since I was 13-years-old.
So I felt like knowing, and being a part of, this community, and Jenn being very welcoming of the punk-rock aspects of the story, meant that I could help her inject a lot of those aspects into the film. I also have some connections that I knew could help her, and I could also make all of my friends show up at Don Pedros and dance for her. (The group laughs).
JW: I was going to say, we threw a big party on the first day of shooting, and Heather filled the restaurant!
HB: Some people are even wearing my clothes in the film, like in the basement scene. (The group laughs.) I also gave the production all of my strange serial sh*t that I have in my house for The Ranger’s house. I knew that I could help out with the serial killer aspect.
People though I was obsessed with the script for the punk rock element of the story. But I was like, “No!” I love villains, so when I read the script, I wanted to be the Ranger, because I thought he was so cool. Jenn identified very deeply with the final girl, but I liked The Ranger.
Jeremy Holm (JH): I have a problem with this-you all keep calling The Ranger a villain. (The group laughs.) He’s a man who has principals, and he stands on those principals, and is trying to do the right thing. (The group laughs.)
HB: Jeremy’s the same way-he’s very dedicated to his principals!
AvdH: I remember when I got a call from Heather, and she was very enthusiastic. She didn’t ask if I wanted to have lunch with her; she instead said, “We’re meeting in a week and having lunch.” I thought, this is real! So we went out to sushi together, and she sat across the table and said, “Hey man, I love how you make sh*t happen. How do we make this movie happen? I really want to bring this project to life.” I was flattered that she not only wanted to eat sushi with me (The group laughs), but also so honest about how passionate she was about this project.
I was like, “I’ll give you all of the advice I can, but I can’t cut a check right now. I’m focused on my mom,” who was sick at the time, “and I’m taking care of her. So I’m not making movies.”
HB: It was funny-a few months later, when I was at (the) Fantasia (International Film Festival), I got a call from Andrew. I was at the Irish Embassy (Pub and Grill), where everybody hangs out, and he said, “Don’t show that script to anyone else! We’re making that movie!” (The group laughs.) So I told Jenn, “I hear we’re making a film with Andrew!”
Jenn and I are such good friends, and I’m friends with Andrew, too. So the producing and production team all love each other.
AvdH: The even crazier part is when Heather first pitched me the story for ‘The Ranger,’ she told me Jenn was involved, I thought, that’s the young woman who made the short film (‘Slumber Party’) that I awarded the best film in her category at the Viscera Film Festival a few years before (in 2013) we met for lunch. I thought, this is a crazy cool opportunity, but I’m not cutting checks for films right now. (The group laughs.)
Then three months later, we were at Fantasia’s Frontières Market, and Jenn’s sizzle reel, as well as her presence and ideas about what she wanted to do with this interesting patriotic story, really drew me in. It’s a patriotic story in the sense that the fight that Chloe’s character has is with this patriotic and prideful park ranger. I actually don’t really see him as a villain, either-I see him as multi-demensional. He has all of this sh*t that he’s gone through. So I connected to both the female lead, as well as the antagonist.
I thought there was something special about the story, and it’s not a cookie-cutter genre piece. You won’t think, it’s just another one of those slashers. There’s an emotional depth to this story. The characters are really relatable for me. Also, there’s a fresh perspective, and I haven’t seen a story in the genre that I have seen told in this way before. It was also great to see that element come together with all of this amazing talent. It’s not a huge cast, so it’s very intimate in that way. So there’s so much energy once you get to the final act of the film, in the way that Jenn and Giaco wrote the screenplay. It really allows the audience to get to know the characters before we get to the hard-core stuff.
JH: It’s really a love story.
HB: I agree with that…I also have to say, this was a beautiful marriage between (the film’s production companies,) Hood River (Entertainment) and Glass Eye Pix. We always want to work with (producer) Larry (Fessenden)’s company (Glass Eye Pix).
AvdH: That’s a big part of it, too. I was like, “I’ll do this movie if Glass Eye Pix co-produces it with us. Jenn, of course, also works at Glass Eye Pix. Larry did want to work on the film, so it was a great opportunity to work with a very dear friend of mine, who I got to direct (as an actor) in my first feature (the horror film, ‘Headspace’), back in about 2003. That was surreal, because he’s such a generous man. If you’re a first-time filmmaker, he has a way to make it fun and unpretentious during the business phase.
HB: He would be here with us right now, but he’s shooting his dream project.
SY: For the actors, how did you all build the relationships between the characters? Did you have any rehearsal time together?
GL: I think when people see the movie, the chemistry that we all have speaks for itself. It feels like we’ve known each other for years, with all the love that we developed for each other.
Bubba Weiler (BW): That was really important. These people have to feel like a family-they’re all they have. So we walked in on the first day, shook hands and immediately went into a scene where we had to perform like we’ve had these friendships that have been developed for at least five years. So I think we were all a little nervous on that first day, but it clicked into place so fast. We really do feel like family now.
SY: Jenn, what was the experience of helming ‘The Ranger,’ especially since this is your feature film directorial debut?
JW: It was awesome; I love directing so much. I think I was in this heaven bubble the whole time, through the production and editing. (The group laughs.)
The readers of the article won’t be able to see this, but Jeremy (Holm, who was sitting next to Wexler) is imitating me from when we were on the set. I do this thing with my hands when I’m setting up a shot, and it helps me get into the moment. But everyone makes fun of me. (The group laughs.)
But I loved directing the film. Everything about the process has been great, and I hope to do it again in the future.
SY: With the story driven largely by its punk-rock elements, what was the process of creating the score, and choosing what music you’d include in the film?
JW: We had awesome composers, including Wade MacNeil and Andrew Gordon Macpherson, and they started giving me music early on. I told them that we needed a song for the punks to be singing on their way into the woods. So they wrote a song for us, and it became one of the theme songs for the shoot, and everyone kept singing it over and over again throughout filming. Jeremy (Holm) actually had his own theme song. Wade and Andrew also created this killer, insane score.
SY: The movie was shot on location in the Mid Hudson Valley in Upstate New York. What was the experience like for you all to film on location?
Jeremy Pope (JP): Well, one of the places that really drew me in was the gas station, and we filmed there during the day. It was still half-open while we were filming. (The group laughs.) We were in our filming gear, so we weren’t in regular clothes. So we had people who would really be buying gas loudly ask us, “What are you shooting?” So we had to tell them, “We need you to be quiet.” (The group laughs.) But that was fun overall.
We also spent a lot of time in the woods, and we were in the middle of nowhere, and we didn’t have any cell service. But we did have a lot of ticks! (The group laughs.) But the locations were great. The isolation that we felt really helped us relate to our characters.
SY: What has the experience of having ‘The Ranger’ have its World Premiere here at SXSW been like?
JW: It’s been a lot of fun!
HB: Jenn has actually been to SXSW before.
JW: Yes, I was here at SXSW last year with two films I produced, ‘Like Me‘ and ‘Most Beautiful Island.’ I love SXSW. I first attended SXSW in 2011, and it was the first festival I have ever attended. I was working for Fearnet at the time, and was taking photos for them. I took photos of (Glass Eye Pix producer) Peter Phok and Ti West, and a couple of years later, I started working for Glass Eye Pix. So I had all of these photos of Peter.
I love SXSW, because it has opened me to, and taught me about, film festivals. When you become obsessed with film festivals, you get to see all different kinds of movies, and meet all of these new filmmakers. You then want to make movies yourself. So SXSW has been an inspiration.
SY: For the actors, what was the experience of creating the physicality for your roles in the movie? Was there a lot of stunt work that you all did while filming the drama?
Chloe Levine (CL): Ranger Jeremy and I have this insane scene together in the movie, during which we’re beating the crap out of each other. I can’t say too much!
JH: But there is a struggle between us! When you’re making a horror movie, there is violence. But your goal as an actor is to protect yourself and the other actors, so there isn’t any actual harm being done. But you can’t fake things, and have to push them right to the edge. You have to know where that edge is, and we had a very good stunt coordinator who helped us.
JW: Shout out to (stunt coordinator) Corey Pierno! (The group claps.)
JH: I was in the film, and I was still blown away last night while we were watching the film at the premiere. I was shaking at the end of the film. My wife and I binged about 150 horror movies while I was preparing for this film, because this is my first horror movie. I spoke to her about the film on the phone this morning, because she was asleep last night. I hold her, “If we had watched this movie during that binge, this would be one of the films that we would be talking about.” I can’t wait for her, and everyone, to see this film.
AvdH: I think when you get into the physicality for this kind of movie, there’s a certain type of intensity that comes with it. So obviously, there’s always a level of safety that has to come with it. I think all of these actors have so much respect for each other, and Jenn has such respect for the safety of the actors.
SY: Now that ‘The Ranger’ has premiered here at SXSW, what are the upcoming plans for its release? Will it play at other festivals?
JW: There are many plans! ‘The Ranger’ is hitting the road.
HB: It’s a punk-rock movie, so it’s going on tour!
JW: So after this, we’re going to play at the Boston Underground Film Festival. We’re also going to be playing at a new festival in New York, which is called What the Fest?, at the IFC Center. That will be the New York premiere. We’re also going to play at the Chattanooga Film Festival, and they’re going to throw us a ‘Ranger’ party at a whiskey distillery with punk bands.
It was also announced today that we’re also going to play at (the Philadelphia-based film festival,) Cinedelphia. That screening’s going to be special for Giaco and I, since we went to school in Philadelphia, and that’s were the story for this film originated. It’s also special for Heather, because she also went to the University of the Arts. Hopefully, it will come to a town where all horror fans can see it.
HB: If you tweet to ‘The Ranger’ on Twitter, @TheRangerMovie, and you request that you want to see the movie near you, maybe those tweets can bring it to your town! (The group laughs.)