Despite what controversy will have you believe, Lucky McKee's The Woman is not your typical rape-revenge flick. The Cleeks look like your typical nuclear family: dad Chris is a country lawyer, mom Belle is a homemaker looking after their three kids. But of course, they are not - otherwise this wouldn't be a movie. Chris discovers a wild woman living in the woods and decides to bring her home to "tame" her. This is not a noble pursuit, as Chris is a controlling, abusive father, and his family is almost relieved for him to have someone else to abuse for a while.
We talked with Lucky about The Woman, which opens in select theaters today.
Tell me about the process you went through when casting The Woman.
It was kind of unique. There was a previous film called Offspring, where Pollyanna [McIntosh] played the character of The Woman. I really liked what she did and I pitched my idea for a way to continue her character, and she dug it. When Ketchum and I started writing the book and the script, we knew we wanted Angela Bettis to play the mother. Over the course of writing the film, Andrew [van den Houten, one of the producers], produced this teenage musical film that had Lauren Ashley Carter in it, and I thought she could play Angela's daughter. Angela introduced me to Sean Bridgers; they had been friends for years and she had been telling me over the course of those years, "You've got to work with this guy." We finally found the right project - he just really understood it. The little girl, Shyla Molhusen, we actually found at a horror convention. She just happened to be at a table next to us. We made friends with her parents and just thought she looked perfect for the part. The only one we cast through auditions - other than the local bit parts - was Zach Rand, the 12-year-old boy. We were doing auditions in New York, and his was the last tape we saw. It was a godsend because that is a really hard part to cast. We had to find the right kid, and we had to find the right parents. You have to make sure the kid wants to be there, that the kid can handle what is going on. You need a lot of communication when you're working with kids on this kind of film. You need to be really well-organized and really careful how you handle things.
Working with kids in such an intense environment, with this subject matter... was there anything they had a hard time with, or any special precautions you had to take?
No, not really. Zach was old enough to understand what was going on. I let his mom control what she wanted him around. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror, too, so I was really careful with how I composed the scenes. I got the pieces I needed to tell the story, but didn't put the kids in any situation that made them uncomfortable - or me uncomfortable. It's just a balancing act.
With such intense subject matter, was the set particularly tense or somber?
The only tension on set came from not feeling like we had enough time to get it all. There is some rough stuff in there that was emotionally hard to film. Some of the stuff was harder for me to film than it was for the actors. Dealing with rape and abuse and all these things, you are walking a fine line of turning it into exploitation, and I really didn't want to do that. I wanted to show this for what it is: something that exists that a lot of people can relate to or been through. I didn't want to titillate with the film. A lot of films do that these days, with their use of violence and sex. That's kind of dangerous. I tried to be careful, while at the same time creating something entertaining. The original Straw Dogs isn't a walk in the park. It's not easy to watch that film, or A Clockwork Orange or Peeping Tom - which were all big inspirations to me - but they say something about how we treat each other.
The controversy at Sundance, where the man stormed out of the screening, demanding The Woman be banned... do you think that your film would have gotten so much attention and controversy had that video not gone viral?
That's pretty obvious: no! I've shown this film at at least 15 events so far. It traumatizes people. I get up to do my Q&A, and it's funny to look at everyone's faces afterwards - they are drained of blood and staring off into space. You can almost see their brains trying to process what they just saw. People would know about the film, for sure, but that guy really helped things along. It was upsetting at the time, but a little indie horror film needs all the attention it can get. We don't have the big PR budgets or anything like that, so any word-of-mouth we can get is great. I'm thankful for it in retrospect.
So you think it has been helpful from a marketing standpoint?
Absolutely! A hundred thousand people have looked at that video, and I get asked about it in every single interview. Obviously it got everyone's attention.
Critics seem to be polarized about The Woman. Some of them find it very misogynistic, and I want to say to them, "Did you actually watch the film?"
I don't think it is a misogynistic film. I'm not a misogynistic person, but there are misogynistic people in the world. My buddy James Gunn said it best when he said, "Hitler makes a film about the Holocaust; it doesn't mean he condones genocide." He is showing something for what it is. I get feminist and misogynist from both camps. To me, it's neither. Pollyanna insists it is a feminist film. I didn't read a book about feminism then go make the film; I just made a film about people, and just tried to be as frank as possible about it.
With some [critics], it almost feels like they watched 20 minutes and shut it off. If you don't watch the movie all the way through, you're going to have some dark days ahead of you. If you leave during some of the rough stuff in the middle of the film, you don't get some of the emotional release that the ending gives you. You're doing yourself a disservice.
The abuse at the hands of the father towards his family is deeper than what he does to The Woman.
Yeah, we're not trying to be nasty for nasty's sake. It's a very extreme portrait of a family that lives in this prison of abuse and control. This father figure is something that exists. I think that's why it pushes people's buttons - it hits a little too close to home. It makes you wonder about the people you pass by on the street every day. It's cut from the same cloth as like Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt: you have this veneer of suburban perfection, but underneath that is this rot.
So do you think audiences are reacting more to the treatment of The Woman, or to the treatment of the family?
I think both. It's harsh. The Woman is a fairytale creature; she's a symbol of abuse. She's a symbol of what the women in this family have been going through for a very long time. Unfortunately, many of us don't have this magnificent creature that can break us free from all that.
Does either aspect of abuse seem more horrifying to you than the other?
They're both pretty horrifying. To me, the most horrifying scene in the movie is when the wife finally decides to stand up to her husband, and he lays down the law. You get a real clear picture of why everyone is living in fear. The kids are there when it is happening... there is nothing scarier as a kid than watching your parents fight. They are supposed to be your protectors; not at each other's throats.
This isn't your first collaboration with Jack Ketchum. What is it about him that makes it such a good working relationship?
He has no fear and no boundaries about where to go with a story, especially what we reduce ourselves to as people. There is an elegance and a poetry to his writing that I really like. There is an efficiency to the way he uses words that really translates well to film. We took a big chance, deciding to collaborate with each other. He's my father's age, he's written all these great novels, he has this nice system down. I've been working in the business for about 10 years, so I don't have quite as much experience, but when we sat down to start writing, it was effortless. There were no egos involved; it just went really smoothly. We relate to each other as artists.
Are you guys already planning your next collaboration?
Yeah, we are talking about a few things. We definitely want to do it again.
The sound design in The Woman was so intense - perhaps even more so than the subject matter. It's almost oppressive - and it freaked the hell out of my dog! He was barking at the speakers for the first half of the film.
That's awesome! Yeah, it freaked out my dog, too! I had to watch the pan and scan version and I decided to watch it really loud. My dog must have jumped six or seven times - and she never reacts to sounds from the television. I can't wait to tell my sound designer that. He'll be really excited to hear that - he worked really hard on the sound dynamics.
How did you guys go about achieving that soundtrack?
I had a really good sound designer in Andrew Smetek. He is way into it. He was there, supervising all the recordings of sound. There is no ADR; there is no dubbing. The whole thing was recorded on location, as were a lot of the foley and environmental sounds. When used in a subjective way, the sound can really immerse the viewer in the situation. That coupled with the strange use of music can really unsettle the audience. Everything looks polished and nice - I used a kind of old-fashioned camera style - that looks and feels okay, then it is contrasted with crazy sound and music. It makes you look at the images in a different way.