Some of you may have read my review of Ted Geoghegan’s new historical thriller MOHAWK. It was powerful and really made you think about how our country started and the people that were stepped on and destroyed to create it. During Panic Fest, I had the chance to speak with Ted and pick his brain as to how and why this movie was created.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you for speaking with me today! To start, why did you choose the War of 1812?
Ted Geoghegan: It’s a forgotten war. It’s a war we’re not taught about in school. A lot of people remember the Revolutionary War of 1776; a lot of people remember the Civil War that happened substantially after that because of how it shaped our country but a lot of people tend to forget this very sad, angry war that took place in between that utterly decimated a lot of the indigenous people that inhabited America and in wanting to tell a story about marginalized people, I thought, what better way to do that than through a war that has been marginalized by our history books.
Nightmarish Conjurings: You don’t find many movies that are set during that time.
TG: I can think of very few movies. There are plenty of movies set during the Revolutionary War; there are plenty of movies set during the Civil War. You don’t hear a lot of the eighteen-teens.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Looking at your resume there’s a lot of horror. Why switch gears from horror to a more political, historical thriller with hints of the supernatural?
TG: I’m a huge horror fanatic. It’s very rare that I watch films that aren’t genre films. They are what keep me happy and what keep me going. The building block for MOHAWK started when I moved to New York ten years ago and I started realizing that almost all of the buildings in New York, all the skyscrapers are all built by Mohawk Construction. You see the signs; these are old signs from 100 years ago. And I thought, what the hell is Mohawk Construction? Because in my head when I think of a Mohawk, I think of the hairstyle; I don’t think of the people. And I started reading up on it and learning that there are these people, they are where this term comes from. It’s like, OH, the Mohawk haircut is actually from the Mohawk people who created said haircut. And one of the stories told about the Mohawk people is that they do not suffer from vertigo; that after centuries of walking along cliffs and hunting at high altitudes that they don’t have vertigo anymore. And when word of this got out to construction agencies in New York, they started hiring all the Mohawk to come down and build the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and all the iconic New York skyscrapers were all built by Mohawk. And I brought this up with the lead actress (Kaneihtiio Horn) on set and she kind of laughed. She was like, “Yeah, the Mohawk like to say we don’t have vertigo, it’s a cool thing to say but there’s no medical proof whatsoever that states that this one tiny faction of people do not suffer from something that most people on earth suffer from.” I suddenly became interested in the fact that there are these people that I knew virtually nothing about who built the city that I call home and I started reading up on the Mohawk and I started seeing that these people were utterly decimated. I grew up in rural Montana and I was around Blackfeet and Chippewa for a lot of my upbringing and I know a bit about their background but I knew nothing about the Mohawk. And so I started reading up on it and after WE ARE STILL HERE, I really started thinking that whatever I do next has to have a strong message to it. WE ARE STILL HERE, while a film that’s very close to my heart, definitely is not a political film. It’s an homage to the films I grew up loving. I wanted to make a movie about what’s going on in the U.S. without shoving it down everyone’s throat. Although I could never compare myself to the late, great George Romero, a lot of what he did and what made it so special was when you watch a film like DAWN OF THE DEAD, you’re like, this is a fantastic zombie movie and you can also go, this in an incredible social commentary on consumerism. When I first watched the movie I didn’t know fuck all about consumerism but I wanted to do something like that and while I realize that MOHAWK might be a little more on the nose than DAWN OF THE DEADin terms of what it’s trying to say, at the end of the day it’s a movie about these three beautiful people who are trying to get by in a beautiful, pristine place and hell meets them at every turn and it’s been meeting them for years and years. And they can’t seem to get away from it. I think of it a lot, not only in relation to how the indigenous Americans are treated today but how the Mexicans are treated in the U.S. right now and we are seeing these hardworking, industrious people who just want to make a life for themselves and they are being, at every single turn, taken down by angry white men who don’t realize that their racism will put them on the wrong side of history. And the angry white men who are trying to take them down don’t realize they are the bad guys. It’s only the history books that are going to figure out that they’re the bad guys. So that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do and it was pre-election when we were shooting and everything was happening and we were watching these huge climactic changes occur and I kept saying, “We are making a movie for Trump’s America,” never realizing that Trump’s America would actually be a reality. Ultimately with this film, even though it was 200 years ago, sadly, you could change very little in this film and set it in 2018.
Nightmarish Conjurings: That is unfortunately true and none of us thought that it would come to pass. Even Romero did on the nose commentary, think about THE CRAZIES. Talking about imagery, I noticed, even in the movie stills, red is a really prominent color amongst all of the natural greens and browns; you’ll see big, bright splashes of red. Was that on purpose?
TG: Ironically, the color palette for this movie, outside of the forest itself, the colors of this movie are red, white and blue. Everything in the movie is red, white and blue and red pops the most. It was a very tactful decision to pull it off like that and prior to shooting the film, my DP Karim Hussain, brought up a big stack of Blu Rays for us to watch. Every night after we were done with pre-production, we would go to our hotel rooms, we would watch one of the films Karim had brought up just to understand what the palette was and it was everything from John Boorman movies like THE EMERALD FOREST which was like neon green and a lot of it taking place during the day to FRIDAY THE 13TH or an amazing Canadian film called RITUALS, which is like a proto-slasher. We went through all of it and discussed the ideas of shooting with natural light and like, what sort of tension can you build at 2 in the afternoon? Like these concepts that are very different from what is traditionally done in a film like this. I think a lot of people expect a movie like Mohawk to be tight and scary and intense. Like, it’s during the day; I think it’s kind of scary. It’s pretty intense but we try to buck a lot of the conventions of cinema while trying to make a movie that traditional cinema goers will enjoy. Like, almost none of WE ARE STILL HERE takes place at night. That was a conscious decision. Night’s easy.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Scary things don’t just happen at night. They happen all the time.
TG: Night’s too easy.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I will tell you I love history, especially early American history because it’s such an important time, it’s really what shaped what we are today.
TG: It shaped modern America. It’s why we have the bullshit that we have today. All the racism, all the hate, everything that was going on in the 1800’s is why we have fucking Trump today.
Nightmarish Conjurings: That’s a long journey to get here. And I kind of went into it (MOHAWK) thinking it was going to be a drama. I felt so uncomfortable in the absolutely best sense of the word. I was embarrassed, I was angry. There was a moment when I thought the movie was going to end and I was furious and couldn’t deal and it didn’t and I’m glad it didn’t end when I thought it was going to, but it makes you feel things. And it’s not what I expected. Normally they make you think, but they don’t make you feel uncomfortable and that was wonderful. How important was it to you to have a member of the Mohawk nation as a lead in your movie?
TG: If we couldn’t have cast native people in the three native roles in the film, I would not have made the movie. I would have just thrown it aside. There’s no way I would have done that. It was deeply important for me to get a Mohawk actor to play the lead but I didn’t know if that was a possibility. The Mohawk unfortunately have been decimated over centuries that sadly there are very few of them left even now. They have been forced on reservations and we don’t see them much anymore and I felt wildly fortunate to have gotten Kaneihtiio Horn. She is a Mohawk, she’s from one of the Mohawk reservations in Canada, right on the Canadian border. And I had come to known her through one of the segments in THEATER BIZARRE that was directed by Karim Hussain, my cinematographer, he recommended her to me and said she was a force to be reckoned with. She’s really a powerhouse of an actress and she’s really subtle in her acting. And I thought that would go a long way in the character of Oak. I didn’t want this arm swinging, screaming to the heavens kind of character. I wanted somebody who you just look into her face and you see the plight of everything she had gone through just in her expression and when I Skyped with her I told her, “Oh my God, you are this character.” For the other two roles, I realized rather quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to hire Mohawk people for those roles but I was very fortunate that Justin Rain from “Fear the Walking Dead”, who plays Calvin, was really excited to be in the film. He is Cree and he told me on day one, “I always really admired the Mohawk culture and I consider it a great honor to play a Mohawk in a film,” which, to me, meant a lot just to hear those words. And Sheri Foster, who plays Oak’s mother, is Cherokee and we had the conversation where she was like, “I think the Mohawk are incredible. This sounds amazing.” And she also told me, “As a Native American actress, opportunities like this rarely come along to tell the plight of our people even though it’s a different nation, it’s still us. We are all still Native North Americans.” And so she jumped at the opportunity.
Nightmarish Conjurings: It was nice to see the Mohawk people, and Native Americans in general, be represented without being fetishized.
TG: Absolutely. The idea of fetishizing them or trying to create the image of the mystical Indian was not going to happen. We wanted to tell a story about how anyone, any marginalized person, being like, start running or we’re going to kill you. And in some circumstances, some are going to go, “I’m going to pray to god that I’m okay,” and others will go, “I’m just going to fucking run. And regardless of my spiritual beliefs, I just need to get out of here.” And in this case, we just felt like these young people were not going to stop and pray. That they’re fighting until they die. And that was ultimately what we wanted to do with the story was to tell a story about these brave, badass Native American people who are like, we will take no shit until the moment we are killed. And that, in a nutshell, is to me how I see the Mohawk people. Prior to making this movie and while making this movie, is when you see someone walking down the street with a Mohawk, they are sending you a message. They are telling you they are anti-establishment, punk who’s not going to take any shit and that’s exactly what the Mohawk were saying 200, 300, 400 years ago with that hairstyle. When other tribes or white men saw that haircut, they were like, “ok you guys are anti-establishment, punks who are not going to take any shit.” And to me, I have a lot more respect for that hairstyle more than I ever thought I would prior to learning about it.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Who knew a hairstyle would leave such a long lasting, almost glimmering legacy of “I am not to be fucked with.”
TG: Absolutely and when we started seeing the British punk scene in the 60’s and 70’s adopting that hairstyle, I’d love to learn a bit more on how it went from this indigenous hairstyle to being this symbols of punks, even though 200 years ago it was the symbol of punks. Who was the first punk that said, “This Native American tribe was doing something really bold centuries ago and it’s the exact same message we’re trying to send today now?”
Nightmarish Conjurings: That would be a movie I’d see. Do you plan on making any other historical thrillers or fictions?
TG: I can say nothing about what my next project is as I am trying to secure financing but I will tell you that after nearly 20 years of writing and producing, I felt very honored to direct a film with WE ARE STILL HERE and I am a big fan of period pieces. And I was able to make a period piece for my first film on a limited budget and I thought let’s try that again with a limited budget and let’s go even further back in time and try to make something even less conventional with MOHAWK and once I finished MOHAWK I thought what better to do than for my first three directorial films to all be period pieces. They may not be sister films or exist in the same universe but that seems like an interesting way to stick my foot in the door. So whether or not the next one will be will be left up to that explanation. But I’m very excited about the next thing. It is a return to traditional horror; very dark, very scary and very bloody.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I can’t wait! And one last question and it’s the hardest question of them all, what is your favorite scary movie?
TG: I get asked that question quite often. I do not have a specific favorite. I can tell you a handful of favorites that run the gambit. I’m a huge fan of John Carpenter’s THE FOG. I think it’s one of the most beautiful, atmospheric films of any genre ever made. I absolutely love FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II. I think it’s arguably the best slasher film ever made. I’m a gigantic fan of Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS, which I think is just out of this world and the finest examples of absurdist cinema. I’m a huge fan of the Japanese film RING, I don’t like to call it RINGU ‘cause that’s not actually what it’s called. I’ve never had a film scare me as much as the first time I saw RING. I saw it in theaters before it was remade in the U.S. And I’m a big fan of camp ever though the films I direct are very serious, I un-ironically absolutely adore SORORITY BABES in the SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMAand I think it’s a masterpiece of camp and I say that without an ounce of irony. The film is phenomenally fun and I wish we had more camp cinema that didn’t wink at the audience but that embraced its silliness.
Nightmarish Conjurings: I think sometimes films take themselves too seriously and when you embrace that silliness is when you can embrace the movie.
TG: I always want to have a good time, even if my movies get a little heavy. If there’s anything I can impart, if I’m allowed to get heavy after mentioning SORORITY BABES in the SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA, I sincerely hope if anything, the film will inspire people to learn a bit more about the indigenous people where they live, whether that’s North America or around the world.
Nightmarish Conjurings: Thank you SO much for your time, I really appreciate you talking with me. The movie was fantastic and I can’t wait to see what comes next!
MOHAWK comes out March 2nd and I can’t recommend it enough. Check out our review of the movie from Panic Fest, HERE.
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