In Travis Stevens’ sophomore feature film, JAKOB’S WIFE, Anne (Barbara Crampton) feels like her life and marriage to a small-town minister (Larry Fessenden) has been shrinking over the past 30 years. After a chance encounter with “The Master,” she discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before. As Anne is increasingly torn between her enticing new existence and her life before, the body count grows and Jakob realizes he will have to fight for the wife he took for granted.
For the SXSW World Premiere of the film, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to speak with Director Travis Stevens about JAKOB’S WIFE where we discussed everything from directing the legendary Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, creating a Gothic atmosphere, and more!
I’m so excited to chat with you today! How did you get attached to this project and how was it directing such legends as Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden?
Travis Stevens: Barbara approached me [after] she had found the script for JAKOB’S WIFE, it had been sent to her five years ago or so after it had won a screenplay award at Shriekfest. The original writer, Mark Steensland, had written this thing and Barbara read it and was like, “Oh my gosh, I could really see myself playing this role.” She spent years developing it, working with different writers, and even worked with Kathy Charles on a draft. Finally, they were like, “okay, we’re ready to start looking for directors.” She then sent it to me when I was out promoting the release of Girl on the Third Floor and I read it and immediately saw why this was the perfect movie for Barbara to make at this point in her career. So the conversations with Barbara and the other producer, Bob Portal, began and I was like, “Here’s what I think we should do with this script to really sort of bring it to its best potential” and they were supportive of it.
It was great to be able to not just work with a legend with both Barbara and Larry, but to work with them in a meaningful way. People will see this once they see the movie but there’s a really nice correlation between what the lead character, Anne Fedder, goes through and what Barbara Crampton went through as an actor and in her personal life. Where she had a very established acting career and then moved to focus on the equally important task of raising a family, and then years later came back into acting. Yes, she’s a legend, but to work on a real personal, intimate, vulnerable level with her to bring her own experience into the movie instead of just relying on the legend status, that was really exciting. And Larry too. Larry, Barbara, and I would have conversations and emails about their own lives and would try to bring those sort of details and nuances into the script. And so with both of them bringing that grounded truth into it and also having them play the type of characters who we don’t normally see them play, that was also really creatively exciting.
Going into this movie, I had zero knowledge that it would have to do with vampires. That said, seeing how certain lighting was done, as well as the atmosphere that was created, it really harkened back to classic vampire films. Where did you draw your inspiration from?
Travis Stevens: Yeah, I mean the whole premise was we’re going to take this Gothic fantasy character and drop it in the middle of small suburban America. That was a fun and challenging thing to do with each scene while we formed how those two elements would roll up against each other and what we could do to make that juxtaposition more clear and funnier. I took personal inspiration from Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction. It’s set in New York but the way they lit that movie feels Gothic, and it was simply in how they lit it and where they set their scenes. So even though it’s in a fire escape or in a loft, it still has that Gothic quality to it. And I just wanted to bring that same idea to this small Pan-American setting. To the best of our ability, we were trying to evoke almost like a Tim Burton type world.
One of my favorite character actors, Bonnie Aarons, is in the film and I’m always amazed at how terrifying she can become considering how sweet she in person! It always makes for such an interesting juxtaposition. That said, how was it working with her and bringing her character to life?
Travis Stevens: It was great! Barbara had been friends with her for years so when I said, “Hey, I think this character needs to be female because that’ll change what is being asked of the Anne character,” Barbara said, “Well, I’m really good friends with these actors, what do you think about them?” and Bonnie was on that list She has such a presence, both physically and in her eyes and in her speaking voice. It was immediately clear she would be perfect for this because I knew the design of the character was going to add some layers in between the audience and the actor. It was important to have an actor who had a strong enough presence that you could feel their humanity through that makeup and that was something that Bonnie nailed and it was a lot of fun.
Let’s chat a little about the music cause that was another aspect of the film that I really enjoyed. How involved were you with that?
Travis Stevens: At the script writing stage I knew that I wanted to collaborate with as many female artists on this movie as we could so that the feminine voice in the film would be strong. At the screenwriting stage, I had reached out to several potential collaborators and one of them was composer Tara Busch. Although she had never scored a feature film before, her music had such a cinematic quality to it that I knew she would be perfect. Even while I was writing I shared the script with her and even before we were in production she started working on different themes and different ideas. We were able to sort of define a musical vocabulary that didn’t just fit the tone of the film but also sort of gave Anne’s character a voice. Because Tara’s a female composer and a vocalist, we were able to literally have a feminine quality in the soundtrack that you don’t always get. So that was conceptual from the very first step and I’m so pleased with how it came out and I can’t wait to watch other movies that Tara scored. The soundtrack for this one we’ll be announcing soon so everybody else can hear what a genius she is.
Just like I told Barbara, this film has a really feminist core to it that shows how powerful it is for women to find their voice and stand up against a patriarchal society that is embedded in oppressive religious roots. That said, what do you enjoy about exploring feminist issues?
Travis Stevens: I think as a man of a certain age, the last 10 years have been really educational and illuminating on an experience that’s completely different than mine and yet one that I’ve been participating in. And so I think as an artist, to sort of examine relationships and the sort of power dynamics at play, and in the case of JAKOB’S WIFE, how you can start overlooking your partner’s needs, that’s really appealing as an artist because it allows you, as an individual, to look at your own past and your own experience. We’re in this beautiful time where a lot of different perspectives are getting a chance to make films. And one thing that’s really important is if you’re making a movie that is about a character’s empowerment, it’s certainly important to make sure the movie is actually empowering that character and not just thinking that it’s doing that or saying that it’s doing that. What’s important to me as an artist, filmmaker, writer, director, producer is to really have these conversations and analyze what the story is doing and make sure that it’s doing what we think it’s doing and not just assume it is because “we gave that woman character a shotgun and she got to go out and blast people and isn’t that empowering” (laughs). That’s not necessarily empowering and in the case of JAKOB’S WIFE, this is not the story of a woman who makes the decision between her husband and some other suitor. This is a story about a woman who recognizes she has not been speaking up for herself for many, many years and that’s going to change. It’s interesting, it’s exciting, and it feels like important work as well.
You can catch it next at the upcoming Panic Fest, where you can get tickets here. JAKOB’S WIFE will then be available in theaters, On-Demand, and on Digital on April 16, 2021.