[Interview] Scott Cooper for ANTLERS
Courtesy Searchlight Pictures
In Scott Cooper’s latest film, ANTLERS, based on the short story, “A Quiet Boy,” by Nick Antosca, in an isolated Oregon town, a middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) become embroiled with her enigmatic student (Jeremy T. Thomas) whose dark secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who came before them.

Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had a chance to speak with ANTLER‘s Director Scott Cooper where they discussed everything from exploring the horror genre with Producer Guillermo del Toro, the design of the Wendigo creature, and casting Jeremy T. Thomas in his pivotal role onscreen as Lucas Weaver.

With ANTLERS being your first horror film, what interested you in exploring this genre? 

Scott Cooper: Generally speaking, I’m more interested in making films that push me into an uncomfortable space. I really believe that the great danger is doing safe work. Guillermo del Toro approached me and said, “Scott, your last three films have been horror films but nobody knows it; one’s a steel belt drama, one’s a gangster movie, one’s a Western. Would you ever consider a horror film?” And I said, “Absolutely”. Horror films are still my first memory of when my older brother was taking me to the theater or showing me laser discs and I was far too young to watch these films. But I thought if I can ever make a horror film, that it needs to kind of hold up a dark mirror to America’s fears and anxieties, like my other films. That’s what really scares me. And then, there’s no better creature designer than Guillermo, so it felt to me like a natural fit. Then, once I started rewriting the screenplay to kind of discuss the themes that are in the film, it seemed to be a great experience. And, really for me, it’s all about trying to be as uncomfortable as a filmmaker as possible so that I’m always pushing myself and never repeating myself, even though some themes in my films perhaps repeat themselves.

Speaking about Guillermo del Toro, how was your experience working with him on this project? 

Scott Cooper: It was such a great collaboration. Not only is he obviously a world-class filmmaker but he’s a world-class producer. And this is the fourth time that I’ve had a director produce my films. Robert Duvall produced Crazy Heart, Ridley and Tony Scott produced Out of the Furnace, and now Guillermo. Having a producer who’s also directed, they know at all times what you’re experiencing, the screenplay, while shooting it, while cutting it, all of the kind of blind spots that you don’t quite see when you’re making a film. It’s always nice to have another set of eyes, in general, and Guillermo was just so generous with his time and his ideas. It was truly a lovely experience.

And, for the design of the Wendigo creature, was that something that you and Del Toro collaborated closely on? 

Scott Cooper: Oh yeah, a great amount. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise if I didn’t. It was really important to me that creature felt unlike any Wendigo that we’d seen and that it came from the Earth’s core, that it was made out of iron or a little bit of coal. That’s why you see the embers that emanate from it. So, it was really important that it felt like it was a very angry God or creature at what we’re doing to the earth. Beyond that, the Wendigo is… all of my research with Native American advisors tell me that it can manifest in many ways, but it’s first and foremost always a spirit. So I thought, how about the spirit of lonely places? This kind of fictitious town that I created, kind of stands in for the issues that people would rather not confront. It reflects our own worst demons.

Scott Cooper and Jeremy T. Thomas. Photo by Kimberly French, Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. 

Because this film and the Wendigo have so much to do with Indigenous people, can you expand upon your work with the Indigenous community to assure an accurate portrayal? 

Scott Cooper: It was critical. If you’ve seen the film that I made before this, Hostiles, it’s a Western which stars Christian Bale and a large cast of both Non-native and Native American actors. Native American issues and what they face are very, very important to me. And I told that story through a white man’s eyes who was conditioned by the US Army and the government to be very deeply suspicious of Native Americans, and it’s over this journey that he understands that everything he’s thought about them is completely wrong. I then went to Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), who was an advisor on Hostiles and is also a great filmmaker. Chris was an advisor on ANTLERS as was Grace Dillon, who was a professor at Portland State University. She’s essentially the foremost authority on the Wendigo and I wanted her to be involved with my script, and I wanted her to look at the Wendigo. She came to the set and we discussed that in this film it’s kind of the pain and misery that lives in all of us. It comes out eventually but it kind of lives everywhere, and you can’t quite escape the Wendigo. It was important for me to get that as right as possible. It’s also quite difficult to impart that information, what the Wendigo stands for, without exposition, which I generally hate. Also having Graham Greene who’s a great First Nations actor give that [speech], it’s better that it comes from a First Nations or Native American actor as opposed to Jesse Plemons or Keri Russell who have no idea what that is. It’s always difficult getting around that so I’m sure filmmakers, I, in particular, will face some criticism for that, but it all comes from a very genuine place.

In terms of how ANTLERS is presented, it has a very cold color palette. Can you expand on that and how it relates to the themes of the film? 

Scott Cooper: Because this is a film with generational trauma… a young boy who’s far too young for this responsibility that he lives with… it’s about duty and self-preservation for the young boy, for Jesse’s character, Keri’s character. And there’s a coldness among that town. I never wanted to shoot in the sun. I didn’t want to feel any warmth. I wanted leaden skies, lots of fog. It feels like coastal Oregon where I set it, even though I shot in Vancouver, so it’s a very specific palette and a very specific gloomy mystery that I wanted to encase the entire film, almost like an invisible gas. So, it was all by design.

Jeremy Thomas’s performance as Lucas Weaver was so incredible yet incredibly heartwrenching. What was the process like in casting him for the role? And did he know the type of movie he was making? 

Scott Cooper: He’s not an actor. He’d never seen a film camera, which is what I wanted. You can’t get performances like that from kids who generally are actors. Most child actors come camera-ready and they have a full range of emotions that they’ve been coached by their parents generally, or an acting coach. And I wanted some kid who would have never stepped foot on a film set. I think I saw 900 auditions and we found him. He’s so haunting and soulful to watch.

He didn’t know the movie he was making. It was tough. It was a big learning experience for him but also quite terrifying for him and Sawyer Jones who plays his young brother, Aiden, in the film. It was difficult because they’re babies still in their brains, their pre-frontal cortex is not developed. So they’re around this large Wendigo, they’re in very dark spaces, they’re in an attic or an iron mine and I had to just continue to remind them that we’re in this big sandbox and it’s all make-believe. And, as a father of two young girls, it was important that I made these young boys feel as comfortable as I would my own kids.

Lastly, is there anything hope audiences take away from this movie upon watching it?

Scott Cooper: I prefer people to go into a movie as cold as possible. Don’t read articles. Don’t read reviews. I try not to for films that I’m really interested in. Or Twitter, because whether someone likes a film or a piece of music or a book is all very subjective. And I’ll leave you with one thing, kind of a legendary American director who has, over the course of my films, stayed in touch with me and kind of served as a mentor said to me, Scott, if everybody likes your film, it’s likely not very good. Go in as open-minded as you possibly can and don’t let others influence you. Because what’s important for me as a filmmaker, and I mean this sincerely, if I can find myself in my work, others will [also] see themselves.

ANTLERS is now in theaters. For more on ANTLERS, check out our review here.

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