Trapped at Skylight’s isolated desert campus, The Aviary, Jillian (Malin Akerman), and Blair (Lorenza Izzo) join forces to make a treacherous escape. Alone in the harsh wilderness, they are consumed by paranoia and unable to shake the feeling that they are being followed by the cult’s leader, Seth (Chris Messina), a man as seductive as he is controlling. With supplies dwindling and their senses failing, Jillian and Blair are faced with a horrifying question: how do you run from an enemy who lives inside your head?
For the release of THE AVIARY, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Sarah Musnicky spoke with co-writers/directors Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, where they discussed focusing on what happens in the aftermath of leaving a cult, snake wranglers, and how the role of Seth transformed with each draft.
To start things off, did you guys film THE AVIARY at Vasquez Rocks? My family hikes that area a lot, and so I had a moment while watching where I was like, wait, this geology looks familiar.
Jennifer Raite: Yeah, you have a very good eye. It’s not technically Vasquez, but one of the properties where we shot is private property that borders Vasquez, so it [has] the exact same rock features.
Chris Cullari: We looked into shooting at Vasquez Rocks proper, but because it’s a state park, the permit is like, you can’t even dig a hole. If you want to bring a camera and just point it at two people walking you, there’s a whole permit process and you can kind of get away with it. But if you do anything with equipment, or campfires or all that…
Jennifer Raite: If you’re not Star Trek, it’s gonna be challenging for you to do anything.
As an indie project. A little easier if you’re Star Wars or Star Trek.
Chris Cullari: Yeah. But yes, good eye. Good eye. We love the landscape over there.
What influenced the decision to shoot in California versus New Mexico? THE AVIARY does take place in New Mexico, and a decent amount of projects are shooting now in New Mexico because of things like tax incentives and such.
Jennifer Raite: It was basically a product of COVID because we had plans to shoot in New Mexico. We had a really great location for it. But when our dates were lining up for the first time, it was in December of 2020, and the COVID numbers were…we’re not going to New Mexico. It’s not safe. And then, we started reformulating where can we shoot in LA so everyone can work from home, and then we ended up shooting a few months later in April. It ended up being great, and the numbers had gone way down. Everyone on our crew was vaccinated, which didn’t change our safety protocol, but it made everyone feel a little less anxious about it. We didn’t trick you, but a few people have thought it was New Mexico, so that was nice.
What prompted the focus on the cults? Cults are fun to play around with, but THE AVIARY isn’t fully centered on the cult. It focuses more on its influence once you break away. What prompted the interest? And then, from a storytelling perspective, why focus on the aftermath versus being smack dab in the middle of the cult’s activities?
Chris Cullari: I think for us, it was just a couple of different things. We were generally interested in cults and the nature of belief and the nature of identity and why we follow people and that sort of stuff. And we were looking for a way to tell a story that dealt with the idea of the world that we live in of literally influencers and followers and that increasingly fuzzy line between what constitutes a cult, what constitutes cult-like behavior, and what constitutes cult-like thinking. Because it’s not Satanic. It’s not even people in robes or mystics so much anymore. We were interested in kind of the line where cult-like behavior even starts to seep into…Now all these shows have come out but NXVIM and WeWork and those places where that cult-like thinking starts to become part of everyone’s everyday life. Jenna, I’ll throw it to you for why the aftermath.
Jennifer Raite: It felt like something we had seen less of. There are a lot of movies that take place inside the cult, and we really liked the idea of starting the film with the release of, hey, we did it. We got out! Only to have that unpack itself in the idea that while we’ve physically left, so much of the damage is psychological and emotional, and those pieces were still with them. I think we tried to really encapsulate it in even the first scene, we have these two women running away from this building you can sort of vaguely see in the distance. And there’s this short moment where Jillian looks back and she looks back a little bit too long, and we wanted to have that microcosm right up top.
Chris Cullari: That was kind of the first image that we came up with for the script. And, once we had that, the dramatic dynamic of we’ve escaped this place, it’s full of mystery. We don’t know what it is. The audience doesn’t know what it is. One person is like, I’m gone. And the other person waits a little too long. Once we had that, we were like, Oh, that’s a great starting point.
And also, just having the two characters with different ways of addressing the trauma of the place. You have the one that’s sort of in denial. And then you have the other who’s completely on edge, looking constantly over her shoulder. I thought that was an interesting dichotomy.
Chris Cullari: When people leave groups, I think you can even see it sometimes in like friend groups, it doesn’t even have to be a cult. There are different ways of dealing with that and what it means to be on your own now, and some people get really anxious. Some people are like, we’re forging ahead. It doesn’t matter. But really, it does matter, and the best way to explore that was after their bodies had left, but their minds had not.
Jennifer Raite: Well, I think there are a lot of stereotypes too and how we view people who have been in cults. There’s a lot of judgment. I think in finding a way to make their reactions to it so different, we both saw it as a way to bring in the audience like, maybe I’d respond that way or maybe I would respond that way, and show that it’s not just like, one kind of person who gets pulled into an organization like that.
Especially since you’ve also centered it around self-help, which attracts a whole litany of people to it.
Chris Cullari: Yeah. I think we narrowed in on that kind of cult because that’s where you see the fuzziest lines between an organization like that and stuff that can happen in corporate America, stuff that happens on the internet. That’s where the line starts to get the fuzziest.
This may be my last writing-related question, but with regard to Seth, in earlier drafts was he involved a lot more? Or was it always planned to sort of just have him more in the background in their minds?
Jennifer Raite: This is cool. No one’s asked us about this. It actually started with even less Seth. Part of the original discussion was…there was almost a bit of a challenge to it of can we do the entire story with just the women. And then, as we were developing it with, with our producers, there were a couple of beats along the way of like, oh, it would be so great to like…I think it really helped us figure out ways to feel his presence without him at all. So, I think it was very helpful in that way, and then it sort of opened us up and we were like, Okay, what if we actually bring someone in? What’s the best way to do it in this sort of minimalist way where we’re staying in the women’s perspectives, but we can really pack a punch when we do use him and we do bring him on screen?
Going off of that, was this the dream cast that you had envisioned for THE AVIARY? With Chris Messina, who is just so deceptively good at like drawing you in, but then also being kind of creepy. And then Lorenza [Izzo] and Malin [Akerman]?
Chris Cullari: It really was. Once we knew we were going to be making a movie, and we started doing production rewrites, we immediately were like, oh, we should get this to Malin Akerman because she’s a really great actress, but she just projects that kind of stoic intensity that you need to believe somebody would have to walk 30 miles through the desert without feeling naive or flighty about it. We needed somebody who would carry that strength the whole way through. And we were shocked that…we love the script, but you rarely get your first offers to say yes. So, we sent it to her. It was over the holidays, and we were starting to get nervous about needing to maybe go to someone else, and then we got a call that she loved it and we brought her on board. And then, once we had her on board, we knew for Blair that we would need somebody who could really pull us into Blair’s more expressive fear because Blair is less stoic. She is more…
Jennifer Raite: Well, you’re right. She’s like a raw nerve.
Chris Cullari: Yeah. She’s a raw nerve. We’d seen Lorenza in Green Inferno, where she goes through 10 kinds of hell in that movie. Part of why we’re so impressed by her performance in that was that every time something was happening, she had all these different modes for fear and paranoia and anxiety. And we’re like, that’s perfect. We want to bring that to this movie. So, then we got them on a zoom together, and we just were like, Okay, this movie is going to work. These two are going to carry us through. And then Jen, if you want to talk about Chris?
Jennifer Raite: Yeah, we have loved Chris for a really long time, and he had a really good relationship with our producer, Jessica Rhoades, who had executive produced “Sharp Objects”, which Chris was in. So, there was a relationship there. And again, we were like, it’s so great that she can ask because it’s Chris Messina. I don’t know if he’ll do it. And he loved the script and was super excited about it, and even though like, as you pointed out, he’s in a much smaller part of the movie…One of the things I always say is Chris Messina and Chris Cullari and I share the love language of we love homework.
Chris was shooting a movie in North Carolina while we were prepping the film. I think it’s like a space movie, and he was telling us he was in wire rigs every day. It was exhausting, or I don’t know if it was exhausting. In my mind. It was exhausting. And he was like, but how about on the weekends we can get on Zoom and go through the scenes and work on the character and work through it together and come up with ideas for costuming, and he would send us pictures of like, what do you think of these glasses? Or do you think Seth would wear this bracelet? And he also would just have really great story thoughts. So, Chris is as generous and thoughtful, and collaborative as he is talented. We really love him.
By the time you guys got to filming THE AVIARY, what challenges did you guys have? Especially filming during COVID?
Chris Cullari: In a way, shooting in the desert during COVID was, we still follow all the protocols, but because we were outside like Jen was saying, everyone was vaccinated and so, the anxiety wasn’t as high. But shooting outside brings a whole other list of problems. Namely, we had to schedule the whole movie around the movements of the sun. Because not only did we have dawn and dusk work in those very short windows, either the beginning or the end of the day, every day that we needed to make sure we hit. But if we took too long shooting any individual scene, the sun would move too much, and then it wouldn’t cut together. Because you notice that you’re cutting back and forth, and the shadows are on slightly different sides of the face.
So, it became a real challenge to just kind of hit like clockwork, every day all day, and make sure we didn’t go over, and that everybody came prepared. Preparation for the movie was essential. Not only are Malin and Lorenza and the whole cast really brilliant actors, but nobody was late. Everybody just was hitting their A-game the entire time. So, the sun was definitely a challenge. But it resulted, I think, in a beautiful look for the movie. That’s all mostly except for the night stuff. All-natural light…
Jennifer Raite: Which we had a bounce. [laughs] That was our daytime lighting equipment.
Chris Cullari: And Elie Smolkin, our cinematographer we’ve known since college. So, we have a really great shorthand with him. But even still, he was just so essential. Jess [Rhoades] and Andrew [Miller], our producers came to us after the fact and they were like, we think we should give Elie a co-producer credit. Are you guys okay with that? We were like, absolutely. Because he not only contributed his artistic visual eye but his brain for being able to figure out all of the production side lighting challenges. [He] was operating on a level that Jen and I couldn’t comprehend. So we were like, yeah.
Jennifer Raite: He was in almost every scheduling meeting with us and our AD. He was super. I mean, he’s one of our best friends, but he’s also a genius, and one of the best people we’ve ever collaborated with.
When you guys mentioned the challenge with lighting, I was like, oh, yeah. Yeah. We don’t track time when we’re hiking. We just watch the shadows.
Chris Cullari: And there might be one or two cuts in the movie where we kind of get away with it. And then every other desert challenge, the wind, the snakes…
April comes around, which means the rattlesnakes start to venture out.
Jennifer Raite: Yeah, they loved it when it was warm.
Chris Cullari: We had a snake wrangler. We would choose a location outside. And then, while we’re shooting, the snake wrangler would be going to the locations of the next scenes, and not only checking for snakes in the locations of the scenes but then clearing a path. There were roads at the ranch where we were shooting. We drive people in a van, but then you still have to walk five or 10 minutes out away from the road. So, the snake wrangler would have to clear the whole set, and then also the entire path from the van to wherever we were actually shooting the scene. So, those are all things that on an indie movie, and the timeframe that we were shooting the movie on, it was all of those things that mattered.
Jennifer Raite: He was super cool. He had worked on “Survivor”, and he had climbed Everest. I didn’t get to hang out with the snake wrangler too much. His name was Josh [Ruffell], but I wanted to hear all of his stories. Yeah, but it made me feel very safe. I was like if this man has climbed Everest, he can protect us from the snakes.
THE AVIARY is now available in the U.S. in select theaters, and on Digital and on Demand. To learn more, check out our review.
This interview was edited for clarity, length, and spoilers.