“I hope people will appreciate that this is a small movie, a low budget indie movie, that’s taking them to some strange places that might be a little different from what you say see normally in the genre,” Director Fritz Böhm says about his feature film debut, Wildling.
The indie release Wildling deliberately blurs the lines between the Hollywood creature feature and the coming-of-age tale with some mythic, fairy tale elements that are both immediately familiar and yet somehow turned on their heads. English actress Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) plays Anna, who has grown up alone in a locked attic seeing the world only through her barred window, cared for by a man she calls “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). Daddy tells her the precautions are to protect her from the Wildling, a monster that snatches and devours children.
Anna has no idea how cruel and unusual her situation is, but for years this is the only life that she knows. As she begins to mature into a teenager, Daddy tells Anna that she’s sick and starts to give her mysterious injections. An eventual crisis ends with Anna regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, surrounded by strangers. The only truly kind face she sees is that of police officer Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler).
Director and co-writer Fritz Böhm makes his feature debut with Wildling, and he spoke to me about the challenges of making such a visually striking film on a low budget, and the creative rewards of flouting and flaunting genre conventions.
Powley’s performance in the film is genuinely remarkable, and and Böhm is quick to credit the importance of her contribution:
“She was everything. Once we finished the script, we knew we had a solid script there, but also a lead role that was difficult, if not impossible to cast. The actress needed to pull off convincingly that she was a young teenager and has to go through a pretty radical transformation throughout the film from being rather weak to having that wide-eyed sense of wonder in discovering the world, and also having the physical abilities for the athletic moments, and getting the feral wildness physically in her performance. It was a tall order. I really have to say that the character only became a reality when I met with Bel. She was so into it and said ‘I’m up to this challenge – I’ve never done something like this before, and I want to bring this female heroine to the screen and let’s do this.’”
In fact there is nothing simple about the role of Anna, who has been so shielded from the outside world that virtually everything is new to her. As if that weren’t enough, Anna’s body is rapidly changing and becoming new to her as well. She is becoming a werewolf-like creature with dangerous strength and natural tools,
“She was just perfect throughout the whole process and it is amazing to watch this transformative skill she has,” Böhm says. “It’s a cliché to say the eyes are the windows of the soul, but she really has that.”
Which in a role which frequently has little dialogue, is also critical.
“She’s a lovely person to work with,” he adds.
Wildling requires a good deal visually from its small budget. Böhm stresses how important his creative team was to the success of the tightly budgeted production:
“[Director of Photography Toby Oliver] was really paramount in making the days work, because we were on such a tight schedule, and such a tight budget. Just having someone with his experience, who comes in with such a super-positive attitude and a pragmatic way of getting the shot into the camera is such an advantage…Florian Eder, who is my co-writer, also did a lot of storyboards with me in the early prep, did a lot of concept work, he supervised all the creature design aspects…We had a good makeup team and production designer…it’s a team effort.”
Böhm and his crew relied on New York incentives that required them to shoot in the New York City area. In fact, most of the production, set in a not un-Stephen Kingish small town, was actually shot in and around Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“The only exception was a little plate photography that I did on my own with a camera up in northern California, almost Oregon,” Böhm says, “just to pick up some shots of locations with water and trees and leaves that didn’t exist in that radius. Things like the cave, for example, just simply doesn’t exist so we made it digitally and shot it on a sound stage in Brooklyn and added in the cave later…To be accurate, there are a couple of small towns in that radius like in the Nyack area and a little bit upstate north of Manhattan where you get into small towns like Sleepy Hollow. The thing is these towns are very quaint looking, but you have to search for the right angle because if you look the other way you’re going to see skyscrapers or power lines and it’s kind of a tricky thing to design your set-ups because you’re not really in that world.”
The marketing for Wildling refers to it as “an elevated horror movie.” How does Böhm view the film?
“I always thought of it as a dark fairy tale but I didn’t worry too much about genre categories. All my favorite films are a bland one way or another. Even the first films I ever saw, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – It’s a family drama about a boy with an absent father, a single mother, who’s really starved for friends, and the friend turns out to be an alien. So the film is a science fiction movie as well as a family drama. A lot of movies are blends and it’s more of a question of marketing and distribution what box you have to put it into.”
The filmmaker resists labels: “For me it doesn’t work to just pull out a genre, that’s going to be my blueprint, a cookie cutter thing, and now we’re just going to fill in some ideas. It’s better to find an interesting character And then see where that story takes you. That was the case with Anna – that’s an interesting characters story to tell and let’s see where it goes.”
Böhm praises the collaborative process he enjoyed working with producer and co-star Liv Tyler. Tyler had never played a police officer before and was drawn to that challenge, but even more important in her director’s opinion was her ability to summon the warm, nurturing, maternal qualities that her character displays to Powley’s character, particularly “as as an opposite pole to Brad [Dourif’s] character, and its toxic masculinity.”
That “toxic masculinity” not only encompasses the life Daddy robbed Anna of, and becomes a metaphor for a father’s anxiety about his daughter’s sexual awakenings. This is the Red Riding Hood myth turned inside out: the virgin is the wolf. And Tyler’s female influence opens the door for Powley’s wide-eyed curiosity, which is a potentially dangerous sensory and emotional overload. The movie leaves little question that Anna’s strange transformation is tied to her adolescence.
Böhm says: “We all go through puberty and it’s something we have to deal with, and a lot of the time it is painful… A lot of the time you find yourself totally at odds with the world around you. It can be a painful experience. All we’re doing is really exaggerating that – but we’re not saying that what comes out of there is a monster – we’re saying what comes out of there is actually a beautiful creature – it’s you. It’s your nature. And if you embrace that, if you embrace what you are, you can find your freedom.”