Fantasia Film Festival Coverage: Interview with Cast and Crew of The Ranger (2018)
One of the more entertaining genre films at the Fantasia Film Festival was Jenn Wexler’s The Ranger (2018), a punked out cabin-in-the-woods slasher. Chelsea, Jerk, Abe, Amber, and Garth are on the run from the law after Garth kills a cop. They seek temporary refuge at Chelsea’s childhood cabin, somewhere in New York State. They meet the Ranger himself, an authority figure displeased with the punk kids’ attitudes, littering, and noise. The punks are dispatched with one-by-one until Chelsea and the Ranger have a bloody showdown. The film has a superb soundtrack, iconic costuming, gloriously bloody special effects, and puts a twist on the Final Girl conclusion. For fans of slasher flicks, The Ranger shouldn’t be missed.
Prior to the sold out screening, I chatted with director and scriptwriter Jenn Wexler, producer Heather Buckley, and actors Chloë Levine and Jeremy Holm. We discussed punk rock, punk aesthetics, and 80s horror.
Offscreen: Heather, I read that you’re a big horror fan and punk rocker. What drew you to Jenn’s script? And could you tell me a bit about the production history?
Buckley: Jenn and I are very close friends – she’s like a sister, and she means a lot to me. So when she had this passion project, she wanted to show it to me, and I’m always available for Jenn. Because this was a punk rock movie, she said, “You’re punk rock, read the script and tell me what you think.” And I fell in love with it because of how the characters were written; they remind me of my friends who are completely obnoxious, ball-busting, punk rock people. Sometimes people would say “The characters are obnoxious,” and I’d say, “I know their obnoxious.” I come from the New York city punk scene and we’re always making fun of each other, yelling at each other.
Because of the tone, I also knew what kind of soundtrack it should have. In New York City we listen to a lot of street punk and hardcore, which has a different, bass-driven sound. Because this film was a little more upbeat, I knew we’d have to have the circle pit sound of California and Northern California, even Canada in there a bit. I wrote in the margins of the script who we could market to if we could get real punk bands. I actually [wrote these notes] at Fantasia [last year], at the Irish Embassy. I told Jenn she should make it, so I’d send her punk rock images, images of the 80s from Tumblr, just as a little note that I’m thinking about your project, inspired by your project.
Offscreen: It’s interesting to talk about the soundtrack and the individuals who composed it, Wade MacNeil alongside Andrew Gordon Macpherson. In 2004, one of my first interviews was with George, the singer of Alexisonfire. Wade MacNeil of Alexisonfire appears in my life again, so many years later. The film features Wade’s other band, Black Lungs. Tell me more about the soundtrack. Jenn, did you and Heather work together picking particular songs you wanted to hear and what was it like working with Wade and Andrew?
Wexler: Sam Zimmerman of Shudder is friends with Wade, so he introduced me to Wade. I sent Wade the script and we immediately clicked. We started talking about different vibes for the score and we started talking about his band. Through Black Lungs he would create some music for the kids when they’re singing along with the car radio, things like that. It was really cool. He wrote the song that [the characters are] singing before we went into production, then in production all the cast members just kept singing this song over and over, and it kind of became the anthem of the shoot. What was also really helpful is that when we were editing he and Andrew were feeding us music, so we didn’t have to use all temp stuff. So having his actual music cues in it from the start was so helpful and moved everything along so quickly.
Buckley: I was introduced to Middagh Goodwin, who was our music supervisor, and he knew all these bands because he was a band promoter in the 80s. Because of his age, he’s not first generation, but like second generation and a half. So he grew up with Keven Seconds and things like that. He reached out to the community. Jenn, in her vision of the film, wanted to engage and have the punk rock community contribute to the film. All these bands signed off on all these songs, so when Jenn was in post-production, she was able to create the ultimate mixtape soundtrack.
The other band in the film, Rotten UK, drove four hours down from Rochester with love in their hearts. Their dream was to be in a punk rock movie as a punk rock band.
Offscreen: Jenn, I want to ask you about the transition from producer to director. You’ve produced lots of films but The Ranger is your directorial debut. Why did you decide that The Ranger should be your first film as a director?
Wexler: I’ve always wanted to direct and while I was working in marketing, I was making short films on the side. Even when I first started working for Glass Eye Pics, I was making some shorts. I really wanted to direct a feature but I really wanted to learn as much about filmmaking before moving into that role, which lead me to producing. Meanwhile, I had gone to school for screenwriting and my classmate, Gioco Furino, wrote this awesome script about punks that go up against a park ranger. I always loved it so much. But we couldn’t do anything with it at the time because we didn’t know what we were doing. Years later when I figured out how to make movies, I called him and told him to find that script. I asked if we could work on it together because I really want this to be the first movie I direct.
Offscreen: Going back to the punk rock aesthetic, you don’t date the film. It seems to be set in the mid-to-late 1980s. I didn’t really see nostalgia for the era so much as simply having punk rockers as the characters. Was there something about punk in the 80s that you wanted to capture or was it that the late 70s and the 80s were great years for slasher flicks? The Ranger is clearly an homage to that era.
Wexler: While we were prepping for the movie, people would ask what year does this take place in. But this wasn’t a specific year in the 80s – it’s 80s dreamland, a heightened comic book fairy tale-esque version of the 80s. We created a fake drug called Echo. I wanted to create the impression that is just left of reality. I wanted to create a work where Return of the Living Dead meets Smokey the Bear PSAs with the color palette of Lisa Frank.
Buckley: I naturally know how to look like a punk but the idea of talking to civilians about how you lace boots and how you stud things, there’s an insane level of detail that goes into it. Actual 80s punk rockers in suburbia are not that cinematic looking. There’s “media punk” aesthetic that became associated with films like Return of the Living Dead. At some point, because of the absurdity of the late 80s and early 90s, punk rockers loved to see themselves in the movies, so they adopted the “media punk” style. So we had to figure out what everyone looked like in the 80s on TV then find this iconic look. In New York City we all wore black, wore studs, we all looked like menaces to society. In genre films, when you look at exploitation films, each punk rocker has a different outfit. Everyone has their particular iconic look that harkens back to a different kind of punk. In real life, all my friends look the same. We all wear black, we all have Discharge tee-shirts. It was finding the nuance of being iconic but having some sort of authentic feel of the iconic look.
Offscreen: Chloë, is the punk rock aesthetic something that was new to you? How did you feel about getting dressed up, dying your hair?
Levine: I didn’t really know anything about punk culture so it was really fun to learn about all that. The first day that I wore my costume it really felt like a costume. The more I shot in it, it felt like…
Chloë Levine and the actress who played her younger self, Jeté Laurence
Wexler: a way of life?
Levine: A way of life, exactly. Dying my hair, that was the coolest I ever looked.
Buckley: The person that dyed her hair is my friend Patrick Rogers. He had a Mohawk, heavily tattooed. It’s not like we brought her to Vidal Sassoon. Real deal.
Wexler: Same thing with Amanda, who died her hair blue.
Offscreen: Chloë, you play Chelsea in the film. She’s on the outside of the punk rock group and she’s our sympathetic companion as the other punk rockers, as Heather described, are kind of outrageous and do stupid things at times, like starting a fire next to the cabin. Throughout the story Chelsea’s struggling for control. One of the highlights is the transition from Chelsea as the Ranger’s victim to his attacker. Can you tell me a bit about your performance: was it more challenging to play the reserved Chelsea or the violent Chelsea towards the end of the film?
Levine: I think one of the reasons why I like this character so much is because she goes through these two really extremes. I enjoyed the beginning of the film, underplaying the rage with a lot of complex things happening. And when that switch happens, it was really liberating and awesome; it felt like such a release and it was empowering – it was so much fun to film.
Offscreen: Jeremy, your character goes through similar kind of changes. The film is called The Ranger, so we’re wondering what your character’s role is going to be. There’s this bond between the Ranger and Chelsea, then things take a turn for the worse and the Ranger goes on this spree. What was your experience making that transition from a nice person to a violent person?
Holm: I think we all walk around with masks. For me, I don’t think he took the mask off; the mask got pried off by the event of these teenagers ending up in his domain. I don’t think he was comfortable with that mask being off but I also don’t think he could do anything but what he did. The mask he ended up wearing was maybe his real skin, his real teeth, his real fur, whatever was covering his soul. Just as Chelsea is hunting down something to fill her soul, the Ranger is doing the same, and they’re both on this collision course, which I don’t think we’ve seen the end of yet.
Buckley: They switch roles, Chelsea goes from vulnerable to beast mode. I always felt like when a slasher character shows violence, that’s their emotional state. Violence is a form of vulnerability, sadness, and expression.
Offscreen: The end defies our expectations. Jenn, you’re clearly playing with the horror trope of the Final Girl but there’s the twist at the end. We also see the sexually active bad girl, Amber, who dies first, and the film is open-ended, leaving room for sequels. Am I right in thinking that the film is simultaneously an homage to conventional slasher movies and a subversion of those conventions? Is The Ranger the first cabin-in-the-woods film to depict a gay couple?
Jeremy Pope who plays one of the gay characters in The Ranger
Wexler: For me and Giaco, when we were coming up with the characters and talking about them, we thought, “Who were Chelsea’s friends.” We’ve got this guy and this guy, and they’re gay, but we’re not going to make a thing out of it. The Ranger doesn’t care that they’re gay, that’s not why he’s killing them. He’s killing them because they’re punks, throwing their cigarettes on the ground…
Offscreen: Jeremy’s great line, “Gotta keep the park clean,” after he kills Abe [Bubba Weiler].
Wexler: We just wanted to depict these people who are living their lives and the Ranger comes in like a force of nature.
Buckley: The couple’s relationship is actually the healthiest relationship. The couple love each other and are kind. Chelsea’s boyfriend is a jerk and the Ranger is a serial killer…
Wexler: One more thing about sexuality in the film. People think that because it’s a horror movie, there’s going to be sex, or this person’s going to strip – there’s these expectations that you have when you’re watching slashers. I was really touched by something someone wrote about Shirley Jackson’s characters. There’s no sex in Jackson novels but because of the lack of sex it’s dripping with sex. That was really influential to me when writing Chelsea’s character and the Ranger’s. It was a pretty active choice to keep it seemingly without sex but it’s in every beat of the movie.
Chloë Levine and Jenn Wexler
Buckley: The type of punk fashion that Chelsea’s wearing, she’s fully covered all the time, except the one swimming scene. She’s got the leather on and the spikes. I don’t think Amber is killed because she’s sexually open, it’s an inversion of Return of the Living Dead.
Holm: She dies because of the noise violation.
Wexler: Let’s be clear, the noise violation.
Featured image, actress Chloë Levine as Chelsea