Recently I had the privilege of chatting with horror producer turned writer-director Jenn Wexler about her hotly anticipated debut film, The Ranger. Jenn cut her teeth producing films with the likes of genre icon Larry Fessenden and Peter Phok at Glass Eye Pix. Check out our wide ranging discussion with one of horror’s best emerging talents before the punk rock meets ’80s slasher influenced roller coaster of a film premieres May 9th on Shudder.
25YL: So Jenn, I’ll just go ahead and lay my cards on the table. It’s my first interview ever and this is a big dream come true for me. So, I’m just gonna dive right in here and if I stammer through it I apologize.
Wexler: Cool! Thanks for chatting with me for your first interview. That’s awesome!
25YL: Well, I’m more than honored. I can’t even remember when I first heard or where I first heard about The Ranger but I read Rue Morgue (magazine) religiously, keep up with Fangoria...I just got my first subscription to Phil Nobile Jr.’s new mag. I just try to soak in what I can, but ever since I first heard about The Ranger I was immediately drawn to it just because of the tone. Before I even saw a trailer the description of ‘punk rock and slasher’ mixed together…and it had a very tight visceral sound to it. You have Glass Eye Pix behind it who, Larry Fessenden (Habit, I Sell the Dead), I don’t have to tell you is an institution. So, I just wanted to ask, everyone I’ve noticed has kind of billed you as the hot new kid on the block that has in reality been producing films with Larry and Glass Eye for a decade. What’s that been like on the production side with Glass Eye Pix? What was that like?
Wexler: Yeah, so originally I was just a fan of Glass Eye. I was working in the marketing department for a company called Fearnet, which was like a horror TV channel that was owned by Sony and Lionsgate…and that was around the time House of the Devil came out…
25YL: Oh, nice!
Wexler: Yeah, and I remember we got these VHS tapes of House of the Devil and everybody was like freaking out about it and I was like “what is this awesome company?” and I looked into them and started watching all their movies. I saw Stakeland and Bitter Feast and then I saw Habit, Larry Fessenden’s vampire movie from the mid-90s and I just became totally obsessed with all of their films. And around the same time I was moving from LA to New York and I knew that they were New York based, so I got an introduction to them…I kind of just stalked them for a little bit until eventually, they were just like “yeah, you wanna come learn how to make movies? Come work for us and we’ll teach you.” And it was all very cool and magical.
25YL: And it’s come full circle in a way right with Depraved?
Wexler: Yeah, so when I started working at Glass Eye…Larry (Fessenden) and Peter Phok, he’s a producer there, they took me under their wing and they started teaching me how to produce. One of the first things I did was Larry’s ABCs of Death 2 segment (“N is for Nexus”).
It was a really fun 3 minute short that we shot on the streets of the East Village. It felt so special that this person that I thought of as such a hero had entrusted me to produce his ABCs of Death segment. Over the course of six years, Larry and I really started becoming collaborators with one another as I moved into feature production. Looking back at everything, it’s just so cool. l have these feelings of nostalgia. I started off making that segment for him and then I got to produce his Frankenstein movie (Depraved).
25YL: Impressive doesn’t quite nail it! I just did a genre icons piece (a series we recently started at 25YL). I did Romero, I did Argento, and I said “ya know, I wanna get some women in here and get something that’s modern and something I’m really into”…so I did one on the Soska Sisters…and when I think of a lot of modern genre icons, Fessenden is someone that comes to mind. You were there producing a lot of these films. Still are!
But switching gears, I had heard you talking about the music in The Ranger and I consider myself a punk rock lifer. The movie really seemed to capture the punk subculture in a way that a lot of films don’t and reminded me of Alex Cox stuff like Repo Man, with the soundtrack that’s just as immortal as the movie. So, I didn’t know if that was an influence going in or how you approached that aspect?
Wexler: Yeah, for sure. Repo Man was an absolute influence. I would say that what we wanted to do was merge ’80s punk movies and ’80s slashers and then center it around this girl who’s trying to find herself. I really love the absurd humor from movies like Repo Man, and of course the soundtrack, and then other movies that were influences were Class of 1984, Suburbia, stuff like that. It was kind of a mix of pulling from these archetypes from ’80s punk movies but also merging them with our own experiences going to shows. I mean, obviously, we all did that and kind of blended all that together to create this universe.
25YL: And then when you create that universe what’s so great about it is kids like us…I’ll be 34 in May. I actually went to a Gallows show 15 years ago and got my eye busted shut [accidentally] by their bass player. I know these bands and this music. It reminded me of being that age and having that family.
What I liked about the lead, Chelsie (Chloe Levine), is even when you find that family it’s not necessarily always gonna fit. When you see them clashing with her and realize that her friends don’t really know her that well and it felt like Chelsie was an outsider wherever she was in a sense. I didn’t know if that was intentional or where she came from in your mind?
Wexler: Absolutely. Something that’s interesting to me about the punk scene is it’s a place for individuality and it encourages individuality through fashion and raging and throwing your body around and all this stuff, but at the same time there’s still a clique element to it. I don’t know. I’ve always felt like an outsider no matter what clique I’m in, I always feel like an outsider. Even when I’m surrounded by people I still feel like an outsider, so the punk world just seemed like a thematically appropriate place to explore that. And then to position all of that against this figure of authority who’s, ya know, the complete opposite.
25YL: The complete opposite! Jeremy Holm is amazing and I want to talk about him in a second, but you said something in an interview that stuck with me. You said that horror movies were your best friend growing up and I completely related to that. I’ve never heard anyone say that before and that went hand in hand with Chelsie to me because I could at least relate to the alienation aspect of the character.
Wexler: My parents moved towns when I was 12 years old, which is the exact same time you’re going through puberty and you’re already feeling weird about so many things. So, I went from growing up in this one town where I felt really comfortable—I had some friends from going to this brand new school and I didn’t know anybody. I think I’ve always had an element of social anxiety, but it really came out at the time and I just really fell into myself and horror movies, like you said, became a best friend to me.
This was also at the time that the teen slasher late ’90s movies were at their height: Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. Also The Faculty and Disturbing Behavior. I just became obsessed and would just hide in my room and watch all of these.
Then, ultimately, as I got a little bit older I did the same thing but with going to shows and stuff. But I never quite related to the kids I went to high school with and I always just wanted to get through the day and go home. I think that’s why I weirdly related to the final girl in horror movies. I felt that “oh if all of her friends die and she can take on the killer and still win at the end I can force myself to go back to school tomorrow and get through the day.”
25YL: That’s great. Ya know, I’ve never even thought of it like that, but if Laurie Strode can get through Halloween tonight then I can get through class tomorrow. I like that. That works.
There’s such a contrast between the styles used in The Ranger. You’ve got the young kids against authority and the way it was shot was so beautiful. The colors in the first half where we’re getting to know the kids, getting to know Chelsie. It’s all very vibrant and has a very stylized look, but when they go to the mountains everything is barren and they seem so out of place. How did you go about the different color palettes you used and why?
Wexler: Yeah, it was actually really cool. It wasn’t easy for me to get the movie financed. In terms of getting the financing, I had to create a look book, I had to create a teaser. I went to a thing called the “Frontiers Co-Production Market” with it and we pitched it to a room of investors. So, all that forced me to come up with the plan for the movie so that I would be able to speak to the plan of the movie. This was all really good practice for me as a filmmaker and now it’s become part of my process. It’s really important to make these decisions in the beginning and to really think how your entire approach will make sense for the themes of the movie and will really fill the world out, so I’m really glad I forced myself to go through that exercise.
So, certainly way into pre-production before we were financed I knew I wanted to start the movie off in this world of neons and these Lisa Frank colors and then when they go to the woods embrace this vintage parkland world so you start to feel that they’re really out of place and you feel their intrusion into this world.
We also wanted to do that not just visually but musically too. If you’re listening for it in the first half of the movie when the punks are in control, it’s mostly their music on the soundtrack, and then as they start to get lost in the ranger’s world we move into more cinematic music by our composers Wade MacNeil and Andrew Gordon MacPherson…and then when the ranger is on top we’re more in his musical space of country music.
25YL: Right. His wholesome Americana, which I loved. No, it is a fish out of water story and it seemed at least like a conscious decision well before anything was shot that when you take punk kids and put them in the woods everything becomes production design. Everything becomes a character. The van became a character for me, the clothes, of course the soundtrack. With Jeremy Holms (The Ranger), I was wondering what was he like on set? Did he interact with the kids?
Wexler: No, it was super cool. You’re not often afforded the opportunity to be able to shoot really chronologically but for this movie we were really able to. So, for this movie we shot all the punk warehouse stuff first and then we shot all the stuff with the kids in the woods. So, by the time Jeremy came to set all the punks had already been together for two weeks and they had all super bonded.
I didn’t do any rehearsals with Jeremy and the punks except I did one day with Jeremy and Chloe (Levine) just so they would vibe and have this weird memory of each other. But I didn’t introduce him to the rest of the punks until he showed up on set and the first thing we shot with him was the convenience store scene, which is the first time they meet in the movie as well, and also Jeremy would use the song in the movie “The Most Beautiful Girl” to get into character. He was just chilling there waiting for the next setup and he would just come behind you and start whispering it into your ear. He was very into character which was very fun and super cool.
25YL: From a distance, The Ranger’s a guy you would flag down for help until he is actually flagged down for help in the movie. I thought he was so creepy but was still strangely funny in his own deliciously evil way. His performance…we’ve seen him before like in House of Cards, but my question was why haven’t we been utilizing this guy after seeing The Ranger.
Wexler: He can do so much, he has so many layers. I feel like we only scratched the surface. There’s a whole world bubbling inside Jeremy I want to explore.
25YL: You also worked with Jete Laurence, who I have seen seemingly everywhere in the past month. I saw her as Ellie in Pet Sematary and then as young Batgirl on the Gotham finale.
Wexler: Jete is amazing. She’s awesome and so amazing to work with and can play so many emotions at the same time. She’s not in the movie that much. I think we worked with her for two or three days but I could tell that there’s so much there and she’s able to do so much stuff. What’s funny is we shot with her long before we knew she was gonna be in Pet Sematary and when she was on set we were trying to describe what the movie was about in this super PG version…fast forward, I’m sitting watching Pet Sematary and I’m like “oh my god. I definitely could have been way more up front.” (Laughs)
25YL: I wanted to ask about Chloe Levine (Chelsie)’s performance. I had seen her in The Transfiguration and she was really great in both things. That character specifically was very relatable, which I know a lot of times is what we’re going for, but she related in more honest ways than we sometimes see females or teenagers, even punks in films that are supposed to be capturing them. What went into creating that character?
Wexler: We met actually. I saw The Transfiguration at South by Southwest when it screened there and we met right after it played. We had a meeting while we were both at South by Southwest and she read the script right away. From the start, we both really connected and she deeply understood the character and it was just about hanging out a lot and fleshing out the character. We talked a lot about memories because Chelsie’s whole thing is she has these memories she doesn’t want to confront and this whole thing if something happens when you’re a kid how does that affect you? How does that change you throughout your life every time you think back to this memory? So, there’s just so much you can do with the idea of memories and we really bonded over that. Chloe is just an amazing person to work with and she’s able to convey so many emotions at once which was really exciting for me to watch as a director.
25YL: Well, it comes through in the film very well. Again, the movie works for me on so many different levels but it’s also very effective as a thriller, so I just wanted to say thanks for making movies I want to watch and talk about. Before I let you go I did want to ask you what’s next for The Ranger and if there’s anything you’re working on—perhaps we could learn a little about or is that top secret stuff for now?
Wexler: The Ranger premieres May 9th on Shudder and it’s already available on DVD and Blu Ray from Amazon. If you go to our website you can get also a nifty package that comes with tons of swag. We joke that this felt like a movie that should’ve come out in the 80s, my producers and I are like “let’s give this the whole 80s treatment!” So we are putting it out on VHS and we have a record coming and we have a novelization that was just released that the horror writer Ed Kurtz just wrote. So now there’s a novelization that exists of The Ranger.
25YL: Dammit, that’s amazing. You’re just taking all my money with The Ranger swag.
Wexler: You have to own every piece of swag!
25YL: I do!
Wexler: We also have tee shirts that are being made so we’re just all about the swag and the merch. So, all of that on a rolling basis is coming out as we premiere on Shudder and for me, personally, I have a couple of projects in the works I can’t really talk about just yet. I can’t wait for them and I can’t wait to talk about them.
25YL: Well, we can’t either. We’ll just have to be patient. In the meantime, The Ranger is coming out May 9th. Check it out! Thanks again so much for talking to me Jenn. it was a pleasure!
Wexler: Thank you Steven. It was so much fun!