JAKOB’S WIFE is an exploration of a marriage between Anne Fedder (Barbara Crampton) and her pastor husband Jakob Fedder (Larry Fessenden). Over the course of their 30 year relationship, Anne has felt her world shrink to the point where she barely feels present in her own life. When extraordinary events begin happening in their small town, Anne finds her passion reignited and Jakob must navigate both the shifting dynamics of their relationship and the mounting body count around them.
Making its World Premiere in the Midnighters Section at SxSW Online, we speak with director Travis Stevens on his latest picture JAKOB’S WIFE!
Of course you’re back this year! Tell me about what brought you to SxSW as a director!
At SXSW 2019 I was invited to premiere my debut feature as a writer, director and producer, the goopy haunted house film GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR starring Phil Brooks, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Travis Delgado, Sarah Brooks and Elissa Dowling.
So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!
In 2010 I started Snowfort Pictures, a production company focused on making smart genre films. Since then I produced a number of films that have played SXSW such as CHEAP THRILLS, BIG ASS SPIDER, STARRY EYES, WE ARE STILL HERE, TEENAGE COCKTAIL, 68 KILL as well as the documentaries JODOROWSKY’S DUNE and 24X36: A Movie About Movie Posters.
How did JAKOB’S WIFE come together?
My friend Barbara Crampton reached out with a script she had been developing for years. She and another friend, producer Bob Portal whom I had worked with previously on Simon Rumley’s RED, WHITE & BLUE and Trent Haaga’s 68 KILL, who had been looking for the right director to come on board and help get the project to the next stage. When I read the script by Kathy Charles and Mark Steenland, I immediately saw its potential; it was a great role for Barbara and a very smart story that mirrored her own life. Both the character and she were looking to use their voice more freely, to become more active in their own lives and careers. So my work began on the screenplay to create the narrative space for that idea to really come to life, to give her the platform to show her range as an actor and to give the character the power she deserved. And of course there was a lot of fun putting in a bunch of fun horror ideas new and old for this particular subgenre. Once my work on the script was done we began casting and the only person I felt should play her husband was Larry Fessenden. The three of us had worked together previously on Ted Geoghegan’s WE ARE STILL HERE, so there was a friendship and comfort level there, Larry is no stranger to low budget movies and brings such a sense of fun, calm and wisdom to the set, and like Barbara (and her character), I felt we hadn’t seen him center stage enough. He makes every movie he’s in better, and the idea of him being Barbara’s dance partner for the duration of the movie was both exciting and comforting. This was a role that required a lot of vulnerability from Barbara, and having someone as sensitive as Larry was a major comfort. This trusting dynamic also allowed us to be a bit looser while shooting, and to utilize a more naturalistic approach to capturing their relationship and that played a major factor in adding more layers to the performances. As we filled out the remaining cast with other genre icons like Bonnie Aarons (THE NUN), Robert Rusler (VAMP), Phil Brooks (GIRL ON THE THIRD FLOOR), Sarah Lind (WOLF COP), Mark Kelly (BUSTER’S MAL HEART) and new discoveries like Nyisha Bell, Jay Devon Johnson, Armani Desirae, Omar Salazar and Angelie Denizard, we headed to Canton Mississippi for preproduction. Canton has been used as the backdrop in a number of films such as Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US, Joel Schumacher’s A TIME TO KILL and the Coen Brother’s O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? and we felt incredibly lucky to be invited in by the local filmmaking community to work there. It was not an easy shoot. We got hit by multiple monsoons, illness, gunfire, and deer but the determination of the local crew lead by Director of Photography David Matthews and tireless producers Bob Portal and Sunny Singh from Amp Films, Rick Moore from Eyevox Entertainment, 1st AD Kim Barnard, and Production Manager Joe Wicker made sure we got through it safely and with only a handful of new grey hairs. Once we wrapped I flew home with the harddrives and 3 days later Los Angeles went into full lockdown due to Covid. Because my focus immediately switched to editing the movie for 10 – 12 hours a day, I felt strangely disconnected from just how crazy the world had become. It was only once the editing was completed 5 months later that I came out of the bunker (my apartment) and felt like Cillian Murphy’s character in 28 DAYS LATER. I hope with new leadership and clear guidance and support we’re able to get back to a more normal life soon, but until then, I’m so appreciative of the adjustments that film festivals like SXSW have made to allow audiences who crave art, the opportunity to see new work.
What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?
The most important thing for me is having an emotional connection to the purpose of the film. It isn’t enough to just make a movie, it means something to me. This is what makes it art and not a job. And that helps with the second factor which is a clarity of vision. A deep understanding of the idea(s) behind each aspect of the film, so you are able to adjust when the universe throws you curveballs like actor scheduling conflicts, locations falling through, cars not working, etc. If you have a deep understanding of what it is you are trying to do, that makes it easier to adjust how you do it, if suddenly plan A becomes impossible.
What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
The biggest challenge that was unique to JAKOB’S WIFE was gently deconstructing the image of a genre acting icon as well as the mythology of this particular subgenre. The idea with both objectives was to give the audience something familiar but also offer something we hadn’t seen before. This requires trust from your partners and an ability to communicate your ideas in a manner that will instill confidence in them. This was Barbara’s most hands-on project as a producer, so she had a clear creative vision of her own as well. Trying new things can feel risky; it takes courage and commitment to try something different than what the audience expects or is used to seeing from you, or from a subgenre itself. But that edge is where the biggest creative payoffs come from. The process of coming up with these ideas together, communicating their value and intention and then seeing them pay off on set and in the edit bay has felt like a real victory for everyone, myself included.
I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made.
One of the most fun aspects of making a movie is figuring out what the visual language of it will be. Those choices not only need to serve the theme and genre of the film but they also have to fit the practicality of the budget. This kind of puzzle is really exciting to solve. Early in pre production we were joined by a group of amazing women in most of the creative departments. Working with Costume Designer Yvonne Reddy, Hair & Make-up artist Mary Czech, Production Designers Lilly Bolles and Danica Vallone, composer Tara Busch and 1st AD / Co-Producer Kim Barnard, in charge of the shooting schedule, we were able to design a show that started in a very beige and banal world that becomes increasing vibrant, colorful and electric as Anne Fedder transforms her life. Doing this with a small budget is no easy feat and I’m so grateful to the talent, ideas, and hard work that each of them brought to this particular puzzle. Although I had never worked with Director of Photography David Matthews before (he lives and works in Mississippi) he had worked with horror filmmaker Padraig Reynolds before and knows how to shoot atmosphere and horror beats. So on this show, I explained our goal was to make this small town backdrop feel exaggerated and gothic. Not in an overt way (meaning we were not using stone churches or dungeons as our locations) but he and I would apply the same visual language to the very mundane locations that our story takes place in. It was a fun challenge finding ways to thread these ideas into this setting.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?
The thing I’m looking forward to most is people’s reactions to Barbara & Larry’s performances. They are such delightful actors to work with, and I can’t wait for the SXSW audience to see all the charm, heart, and magic they bring to this movie.
Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?
The online versions of festivals has allowed us to experience more festival films than usual, and that has provided a lot of comfort during these chaotic times. I hope there is a digital component moving forward. But nothing will replace the energy that comes from screening a movie in a theater with a crowd of similar genre maniacs. The experience surrounding the viewing of the films like the networking, the friendships and the debates also helps pollinate the environment we filmmakers work in, and it’s something I hope we can all get back to as soon as it’s safe to.
Where is the movie going next? More festivals or a selective release?
The movie is going to come out in the US soon after SXSW, and will continue playing festivals around the world leading up to its international release.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?
There’s some sense to the advice that everyone starting out should just go make a movie with the resources they have available at hand. But I think there’s also a lot of value to learning HOW movies get made (financed, acquired, released) as well as working under more experienced filmmakers that will be educational, make you a better filmmaker and save you a lot of anxiety staring into the great big unknown wondering what you’re doing wrong.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
ANTICHRIST at Fantastic Fest in Austin in 2009.
This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to www.sxsw.com!