Portrait of a Filmmaker: Jenn Wexler

illustration for Portrait of a Filmmaker: Jenn Wexler

In both The Ranger and The Sacrifice Game, the theme of self-possession plays a prominent role. The nexus of each film is the moment when your teenage female protagonist crosses the invisible line that separates adolescence from adulthood, and fully comes into herself. Can you talk about your interest in that transformation?

It stems from the fact that I was a very lonely teenager. In my work, I like to pair my cinematic influences and specific horror subgenres with my own adolescent trauma. My family moved when I was twelve years old, and it was very traumatizing for me; it really changed how I saw the world. Into my adulthood, I think I’m still wrestling with it. But there was a moment for me when, after being a lonely teenager who really cared about fitting in, I discovered horror movies and punk rock, and I discovered who I really was. I am constantly exploring that moment, that shift, through my work.

I relate very deeply to being that teenager! Horror was what changed things for me too.

Yeah, I was watching all these slasher movies, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and I was seeing all these final girls taking on the killer and surviving. I watched them and I thought okay, I can make it through another day of high school.

That’s what Buffy was for me, Joss Whedon notwithstanding. I read that you were very into Buffy too?

It’s so funny, I had this realization the other day. I saw The Craft when I was ten, and Buffy when I was eleven. In both, there’s a new girl in school and she discovers she’s got supernatural powers. So, when I was twelve and we moved, I kept waiting for my supernatural powers to come and they never did! It was so depressing.

Yes! When is my letter from Hogwarts coming?

Right. I’m waiting for my Watcher! It just speaks to that time, being twelve years old, and reality and fantasy are really intertwined. That is the time I really love exploring.

When I was that age, I started to feel that horror was my superpower. I wasn’t afraid of scary movies, and I had this weird interest that nobody else shared. 

Yes, I felt that this genre was speaking to me and nobody else. It’s very specific. And it plays into very personal fears. There are things I do now as an adult, like never walking under a fire escape – why? Oh, Final Destination, obviously. You see these things when you’re ten and they change how you live your life forever.

Every time I’m on the freeway and see a logging truck, I’m changing lanes. Horror gives us our identities and our paranoias – it’s great!

Yeah, horror fans might be a little paranoid, but we’re aware of the dangers that are out there. And I’d rather know.

Speaking of Buffy and The Craft, let’s talk about the feminism in your work. In both of your films, women gain power over the course of the narrative. The Ranger and The Sacrifice Game begin with men in control, and then your female protagonists learn to take the control back. When you start working on a project, is the theme of women discovering their power something that you try to actively incorporate? Or does it naturally bleed into the story?

It bleeds in naturally. The thing I think about is creating complicated female characters. It’s important to me that they have their own internal struggles. To speak about Chloë Levine’s characters in both films, in The Ranger, Chelsea is struggling with a moment from her past that she can’t quite remember; it’s haunting her. And in The Sacrifice Game, Rose is stuck in this relationship that she’s not sure about, she’s stuck in this place she doesn’t know if she wants to be in, she doesn’t know if this is the future she wants. 

You have an encyclopedic knowledge of horror films. It’s so clear watching your movies that you love horror and are so well versed in it. You pay homage to slashers in The Ranger and holiday horror in The Sacrifice Game. So, I want to know, what is your relationship to horror tropes? Because as we all know, there are some really fucked up staples of the genre, but there is also a deep love of the genre that informs your work. 

The most satisfying thing in the world to me is when I have figured out how to take a horror trope and twist it into something new. When I feel like I’ve nailed that, it makes my brain feel so good. I love that feeling, and it’s always on my mind. I’ve been watching these movies since I was ten years old, and I’ve been working professionally in the horror industry since I was twenty-two. So, at this point horror tropes are just something I naturally think about. I can’t help but go through this library of movies in my brain. But I think what’s important is that we don’t rest in these tropes, and we keep finding ways to push them and twist them and make them reflect the world we live in. Because what’s more exciting than finding out you can take a story that’s been told forever and show it in a new light? I think that’s the best thing ever.

How did you decide to become a director?

I’ve wanted to be a director since I was a teenager. I had a friend when I was fifteen who said she wanted to be a fashion designer, and it suddenly occurred to me that you could have a creative job. In that moment, I was like, I want to be a filmmaker! That was my response right away. But I felt that I really had to learn all aspects of how movies are made before I was ready to be a director. That’s not necessarily the right path for everyone – I love when people are making indies straight out of film school. But for me, that’s not how it was. I went to school for screenwriting, and then went to L.A. and got a marketing job at Fearnet, so I learned all about marketing, specifically for horror. Then I moved to New York, and interestingly that’s when I started working in production, at a company called Glass Eye Pix, which is an indie horror production company run by Larry Fessenden. For seven years I produced a bunch of films for the company, and that was really my film school. I learned how to support a director’s vision, all about paperwork, location scouting, delivering a film, all of it. Once I had all that experience under my belt, I felt ready to direct. But then when I directed The Ranger, I discovered there was a whole new craft I needed to learn: the nuances of talking to actors, how to talk to department heads – directing is all communication. And there are so many ways to communicate, through talking yes, but also through lookbooks, and music playlists, and sizzle reels, and making reference to random movies from the 70s. The Ranger was when I fully got to discover the magic of directing, and now I’m addicted.

Okay, I have to ask you about this playlist thing. I read that you make individual playlists for all of your actors?

I like to create a playlist for myself for each project I do, so that I can easily tap into the vibes of the movie. You know, I might have writer’s block, and then I put on the playlist and I’m immediately drawn back into the vibes and the atmosphere of the film. I have these giant playlists that are years in the making. I pick out songs for each character, and sometimes these songs have really helped me crack the code to a character. Like for the Ranger, the song Perfect Day by Lou Reed totally opened up that character for me. I find those songs and then I play them on repeat as I’m writing. So, I create a playlist for the actors and I hand it off as just another tool. I always tell them that they can listen to it once and throw it away, or they never have to listen to it. Every actor has their own process, so it’s just how much they want to engage with it. Music is so powerful, and it taps into such primal emotions, so it’s just another way to get into the world of the movie.

You also make lookbooks for all your department heads?

Yes, I love making lookbooks too. I find so much joy in it, and this work is just prepping you for set; all of it helps you solidify your vision. I could spend hours and hours on Pinterest. And once you’ve gathered the images, you juxtapose them to give them meaning. That juxtaposition starts telling the story. Like the dinner table sequences in The Sacrifice Game. The way the images relate is such a good setup and payoff. At first, we’re in there with our girls as they prepare Christmas Eve dinner, and it’s beautiful and serene. And then when we go back in the dining room, we’re with the gang and they’re in charge. For that, I wanted the camera to be circling the table like a shark, and you’re not exactly sure when it’s going to attack. And then we’re in there again at the end of the film, and the camera is very static on each of the characters. I wanted it to feel like they’re just staring at their fate, unable to escape it. Finding that kind of visual language is so fun.

Color is also such an important aspect of the way you construct images. Can you talk about how you use color to tell a story?

I like to think about color in terms of arcs. What is the color arc of the movie? How do we speak to the themes of the movie through color? With The Sacrifice Game I wanted to start off with the school feeling very heavenly and perfect, like a dollhouse. So, we used lots of blues and whites, to make it feel very clean. Meanwhile, with the gang, they’re in a world of Christmas colors, because we’re playing with expectations for a Christmas movie there. And when the gang gets to the school, I wanted it to feel like we were going from this heavenly place and slowly descending into hell. It was important to me that we have a fireplace and candles everywhere, but there was no fireplace in the parlor! So, our production design team built a fireplace, and our special effects team made it light up with real fire. They made my fireplace dreams come true. I really thought the story wouldn’t work without a fireplace, and they made it happen!

Okay, you’ve got to tell me about this sigil-making class in Brooklyn.

In the script we wrote that there’s a demonic sigil, but when you’re starting to prep your movie, you actually have to figure out what that looks like. So, I took this sigil-making class on Zoom during COVID, and you learn to write out a message, a hope, and combine the letters so it loses meaning and instead becomes a symbol. I can’t share what I wrote because it has secret powers associated with it, but what I can say is that it’s intrinsic to the movie. And now we’re trying to spread the sigil, Clara’s sigil, as far as we can. We made temporary tattoos that we had at our premiere at Fantasia, and the producers made necklaces with the sigil on it for me and the actors when we wrapped. We want to spread it far and wide!

What’s your hope for the next phase of your directing? Is there something you want to work on, or something you haven’t gotten a chance to do that you really want to try?

I want to make something really scary. And I want to keep exploring complicated female characters. I identify so much more with unlikable, complicated women.

Last question: The theme of our first issue is Possessions. What is your favorite possession movie?

Well, Possession!

The most amazing unlikable female character!

Absolutely! We love her! 

Jenn Wexler is a horror director, writer, and producer whose films explore the untapped power of teenage girls. Her first feature, The Ranger, is a punk slasher fever dream, with a score nearly as cool as its female lead. Her new film, The Sacrifice Game, showcases the true horrors of Christmas with toxic family, predatory men, and flaying. Jenn’s films have premiered at SXSW, Fantasia, FrightFest, and Fantastic Fest. The Sacrifice Game received the Gold Audience Award for Best Canadian Feature at Fantasia this year. Watch the film on Shudder this holiday season.


Interview by Ariel McCleese, Bloodletter EIC