A discussion of the American Gothic built on the heartbreak of loneliness and the hunger of rats.
In a year populated with a bevy of Stephen King adaptations fighting for your eyeballs, Zak Hilditch’s 1922 delivers a moody tragedy of horror and dread. Thomas Jane is nearly unrecognizable as the proud farmer at war with his city-slicking, dreamer wife. While Molly Parker conjures tremendous relatability in a character that could have easily descended into one-dimensional plot fodder. I sat with the three filmmakers the day after their film premiered. It proved to be a rare theatrical treat for a film destined to live in the confines of Netflix (available to stream on October 20th).
I come from North Dakota, ‘The Middle.’ There are so few films that capture that aesthetic, but also that personality. When you go over those flyover states when you tell their story, what’s your goal in capturing that lifestyle?
Thomas: It’s all in service of the story. All of that is really evocative in the short story. He really does a great job of describing that whole ‘Middle’ and that lifestyle out there. The things that he says. He says if you have a problem with your woman, whatever your problem is, it tends to get solved. Nobody pretty much cares one way or another what happens out there in ‘The Middle.’
Dynamics are so different there too.
Thomas: With people there…they have their own laws. Cuz the things have to go a certain way.
And there are the hidden myths that you find within your own family. In my family, there have always been stories of hotel fires and one great uncle did something to another great uncle. With 1922, you sign up for a Stephen King story and you’re expecting a real shocker. But like so often with his stories its more concerned with the human dynamics, and it’s less about the ghoul in the back of the church. As a longtime fan of his work, what gravitated you towards this particular story?
Zak: I stumbled across it four years ago and it never left my mind. Opportunities opened up over in LA to make an American film, my first American film. I couldn’t let that one go, and I kept going back to it, and I wanted to adapt it and the rats were available. Never in a million years, like I said in the Q&A, that I would be making a Stephen King film. I felt an absolute duty to the cause to not let him down and to not make a movie that sucks. No one wanted to make a movie that sucks. The pressure of making a good movie but also pleasing King for your first adaptation is no mean feat. But as a first adaptation, it was the perfect cheat sheet for me. I’ve got this cinematic story just sitting there, he had done so much of the work. He had done all of the research. You know the thing that had inspired him to do this was Wisconsin Death Trip, this coffee table book with these amazing photos of that era and obituaries that just showed how matter of fact death was handled at that time. That’s what inspired King so I was also obsessed with that book and so was Thomas. We just really wanted to tap into that era. To really make it feel, as much as we could in Vancouver 2016, that you were in 1922 Nebraska.
Was there an element of that original story that you knew you had to achieve?
Thomas: The loneliness out there.
Zak: The isolation.
Thomas: They had to work hard to get that on film. Vancouver is not so isolated. But a little digital trickery here.
Zak: Some of the iconic imagery as well. There are very specific beats that the story hits that were just non-negotiable for me. Obviously, the rats. How we were going to pull that off. That was always going to be a challenge. But yeah, there is just such interesting imagery in that story that just felt like cinema to me off the page. Try to make something as cinematically as we could.
That relationship between husband and wife is really unique. You don’t see that kind of marriage on screen too often. There’s obviously love there, but also that antagonism between the two. Molly, you talked about how you didn’t want to make your character ‘murderable.’ Can you expand on that a little bit?
Molly: I was really compelled by the script that Zak wrote but I was also concerned. I’m not interested in glorifying or using women’s murders as entertainment. Most women who are murdered are still murdered by their partners or spouses. The first time that we spoke that was a lot of what was on my mind. Zak is a really thoughtfully, intelligent filmmaker and everybody liked his first film. Just from the way, he talked about Arlette he clearly had a lot of respect for her. I felt like – the movie is obviously a really deep investigation of the consequences of this action that her husband takes. But for my part I really wanted her to feel…I just have this feeling that we sort of have an idea of what people used to be like but we minimize them and romanticize them. This is a woman who drank, who was clearly sexual, who was empowered in a way that at least she felt strong enough in herself that she could make decisions that were different from what her husband said she had to do and stick to them. So somebody, maybe her father, gave her that confidence. Which was unusual. She was also an unusual woman. Maybe! I think that a lot of women who had that life, it was such a hard life, a hundred years ago to be a farmer in Nebraska was so hard. I just watched this documentary about these farm women in Canada, but like in Saskatchewan, so like really right above where this took place. This documentary was made in the eighties, and it’s these women talking about how they would go a whole year without seeing another woman, they would be stuck on these farms. The men would get to go into town to buy the feed or go into town to sell their seed or whatever, and the women would stay on the farm for months and months and months and not see anyone else. That isolation I think can make you absolutely crazy. And how lonely that would be and maybe there’s a point at which even if you think your husband is going to kill you, you have to get out anyway. Or be that angry at you. Those were all things that I found really interesting. And they were just fun scenes to play.
Thomas: Yeah, we had some fun.
Not to spoil anything, but there does come a point where you have a shift in character. Where you have to play a different type of individual. How do you tackle that horror?
Molly: Well, one of the things that these guys were talking about, King is such a great storyteller, and he’s interested in these deep analyses of characters but in the context of these fantastic circumstances. And so part of what Zak did in this film was play with the perspective, as Wilfred’s mind becomes –
Molly: Compromised! (Laughter) You’re seeing the characters around him from his perspective which is changing.
That Tell-Tell descent into madness. Thomas, you fully commit to it. Can you talk about the transformation process?
Thomas: A lot of it just comes from reading the story. These characters are very compelling. What turned me on was all that family dynamic. That marriage that you don’t see a lot of on film, it sort of has shades of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It’s two people who love each other but also hate each other. Just for the circumstantial reason that they’re stuck out there in the middle of nowhere without anybody else. After a while, everything about somebody just starts to drive you nuts. But you also need the person and you’re longing for some kind of understanding from that person. That starts these broken lines of communication. You can’t fix it anymore. She wants to run off to Omaha, she wants to go be a dressmaker, she can talk about being a liberated woman all day long but really it’s the fucking marriage that’s falling apart. You don’t want to be with each other, they can’t stand the sight of you anymore. And there’s the heartbreak of that and then they’ve got this kid. It’s just great character, an examination of marriage when there’s nothing else around that would normally support relationships, friendly dinners –
Molly: No extended family.
Thomas: Right. All of that stuff is gone. You’re just isolated with you and your spouse and your progeny. You’re out there and you got some cows. And that’s it. So what happens? The whole thing just implodes.
The rot of the relationship.
Thomas: They rot from the inside and then their anger and their rage. Their horrible, horrible rage and that you can’t do anything about. And you know it’s coming out and you can’t stop it. You know it’s just going to come out and you’re going to do something horrible and you can’t stop it. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s coming.
And the device of your character is up in the hotel room writing this letter. As an audience member, you know that the horror has already happened. There’s this inevitable doom that puts dread on the entire experience.
Thomas: The whole thing has all gone to hell. You know, it’s great. It’s great! You don’t find a lot of parts like that, characters like that. That great American Gothic thing that I think Ben Richardson captured very well.
This is the first Fantastic Fest where we’ve had three Netflix movies. What’s your excitement around this style of distribution?
Zak: A lot more people are going to see the film that way than if we had done an indie cinema release or whatever. Again, it’s a shame that seeing it blown up in a beautiful 4k last night with an audience is going to be a fleeting thing with this journey for the film. That’s just sort of where the times are a going with the whole Netflix thing. But they are the ones that supported this film from day one. It’s theirs now to love and embrace and get it out there as best as they can.