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Antlers Director Scott Cooper Opens Up About His Terrifying New Film - Exclusive Interview

In his career so far as a filmmaker, actor-turned-director Scott Cooper has focused on the dark side of the American dream. His directing debut, 2009's "Crazy Heart," told the story of a once-famous country singer locked in the grip of alcoholism and facing the end of his career. Subsequent films such as 2013's "Out of the Furnace" and 2017's "Hostiles" (both starring Christian Bale) dealt with small-town crime and poverty in modern America and bigotry toward Native Americans in the late 1800s, respectively.

Now with "Antlers," Cooper tackles a new genre: the horror movie. Based on a short story called "The Quiet Boy" by Nick Antosca, "Antlers" stars Keri Russell as Julia, a troubled woman who comes back to her Oregon hometown after years away to take a teaching job. Haunted by the abuse that she and her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) once suffered at the hands of their father, she sees what she thinks are signs of the same abuse in a student named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) and sets out to help him.

But Lucas hides a much darker secret: his drug dealer father and his little brother have been possessed by a wendigo, the evil spirit of First Nations folklore that hungers for human flesh. In Cooper's story, the wendigo is not just a monster, but a metaphor for the destruction of the environment brought about by the town's mining operation, as well as the trauma inflicted on the townspeople by the mine's closure, which has led to crime, drug use and poverty in the once-thriving hamlet.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro — a filmmaker who knows a thing or two about horror — "Antlers" had its release delayed for 18 months by COVID. But as Cooper tells Looper, he's glad that people will get to see the film in theaters. "Any horror film, and hopefully mine, is best experienced in a communal setting surrounded by strangers," he says. "Because I think horror is for people who are interested in the darkness inside themselves, who don't want to face it or confront it directly."

Why Scott Cooper wanted to make a horror movie

Every movie you've done so far has been a different genre.

When [Guillermo] first approached me about doing ["Antlers"], he said, "Scott, your last three films have been horror films and nobody knows it. Would you consider directing a horror film?" Which of course — I love horror. I said yes, but he also understood that I write all of my own films. So I had to tell the story that kind of pulls off Nick Antosca's wonderful short story, but also try to thread in some of the themes that are important to me, because I really believe that our most terrifying films hold up this dark mirror to America's fears and anxieties. I think a film about generational trauma or a young boy who's far too young to shoulder the responsibility that he deals with is a good way into dealing with the wendigo.

So horror was a genre you were interested in, but you just were waiting for the right moment?

Oh, without question. Some of my favorite films are horror films. Nicholas Roeg's "Don't Look Now," which is a disturbing look at a family defined by tragedy; "The Exorcist," which, again, a family's at the center of that film and it also deals with the supernatural like I do; or even "Alien," which is one of my favorite films.

I cannot say strongly enough that any horror film, and hopefully mine, is best experienced in a communal setting surrounded by strangers, because I think horror is for people who are interested in the darkness inside themselves, who don't want to face it or confront it directly. But it also provides this very comfortable environment in which to escape because as Hitchcock would say, it's very unlikely that what you're seeing onscreen is going to ultimately happen to you.

That said, as a parent, the fact that "The Exorcist" is portrayed so realistically is what makes it so disturbing. So I wanted this film to be not only horrific, but disturbing as well, because one of my mantras as a filmmaker is, if I can find myself in my work then others will see themselves. So if you can put an audience into a very grounded and realistic environment and make them laugh, terrify them, move them, shock them, then that's all the better. That's the reason the people should be going to the theater in the first place.

Making a horror movie with a message

How much did the basic idea stay the same, especially when you're expanding a short story into a 100-page screenplay?

It changed quite a bit. This was based on a short story by Nick Antosca called "The Quiet Boy," which is a great title for a film, but maybe for a horror film they felt "Antlers" might have been a better title, which certainly comes to bear once we reveal the wendigo. But I wanted the film to be about generational trauma — which is not in the short story — about a teacher who's been estranged from her brother because of their horrific past, who comes back to town. And there's a young student that suffered in some ways like she did and in her desire to help him, perhaps she can help herself.

But I also wanted to deal with this notion that these are these small towns that are left behind, towns and small cities that kind of owe their success to a particular industry whose civic life was kind of built around a factory or mine. Then the fabric of that town changes once the mine or the factory closes. So you have that. You have this notion of men who are dying deaths of despair, unprecedented drug overdoses, suicides, alcohol-related deaths, all of that is coursing through our nation in greater numbers since the dawn of the 20th century.

So how do you tell that in a monster film dealing with Native American issues of colonialism and the wendigo? Not easily, and maybe it's not as successful in some levels as others, but look, if you aren't trying to make a film that — certainly a horror film — that as I mentioned earlier kind of holds up a dark mirror to our fears and anxieties, well, it's not something that's going to really interest me. All of that should be horrific. Then you have a wendigo and marrying my sensibilities in Guillermo's. It's a miracle if any of it works, so hopefully it does.

What it's like to have Guillermo Del Toro produce your movie

What was it like to work with Guillermo del Toro as your producer?

Well, I had Robert Duvall, who's a wonderful director, produce my first film. Ridley and Tony Scott produced "Out of the Furnace" and now Guillermo produced this, so I like having producers who are also directors, because they know what it's like to be in the trenches. They know what it's like to face that blinking cursor as the writer. And they also know in a film like this, that you have to really build an interesting creature.

I would not have made this film without Guillermo, who's incredibly generous with his time and his ideas. He understood that I wanted the wendigo to feel like it came from the Earth's core, its crust, its mantle, and was made of iron and ore with these embers that kind of emanate off it. He's so experienced in the practicalities of creatures and what might not feel like something that you've seen. He's seen far more horror and creature films than I ever have. So it was nice to have that as a guidepost, but he also is like a great submarine parent who just kind of hovers and surfaces when needed.

What makes the wendigo a great monster

The wendigo is a great metaphorical creature. What did you want it to represent, and what kind of research did you do into the folklore?

A great deal of research. I kind of built off "Hostiles," for which Chris Eyre, who's a wonderful filmmaker who directed "Smoke Signals," acted as a sounding board and introduced me to the Cheyenne nation in Montana. Here I used Chris Eyre again, but I also used Grace Dylan, who's the foremost authority on the wendigo in the nation. She teaches at Portland State. I would send her drafts of my screenplay. We would talk about the creation of the wendigo, and along the way she came to the set. She would say that the wendigo manifests itself in many ways, but it's first and foremost always a spirit.

We wanted it to be the spirit of lonely places. In this town, the wendigo represents a kind of stand-in for the issues that people would rather not confront, a monster that reflects our own demons and feeds off our worst potential. But the wendigo also represents European settlers colonizing Native American resources and land.

It was important that our wendigo represent a couple of things: the destruction of our natural resources, which is why I set it in a mine, and why I made it of the Earth's crust or mantle, but also a metaphor for how we're destroying not only our natural resources, but our bodies, through opioid abuse, through self-abuse, drinking, through generational abuse, trauma. So all of that.

Whether it marries it all successfully or not is not for me, but for, I think, other audiences to understand, because there's quite a bit of ambiguity in the film. I wanted to pose questions for the audience to come up with their own answers, and allow them to do their own math. I mean, I don't think in a film everything needs to be answered. I think demystifying everything is not the key to a successful story. What are the rules? Where did it come from? Why is it here? Do you answer all those questions and have audience just sitting back in their chair, as opposed to leaning in and really understanding on an emotional level? Try not to intellectualize things. People do that too often in film.

Cooper is about to make his third movie with Christian Bale

What do you want to tackle next genre-wise? Would you go the Marvel route perhaps and try a superhero movie, or would you try and do something in the sci-fi realm?

I love sci-fi. In the past I've spoken to the Marvel folks. I really admire what they're doing. I'm about a month away from shooting my third film with Christian Bale now, so that's my focus. But I also love noir, I would love to shoot something in my hometown, which is now Los Angeles, and build on the legacy of the great noir films, but always try to tell it through my lens. I cannot say strongly enough that with each film I want to be on unfamiliar ground because I think artistic risk is one of the great pleasures of making movies.

Tell us about the film with Christian.

It's about a series of murders that took place at West Point in 1830 and they involve a young cadet that the world would later come to know as Edgar Allan Poe. It's called "The Pale Blue Eye."

You and Christian seem to have a little Scorsese/De Niro thing going on, where you feed off each other very well creatively.

Oh, thanks, man. Well, he's my closest pal. I write specifically for him. I thanked him on "Antlers" because he would come in and look at cuts and he would look at my drafts of my script. He's one of the smartest filmmakers and actors that I've come across and also a really great best mate. So it makes it very pleasurable when you can write for people like that.

"Antlers" is in theaters now.