It was a sun-hammered day in Syracuse, the penultimate day of shooting Mohawk, that I was invited on set to poke around, take a few pictures, and talk to the cast and crew of Ted Geoghegan's early 19th century action picture.
There was a hold-your-breath calm to a series of moments being captured right before they shot the big pyrotechnics action sequence the following day. The open spaces of the Skä•noñh, Great Law of Peace Center, afforded little shelter, and from the humidity, none at all.
Here, less than a year later, the completed film has just had its world premiere at Fantasia. I have yet to catch the film as of yet, mainly due to prior travel commitments, and a desire to watch this one on a large movie screen. It nevertheless seems like an appropriate time to share some of the discussion I had with the director, who had most of his footage in the can, but had not yet started the long process of editing and post.
Geoghegan has a very excited manner that is tethered with a high degree of self-awareness and self-deprecation. He has a strong vision of what he wants out of the images and certainly one of tone; a vision that has grown out of an obsessive (but not uncritical) love of horror films from all eras of cinema.
The below conversation took place on a moonless walk after midnight on the outskirts of a non-descript hotel in the middle of nowhere, along Interstate 90. It has been lightly edited for flow.
Kurt Halfyard: Tell me about MOHAWK and how it came together.
Ted Geoghegan: It was a concept that I had had for about two years, it was an idea I was excited to work on, and I was just waiting for the opportunity to expand the concept into a screenplay. But I needed interest in it before I could take it forward. I already have about 60 screenplays at home that nobody is making. I did not want to have 61. I brought up the concept to Dark Sky Films and they were really interested in it.
When I mentioned this to Grady Hendrix, he immediately came back with, “Oh, I am an expert on the War of 1812.” Which I thought was kind of cute, I mean we all want work, and it is too easy to say you are an expert in something to get the job. But I was in Grady’s office the very next day and there was this entire bookshelf of works on the War of 1812. Unless he bought all those books the previous night, I will concede my dick-assumption about his expertise.
And even though I think Grady is known for genres that mix together with a lot of comedy, I told him I wanted this to be relatively straightforward with what I wanted it to achieve. It is a dark action film that has suspense elements.
It is a bit of a siege movie, a bit of a chase movie?
In a sense. I like it to refer to it as a home invasion movie where the home is North America. What would you do if your home was invaded? You would use what you know about your home to turn the tables on the invaders.
That is what this is. During the War of 1812, which in a way is sort of a forgotten war in American history. And in this ‘forgotten’ war, the Mohawk campaign is perhaps the most unremembered. Having won their independence from Britain, the Americans decided they summarily would execute all the indigenous people in the region.
And Britain, who was still not ready to let the colonies go, quietly sent over a number of “Indian Agents” - young British men who were placed in indigenous communities to teach them how to fight back against the Americans.
But, the thing I like about Grady’s script is that it is not black and white, it is certainly not straightforward. It is about all the shades of grey in war; good people often make terrible decisions and terrible people often make good decisions.
Your last sentence sounds very close to producer Travis Stevens' mission statement for Snowfort Pictures.
Funny you should say that, because with this film, I am the first sophomore director with Snowfort, and I am pretty stoked about that. We Are Still Here was a more intimate film, but they are weirdly similar and wildly different. Mohawk is a film that is 98% exteriors, whereas We Are Still Here was a film that was 98% interiors.
I love straight horror films, I love slasher movies, and I would love to make another of those, but I knew that the second movie had to be a bit more ambitious and something that people would not expect, an unconventional suspense picture. People who work on the indie film level often say, “I have this much of a budget, so here is what I can probably get away with.”
One of the things that Travis does is, “Here is the movie to make, regardless of budget, how can we find ways to do that?” This was us getting away with making a haunted house film that was also set in 1979. And indie action-adventure is already ambitious, but one set 200+ years in the past.
Does the execution of a movie like THE WITCH lend some confidence that this is getting more and more viable?
The Witch is a wonderful film, and I think it shares a lot of similarities with Mohawk in its style, and what it is trying to do, the message it is trying to portray.
To elevate the type of genre it is playing in.
Totally. But Mohawk is also wildly different, for example the language our film is spoken is a relatively modern vernacular, but the aim was to have it never feel anachronistic
You mean like Soderbergh's THE KNICK?
Yes. Another film that people often refer to as a guilty pleasure, but it is actually a film I unabashedly enjoy, is Robin Hood: Prinice of Thieves, yes, the one with Kevin Costner. It is a film that uses totally modern sounding dialogue, but it completely works. There are no words that were not used at the time the film is set, but still they were probably not spoken in such a way that would work with a modern audience.
I love the olde english in The Witch, a whole film like that was a blast, but for an action adventure film, and keeping the intensity at its peak, we did not want to sideline the audience with words or language that they would not understand. The film is set 203 years in the past, but it is unquestionably made for a modern audience. And here, we spend about an equal amount of time with the villains in the film as we do with the heroes.
Something I really liked about Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is where you spend equal amounts of times with the Skinheads, as you do with the kids they are terrorizing. And it works so well because there are these strange moments when the Skinheads are starting to be killed, and you start thinking to yourself, “I hope that guy lives…” And then you mentally step back and think, “Did I just wish that this terrible person is going to live.” It is a curious moment to realize how a film can work.
So from your concept, you and Grady wrote the script, I understand quite quickly to get this film into production; how did that collaboration work?
Yes, it took about a month and a half. Grady has a writers' room in New York, and I do not live too far from it. I just took the train down to his office every day. We shot about the 10th draft, which is solid.
I think typically there are substantially more edits and revisions, which is a product of the relaxed working environment. We’re pretty good friends, with a pretty similar sense of humour. Even though this film is in no way funny, if you have someone who is able to crack you up, and vice versa, you can just work. The dynamic of being able to keep each other entertained all day, every day, keeps the creativity flowing. His persona keeps people on their toes, and also keeps them going.
OK, if the writing was a relatively smooth part of the process, what was the largest hurdle or the biggest surprise when making the film?
I never thought shooting in the woods would be as difficult to endure physically. Location shooting is always fraught with challenge, still I was surprised at how tired, not only I, but others as well, got from tromping through the woods.
I grew up in rural Montana, and so I’ve been in the woods my whole life. But you spend 14 hours in the woods every day for 20 days, it is really amazing how everyone really gets winded by the end of the day. Everyone was giving it their all, and gung ho right until the end of the shoot, which is kind of phenomenal, but I was surprised to discover how the act of being simply present in the forest all day makes you tired.
And yet, the footage has this exceptionally vibrant feel to the film. Like you are exposing this forgotten chapter with a bright gaze.
It is something we carried over from We Are Still Here, to set as much as possible during the day. I like subverting the notion that horror films have to be visibly dark.
You can make a story dark and foreboding, without the actual image being dark and foreboding. By having this film shot almost entirely during the day, it subverts expectations, which is ultimately what we are trying to do with this film. I think this is going to be a very surprising movie, not just with the subject matter, I hope to catch a lot of people off-guard with the tone and the way in which all the characters are portrayed.