JAKOB'S WIFE Interview: Director Travis Stevens Talks Marital Crisis And Vampirism
Jakob’s Wife is the second film directed by Travis Stevens, who initially became known in the genre film world as a producer.
Snowfort Pictures, his company, has among its credits: Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die; the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune; Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here and Mohawk; and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s The Endless. Some of these directors went on to work in Hollywood: Wingard directed Godzilla vs. Kong, the highest-grossing blockbuster during the pandemic; and Benson and Moorhead are currently working on Moon Knight, a series that will premiere in 2022 as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Stevens made his directorial debut with Girl on the Third Floor, wherein a man (C.M. Punk) struggles to renovate an old house in the suburbs where he’ll live with his wife (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and their future first-born: it’d be his redemption after having trouble with the law. It’s a film anchored in the haunted house subgenre – a dark past linked to prostitution and the presence of female ghosts – which at the same time explores marital conflict. The haunted house functions as a test, first for a man who was previously unfaithful; and then for a woman who could forgive her troubled partner.
The director tackles again the theme of the marital crisis in Jakob’s Wife, now using another quintessential horror subgenre: vampires. Two living legends of the genre, Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and Larry Fessenden (director of Wendigo and The Last Winter), respectively give life to Anne and Jakob, partnered in a decades-long marriage.
Minister Jakob might preach in church about the importance of a wife to a man. But he has no idea about how his own partner really feels. Anne is dissatisfied, she feels unheard and stagnant. This makes her question her decision to assume the role of the traditional wife. "I want to live a bigger life," she states at one point.
Anne tries to revive the local gin mill with the help of an architect (Robert Rusler), who many years ago was her lover. This place is a temptation to relive an affair from the past for Anne. There, too, something unexpected and brutal happens: a horde of rats mercilessly attack the architect, while a mysterious figure appears to alter the life of the protagonist. Anne's attitude changes completely after receiving the classic bite on her neck. There are difficulties, however; it’s an injection of life for her. Jakob, puzzled and disgusted, suspects infidelity.
The tone of Jakob’s Wife changes; there’s drama, horror, violence and dark humor. Here the vampire transformation has a clear subtext and is the dilemma of the film: while it appears to be heading toward a resurgence of the marriage, a female version of Nosferatu – the vampire leader played by Bonnie Aarons – supports Anne's individualism. Our protagonist loves her husband, she’s also looking for something more. Will she embrace her change or will she go back to being "Jakob's wife"? Is there an alternative scenario?
Jakob’s Wife had its world premiere at SXSW, as part of the Midnighters section. On April 16, it hit select theaters in the United States and VOD. For this reason, I interviewed its director.
ScreenAnarchy: Why are you interested in exploring marital conflict through genre movies?
Travis Stevens: Certainly on Girl on the Third Floor and Jakob’s Wife, and what I hope is my next one, I’m looking at power dynamic between men and women in relationships, and using that as starting point. It’s something that, as an individual, I’ve been learning more and more about as I get older. It’s something that I find interesting.
How was the idea of using the vampire myth to represent women’s freedom and individuality conceived?
There were earlier drafts of the script where The Master character (the vampire leader) was male. When I read that, it seemed to limit Anne’s choice between her husband and another lover, another man, which wasn’t the choice I felt Anne should make.
It’s more empowering for Anne’s growth to be more about reclaiming her own voice rather than just partnering with another person. And so changing the gender of The Master character changes that dynamic entirely. Then The Master can talk to Anne more as a friend and say “hey, your life could be whatever you want it to be, you’re the one who’s allowing it to be as small or as big as it is.”
I think NOSFERATU clearly influenced the look of The Master.
When the idea came to update The Master by changing the gender and what she symbolized to the story, because that was going to be progressive and something we hadn’t seen before, I thought it would be fun visually for the character to call back much more classic vampire design. That would be an interesting mix of old and new.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, performed by Klaus Kinski, has such an edge to it and there’s such an impurity to that movie and the horror that’s in it, that I wanted that quality in our movie as well.
How was working with rats?
The rats themselves are part of that mythology, that specific vampire iconography you’ve seen before. Working with rats on a small movie is a very interesting challenge. I worked with a dog on Girl on the Third Floor so I know you can work with animals on low-budget movies, you just need to find the right partner.
On Jakob’s Wife we could’ve never afforded trained rats. We found a woman who raises rats for pet stores, named Lexi Payne. She said “yes, I can get you 40 rats two months from now and bring them to set.” We did our best with them and I’m so happy that there are real rats in the movie because when I watch the classic horror movies and certain classic vampires movies, that’s a part of the language and it’s been missing from a lot of modern, low-budget vampire movies. I was really happy that we had that texture in the film.
I would like to know the origin of two things that I hadn’t seen before in a vampire movie. First, the vampire in the dentist.
Once you identify the core of the movie, these ideas will just emerge. Because one of the goals with the film was to honor classic vampire movies, I knew an equal goal would be to add some new thing to the subgenre, so that future audiences would say exactly that: “I’ve never seen a vampire in the dentist before.”
I was trying to think of things we hadn’t seen before and that one came to mind. I was like “that would allow us to also reference the classic scene when the person who’s transforming suddenly gets a taste for bugs.” It’s, again, a mixture of new and old.
Then there’s the idea of having a joint as a substitute for blood.
I knew I wanted these characters to reconnect emotionally. We’ve seen these characters be uptight and it seemed like a fun way to show they don’t need to be that way. So let’s smoke some weed and let’s see what it does.
Again, it just feels like something we hadn’t seen before. It slows things down and they have a conversation that they should’ve had years ago. At the same time, you get to add something new to the vampire lore. Maybe in movies moving forward, weed will replace garlic as a way to combat it.
Why did you decide to mix different tones? It has very funny moments
I wanted the movie to transform as Anne transformed. That’s something that doesn’t always happen with movies, you kind of know what type of movie you’re watching from the very beginning of it. And you’re watching the story unfold but the movie kind of keeps the same tone from beginning to end. That has a value, but for this movie, one of the goals was to show Barbara Crampton as an actor in a way we hand’t seen her before and honor the types of movies that we had seen her in before, when she first burst onto the scene in the eighties.
Barbara and Larry were so involved throughout the writing process that we talked a lot about what their own long-term relationships look like, what are the little things that get into your skin, how do you make up after a fight, how do you balance the responsibilities. Because we had all those conversations we were able to really bring the details into Anne and Jakob’s relationship. I think their relationship feels true throughout the movie even though the situation they’re in gets crazier and crazier and crazier around them. They still feel like a real couple.
The main conflict is interesting: Anne feels attracted to the notion of independence, at the same time she loves her husband.
In this movie the important victory for Anne was to start speaking up for herself. Her husband hasn’t quite learned everything he needs to learn yet. So we leave them in this sort of “what’s going to happen next?” moment. If we get a chance to make another movie or a TV series, it’ll be interesting to see where their relationship goes from here.
What do you think of Adam Wingard’s current success? And of the fact that Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are also working in Hollywood?
It’s amazing and I’m so happy for them. They have an opportunity and the resources to show how good they are as filmmakers. They’re talented, smart people and now they have the money to really show how good they are. It’s also inspiring to me because I want to make a G.I. Joe movie. If they can make Godzilla vs. Kong or Moon Knight, there’s a greater chance somebody like me could make a G.I movie.