Chloe: Hey Sean and Sarah! So recently your Seed & Spark campaign has gone live for your next short film, The Thaw, a 19th century horror folk tale. Your story derives from an old Vermont legend about the extreme lengths rural dwellers would go to survive. How did you come about learning of this legend and what attracted you to build a story around it?
Sean & Sarah: According to Vermont legend, farmers in the hills without the resources to survive the harsh winters would freeze their elderly relatives, store them for the winter, and thaw them out in spring, healthy and refreshed. A local paper published an account of this process in 1887, with excerpts from the supposed diary of a witness to this ritual. That article seems to be the source of the legend, and it just wove its way into the fabric of Vermont lore. We were born and raised in Vermont so this story is kind of ingrained in our DNA!
A big influence on this story is one of Sarah’s favorite Vermont authors, Joseph Citro, whom the Boston Globe calls the “bard of the bizarre.” He has done more to immortalise weird and spooky Vermont in print than anyone. His book ‘Green Mountains, Dark Tales’ includes a chapter on this legend and is probably where Sarah first encountered the story as a child. The book is now out of print, but Joseph Citro has generously made available several SIGNED COPIES from his collection for The Thaw’s Seed&Spark backers!
This story represents Vermonters’ special way of surviving the elements. They had grit and independence that allowed them to survive and we want to honour that. We also believe folktales say a lot about our deepest fears. For us, Ruth’s struggle to survive mirrors our society’s current struggle with climate change. We want to tell Ruth’s story right now because it is about the agency we can claim in the face of this unpredictable future.
Your main character in this film is Ruth, who you describe as having an inner fire that “burns so bright” and a determined will power. All of your previous short films also feature women at the helm, why is it so important to you to show women in these stories of survival?
Sarah: Honestly I don’t know how else to do it. Women are complex fierce survivors and always have been. Women, queer and trans folks go through it and still find ways to fight and to shine, and if I can’t honour that spirit then I should find something else to do.
You also have Wild Obscura films, a women-focused genre film production company, working with you on The Thaw. Could you tell us a bit about how that came about and why they felt like the ideal suitors for a film like this one?
Sarah & Sean: The magic of social media! Wild Obscura Films started liking our posts on Instagram about our previous short, Water Horse, and when we checked out their website we were immediately struck by their mission statement: “We create films driven by the female gaze. We are the vehicle for the new generation of female-identifying filmmakers and will revolutionise the way women’s stories are told.” We emailed Nora Unkel and Devin Shepherd with a pitch for The Thaw and they loved the concept and our lead actress, Emily Bennett. Not long after that, we hopped on a phone call and it was obvious that we were all on the same page and excited to bring it to life.
In your inclusion statement for your campaign you say that you are committed to having female crew members and department heads at every stage of production. Could you elaborate a bit on why you think this is important in the current climate of movie-making?
Sarah & Sean: Film-making is inherently collaborative, and so bringing together a multiplicity of talented voices only strengthens the film. We believe in breaking down the doors and lifting each other up. So much of what we see in cinemas and on our screens is coming at us from that white straight male perspective. That’s just one perspective among an untold number, and we want to be part of the wave of filmmakers that are pushing for things to change. It’s past time.
What was it that drew you to the horror genre in those earlier days? Did you both set out with the intention of becoming genre filmmakers?
Sarah: I’ve always loved telling stories, so the transition from freaking people out at slumber parties to writing and directing horror films seems inevitable in retrospect.
Sean: Some of my earliest memories were watching Jurassic Park and Jaws. I saw Halloween too young and had Michael Myers nightmares for a decade. I loved how these visual stories could have such a visceral impact on me. In middle school, I used PowerPoint to make stop motion rip-offs of The Matrix and Blade. In high school, I made a claymation version of Friday the 13th that was banned from my local cable channel. Somehow I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker at the time, let alone a horror filmmaker, but in retrospect, it’s clear as day. My passion for horror filmmaking grew to another level when I met Sarah in 2013. We immediately started making horror films together and haven’t looked back since.
And what have been some of your biggest influences in horror? The Thaw is just screaming out to me with huge The Witch vibes (which I adore).
Sarah & Sean: We have a lot of influences! The Witch is clearly one of them. Robert Eggers grew up right next door in New Hampshire. Some of our biggest horror influences are Don’t Look Now, Halloween, The Babadook, Raw, Let the Right One In, and many more. Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s brilliant deconstruction of the western genre, is a tremendous example of our approach to genre storytelling. One characteristic these films share is a deep connection with real human beings. No matter how crazy the world gets, the story is grounded by character.
We also love idiosyncratic filmmakers whose films feel so pure and uncompromising in their vision. Claire Denis, Lynne Ramsay, Jennifer Kent, Andrea Arnold, and Sophia Takal have all inspired us to stay true to the story and to pursue our goals despite the odds.
I was also wondering how often you work with the idea of developing to feature-length in mind? You’ve expressed interest in developing The Thaw but a film like Water Horse felt very contained and like the short run-time was essential to that build up of tension and threat.
Sarah & Sean: It’s very hard to come up with ideas that work as self-contained shorts! When we wrote The Thaw this was always in the back of our minds. There are so many story beats, character motivations, and images we have to set aside to keep The Thaw a short film. After we shoot the film we’ll start bringing those ideas back for the feature.
Water Horse was one of the rare ideas that was always meant to be a short film. Sarah had a nightmare which we developed into a five-page script. Every choice we made was to create maximum anxiety and tension in a short amount of time. Folks have asked us if we would consider expanding Water Horse into a feature. We’re not against the idea, but we would definitely have to approach the story a different way and give the characters and themes room to breathe. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and Queen of Earth are great examples of that.
If your readers are interested in Water Horse, a private link to the film is an incentive in The Thaw’s Seed&Spark campaign!
And finally I’d like to give you this opportunity to let our SQ readers know about how they can support your campaign and where they can keep up with all your film-making antics.
Sarah & Sean: Thank you so much! It was so much fun discussing The Thaw and horror films with you! One of our favorite parts of filmmaking is building a community around a film. We would love for your readers to be a part of the team that will bring this film to life! You can check out our campaign here:
The Thaw’s Seed&Spark campaign ends on Wednesday 12th February
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here