Interview: Director/Co-Writer Jenn Wexler and Co-Writer Sean Redlitz “Raise a Little Hell” This Christmas with THE SACRIFICE GAME

Interview: Director/Co-Writer Jenn Wexler and Co-Writer Sean Redlitz “Raise a Little Hell” This Christmas with THE SACRIFICE GAME

It’s Christmas of 1971, and students Clara (Georgia Acken) and Samantha (Madison Baines) are stuck at the Blackvale School for Girls with their empathetic teacher (Chloë Levine) and the school’s resourceful chef (Gus Kenworthy). But while the quartet does their best to embrace the spirit of the season, a sacrificial cult led by Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch) and Jude (Mena Massoud) soon arrives on their front step with sinister intentions that are far more scary than any door-to-door Christmas carolers… although by the end of the night it just might be the cult members who wish they had never crashed the festivities at the Blackvale School for Girls.

Such is the intriguing seasonal setup for The Sacrifice Game, the new movie from director/co-writer Jenn Wexler. If, like me, you loved the subversive scares of Wexler’s 2018 film The Ranger, you’ll find plenty of macabre moments to enjoy in The Sacrifice Game, and with the film now waiting to be unwrapped by holiday horror-loving fans on Shudder, I had the great pleasure of catching up with Jenn Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz in a new interview to discuss the decade-long journey of writing The Sacrifice Game, the importance of keeping viewers on their toes throughout the film, the cinematic influences behind the movie’s visual style, and working with an incredible cast that includes Georgia Acken, Madison Baines, and Olivia Scott Welch!

You can read our full interview below, and in case you missed it, read Emily von Seele’s 5-star Fantastic Fest review of The Sacrifice Game!

Jenn, I read that you initially started writing the script for this all the way back in 2013 when you were working with Glass Eye Pix and Larry Fessenden. Can you talk about the initial spark for the story and where it all originated from?

Jenn Wexler: Yeah, I’ve been a horror fan since I was a kid and I also went to film school, so my brain is always putting subgenres together and being like, “What would happen if you merged this thing and this thing?” And I’ve been doing that for such a long time now. And so at some point along the way I was like, “What if you took a home invasion movie, but it had a supernatural demonic element, too, and what would it be if you merged those?” And also, what if we set it at a boarding school?

I went to New Jersey public high school, which is the most boring place you could go to high school. And when I was in high school, I used to look at the boarding school lifestyle and think like, “Oh man, if only I could go to boarding school, my life would be filled with mystery and adventure, obviously.” It’s so weird because at the same time I was going to punk shows and discovering myself and my individuality there. But weirdly, while I was rocking punk attire and Vans shoes, I don’t know, it was the early 2000s, while I was embracing that aesthetic, I was also looking at boarding school uniforms and being like, “If only I could go somewhere where I had to wear a boarding school uniform.” It’s so strange. So I’ve always loved that world aesthetically. And so in 2013 when I started working for Glass Eye Pix, I was just really inspired by Larry Fessenden and the filmmakers that he was working with, and I was like, “Wow, if I ever get a chance to direct a movie, I want to write what my dream movie would be.” So that’s when I started that script. And Larry and also Peter Phok, a producer there, they didn’t even know I was working on it. As I started to produce for them, I started to realize, “Wow, making movies is really hard. I need to take a beat and learn how to do this before I got into The Sacrifice Game.”

So the script had been around for a while, and then at some point, Jenn, you brought Sean in to help and you started working on it together. What was that like for you, Sean, to jump onto this moving train and then for you two to be able to work to together and really foster the story and nurture it to what it eventually became?

Sean Redlitz: Well, Jenn and I had been together for quite a while. We met at Fearnet when Jenn was doing marketing and I was doing digital content for Fearnet, so I’ve always been kind of a sounding board as you are when you’re with somebody who’s creative. So doing the dishes or cooking dinner or folding laundry, we’ll be talking about story ideas and things we’ve seen and things that inspire us. I knew that Jenn had this idea that she really loved about the home invasion, the boarding school, something demonic, but it wasn’t quite all fitting together or it wasn’t feeling quite right.

So I was able to make a suggestion, and it’s a bit of a spoiler, but you can probably guess what that suggestion was about the nature of the demon, which Jenn just embraced and unlocked all sorts of other creative ideas because we really felt like we hadn’t seen anything like that before. And from then on, Jenn invited me into the process. I started contributing dialogue, we started bouncing around ideas for other scenes, and it was just a great collaboration. And it’s easy for me because Jenn ultimately is the director. So whatever ideas I have, have to not only be good ideas for me, but also good ideas for the filmmaker. So, if I had an idea that I love but it just didn’t fit Jenn’s vision, we’re like, “All right, set that aside. We’ll come with another idea.”

Nice, and I have to say, Sean, you’ve been championing movies and filmmakers for years and shining a spotlight, so it’s really cool to see you get that first screenwriting credit as a creator. So, congrats on that. That’s really fun to go full circle there.

Sean Redlitz: Yeah, thank you. It’s incredible being on this side and having supported so many filmmakers. It’s going through the interviews like this and screenings like the ones we’ve been going to. I felt like I knew what it was going to be like, but you don’t really know until you’re the guy on stage at a Q&A with the microphone in your hand, and it’s been great.

Another thing I really like about this movie is lately we’ve seen a lot of nostalgia for ’80s horror movies, and I love the ’80s and the ’90s, too, but taking it back to the early ’70s, which I feel like is such a great decade of horror and I feel like we haven’t seen as many throwbacks to that decade, what was it about putting this story in 1971 that made it the right fit, and were there any challenges that arose from that because you’re trying to be authentic to that time period?

Jenn Wexler: Yeah, that’s what was so exciting about it was, “How are we going to dive into this moment?” It’s 1971, but we’re secluded in this boarding school. The rest of the world is out there, all the chaos of the early ’70s is out in the world. And what does that mean for the girls who have been stuck at this boarding school who only get glimpses of it, who only get a little bit on TV, or they overhear their teachers saying something. What does it mean for them?

I read Helter Skelter when I was a teenager, so that was obviously an influence. And I think part of why we set it in 1971 was thinking about the world at that time and maybe these characters are aware of the Manson murders and kind of have been inspired and are going on their own journey. And obviously we’re also fans of movies from that time. Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Suspiria, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist—all of these movies were on our minds as we were writing it.

I definitely can see the Manson connection and Vietnam, what you’re integrating into the story. And like you mentioned, the boarding house, that place that you filmed at is a total character in itself. It was just so immersive, it was like going into a castle. How did you find that place? Were you able to film most of it on location?

Jenn Wexler: Yes, we shot there. We were there for a month and we left for scenes like the suburban house and the cop scene on the road. But everything that’s supposed to be at that school is shot at that school and in reality, it’s an old abbey, it’s called Oka Abbey, and it’s about a half hour outside of Montreal. And the producers, Philip Kalin-Hajdu and Albert Melamed, are based in Quebec, and they brought myself and Heather Buckley, another producer, out for a location scout. And they brought us to a couple of schools. A lot of them felt more like Ivy League–type schools, but when they brought us to Oka Abbey, I had that same feeling. It’s like a castle, it feels like a fairy tale, and so I just totally fell in love with it.

Yeah, it was very foreboding in the best possible way. I do have to mention the cast, too, but particularly I have to give a shout-out to Georgia Acken in the role of Clara. Definitely a little spoiler warning here, but just that role in particular, and what she has to do in that role and how she’s almost playing multiple people and this ancient demon, how did you find her? I can imagine that had to have been a tall order to find someone who could really convey what you were looking for and then also deliver in that performance, which is so chilling.

Jenn Wexler: Yeah, Georgia was 14 when we shot this, and it’s her first feature, and we claimed that in the beginning of the movie with giving her an introducing card. We found her through auditions. We auditioned a lot of talented teenagers all across Canada. That’s how we found Madison, who plays Samantha as well. And Madison [Baines], I felt she had so much vulnerability, and I was like, “Oh, that’s going to be perfect for Samantha. That’s only going to grow when we’re on set.” And Georgia, she just really got the character.

We talk about the character as like she’s a demon, but also she’s been in this school for so long that at some point along the way she also became a teenage girl. And Georgia really deeply instinctively understood that. Working with her, she’s really good and it all comes very naturally to her. So I use the same process that I use with all the actors, which is just you develop your language with the person around the character. And then when you’re on set, you just use those keywords so everyone’s clear where you are while you’re shooting.

Sean Redlitz: Everyone in the cast did such an amazing job. It across the board elevated everything that we wrote. But having Georgia be able to come on, and although it was her first feature, she has a musical theater background, so when it came time to the physicality of the role, she was able to grasp that quickly. And there’s dance numbers you may have noticed that are pretty special as well.

Yeah, she was very contortionist-like, and really going for it in the fireplace scenes and with her eyes too, the dilation and everything was just uber-creepy and very well done. And then Olivia Scott Welch, too, whom we saw in the Fear Street movies recently, she also came on board as an executive producer on this. What was it like having her involved, not just in front of the camera, but also behind the camera?

Jenn Wexler: Olivia was one of the first actors that we had on board, and it was just really exciting. I was a big fan of the Fear Street movies and I loved her in them. She has such great screen presence, and it was really a treat to get to start working with her so early in the process, because she probably came on a year before we actually shot it. And just having her creative input just in terms of the movie itself, and then obviously getting to dive into the character of Maisie with her was amazing. We would exchange playlists with each other and exchange looks for her character and just kind of talked a lot about it before we actually ended up shooting, which is probably eight months later.

Sean Redlitz: And Olivia, she’s just got great energy on set. She set a really great tone and environment, and she’s a real horror fan. When we were doing a little wink or nod to a Suspiria moment or a Black Christmas moment, she knew those beats and she was right there with us.

You mentioned Black Christmas, were there any other holiday horror films that, in the back of your mind, you were like, “Okay, I really want to pay homage to this, or I want to have the spirit of this”?

Jenn Wexler: Yeah, definitely. I’m always thinking about these things as I’m going into a project and thinking about, “What are the right references for the movie? What are the movies I’m going to rewatch and just have in my soul as I am thinking, that are spiritual for me in terms of the new movie that I’m diving into?” And then things just kind of come out instinctively. I’m like, “Oh, I want to approach this shot in this way, or this room should have this vibe.” And that’s obviously helpful in terms of communicating with your team.

But specifically in terms of the opening scene with the gang at the suburban house, I was thinking about the opening of Halloween and how you’re in that first-person perspective. You’re in kid Michael Myers’ perspective going around the house. And the way we would talk about it is I wanted it to be like Clara is with the gang and she’s the camera. Her POV is the camera, and she’s following the gang, but she can’t go inside the house, so now she’s moving to the window to see what’s going on in the window. And now she’s moving around the house to see what’s going on in this back window.

Okay, I’m going to rewatch that and think something totally different now. That’s really, really cool.

Sean Redlitz: You’ll notice that we go from that opening to her eye as she’s in bed. It may not be immediately apparent, but on rewatch, hopefully you’ll see the sense of her awareness and relationship to the gang as they’re getting closer to her.

Jenn Wexler: It was subtext, but we wanted to start to create that emotional connection for the viewer. And then also in that scene, A Clockwork Orange was on my mind in terms of the aesthetic approach to that house. And then I’ll also say that in terms of the school and shooting the hallways and stuff, I was thinking a lot about The Shining.

[Spoiler Warning] That is awesome, all that’s missing is the tricycle. And I think it was so cool how it seems like it’s one movie, and then it completely subverts your expectation when you realize that Clara is the demon. Was that something that you wanted to really flip on viewers or keep them on their toes, where you think it’s one thing and then it completely turns into something else? 

Jenn Wexler: I think that’s always so fun when you watch a movie the first time one way, and then you learn things and then you can go back and the movie has new meaning. Those are the kinds of movies I’m attracted to. And I think if you rewatch it and you keep an eye out for Clara, you’ll see that she’s performing it all. You could see her, obviously now we’re in major spoiler territory, but you can see her excitement growing as things are not looking well for the rest of them. She has the tape on her mouth and she’s smiling, and I think that’s all there.

Sean Redlitz: We were like, “What can we do that will surprise people? What’s a twist we haven’t seen before? What would get us excited if we were viewers?” And we just embraced it and ran with it. Some people have come to us and said, “Yeah, I saw the twist coming early.” Some people were like, “I didn’t see it coming at all.” We think it works both ways. We hope it works both ways. So however it is you come to the movie, we hope you have a good time.

Well, it definitely was a good time, and now you have The Sacrifice Game on Shudder after a successful festival run, but do you have anything coming up beyond that on the horizon that you can tease?

Jenn Wexler: I’m attached to a paranoid sci-fi thriller as a director.

Sean Redlitz: Which we hope will be in production soon. Obviously the strike and a lot of other things kind of slowed things down, but now things are picking back up again.

And then Sean and I are working on some stuff but can’t quite get into it just yet.

That sounds very promising, and I know there was The Ranger novelization, so maybe one day we could see The Sacrifice Game novelization?

Jenn Wexler: We’re seeing… we’re trying.

Sean Redlitz: Novelizations, vinyl, VHS, we want it all.

Jenn Wexler: We love all that stuff, so we’re hopeful.

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