Indie Filmmakers to Watch: John Wildman & Justina Walford Talk Stripped
Cannibal strippers. Those two words paired together were enough to get this writer’s attention when I initially heard about the upcoming film Stripped, a film about a family of women who give some intruders more than they bargained for when they end up inside the deadly trio’s home.
Stripped isn’t just a family affair onscreen either. Real-life married couple John Wildman and Justina Walford collaborated on the story and are continuing to work together to get the project ready to film this fall in Texas.
Dread Central had the opportunity to talk with both Wildman and Walford about Stripped, their influences in crafting the story, and why their film isn’t going to be just about the gore.
Walford and Wildman co-wrote the script for Stripped, and Wildman said it was their mutual love for storytelling that brought them together.
“Justina and I met online,” said Wildman. “We did that thing writers do when they get together, that they have to read every single thing the other person wrote beforehand. Justina had her own theater for several years before we even met on theater row in Santa Monica and was the de facto resident playwright. So I read all her stuff and felt like ‘Okay, I understand that you are the artist, and I will wear the floppy shoes and hat and be the court jester because that's obviously how this dynamic will work.’”
Walford added, “I remember our first phone conversation. When I hung up, my roommate said, ‘What do you think?’ And I told her, ‘I don’t know about the relationship part, but I do know that we are going to make a movie or a play together or both because all we talked about was writing.’”
From that first conversation Wildman and Walford were inseparable. The pair found a personal and professional equal in each other, and that mutual admiration led to their current project, Stripped.
“We wrote differently and about different things, but with Stripped it was very cool how it all worked out. It was Justina’s idea. We were driving around LA and she said, ‘I have this idea about cannibal strippers.’ And I told her that if she could write it, then I will find a way to make it into a film. As she progressed and got deeper into writing it, then I joined in and added some things. It was primarily her script, but I think what I was able to add to her ideas works out famously,” Wildman said.
Cannibal strippers are just the shiny wrapping paper on the outside of the Stripped package. Beyond that Walford says there’s a lot more going on than hot girls killing guys and then cooking them up for sustenance. “The women at the center of Stripped are a nuclear family, like a mom, dad, and their child, in the roles they play,” explained Walford. “These men sort of invade their home space and happen upon what the women really are. I wanted to explore their family dynamic as they are like a type of Texas Chain Saw Massacre family.”
“I always thought what was missing in TCM was more of that exploration, and I always wanted to see more of the family in the original and what made them tick. Stripped is like that but with a different dynamic because they’re all women. All of the violence and all of the horror is all-relational and caused by the people interacting with each other and what their reactions and responses are to each other. I really focused on that when I was working on the script,” Walford added.
For Wildman some of the best stories are when the audience is conflicted as to whom they should be rooting for. The writer/director gave some recent examples where he and Walford found inspiration in creating a conflicting protagonist/antagonist script.
“I love the idea that an audience can be conflicted as to where their allegiance lies, and that’s what we want our audience to feel. I think Rob Zombie’s The Devil Rejects is a prime example of that kind of conflict,” said Wildman. “You know, they’re doing heinous things but that family dynamic makes you pause and say, ‘Hmm, I can’t just think of then as monsters.’”
Wildman added, “Hard Candy is another good example where you say to yourself, ‘Am I really going to be cheering for the pedophile? Really? But I kind of am right now and now I have to go back the other way.’ With Stripped I love the idea of having this family, not that they are exactly related, but having that family structure where the audience (I hope) is really conflicted. Where they say, ‘Yeah, they’re doing heinous things to these guys, but they really genuinely care about each other,’ and that to me is really cool. I think it’ll be fun to watch for horror fans.”
Walford credits the modern grindhouse master himself, Quentin Tarantino, as part of the influence behind her creating this female empowerment tale. Walford explains, “I don’t really come from a horror background, but I love Tarantino (like Kill Bill or Death Proof) and I love the idea of seeing a Tarantino-style film with all chicks instead of men because I’d like to see women in those kind of roles. That helped me craft the women characters in Stripped. So many people think female empowerment is just when the girl survives against the villain. Stripped explores the idea that a woman can be any character in that movie, and I think that’s why I like the horror genre - women can do anything in these films. It’s not just about if a woman can overcome someone. They can become anything,” Walford added.
However, don’t start thinking Stripped is going to be another I Spit on Your Grave-type film. Wildman and Walford both spoke about how female empowerment is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring gender roles in their project.
Wildman explained, “Stripped isn’t just a revenge thing. And it’s not an anti-man thing either. In this film men serve a role, and it’s a very specific role. It’s like with the mob, it's just business. But unfortunately for these guys, they are just in the wrong house at the wrong time.”
“There has always been the feeling about pitying strippers because they are subjects for men to objectify,” said Walford. “But then you talk to a stripper and it's like, ‘You know I make a lot of cash pretty much doing nothing. And when men give that cash to me, who has the power then?’ I think that debate is shown in the film. Women feel that men serve a purpose and men think women serve a purpose. In the end, though, everyone gets their due respect.”
In creating strong female characters, it’s important to cast the right actresses for the role. Both Wildman and Walford said the anchor for their casting of Stripped is one of the genre's busiest actresses out there, Tiffany Shepis.
“Having Tiffany in Stripped is something that I am really psyched about,” said Wildman. “I brought her to the Dallas Film Festival last year to be on a panel on horror films and got to know her there. We talked about this part giving her the chance to live up to her potential and be a signature kick-ass role for her. I think Stripped will give Tiffany the chance to show genre fans why she works as much as she does. She has so much going on, and I don’t think she’s really been given the chance to push herself in her past performances like we want her to for our project. I think fans will be shocked at just what kind of depth she’s bringing to this role,” Wildman added.
With Stripped gearing up for production this fall in the Lone Star state, I asked both Wildman and Walford to talk about what was behind their decision to film Stripped in Texas.
“I’ve been doing the Dallas Film Festival down there for the past few years so we already have a great crew of filmmakers there that are friends,” explains Wildman. “In LA, though, our experiences have been that after you finish a project, everyone just sort of wishes you luck and moves on, as they should. But in Dallas it’s like, “Oh, you want to project your dailies on my living room wall? Go ahead, and I’ve made some muffins for your editor while you watch. Everyone there just wants to see something that they were a part of be completed and done.”
“Since I knew the budget we would be making Stripped with would be limited, I like having everybody on board as a true collaborator. We need everybody to be a part of this and do everything they can for our success because there is no room for error,” Wildman added. "We actually bought the house we’re shooting in, which ended up making us feel like we’re really part of the community.”
Walford talked about their purchase, which is also set to be the centerpiece of the creepy feeling to Stripped. “The house has this sort of Amityville feel to it. It was built in 1939 and still has all the original fixtures and a very creepy stairwell. We decided to buy it rather than rent it so we could do whatever we wanted to it for the movie. We really get to make that house into something special for this film, and that’ll help give Stripped a very creepy and authentic feel to it.”
Wildman continues, “It seems funny that a house might be considered a character in the film, but the environment really lends itself to the style and intensity we’re going for in Stripped. For me the scenes in the house from the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre give audiences a truly horrifying and hyperventilating experience while they’re watching it, and that’s what we’re striving for. We’re not talking about beauty gore shots and things like that just for the sake of showing gore. It’s really about trying to inspire dread and draw audiences in so that they feel like there’s no escape.”
Our thanks to John and Justina for chatting with us, and keep it here for more on Stripped as filming progresses.
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