Just a few weeks ago, Mitchell Altieri’s (one half of The Butcher Brothers) Holy Ghost People (review) celebrated its world premiere at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.
Starring Emma Greenwell, Joe Egender, Brendan McCarthy, Cameron Richardson and Don Harvey, Holy Ghost People follows a young girl named Charlotte (Greenwell) who enlists the help of an ex-Marine (McCarthy) in locating her missing sister, who last contacted her while living on a religious compound tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains.
Holy Ghost People was co-written by Altieri, Phil Flores (the other half of The Butcher Brothers), Egender and Kevin Artigue. Dread Central recently chatted with both Altieri and Flores about their latest collaboration and their experiences working with their cast in the mountains of Tennessee. The duo also discussed their next feature project, Raised by Wolves, which is currently being wrapped up in post-production.
Dread Central: How much research did you guys do before writing Holy Ghost People? I enjoyed your approach to balancing out all these characters; often times we see the religious ‘crazies’ being vilified, but I felt like your depiction was very humanized.
Mitchell Altieri: Thank you for saying that; it was very important to me from the beginning that we didn’t demonize the Pentecostal religion or anything like that because that wasn’t the intent of the story. It’s a fictional story. Brother Billy was really the cause of all this, and the followers were victims as well; they’re just lost souls too.
What ended up being fascinating to me, though, was exploring the extremist personalities and what people are willing to do for their faith. It’s kind of amazing just how far people are willing to go and not even think twice. And that goes for both sides of things too- for Charlotte and Wayne, they’re both so broken that it’s easy to see how they could quickly fall into this world the way that they do.
Phil Flores: And for the research that went into the story, all the writers had different aspects they’d handle; Kevin Artigue really dug in there deep when it came to the research though. Kevin and Joe (Egender) had found this book called Salvation on Sand Mountain about this phenomenon, and there’s of course the documentary called Holy Ghost People as well. So we used a lot of those resources and the fact that we all come from a religious background so we all have our own experiences that we poured into this story. None of it was as extreme as what you see in the film of course- no whipping, no snakehandling.
Dread Central: Emma, who played Charlotte, was really great in the film, and I thought that her flaws made her an interesting protagonist for this world. Can you talk about building that dynamic within the character and more about Emma’s involvement on Holy Ghost People?
Mitchell Altieri: Emma was just great; if you’ve never seen it, she has a great role on “Shameless” which is a blast. And what we always had wanted for the role of Charlotte from the very start was someone like Emma- a scrappy, fighter chick who had a great emotional weight to her. I think this could have been a very different movie if we had gone with a male lead- I really do think that.
And for the most part- when she came in to read, Emma just nailed it; she came into the audition and just killed it in ways I couldn’t even have believed. She’s British and the way she could just shed the accent and slip into the character of Charlotte was incredible. Watching her take on this role and really throw everything she had at it physically and emotionally was something really special; the minute she walked into the room like a total badass, with this Sissy Spacek out of Badlands type of energy, we knew we had our Charlotte.
Dread Central: You evoked a lot of palpable intensity throughout Holy Ghost People– how hard was it keeping up that kind of intensity in a project like this where you have things dialed up, especially in the church scenes which were often emotional and violent?
Mitchell Altieri: It was hard, and you’re absolutely right; the way we chose to shoot everything with our DP Amanda Treyz was specific to the emotion of the scene; Amanda’s just amazing though. I call her my “cinematic wife.” So the idea from the very start was that I wanted you to feel like you were there, like you were in the middle of all this, so we went for the handheld approach where everything is shot at eye-level, almost like it was documentary-style. Amanda even spent a lot of time with a rig on her shoulder walking alongside all of the cast at key moments so that you’d really feel like you were walking right there too and living in this world; that was so important to the feel of the movie.
Dread Central: Where did you find the compound that you guys shot at? It’s hard to believe places like that – almost like they’re untouched by time – still exist in North America.
Mitchell Altieri: Tennessee; that’s where we found our location- Tennessee. There were like four or five states we were looking into shooting in… Virginia, Kentucky, a few other places, and then Tennessee was where we landed at.
Phil Flores: It was between Crossville and Cookeville; we shot at an old girls camp that had been around for something like 120 years. There was this really great couple who had been running it for a long time, and we did everything there – we shot there, we ate there, we slept there – we became the camp. We even had some of the locals come in and become extras in the church scenes, and I think that’s also part of why you really feel like you become immersed in this world; everything just feels authentic to that part of the world, which only adds to the story we’re telling.
Dread Central: One of the reasons I think it’s so easy to become immersed watching Holy Ghost People is because of Joe’s character in the film; Billy’s infectious and charming but also kind of creepy too. How much did you work with Joe to develop that performance, or was that all inherent on his part?
Mitchell Altieri: Joe’s been with us on a few things now from The Violent Kind to The Hamiltons, and he’s always so great. He’s just a monster of a talent and we knew what he could do with a role like Brother Billy. After we worked on The Thompsons, I was looking for my next thing, and I knew whatever it was, I wanted to do it with Joe.
And all that you see onscreen is all Joe, and he really found a way to make this guy likeable so that you could believe that 60 people or so would choose to follow him up that mountain and away from society. He really had to bring it; he could not let his foot off the gas at any time, or the movie would not have worked.
Dread Central: Were you guys ever concerned that some people may get turned off by the subject matter, especially people who are involved in the religious community?
Mitchell Altieri: I think we always knew from the very beginning that Holy Ghost People would be a movie that would polarize viewers, but ultimately, that’s what we wanted because we don’t set out to tell stories that are safe or easily accessible. We want to push buttons sometimes and challenge the way that you think, and those who get too hung up on more of the religious aspects of the story are missing the bigger picture- this movie is about faith as a whole, not just about one specific religious group. We never set out to pick on one group in particular or anything; it’s just about what people will do in order to keep their faith strong, the lengths they’ll go to find proof of something that may or may not be real. And that goes for the other characters too, not just the people at the One Accord church. They’re all looking for proof of something that may or may not be there.
I think that, for us, we just hope the message of the film gets across whether you were brought up religiously, not religious at all or even somewhere in between.
Dread Central: So are you guys spending the next few months supporting Holy Ghost People then, or do you have some other things coming up too?
Phil Flores: No, we have a new movie we just are wrapping up in post right now called Raised by Wolves, which should be out soon. It’s pretty badass; it’s about Native American skateboarders that hear about this old abandoned pool a few hours out from them on a reservation where a massacre happened back in the 70’s. When they get there and start hanging out, they begin to relive the gruesome details of the massacre where you can’t really tell who’s being possessed and who’s killing who, which should be a pretty fun ride.
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