A luminary in the independent film scene for over a decade, genre fans will probably best know director Travis Stevens as an arbiter of festival favorites like Cheap Thrills, Jodorowsky’s Dune, We Are Still Here and Starry Eyes. The logo of his company Snowfort Pictures has been proudly displayed in front of some of the best commercial genre films of the 2000s. After diving into the deep end as a director with his first film Girl on the Third Floor starring CM Punk, Stevens took Mark Steensland’s Shriekfest winning script about a bored housewife who finds new life as a vampire and ran with it.
Starring Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden, Jakob’s Wife directed by Travis Stevens pays homage to the long history of vampire films but it also celebrates the enduring legacy of Barbara Crampton. In our interview below out of SXSW, Stevens talks about his insistence on using as much blood as possible, how Crampton and Fessenden used details from their own lives to add sparks to Jakob’s Wife, his love for Robert Rusler (Vamp, Thrashin’) and skateboarding.
Synopsis: Anne is married to a small-town minister and feels like her life and marriage have been shrinking over the past 30 years. After a chance encounter with “The Master,” she discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before. As Anne is increasingly torn between her enticing new existence and her life before, the body count grows and Jakob realizes he will have to fight for the wife he took for granted. Directed by Travis Stevens.
Dread Central: Congrats on the film, first of all, and for being on the homestretch. Everyone’s about to see it now and that must feel fantastic especially because you all know you made something pretty great, I imagine.
Travis Stevens: Well, you always have insecurity about whether or not the thing you were trying to do is clear. And what’s become clear about talking to people like yourself and some of the other critics who have seen it in advance is people got we were trying to do and seemed to like it. So, I feel so relieved, so yes, relief is basically what I’m feeling. We didn’t fuck it up!
DC: When was your first SXSW? It seems like you’ve always been there, kind of like Jack Torrance in The Shining.
Travis Stevens: Yeah, exactly. Just in the background. If you look close enough you can see my skinnier face. I think 2010, maybe 2009. It may have actually been Simon Rumley’s Red White & Blue that was produced by Bob Portal who is one of the producers on Jakob’s Wife.
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DC: Has there been a decision made to kind of keep what kind of film Jakob’s Wife really is under wraps ahead of the premiere? It was a nice surprise to not really know going in but there’s a reveal very early that lets you know what’s in store.
TS: Yeah. We’re trying to protect that experience for as many people as possible before the world premiere. We know the world being the way it’s going to be, as soon as the movie screened at Southby that reveal is going to be out. So we’re not worried about that. But at least for the people seeing it first, it was important to all of us to try and save that discovery for you to experience firsthand.
DC: When did you meet Barbara and Larry originally? It must’ve been way before working together with Ted [Geoghegan] on We Are Still Here.
TS: No! I hadn’t. It was Ted who brought both of them to We Are Still Here, he had been friends with them for years. I only knew of…Barbara lived near Oakland and Larry lives in New York and I’m in a tiny apartment in L.A. We never ran in the same social circles. Getting to know them on We Are Still Here was really invaluable for this because you see the person and how they work. It’s like a musician, you get a sense of their rhythm and how they play and what instrument they play. That was really useful in this pairing.
DC: Yeah, it’s really such a treat to see the chemistry between them. And to see Fessenden in a starring role. I think Barbara mentioned that there wasn’t really anyone else you all could see as her preacher husband.
TS: Yeah. As transformative a character this is and as transformative a role as it is for Barbara, I wanted that to be matched with her husband. Giving Larry a role where he is there from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie and has his own transformation seemed equally as important to match what Barbara and Anne go through over the course of the movie. It’s also sort of knowing this movie was going to ask Barbara to do so many different things in different scenes. Sometimes deeply emotional and internal and sometimes super exaggerated and wild and dancing and all this stuff.
We needed a co-star who was nimble enough on their feet to adjust to that. I wanted Barbara to do whatever she thought felt right in the moment. I wanted her to not rely too much on improv but to be able to try different things. And Larry as a filmmaker and as and actor has that capability to be natural, to be flexible and to go with whatever energy the person’s giving them. It’s simple. I don’t want to start the process and try to find somebody else that can do all of these things that we know Larry can do and can do great. So, reached out to Larry, he said, ‘Okay!’ I was like, ‘Alright Larry, what to do you think about cutting your hair and taking the jewelry off?’ ‘Okay!’ And off we went.
DC: It’s funny. Especially with all the deep fakes that Abner Pastoll is doing of Barbara. Now I want to see both of them in movies together like Marriage Story or WandaVision. I just want to pair them together in every movie. Kramer vs Kramer, you name it.
DC: When did you first get ahold of the script? Did Barbara send it to you or did you make changes to the version that won Shriekfest?
TS: Yeah, so Barbara reached out…she had worked for like five years with a bunch of different writers and worked with Kathy Charles and they got the script to a point where they thought it was ready to start sharing with directors. I read it and immediately saw the potential in this movie and why it was the perfect movie for Barbara to make at this point of her career. There’s such a direct parallel between the transformation that Anne the character goes through and what Barbara was doing herself as an actor and stepping into the role as a producer where she was taking more control over the types of stories she was a part of.
DC: I wasn’t expecting her to be so funny in this. The movie doesn’t start as a horror comedy. But it sort of becomes a horror comedy as Barbara’s character Anne begins to change. How would you describe the humor in this? It’s kind of a tricky balance but you all pulled it off.
TS: Not to sound insecure but it’s nice to hear that. You never know. For me, I wanted the audience’s experience to mirror Anne’s experience happening in the story. Which is her life starts very drab and small, this event happens, and shit starts getting crazier and crazier. And therefore, the movie should do the exact same thing.
So that can be tough for an audience because you’re starting in one sort of space and you think you’re watching one sort of movie, and as these sort of more exaggerated and over-the-top and absurd events start happening, an audience member might be like, ‘Hey, what happened to that movie I started with?’ This is an absurd concept. This is a couple who is sort of stuck at a point in their lives and we need to do everything we can to shake it up and take the juxtaposition between the fantasy gothic element and the small town element and smash them together in interesting ways.
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DC: To my delight, there are a lot of rats in this. How was it working with them and having an animal trainer on set? I don’t know if you saw but AGFA posted a photo on Instagram of Moe Di Sesso covered in rats on the set of Willard. I thought it was kismet.
TS: Yeah, well, in sort of doing my wish list of things I wanted to be in the movie, what do I think makes a vampire movie a vampire movie? And one of the qualities was rats! There was something that we haven’t seen a lot of in recent movies and, also, certainly low budget movies because it’s really expensive. So when I reached out to animal trainers just to get a ballpark idea of what trained rats cost, I spoke with the animal trainer from Willard. They were like, ‘Yeah, no problem. We can do a similar thing. It’ll be about fifty thousand dollars.’ I was like, ‘That’s not gonna work for us.’
There was a film called Rat Scratch Fever that had been a low budget movie made by a guy, Jeff Leroy, and it had a ton of rats in it. And I reached out to Jeff and said, ‘How did you do that? How did you work with all these rats in a low budget movie?’ He was like, ‘Oh, I just bought the rats at a pet store and I just shot ’em in their cage and built the sets there.’ So then I reached out to pet stores and I was like, ‘Hey! Where do you get your rats from?’
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And so, there was a girl, Lexi Payne, who raises rats in Mississippi for pet stores. So her and her family would just arrive with a truck filled with rats. They weren’t trained but we would just shoot ’em until we got enough of what we needed. I feel super fortunate. I wouldn’t recommend anyone else doing it.
DC: There’s also a lot of blood spray, which is going to make a lot of horror fans happy. Did you and the FX team over at Oddtopsy always want the violence to be over-the-top. Or did the violence just get bigger over time?
Travis Stevens: Well, it’s funny. This happens on every movie Marcus [Koch] and I work on together. I say I’m envisioning A LOT of blood. And he comes back with what he thinks a lot of blood is based on what other people think a lot of blood is. And then he has to go and design a new type of canon to give me the blood that I see. This has happened on multiple movies and every time he delivers. On this one, in the interest of doing things maybe we haven’t seen with a vampire movie before, I wanted these vampires to be gleeful in their feeding. Like a dog playing with a garden hose.
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DC: Before we run out of time, I really wanted to talk to you about Robert Rusler. I think you met him at a premiere and thought he’d be perfect for Tom. I’m not sure if that’s right, but were you a fan of his? I know you skate so Thrashin’ must’ve been a pretty big deal for you like it was for me.
TS: Yeah, man. It started with Thrashin’, I’ll be honest with you. Thrashin’ is just one of those that’s just like a cornerstone movie in my life. In my personality, in who I am. I had the opportunity to host a screening at Alamo Drafthouse. Robert came down and I just got along with him great. And I was like I need to work with this guy. One of the qualities to Jakob’s Wife was Larry Fessenden had done Habit; Robert Rusler had done Vamp. I thought it was so funny to bring in the two male suitors in Anne’s life. They had played vampires in the past and they’re playing straight characters in this. It just seemed perfect.
Jakob’s Wife directed by Travis Stevens is in Theaters, On Demand and Streaming on April 16th from RLJE Films.
What did you think of the Travis Stevens flick The Girl on the Third Floor?