Fantasia 2019: Interview with Directors Brett and Drew Pierce for THE WRETCHED
Fresh off their world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a lively chat in an Irish pub with brothers Brett and Drew Pierce, who wrote and directed a kickass witch movie called The Wretched. Check out the review here. We spoke about folklore inspirations, Bruce Campbell, and a werewolf movie they have in the works.
Dread Central: I’d heard about The Wretched earlier and didn’t realize it was the same movie as “Hag.” What’s up with the title change?
Brett Pierce: Literally, a month before this, every time we tested it on people, we kept getting consistent feedback: “We really, really liked your movie. I don’t know if I’d see it if it was called ‘Hag.’” It was just a small portion of people that had a beef with title, so we started coming up with a thousand other titles. People associated it with Have a Good Summer. I don’t know why. It’s an acronym. You know, the teenagers tend to use it. And some women that watched it said, “If I didn’t know it was a witch movie and I saw something called ‘Hag,’ I would think it would be derogatory towards me.” Well, I don’t want you to think that.
Drew Pierce: We don’t want to alienate our audience before they even see the movie.
B: Then we just pitched to each other twenty different ideas and it was really hard because we honestly didn’t like 99% of them.
D: It’s like renaming your child. It’s so weird.
B: Then we waffled on “Wretched” or The Wretched. It sounds really weird, but “Wretched” sounds too generic. The Wretched sounds more specific. That’s why we went with it.
DC: So when you first started putting this on paper, what sort of film were you setting out to make? What was your goal with this project?
D: I think we were just aiming to make a dark, cool fairytale. I’m a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I’ve always been a fan of witch mythology and that kinda’ stuff. Brett’s a huge Hellboy fan.
B: Yeah. I have every run of every Hellboy comic, which is steeped in witch stuff.
D: And then we kinda’ fell on to a couple of witch myths that we fell in love with. There’s Black Annie, which is this cool witch who lives out in the woods in England who lives in a cave under a tree.
B: She eats children.
D: She’s got a blue face and takes children. We were just like, “That’s just kinda’ cool. I haven’t seen that.” In most movies, the witch is either like…it’s just a ghost story where you find out it’s a mother who murdered their children or it’s the magical version of the witch. We haven’t seen a whole lot of the dark creature that lives out in the woods, so we were just really excited about that idea and started jamming on how we can develop the bridge into a creature with rules like a vampire. The first versions of the vampire were, like, it’s afraid of doves. *Laughs* Then there was fire and then they developed this whole plethora of cool rules to make the movies exciting.
B: For a while, we considered just making the movie about Black Annie. And then we were like, “Well this limits us to just her mythology. Let’s look at some other witch mythology and see if there’s similarities.” Drew found an entirely different witch called the Boo Hag, which is a skin-changer. She wears people’s skins and runs around. And visually, they [Boo hag and Black Annie] had a similar look in both their mythologies and so we were like, “Let’s just cherry-pick.” We just started reading every witch story we could…There were other rules in our story that got kicked out because we didn’t have room.
D: We started looking at our favorite monster movies, like all our favorite vampire movies or Frankenstein. We kinda’ noticed that our favorite ones usually had a main protagonist that had some sort of rich theme related to the creature. That’s where a lot of horror movies, for us, fail. Like, Frankenstein is all about playing God. Vampires…it’s usually about teenage sexuality and coming-of-age type stuff. So we got really excited when we came up with the witch and just started jamming out ideas, trying to figure out who would be the perfect hero. What if it’s a kid who’s struggling with his family falling apart? And we pair him against a witch that is trying to destroy families, literally rip them apart.
B: And then we just wrote a terrible draft of the script and rewrote it, rewrote, and rewrote it until we were happy.
DC: It all starts with a vomit draft.
B: Yeah, exactly. We were trying to write together for a while. Like, the first 30 pages, and we were perpetually stuck on those first 30 pages. And then I was finally, like, “Drew, leave me alone for a few weeks and let me finish a terrible draft and then we can do this.” So that’s what we did.
DC: I think my favorite thing about the movie is the inventiveness of the witch and it feels like something we haven’t seen before, even though it’s pulling from some familiar themes from witchcraft lore, especially coming out of the skin like the Boo Hag. That was so cool.
B: Aw, thank you.
DC: And the FX. We have to talk about the FX for this movie. They’re so great. I’ve heard a lot about your background with your dad, who worked on Evil Dead. When you were originally developing the idea, did you have some of the execution of that in mind? Did you stick with your original vision or did you have to make adjustments once you had the practicalities of it and the artist on board?
D: We’re planners. For us, that’s the most important part of filmmaking. I’m a storyboard artist. It’s my main job. I worked with Seth Rogan on The Interview and I used to work on Futurama doing storyboards. The key to practical FX is we planned every single shot. The hard part with practical FX is you can’t make something look good from every angle, but if you plan it way in advance, and you know exactly the angle you’re gonna’ do and then give that to the FX artist, they can figure how to make that look good for 3 seconds.
B: Yeah, because literally, the way FX usually work…all the shots you’re seeing in the movie is just how long they look good before they look bad. One frame further and all the sudden it’s like, somebody’s thumb comes into frame.
D: It’s a dark temptation to wanna’ do just CG, because you can kinda’ shoot, with your tracking markers there, from any angle and sorta’ figure it out later in a way.
B: I just don’t like it, because practical FX capture light. You can actually put a real light on it and it looks real.
D: And there’s just things that happen on set, like the actors can react to it.
B: It’s funny because it was never a question not to do it practically, because, to me, it just didn’t make sense. Of course, you end up using a little bit of CG for clean-up on some things or if an effect fails. Then you can do just a little bit of CG and then it’s really effective, because part of it’s real and part of it’s added to. And then the effects guys can say, “Oh you got real elements for me? I can make this look good. It’s not gonna’ look like crud.” A lot of things were in there [the script], right off the bat. Crawling out of the deer was in there from the first draft.
DC: One thing I noticed involving the conceit of the witch is that with Abbie’s character, there’s such a contrast when she’s invaded, if you will, by the witch. She’s wearing metal shirts. She’s kinda like this cool mom.
B: She’s based on our mom. We have a cool mom and we were like, “We’re gonna’ make her a cool mom.”
D: We’re total momma’s boys. Raised by a single mom. She was a hustler.
B: Strong, independent woman. We wanted to put that in there.
DC: I love that. In most movies, you get stereotypical moms.
D: We wanted the witch to embody the “perfect woman.” *Makes air quotes*
DC: Right, because she’s suddenly wearing flowy dresses, very feminine, which is not at all how she presented herself before.
B: I’m so glad you picked up on it. It was an intentional choice. I also wanted her to be in red so she was a little more intimidating.
DC: Does that tie back with some of the other witchcraft lore, like the concept of the seductress?
B: Yeah, right. It’s subtle in the movie, but a lot of these witch creatures are kind of envious of women being able to have children and being attractive. They are envious of a younger, attractive woman who has children and that’s why they steal the children. They do glamours to make themselves look attractive. It’s funny because the character doesn’t even want that stuff.
D: We have this whole back lore for the witch. It was a challenge not to put too much of it in. We want to create this mystery. In our heads, this witch has been doing this forever and her version of the ideal woman is based on the 1940s.
DC: So, I wanted to go back to what you were talking about earlier with your creative process as a duo. You talked about how you were like, “Leave me alone. I’m gonna’ write for a bit.” How does the division of labor work for you guys with writing and then on set?
B: It’s a lot of arguing. A lot of, “You’re stupid.”
DC: Well, you’re brothers.
D: So we love each other.
B: It goes like this. I write the first draft, the vomit draft. We talk about it a lot before we do that.
D: And I tell him it’s terrible.
B: We plot it out.
D: I’m usually very structure-oriented. And he’s very go-with-the-flow. I need both those brains to write. You have to have the “Devil May Care…I’m just gonna’ make this happen.” But then, it’s tricky. A lot of times he does that and I spend 3 weeks plotting out the movie. Then we come back together and kind of cherry-pick whatever scenes we feel more passionate about. That’s how the script comes together.
B: With directing, before we do anything, we storyboard literally the whole move. We shot list the whole movie. I can do storyboards, but mine are terrible stick figures. With his, you can actually show them to somebody and they know what it is. We’ll sit in a room and just decide on all the shots, go through the whole thing. And then when it comes to being on set, I think it’s because we’ve spent so much time writing together, storyboarding, talking about all the beats, it’s just equal parts. On set, I almost wish every other filmmaker got to have a co-director, because you can handle two things at once. Like, this one actor has a question, you go talk to him and I’ll talk to the other. Or I’ll talk to the DP right now; we have something we’re working out. You can talk to our lead actor instead. It just works out well.
D: By the time we’re shooting, we have the same brain. It’s weird. My wife is so tired of both of us.
DC: Did you guys collaborate creatively as kids? It sounds like you made some films in high school.
B: Yeah. We made shorts. We had a group of us. We ran the TV station at the high school, so we did live TV shows. We would shoot terrible Hong Kong action shorts, horror shorts…bad horror shorts.
D: We co-directed this movie called Dead/Undead with five or six of our friends. We went to this cabin with our actors and a couple of cameras. We said, “Here’s your camera. You go shoot those scenes in the woods. Here, you take this and shoot this scene.” It was film school. We shot it in four days, the entire movie, and cut it together. It was a cheapo horror movie, a rip-off of Evil Dead really. It was the best learning experience ever.
B: And then we sold it to Germany for like $20,000, so we were like, “Hey! We made $17,000!”
D: Bruce Campbell has always been a big supporter of ours. He’s always been a big sweetheart. We’d see him every couple years in Michigan. He came to town after we finished that [Dead/Undead] out of high school. Bright-eyed, we were like “We made a movie! You wanna’ watch it?” We showed it to him in our apartment and we wanted to get a quote, because we’re gonna’ sell this cheesy horror movie. He told us we needed a $40,000 sound mix and real color correction. And we’re like, “Bruce, we made this movie for $3,000.”
B: And I worked at a video store, so that wasn’t gonna’ happen. *Laughs*
D: Yeah. He’s like, “I’m not giving you a quote.” He’s going to leave and he goes to the door. We’re like, “We really need that quote. What are we going to do?” And he’s like, “Hey, you want that quote? How about this? It didn’t suck as much as I thought it would.” And he slammed the door and left. So we thought about it and the next day, we called him and we were like, “Hey, can we use that quote? We think it will help us sell the movie.” So we rented an apartment in Sundance and put that on a poster.
B: We passed out flyers on the street.
D: We literally just went around, like “Hey come watch it in our loft.” We’d get like two people.
B: There were like 20 of us sleeping in it too.
D: Yeah, it was like a hostel. But, we got a guy to come check it out and we sold it for like $20 grand.
DC: How about your dad? Is he still a heavy influence on what you’re doing and still involved?
D: Yeah. He’s here!
B: He’s great. And my mom. They’re just eternally supportive of making films and being artistic. No matter what. It’s not really the job you probably want anybody to pursue, cause it’s just gotta’ be about loving it.
D: Our dad basically was the super PA on our movie [The Wretched]. He brought drinks for us all the time.
B: He’d run to the airport and pick up actors. Our mom did craft service.
DC: Yeah, my parents totally did craft services on my films. My dad makes some mean barbecue.
B: The best part is when you’re in the middle of shooting and your mom calls ya’, “I found Cheetos that are 2 for 1. Do you think I should pick them up for the craft service table?”
D: “Yeah, Mom, it’s fine. Just pick ‘em up.”
B: “The crew loves Cheetos, Mom.”
DC: What is next for you guys?
B: We gotta’ bunch of things that we’re working on, but we really wanna’ do this werewolf movie. We really want to dive into doing a movie with even more practical FX, because we kinda’ fell in love with doing this and I think we can do it even better. We got a werewolf movie that’s like Predator, but with people trapped in the snowy Canadian woods with this kinda’ werewolf in the woods thing. Ideally, that’s the next one we want to do.
DC: Kinda’ like a Dog Soldiers sorta’ vibe?
B: It is Dog Soldiers-esque. A little bit, like…
D: Have you ever seen The Edge?
DC: Oh, I love The Edge.
B: Very much inspired by that.
DC: So less militaristic and more survival.
D: It’s definitely more The Edge than Dog Soldiers.
B: The Edge meets Predator.
DC: One last question. What’s the thing you hope people walk away from The Wretched feeling or thinking about?
D: Fun. Just fun. We love fun movies.
B: I want them to feel like it’s a thrill ride, that they’ve been completely entertained all the way through from front to end.
D: There’s this movement towards elevated, high-brow horror, which we love, but I think we also love rollercoaster, fun horror. So I think that’s what we’re hoping for is that people have a fun time.
B: We definitely make movies for an audience. That’s what we’re aiming for.