Matthew Pope’s southern-gothic thriller Blood on Her Name has been knocking the wind out of everyone at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival, and for good reason. The movie is an unrelenting 90-minute punch in the gut that pulls the rug out from underneath you, before dropping a piano ontop if your head. the film celebrated it’s world premiere July 17 at Fantasia, and we were lucky enough to speak with director and co-writer Matthew Pope while onsite for the Frontiers Maret weekend.
While the recorder was off Pope shared with me the 12-year journey to directing his first feature. The day-to-day process provided him with countless hours of experience on set, introduced him to some of the key players in the development of Blood on Her Name and ultimately paved the way for one of the strongest debut films you’re bound to see this decade. If you like your genre film dripping with character exploration and tension, this is the movie for you. Read our full review HERE.
“…we refer to it as a character piece wrapped in a genre film […with] some crossover between Noir and Southern Gothic in the themes of guilt, and irrevocable choices, and consequences, and fatalism”
NOFS: I’ve got to assume you’re a big fan of Noir.
MP: I am, but Noir wasn’t the driving influence. My writing and producing partner, Don Thompson, we developed the script together. It was fantastic having him through the whole process, both writing and producing- there’s somebody else who always knows what kind of movie you’re trying to make because we wanted to make something that we didn’t feel like we’ve seen a lot of. Certainly, there’s plenty of examples out there, but we refer to it as a character piece wrapped in a genre film. And so, what was sort of the driving factor was more of that character and these all had to feel [like] very real, very authentic characters for us. They had to feel like they’re going through heightened but otherwise human, emotional situations. And then, layer that in a story that is genre, that has some of the classic elements of Noir, and, thriller.
There’s some crossover between Noir and Southern Gothic in the themes of guilt, and irrevocable choices, and consequences, and fatalism, and some of that stuff. Personally, I gravitate as much towards Southern Gothic kinds of influences as I do Noir influences, and maybe there’s a mix of both kind in there. We kind of made a movie, and then we let other people decide what it is. You know, it’s like ‘How do you describe this?’ ‘I don’t know. You tell us’.
NOFS: You have this really interesting approach to the story, where you’re coming at it from two different angles. Was that at the very beginning of your discussions when you [and Don] were putting the story together?
MP: We made a decision really, really early- like, as early as we made the decision to start the movie where it starts- we made a decision to not then go to flashbacks to fill in the gaps of what happened. And, you know, I don’t know if it was made for any other reason than it just sounded more compelling and interesting, and like more of an exciting challenge for us. But we knew that there would likely be- there’d be a version of the movie, and maybe some people would expect that version that sort of started you in this heightened place, and then said, ‘All right, now let’s go back and sort of fill in the details on how you got here,’ and it was a little bit of a fun challenge to tell ourselves upfront, we’re not going to do that.
We did end up with flashbacks that are wholly unrelated, other than in theme and motivation to the particulars of what happened, but it was really about, let’s tell the story of what happens from this point forward, and then use that process to reveal how we got here. You want to know what happened. We kind of tried to say, ‘Hey, here’s her story of what happened,’ relatively early on. Some people might buy it, some people might not. You know, there are shades of truth in it. We tried- or at least we liked the challenge of trying to keep the audience uncertain. Like, ‘what do I think about this woman and what she’s doing’ you know? ‘Is this a perfectly understandable choice that maybe I think I wouldn’t have done, or I would have done something different,’ but do you feel sympathetic? And then a minute later, you learned something about her that sort of makes you go, ‘maybe she’s not such a sympathetic person’. You know, kind of keep you off balance in that way.
But really, it all sort of boiled down to just trying to keep the audience engaged. It’s hopefully a fairly quick watch. We had been to a couple of festivals that had a bunch of 160-minute films that you could have used a trim, and you get through about seven or eight of them- what I wouldn’t give for a 90-minute, edge-of-your-seat film that’s still rooted in character. And so that, for us is like, let’s try to drop people into a story, see if we can keep them largely glued to it, and then get out before we’ve overstayed our welcome.
NOFS: I’m curious where you met Bethany Anne Lind. She’s incredible in this movie. Obviously Will [Patton] is great, especially the scenes between the two of them. They look like they are a father and daughter who have had a whole lifetime of trouble.
MP: Yeah, I love that pairing. They work so well together. Bethany, I’ve known for a number of years, probably eight years or so. She does a lot of theatre work in Atlanta, also elsewhere, but has done a number of different projects on film, television as well, but it’s never really had the role that allowed her to showcase what she could do on film as much as she had on stage. And so, there was a very conscientious choice early on. [We said] “Alright Bethany, we’re going to ride your coattails [laughs] to wherever you’re going, because you’re amazing. We had largely written the script with her in mind. I’ve worked with her a handful of times before on shorts and other things and, and just kind of sat down from the outline stage, took a treatment to her and said, “tell us what you think,” because if it isn’t working for you, then we’re probably going to rethink it all.
NOFS: So, there are a few, but there is one big decision that you guys make in the story that just hurts. I guess I’m just curious, when you were putting this together, did you say ‘Hey, now would be a good time to twist the dagger’ or was it always in service to the story, because there are a lot of painful parts of this movie.
MP: Yeah, there’s no intentional twisting of daggers. I assume I know, kind of which primary decision you’re referring to. There were other options that just rang false for us. The movie that we had built, the kind of story that we were telling, the things that were all wrapped up in it, you know, there’s an irrevocability of choice. Leigh has a line near the end, where she tells her son, Ryan, “Some things can’t be undone,” and that sort of runs through it.
I think none of the characters in the film are doing any of the things they’re doing because they really want to be, they all sort of just find themselves in situations that they had some roll in but also largely happened to them, and are making choices then on what to do, and I think a lot of them just feel stuck. Every character- in our attempt in the writing anyway- every character needed to be actively doing what they’re going to try to protect the people that they cared about, and that’s a very unifying aspect to all of their choices, even though they make very different choices.
NOFS: What is it about the South that makes [me] buy that with those characters? If you had have set this in upstate New York somewhere none of this would have rang true to me. What is it about that dedication, to those people, that makes those that makes you make a choice that can be done?
MP: I don’t know. There’s a strong history of religious community, in the south particular, the Bible Belt kind of thing. Very much sort of, provides notions of guilt and consequences. There are things that are right and there things that are wrong, and when you do things that are wrong, there are consequences. I think the family dynamic is pretty universal. I don’t know if it’s as much a uniquely southern thing. There’s some flavor of it that I think is maybe more prevalent in smaller towns and smaller communities because family often tends to become- there are fewer […] support systems available to you. So, I think if you go sort of outside of a major metropolitan area, in any part of the country, and you are dealing with a lot of the same dynamics in that way.
NOFS: I was talking with your partner Don the other night, and he was saying that you two had a hard time pitching exactly what the movie was […] I’m sure it’s hard to deal with something people haven’t seen before.
MP: I think there’s a natural gravity when you try to describe a movie like this for people who want to put it into maybe a more pure genre bucket. That’s one of the conversations we did have to have, quite frequently, even with some of our other collaborators on the film. You know, an actor would come in and maybe have an idea of what this movie was going to be, and maybe in their minds it was a bit more of a heightened genre film, sort of pure genre. And so they might bring with it an expectation of what that performance should be to fit in that mold.
Whether it’s working with an editor or composer, you’re sort of trying to create something that- there aren’t a lot of really compelling examples. Blue Ruin, certainly, was a movie that we loved and does that genre/character mix really well, but a lot of times people come in and they’re like, “Oh, dead body. I get it”. you know? “It’s a straight genre flick”. And those are great, love those, but that’s not what we were trying to make in this case and so regularly did have those conversations, we felt like, over-and-over trying to say like, “All right. Here’s what it is, here’s what it’s not” and that again goes back to the benefits of having a collaborator. We co-wrote the script. He was there through all the production producing, in post. If he had a note then I knew, okay, this is coming from a place of someone who gets what we’re doing and is trying to make the same movie I am, so that’s always a comforting sort of backstop.
“The audiences here love movies and also like the movies that they see, and after our screenings, I felt just super gratified that it’s’ gotten the reception that it’s gotten.”
NOFS: The reception here at Fantasia has been really good, everyone that I’ve talked to has also enjoyed it, I’m just curious if there’s anywhere else we expect to see the movie.
MP: It’s in process. We really finished the movie two weeks ago. So we had some final loose ends we’ve been tying up and that sort of took all our attention so those conversations are ongoing. I’m as was eager to find out as anyone. This is the only one so far that we’ve had planned and it’s been great to see the positive reaction and perceptions. I think, coming into Fantasia knowing that there’s a really broad range of films to play here and we are, you know, probably pretty close to one end of the spectrum, in terms of what a Fantasia is, and that can make you wonder, are people going to come, hoping that it’s something that it’s not, and It’s been really gratifying. The audiences here love movies and also like the movies that they see, and after our screenings, I felt just super gratified that it’s’ gotten the reception that it’s gotten. You’re always sort of wondering as a first time feature director, at what point does someone from Hollywood send you the official stamped letter that says, ‘Don’t ever do this again’. So, hopefully, that letter won’t come, at least for a little while longer.
Blood on Her Name celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival Wednesday, July 17 as part of Fantasia’s Cheval Noir program. The Fantasia Film Festival runs until August 1st, 2019 in beautiful Montreal, Canada. Click HERE to check out all of our continued coverage of the festival, and be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to see silly photos, immediate film reactions, and the occasional photo of lunch.