The Ranger is an unabashedly fun and clever new slasher from director Jenn Wexler. The film has been making waves on the festival circuit and was a hit at the recent Boston Underground Film Festival. The throwback splatterfest had audiences screaming, laughing, and cheering throughout. We loved the film, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with the director herself at the festival. Read on for Jenn Wexler’s thoughts on the film, her influences, and the surprisingly smart themes of The Ranger.
Stephanie Cole for Nightmare on Film Street: First of all, I really dug the film! It was such a unique take on a slasher film. What made you want to tackle the slasher genre as your directorial debut?
Jenn Wexler: I love slashers. The whole Nightmare on Elm Street franchise is close to my heart. I like to think a little bit of The Ranger is the answer to the terrible things that happen to Taryn. As soon as she embraces her punkness, she gets killed by Freddy Krueger. I was always so mad about that! I wanted this film to feature a badass punk girl who doesn’t get killed right away.
But I’ve always been obsessed with slashers. I was ten years old when Scream came out and it changed my life and opened up the floodgates for me to discover horror. I was into this concept of, what if you put Class of 1984 and those kind of outrageous characters in the woods. And I was also into following the story of a girl, while surrounding her with all these crazy characters.
SC: You mentioned Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Are there any other slashers that influenced you and your work on The Ranger?
JW: Me and Chloe talked a lot about the Final Girl trope. We talked a lot about Halloween and Alien. And we talked a lot about the male gaze vs. the female gaze. With The Ranger, there’s some sex in the movie, but we don’t linger on the female body. And that’s purposeful, We have the main character, Chelsea, seeing people going at it in the beginning, which was also very purposeful. Also we watched Mad Max: Fury Road for that badass female inspiration.
SC: I was really fascinated by how Chelsea was a reimagining of the Final Girl trope. How did you go about getting to to the core of what the Final Girl is really about?
JW: For me, Chelsea is kind of stuck in between places. She doesn’t know who she is. She knows she doesn’t quite fit in with her friends. There’s weird stuff with her memories and her connection to these woods. And she doesn’t quite know where she belongs. It’s kind of a journey, of her trying to find herself and face these painful memories over the course of the movie. And I think that’s something that’s attracted me a lot to that genre. The Final Girl is always slightly off and separate from her friends. And I wanted to do sort of a character study and dive into that.
SC: What inspired you to dive into this unique dichotomy of punks in the woods? Where did that connection between punk rock and nature start for you?
JW: Being punk — people talk about the clothes and they talk about it a lot superficially. It’s like you’re wearing a uniform sometimes. And then you have the Park Ranger who wears his uniform. When you’re only talking about it on an aesthetic, surface level, there’s actually a lot in common between the punks and the Park Ranger. But real punk is being true to who you are and not giving a f*ck what people think. And that’s kind of the journey that Chelsea’s on. She’s trying to figure out who she actually is. And she’s stripped everything away over the course of the movie. Maybe the other characters think, and would call themselves, more punk. But they’re all into the subculture tropes of it. And obviously, like in Return of the Living Dead, “this is a way of life.” So it was really fun exploring that and playing with all those concepts.
SC: Yeah I thought that was fascinating how even Chelsea’s friends had a set of rules too, along with the Ranger. So she was the only one in between who didn’t have that.
JW: I feel like that’s something we all can identify with. There’s always people in every part of life that set expectations. And it’s like, am I supposed to fit into these expectations? Even if it doesn’t feel right? Is there something wrong with that or do I listen to my gut?
SC: You mentioned Return of the Living Dead. How did the crossover between horror and punk culture influence The Ranger?
JW: We embraced a lot of the community. Our producer, Heather Buckley, worked with Middagh Goodwin, our music supervisor. And they just crammed all these awesome bands into the soundtrack. When we filmed the warehouse scene the community came out for it. We had Rotten UK and we threw an actual show in this Punk Club called Don Pedro, in Brooklyn. The people that did the patches, the fake band patches, are totally in the scene. So it was really a community effort. And everybody put their hearts into it.
SC: What was it like filming in Upstate New York? Did being out in nature with this punk aesthetic ever imitate the experience of the characters?
JW: I would say so. I was actually talking to Chloe about it. We shot near Woodstock and Kingston, these rural areas. And she and Amanda, who plays Amber, said that when they were walking around the town they got looks for their hair and stuff like that. There’s certain areas of Upstate New York that are very conservative. There’s also areas that are much more liberal and are artist communities. Woodstock certainly has that element. But some of the places we were shooting were definitely more conservative. And then we were literally just in the woods. People got ticks, which I felt bad about but we managed to get them all out. I was afraid of bears. But it felt like summer camp! It was a bunch of kids making a movie in the woods.
“..It was really a community effort. [E]verybody put their hearts into it.”
SC: The villain in the film was a huge part of what made it so unique. How did you go about coming up with the character of the Ranger and casting for such a unique killer?
JW: So originally the script was written by my co-writer, Giaco Furino. We went to school together at the University of the Arts in Philly. We were in a screenwriting program, and this was his Senior Thesis screenplay. I was always super into the concept of punks vs. a park ranger. Then he and I started working on it seriously a couple years later.
Giaco’s friends with Jeremy Holm, who plays the Ranger. We were watching him on Mr. Robot and House of Cards and we’re obsessed with him and his amazing jawline. So we were kind of writing the character for him. And finally the day came where we were able to show it to him and he was into it. He was the first person that we cast. After having conversations with him, we’d be talking about the character, and then he would just go into character. And it can be suddenly very creepy being in a room alone with Jeremy Holm! That really helped color our writing. And from there it was just fun figuring out how to cast the other characters.
SC: A lot of slasher villains, they have to have a mask or something detached about them to make them work. It can be tricky to pull off one that is such an interactive character.
JW: Yeah he comes off a little EC Comics-ish, but it was really important to us that there was a human element to him too. He’s just trying to connect and find a partner in crime. And he thinks he’s found that in Chelsea. That added a human element that you could identify with. I didn’t want a mask, even though he has certain qualities of the masked killer. He pops out of nowhere and is everywhere. But there’s a human aspect as well.
SC: Filming a slasher, obviously you get to film fun gory scenes and kills as well as character moments. Do you have more fun shooting the horror side of things and kills or the character heavy scenes more?
JW: I love all of it. I’m always on cloud nine when we’re shooting. Especially when I’m directing I’m having so much fun. Blood is kind of hard, because it can take a long time to set up. We actually had a day of just blood effects because it’s just time intensive. But that’s always really exciting. Everyone’s always pumped like “We’re doing all of our blood effects today!”
And then the character stuff is always just so fun working with the actors. You have your conversations before but then they really bring it to life when you’re shooting.
SC: Can you tell me a little about your process for casting Chelsea?
JW: We were casting last March and I went to SXSW. I saw The Transfiguration, which Chloe is in. I just thought she was amazing. There’s so many layers she brings to the character. She’s just on screen and reading so many different emotions at once. Sometimes, when we were shooting The Ranger, we would discuss the emotions behind a moment. And I would give her two emotions at once to play with. And she would take both of those and add some more things in. It was never just one thing going on with her.
“..I was really inspired by Lisa Frank colors. I wanted to embrace all of that and create this fairy tale-esque punks go to the woods movie.”
SC: It seemed like the film was vaguely set in the 1980s. Was that a reference to the ‘80s slashers that you love? Or did you have other reasons to set it in that era?
JW: I always wanted the film to feel like a fairy tale or a storybook. On set, I called it “‘80s Dreamland” with the cast. We have this drug, Echo, which we invented for the movie. And I was really inspired by Lisa Frank colors. I wanted to embrace all of that and create this fairy tale-esque punks go to the woods movie.
SC: Finally, where can we look for The Ranger next? And after this film, I’m sure a lot of horror fans would love to know what you have planned next!
JW: Thank you! The movie’s playing some more festivals that I can’t share just yet, but pretty soon I’ll be able to. We’re looking for distribution so hopefully it will be coming to theaters or a VOD screen near you very soon! We want to do some really fun events around the movie too.
And I just finished producing Larry Fessenden‘s film. Larry Fessenden runs Glass Eye Pix, which is one of the production companies behind The Ranger, along with Hoodriver. And Larry just made a movie called Depraved, which is a modern retelling of Frankenstein. So we literally wrapped that a couple days ago. So that’s what’s happening right now!
Keep an eye out for The Ranger on the festival circuit, and follow @TheRangerMovie to keep up with all things punk rock slasher!