History can be just as horrifying as any monster flick on the silver screen. Just turn on the news or read a history book, and you’re sure to discover some of humanity’s darkest moments. History is often written by the conquerors, so it’s rare to hear a story from the other side of the coin. That’s why movies like Mohawk are so important, as they tell a different story from the perspective of those who suffered during the conquest. Mohawk offers a slice of America’s bloody history, from the viewpoint of a First Nations woman being hunted down by Americans during the war of 1812. Yet, according to director Ted Geoghegan, many themes explored in the film still ring true today and very little has changed.
Before continuing, I must admit to a conflict of interest. I worked under Ted Geoghegan in the communications department during the Fantasia Film Festival. Yes, not only has he directed amazing films such as Mohawk and We Are Still Here, but Geoghegan is heavily involved in the genre film industry, doing everything from screenwriting, producing and public relations for genre films and festivals. To maintain my journalistic integrity, I passed on writing a review for Mohawk, otherwise I would have given it a solid four eberts. However, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to Geoghegan, as he is probably one of the most outspoken people I know.
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare on Film Street: I saw on Facebook that you were talking about the Syracuse screening of Mohawk. What was the general feeling of the room?
Ted Geoghegan: It was a cool experience being able to go back to Syracuse. We shot the film about a year and a half ago right outside of there. Syracuse is in Onondaga county and it’s about a three or four-hour drive from two of the largest Mohawk reservations. When I arrived there, I was immediately surprised by the number of Native and Indigenous people there, many of whom came up to me and told me that they identified as Mohawk, several of which had driven the three or four hours into town to see the film on the big screen. I was honored while at the same time utterly terrified, given the fact that I was telling a story about the decimation of their people during one of the darkest chapters in their history. But when the film ended and the lights came up, I was very grateful to have had so many Mohawk people take me aside and let me know that they felt that the film was an accurate representation of the strife that their people had gone through and that they thoroughly enjoyed the film.
NOFS: That’s great to hear because I remember during Fantasia, you were telling me that some people were criticizing you for being a white man telling a Native American’s story.
TG: It’s a very tricky scenario, given the fact that I am a white man of European heritage telling a story about Indigenous people. Throughout the entire creative process, from writing to directing to releasing the film—even so much as the promotional materials behind the film—I wanted to treat that story with the respect and the gravitas that it deserved. As a white man being able to tell this story is extremely humbling, from the first day that we began work on the film, I knew that it was not only a story about these Native people, but also a story about my own ancestors who inflicted all of these terrors on to these people.
It was something that I felt like I needed to acknowledge and made it a point in the film to see this story from both sides, and see the fear and the confusion that caused all parties involved to make very poor decisions and make very smart decisions. At no point over the course of the film do I ever expect anyone to side with the white Americans, but I do think that it’s important that all films involving war portray the humans as humans, to show shades of grey, and to show these people as broken, confused, scared men who are completely unaware of the fact that their hatred and their racism is going to put them on the wrong side of history.
NOFS: I definitely got a sense of that on my second viewing of Mohawk, with Ezra Buzzington’s character, after his son is killed right in front of him, you can really see his human emotion when he’s trying to wash the blood of his son off of his body.
TG: That scene in particular surprises a lot of people because traditionally in a genre film—even in any film—you don’t see your villain that vulnerable and it was something that we really wanted to make sure people were aware of; the fact that this man is extremely scared at that point in the film, he’s extremely alone and he’s utterly losing his mind. He has just lost his only son and now he’s in fear of losing his men, so the only way that he’s able to keep these soldiers by his side is through totalitarian aggression. The movements that he makes at that point become a lot stricter out of fear of losing control of the only things that he has left.
“I’ve made references to Mohawk being a home invasion film where the home is North America…”
NOFS: So what does the villain, or the villains, represent to you?
TG: I think rather than what they represent is what they are. They are America. They are what this country is founded on. They are what this country still is to this day. We are a nation of very scared, very angry white men who do not realize that we are on the wrong side of history until it is far too late. Holt (Buzzington’s character) in particular, he’s not proto-Trump, he’s a proto-Trumper, as I have said before. He’s a man who is so blinded by decades of indoctrination, both religiously and politically, that he’s completely incapable of seeing that he is the bad guy. And much like a lot of the conversations that are happening in America these days, there are so many Americans who are completely and utterly incapable of acknowledging the fact that they are the bod guy, and therein lies the horror of the film.
I’ve made references to Mohawk being a home invasion film where the home is North America. But the big difference in that statement is that in home invasion films, the invaders technically know that what they’re doing is bad; they’re there to kill, they’re there to rape, they’re there to pillage. In this film, Holt and his men are legitimately there because they think that what they’re doing is going to help make America a more wonderful place. Much like the red hats emblazoned with the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan that Trump was using, Holt and his men are trying to make this young new America great. They are the original ‘Make America Great’ people.
NOFS: So let’s shift to the three main characters. I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen a polyamorous relationship portrayed in a positive light in a film. What were you trying to accomplish with that?
TG: Moreover, the main reason behind portraying Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), Calvin (Justin Rain) and Joshua (Eamon Farren) as I did, was that through telling this story I wanted to be able to tell numerous stories about marginalized people and secrets in society. The bottom line is that 200 years ago, the Mohawk were a matriarchal society, they were ruled over by women, unlike a lot of other Native nations. They were an extremely strong community and they did embrace polyamory, oftentimes with the women who were in charge having multiple lovers, husbands, boyfriends, anything like that. And as soon as I discovered that, I thought it was such an interesting way to include yet another lifestyle that isn’t traditionally seen in cinema into this story in an organic way. I felt very fortunate that it was historically accurate, it was something that had also been noted in the books over the years. Traditionally when you have a polyamorous relationship, one of the most common things one sees is a breakdown or jealousy, but given the fact that this film is set over a span of 24 hours, we know very little about our three heroes and they’re not given the opportunity to see the potentially negative outcome of their relationship.
But I personally like to believe that they’re in an extremely healthy relationship in so much as Oak has not taken on two lovers in so much as the three of them have become one unit. They’re a tri who love each other and they care about each other and rather have a moment in the film where we see the three of them making out—it’s not a film about that. It’s a film about these three people in love with each other who are on the run for their lives, in the same way as a traditional storytelling technique might portray a man and woman on the run from something terrible, one does not have to wallow in that relationship to understand that these people love each other. I wanted to do the same thing with Oak, Calvin and Joshua’s relationship, I didn’t want to put it front-and-center, I actually made it so minimal in the film that a lot of people who watch it don’t even notice that all three of them are in a relationship. I personally quite like that, mainly because it helps normalize their behavior, it helps normalize the fact that 200 years ago, this was not uncommon and this was not a secret, whereas in 2018, we’re only now seeing news articles talking about how healthy polyamory can be.
NOFS: When it came to historical accuracies, compared to portraying the 80s in We Are Still Here, do you think you could have taken a bit more liberties in portraying the 1800s?
TG: I always knew that I wanted the majority of Mohawk to be set outdoors. Initially, the entire thing was set outside, but we ended up including the sequence in which the characters go to the French mission in the film. I think that there are always opportunities to be able to further one’s vision of a specific time, especially in a period film, but I do like the ambiguity of time. While Mohawk starts out with a title card clearly stating that it’s 1814, We Are Still Here never once acknowledges that it’s a period film, it’s left up to the viewer to realize that this film is set outside of modern time. I wanted to echo that sentiment in Mohawk, even though for the sake of accuracy and for the sake of insurance that the audience was aware of what was going on in the film, we did decide that the title cards at the beginning would assist in that.
“Horror, sci-fi, fantasy and beyond—are such an amazing microscope in which to examine social and political issues…”
NOFS: I’ve really enjoyed following you on Twitter. I enjoy reading your rants almost daily because your current administration seems to be making a daily embarrassment of themselves. A lot of people have been saying that Trump is going to bring in a new era of punk rock. Do you think the same will happen with horror?
TG: I think there’s absolutely the potential for that. I’ve always felt that genre film in general—horror, sci-fi, fantasy and beyond—are such an amazing microscope in which to examine social and political issues. If anything good can come from our commander in chief, perhaps it’s more political, more outspoken art. Truthfully, horror over the decades has always echoed what’s been going on socially and politically.
Even if we look at 1950s horror—the atomic horror boom—it’s all birthed directly out of the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and our own innate fear of also having something like that occur to us with the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then if you fast forward a few years and suddenly you got this downtime filled with peace shortly after Woodstock, and who comes into that but George Romero who—while having extremely leftist politics—was an outspoken man when it came to his views on society. With Night of the Living Dead, he essentially wrote a film that completely contradicted the idea of ‘love thy neighbor’ and free love and Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, and he has a film that is literally about the breakdown of the American family and the breakdown of the American neighborhood. And then follows it up a decade later with Dawn of the Dead, which is all about how disgusting rampant consumerism is: the idea that, when we die, we then come back from the dead, we eat but we also shop, we go to the mall. It’s ingrained in our psyche.
Then suddenly we move into the 80s and we got slasher films, where characters who are doing drugs and having sex are being killed, right alongside the AIDS crisis, which resulted from doing drugs and having sex. We move into the 90s, which I think we can all agree is a bit of a dark era for horror because we’re coming off of 1980s but we have yet to delve into the horrors of the early 2000s. I think in a lot of ways that the horror of the 90s, while we remember it as being kind of bland—obviously there’s a few gems thrown in there—because it wasn’t reactionary as so much of the horror before and after. And then afterwards, we have the horrors of 9/11 which gave direct birth to the torture porn films, where we as a society were seeing the absolute worst of humanity. What is going to scare us after 9/11? And the result apparently, for half a decade or so, were films like Saw and Hostel, the absolute worst of humanity, times ten!
So I am curious as to what this administration is going to give birth to. I certainly hope that we see genre films rise to the challenge and address these things. For as many filmmakers who claim that they don’t put politics into their work, a lot of them do so completely unintentionally and I think we’re going to see some of that shine through as well. As I’ve said, very little good can come from our current administration but I’m very hopeful for the art that will be birthed from it.
NOFS: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on, or thinking of working on?
TG: I’m currently writing two screenplays, neither of which I’m going to direct, both of them are projects for other filmmakers. I also just finished the first draft of a screenplay that I would like to be my next project. I’m not allowed to say too much about it at this time, but I can say that much like We Are Still Here and Mohawk, it is a period piece and it is a return to more supernaturally-driven horror, but it does contain a lot of the modern political frustrations that I have.
Mohawk is now available on iTunes and Amazon, as well as Blu-Ray and DVD. You can follow Ted Geoghegan on Twitter at @tedgeoghegan for angry political rants mixed with horror.