“Sometimes you go into the woods and you still come out,” someone says towards the end of “The Ranger,” Jenn Wexler’s ferocious directorial debut in which, indeed, the odds against survival seemed stacked from the start for anyone who dares to head into the forest. Despite her fiery pink mane and roughened black leather jacket, this is even true of Chelsea (Chloe Levine), who needs a place to hide after the crew of punks she runs with cause chaos at a New York club, leading her to suggest her late uncle’s cabin in the woods, despite being haunted by her memory of how he died. Yet as she and her mercurial boyfriend Abe (Bubba Weiler) and their friends Jerk (Jeremy Pope), Garth (Granit Lahu) and Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez) soon find out, there’s a very real threat to accompany the ghost of Chelsea’s past in the form of a park ranger (Jeremy Holm) seemingly hellbent on driving them out, even without knowing why they’ve decided to come upstate.
Quick to note it’s hunting season, the predator and prey dynamic shifts throughout “The Ranger” as the cold authority of the steely, by-the-book ranger is continually met with the renegade aplomb of the twentysomethings weaned on Black Flag, a rebelliousness that can not only be felt in the context of the dizzying free-for-all that Wexler has crafted with co-writer Giaco Furino, but as a propulsive and necessary element driving it to be made in the first place. While hardly Wexler’s first time behind the camera, it is her directorial debut following a career producing cutting edge thrillers such as Mickey Keating’s “Psychopaths” and “Darling” and Ana Asensio’s “Most Beautiful Island” as a key member of the hallowed horror outfit Glass Eye Pix, and there’s both an economy and ingenuity at play that makes the knives eventually wielded onscreen feel even sharper, likely owing to Wexler’s ability to not only have wild ideas but the experience to execute them perfectly.
Following the film’s premiere at SXSW earlier this year, “The Ranger” has been ripping the roof off of theaters around midnight at festivals such as Fantasia in Montreal to the London FrightFest and on the eve of touching down in Los Angeles to begin its U.S. theatrical run, Wexler spoke about dipping back into her past to find just the right script to work on as a director, developing the film’s distinctive neon-centric visual style and involving the punk community to make some noise with her first feature.
How’d this come about?
I wanted to be a filmmaker forever and I studied screenwriting when I went to college. My classmate [Giaco Furino] and I wrote a really cool script [then] called “The Ranger,” and I just thought it was so cool – punks versus park rangers. It felt like something I should’ve already seen. When we graduated, all of our scripts kind of went into a drawer [because] we didn’t really know what to do with them at the time, but years later, I started working for Glass Eye Pix and I was thinking about what I wanted to direct as my first feature and I remembered this script. I called [Giaco] and asked him if he could find it. In college, it was more of like a body count slasher, but when we both started working on it again together, we really focused on developing the characters more, [specifically] the lead character Chelsea and her backstory, so I really began to think about it from an aesthetic perspective and really colored in the lines.
There’s this really great political undercurrent there between rural and urban – was that always there?
Yeah, it was. Giaco and I met in Philadelphia in school and he’s lived in New York and Philadelphia and I lived in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, so I think at our heart, we are city kids and there’s something about the woods that’s just absolutely terrifying to us. Even while we were filming, I was really scared that we’d run into a bear. I would Google like, “What would you do if you run into a bear? Things like that. We’re just afraid of the woods.
[Visually] we [also] wanted it to kind of feel like a classic ‘80s movie, kind of “Creepshow”-esque, but with all these neons and pinks, so you start off in this punk world with all of these crazy colors and then the punks go to woods [where] the punk world and the ranger’s world were clashing and the punks were interrupting the Smokey Bear, quiet, vintage park land with their obnoxious bright greens and pinks and loud music. James Siewert, the director of photography, was actually director of photography of “Like Me,” which I was a producer on, and we had the same gaffer – Ben Duff – and Abby Killheffer was the key grip, [just] a two-person G & E team, which is so small, but that team was responsible for executing that. James is just an awesome visionary.
It seems like Woodstock has become for Glass Eye Pix what Monument Valley was for John Ford – was it helpful knowing the terrain well before setting this there?
Yeah, absolutely. Some of the films I produced, “Like Me,” for instance, we shot up there and we know the Hudson Valley Film Commission really well and I definitely had places in mind. While I was writing, I would go and visit different fire towers in the area – and there’s a lot of fire towers in upstate New York – trying to find the perfect location. I made my dad go hiking with me to a couple of them. [laughs] And I found the perfect one on Hunter Mountain. [Once we were] really getting going, I brought on Heather Buckley as a producer and she and I started doing a bunch of location scouting on our own to start putting the pieces together, visiting cabins.
If it’s not spoiling anything, what was it actually like to film on the fire tower?
That was like a two-hour climb into the air. The crew had to carry all of the equipment and the cast had to make the hike, which was really intense. Obviously you want your cast to be as comfortable as possible. But everybody was in great spirits and we all had a lot of fun. Jeremy, who plays the ranger ran up ahead of everybody, and it felt like summer camp. We all had a good time.
How did Chloe Levine come into the mix of this to play Chloe?
I saw her in “The Transfiguration,” a movie at South by Southwest in 2017 while we were in the middle of casting for “The Ranger,” and I just thought it was totally mesmerizing. The character of Chelsea is very different from what she plays in “The Transfiguration,” yet they both have conflicting emotions, so I met with her at South By and we totally bonded over the character. Something I was really interested in with the character of Chelsea and this is something that Chloe and I explored together, is the idea of memories and when something happens to you when you’re a kid, how that memory [blurs] and what’s real and what’s not and how that affects you in your development as you grow up. I [also] always knew that Chelsea was going to be the anchor. It’s her story, but she’s in the middle between the punks and the ranger, and that was what was really exciting to me is telling a story where this girl is trying to figure herself out and find her voice while she’s surrounded by all of these over the top characters, so I just knew [Chloe] would bring all of that nuance to “The Ranger.”
What was it like getting that opening concert scene together?
That was so much fun. We shot it at a punk club in Brooklyn called Don Pedro, and they were around for a really long time, but sadly they closed right after we shot there — not because of us. They were going to be closing anyway, but we were one of the last things to be there and it was really cool to get it on film before they closed. And Heather Buckley filled that place up with people [from] the punk community and we got the band Rotten U.K. to come down and play a show. It was a really cool start to the shoot. We shot a lot of “The Ranger” in chronological order, which is something you don’t usually get to do as a filmmaker, but it just made a lot of sense and I think everybody really got off on the right foot because we started in this crazy punk world and a lot of the cast are really young and haven’t had that much exposure to the community, so we were essentially starting it off with a punk show, [putting everybody in] the right frame of mind.
What was it like engaging with the punk community throughout this? Obviously, you’ve got this great soundtrack as well.
We had people who are passionate about punk working in every department of the movie, from producers to my star PAs and then definitely when it came to post-production, we worked with a music supervisor Middagh Goodwin, who used to be a band promoter in the ‘80s, so he was super-tight with all of these bands. He reached out to them and then presented me with albums, [saying] “All of these bands I’ve already spoken to. They’re totally into it and you can choose songs from these albums,” which was really special and fun for me because then I sat with my cut and I listened to all these songs. I got to figure out thematically what made sense with each part of the movie, which was one of my favorite parts of making the movie. Also, we worked with Andrew Gordon Macpherson for our score, and we also created some songs as well [with him and] Wade MacNeil, who used to be in the bands Alexisonfire and Gallows, so really everybody was passionate about punk music and the culture at every part of this.
It looks like you really had some fun with the minivan and I suspect you can’t just borrow one of those for the shoot. Is there a story behind it?
Yeah, we had to buy it. At first, we tried to look at just picture cars to rent and then we realized to make this really feel like a character in the movie, we need to buy a van and really make it our own. I really wanted it to feel like a Lisa Frank’d out version of “Return of the Living Dead” car, but as a van, so our producers found the van and then it was really cool actually because a lot of the departments participated — between our production designer and the art department and even our executive producers, some of them were on set — to help tag the van up, but it was important for that to feel like a character and now it’s sitting in a parking lot near my parents’ house in New Jersey. [laughs]
I’m so glad to hear you still have it.
Yeah, I’m not ready to give it up yet.
Was it much of a transition from producing to directing?
I just love being on set. I love making movies and it was really such a great learning experience working with other directors, being a hands-on producer and helping other directors execute their vision and really supporting them. I was writing “The Ranger” while I was doing that, so I was probably mentally and emotionally preparing myself for the day when I would finally be able to shoot “The Ranger,” so it was a pretty easy transition. But it was so special to me [to direct] because I had been dreaming of it for so long. It’s been absolutely surreal and amazing [to finally be releasing it]. It was a little movie that I spent a lot of time on in a room by myself and now being able to share it with audiences around the world at these different festivals has just been completely insane and awesome. It’s been so cool.
“The Ranger” opens on September 7th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall.