“One of the most elaborate song and dance numbers you’ll ever see,” Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) confides in his apprentice Benjamin (Jake Horowitz), after the former performs an exorcism in “Agnes,” having been called to the Church of Santa Teresa to rid a young nun of her inner demons. Whether they’re real or not remains an open question in Mickey Reece’s provocative new feature, in which it is the man of the cloth who is least convinced after seeing enough in his lifetime to know when beliefs can be misplaced. But that isn’t the only unusual turnabout in the film where you may expect to follow either Father Donaghue or the tortured nun he’s sent to cure, but instead spend more time with Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn), who bears witness to the exorcism and has her faith shaken, becoming every bit the lost soul that led her to enter the convent in the first place after earlier tragedy.
A filmmaker who has often made the most out of spartan budgets but never lacked for ambition, Reece uses his biggest canvas to date to its fullest in “Agnes,” creating a compelling bifurcated tale of a young woman concerned that it isn’t only the horrifying memories that she’ll carry with her from the “Tragedy at Santa Teresa Convent,” as the event has become known around town in hushed tones, but that she might’ve inherited whatever spiritually was lurking inside Honey. You may wonder what’s the difference when the fear it’s instilled has led to erratic behavior, but Reece takes things a step further as the more Mary seeks an explanation for what she’s experiencing, perhaps in some of the wrong places, the more it appears the truth is subjective, with a local comedian (Sean Gunn) appearing to have as much authority and wisdom as any priest. Getting the exorcism out of the way at the start, the film may be even more terrifying as it explores existential horrors in a world where nothing can be trusted.
As “Agnes” makes its premiere this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, available to watch anywhere in the U.S. through June 23rd before making its way to Fantasia Fest later this summer, Reece and Quinn, a driving force behind the film as both its strong lead and producer, spoke about how it came together, the film’s two-part structure, and attracting more talent out to Reece’s home base in Oklahoma.
How did this come about?
Molly C. Quinn: It’s interesting because we both came together like two waves. My production company QWGMIRE was looking for a horror film that had just a little twist, which isn’t such an easy thing to find. We were talking to the team at Divide/Conquer who had just done “Climate of the Hunter” with Mickey, and they sent us an early draft of “Agnes.” We were pretty amazed at what Mickey had done with such a shoestring budget [on “Climate of the Hunter”] and making such a beautiful movie. It was different. It wasn’t what you expected. And in reading “Agnes,” we felt those same things. It was interesting. It was not what you expected. All of a sudden you’re in a convent and then you just leave. You’re just gone. It’s so unlike any other horror script or film we had seen. So when we talked to Mickey, and we all started to get along, we said, “Let’s give this a try. We have just a couple more tools for you to work with, and I think you can make something incredible. We’ll come to Oklahoma. We’ll use your crew.” Then we made a kick-ass movie.
Is thinking of a genre first and then trying to figure out something new to do with it a starting point for you Mickey?
Mickey Reece: That’s always the idea. I’ve just been working on such a smaller level for so long that in order to stand out, I always try to do something risky because I’m not risking much [financially]. Then creating something that we understand the tropes or the story structure of how these movies go, then to deconstruct it.
Molly, was there something that helped unlock this for you as an actress?
Molly C. Quinn: Absolutely. Mary is not doing well, and I was really drawn to that. When I’m working on finding what is the driving force behind the character, I take the script and I try to [think about] what was the story before the script started? I journal and I try to figure out what relationship, what goal do they have that makes them tick? And in that study, it was really discovering Mary’s love for her child and that child dying being the driving force. I wanted to try to understand loving something that much and then feeling so much anger when that’s taken away.
I didn’t want to spoil the film, but it’s clearly divided into two parts, which made me wonder if shooting one side informed the other once you got there?
Mickey Reece: The final scene was one of the very first scenes we shot, so we did shoot a bulk the convent, and we did shoot two scenes from the second half. One of them being the last scene first. Then basically worked in order to a degree, especially within everything in the convent and once we were out of the convent, then it was out into the real world, so it really was almost two different shoots in that vein, aside from doing the last thing first. For an actor, I can’t imagine the kind of nerves you would have shooting that final scene first. But for me it helps me because then I can see what the end of the movie is so I can work my way backwards and work my way up to it because the final scene can inform the rest of the movie.
Molly, what was it like being in the convent?
Molly C. Quinn: I have to say we were all a little irreverent, which created a bit of a different atmosphere that definitely comes across in the film. We didn’t want to show nuns as the normal, amorphous blob that you see a lot in movies. We really wanted to focus on the reason that I believe people join cults and religious orders, which is you want to be in a group that keeps you in line. You want to be around people that when, for example, when Sister Honey steps out of line and is talking about how cute the priests are, everyone around her is like, “Hey, you stop that. You need to behave.” I just loved that and how unique and individual all of these women were and their sincere desire to want to do the right thing, but really not being very good at doing the right things.
I’ve heard Mickey gives a lot of ownership over to the actors over their roles. Was that the case here?
Mickey Reece: It was the same thing as normal. You just let the actors go see what they do and then create around that, to a degree where you’re giving them freedom, but then they’re also creating themselves and then I’m using what they’re giving me to inspire me to figure out what I’m doing around it, as far as direction goes. It’s a fall backwards, really.
[But this shoot] was different in that it was easier. I got to focus on just directing, which was at first hard for me, but also ended up with better results in that way because I just got to focus on directing and editing and not have to worry about all of the other stuff that I’m normally worried about. We also got to structure it from the ground up — like write a script the way movies are supposed to be done, from what I’m told. [laughs] You write a script and then you find the actors, then you find the location. Usually, I just write for what actors or location I have available to me, so it was a great experience. It was certainly a learning experience and there was a lot of growth involved in it.
Did anything unexpected happen that you could embrace?
Molly C. Quinn: When you’re making independent films especially, money is tight and time is tight so every day you’re racing against the clock and something that’s really special in the film, and we got so lucky that it worked out, was having Chris Sullivan come down and play Curly because we were working with his filming schedule in Los Angeles and we only had 12 hours to shoot all those scenes. So that day was like making a mini movie, and he adds such a world-class quality to the film, it’s just incredible that we got him and that he was interested in playing the part. Every time I watch it, I’m still just like, “Oh, my God. We got him to be in the movie, and that worked out. We got everything done.” That was, for me, the biggest miracle.
What’s it like getting the film to Tribeca?
Mickey Reece: I still have not watched it in a theater full of people and I think that’s the true test. I’ve watched it with a few people here and there, but not an entire audience full of people, so I’m a little nervous about that. I really don’t know what to think of the movie until I visit it in that venue.
Molly C. Quinn: Well, thank you. I mean, that we’re premiering at Tribeca is just absolutely incredible. It’s validating and humbling. I’m so proud of the movie and I agree with Mickey that we’ve only been watching it in a vacuum, so it becomes difficult to gauge how you feel about it, but you can’t ignore such a prestigious film festival accepting us and giving us our world premiere. It’s a big deal and I’m just unbelievably grateful and excited.