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The Creators of ‘Wilder Than Her’ on Bringing the Female Gaze to Psychological Horror (INTERVIEW)

Horror has always been a genre more or less dominated by female protagonists, but there’s not always room for the female gaze in stories of slashers and stalking. That’s begun to change in recent years: the newest additions to horror have an intense interest in psychological themes, and in exploring the inner world of their characters — a lot of them female. This was the brief for Wilder Than Her, a remix on the camping-trip-gone-wrong stories that have become a staple of the genre.

The film follows a tight-knit group who resume their yearly camping trip after the death of their mutual friend, Bea (Becca Q. Co). Bea’s death is a maddening mystery: only Finn (Kate Easton) knows the truth of what happened — and Emilia (Sunita Mani) will stop at nothing to uncover it.

As their friend group threatens to unravel, writer-director Jessica Kozak deftly captures the subtle horrors of female friendship, unpacking complex dynamics with skill, sharpness and a surprising amount of humor. Kozak herself is a lifelong fan of horror and is even more fond of cerebral, subversive thrillers: “I love that they’re getting to this place now where they’re not just about people being cut up and killed, and that we’re getting these stories that are about the horrors of actually being alive.”

Wilder Than Her presented an opportunity to tell a scary story in the woods through the lens of a deteriorating female friendship. Kozak’s script took inspiration from events in her own life, like the recent death of a close friend and a spooky camping trip with friend and producer Shannon Reilly — and it quickly turned heads on The Black List and The Blood List, the former’s genre counterpart. Ironically, though, Kozak didn’t necessarily have directing on her mind when she first wrote Wilder Than Her. “At that time I was really focusing on TV,” Kozak says, “and thought that was going to be my journey.” Fortunately, fate had other plans.

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Kate Easton, Kayla Foster and Sunita Mani in Wilder Than Her. (COURTESY: Bombo Sports & Entertainment)

I had the privilege of speaking to Kozak and Reilly ahead of Wilder Than Her’s world premiere at the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Screen Speck: I know this is your first feature, Jessica; what made you want to tell this particular story first?

Jessica Kozak: Shannon and I met in grad school, and we were both going to UCLA and getting our MFAs in screenwriting. I actually wrote this script in a writing class in grad school at the end of 2018. I was mulling around what I felt like writing at the time. I had been mulling over this idea of female friendships for a long time…I thought it would be really interesting to tell a story about a female friendship unraveling. I feel like we don’t see that often, because we see a lot of horror movies about couples and about families, and all of these things happening there, the traumas that exist there. We just don’t see that a lot within friend groups – and I think female friendships are so wonderful and intimate in a way that other relationships aren’t, to the point of sometimes they’re almost like a marriage. So when they go awry, it can be really devastating, and I thought that would be really fun to tell a story with that as the backbone.

Actually, Shannon and I had just gone to Australia the summer before I wrote the script and we were camping, we were out in the outback and we were like, “God, this is crazy. We’re out here. There’s no power. We’re in these tiny nylon tents. Anything can happen.” That inspired the idea for the setting…it’s usually something in the woods that’s scary, something out there. I thought it’d be really fun if, what if it’s something within your own group? The people that you’re supposed to love and trust the most are actually causing the feelings of feeling unsafe and scared.

I had a very close friend die very suddenly five years ago, and her death changed our friend group quite a bit. So I thought that was also a really interesting starting point of, why don’t we start this group with this loss, so already it’s upset the whole dynamic, and now it’s these three trying to figure out what their relationship is now that the glue of the friendship is gone. So it was all of those ideas came together, and I also really wanted to tell a horror movie that wasn’t about a man hunting a woman. I thought it would just be really interesting to have all of the women get to be all the different personalities in a movie.

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Kayla Foster, Kate Easton and Sunita Mani in Wilder Than Her. (COURTESY: Bombo Sports & Entertainment)

Screen Speck: Talk to me a little bit about the process of getting Wilder Than Her off the ground.

Jessica Kozak: I wrote the script in school and then a year later, we graduated and then I started working as an assistant on a TV show. At that time I was really focusing on TV and thought that was going to be my journey…so that script was being used as a sample. It was something that was hitting with people and resonating with people, but I still wasn’t at the point yet of thinking about trying to get funding or get it made. It was something I was using almost as a resume piece. Then it got a little bit of attention on The Blacklist, and then it got placed on The Blood List, which was the best unproduced genre scripts of the year. So kind of was getting some attention from that, but nothing in terms of actually pursuing making the movie.

Shannon Reilly: I had known of the inception of this project before it was even in its script phase. I worked on the same TV show as Jess for a little bit – and then the pandemic hit, and I started working for an indie film financer. He was sending me a lot of scripts that were sort of in the indie range and asking me my opinions on all of them. We made our first one in the summer of 2021, and then he was like, “You should really be sending me scripts that you find interesting if you want to be producing this stuff at the forefront.” So I sent him this script first and he immediately was like, “Let’s make it.”

That was unusual, in the way that we were greenlit before we even had a cast or even a casting director. It was Jess and I from the very beginning, and I think we were both so over the moon, but also very aware that we had a lot to learn as first-time [producers], and first-time [directors]. I think the first person we brought on was Kate Geller, our casting director. Then we brought on two other producers who were totally invaluable in terms of getting us to the finish line in production because it was just a whole world that we were new to.

Sunita Mani was basically the first person we thought of for the role of Emilia, just because someone with a comedic background we thought would be so important for balancing the nuance of Emilia. There’s so much going on behind her eyes, but you really want to play the levity as much as you can, because there’s such dark subject matter going on throughout the film. She was our very first pick and we went out to her and got her, so that was amazing to have her on board. Kayla Foster and Kate Easton were also just incredible gets. Their dynamic was so important, and the idea of them not really seeming [like] real friends was so terrifying to us that we were like, “This chemistry really has to fly.”

Kate Easton came on and just really blew us away because she was [going] against type. When we first met her, we knew, “Oh, this is just a part that no one has allowed you to do.” Even though it’s so clear to us that she could have that sort of ferocity and the wildness of Finn, she hadn’t been able to explore before. So that was really cool for us to watch and she just hit it out of the park. Kayla Foster’s amazing as Lucy – again, cast against type. Having that sort of people pleasing façade, while everything you know is happening beneath the surface, was very cool.

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Kate Easton behind the scenes of Wilder Than Her. (COURTESY: Bombo Sports & Entertainment)

Screen Speck: I love what you said about casting two of your actresses against type, because there is almost a sense when you first meet them individually that you think you know who they are and what their role in a friend group would be. Then you get them all together and it just melts away. That chemistry was just really, really great. Like lightning-in-a-bottle kind of stuff.

Jessica Kozak: It’s again, that feeling of who we are individually, and then who we are and how our dynamics change when we’re around certain friends. I think it’s so interesting. I have friends that I feel like would say that I’m wild and crazy and free, and then I have other friend groups who would be like, “Oh, Jess is such a homebody and never does anything.” It’s like you almost have all of these different personalities that you are with different people, and different people can push your buttons in ways that other people can’t. So that was really important to us to show them at the beginning, of who they are when they’re alone, versus who they are when they’re together, and what insecurities come out that we don’t see, unless they’re pushed by certain people in the friend group.

I’m really glad that played for you. I think that’s also something that can only happen when women are telling women’s stories…you just don’t see that often: three female friends sitting around talking and having different dynamics with each other. We just really wanted to have the chance to do that as much as possible with this movie.

Screen Speck: I know you’ve both spoken in the past about the inherent male gaze in horrors and thrillers. I feel like that’s changed recently, but how do you feel about the landscape now? Have you noticed a shift? Are you happy and hopeful about the way things are going?

Jessica Kozak: Oh, my God. Yes. I feel like there’s been such a shift recently just by the sheer fact that there are more women writing and getting things produced and more women directing and producing, and in all facets of production in a way that there weren’t before. I think seeing the world through women’s eyes is just going to be inherently different. Not to say that some of my favorite movies aren’t made by men, and we need that too. But I think just with everything now, the more diversity we have everywhere, we’re going to get better stories from everybody because of that.

I think even in the horror genre, you have Julia Ducournau who’s making great movies, and they’re so specifically female. Then there was this really great movie called Relic that came out, I think during the pandemic, and it was this Australian female writer-director, and it was about these women and the matriarch of the family had dementia and it had fallen on them to take care of her. Again, that’s such a female thing that happens in life, but it was set in as a horror movie. So yeah, I think it’s changing so much for the better, and I think it’s a really exciting time for women in the genre space, for sure.

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Sunita Mani as Emilia in Wilder Than Her. (COURTESY: Bombo Sports & Entertainment)

Screen Speck: You had a lot of women behind the scenes producing. Which was a conscious choice, of course – when you’re making something, you don’t want to have to fight to make your intentions clear. But could you talk a little bit about finding producers, finding crew members who were on board with the vision?

Shannon Reilly: It was all female producers, so that was super rad for so many reasons. We first reached out to Chelsea Davenport, who then connected us later with Kim [Hwang] – but [Chelsea] was an IMDb find. We didn’t have a connection with her that was personal. We just had known of horror movies that she had produced that we were fans of, and we reached out to her rep and got connected to her through him. Then she was like, “Kim is my producing partner. I’ve made five movies with her.” We were like, “This is great,” because Jess and I are more the creative partners. 

They really kicked ass during production. 80% of [the shoot] was exteriors. So we did three weeks just solely in the woods, and we did a whole week of overnights, and it could have been a really strenuous, hard production on the crew and everyone. There really ended up just being a lovely, generous spirit on set. And we had a lot of young female department heads. Jenna Tooley, who is production designer, was so incredible. I can’t say enough good things about the work. She just pulled magic out of the hat every single day. This isn’t a woman, but Jess’s cousin, who was our DP … was so vital just from the very beginning.

Jessica Kozak: All of the men we hired were very excited to be working with women in a way that the women were excited to be in charge. [Laughs] Like Shannon was saying, it was just a very collaborative, fun set. One of the big things, whatever gender you were, we were really looking for people who connected with the story, had made things with a similar budget or similar styles, and who we connected with just on a personal level – because we also knew it was going to be one of those movies where it’s going to be like camp in a sense. We’re all out in the woods and that’s sort of already a bit of a hard environment. So that was a big thing for us too, is just having a really positive environment on set and having a safe place where people could bring up any issue and talk about anything, and that we were all collaborating and working together as opposed to having this hierarchical set. That was really important to us to hire people like that…[and] it was such a wonderful experience, I think, for all of those reasons.

Screen Speck: I love what you said about kindness, bringing a gentle energy, because I feel like being on set…I know how it can be when everybody’s stressed, everybody’s tired, and that forgiving energy isn’t normally encouraged. But I love the idea of just choosing empathy on set.

Shannon Reilly: We talk about this all the time: the whole process is already so hard. You can create the environment yourself. That should be the most lovely part of it. I think it felt like camp to most of the people there, which I have a lot of pride about. I think also because we were going in new to it, we had almost a leg up in that we weren’t beaten down by toxic set environments that we were trying to reimpose. I think that happens a lot, that people are treated a certain way and then they fall into that pattern or habit because it’s normal to them. [But] we were able to just be like, “What would we want to experience ourselves and then make that happen?” We just got so lucky with everyone that we brought on having that same mindset too. I think things are really changing. At least even just set, environment wise, I hope, because it can be brutal.

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Kayla Foster and Sunita Mani in Wilder Than Her. (COURTESY: Bombo Sports & Entertainment)

Screen Speck: I know there’s still probably a lot more work to be done; you’re entering festival season, et cetera – but are you guys starting to look on the horizon? Shannon, I know you’ve got a comedy-horror coming up?

Shannon Reilly: Yeah, we actually just wrapped that at the end of February. It’s a romantic comedy horror with a musical.

Screen Speck: I love that.

Shannon Reilly: It’s called Your Monster. It’s delicious. I think people will really enjoy it. But we’re still right in post: we just got our rough assembly. We’ll be there for a while. But yeah, Jess and I, premiering in Atlanta. We’re going to Bentonville [Film Festival] in June and still out to a few other festivals. So we’ll keep you posted on where we land next.

Screen Speck: Finally, how can people support the project, support your work, support your cast and crew?

Jessica Kozak: If people want to follow the film on Instagram, you can find links to all of us on there as well, including the cast. Then make sure to see Your Monster, when that comes out. Then when I finish my next script and make that, please go see that. Then also, I would encourage everyone to just go see different kinds of movies made by different kinds of people as much as possible, and just support the indie community and keep going to movie theaters so that people can keep making movies.

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