Jenn Wexler’s feature film debut, The Ranger, is a punk rock slasher that pits city-slicker punks against a nature-loving park ranger with a taste for blood. It is a film that emanates beautiful chaos, set to a screaming soundtrack that makes the film feel both timeless and so quintessentially 80s. It is unlike any slasher you’ve seen (read our review). Wexler took the time to speak with me about her first feature film, growing up in the punk rock community, and translating that experience into a horror movie.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Much Ado About Cinema: Why did you want to make a slasher about punk and punk rock?
Jenn Wexler: So the idea of these punks that go up against this park ranger was originally the idea of my co-writer. We were in college together, we majored in screenwriting, and this was his senior screenplay. We didn’t know what to do with it at the time. But we workshopped all of our ideas in class and I became so attracted to the idea of punks vs a park ranger because just within that there was so much about rebellion versus authority. There’s so much you can do visually with that. Also, when I was a teenager, I used to go to a lot of punk shows. I grew up in this suburban town and I didn’t feel like I fit in at school, but I did feel like I fit in when I went to these shows. I already had this history with that world, so there was always something about this idea that I was attracted to.
MAAC: It felt like when I was watching the film, and please tell me if I’m wrong, that there were two kinds of punk between Chelsea and her friends. Did you want to create that dichotomy in this community?
JW: Yes, for sure. I think the eternal question for me was, as I was growing up and going to these shows and being friends with these people, everyone is so scared of being considered a poser, but what is a poser when you get down to it? What is punk when you get down to it? Is it the clothes you wear? Is the band reference that you pick up on when someone is talking, even if you haven’t heard of that band but you just nod your head and pretend that you have? What makes one a poser? Or is it something deeper in your soul that makes you punk? That can obviously expand out thematically to talk about a lot of different things, but it was cool to look at it through the lens of punk rock.
MAAC: That’s so cool because I mean, I wasn’t into punk as a kid but I always felt like that with music and wanted to fit in. I think you captured that with Chelsea. Chloe Levine plays her so well. I remember seeing her in Depraved and I loved her performance. Watching her in The Ranger in such a different role was so cool, especially watching her tap into that split between trying to figure out where she belongs but also tapping into this primal side. What was it like working with her in such an intense role?
JW: Chloe is absolutely amazing. I met her after I saw her movie, The Transfiguration. In all these movies, she plays an outsider, so I recognized that in The Transfiguration. Although these two roles are very different, I just sensed this understanding of what it feels like to try and figure yourself out. That’s the exact quality I was interested in for the character of Chelsea. So, we actually met at SXSW, right after I saw The Transfiguration. We had a meeting, she read the script, she was really into it, and we totally clicked over these feelings being an outsider in a world of outsiders; in a world where everybody prides themselves on being an outsider, what is it like to really feel like you’re not quite fitting in? Also, Chelsea has a memory that she doesn’t quite want to face, so we talked a lot about memories and what it’s like when something happens when you’re a kid and you can’t stop thinking about, but you’re also trying to run away from it.
MAAC: Chelsea is also an amazing version of the Final Girl. What was it like creating this newer version of such an iconic figure?
JW: It was interesting because I was obsessed with the idea of the Final Girl since i was 12 years old. When I was like 10, 11, 12, I was obsessed with the late 90s teen slasher craze. I was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These things helped me through adolescence when I was an awkward young girl going through puberty. Also my parents had just moved towns so I had no friends at my new school, so horror movies really became a best friend for me. I was really just used the Final Girl as inspiration. If all of her friends are dying and still she can take on the killer and survive, then I can go back to school tomorrow and get through the day. So the Final Girl has always been with me. It was really cool for my first feature to get to explore that character really deeply.
MAAC: That’s such an amazing thing to do with your first film to create a character that means so much to you. Slasher seem to mean a lot to you, too. I really appreciated how you subverted the usual slasher topes. Were there specific tropes you wanted to subvert or tackle from the beginning of this project? Or did it just come as you were working on the film?
JW: Giaco’s original script was more of a straight up body count movie, with the same overall structure of punks going to the woods and a park ranger starting to take them out because they were playing their music too loud. A couple years after we graduated, we had figured out how to survive, we had gotten jobs, and we were ready to move into this as a first feature. So we found his old script and started working on it together. That was really cool because we already had to overall structure and we start infusing it with our personalities, such as the way we used to interact with the world when we were teenagers and the memories of these kids we used to know who were awful at the time. People are dicks when they’re 16, especially with weird forms of peer pressure! That weird scene in the beginning when he holds a knife to the girl’s throat was similar to situations I experienced when I was kid. I was in many situations where I was the only girl in a group of dudes that were saying insulting things, but I felt the pressure to laugh along and pretend not to be insulted.
But in terms of tropes, we wanted to blend personal experiences with 80s typical slasher tropes. We wanted to blend the genres of 80s punk movies with 80s slashers, then infuse it with all of our own stuff.
MAAC: Were there specific movies you were thinking about for inspiration, or was it just the genres in general?
JW: For punk movies, we were thinking about Class of 1984, Return of the Living Dead, Repo Man in terms of this absurd comedy, Suburbia, and this movie Smithereens about this girl running around New York City in the 1980s with a bad attitude essentially trying to find herself. For horror in general, Evil Dead obviously is such an inspiration in terms of our approach to making this film. We’re super inspired by Sam Raimi and just going out there with a small group of friends and making a movie with your hands. In terms of slashers, just everything from Nightmare on Elm Street to the 90s slashers I was obsessed with to the more obscure stuff, like this movie, Rituals. It’s from the 70s, I think, and is about a group of doctors who go out into the wilderness and start getting off killed one by one. Lots of stuff!
MAAC: I really felt that Evil Dead influence, but not just in the setting. I think my favorite moment was when the character is trying to drive a van with no foot, looks down at his legs, mumbles “I don’t have a foot” then screams, “That’s so punk rock,” then just drives away. It’s so Evil Dead and so ridiculous and funny!
JW: Thank you, that’s awesome!
MAAC: I wanted to talk about the actual character, The Ranger, because he’s one of the creepiest villains I’ve seen in a long time. I love that he’s just reciting park rules at the kids as he kills them. He’s just a guy in a park ranger uniform and the performance was phenomenal. What was it like casting that character?
JW: Jeremy Holm was actually friends with my co-writer because they had worked in restaurants together. Jeremy started getting all this TV work, such as Mr. Robot and House of Cards, but my co-writer already had this connection with him. So while Giaco and I were writing, he was like “check out these shows, what do you think about Jeremy for The Ranger? He looks like evil Superman.”
MAAC: Oh my god, he totally does.
JW: He does, right? I love his jawline, he’s amazing. So we finally felt like the script was in a good place to share it with him, so Giaco sent it to Jeremy and he loved it. Then we all met and in our first meeting, he was already going into character as The Ranger. So we immediately knew that this was guy. That was cool because that was the first puzzle piece and then we could start putting everything together. But, yeah, Jeremy was the first cast member attached to the project.
MAAC: What kind of villains from film did you want to model The Ranger around? It’s so cool because he’s not like a Freddy or a Jason; he’s just a guy with no powers.
JW: He’s a mix of the hulking figure of a Jason or a Michael Myers with the one-liners of a Freddy. However, the main influence is really just scary men and authority figures. All these dudes that we see in our everyday life use their stature to try and intimidate us and I’ve come across many a man like this. So combining all of that and filling in the blanks came quite naturally.
MAAC: He definitely one of the creepiest villains I’ve seen in a long time and now I’m scared of park rangers.
JW: Something I really like is that in Slumber Party Massacre, the killer is just a guy with a drill. I deeply love that, because it’s like “sorry, but in our society that are a lot of men that are really scary.” You have a guy like this that in the same breath is seemingly charming but also there’s an undercurrent of something really frightening about him. There’s a weird passive aggression going on, and it’s a thing that happens all the time. I wanted to make a movie about that!
MAAC: What was it like directing your first feature?
JW: It was awesome. I was writing the script while I was producing other films. I’d wake up early, work on the script, then go produce. This went on for quite awhile. As I was producing, I was putting the puzzle pieces together in my mind, like “I love this DP, I would love to work with him on The Ranger” or “Oh, we’re scouting, I see a cabin over there, I want to come back to this when we’re putting together The Ranger.” It was awesome. It’s also so great to be able to watch other directors. When you’re wanting to be a director, making short films is helpful because it gets you through the process quickly and makes you feel like you finished a project, which is emotionally validating and important. But also working on other people’s sets and watching other directors work is so helpful and beneficial and I got to do that so many times. So when it finally came time to direct The Ranger I felt totally ready to go.
MAAC: So what’s next? Any other subgenres you really want to work with?
JW: I definitely want to keep doing horror. But within that, I want to demon stuff, ghost stuff, and explore things that are deeply scary. It would be cool to do a gritty thriller. I just want to explore all the different styles and subgenres!
You can stream The Ranger on Shudder now.