‘Antlers’ Director Scott Cooper on the Wendigo Within: ‘You Can’t Escape It’

What happens when an ancient antlered monster, generational family trauma and middle school bullies all meet in the middle? Scott Cooper had a lot to say on the subject.

From the collaboration of director and co-writer Cooper – who directed “Crazy Heart” and “Hostiles” – and producer Guillermo del Toro, “Antlers” tells the tale of a middle school teacher and her sheriff brother as they become involved with her enigmatic student whose secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a dark ancestral creature. The film stars Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Green, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane and Amy Madigan.

From the very beginning through the bitter end, “Antlers” grapples with difficult topics including drug addiction and child abuse, and Cooper did not shy away from confronting such conversations head-on. Bolstered by the Native lore of the fear-mongering creature, the Wendigo, Cooper unpacked these difficult narratives.

Cooper spoke to Variety about his collaboration with del Toro as they brought this lore to life as well as the procedural thoughtfulness that went into developing Native American mythology.

What inspired you to take on the tale of the Wendigo?

Cooper: Guillermo del Toro approached me and said, “Scott, your last three films have been horror films, and nobody knows it. Would you consider directing a horror film?” And I said yes because I love the genre. It’s one of my favorites, and I never really explore films in the same genre twice. So because I dealt with Native American stories in “Hostiles,” my last film, and their causes and issues are so important to me, I thought exploring both the horror genre and the Wendigo and how much it meant in their folklore was a very important intersection in the way I tell stories. So I was very pleased to start writing the screenplay based on Nick Antosca’s wonderful short story and then dealing with Native American consultants to really understand what the Wendigo meant, how it manifests itself and how I can best honor that folklore, which is very important to me.

You mentioned working with Native people for the film, can you speak a bit more about that collaborative process?

I had Native advisors for “Hostiles” as well, and for this particular film “Antlers,” I worked very closely with professor Grace Dillon from Portland State University, who is Native American and is the foremost authority on the Wendigo and has written extensively about it. So from writing the screenplay to the conception of the design of the Wendigo, she worked with me while I was shooting, to the final iteration of it, it was really important to me to have people who knew much more about it who were also of an indigenous culture help guide me.

How did you develop your take on the physicality of the Wendigo seen in the film?

So we understand that the Wendigo is an antlered, deer-like creature, and that was the starting point for us. We wanted to pay homage to that but also wanted it to be very unique and represent the earth’s crust and core, as if it came out of the mine. Its exoskeleton felt like it was something you might find deep within the earth, and it also emanates these embers and it has a heart that glows and all these sort of things that represent the destruction of our natural resources as well as the destruction of our bodies. One thing that professor Dillon mentioned to me was that the Wendigo manifests itself in many different ways and at many times, but most importantly, it represents a spirit. So it’s kind of the spirit of lonely places and it represents our worst fears and anxieties, and it represents the pain and misery that lives in all of us that eventually will escape and that you can’t escape. So all of that kind of courses through the movie.

The transformation of the Wendigo is particularly gruesome in the film, can you speak to your thoughts behind this choice?

When you have a father that’s dealing with the type of pain and misery of addiction and darkness like we see in the film and he’s transforming from a man into a folklore creature, it can’t be anything but painful and gory, right? The only thing that remains of this man is his face on the Wendigo. It’s an incredibly difficult transition for this man because he’s not only overtaken by the Wendigo but his addiction, and I thought it needed to be incredibly visual because that’s what it would be like in real life. And here I am, my first immersion into the supernatural, but in this case it just had to feel so grounded.

What was it like working with Guillermo del Toro?

It was an incredible collaboration. Guillermo was so generous with his time and ideas. He was the fourth producer I worked with who is also a director, so as directors and producers, they understand what I’m going through at all times. In the script phase, when I’m shooting, when I’m prepping, Guillermo was always there for me. I love him like a brother, and I hope it’s not our last collaboration.

“Antlers” premieres in theaters Oct. 29.

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