INTERVIEW: ‘The Whistler’ Writer & Director Jennifer Nicole Stang
Inspired by the story of the Pied Piper, Jennifer Nicole Stang’s The Whistler focuses on the night Lindsay (Karis Cameron) is forced to babysit her younger sister Becky (Baya Ipatowicz). After falling asleep, Lindsay awakens to find her sister missing. Someone has taken her and may be after Lindsay as well.
Co-produced by Karen Wong & Sasha Filipovich, the film has already garnered accolades on the festival circuit, including being awarded Best International Horror Short Film at Women in Horror Film Festival and rave reviews from San Diego Comic Con. In addition, the film has also won Best International Horror Short Film at HEMOGLOZINE Film Festival in Ciudad Real, Spain, Best Film and Best Actress (for lead actress Karis Cameron) at Horror Movie Freaks Film Festival and Best Young Actress (for Baya Ipatowicz) at the Horror Haus Film Festival.
We were lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to interview Jennifer Nicole Stang about The Whistler, the challenges of filming the short, and her decision to shoot this proof of concept first.
Why did you decide to go for a short film/proof of concept first?
Short films are much more feasible financially, and if you have a feature-length script that you’d like to produce, completing a short film helps give an impression of the story that you wish to tell in terms of concept, theme, style and atmosphere. Shorts films can be a great way to try out a concept or idea.
There’s a lot of overhead shots as the movie opens and closes, such as views of the river and the group of children wandering through the woods. Was it challenging to capture these the way you envisioned?
In a way we got exactly what we were looking for, but not what I envisioned originally. Working with a drone is tricky. You need enough space for the drone to move around freely. We had trouble finding a spot in the woods where there was enough of a clearing. Drones are light pieces of equipment and when it is windy it is more difficult to get smooth, clean shots. Originally I envisioned shooting the river much closer, but again, wind was a concern. And as for the shot of the children, I had a more expensive shot in mind that involved a crane as well as a drone shot. However, with our limited time and money, it was best not to drag a crane into the woods. In terms of capturing the right atmosphere for the film, however, we definitely achieved that.
Was it a challenge to get everything done in a three-day shoot?
Absolutely. My Director of Photography, Naim Sutherland, and I both really wanted to shoot at twilight for the extra vibey lighting and atmosphere, as opposed to shooting at night, which meant that we only had a short window of time to shoot all the scenes in the woods over the course of 3 days. It was absolutely worth it in the long run, but I did have to cut some of the shots and plot pieces in the forest scene. I think there was an entire page of the script that I ultimately cut. I do think if we HAD shot the extra page, however, that those moments would have been cut in editing anyway, as not to have the end too long and drawn out. So it definitely worked out for the best.
The story focuses on the relationship between the two sisters, Lindsey and Becky, rather than giving us something more akin to an origin story for The Whistler. Was it important to not show us too much of the titular character in order to make him more mysterious and scary?
The one thing I like about horror movies is being involved in a good mystery. I like trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle, if you will, as I follow the storyline of a film. My intention was to have the evil entity unknown to us at first. It builds up our fear, and our imaginations can run wild. Also, it is important to establish that there is a fear growing within our lead character, Lindsey, that steadily develops and ultimately becomes something tangible that she needs to face. Lindsey is more affected by the horror story of the crazy man than her little sister, Becky, as Lindsey has more on her mind concerning her own decisions, fear and purity as she becomes an adult, which is when our egos and fears really start to settle in. The idea was to show just a taste of The Whistler, to have an idea of the entity so that the audience would become curious. In a feature-length film we would have more time to reveal the backstory, the entity, and his plight in more depth.
What made you decide to focus on the Pied Piper of Hamelin as the basis for the villain in your story?
I think as I was starting to write this piece, it was more stream of consciousness, and ended up being a character similar to that of The Pied Piper. The images of the children in the forest came to me first. Colonial American history has always been of interest to me, especially regarding the community of the puritans in the late 1500s, early 1600s, and I’ve always wanted to explore their thoughts, culture and history within a film. I think it’s interesting how this particular group in history, although surprisingly short-lived, was so influential to the American culture we know today, and not just culturally and morally, but in establishing the governmental structure that Americans have today. I realized later on that there were similarities to the Pied Piper story and then integrated the idea to what I had already written.
What was your inspiration for The Whistler’s make-up and costume design?
Since The Whistler is an evil entity who is the ghost of a puritanical priest, whose hatred fettered his soul, we wanted to give him a gruesome look, yet still reflect his human side with sharp features that represented his mortal body, which we based on paintings of the faces of that era. And if you catch it, you will notice he is wearing the puritanical dress of that time period. I worked with a concept artist to create the image first before working with our make-up artists.
There’s obviously a lot of religious symbolism in the story as well, with The Whistler using baptisms as a form of keeping the children pure forever. Why did you to decide to combine this with the fairytale concept to create your villain?
I’ve always been fascinated by religious history. Throughout history we have depended on religion to give us a moral code of conduct on how to live. Religion has defined what we should fear and what we should work towards, spiritually. In this story, I think the religious elements came through naturally, almost subconsciously while I was writing, and then become a main theme to the story.
The art in The Whistler storybook was beautiful. Is this something that you would focus on more in a feature-length film?
Thank you! The feature-length story does include a book, and may divulge even more of the story… I really shouldn’t reveal too much! The feature-length story dives into many aspects of puritan culture that will give us some powerful and positively terrifying images on film, which I can’t wait to explore!
What will the story focus be in the full-length film? Will the focus still be on Lindsey and Becky, or are they just part of the story?
There are two sisters in the feature who are the protagonists, but they are completely different characters to those in the short film. The sisters in the feature-length have a very different story. It’s difficult to expand on character in a short, and that’s why producing a feature-length of this story will be so much fun. There is so much more to explore and to reveal regarding the sisters’ journey.
Are you keen to explore the town’s relationship with The Whistler and whether the whole thing is a bit of a hidden secret for them?
Absolutely. There is a whole back-story to The Whistler, a complete history of the town, and in the feature I delve into how the community has dealt with The Whistler and how their particular ideology sprang from the fear and influence of the evil entity. There are many secrets that our protagonists must discover to find the truth behind The Whistler and the reasons why the town holds so many secrets.
There’s a lot of focus in horror movies on virginity, and how it can help you outsmart the monster in the final act of the film. Which so much focus placed on Lindsey being a grown-up, and not referring to herself as a virgin, is this why she’s the only one to be taken by The Whistler in the end?
Initially I wanted to reverse the stereotype of the impure teenagers going to their death and replace that stereotype with a virgin who dies instead, but once I started playing with the story, I found out that it was more powerful to focus on the puritanical idea of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong, rather than re-invent the moral wheel, because these themes and perspectives still remain strong within many communities. Ideologies continue to grow and change, and I’m always aware of exploring them in a story, but when ideologies remain unchanged within a culture for a long time, it’s fun to explore the reasons why.
The Whistler’s message changes from “Rise and be baptized” to “Repent and be baptized”. Does this mean there’s a chance to avoid The Whistler’s actions?
It’s certainly a warning to those who have sinned to change their ways. But… I can’t reveal much. That’ll just have to be unveiled in the feature-length film!