“While remaining in genre cinema, I want to try to come up with movies that are unexpected” says director Ted Geoghegan. His sophomore feature, the historical action-drama Mohawk (2017), tells the story of the fallout from an act of violence. When Mohawk Calvin (Justin Rain) sets an American camp ablaze, killing a group of soldiers, he is forced to flee into the forest with fellow tribal warrior Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn) and their British companion Joshua (Eamon Farren). In pursuit of the trio are a group of military renegades led by the bloodthirsty Colonel Holt (Ezra Buzzington).
Set in 1812, Mohawk and Geoghegan’s feature directorial debut, the haunted house horror We Are Still Here (2015) are separated not only by time, but tone. One cultivates suspense through the intrusion of supernatural entities, the other through the violence of the clash of cultures. Whilst there is a contrast between his two directorial works, the pursuit element of the plot bares a connection to Seung-wan Ryoo’s tale of a Korean agent caught up in a manhunt, The Berlin File (2013), which Geoghegan is credited for the English dialogue. If Mohawk is unexpected, beneath its surface it is more closely connected on a thematic and aesthetic level than it appears superficially – the unexpected merely a play on the familiar.
In conversation with Film Frame, Geoghegan reflected on the importance of his intent to honour the past. He also discussed the thematic continuum that is informing his work as a director, the cyclic nature of art and life, as well as hopes of realisation and self-reflection from his audience.
Film Frame: In The Hero (2017), Sam Elliott describes a film as another persons dream. Would you describe a film as such or is this a romanticised notion?
Ted Geoghegan: I am of the mindset that cinema is absolutely a dream, and I couldn’t imagine myself working in it if it was not. I see it as the echoes of everything that occurs in our lives and how those come back to haunt us. In the case of Mohawk, I tend to lean more towards it being a nightmare than a dream, but ultimately I see all cinema as a reflection of what we do in our day to day lives, and how those things come back to haunt us. And in Mohawk, quite historically.
Film Frame: When we spoke of the film previously, you described it as a “little film.”
Geoghegan: Certainly, and when I refer to it as a small or a little film, I tend to see that as an intimate one, rather than so much as the film itself being small. The fact it is about the decimation of the Mohawk people means to me it is is a massive story, that even on a huge budget potentially couldn’t be told with the gravitas it deserves. But by telling a story about the decimation of a people, you are able to create an entire world within this small group, and that was deeply important for me in this process. I wanted Oak and Calvin to be representative of all the Mohawk people, both in terms of the bravery and the suffering that they’ve endured for centuries.
Film Frame: Confronting a story that deals with the decimation of a culture inevitably creates certain expectations from your audience as to how it will inform the film. On this point, how do you deal with expectation both narratively and thematically? Is it something that you embrace, or do you find it challenging and frustrating?
Geoghegan: Well for me the expectations and the baggage that an audience brings into a film is something that constantly haunts me, because I am a fan of each specific film living on its own accord. Given the fact that Mohawk is such a 180 from We Are Still Here, I feel a lot of people are going to be expecting something that it’s not, and I hope they will be pleasantly surprised with a film that is horrifying in a wildly different way. That said, my expectations for certain directors also exist and it’s something I of course try to not let seep into my enjoyment of the films. But when I find out a new film from Guillermo Del Toro is coming out, given the craft that he has already given us, of course I go into it with certain expectations. While watching the film however, I try to make it a point to treat the film as a singular experience and take everything that I can from it, both dramatically and creatively. But back to my initial statement, it does haunt me somewhat, yet that’s all part of the game. Conventional filmmakers may just want to keep going down that same street, to keep making films that they feel are safe and are expected of them, but I want to buck those conventions. While remaining in genre cinema, I want to try to come up with movies that are unexpected, and are not what people think they are going to be coming out of the gates.
Film Frame: Is the experience of the filmmaker and spectator connected by a need for flexibility?
Geoghegan: Absolutely, and for me my flexibility has to extend to the fact that I know certain expectations will be want of me by my audience. I am aware of the fact that I have been doing this for seventeen years and I am the horror guy, that I have made certain films that are likely going to colour one’s opinion of what I do, or what I do best. And I see an audiences flexibility in so much as they may love the haunted house film or the slasher film I did, but I certainly hope they will be able to stress those muscles a little bit, and try one of my more daring titles to see what they can get from that. Ultimately all filmmaking and film viewing is this give and take, in which we are all just trying to make each other happy. I have stories I want to tell and people that I want to entertain, and I know there are millions of people out there who want stories told to them, and want to be entertained. So hopefully we can meet somewhere in the middle and can both make each other happy.
Film Frame: Superficially there is that contrast of We Are Still Here as a haunted house movie to Mohawk’s wilderness setting. Yet the claustrophobic nature of each turns a contrast into a similarity.
Geoghegan: I very much like people to see that in the film as well, and I also see Mohawk as being an extremely claustrophobic film. We Are Still Here is a film about people who are in a space they are potentially unable to get out of, either emotionally or physically. Over the course of the film we discover that the family who owns this house will ultimately come under siege from these intruders, whereas Mohawk tells the story about these people who think of the forest as their home, and ultimately come under siege from these same intruders. The biggest similarity that runs through both films is the concept of the sins of the father. It is quite personal in We Are Still Here, which is a film about a group of people dealing with the sins that were perpetrated eons ago, and how those horrors still live on in modern society, whereas Mohawk is about the forefathers and that original sin. But I like to think that people will be quite aware of that fact and the political allegory will not be missed. This is a film about the original sinners, but it is also about the original proto-Trumpers if you will, a people who are not necessarily setting out to make America great again, but rather make America great the first time.
Film Frame: There is the moment Holt states to Oak of an exchange of violent killing their cultures are partaking in. This cycle that begins with the original sinners and bleeds into future generations connects to the very ontology of art and storytelling. Cinema is an established language and there is the supposition that there are in fact only a limited number of archetypal stories. Generations of filmmakers have added to the language and history of film, creating a cycle of human expression, but one that is repetitive, and unique perhaps only through the individuals that have partaken in the cycle. Violence and art are in many ways kin, and within cinema, storytellers embrace violence and destruction as much as peace and creation within their narratives – lost within the cyclic exchange of violence.
Geoghegan: Life in general is very cyclic, and art, like violence, love, and all other human emotions, continues to happen again and again. One of the intentions with Mohawk was to show that the hatred, fear, and unease plaguing the United States is nothing new, and while it may be hard to stop, bringing attention to it is sometimes enough. Planting the seeds of knowledge in people is deeply important to change, and perhaps the discussions formed by watching Mohawk will lead to alternate thought processes somewhere down the road.
Film Frame: The feeling of claustrophobia derives not only from the spatial, but the performances. Holt’s obsessive nature and the inability of Calvin to suppress his violent impulses in the opening act of the film, forges this claustrophobic and oppressive cycle of violence.
Geoghegan: The casting process is obviously wildly important to me, especially on a project like this that carries such weight. We were extremely fortunate in so much as to be able to cast Kaniehtilo Horn who is actually a Mohawk. The information she was able to provide, not only from her own life, but from the history of her people helped us to flesh out that role and the film in general. Whereas with the casting of Holt, who was played by Ezra Buzzington, we wanted someone who could ultimately be the personification of this raging, angry blind evil, but also someone vulnerable that we could see the person within, the terror they feel on a daily basis. In the case of Holt, someone who has suffered great loss, and over the course of decades has been indoctrinated both religiously and politically to believe that everything he’s doing is right. This is something that we are seeing too much of in current politics – the villain who is completely incapable of realising that he or she is the villain. We spent along time with Ezra and Kaniehtilo to make sure they understood who these characters were, but also we wanted to give them as much opportunity as possible to be able to bring their own knowledge and passions to create well rounded humans.
Film Frame: The proportions of the dramatic or adversarial conflict and the supernatural structure are worth noting. Typically, one might expect at least half of the film, if not more to be driven by the later, and yet what you’ve crafted is a cultural and political story that leads into the supernatural. This could be read as echoing the journey of life, from birth on into the ambiguous mysticism of death.
Geoghegan: Absolutely! I knew that I wanted to have the film grounded in reality because these are about real things that happened, and so I wanted to make sure no supernatural elements would lessen the weight of these actual events. That said, native american societies are quite spiritual and I felt that I’d ultimately be doing it a disservice to not include those elements. The third act is purposefully ambiguous, in so much as these supernatural moments that feel larger than life may or may not be happening. For the majority of the film, even the moments that feel supernatural could be taking place in a form of reality in which tensions have risen, and panic has set in to such an extent that these people have essentially changed to a new level of existence. I wanted for Oak to be the Mohawk people, to be a warrior personified. I didn’t want to do a disservice to that by portraying it in a fictional light. So I tried as much as possible to sell her as the embodiment of these people, their tenacity and resolve to soldier on, even as their land is being taken away from them.
Film Frame: Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Geoghegan: The concept of transformation via cinema is something that is quite special, and I myself have been transformed more than once through genre film. I’d like to believe Mohawk will not only inspire people to have these conversations, but take a deep look inside of themselves. For the audience to realise that whilst Holt and his companions are the villains in this film, they also mirror many of us in the United States, and we can trace our bloodline back to these same people.
Film Frame: Following the completion of a film, how easy do you find it to move onto the next project? Is it a struggle to find that separation or is it an easy transition?
Geoghegan: It is quite hard to let go of them and every process of the creation, from the writing to the shooting, to the editing to the final cut, and then ultimately watching it with audiences and letting it resonate with them, is a very powerful thing. It’s not easy to walk away from, and I usually need quite a bit of time to return to a normal headspace before diving into another project. However, I know lots of filmmakers who have the ability to work on more than one project at once, which I find completely amazing. So I suppose it comes down to how you operate and while I myself need time, it does appear that there are plenty of filmmakers out there that are able to leap into the next.
Mohawk is available on VOD and HD courtesy of Dark Sky Films.
Photo provided by Ted Geoghegan and film stills courtesy of imdb.com