By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT
Drawing inspiration from today’s headlines, THE AVIARY, the tense new thriller from the filmmaking team of Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, is a hallucinatory exploration of the fallout of escaping an insidious cult. The film stars Malin Akerman (Watchmen, The Final Girls) and Lorenza Izzo (Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) as Jillian and Blair, two women who flee the Aviary, the secluded compound of Starlight, a self-improvement cult led by the soft-spoken but charismatic Seth (Chris Messina). Short on food and water, the pair wander for days in the New Mexico desert where they soon suspect that Seth is still pulling the strings.
A suspenseful yet thoughtful horror film, THE AVIARY uses its limited cast and desolate setting to maximum effects, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats to the final credits. RUE MORGUE recently had the privilege of sitting down with Cullari and Raite to talk about their real-life inspirations for the film, their cast, and shooting in the deserts of New Mexico.
Chris and Jennifer, it’s great to meet you. Let’s talk about your collaborative process both during the writing process and on the set. How did you come up with the story of THE AVIARY?
Chris Cullari: THE AVIARY really came from a couple of different things all coming together. Generally, Jenn and I are very interested in cults and the nature of belief. The world we live in is a world of influencers and followers. We were looking for a way to try to tell a story about that, that we can make as our first movie. [We] realized that if we kind of put it in the context of the escaping-a-cult subgenre and skew it in a more modern way that was much more of a cerebral thing and less of a, you know, Satanists are coming after somebody kind of situation. And that telling the story that way would give us a way to explore the repercussions and the fallout of what happens when you’re in a cult and the reasons you might join in and what that does to your brain.
Jennifer Raite: As far as our collaboration style, it’s a little bit different with writing and with directing. So when we’re writing, it’s a lot more back-and-forth. It’s a lot more like, “Hey, what about this?” And Chris will be like, “Ah, maybe we do it this way, maybe we do it that way.” There’s a lot more working through and refining until we finally know exactly what we want to do. We try to be more or less on the same page through the writing process – lots and lots of drafts and more refining through the scripts so that by the time we’ve written something, we feel like we basically have a shared vision. When it comes to actually making the thing, we sort of go through all of that again. We will shot-list together. We will do a lot of our performance prep together and sort of go through everything so that we can be as prepared as possible and not worry too much about ever confusing an actor or a department head or a producer.
There are some pretty clear parallels between Starlight, the cult in the movie, and NXIVM, the sex-trafficking cult actress Allison Mack was involved in. What makes some people, seemingly intelligent and intuitive people, susceptible to cults?
CC: We’ve talked about this a lot in the making of the movie and in thinking about it. I think the big reason, particularly now, is that our world has been kind of transforming through the internet into one where it’s harder than ever to really get a consensus on how the world works because every day we’re just bombarded with everyone’s point of view. I think that makes people more desperate than ever to find somebody or something that can give them an organizing kind of value for how to see the world. I think there’s also something in our modern world in losing organized religion that is great in some ways but leaves people more adrift when it comes to shaping the way that they look at the world.
JR: I think you see it in the documentaries about NXVIM. There’s a real desire to be a part of a community, like, “Hey, let’s get together and support a cause or help the world?” I think a lot of people enter those organizations with a lot of energy and goodwill. And unfortunately, sometimes, the longer you’re in something, the harder it is to get out. I think that is especially true with people with a lot of motivation. I think that’s something unique you feel in a lot of these newer cult stories or like newer businesses that have a cult-like feel to them.
CC: NXVIM was the touchstone for the movie, certainly, and a lot of people have noticed that we didn’t really try to hide that too much. But it is interesting that another one of our touchstones was Theranos – those kinds of corporate cults and groupthink and the desire to be a leader and change the world – were as influential to our version of what a cult would be as any of the cults that have had documentaries made about them.
Of the two of you, who would be more likely to join a cult?
JR: (laughing) I would say Chris because feel like I’m a little bit more of a loner than Chris is. Chris is more like, “Ooh, friends!”
CC: I would like to think I wouldn’t join. I like to think I know the warning signs, but part of what we’re exploring with this movie is that, depending on what pulls you into it, you don’t see the warning signs, because you’re not looking for warning signs. You’re looking for companionship and friendship and camaraderie, and to build something together. The things that can poison those impulses are subtle. They’re beneath the surface of what’s going on. Your energy that you’re bringing to these good things is being redirected through a person. We’ve maintained that we don’t see the movie as a particularly political film, but I do think you certainly see it in politics now.
Weirdly enough, our first day of location scouting was January 6, 2020. When we left to go location scouting, [Trump’s] speech had just wrapped up, and people were kind of mumbling about maybe marching. We go into the desert to scout – no phone service. We come out of the desert four or five hours later to all these texts and phone calls of people being like, “Are you seeing this? This is insane! They’re storming the Capitol!” And we were like,” Oh, my God. This movie is, in a way, even more relevant now. This is exactly what a cult of personality can do. And this cult of personality, it’s something that people just gravitated towards. And then. my God, look what happened.
Tell me about shooting on location in the desert. Did it present any unique challenges?
JR: It was really physical. We were outside in the elements every day. Part of that was great for us because we were shooting during COVID. So it was really safe, or, you know, as safe as possible to be outside. But that meant during the day, it was super-hot. At night, it was super-cold. There were a lot of snakes. We had a small crew, but one of our crew members was a snake wrangler, who had worked on Survivor and climbed Everest. So we felt very protected by him. The drive out there every morning from where we were coming was about 45 minutes. You would be driving out of the city of Los Angeles into the middle of nowhere. That part, I almost kind of liked because it set the tone for every day – like I’m leaving my life, and I’m going into the world of the movie. That part, part I really enjoyed.
CC: Because we shot 80 percent of the movie outside with natural light, we had to devise our entire schedule around not only actors’ schedules and the usual difficulties, but we also had to schedule around the movement of the sun. We had to figure out where the light would be best each day. We would jokingly call the sun another one of our assistant directors because we only had so much time to shoot a scene. If we took too long, the sun would move too much. And then the scene wouldn’t cut together because you’d notice that the shadows and the sunlight had changed significantly. It wasn’t like we had to shoot scenes in like 20 minutes or anything, but you couldn’t be like, “Let’s go half an hour over, and it’ll be fine,” because you wouldn’t be able to use anything.
Throughout most of the film, you pit Jillian and Blair against each other in very subtle and sometimes, not so subtle, ways. And much of the suspense hinges on their fragile relationship and trust. As I watched my allegiance was constantly shifting from Jillian to Blair. How did you strike that balance without tipping your hand too far to favor either one?
JR: It’s great to hear you say that. That was something that we were excited about from the beginning of the movie. How do we do a two-hander and write it sort of moving back and forth in perspective? So I think, initially, we were like, “Well, do we write it from Jillian’s side? Do we write it from Blair’s side?” And then, I think we had both sort of written individual scenes, and we realized they were different. And we were like, “Let’s do this on purpose. Let’s lean into perspective on the page, and then when we’re shooting, let’s lean into that, too. Whose side are we on? How are we? What kind of coverage for the scene are we devising to increase that point of view?”
I think some of it is just in the rollout of the information. You get a piece of information from Jillian, and the audience is sort of left with, “Do I believe this or not?” Then, we’re sort of doing that back and forth, so we’re sort of asking the audience to stack the blocks with them. and sort of question as they go, which I think some people are enjoying. Some people are like, “This movie’s too slow,” but you know, you’re never making a movie for everyone. You are your first audience. So we were developing the script to a point where we were like, “Oh, this is fun and exciting for us.” And then, you know, our producers felt the same way.
The last three new horror films I’ve watched, including THE AVIARY, have been very intimate, isolated films focused on just one or two characters – very small, compact casts. Do you see that as a trend in the genre, and what’s driving it?
CC: I do think it’s a trend. I don’t know that super-great things are driving it. Having written one and made one, I think it’s a great way to approach your first film because you don’t get pulled in too many directions. You don’t have, you know, 50 costumes and all these locations. You really can focus on getting really great performances and writing really strong characters and doing everything to the best of your ability.
JR: Even going down into how much coverage you have to shoot and how many actors you have to block, it helps keep things moving along when you have scenes with one and or two characters for most of your movie.
CC: Yeah, but I do think it can be very limiting. I think horror as a genre where there’s this tradition of viewing low-budget stuff – that I think is a really great tradition. It’s produced a lot of films, but post-Paranormal Activity and post-found footage, those budgets just kept dropping and dropping. When I first moved to LA, I interned at Afterdark films. They used to do the “Eight Films to Die For” every year they’d released nationwide on one weekend. Even those movies, I think at the time, had more of a budget for monsters and special effects and the ability to create these other worlds. [For] filmmakers starting out, it really can be very difficult to get the resources and the cast that you need. We were very lucky that we were able to get the cast we got because even a movie of our size without that cast would have been exceedingly difficult to get off the ground. So I think it’s a trend that’s driven a lot by just the practical realities of filmmaking right now. I think people are finding really creative, clever ways to tell stories within those contexts.
JR: Sometimes, restraints like that can really spark creativity, but part of me wishes we could just pour out giant trucks of money for every filmmaker.
CC: I think in horror, something that gets overlooked sometimes and is, I think, something that the industry as a whole, particularly with the rise of streamers, is wrestling with is that horror is a very aesthetically driven genre, and aesthetics cost money. So unless your aesthetic is a found footage movie, you’re really in a tight spot, because there are only so many aesthetic ideas that are gonna work. If you’re shooting a James Wan jumpscare sequence, which was the inspiration for one of the sequences in our movie, you just don’t have time to shoot the kind and amount of coverage that you need to really pull that off when you’re working on a low budget.
I think the industry is starting to move out of the era of slapping a monster on the cover being enough to sell a film. It used to be that you could just put that one image out there, and you might be good to go. Audiences are so much smarter now, and they’re watching everything. You know, Game of Thrones, Marvel, and THE AVIARY are all within one click of each other. If the stuff that young horror filmmakers are making doesn’t live up to that bar, it’s really easy for an audience to be like, “Eh, I don’t know.” It’s difficult.
Saban Film’s THE AVIARY is available to rent or buy on Prime Video.