When Rue Morgue spoke with writer and director Mickey Reece in early 2020, he said “the secret to my success is that you make a movie that no one has ever seen before.” Not only did he successfully utilize that approach for his much-lauded, dreamy, ’70s inspired, possibly vampiric movie Climate of the Hunter, Reece also seemed to apply this creative technique to his latest film, AGNES. which starts as a seemingly straight-ahead possession film before transcending the bounds of traditional cinematic exorcism fare. Quickly splintering and evolving into something completely different, AGNES is a beautiful, humorous, and tragic exploration of how grief and trauma can completely unsettle a person’s identity and spark an all-encompassing crisis of faith.
While displaying many of Reece’s stylistic hallmarks, crew members, and on-screen faces, AGNES marks a notable step-up in scope and scale for the quirky director. After the script caught the eye of the folks behind QWGmire films, an interesting array of doors began to open for both Reece and QWGmire alike. As one of the partners at QWGmire, the talented Molly C. Quinn decided she not only wanted to help bring AGNES to the silver screen, she wanted to tackle the important role of Mary on-screen as well. A seemingly perfect match made in Hollywood heaven, the union of these two passionate and driven celluloid-centric entities have created one of the most buzzed-about indie darlings of the year. Recently making its theatrical and VOD debut, we sat down once again sat down with Reece to discuss all things AGNES, its road to realization, and what fans can expect next from one of indie horror’s most wonderfully unpredictable directors.
AGNES is a film that harkens back to a past style and structure of filmmaking while also tackling some very specific horror tropes and subjects. What was the initial spark that set this idea train in motion for you?
So, I definitely had the idea to do an exorcist, Father Black movie first. We had planned to do an all Father Black movie about this kind of television exorcist. Now I’m like, “Damn. That would have been a good movie.” But then I did Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart and Climate of the Hunter and they’re both these very female-centric, moody, Bergman-esque blocking kind of movies and style that I was obsessing over and playing with. And so this one was like, “Let’s do that same thing, but with nuns.” That was really the starting point.
From there, it was adding in the exorcism elements and creating this kind of nod to exorcism films or, you know, a kind of satirical exorcism film. And then it was like, “Oh! Let’s throw in that Father Black character here that I wanted to do a whole movie about before. We’ll just have him as a small part here.” Now I regret that decision. I should have given him his whole movie. So that all came from there. And then of course when writing it, it just kind of came about where it was just kind of like, “Well, we’ve done all we can do here in the convent. Let’s get out of there.”
Then it was definitely exactly like what you were saying; From Dusk till Dawn, Psycho, Dead Presidents, and The Crying Game. These movies that are almost like a bait and switch, you know what I mean? Where you go in thinking one thing and then they become something completely different. And I guess that was the thing they were doing in the ’90s for a second. It was kind of like a form that never really took off, but it just felt right to kind of bring it back here.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie and not talk about Molly C. Quinn. Not only does she embody the character of Mary so beautifully, but she also played a critical role behind the scenes as well. Tell us a little bit about working with her so closely behind the camera as well as in front of it.
So, [the production company] Divide/Conquer had given [QWGmire] a lot of scripts and they had a bunch of scripts to choose from. And, for some reason, they chose this one. They were like, “You know, this was the most unique of them all. We want to do this one.” And I was like, “Cool!” So we met up to have ramen and started talking about it. By the end, it was like, “Okay. We’re going to do this. I guess we’re making this movie!”
Then we had to figure out how. Because, I didn’t have anybody specifically cast other than my regulars like Mary Buss, Ben Hall, etc. A lot of the parts just weren’t really cast and I didn’t know what they were going to be but knew we’d figure it out when the time came. So, when Molly came through and also wanted to play Mary it was like, “Oh, what a relief!” You know what I mean? What a weight off my shoulders. And then helping to produce everything too!? She has this kind of angelic quality where she creates this presence. Especially in the first half of the film where it’s like, there’s something about her character. Something is going to happen with that character, but you don’t know what it is. She’s just able to perfectly encompass that and then, boom. She sets us up for the second half where we’re following her the entire time. So, it was great and she was great. It was all one big happy family.
You mentioned the go-to cast of actors that you like to use and, honestly it’s a really lovely part about getting to know and watch your films. When it came to penning this script with your writing partner John Selvidge, did you write characters inspired by the actors and their abilities? Or did you just write knowing that you’d find a place for them somewhere? I guess, in the words of AC/DC, who made who?
So, Ben [Hall] was always Father Donaghue. Ginger [Gilmartin] was going to be Sister Honey, but then Zandy [Hartig] came in. So then Ginger played the grocery store worker. Mary [Buss] was actually going to play Agnes, but then when Molly was cast, it was like, “Well, let’s just switch things around.” We had just met Haley McFarland and she’s a little younger so we had Molly and Haley play Agnes and Mary. That way it worked so they could be friends and they had a relationship in the convent of just, you know, being buddies. We get a little taste of that through some of the flashback scenes. So with that casting decision, it was like, “All right. Mary can play Mother Superior!” There are always places for all of them, but I think as far as writing goes, the Father Donaghue character was the only one that was specifically written for Ben.
Especially considering how quickly and efficiently you make films, how crucial is it to have that team of actors you can depend on? What’s the biggest benefit?
Less explanation. With having worked with some of these actors on multiple films, I don’t have to explain anything. It’s just kind of like, “Oh, you’re going to go here and you’re going to say this.” And they are just like, “Yep. Got it. Done deal.” Whereas with other people, you kind of have to describe everything. It’s not necessarily a non-trusting issue, it’s just them not knowing you. When you work on multiple films with people, you start to speak a second language with them.
So, AGNES is one of your bigger projects and was your longest shoot to date. Did this larger-scale production change your approach to directing at all? Or do you think you’re a filmmaker who thrives within that “less is more” mentality?
It was the biggest crew and the most time I’ve ever had to make a movie, that is true, but it was still very much the same thing. You complicate it in other ways. Now it’s like, “Alright, now we have twice as many characters.” And with that, we have so many more people on the screen, so the scenes take a little longer to go through. For instance, we had one day that was the first exorcism scene and the second exorcism scene. The one with Father Black and the one that is just Father Donaghue performing the exorcism. We did both of those scenes in one day. So, it was still just the same thing of trying to work as efficiently as I can. You’re still going through it and trying to get through the whole day doing all that stuff. It’s still very much the same level of difficulty, but having more time and having more resources, that just made it a little easier. But it’s still ultimately the same level of difficulty.
Because there is a pretty large narrative turn halfway through the film, were there any stylistic choices or conversations you had to have with your DP and production designer to make sure it felt cohesive overall?
Yeah. That was…something. What we settled on was this drab kind of green. In the direction, it’s always going to be this kind of dream logic throughout the entire thing that’s going to unify everything. But, for the look of the film, we had this green look to everything whether they are in the convent or in the outside world. And, I think the thing that is most jarring in the outside world. People have said, “You change everything when you go into the outside world!” And it’s like, “No. The world changed.” Like, the movie changed in the fact that we were in this really drab convent and then we moved to the outside world where it’s all big colors and everything. And, there’s only so much you can do to unify that because it’s literally two completely different-looking locations.
So, we even tried to make Mary’s actual little apartment look kind of more like the convent. She’s still sleeping in a similar room to the one she had in the convent. And there were a lot of different elements that we tried to incorporate into that too to kind of unify it. But at the end of the day, we didn’t necessarily want it to be all that unified. We wanted it to be kind of a big surprise when she goes out into the real world.
Another member of the AGNES team that you’ve worked with before is composer Nicholas Poss, who created a very interesting and rather atypical score for an exorcism film. Were you involved in the musical direction of the film or did you just kind of trust him to create something for the film?
Well, I have a music background, so working with Nick is actually one of my favorite aspects of filmmaking. It’s kind of like, “Alright, let’s get this movie shot, and let’s get this movie edited so we can start working on the music!” I love that aspect of filmmaking. We went to a lot of different places for this, but to start out, we wanted the music to be very restrained and classical. It allowed us to throw in big surprises and these very layered, atmospheric things happening here and there.
And Nick, he’s great. He’s just great. We really get each other and he understands me. We’ve worked together enough times that it’s just like what I said about the actors: we have a second language where he knows what we need. Very rarely is it ever me coming back and being like, “Nick, this isn’t really getting it, man. What you need to do is…” We’re always reading each other’s minds.
You always seem to have a multitude of plates spinning so, what can folks expect next from you?
We just completed a movie called Country Gold. It’s about George Jones inviting a young up-and-coming country singer out for a night on the town in Nashville before he gets to be cryogenically frozen in 1994. Ben Hall plays George Jones and he is fucking great. He’s so funny. He’s so good. It’s all done and should be out in 2022 sometime.
AGES is currently playing select theaters and is now available on VOD from Magnet Releasing.