Arriving in theaters and on digital platforms everywhere this Friday is the psychological/survival thriller The Aviary from co-writers/co-directors Jennifer Raite and Chris Cullari. The film stars Malin Akerman, Lorenza Izzo, and Chris Messina, and follows two women (Akerman and Izzo) as they make a daring escape from a cult through the treacherous terrain of the New Mexico desert, all while dealing with the lingering effects of their time in the cult that makes it hard for them to determine whether or not the horrors they are experiencing are real.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with both Cullari and Raite about their experiences collaborating on their feature film debut. During our chat, the duo discussed the inspiration behind the story of The Aviary, how the film (scarily) mimics some aspects of modern-day society, working with their cast, utilizing New Mexico as the backdrop for their mind-bending story, and more.
So great to speak with you both today, and congrats on the film. It really kept me on my toes the entire time. I'd love to hear a little bit about how this story came together and what the inspirations were behind it.
Chris Cullari: Yeah, Jen and I have been writing together for a long time. Cults have always been cults and identity and belief have always been core to some of the things that we write about, so we were looking for a way to try to distill some of those ideas into something that we felt we could tackle as our first movie. And really, the first piece that came to us was the very opening of the movie. As we were talking one day, we had this image of these two women running across the desert, and they looked back at some kind of strange building that we can just barely see in the distance. One of them keeps going and one of them waits a little too long and keeps looking. We had that image, and we had the idea that we wanted to do something in the world of cults and leaders and followers. Everything just kind of sprouted from that.
I'm curious, too, for you both, do you feel because of things that have been going on in our society over the last eight to 10 years or so, do you feel like the idea of cults is a little scarier now than maybe it was before then? Because previously, I was like, "Well, who really falls for this kind of stuff?" And these days I'm like, "Oh, I totally understand who falls for these kinds of things."
Jennifer Raite: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the first things we were talking about was that the cult needs to feel contemporary. The cult needs to feel like something anyone watching the movie can feel susceptible to. Because we really wanted that in the lead characters, where you don’t have the audience lean into the idea of, "Oh, you dummy, how did you end up in this cult?" but totally understanding why it would have appealed to them. And giving two totally different perspectives on two different kinds of people who could have ended up in it, which felt relevant and even more scary.
Chris Cullari: I think the reason cults feel more like something that anyone might find themselves falling into is because we live in a society of influencers and followers, literally. Everything has the potential to turn into a cult now. I think you not only see it on the internet but even at work. There's been this recent wave of TV shows and movies about tech companies just this year that I feel like we're slightly in conversation with, like WeWork or Theranos. Those weren't cults, but a lot of the behavior borderlined on cult-like behavior. But the lines are getting fuzzier and fuzzier. For as much as we love to escape the Satan cult subgenre, we really wanted to come up with a villain and a cult that felt like everything you're hearing and seeing for the most part feels benevolent, but there's clearly something wrong beneath the surface.
Jennifer Raite: I think particularly as our culture becomes more secular, there is this deep human desire to believe in something bigger than yourself, to give yourself away to faith. And I think that's a big piece of it, of wanting to contribute to something bigger than yourself and giving yourself over to it.
What I thought was really fascinating about this is setting this story in New Mexico, which isn't usually a backdrop we see a lot in movies. I really loved it because these characters were heading towards Gallup, which is always a stop on my drive when I go to festivals in Texas. Was there something in particular about New Mexico and that desert backdrop that you felt really lent itself to this story particularly well?
Jennifer Raite: I think there were a couple of things. We're both Northeast, from the woods kind of kids, so that's where we grew up. I think the desert to us, because it's something we're so unfamiliar with, it has a very different kind of mystery. It's the fear of wide-open spaces instead of claustrophobic trees. It's funny that you mention it because we did that drive, probably not as many times as you have, but we drove to Fantastic Fest 10 years ago, and I remember calling our agent from somewhere in New Mexico and he was like, "Keep going. You don't want to stay there" [laughs].
Chris Cullari: The desert, every time I go there, even when I go out to Joshua Tree and stuff with my friends, I can't get on its level. It's so dead and barren. To me, when we knew we were going to be writing a story about these women on the run, it really felt like the desert was the place to set that just because every survival element becomes that much more present. You really end up fighting the elements. I can't imagine people who came west in the 1800s hitting a desert. I can't spend two hours in the desert. I can't imagine being, "Well, we're just going to keep going and hopefully we won't run out of water." It really tests everything about a person. So, it was mostly a way to heighten that feeling of impending doom.
I'd love to talk about your cast in this, because Chris is very much an integral part, but Malin and Lorenza, watching the two of them go back and forth in this was just phenomenal. I just thought there was something really fascinating about the back and forth between them as they're making their way through this very unforgiving terrain.
Chris Cullari: Malin was someone that we wanted to work with for a long time. She's a really fantastic actress and we were writing the role really with her in mind.
Jennifer Raite: As we were doing revisions, leading up to production and starting to talk to our producers about who we wanted to go out to, she was our first choice. And as we were doing these last drafts, we were both writing in lines thinking, "Ooh, I'd like to hear it. I think she could really deliver this." At the very beginning, it was just sort of this little fantasy because rarely, rarely, rarely does your first offer even want to meet with you, let alone do the movie.
So, the offer went out and then the holidays happened. This was early December. And in January, we were saying to each other, "Okay, it seems like we’re probably not going to hear anything. Who do we maybe want to talk to next?" Then, we got a call from her agent saying, "Malin loved it. She wants to have a meeting." So, we were floored. The thing that drew us to her for the role was that we knew that we needed Jillian to be a leader figure and to be pressing forward, but we never wanted her to seem naive or like a Girl Scout leader, who's just, "Let's keep going. We're great." And Malin has this really steely ability to really make you believe that things are going to be okay. "Put one foot in front of the other and we're going to get through this." It's like this inner strength that she has that spoke to us in some of her other roles where we were like, "Oh, she would be perfect for this."
And then once we cast her, we started looking around for actresses that we felt like, just based on their work, that we could see working well with Malin. And Lorenza is not only a really strong actress, but she gives this incredibly genuine, terrified performance in Eli Roth's Green Inferno. She's just pushed beyond human limits in that movie. She’s the only reason I can get through that film because it’s so intense.
Chris Cullari: Yeah, we knew Lorenza's character’s world comes unglued in different ways than Malin's character. We not only need the ability for an actress to bounce off Malin, but to really be able to portray that fear and bring the audience into her emotional ride. When we got them together on Zoom, in an instant, we were like, "Oh, we're good. This movie's going to work." I'm so glad that people are responding so well to their performances because we shot for 14 days in the desert, in the heat, in the cold with snakes and bugs and everything. And just day after day, they showed up and they knocked it out of the park. Especially as first-time filmmakers, it was just such a gift to be able to work with them and know that they were bringing their A-game every day.
I know we're pretty much out of time, but I did want to ask one last question before we wrap. I'm a really big believer that whenever you do something creative, obviously you put something of yourself into that project, whether you're writing, directing, whatever it might be. But I also feel like you take a piece of it with you as well. And I'm curious for both of you, looking at your experiences working on this project, what has been your biggest takeaway from The Aviary, whether it's something that maybe affected you personally, maybe professionally, or maybe it's a combination of both?
Jennifer Raite: I think part of it is almost what we started talking about, of a constant awareness of thought and, "Why do I think that? Why do I like this? Why do I want that thing? Where is that coming from? Is that coming from me or is that coming from some piece of outside influence?" I find myself checking those thoughts all of the time after getting so deep into that with this movie.
Chris Cullari: Yeah, part of what we really wanted to explore was that feeling of even when you're aware of how you're being manipulated, you're still being manipulated. There's still a level below that, where you can be manipulated. But here's something we haven't really talked about yet, I guess. I would say what I took away is how rewarding making art with not just dedicated people, but a lot of your friends is, because so many of the people on this movie were incredible. Our producers, Jessica Rhoades and Andrew Miller, we worked with in television a whole bunch and they had our creative backs the whole way through. Our cinematographer, Elie Smolkin, we've worked with since college. Our composer, Zac Clark, we shot music videos for, and then this was his first score. We brought him in and he knocked it out of the park.
Our sound mixer, our AD, too—they were all people that we have worked with over the years and have become our friends and become our family. This was the first real, I don't want to say test, of how that would work. But it was the first time we really were going to have everybody together doing the thing for real. And I walked away from the experience with just such a glow in my heart that we could do it. Everybody had a good time and it was a safe space for everyone to create. I'll hold that with me forever, no matter how many movies we make.
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