The Ranger director Jenn Wexler on having Buffy Summers as a horror hero

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Jul 13, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

After its debut in the Midnighters segment at SXSW 2018, The Ranger has been met with acclaim from critics and audiences alike. A love letter to punk culture and '80s slashers, The Ranger, which will soon screen at the Fantasia International Film Festival, stars Chloe Levine (The Defenders, The OA) as a pink-haired punk grrl whose obnoxious friends take on a very unhinged park ranger played by Jeremy Holm (Mr. Robot, House of Cards). 

SYFY FANGRRLS talked to director Jenn Wexler about her film, being a woman in horror, and how Buffy the Vampire Slayer shaped her worldview.

What was the writing process like for The Ranger? How long had it been knocking around in your brain?

I went to school and majored in screenwriting at this college, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. The Ranger was [then classmate, now co-writer of The Ranger Giaco Furino's] project for his senior screenplay. I was always just super into the concept of punks versus a park ranger, because it felt like something that I should have already seen, like some '80's movie or something. It brought to mind all these super colorful visuals, it's all comic booky and stuff. So I was always just ... you know, he's one of my good friends. I was always just, "Yeah, that idea is so cool."

Then it took a couple more years before I started making movies and working for the production company Glass Eye Pix and really understanding how movies are made. I produced several movies for them. Then anyway, I started to think about what I wanted to do for my first feature as a director, and I remembered his screenplay. So I called him and I was like, "Yo, can you find that script, and can we work on this together, put our own sensibilities now into it now that we've been out in the world a little bit and more known a little bit? And can we work on it?" He was super into the idea, so then we ... that was probably in 2014, so between 2014 and 2016 we were kind of working on it off and on. Then in 2016, I started trying to raise money, and then we shot in 2017.

Has horror always been your preferred niche, or is it just kind of happenstance that it's where your career took you?

I love horror. Since I was a kid, I used to hang out, make my friends hang out with me after school in graveyards and try to do seances and stuff. I was 10 years old when Scream was released, which is the first horror movie I ever saw. I was the perfect age for it, because then I was starting to enter adolescence as the late '90s slasher craze was happening with I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend and stuff. I was also watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer at that time. So horror was really helping me enter into adolescence and become a teenager, and it was kind of the way I was able to relate with the world. Then those movies opened the gateway, and then I started learning about the history of horror, slashers, and watching '80s and '70s movies and whatnot. 

Then when I was in college, I did an internship for this company called Fearnet, which is a horror television network that was owned by Lionsgate and Sony. It no longer exists, but it was around for a couple years. That turned into my first job working in marketing for a TV horror network. So pretty much since I graduated college, I've been working in horror in some capacity. It's a big part of my life, and I really want to keep doing horror stuff and exploring the different subgenres of horror.

The thing you just said a minute ago about horror and Buffy, how that kind of shaped your worldview, I feel the exact same way. Was it more about how it made you view archetypes of yourself, as a woman, [and] ultimately your worldview?

I feel like collectively we kind of feel [that] there aren't that many female role models in pop culture. Or at least that's how we have been feeling. For me, I never felt that way, because Buffy was such a huge part of my development. She was a complicated heroine, and she had her girly things. She tried to be a cheerleader in one episode and whatnot. But she also was being treated as a human, not being treated as a sex object. I think so many other kinds of properties in pop culture throughout history, but definitely in the '80s and '90s and whatnot, kind of treated the female characters as the sex objects for the male protagonist. So I'm so fortunate, and I feel so lucky to have had Buffy Summers as a role model as I was going through that very tender and specific age. As I was growing up, I always just thought it was a normal thing that you should have complicated women on screen. Then I think I started to become more and more aware of the fact that [Buffy] was the outlier. 

So then, when I started to think about the types of projects I wanted to make, from a producer perspective and also definitely a writer/director perspective, it was always really important to me to have fully fleshed-out female characters. They can make some bad choices, that's fine. They don't have to be ... when we say strong, it doesn't mean they have to be necessarily taking people out physically, but complicated is really the word, nuanced. 

When I started working at Glass Eye Pix, I started bringing material to Larry Fessenden, the head of Glass Eye, that kind of showed women dealing with different struggles and just trying to get through their life. They all are following women around and watching and letting the women kind of deal with their struggles.

Certainly, all of that was what I wanted to explore with The Ranger. With The Ranger, it's kind of outrageous, there's all these crazy comic book, outrageous characters, and just kind of outrageous '80s punk sense of humor to the movie. But it's all around Chelsea, the main character, she anchors the movie. It's really her story and about her kind of just shut out all these people telling her what to do, so she can figure it out who she is.

Slasher movies and the punk scene, they both have this DIY sensibility. When you were thinking about that script, what was it about those worlds that it seemed like they fit together so well?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, horror and especially slashers and the punk scene all have that DIY sensibility 1000%. I think horror attracts a lot of filmmakers 'cause, I don't know, there's something about the idea of making your own blood and stuff. I think people get really excited about horror from when they're kids, when they're teenagers. You know, people used to read the different horror magazines and learn how you could [be like] Tom Savini, who would like make his own effects and blood and everything, and then go out and try to copy that on their own. So horror absolutely has that DIY sensibility. The punk scene obviously does too. 

My co-writer Giaco and I, we're really into '80s punk movies. Class of 1984 is one of my favorite movies of all time. And obviously Return of the Living Dead and Suburbia, and there's a movie called Smithereens that I really like that came out in the early '80s. Yeah, I just wanted to kind of take this group of kids and put them in the woods, because I personally ... when I was growing up, I also would go to punk shows. I lived in the suburbs [and] now I live in the city, so the woods have always been kind of foreign and scary to me. Yeah, the woods are a terrifying place. So taking that group of kids from suburbia and putting them in the woods was very exciting. 

Horror as a genre is this interesting world where we have so many female Final Girl protagonists, but it always kind of feels like the major horror directors and creators are men. Has that been a challenge?

Yeah, I mean, I was always just so into the genre and always wanted to make movies. I think that maybe ... I can't speak for everybody, but it took me a little bit before I felt really comfortable and confident to be the director. I had to produce several projects before I was like, "OK, I know what I'm doing." I feel fully confident that I can jump into this and direct it. Whereas I think ... I'm speaking in generalities right now, but I think that maybe our society is more conducive to allow male filmmakers to feel confident right off the bat without having to learn every single thing first before they feel confident. So in that way, I would say, maybe the way society treats women versus men affected me differently.

But on the whole, especially when I was making the movie, I never felt anything ... my cast and crew were all absolutely amazing. We were just a family, and there was just complete respect. And same thing as we've been showing the movie, I just felt from the film community and from viewers complete, like ... I don't think sex is really a part of it at all. Except for maybe the choice to tell a story where the character's backstory and her nuances and discovering herself take so much priority.

How did being a producer for so long prepare you for directing?

I advise anybody that's interested in filmmaking to spend as much time on set as possible. When you're producing, especially if you're a hands-on producer, when you're line producing or UPM-ing, you're right in it with the filmmaker, you're right in it with the director. And that's not just when you're making the movie, but that's through all stages of the process, when you're raising financing, when you're in post-production and working out your deals with your post-houses, and when you're going to the festival and you're showing the movie for the first time. You're with the director through all their pitfalls and triumphs. Producing really allowed me to understand filmmaking in all ways. 

Also, I was able to help these directors discover their vision. While I was doing that, I was writing The Ranger, so I was really thinking about, "OK, well, what's my vision? When I have the opportunity to direct this, what do I want to say with it?" So, yeah, I love producing and I love the community of filmmaking. 

The Ranger will screen at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 23.

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