Faith, family, and snakes tangle at the center of Them That Follow, a thriller set in the Appalachian mountains. Nestled among back roads and thick wilderness, a secretive sect of snake handlers thrive in a community so tight-knit it can be suffocating. As pastor's daughter Mara (Alice Englert) reaches marrying age, she's faced with some big choices about her future. Compared to that, picking up poisonous snakes isn't all that scary.
Them That Follow is the first feature film from co-writers/co-directors Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage. It boasts an incredible cast, including Academy Award winner Olivia Colman, acclaimed character actor Walton Goggins, beloved comedian Jim Gaffigan, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' Thomas Mann, and Beautiful Creatures' Alice Englert. Following the film's bow at SXSW, SYFY FANGRRLS sat down with Poulton, Savage, Mann, and Englert to learn the secrets of this faith-centered thriller.
For Poulton and Savage, the path to Them That Follow began in film school, where the pair first met and collaborated. "When we graduated, we wanted to turn our creative friendship into a professional partnership," Poulton said. "We were really brainstorming what stories we wanted to tell, what things we were interested in exploring." Their first inspiration came from a very personal place.
"My family has belonged to the LDS church for generations, since its existence," Poulton explained, referencing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "So that really framed my worldview, and that was something I really struggled with growing up when it came time for me to define myself against the family and culture I was born into. I really was interested in telling a coming-of-age story that dealt with those things, that dealt with reckoning this life and the next, and how much pressure that puts on a young person as they're coming into themselves."
Savage suggested they focus their story on snake handlers after being enraptured by NYT reporter Dennis Covington's book Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia. Poulton, who grew up with the "very restrained experience" of Mormon church services, was fascinated by the Pentecostal worship. "It's a very raucous experience," she noted. "It's a very external experience. They're really exercising their relationship with God out loud and with each other. I found that electrifying and fascinating. I understood — even more so than my own faith practice growing up — why people would be drawn to that energy, that catharsis, that purging every Sunday. And so I was like, 'Yes! This is a movie we need to make.'"
But researching snake handlers proved difficult. "We didn't get to go to one of the churches that actually practiced snake handling, because they're super reclusive. It's illegal in all states except for West Virginia, so it's really hard to actually be with those communities." Instead, the filmmakers took their cast to a Pentecostal service to give them a sense of the faithful fervor that inspired the film.
"When Britt and I first embarked on this writing process a long time ago," Savage explained, "our guiding principle was that we wanted to be respectful and we wanted to tell these folks' story with authenticity to the best of our ability. Not coming from one of these communities, we took the burden of representation very seriously. And so, truthfully, it took us two years to write the first draft of the script, because we had to spend a lot of time acclimating ourselves, not just to the teachings of these communities, but also to what everyday life is like."
"Their rhythms," Poulton added.
"What are their rhythms?" Savage continued. "That being said, all of these churches are different. There is no one single unitary snake-handling church. They all have their own individual practices, teachings, relationships to the outside world. So ours is just one of many. And we also did — when necessary — pull from other Christian teachings or pull from biblical verses to sort of create a broader tapestry of faith practice."
Another key element in this representation lies in the film's presentation of the snake handling itself. "These communities are very easy to mock and malign," Savage said of the group he finds misunderstood. "And I think that some folks when they come to this movie are going to be expecting to see snakes left and right, snake handling every five minutes. But the truth is that when these folks pick up the snakes, it is a very serious, solemn occasion. It's not something that they do without intention. It's something that they do when they feel called."
"We wanted to be honest to that. We wanted those moments when there are snake handling to be special in the movie and to be motivated by the characters," he continued. "I think that in a lot of ways was really the guiding principle, was restraint and trying to be authentic to the experiences of these communities."
"The idea of the responsibility of representing those moments," Englert mused of her own on-camera snake handling. "I didn't feel any concern about that, because the act of dealing with the snake is so immediate and visceral that you're not really worried that you're going to f*ck it up."
"It's so powerful," Mann noted. "And you're like, 'Oh, this is really beautiful! It like seduces you almost."
"It's actually kind of a relief as an actor when there's weather or there's a beast involved, because you don't have time to pretend," Englert continued. "I basically did this movie because I wanted to have a snake on me. Honestly. Not solely, but the dream of what that would be like! That's why I was so understood [Mara], and why I don't think it's so insane that people do this. Because the idea of being in a space where a creature that could kill you doesn't is so intoxicating, I get that, totally."
Them That Follow made its Texas premiere at SXSW. The film opens in theaters June 21.