Independent Filmmaker's Guide
October 6, 2020
Killer Queen - from Producer To Director: Jenn Wexler
Filmmaker Jenn Wexler is well-known and highly respected in the horror film community. In this episode, we talk with her about her love of the genre and how she strategically progressed in the film industry to not only direct her first feature, but also create an immediate cult classic. The punk slasher horror film, The Ranger.
Steven Pierce: I’m your host, Steven Pierce. Today I’m talking with a producer, writer and director that is well known and highly respected in the horror film community. One of her most recent features is the punk slasher horror film, The Ranger. And if you haven’t heard our full episode on the ranger, go check it out now. So now, our not so very scary guest, Jenn Wexler. Jen, how’s it going?
Jenn Wexler: Good. How are you doing?
Steven Pierce: Great. So how did you get involved in horror in the first place?
Jenn Wexler: So I’ve always been a fan of scary stuff. When I was a kid, I used to be the girl that wanted to tell ghost stories at sleepover parties and sleep away camp. And I watched a lot of, Are You Afraid of the Dark as a child. And then when I was 10 years old, getting into my teenage years, 11, 12, I became obsessed with the late nineties, teen slasher craze of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend and all of those movies. And then that really opened horror up to me. And as a teenager, horror movies were like a best friend, I started going back and teaching myself about the genre and learning what movie Scream was referencing and everything. And then in college, I got an internship at a company called FearNet, which was a hard TV channel. And that turned into my first job. They were moving from Philly to LA and I did the same thing. And I started working there as a marketing coordinator. And I was there for four years and I really learned about horror as an industry and as a business. And I learned a lot about marketing too. And I met filmmakers who were coming in for meetings and everything. I was like, “This was the best job ever. I want to keep working in this world.” And then I came across a company while I was there, Glass Eye Pix, who was making all these awesome, indie horror movies. I was working at FearNet around the same time that the House of the Devil came out and they also made The Innkeepers and I Sell the Dead and Bitter Feast and Fakeland. And I was just like, “Oh my God, who is this company?” So I moved to New York. I got an introduction to Larry Fessenden, who’s an actor, director, writer, producer, and the head of the company. And I told him, and another producer who worked there, Peter Phok, that I really want to learn how to make horror movies. And they took me under their wing.
Steven Pierce: Wow. You moved from LA to New York, but strictly because, to find that job?
Jenn Wexler: No, I was moving to New York anyway, but I had a list of like, “Okay, here are all the horror companies in New York that I want to-“
Steven Pierce: Yeah. You targeted places that you felt were good for you, that you had a passion for, that felt shared with an identity. Yeah. That’s a similar thing to how I got started in the first place. My first job was actually in radio and that’s exactly what I did, I was just like, “Hey, I think I’d be good at this. I want to do this.” And almost pestered them until they gave me a job.
Jenn Wexler: So you found the place that you wanted to target.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, at least at that point. Yeah. That I wanted to target. Now I’m from the middle of bumbfuck nowhere, Poplar Bluff, Missouri. So there weren’t many options. As far as other radio stations, there’s just the one, but I thought it was so cool to write and talk on the radio. I thought that’d be so cool.
Jenn Wexler: Yeah. Well, clearly it’s working for you because you’re great at it.
Steven Pierce: I don’t know. This is the first time I’ve ever done stuff like this from my kitchen. So it’s a little bit… I can’t tell if I’m going forwards or backwards, but we’re moving just the same. So you got in, you started working at Glass Eye Pix and you started producing right away, or how did you start there?
Jenn Wexler: No, so I had this background in marketing, so that’s how I first started. I was like, “I’ll do all your social media, I’ll run your Facebook, I’ll run your Instagram, just teach me how to make stuff.” And they were like, “Yeah, cool.” So I started doing marketing stuff for them first. And then they had these short form things that they needed to produce. So I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it. Teach me how to do it. I’ll do it.” And you really learned filmmaking by doing it. You learn it on the job of doing it. So, the first thing I produced was Larry Fessenden’s segment of ABC’s of Death 2. We shot it in the middle of Manhattan. That was a fast bootcamp of like, “Okay, here’s how you do these things.” And then I produced two segments for Chiller, which used to be a horror TV channel for an anthology they were doing. And it was nice because I had this safety net. I had Larry’s turned to, if I ran into anything. I had Peter to turn to. But I was the lead producer on these projects. So I was really just getting in there and trying to learn everything. And then I started thinking about features and then I ended up making the movie Most Beautiful Island as my first feature as a producer.
Steven Pierce: Most Beautiful Island and then you did later, Like Me, right? So how many films did you end up producing with Glass Eye?
Jenn Wexler: I did six.
Steven Pierce: So that’s a pretty great resume before moving into your directing debut with The Ranger, right?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: How did it influence you as a director?
Jenn Wexler: Well, I really wanted to fully understand how to make a movie before I was ready to direct. So I made Most Beautiful Island and Darling, back to back. And it was after Darling that I called my co-writer Giaco and I was like, “Okay, I want to start prepping my directorial feature.” Because at that point I was like, “Okay, I’ve done this once. I know how to make a movie. I know all the steps from raising money through delivering the movie to your distributor.” So then we were writing, but it didn’t happen right away. It took time before The Ranger got moving. So then I produced a couple more movies in the meantime. The more you do it, the more you learn to hone in. Your brain hones in on what’s important. What are the differences between directing and producing? Somebody totally new to it or somebody who’s produced and directed their own shorts, because you’re doing everything, maybe you don’t understand exactly what the distinction is. So it was really learning what is the director’s role. And I had the opportunity to watch all of these directors and watch how they were interacting with different department heads and how they were approaching different problems. And because I was the producer, in some cases, I was the lead producer on these things, I was with the director, solving the problems, facing the problems together, solving them together, supporting the director, supporting the director’s vision, trying to figure out, “Okay, we need this to get this shot. What do I need to do, logistically, to make sure that we can get this shot for the movie?” And that was all a complete education. I went to film school, but it was focused mostly in screenwriting. And so, I really learned how to make movies by doing them with Glass Eye Pix.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. Do you find at any time difficult with The Ranger where you’re trying to play the producer instead of the director?
Jenn Wexler: I started at first, but I had great producers on that and they were like, “Jenn, please stop. Please focus on directing. Put your brain over here. We got this.” So it was nice. In pre-production I very quickly was able to move to just focus on directing.
Steven Pierce: How did you find your transition into working with actors?
Jenn Wexler: It was a complete joy and so much fun. Producers, especially when you’re early on doing it. I was so focused on contractual stuff. I was so focused on the logistical stuff, making sure everybody was happy in terms of that logistical stuff, that I did not take part in that, nor should I have, that creative relationship. So, when I finally got to, as a director, it was just the most lovely, wonderful thing. And to prepare for it, I took acting classes because I really wanted to understand, “Okay, well, what is it like to be an actor? What is it like to have people looking at you? To have to delve into this emotion while a bunch of people are just waiting for the clock to run out so they can go home?” What does that feel like? So I really wanted to put myself in that place. So I took these acting classes and it was totally helpful and I have so much respect for actors. And I think that they’re completely amazing humans that can tap into this emotional energy in the middle of so much going on. And that’s a true, magical power. So yeah, getting to work with Jeremy Holm as The Ranger and Chloe Levine and the rest of our cast, they were the best team and I had a blast.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, it’s amazing how resilient actors are and have to be. They just take a constant beating, even on a good day. A good day for an actor sometimes is living through the worst day of someone else’s life, over and over again. So, and that’s a very, very smart thing to take acting classes because I know a lot of directors and DPs and crew people that don’t really have any appreciation for that and that vulnerability and that challenge, so that you can get to a moment where it does sometimes come down to checking ego with people on set, right? Where it’s like, “Stop tweaking the light. It’s time to shoot.” You know what I mean? Like, “We’re ready. We got to go.”
Jenn Wexler: Yeah. For me, what I love to do is create a language with the actors. I have my own language with each individual actor and we have our own understanding, our own bonding over the material. And we’ve taken the time in pre-production to create this character together. As the director I have an overall understanding of the whole movie and the themes of the movie and the things I’m trying to hit and the things I want to really rise. I have that overall thing, but I can’t get into the interior of the character. The interior world of the character is like an ocean, it’s like an entire sea. So I want to create, I want to have the initial conversations with the actor. So we’re both diving into the same sea together, but they’re the ones that have to go on that dive.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, no, absolutely. And they have to fill it the whole way. Was The Ranger your first directing thing or did you do short films before that?
Jenn Wexler: I did shorts before Glass Eye Pix. So before I produced anything, I had made my own little, three minute long horror shorts and I did a couple of them and they were really fun, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. And I was just putting things together, trying to figure it out. So when I shot The Ranger, it’d been a minute since I directed shorts. I directed a teaser for The Ranger. So that got me back into it a little bit, but directing The Ranger was my first directing thing in a long time.
Steven Pierce: So, you shot the teaser to help with financing and get the whole thing together. Right? How did that all come together? How did you get the resources together to make The Ranger in the first place?
Jenn Wexler: So, I had a script that my co-writer Giaco and I had written, I started putting together different materials. I started to create a lookbook. I showed it to Larry Fessenden again, who I was working for at Glass Eye. And he was incredibly supportive, but financing is its own thing. I started showing it to different producers that I knew different finance people. What I found was really helpful is I started applying to things. It was my first feature. I’m a female director, so there’s different grants and stuff available to me. So I got into this thing called the Kickstart Diversity Program and it wasn’t a grant or anything, but they offered discounts and stuff and they offered tools to get you in the right mindset and stuff to go out and make your movie. So that was though, for me, the first stepping stone, because it was like, “Look, this is an organization that believes in the movie. So you put that in your look book.” Then I submitted to the Frontieres Market at the Fantasia Film Festival, which I talked about on another chat with you guys, but it’s this great program where you pitch your concept to a room full of industry people and investors. And that went incredibly well. You have all these one-on-one, speed dating meetings over the course of the weekend. We met a ton of people. A lot of people became aware of the project. We got press written up about it. So all these things, they’re all things that then you’re like, “Look, all these things believe we’re part of this program and we’re part of this program.” So when you’re talking to producers and investors, look at all the people that believe in us and you have to really start building your team that way and you have to start putting your team together. The thing that investors and producers want to know is that you’re confident and you have a confident vision. You know what the movie is and you are the person to tell it and you know how to tell it and you know how to make it. And you prove those things by saying, “This is who our DP is and this is what else our DP has done.” If you have any producers attached, in this case, I had Larry Fessenden as a producer. “This is Larry Fessenden, Glass Eye Pix, they’re a producer on the film. So, you’re providing safety for the person who’s thinking about giving you money. So, that’s what we did. And ultimately we raised our financing.
Steven Pierce: That’s amazing. How much did you end up with, percentage wise or, just generally, was this all privately funded? Was it all private equity basically?
Jenn Wexler: Yes.
Steven Pierce: And so you ended up owing that money back to investors for a profit share on the backside of the film?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: Got it. You’ve made your money back through a release of shudder and through TVOD, I assume, a combination of that. Was there anything else that helped contribute to making that whole?
Jenn Wexler: Tax credits help. You can either use your tax credits towards production-
Steven Pierce: Right. Did you use it as a finishing fund or as a revenue stream?
Jenn Wexler: Revenue stream.
Steven Pierce: That’s smart. That’s really smart. And you shot upstate New York, right?
Jenn Wexler: We shot a little bit in New York city and then the rest, upstate New York.
Steven Pierce: So yeah, that’s like a 40% tax credit, 35% tax credit, I can’t remember. I think it’s 35 right now.
Jenn Wexler: It’s 30%. Well, it just changed because there was just a change in the tax credit. Now it’s 25 if you shoot in New York city and 35 if you shoot in certain places, but it’s only on labor. We can have a whole conversation about tax credit stuff, if you want.
Steven Pierce: Totally. I’m all into it. I think it’s very interesting because it’s very hard to understand. So, what we were just saying in case somebody doesn’t understand is, you can take two approaches that I understand with tax credits. One, you can view them as “We’re going to raise X amount of money,” 75% usually, your budget or whatever, get it in the can, and then use that tax credits for post finishing, marketing, P&A, whatever you want to do, which is not really the best way to do it, in my opinion. The best way to do it is raise 100% of your funding and use that tax credit to benefit your investors as guaranteed money back. Right?
Jenn Wexler: Right. Exactly. So at least no matter what the investors know, even if this movie bombs, I have this amount that will come from the state in a couple of years. I’ve only done it in New York. So I don’t know how other states work, but the only problem with the first way that you said is that, New York you have to submit your final film before they’ll accept your application.
Steven Pierce: Interesting. So, that wouldn’t even work in New York.
Jenn Wexler: So it doesn’t work, unless you can… Which I’ve never done, so there’s people that can speak to it much stronger than I can, unless you can sell the credit to someone else and then get the money that way. But in that case, you’re giving them a percentage. So you’re not getting the full amount from the tax credit.
Steven Pierce: Yeah. You get 89 or 90% of the credit. But I think that’s more palatable in Illinois and Kentucky and Georgia. I think you can do that without having to complete the production, but I’m not actually certain about that. I’d have to look it up.
Jenn Wexler: So anyway-
Steven Pierce: Talk to tax credits.
Jenn Wexler: If you’re able to get 100% of your budget and then use that as a revenue stream, that’s ideal.
Steven Pierce: That’s fantastic. Okay, cool. So how did you go about making the deal with shudder? How did that come about?
Jenn Wexler: So one of our producers, Andrew van den Houten was also our sales agent. So we world premiered at South by Southwest and we played a ton of festivals. We worked really hard to get a lot of buzz for the movie. And by doing that, we released teaser art even before we shot anything. We released teaser art saying, “This movie is coming.” And then we released a cast announcement. EW released the teaser art, Variety released the cast announcement. And then we had our world premier set for South By, and as we got closer to that, we released festival art and we released a trailer. So we did everything we could to get the word out about the movie. So people were aware of the movie, to create buzz so that when we did premier, there would be-
Steven Pierce: Some people there that would be interested, hopefully.
Jenn Wexler: Yeah. People would be excited about it. They would know about it. We would be one of the movies that they were like, “Oh, did you see this movie?” So, that was our goal. It seemed to have worked well. So then out of South by Southwest, our sales agent made the deal with shudder.
Steven Pierce: So what was your festival strategy? That was your marketing strategy, leading into South By for the premiere. Did you target South By specifically for any reason?
Jenn Wexler: South By had always been a dream of mine. When I worked at FearNet, years before I had gone to South by Southwest to take photos of the red carpets and stuff. And I was just like, “This is the best festival ever. I’m having so much fun. I’m so jealous of all these filmmakers, my dream is someday I’ll have a movie here,” whatever. So when The Ranger got in, I was ecstatic and it was the best.
Steven Pierce: So did you hold off, I guess, to release? Did you go to them first or were you thinking about other festivals? The other tiers, like Tribeca or Toronto? Did you just apply to all of those and you’re kind of waiting to see what happened?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah. You want to follow the calendar. It depends when your movie is finished and when you’re ready to start showing your movie. And then you’re following the festival calendar. So for us, it made a lot of sense to submit to South By because the movie was close to done at that point. So we submitted. Had the movie been finished in June, we would have been submitting to different festivals. But most people want to follow the calendar and see what’s coming up first.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. So, great. What was the IFP Narrative Labs Fellow? You were a part of that as well, right?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah, I was. That was for a movie I produced called Only a Switch and it was an amazing experience. I encourage everybody to apply to the Narrative Labs. I think I had only shot Most Beautiful Island and maybe Darling at that point, but those movies weren’t even done yet. And so we had Only a Switch and those two movies and I was like, “It just teaches you everything about post production through delivery.” Every question you could want to know, like how to work with sales agents, how to find a distributor, how to have those conversations with distributors, so you know you’re choosing the right one, do your dreams for the movie match up, your expectations for the movie? These are all conversations you should have when you’re talking to distributors and they’re interested in your movie and you’re trying to figure out who you should go with. Do you care more about the money that they might pay you, or do you care about creative control? Maybe one distributor will give you creative control, but they’re not offering an MG. Whereas another distributor will give you a good MG, but you have no creative control over the materials. These are all questions filmmakers have to ask themselves as they’re trying to sell their movie. So, the Narrative Labs taught us all about all of these things and what to expect. And they brought people in to talk to us and it was a really lovely experience.
Steven Pierce: Fantastic. So what do you think you’re going to point to next? Are you still aiming to direct? Is that where you want to stay in that lane now, because that’s where you wanted to go?
Jenn Wexler: Yeah. I just have so much fun directing. I love producing also, but directing just hits a different part of my brain and it’s just so joyful. So for now I’m focusing on directing.
Steven Pierce: So Jenn, where can we find you? And more importantly, where can people go see your movie?
Jenn Wexler: I’m on Instagram at bubblegumandblood and Twitter at J_Wex. And the movie is on shudder and you can also get the blu-ray or the DVD or the VHS from Amazon and all around the internet.
Steven Pierce: Fantastic. Jenn, it’s been awesome to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Jenn Wexler: Thank you.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.