Visionary writer/director Scott Cooper speaks with No Film School.
I have been waiting for Antlers for a very long time. I remember telling multiple people two years ago about a gorgeous new horror trailer I’d just seen, set in the Pacific Northwest and featuring some of my favorite actors. I was excited. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and theatrical releases got put on hold.
But horror fans will finally get a chance to see this beautiful supernatural horror in theaters on Oct. 29.
Antlers tells the story of Julia (Keri Russell), who returns to her small Oregon hometown and connects with a withdrawn student, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). Lucas is struggling to cope with a terrifying supernatural force invading his family, while Julia and her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) deal with demons of their own.
I’ve already said it, but this film is visually stunning. The cinematography from Florian Hoffmeister crafts beauty from harsh industrial exteriors, somber small-town locations, and foggy nightscapes.
Cooper calls on some stellar talent to fill out the cast, including Rory Cochrane and Graham Greene. The storytelling is grounded and real. Cooper allows time for characters to grow and breathe, so every interaction feels like it has the weight of years of familiarity behind it. Antlers is definitely on the quieter side of horror, but that only amplifies the moments of violence and terror when they come.
Cooper was kind enough to speak with No Film School via phone ahead of the film’s premiere. He revealed he did not go to film school, making him a perfect interviewee, and generously provided advice on directing, working with monsters, and more.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: It is really interesting to see you as a director and a writer move into horror after your previous films. What do you like about working in the horror genre?
Scott Cooper: With each film, I really want to be on unfamiliar ground. I think artistic risk is one of the great pleasures of making art, and certainly making film. For someone who’s made a gangster film, and a Western, a drama with music infused, a Rust Belt drama—Guillermo del Toro approached me and he said, “Your last three films have been horror films, but nobody knows it.”
And I gave that some thought and I thought he might be right. And he said, “Would you ever consider an actual horror film?”
I said, “Yes.” Because horror films are among my favorites. And they’re also among the earliest experiences that I remember as a filmgoer. My much older brother would take his too-young younger brother to go see movies that I shouldn’t see, or certainly watch on laserdisc or VHS.
It was really important to me to think, okay, well, what is it that I want to say in order to make a horror film? Because I think the best horror films and the scariest ones hold up a dark mirror to America’s fears and anxieties. And we have a lot of them right now. So the themes that course through as I was writing the screenplay, I wanted to thread into the film, into the narrative. I try in my last couple of films to have some type of social commentary, and I think that horror has a real place for that.
NFS: Can I ask a little bit more about the development of the screenplay? Because I think I read a very early draft where it was a little bit more straight horror, thematically different. Can you talk about that process?
Cooper: I write all of my films, and I wouldn’t know how to direct somebody else’s screenplay. And Nick Antosca is a wonderful writer. I loved his short story. He and Henry Chaisson had written a script. And again, it’s my own weakness, probably the filmmaker. I feel like I have to go in and really, the film has to say things that interest me. I really believe that if I can find myself in my work, that others will see themselves. So then I thought about how do I take this seed of a story, this short story, and tell the story about generational trauma, tell a story about a young boy who is far too young to shoulder the responsibility that he deals with.
It’s a film about duty and self-preservation for Lucas, but self-preservation for Julia, Keri Russell’s character. And she sees in this young boy the same kind of trauma that she’s experienced and trying to help him, she attempts to help herself. But I would also say, so I just started to write and in the end what you see is what I felt the film should speak.
There’s quite a bit of ambiguity in the film. I like to pose questions for the audience to kind of come up with their own answers. I don’t think everything needs to be answered in a film. I think when we demystify everything, it’s not the key to a successful story. So along that process, I would send drafts to Guillermo and of course to Miles Dale and David Goyer, the producers, and the studio whom I love, Searchlight. And out of that came my version of Antlers, for better or worse.
NFS: One thing that I also really enjoyed about the film is that I felt you didn’t always do what horror movies traditionally do with editing or jump scares. You really stay in a few moments that are very gritty and hard to watch. Were you specifically trying to subvert those horror conventions, or what was your approach?
Cooper: Yeah, as best as I could. I mean, there are films that I really love horror films that certainly kind of mean a lot to my maturation processes. Filmmakers, certainly as a film lover of horror films, and that would be Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which I think is a brilliant film, kind of a disturbing look at a family defined by tragedy. Our family is defined by tragedy, right? In terms of abuse, addiction. I think his kind of groundbreaking editing is remarkable. And it’s one of the great, for me, horror films of all time.
You look at The Exorcist, which again is a family kind of at the center of a film that’s dealing with, in this case, the supernatural. My film deals with the supernatural. […] In the film, The Exorcist, the fact that the film was portrayed so realistically is what makes it so disturbing.
So I really wanted to infuse my filmmaking that had come before this film into a horror setting that would make it feel incredibly realistic. Also in dealing with immersing myself into the supernatural and the audience, hopefully, in a grounded experience. And then I look at Alien, which is one of my favorite films, which I think is definitively a horror film. I mean, of course, it’s a sci-fi film, it’s a monster movie and deeply political film, but I really Ridley’s kind of distinct use of darkness. He also didn’t reveal his monster until well into the film. He had an incredibly strong heroine, Ripley. I wanted Keri because Keri’s an incredibly truthful actor and very strong actor. So all of those films kind of influenced this, but I wanted to obviously make it my own and subvert what we expect from horror films, quite frankly.
I mean, truthfully, I also made the film because my two daughters, anytime they would have sleepovers or they would be watching films, invariably they’re watching horror films, but when I would show them Don’t Look Now or The Exorcist or Alien, they didn’t find them scary. What they find at a young age scary is films with lots of jump cuts and heavy foreboding music that does a lot of the heavy lifting for a film that’s not quite working narratively. So I kind of want to avoid that. Thankfully, they really like Antlers, but I think they would like anything dad-made.
NFS: Just a sidebar, I think a lot of your favorite movies are also my favorite movies. Alien, The Shining are top, top tier for me.
Cooper: Oh my God, yes. The Shining too. Geez. I mean, are you kidding?
NFS: What was the biggest challenge of working with a movie monster for the first time?
Cooper: Well, it was largely a practical, but there was some CG. I don’t have a lot of CGI in my films. That was new for me in terms of trying to make it feel as realistic as possible, but also not just a creature, but have the creature stand for something. In this case, the wendigo, all of my Native American advisors would tell me that the wendigo manifests in many ways, but first and foremost always is spirit. And I wanted it to be the spirit of lonely places like Cispus Falls, this town.
And I wanted it to kind of reflect our own demons and feed off of our worst potential. So how do you do that, but also using a practical as well as CGI?
So that was new for me, but I think the biggest challenge was dealing with two young actors who they’d never been on a film set or who were still seven at the time were seven and 12, and were still babies, essentially. And they were in dark spaces and attics and in mines and dealing with a big wendigo and very tough thematic material. And as a father, I always wanted them to be as comfortable as my own kids and to realize that this is a big sandbox and it’s all just make-believe, but it wasn’t easy for them and not easy for me for that reason. A lot of challenges.
NFS: What would be some of your best advice for directing horror?
Cooper: Well, I think whether it’s horror or any genre, if you can find yourself in your work, others will see themselves and they’ll respond to your work.
Also really look at the classic films that I just mentioned, Alien, Exorcist, Don’t Look Now, or even 28 Days Later as a newer film, Under the Skin, and watch those films, but then watch those films without the sound. And watch how these masters tell the story with a camera, with mise-en-scène, and then watch it again. And then you can understand this is how to approach difficult material, but also make it transcend the genre.
And most importantly, make it all very, very personal. I think the best films, the most personal films, are the ones that will resonate on a universal level.