'Jakob's Wife' Director Travis Stevens On Directing Horror Legends In A New Take On The Vampire Movie [SXSW 2021 Interview]

A nightwalker strolls into a small suburban town and all hell breaks loose. Married to the local minister, Barbara Crampton's mousy Anne Fedder has been shrinking over the past 30 years, suppressing her adventurous ways in order to be without blemish. At her husband's behest, Anne is quiet, withdrawn, devout. It's not until a creature of darkness descends upon her quaint life that she becomes privy to the fact that she's lost herself inside of the image of what her beloved wants her to be.

However, once she's tasted blood, she grows an insatiable appetite to live a little larger. Be a little bolder. The only problem is that her fierce new attitude comes equipped with the added bonus of a heavy body count.

I was fortunate enough to speak with writer/director Travis Stevens about his sophomore feature Jakob's Wife, which is world premiering at SXSW via their online platform. We discuss vampire lore, subverting genre tropes, giving Crampton the chance to wield more of the many tools in her arsenal, what it means to have a lust for life, and making movies for adults.

 Jakob's Wife premieres this week during the virtual edition of SXSW.

I'm really curious about where the initial inception came from for this movie because it's such a unique idea. It's got remnants of classics like Nosferatu and Salem's Lot, but I think it's really cool that you decided to focus on a minister's wife in particular. It's such a special way to shake up the traditional vampire lore. How did this idea come to fruition?

So Barbara Crampton had been sent the script that was written by Mark Steensland, by Shriekfest, it had won a screenplay award there like five years ago, and they sent it to Barbara and she read it and was like oh my gosh, I love this. And then she spent many years developing it with different writers, and worked with Kathy Charles, and they got a draft that seemed strong enough to send to directors. Barbara sent it to me when I was out supporting Girl on the Third Floor, and I read it, and could immediately see the potential for this, not just to be a good movie, but to be a transformative role for her. There is this correlation between what the character Anne Fedder goes through, and what Barbara was going through personally and professionally, where she was stepping into a more active role as a producer in the stories that she was acting in, and that parallel, I was just like, this is really interesting, and this is something I would like to be a part of. 

My work on the screenplay was about focusing the story on that and on Anne. On her autonomy, on finding her own voice, as well as trying to thread in qualities and tributes to what I think are some outstanding vampire movies, as well as add some new contributions to that sub genre that hopefully people like. There are these multiple objectives throughout the writing process and how they juxtapose and butt up against each other I think is what gives the movie its personality. Because this is a movie about Anne, who is this sort of docile, submissive minister's wife, setting the story in this small, drab American town, and then having this gothic fantasy element come into that town and light everything on fire, that was basically the starting point.

I love Barbara Crampton, and Anne Fedder's story is such a fascinating arc for her as an actor, but also, like you said, it does sort of mirror Barbara's own career as an actor, and now as a producer. I especially thought of the way she had stepped away from acting for a little bit, and then came back into the scene, and breathed new life into the scene when she returned, and it was really neat to see that represented onscreen.

It was fun to give her something new to do, but also have the movie call back some of the classic style of horror movies that she did in the '80s. It was like okay, I want this movie to give her grounded, naturalistic performance scenes, but I also want it to have that Stuart Gordon quality in other scenes, where you're like, Barbara Crampton and a whole shit ton of blood! Let's go for it! So, that was one of the interesting things, because both her and Larry Fessenden are such known quantities in the horror space that a lot of the fun was deconstructing that a little bit and finding new things to do with them that played against people's expectations, so yeah, it was just fun. It was like painting with some really bright colors.

The way Barbara channels that lost lamb look really makes the intensity happening around her seem so fun and absurd.

Yes. Thank you. Absurdity was the goal. It was like, what would it be like if your small town grandmother, you walk in and she is bottling blood like she was canning peaches. That absurdity is what drove a lot of the screenwriting, trying to find things like that.

I feel like it subverts tropes in more ways than one. It's honestly just really nice to watch a movie that's made for adults, especially in an industry that seems to value that less and less, and is more and more interested in making superhero movies – which can be great! And can be super fun, and they have their own reasons for existing, but at the end of the day, they're really made for children. It's refreshing to watch something that's made for adults, that's telling different kinds of stories.

Yeah exactly. I mean this is an ongoing conversation, but like, movies are art, and art reflects what's happening around it at the time, and to have a complete style of art be removed, both the fact that it's a story about an elder couple going through some relationship adjustments, the fact that it's a movie about older characters rediscovering their passion and their own sort of sense of sexuality, is something that you just don't see a lot in movies anymore. I'm very grateful to the horror genre because it allows us to explore these sects of ideas in a format that distributors and financiers are not scared about.

One thing I kept thinking about when I was watching Jakob's Wife was how we define life and death. Like, the idea of a dark and dangerous vampire hanging around, versus this woman who has become very docile and mousy over the years, and how life and death is less defined by who's drinking blood and who's reciting scripture, and more about who has a lust for life, and who is no longer excited by things anymore.

That's it. I mean that is the key to the map that this movie is, the vampire element in this thematically represents a lust for life. Not eternal life. The existence you now have. What are you doing with it? How strong is your heart beating? How strong is the blood flowing through your body? How passionate are you about the things that you're doing? Go for it. Embrace it. Your life can be whatever you want it to be. Just go. I think that's what I'm interested in, in making these movies, is using the plot elements to talk about thematic ideas like that.

Between Jakob's Wife and Girl on the Third Floor, you seem to — and maybe I'm just reading too much into it, I don't know — but it seems like there's an affinity there for men coming to terms with their patriarchal value judgments, and – sometimes through religion, I noticed there is a bit of scripture quoted in Girl on the Third Floor as well – but I was just wondering if you would talk a little bit about what intrigues you so much about the sociology of men's complacency in unhappy marriages, and why you, as an artist, see fit to explore that.

Thank you, I'm glad that you picked up on that. I think as an artist, you're trying to bring some of your own understanding of life and your own experiences to the work. I think over the past ten years, my understanding of relationships and what women's experiences are like has changed dramatically, and so it's something that I want to explore. I consider these two films part of a cinematic trilogy that sort of looks at, hey, what can we do to make these experiences better? What can we do to be better partners? What can we do to be better people? How can we listen better? And I got this opportunity to put that type of exploration in movies, in front of people who maybe haven't had that same awakening, and it seems really important and I'm grateful for it. Obviously you don't want to beat anyone over the head with it, but this is the core of what these movies are about, it's about being better. Being better humans. Being better men. Being better partners.

For the faith element in both Girl and Jakob, my own practice began earnestly five years ago and contributed a lot to deepening my understanding of human suffering in others and myself. It has played a significant part in my growth, and if that helps plant the seeds in someone else on their journey, that's a victory.

You've had a lot of women work on your movies, and I noticed the other day, you put the word out that you're looking to work with a possible female DP for your next project. I think it's great, and I was just curious why it's so important to you to work with more women, and to make sure that they're included in your collaborative space?

It's like you want to work with the best, and the best part of what makes somebody the best is the experience they get honing their craft, and if these people aren't getting the experience they need to hone their craft, they won't ever become the best, and you won't get a chance to work with them. So if I can help people get more experience and define their voice and sharpen their voice, that's what I want to do. In my experience, certainly in Girl on the Third Floor and Jakob's Wife, which have such a feminine nature at their core, working with female collaborators helps amplify that voice. And just, I like it. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but I think in my experience, it has brought such a unique texture to the movies that I made, that I want to encourage other people to do that also. To help people who might not have had a chance to work on movies, as well as to help yourself make more interesting movies. It's invaluable to add other perspectives to your life and to your work. It's a learning process, but pays huge dividends.

And I'll just add to that, a great example is Tara Busch. She's a musician, and I knew on Jakob's Wife I wanted as many female department heads as possible, and I knew that I wanted the score to have a feminine quality to it to mirror Anne's voice. I wanted the score to reflect Anne's internal dialogue. I reached out to Tara Busch and I said Tara, I know you've never worked and you've never done movie music before, would you consider doing the score for this film, because I think your music is super cinematic. And she said Yes, absolutely, I would love to do that, that's something I've wanted to do for a long, long time. Let's do it. So then through the writing stage, through production, through post production, she was writing music and sending it to me. It made the movie better, and it also gave her a chance to do something that she already wanted to do, and nobody had asked her before. So it's a win-win.

That's so great, because that is something that I think a lot of people don't think about, they just look at the names that have already been out there, and they're like, well, we couldn't get Karyn Kusama for this project, so I guess there's no other female filmmakers in existence. It's just nice to hear that you were like, I like the way this person's music sounded and I decided to offer them an opportunity to grow as an artist!

Yeah and we have to give room — and this isn't just about female filmmakers — we have to give room for artists to grow and hone their craft, and there needs to be room to practice. And if that doesn't happen, if people are only looking at the Kusamas for a role, and not looking at the people who maybe could do it, if not as well, then close to it, well then, it's all gonna die. It's like, you need to tend the soil so that another year's harvest can come in. If we want this to be sustainable, to keep going, to keep nourishing all of us, then we need to tend the field. We need to keep growing, planting seeds, nurturing them, raising it and harvesting it over and over and over again. 

You've been in the game for a while now, you have done so much on the producing side and creatively, but now you're on your second film as a director. I'm wondering, what would you say that you've learned about your craft as a filmmaker over the course of working on this project?

Well I'm definitely still learning about the craftsmanship. There's the mechanical and technical aspect of filmmaking that is its own magic, and everyday I'm learning something new about that. One thing that I am getting more confident in is my voice as an artist, and the ability to identity what I want to say with a project, and how to communicate that in a way so that other people can see the vision, and that's really exciting. As a producer, so much of what you're doing is selling somebody else's vision, or helping somebody develop and nurture and find their vision. It's really nice now to be doing that same sort of work for myself, and that's definitely something that I came away from Jakob's Wife being like, okay, I guess I'm a filmmaker, too.