Travis Stevens’ love for genre film is clear as day in the last decade of his career as a producer and director, including independent hits like Cheap Thrills, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Starry Eyes and Mohawk. Stepping back into the director’s chair once again with a follow-up to his 2019 directorial debut Girl on the Third Floor, Stevens’ latest is Jakob’s Wife, a horror-comedy starring horror legends Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden as a middle-aged married couple whose waning marriage is challenged by her unexpected transformation into a bloodthirsty vampire by ‘The Master’ (Bonnie Aarons).
Anne is married to a small-town minister and feels like her life and marriage have been shrinking over the past 30 years. After a chance encounter with “The Master,” she discovers a new sense of power and an appetite to live bigger and bolder than before. As Anne is increasingly torn between her enticing new existence and her life before, the body count grows and Jakob realizes he will have to fight for the wife he took for granted.
I leapt at the opportunity to speak with Travis about some of the bold creative choices made with the film’s look and feel, his adoration for the vampire subgenre and why Crampton and Fessenden are such wonderful ambassadors for horror.
You’ve made some pretty bold creative choices with Jakob’s Wife; in particular, I adore the old-school, Nosferatu look of the vampires. That’s something we don’t get often, and I’d love to know how you came to that decision.
Travis: Thank you. I think in the 90s, and even later than that, the alt-vampire movies that I loved were rebelling against or trying to do updated versions of what a vampire looked like. I certainly loved that. But now in the 2020s, I felt like it’d been a while since we’ve had a traditional-looking vampire movie.
Although this movie is certainly in the same vein as alt-vampire movies like The Addiction or Larry Fessenden’s Habit, there’s also sort of a throwback element to the style of movie. That was one of the thoughts, that if we’re going to make a vampire movie, let’s make it feel like a capital V vampire movie.
Another aspect was that when it became evident that the Master should be a woman. I thought that was something we hadn’t seen before. It’s sort of the classic design for a female vampire done with an interesting update to it. So it’s kind of a combination of wanting to do something new, and also wanting to reference classic movies that had come before.
It’s something that’s been really nice to see people respond so well to.
It’s been a while since the Twilight franchise was on the scene, but that gave a lot of horror fans weariness of vampires in pop culture in general. But I think we’re well ahead of that now, and it’s a good time to explore the vampire as a horror icon.
Travis: One of the smaller goals of the film was to work in many homages, references and tributes to my favourite films in this subgenre, from Ganja & Hess to Daughters of Darkness to The Hunger to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
There are these incredible vampire movies made at a time that does such a great job of expression or exploring a theme or the culture of that moment. I thought it would be fun in this film to incorporate as much of that DNA as possible, while also trying to do some new stuff with genre as well. It’s kind of a creative engineering aspect of the process.
It’s a lot of fun to be like, hey, where can I sneak in a little wink to Klaus Kinski?
I was going to mention the newspaper for Kinski County! That definitely brought a smile to my face.
Travis: Yeah, exactly! Just little stuff like that. The Sheriff was Mike Hess, the dentist was Meda from Ganja & Hess, Amelia Humphries was named after Charlie Humphries from The Hunger.
There’s little winks in there that hopefully don’t weigh the movie down with too much “aren’t I clever!”, and instead add some additional enjoyment for people who do love this genre.
Barbara Crampton’s character Anne is a character I feel we don’t often get in the vampire subgenre all that often: a middle-aged woman going through a midlife crisis, struggling with fleeting self-worth and self-image, imbued with this new power.
Travis: That was the thing that was most appealing about the concept, that we can actually explore something grounded in truth. And the fact that that kind of transformation that Anne goes through mirrors the transformation that Barbara was going through as an actor, taking a more active role and the types of movies that she was making, just seems really beautiful. It was exciting, and I felt really fortunate to be invited to participate.
Between Barbara and Larry Fessenden, you’ve got some absolute genre icons and two people who are so happy to be part of the culture that they’ve been part of for so long.
They embrace the horror community so warmly and choose such interesting, independent projects that are trying to do something a little different, which is absolutely the case here.
Travis: Yeah, for sure. They are such great ambassadors for the very best aspects of this genre. The one thing I admire about both of them is it’s not just about them – they’re using their position to help other people achieve their dreams and their goals. And that’s beautiful.
It really is. That’s something I find even just on Twitter, in particular. Not just for horror, but wider genre and independent filmmaking too; there’s such a wonderful online community out there for people who have been part of this industry for decades and aren’t just being forgotten.
They’re actively part of the world they helped create and foster, and to see them together on the screen like this is something special.
Travis: There was a lot of pleasure working with them. We met and worked together on We Are Still Here, and to come back together again after being friends for so long was a really unique experience. It’s an experience you don’t often get in making a film, where your core creative team has years of friendship. I think it really benefited the movie and suddenly made the process of making the movie a lot more fun.
The score by Tara Busch is fantastic. It has the familiar notes of an old-school horror score, but approaches them in a way that really grabbed my attention rather than just sitting in the background.
Travis: You know, all of our department heads wanted to hire women so that the feminine voice in this film would be as strong as possible. In order to amplify the feminine, hiring talented women to add their creative touch for the film was one of the priorities.
Even at the script-writing stage, I reached out to Tara and said, “hey, I’m doing this project that I think you might be good for. Have you ever thought about composing music for movies?”. She said yeah, it’s something she’s wanted to do.
So our partnership began much earlier in the process than it normally would. We kind of go and make the movie and then we figure out who would be the best person for the score to fit the vibe. In this case, she was sending us music during pre-production and during shooting. Her work actually contributed to the DNA of the film in the process of making it as well. She’s incredible.
I think our creative approach for this was that with a synth bass score, and certainly more contemporary scores, you can have a drone or repetitive quality. This film has kind of a throwback sort of characteristic, comparable to some of those movies with Barbara Crampton that put her on the map back in the 80s. So in analysing what an 80s synth score does compared to a Goblin or more modern, repetitive bass score, we noticed that the 80s ones had a lot more space and a lot more peaks and valleys.
The timing was also really, really precise to what’s happening on-screen. So a lot of our work together was in figuring out what timing and what shot, what moments and what beats would need an accent, where we’d need silence to set up the editing of the music as well as the tonality. Tonality was another aspect that we looked into too; trying to find something that could evoke church bells, the locations like when we’re in the warmth of the house, and the metal, industrial aspects.
I mean, I’m going on and on about this because it’s a really fun part of the process, especially when you’re partnered with somebody who’s really creative. You can really have these types of discussions and it’s absolutely invigorating. It doesn’t always happen. It’s like, “this is making a movie. This is what it should be like”. So I appreciate Tara Busch so much.
I can absolutely see why. It’s cool that you were able to find that synergy throughout the entire creative process.
Travis: Yeah, she’s amazing. And I know she’s going to be doing a ton more scores on other people’s movies. I can’t wait to hear them.
Now that Jakob’s Wife is on the edge of being out there for everybody to check out, what’s next on the horizon for you?
Travis: There’s a new movie that we’re out to cast that will hopefully shoot this year. But as with anything, I’m just looking forward to being on the other side of this pandemic and having life expand a little bit; seeing movies in theaters with a crowd, seeing live music, going to a museum and art shows. I think the past year has given an opportunity to dive into artwork in a different way, but I’m really looking forward to the shared experience of being out in public with other people who are also excited to be there.
Exactly – that film festival, Midnight Madness feeling that I haven’t had in a hell of a long time now. And I desperately want that, man.
Travis: That’s it, you know? I think we’re going to see a lot of movies come out in the next couples of years; small movies that people made outside of the normal production model. And I think maybe we’ll see some bigger movies that benefitted from having a bit of extra time to develop their scripts. I think we’re going to have a golden age of cinema across the spectrum in the next couple of years.
JAKOB’S WIFE is in select theaters, on demand and digital April 16th.