High at the top of our list of must-see movies at this year’s Tribeca Festival – which you can stream through June 20 here – is Mickey Reece’s Agnes, an unsettling, off-beat film that sets itself up as a classic possession flick and ends up a different beast entirely.
Inside a quaint convent, young Sister Agnes explodes with an outburst of rage and blasphemy, causing the church to send veteran priest Father Donaghue and a younger priest-on-the-rise, Benjamin, to investigate the incident as a potential demonic possession. The heads of the church have an ulterior motive behind assigning this specific case to Father Donaghue, who’s been recently disgraced; Benjamin, meanwhile, feels suspicious of the whole endeavor. While at the convent, the young priest takes a shine to the reserved Sister Mary, Agnes’ closest friend who’s taken the evil spell especially hard. As the two clergymen get deeper into the situation, all involved have their respective faiths tested, namely Mary.
Agnes boasts a sublime performance from Molly Quinn, who not only stars as the troubled sister Mary but also produced the film through her production company QWGmire. It’s not surprising that Quinn saw a spark in the concept for Reece’s film, given his incredible output of inventive and outrageous independent feature films in the past decade.
I spoke to Mickey and Molly about the subversive elements of Agnes that make it such a stand-out selection at Tribeca and more.
The thing that immediately struck me right off the bat about Agnes is that it lacks the dryness that you get with a lot of films dealing with this kind of subject – exorcism films, films dealing with the church and clergy, etc. Is that something you were specifically aiming to subvert?
Mickey: Sure, I mean, the ideal way is to visually make it look like some European coming-of-age drama about some nuns or something, you know what I mean? But then I get too bored with that in the writing process. So obviously, you’ve got to throw in some jokes. It’s always a matter of, “how do we make this fun?”. But I was still very fascinated with the imagery of blocking a big group of nuns. That was always gonna be there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it had to be serious.
Naturally, a film dealing with exorcism and the church gives you a lot of room to explore the concept of faith in a variety of different ways. Molly, what was your experience of playing this nun character like, since I can’t imagine it’s the kind of role you’re approached with often?
Molly: Well, when we read the script, we were really fascinated at how this was a horror movie, but really takes a left turn. It starts classic, and then we just end up in a totally different world. More than thinking about the nun of it all, I was really attracted to this girl who’s just running away and will do whatever it takes to get away from her past and run from her problems, so that she would go to the lengths of becoming a novitiate and taking vows and becoming a sister. To me, it just shows what she’s willing to do to not deal with her trauma. So that’s more what I focused on. And then, of course, putting on the habit, everything really starts to click; because it affects your posture, it affects how you hold yourself, and it was kind of the final piece of the puzzle to creating Mary.
Mickey: It seems like you guys had a lot of fun in those nun outfits. I’m upset now that I didn’t get to try one on. [laughs]
You really missed out, didn’t you? Watching this has been a bit of a combo, because I’ve recently been re-watching The Exorcist and Ken Russell’s The Devils lately, out of complete coincidence. And it’s a hell of a look, isn’t it?
Molly: Yeah, absolutely. I think everyone to some degree is obsessed with religion and what it does to you, whether it’s the divine faith that it gives people, or the anger and mistrust. It’s just fertile ground for making films.
Absolutely. Mickey, as someone who seems to thrive in just constantly creating, I imagine the past year must have been especially difficult to be creative, at least in a hands-on productive way. I’d love to know how the both of you have found the past year, coming from such a creative industry.
Mickey: My canvas is the editing room, you know what I mean? Directing and collecting all the footage to get in there, that’s when I can really understand what it is that was made. Luckily, as soon as we started shooting, I started editing – and then COVID hit. So I just got to spend a lot more time in the editing room than normal. There was really no rush to get it out at that point; we didn’t know what the state of things were going to be. I got really lucky that we had a movie in the can to just sit and tinker with for a really long time. I think it shows in Agnes that there’s a lot of construction, reconstruction and deconstruction in all of it.
Molly: Yeah, we got really lucky that we were able to edit the film as the pandemic hit. That was also really fun, and it occupied your mind to be getting cuts bac from Mickey and giving notes and talking about the movie. When that was kind of over, I think it was a difficult few months for me; I was like, “oh, okay…what do I do now?”. I definitely had a rough transition from being busy and looking at our movie to going, “well, I don’t have acting classes. I guess I can read some scripts to figure out what we’re going to do next. But I don’t really know why, because I don’t know what’s going to happen”. So I lost my mind for a little bit there, and wound my way back through therapy and journaling [laughs]
I think all of us had to find some way to navigate around it all, and it’ll be interesting to see how things pan out long-term in reaction to that. Through everything you’ve both observed in the film industry and how it’s adapted (or not) during COVID, do you foresee many long-term changes in terms of film production procedure?
Molly: No. What I think the pandemic highlighted about filmmakers is that, at the end of the day, we are naturally problem-solvers. So we came up with solutions, and people much smarter and better than myself came up with solutions to keep the industry going. But really, now that there’s a vaccine and the world is able to open up again, I think everyone’s really excited to go back to normal procedure. The more people you can employ, that’s such a great thing. I think the shrinking down of sets, everyone did what they could. But I think everyone’s really excited to get back to work and to get back to normal.
Mickey: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m old, and old-school, and I just want to see movies in theatres. I think I’ll always be like that. I saw Cruella last night in theatres, and had just a ball of a time and loved it. Just getting to see something new in theatres, I loved that. I hope that never changes. But if it al does, and everyone just goes the way of streaming or that just ends up being the easier way to get projects going and funded, then I’ll adapt if I have to. But I would love it to just stay like it has always been, and hopefully it will.
Mickey, I was reading a slightly older interview with you for Agnes, and correct me if I’m wrong but I believe you said that this was the first film you’d directed where you’d been able to really do some location scouting and figure out exactly where to shoot this. Is that correct?
Mickey: Yeah. Usually it’s always been like, work with what you’ve got, work with what resources you can have, write around what you have. If we had a location, I’d write around that, or a specific actor, I’d write around that. This was constructed from the ground up. Molly and her team at QGMRE come through whenever they picked up the script, and we got a little bit more funding and resources and access to different actors. They helped us and gave us the ability to go and find locations, and make it like a regular movie, like having a crew that’s there helping you and find everything you need. Location scouting is one of the things, but everything really was elevated thanks to GQMRE.
That’s fantastic. It must have felt good to have that support and that freedom to do what you do best.
Mickey: Oh yeah, it was great. I learned a lot of new things.
AGNES is available for streaming through the Tribeca at Home platform through June 20.