The 2017 SXSW Film Festival is currently in full swing, and among the features making their world premiere in Austin, Texas this year is action thriller The Archer. Directed by Valerie Weiss, the film follows champion archery competitor Lauren (Bailey Noble) who escapes from a juvenile detention center run by a bow-hunting warden (Bill Sage) and his sadistic son (Michael Grant Terry).
I had the chance to sit down with Weiss and her cast during the festival’s opening weekend, where we discussed the challenges of creating a female-centric action film without venturing into exploitative, B-movie territory, and the relevance of The Archer‘s political and social themes.
The Archer is a pretty big shift in tone and subject matter from your last film, The Light Beneath Their Feet. What was it about this story that made you want to try something so different?
Valerie Weiss: You know, I read the script and the action was just so exciting, and the fact that it was a female character, and the archery – it’s just such a sexy sport, because it’s so primal. It’s basically just like an extension of your body, it’s like your inside coming out. I thought that, visually, that was just a really interesting space to explore in an action film.
So I was really attracted to that, and then what I wanted to do with it was to be able to bring what I did with The Light Beneath Their Feet, which is to get these very real, raw performances. I wanted to make an action movie that women would be really excited to watch, because they could really empathize and get in the heads of these action heroes.
A lot of times when people hear “female-led action film,” they conjure images of girls in bikinis carrying shotguns, but that’s now what this movies does. Everything about this feels real, it feels authentic, it feels genuine. Was that something you were consciously trying to stay away from?
Valerie Weiss: Absolutely. First of all, it doesn’t interest me to make that kind of movie, and that was sort of the fear and the danger of having a project like this turn out that way, which I didn’t want to do. So all of the choices, even what [Lauren] is wearing when they escape from the cabin – she looks really tough, she’s got that tank top on and it’s sexy, but it’s totally justified by the story. So every choice I made was always based on “what would this really look like” and “what would really happen in this situation?”
Bailey Noble: Yeah, absolutely. For me, the work that I put out there, I want it to be real and I want people to relate to it, I want it to mean something and I want it to have a bigger purpose. And I felt that immediately when I read the script.
Michael Grant Terry: Yeah, and also with Valerie, immediately it felt very real. I think my character and Bill’s character can just be plain old evil on the page, and I think being able to bring light to them as actual human beings and some of the struggles they have was really wonderful.
Bill Sage: Yeah, we were lucky to have Val. She was interested in the texture of why these men were like this.
Bailey Noble: And that’s what I love so much about your character, Michael. You do such horrible things, but I can’t help but feel sorry for you, in a way, because it’s the way you were raised. It’s just like you understand why he’s… off.
Without giving too much away, there’s a moment in the film where we get some insight into the relationship between Bob and his son, and why both of these attitudes toward women. Up until that point, these guys are like you said – they’re just evil – but when that scene occurs, it forces you to re-examine everything. What was it like for the two of you to get into that kind of headspace?
Michael Grant Terry: That was my first day on set, actually, which I think is great, because it throws you right into it immediately. But we had also been doing table work with Val beforehand, so I think that was valuable – otherwise, if you’re just walking on set after reading the script for two days, it wouldn’t have been possible.
Bill Sage: And [Michael and I] spoke on the phone. Before we had even met, we came up with our backstory and what we thought that was, and created that relationship.
Michael Grant Terry: Without giving stuff away, Bill came up with a fantastic idea during that scene that wasn’t actually in the script, that really changed the dynamic of it. It just takes it to another level, and you understand why these guys are like this.
Bill Sage: And that’s Val. She’s wanting us to bring stuff to the table, and you have to have a director that’s going to allow for moments like that to happen.
One thing that’s so interesting about Lauren is her transformation. When she gets backed into a corner, something overtakes her and she becomes this sort of heightened version of herself, and I think that’s a great message to put out for other young women to see. Was that something you were always conscious of, something you wanted to convey in your performance?
Bailey Noble: Absolutely. We talked about the different things that make her go crazy, and make her want to snap. Why does she suppress those things? At the beginning of the film, she’s a lesbian, but she’s not out, and that’s constantly eating her up on the inside. I think so many kids deal with that kind of thing all the time, and I think that’s something that was so cool about playing this character. She’s so strong and athletic and determined, and I would hope that any girl would watch this and say “I can be badass like that, I can take charge of my life and speak up for myself.”
The subject of violence against inmates is something that has been explored in numerous films and TV shows, but it’s rarely explored from the female perspective. And when it is, there’s a tendency for those types of things to feel a bit exploi-
Valerie Weiss: Exploitative. [laughs] That was kind of my mantra the whole time, because things could’ve gone that way in someone else’s hands, and I never wanted to make that movie. I don’t think it does a service to anyone, women or men, to keep perpetuating those kind of images. So things in the script that were there, I took out or changed and substituted something else.
Were there any concerns about the exploration of female sexuality affecting how audiences perceive the film itself?
Valerie Weiss: It was definitely a strong consideration, because on the page those scenes could be very different in the hands of another director. This is a little spoiler, but there’s a shower scene in the movie, and we had an amazing cinematographer named Adam Santelli, and he kept saying “does it have to be in the shower?” He was worried about it being exploitative, that he was trying to come up with different ideas to have it feel less sexy.
And it was good, actually, to have that challenge – having to discuss it and analyze it and figure it out, and ultimately come up with the way we shot it. Which I’m so proud of, because it’s so much about their faces and all about their feelings. I think it challenged us to be really creative and inventive, and explore that relationship in a way that we don’t see very often.
Bailey Noble: I love those moments where everything is sort of stripped away, because it’s real. For my character, she’s held everything inside for so long, and I think she finds power in speaking up and owning who she is, and I think it makes those moments more intimate, and less sexual.
I don’t think it’s a big secret that our current sociopolitical climate is a rough place for themes of female sexuality and female empowerment. Do you think the way audiences respond to the film will be affected by some of those outside factors?
Bill Sage: There’s an age-old problem in this country, where you can convince another person that the reason they don’t have what they think they should have, in terms of the American dream, is because of this black person, or this brown person, or this woman. And we’re dealing with a situation now where that culture is now in charge, and it’s convinced a critical mass of the population that shows up to vote that the reason they don’t have those things is because of someone else. And this movie touches on some of those themes.
Valerie Weiss: I feel like, especially in a time where everyone is confused about what to believe from news sources, which is not something we’ve ever really had to worry about, I feel like storytelling is more important than ever. Good storytelling speaks to you on a visceral, emotional level, that somehow gets more to the truth of what our hearts need to be woken up about. So whether it rubs people the wrong way, or validates what they already believe, I think it’s a film that could be a really important wake-up call for a lot of people.
It’s interesting, because when we were making the film, the political overtones were definitely not lost on us, but we were also sure we were going to have a female president. And now that the political situation played out the way it did, this film no longer feels like a cautionary tale, it’s like a three-alarm fire. Let’s wake up, let’s understand how much oppression there is with the private prison system, and attitudes toward women that are incredibly destructive and dangerous. But I think it’s also an inspiring movie that shows the strength of characters like Lauren, and wakes up courage in people who see it.
Bill Sage: I think our film is more valuable now.
Bailey Noble: I absolutely agree. I think it’s important now, more than ever, to speak up and to fight for human rights. These are basic human rights.
Michael Grant Terry: And with the role that private prisons are playing with immigration, and the amount of money they’re making by exploiting human rights, this film is incredibly important. I’m actually glad that it’s coming out at this point, because it’s a subject that needs to be raised.
The Archer will screen Friday, March 16th at the SXSW Film Festival.