Ted Geoghegan exploded onto the scene in 2015 with the award-winning 2015 horror hit, “We Are Still Here.” His directorial debut paid tribute to the filmmakers and movies that helped shape him as a young creative. In 2018, Geoghegan returns to entice audiences with another captivating film. A no-holds-barred action-thriller, “Mohawk,” centers around a young Mohawk warrior who is pursued by a contingent of military renegades set on revenge after one of her tribe sets an American camp ablaze. Fleeing deep into the woods they call home, Oak and Calvin, along with their British companion Joshua, must fight back against the bloodthirsty Colonel Holt and his soldiers – using every resource, real and supernatural, the winding forest offers. Praised as “gripping” and “a wild ride” by Indiewire, and “realistic and very personal” by The Hollywood Reporter, “Mohawk” unfolds over the course of one bloody day during The War of 1812. Birth. Movies. Death. says, “[Mohawk] does a fine job of reminding us that sometimes the truest horror is that of our own history.” RogerEbert.com called the film “A searing genre hybrid.”
“Mohawk” stars Kaniehtiio Horn (“Hemlock Grove”), Justin Rain (“Fear the Walking Dead”) and Eamon Farren (“Twin Peaks: The Return”) along with Ezra Buzzington (“Justified,” “The Middle”). It also includes Ian Colletti (Arseface from AMC’s “Preacher”) Jonathan Huber (aka WWE Superstar Luke Harper) making his big screen debut. “Mohawk” marks the second team-up between writer-director Ted Geoghegan, producer Travis Stevens, cinematographer Karim Hussain and Dark Sky Films. After a triumphant run on the festival circuit, Dark Sky Films announced the theatrical release of “Mohawk” on March 2, with a simultaneous VOD and HD Digital release.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Ted Geoghegan to discuss the inspiration for the film, the challenges he faced in bringing it from script to screen and the lessons learned along the way.
It’s been a few years since we connected about your last film, “We Are Still Here.” You returned with an awesome new period piece called “Mohawk.” Tell us about your inspiration for the project.
To dive right in, with “We Are Still Here,” it was literally a love letter to the filmmakers I had grown up adoring. I wanted to make something that paid tribute to all of these amazing artists I had spent my whole life loving the movies of. For my follow up, I wanted to do something different in that I wanted to pay tribute to not necessarily a filmmaker but a group of people I had felt somewhat indebted to. When I moved to New York City years ago, I knew nothing of the Mohawk people. The word Mohawk to me growing up was simply a haircut! When I moved to New York, I started noticing that everywhere I went, I would see these signs that said “Made with Mohawk construction … ” or “Mohawk ironworks.” I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. I went home and started reading up on it. I discovered not only were the Mohawk these incredible people who were indigenous to New York and its surrounding areas, but they also built the city that I now call home. The Mohawk quite infamously claimed to not suffer from vertigo and that claim actually allowed them the ability to work on virtually every huge skyscraper during the modern birth of New York – The Chrysler Building, The Empire State Building and so on. These are all iconic structures that were built predominately by Mohawk people. I felt some sort of odd connection, although I myself am a white man of European descent. I was blown away by the fact that there were these foreign people who were native to the place that I now called home that I knew nothing about. I found myself wanting to learn more and more about them. From there, I started studying and researching their culture. The more I learned about them, the more I was impressed by these people and felt quite indebted to them. As it goes, after “We Are Still Here,” one of my chief concepts was to make a film about people that I cared about. These were people that I almost immediately fell in love with upon moving to New York. Thankfully, the pieces came together, and we were able to make the film with real Mohawk actors and with the support of the Mohawk Nation. I feel quite good about it!
As you should! “Mohawk” is a great film and I loved the authenticity. As you alluded to, “Mohawk” is a bit of a 180 from “We Are Still Here.” Was the new approach something you did by design?
Absolutely! I love haunted house movies. I adore haunted houses and I plan on making many more stories about haunted houses, but I also didn’t want to be the haunted house guy. I know that there are so many stories to tell and there is only so much time we are given to be able to tell those stories. I decided that, given the fact I was very lucky to be able to make one film, the fact that I was able to make two made me feel that I owed it to myself to make sure that the second story was different.
Fair enough! One of the things that makes this film spring from the screen is the awesome cast you assembled. What went into finding the right people to make these characters jump from script to screen?
The heart and soul of the film is Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays Oak. Kaniehtiio is a native Mohawk and she came recommended through my director of photography, Karim Hussain, who had actually directed her in a segment of “The Theatre Bizarre” several years ago. She was the star of his segment of that anthology, which was called “Vision Stains.” When I proposed to him the idea of making this film called “Mohawk,” he said, “Ya know, there is only one person I can think of for the lead in this film and she is actually Mohawk.” I immediately jumped at the opportunity and said, “Please, please, please! I’d love to meet her!” We jumped on a call, very early on, and spoke about it. She was extremely passionate about the project. Not only is she a very proud Mohawk but she actually told me, “If you hire anyone else for this part, I’m going to kill you!” [laughs] I felt quite lucky! Once we had her onboard, we reached out to other actors. Something I was very intent about, especially during the casting process, was to make sure all the Native American roles in the film were portrayed by Native people. Unfortunately, there are very few Native American people left in the world anymore due to all the atrocities of history and that, unfortunately, makes ones talent pool so much smaller. We wanted to make sure we were still able to cast this film with actual Native American people and, when we started looking around, we were blown away by all of the incredible talent we were discovering! We discovered Justin Rain (“Fear The Walking Dead,” “Blackstone,” “Defiance”), who plays Calvin Two Rivers, who is a Cree. I was actually familiar with his work from a handful of other things. Because he is a Cree, he was extremely excited about the idea of playing a Mohawk. He told me that he had always admired the Mohawk people and was really in-tune with their culture, so he jumped at the opportunity to play one. Sheri Foster, who plays Oak’s mother, was also extremely excited about the film. I was familiar with her work from “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix, where I thought she was extremely fun. In “Mohawk,” she has a small but pivotal, not funny role but she certainly lands it! [laughs] With our antagonists, we were very lucky to find a who’s who of phenomenal actors. Ezra Buzzington, who plays Holt, I was very familiar from a lot of his horror titles over the years. Noah Segan has been a longtime friend and someone I’ve been very eager to work with! Robert Longstreet was someone else I was very excited to work with after seeing him in countless films over the years. We were very surprised and excited about the prospect of working with Jonathan Huber, who is best known as Luke Harper from the WWE. He had never acted professionally before. I always tell him, “Every single day, you are acting professionally in the WWE!” [laughs] He jumped at the opportunity for his first big screen role and really slayed it! He’s a wonderful, wonderful talent and I feel very honored to have been able to direct him in his first film. I hope that he gets to make a lot more!
Was there anything you wanted to attempt with this film, from a directorial standpoint, that you might not have done in the past?
Yes! From day one, we knew this was going to be an extremely challenging film. The fact that we were making a period film set 200 years ago during the War of 1812 on a limited budget, is something that no one would dare try to achieve. Films of this scope are typically made for not only tens but hundreds of millions of dollars. We wanted to try to be able to tell a story that felt as big and as powerful but on an indie level. The way that we chose to do that was by making the story more intimate. I took a page from James Cameron who said, while directing “Titanic,” “You not only care about the deaths of thousands of people, you care about the deaths of two people.” That was something we wanted to do with this film. Whereas both Calvin and Joshua are essentially the Mohawk Nation and the pursuers are the new White Americans. They are indicative of their entire cultures both in how headstrong and ridiculous they are and how strong and terrified they are. Both sides of the film are absolutely terrified beyond words. To get back on point, what I wanted to do was make something that was wildly different. I wanted to do something I knew would be challenging and something I felt would surprise people. We made a lot of creative decisions, very early on, about what we wanted to do with the film to set it apart from other period pieces. The last thing we wanted this film to look like was diet “Last of The Mohicans.” We wanted to have our own feel and, in doing so, we made bold creative choices. The film was shot with natural light, which is something that movies typically never do. That was very exciting, to be able to work with natural light and make a film that glows. Every shot of the film just has a sparkle to it that, to me, feels like old John Boorman. I wanted to make sure the film did not look as scary as it felt. Ya know, the forest is typically the sort of location that you film at night and find the most terrifying places you can shoot in. We wanted to show how beautiful the forest was and show that it’s the sort of place that is absolutely stunning and untouched but that’s where these atrocities occurred. When you’re making a film that’s essentially a dramatic chase film and you’re shooting it in these beautiful backgrounds, it comes down to a question of “How do you raise the tension?” We did that through our actors! It’s less about where they are and more about who they are. Ultimately, it does have a lot of similarities to “We Are Still Here.” I do think “Mohawk” and “We Are Still Here” are spiritually very similar. They are both intensely character driven. They are also films that are both about a bigger picture but ultimately about these people and a very small amount of people. Also, although “We Are Still Here” is set in the ‘70s, it’s essentially a modern film about people dealing with the sins of their fathers and “Mohawk” is a film about those fathers. It’s about these original sinners and how what they are doing is going to resonate for hundreds and hundreds of years afterwards, just as the characters in “We Are Still Here” are still dealing with the fallout of things that happened hundreds and hundreds of years earlier.
We are still relatively early in your career as a director. However, you accomplished amazing things as a screenwriter. Looking at that aspect of your work, how have you most evolved?
In terms of screenwriting, which is something I’m still very passionate about and want to continue doing forever. I feel the evolution hasn’t been necessarily a creative one as much as it’s been a technical one. When I started out as a screenwriter, I followed the advice of, “Write whatever you want! Just let your imagination run wild!” I wrote screenplays that no one on Earth could ever potentially produce! [laughs] They were these gigantic, overblown spectacles where I poured my everything into them thinking, “Well, one day this will get made!” The simple truth of the matter is, “No, no it won’t!” [laughs] As the years have gone by, I’ve really been excited about how to write to a budget. Not a specific budget but rather to say, “This is how you write a film that could potentially be made.” Being able to create something that has the potential to be made without sacrificing your creativity. Those little technical tricks and little ways that you can turn your brain on and off at just the right moments have really helped me, as a writer, create projects that are much more viable in terms of being brought to the screen.
We can look to the career you are building as an inspiration. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey?
That’s a biggie right there! Ya know, I came from a small town in Montana. I used genre films as a way to escape from the monotony of living in the middle of nowhere and having very little to do. I took that passion and that drive for something that I loved and decided that I wanted to share that with other people. My first screenplay was produced 17 years ago and I directed my first film four years ago. There are 13 years in between those events and there, of course, were plenty of struggles in between and they continue to be struggles to this day. However, it’s important to remember it’s not an overnight process. I guess if there is one thing one might be able to take from me, a man who at 38 is on his second film, is that you just have to keep plugging. I know it’s trite and I know that so many filmmakers say it but, ultimately, we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that overnight successes are few and far between. The reality is that the majority of us will spend our entire lives pushing and pushing in order to try to make these things happen. I love genre films. I don’t know where I’d be without them. If anything I’ve made can make anyone’s life easier or remotely happier, I feel as though I’ve succeeded.
Where are you headed in the future when it comes to the stories you tell?
Right now, I’m very focused on politics. My work will likely remain quite political for a while and until I feel it doesn’t need to be political. I want to remain in the genre film industry. I don’t see myself moving outside of it. I do feel as though, in these troubled times, there is certainly a place for popcorn cinema, comedies and romances. For me, I think the greatest way in which you can tell stories that need to be told from reality is through the lens of the fantastic. You can see that in many of the great genre masters from the past – from George A. Romero to the Italian masters who were really striking back at their governments at the time. These were people who deeply, deeply cared about the world that they were living in but chose to tell the story through a wild way. That’s what I hope to continue to do with my work.
That’s awesome and I appreciate your voice. I’m sure we will cross paths again soon with the work you’re are doing! I wish you continued success!
Thank you so much, Jason! I really appreciate it! Talk soon!