New film ‘The Aviary’ stars Malin Akerman and Chris Messina star in the twisted journey of two women’s desperate flee to escape the clutches of Skylight, an insidious cult. Lured in by the promise of “freedom” in the isolated desert campus called “The Aviary”, Jillian (Akerman) and Blair (Lorenzo Izzo) join forces to escape in hopes of real freedom. Consumed by fear and paranoia, they can’t shake the feeling that they are being followed by the cult’s leader, Seth (Messina), a man as seductive as he is controlling. The more distance the pair gains from the cult, the more Seth holds control of their minds. With supplies dwindling and their senses failing, Jillian and Blair are faced with a horrifying question: how do you run from an enemy who lives inside your head?
Writing and directing team Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite sat down to talk with me about their obsession with cults, filming in the desert, and how they found the perfect cast for this mind bending psychological thriller.
Downright Creepy: How did the story come together? Was this a concept conceived to be filmed during Covid or was it something you were already working on that had to be adjusted to meet the protocols and restrictions?
Chris Cullari: It was a script that Jen and I had been working on. We’ve worked on a couple of cult pieces over the years. We come back to cults and we’d been working on ‘The Aviary.’ Our producers, at the end of 2020, knew that we’d been looking to direct our first feature for years and years and there was sort of a kismet that we had this script we really liked. The producers immediately saw what we saw in it. Jessica Rhoades and Andrew Miller, our producers who we’ve worked with a bunch inTV, so we had a really good working relationship with them and it made sense not only as movie that we were excited to make but it made sense as a movie that could be shot safely in covid because it’s outside with a small cast, the pieces all fit.
DRC: Where did the filming take place?
Jennifer Raite: We shot in LA. Originally we were trying to shoot in New Mexico as scripted but as we were moving towards a late December shoot date covid was getting super intense so we ended up pushing the movie so that everyone could work from home and not travel. We got to see all of the “outside of the zone” LA desert, for this movie we saw all of it. Now we have this separate expertise where any time a friend is like “oh yeah maybe the desert”, I’m like “I’ve seen it all what do you need?”
CC: Yeah what kind of desert? Rock desert? Sand desert? Dead dry grass desert? We shot at this place, Bloom Ranch in Acton right Jen?
JR: Yeah and we also shot at a private property that is on the border of the Vasquez Rocks state park, it’s in the 3rd act, the crazy rock features, you can go and visit the park but there are people who own private property which makes it easier to shoot, like you can’t dig a hole in a state park, there are a lot of restrictions.
CC: The fun, strange challenge of doing a movie that’s an escape through the desert is that part of what you’re playing with is that you start to lose your mind because everything looks the same and it’s endless horizon. But it’s very hard to ask an audience to just look at endless horizon for an hour and a half so we were very cognizant of wanting there to be a visual journey as well so we broke the acts down into a series of different looks that we gave by using really just those two locations. The fun cheat of shooting in the desert is that there were some days that we were moving very quickly and we’ve be looking one way and shooting one scene and we could just turn around and have a different mountain-scape and a different horizon
DRC: The chemistry of the two main characters is really crucial to the success of this film, what was the process for finding these two actors?
JR: Malin (Akerman, ‘The Final Girls’) was our first choice for the movie. Our producers loved her for this and Chris and I were doing rewrites with the idea that she’d be so great for this line or this scene and we sent it off before the holidays. It was like this little fantasy of she’s probably not going to read it, she’s probably not going to want to do it but for those couple of weeks it was exciting. Then we were actually just starting to talk about who we were going to go to next and we got a call that Malin loved it and wanted to have a meeting and we really hit it off with her. We had never worked with her before but we had seen her do some things that were incredible. It’s a weird example for this movie but in the climax of ‘The Final Girls’ there’s a sequence where she’s singing or dancing to a song to get a slasher to come kill her and at the same time she’s saying this very sad goodbye to her daughter. On the page this must be an impossible ask and I cried in the theater watching and I thought “we have to work with her eventually.”
CC: Once we had Malin nailed down as Jillian we started looking around at Blairs and trying to figure out somebody who would pair well with her. Not only is Lorenza (Izzo, ‘Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood’) an equally great actress but we knew her character’s reality comes unglued in a different way than Malin’s does, more of a visceral way than Malin’s does. We knew we needed an actress who could bring the audience into the fear and into the terror and Lorenza’s performance in ‘Green Inferno’, the Eli Roth movie, is one of the most pushed to the edge genuinely terrified performances I’ve seen in recent memory. So we were like “you know let’s go out to Lorenza let’s see if she’d be interested” and she was interested. We got Lorenza and Malin on a zoom together to talk about the movie and stuff but as soon as the two of them started talking Jen and I stepped back just to see what they were like. They just fell into the rhythms that we had imagined for the characters and as soon as we saw that we were like “oh we’re good, we’re golden!” They carry the whole thing, it’s a big ask for any actor or actress to be in every scene of the movie and really carry it on their shoulders and both of them had to do it the whole shoot and they knocked it out of the park.
DRC: They really did and they’re almost playing multiple characters within their characters, which is really cool.
CC: Yeah they’re both playing these characters within characters, and there’s layers. One of the most fun parts of editing is that, Malin is the more naturally stoic of the two and written to be the more stoic, and when we were editing there were so many scenes, and it was a 14 day shoot and we were moving really quickly and we knew we were getting good stuff and we were getting what we wanted and it wasn’t until we were editing where we really saw some of Malin’s more subtle layers opening up where we were like “oh my god, there’s so much going on on her face and in her eyes at various moments” and going through and layering those reactions where she’s listening to Lorenza or she’s trying to figure something out and just hang on her face. It was just a real joy to find all those gems.
DRC: What real life cults did you draw inspiration from and what kind of research did you do to inform the journey of these characters?
JR: We’ve kind of always been cult nerds so we’ve watched all the documentaries. We were talking about the NXIVM stuff because that was something that was coming out during the year before we made the movie and there was a feeling, a distinction, between the satanic worship or even like the ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, version of a cult as opposed to these more contemporary cults of personality, cults of technology. Chris even keeps bringing up, and it’s funny watching it after the movie, the Theranos show and the WeWork docs and narrative stuff. There’s this human desire to be part of a community and contribute and wanting to look the other way when something you’ve put so much time and energy and care into wasn’t necessarily what you thought you’ve been building. It just felt like the right version to chase with this movie.
DRC: I loved the testimonial or propaganda videos that came after the credits. Those were really well done and felt really real.
JR: Yeah those were so fun! I wish we could have used more because that’s the only part in the movie where we improvised anything. Chris Messina (‘Sharp Objects’) gave us all this stuff that I just want to put on a drive somewhere so I can just watch Chris being Seth more.
CC: He dug into Seth so much that we thought “there’s definitely a Seth sequel here” because he brought so many ideas, I mean they all did, but he in particular really opened up and played with the material.
JR: There was one part where he was like “can you see my bracelet?” and Chris, responding as Chris The Director was like “yeah yeah” but he was playing as Seth
CC: When we were shooting the behind the scenes videos he was in character as Seth talking to his “in character” crew and I just started answering him because it was so real I didn’t know who he was talking to. Then he was like ‘no I’m acting’ and I was like ‘oh ok I got it’
DRC: Did you have him in mind right away for that role?
CC: He was our first choice and Jen and I had been fans of Chris since ‘Damages’ but maybe even before. I remember watching the season of ‘Damages’ that he shows up in, I think season 2 maybe, and being like “we gotta work with that guy someday!” He was just so good and we were very lucky our producer Jessica Rhoades had worked with Chris on ‘Sharp Objects’ which is a show that she produced. When we asked her “is there any way we could get Chris?”
JR: Yeah it almost felt like “how much does Jess like us, is she willing to ask Chris about this?”
CC: And she was like “of course!” She asked him, and he read the script, and like a day later he was like “yeah let’s do it” He was prepping a movie…
JR: No he was shooting a movie…
CC: Right, shooting a movie in North Carolina and we were prepping with him over zoom on the weekends and he just had so much fun with it.
DRC: He really did a fantastic job! I think we’re almost out of time, do you have any other projects on the horizon that we should be looking forward to?
CC: We’re writing the next movie and, yes a bunch of them, and I don’t know if we can talk about any of them.
JR: There’s something that’s out there and hopefully there will be things we can talk about in the near future.
CC: The very near future! There’s more coming from us so hopefully people watch the movie and enjoy it and be on the lookout!
‘The Aviary’ will be released in theaters, on digital, and on demand April 29th.