Saban Films’ The Aviary features strong performances from its small but mighty cast as two women traverse unforgiving desert terrain to escape a sex cult and its seductive and controlling leader. Audiences are thus far split on this slow burn of a psychological thriller; and I was interested in what it takes to direct a film like this, the success of which rests almost entirely on the actors and script, and the devil is in the details. I had the opportunity to interview the directors of, Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, after the release of The Aviary, their feature length directorial debut.
The Aviary interview with directors/writers/executive producers Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite
1428 Elm: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and congratulations on The Aviary! I really enjoyed it – it kept me guessing the whole time.
The Aviary is your project from soup to nuts – executive producers, writers, and directors. Can you tell me how the project developed from an idea to your first full-length feature film? How did you handle the challenges of playing all three roles?
Chris: Your brain definitely gets a workout. We had to find ways to be creative champions of the work as well as practical executioners of the vision. Putting the words on the page is the most purely creative part of the process and we try not to think with the producer part of our brains too much until the script is done. That’s the only way for us to fully wrestle with the ideas we’re trying to explore. We’ve also been through the wringer enough times to know that no matter what you do or how responsibly you try to write to budget, ideas will have to be massaged and changed along the way.
Once we turn the process over to our director brains, we automatically slip into producer mode as well. I think it was Wes Craven who said the director’s first job is to have a plan that gets the crew home on time, and we take that very seriously. As important as it is to push and plead and get our vision on screen, it’s equally important to us that everyone is safe and that we come in on time and on budget.
Sometimes these arguments are pretty cut and dry. Director brain says “Shoot on that cliff! It’s beautiful!” Producer brain says “We don’t have the money to hire the proper safety crew for that.” Obviously, producer brain wins. Other times, it’s not so clear what the correct choice is. Producer brain says “There’s an hour left and too many shots to make the day.” So now what? Do we cut shots? Combine shots? Get them all, but only one take of each? Which choice is best for the movie? Which choice can we live with later, and which will lead to years of regret?
These moments are where the most heartbreak happens, but I’d argue it’s also the truest test of a filmmaker. Our job is to know what the story needs and be prepared to get it in more than one way.
1428 Elm: What about cults, and the NXIVM cult in particular, inspired you to write The Aviary? What kind of individual do you think is drawn to a cult, and do you think cults are becoming more alluring as society continues to implode?
Jennifer: Cults have been a shared interest of ours since we first started working together. There’s a fascination with belief and the search for truth and what we are even capable of knowing in a lot of our work. We love a rabbit hole. But the two most relatable and human parts that I always find myself coming back to are a desire to belong and a desire to make a difference. I grew up with a real resistance towards organized religion, but the urge to devote yourself to something can pop up in other places, like giving unwavering support to a political candidate or fangirling an artist. These are really powerful emotions because they’re tied up in who you are, in identity. They become even more powerful when they’re combined with the promise of becoming a better person and helping to change the world. And blind faith, no matter where you put it, can be dangerous.
1428 Elm: With such a small cast and such specific characters – did you have actors in mind for the roles in The Aviary? How difficult was it to find the right cast?
Jennifer: Casting is one of my favorite parts of the process. I love how it’s a blend of research and intuition. Before making an offer, I want to have a familiarity with the actor’s work and see what their strengths are and also feel out their potential. What are they capable of that maybe we haven’t seen them do before? I think that piece is equally exciting to us as directors and the actors themselves.
In the case of The Aviary, we were extremely lucky with how our cast came together. Malin was our first offer – we were big fans of hers. There’s a scene in the climax of The Final Girls where Malin is balancing her imminent death with consoling someone she loves all in the middle of a sexy dance to entice a slasher. It’s a scene that should be impossible and she nailed it. It made me tear up in theaters and burned into my memory as “this woman can do layers.”
Chris: Once we had Malin, we knew we needed someone who could compliment her stoicism as Jillian with fear and angst as Blair. We’d seen Lorenza in a number of roles and knew she was a strong actor in her own right, but it was her terror in Green Inferno that really convinced us. It’s so palpable that we had to see if we could capture some of that. We got together with her and Malin on a Zoom and they had an instant spark. Jen and I sat back and let them talk, texting each other, like “This is it! She’s Blair!”
Chris Messina came on board around the same time. We’d been fans of his forever – I think as far back as Six Feet Under – and our producer had worked with him on Sharp Objects. We held our breath and after a few days, he came back with “I’m in.” At this point we were ready to faint, but we still had one more piece to go.
Just as it was important to have our Jillian before our Blair, we needed our Seth before our Delilah. Now that we had him, we needed someone who was both haunting and formidable; an ethereal presence who could be revealed as a fighter when she goes toe to toe with Seth. We’d seen Sandrine Holt take on a similar challenge in her scenes with Robin Wright in House of Cards, and once we had her on board, we headed to the desert locked, loaded, and ready to shoot.
1428 Elm: Where was the movie filmed? What particular challenges did the location present? How long did it take to shoot?
Jennifer: We filmed for 14 days just outside of Los Angeles over two primary locations in Acton and Agua Dolce. The biggest challenge was getting as many desert looks as we could while moving the crew and equipment as little as possible.
Chris: As you might imagine, “moving as little as possible” and “epic journey across the desert” don’t go hand in hand. Luckily, our Acton location contained wide open spaces, sun baked desert washes, and a collection of buildings constructed in the 1800s.
While it didn’t provide as many looks as Gus Van Sant’s Gerry (which was one of our desert journey inspirations), we looked at the scenery from every angle and figured out how we could piece together the first two acts of the movie together. Even still, we knew we were going to need a different stretch of land for the last act to keep Jillian and Blair’s journey from feeling repetitive. It was also important to us that the landscapes in the last act of the movie feel more aggressive and hellish to reflect the characters’ decline into despair. These more rocky and surreal locations came courtesy of a small ranch that borders Vasquez Rocks, a famous state park that’s a signature in the Star Trek franchise and can be seen in a lot of bigger films and television shows.
1428 Elm: What do you think of the final product?
Chris: This is a loaded question! I think it’s quite good. I’m so happy and proud that so many of our collaborators – our cast, our cinematographer, our editor, and our composer – are all getting positive attention for their contributions to the film. Everyone gave 110% in some really unique and challenging circumstances.
Our producers, Jessica Rhoades and Andrew Miller, as well as Evan Lewis and Steve Smith, deserve a ton of credit for supporting, protecting, and refining our creative vision through every step of the process. We’ve been working with them for years and hope to work with them for many more.
1428 Elm: Do you like the characters?
Jennifer: We are really proud of the characters. It was important to us to create two very different leads with completely different reasons for ending up in Skylight who an audience could see as smart and capable and not just victims of a cult. And similarly with Seth, we know he’s a bad guy, but his words and Chris Messina’s performance is laced with kindness and empathy and care. That’s the version of manipulation that felt the most honest to us and the most sinister.
1428 Elm: Do you like the direction the film took?
Jennifer: Yes. You watch a movie so, so, so many times when you’re part of the core creative team, working through cuts, sound design, scoring, effects, color timing, etc. And I still enjoy the film. You hear your heroes talk about always seeing the mistakes or the things you wish were different, and I’m not immune to that, but I’m also thrilled that there are scenes in the film that continue to resonate with me, or cuts that I love, or pieces of performance or score that still bubble up emotion. To some degree, you have to be your own audience.
1428 Elm: Do you feel the film succeeded in telling the story?
Chris: Yes! One of the things we’re most proud of is that it tells the story of two unreliable narrators without ever becoming confusing or cheap. The pieces are all there and it follows its own internal logic.
1428 Elm: If you were to shoot the film again, what would you do differently?
Chris: We would change Seth’s mask. We designed and loved it before Squid Game came out, and while I don’t think the masks look exactly the same, the “low-res” polygon look has become so associated with the show that I don’t think it packs the same punch we hoped it would in the movie.
1428 Elm: What did you learn from directing this movie that you can’t wait to apply to your next one?
Jennifer: Directing is a juggling act, so you have to practice to get better. You’re the leader, and it’s really important to know what your priorities are. For me, it’s equally important to execute our vision and take care of our team. On the creative side, you have to do your homework and take every opportunity to prepare and refine those preparations. But you also have to remain open to new ideas every step of the way, because sometimes your actor or your cinematographer or your producer or your editor is going to have an amazing idea. Sometimes that idea folds in organically or maybe it spooks you because it changes something you’ve locked in in your mind. It’s your job to curate, to know whether to make a change or stick to your guns. We like to say “best idea wins” and jump on them.
And then there’s the taking care of your team half. Something we’ve had modeled to us for years by our producer Jessica Rhoades is leading by example. Jessica is kind, patient, and always makes us feel safe and supported. That’s who I try to be on set too. Production can be stressful, exhausting, and overwhelming, so when you’re directing, you have to remind yourself that everyone is looking to you. Stay cool and express gratitude.
I also learned to put on a fresh pair of socks every day at lunch. Gamechanger.
Chris: I want to continue to deepen my skills working with actors. It’s the thing I’m least comfortable with because an actor’s tool kit are the tools I have the least experience with.
1428 Elm: Who are your biggest directorial influences in film?
Chris: Spielberg, Carpenter, and Edgar Wright would have to be my top three. Spielberg was my first love, Jurassic Park was my Star Wars, and his level of craft – especially when it comes to blocking and storytelling within the frame – is something I will always aspire to. Carpenter did more to shape the way I think visually than any other filmmaker. His big, widescreen compositions featuring multiple layers of depth are more approachable for me than the complex ballet of Spielberg’s shots, while still functioning as both art and craft at the highest level. Edgar Wright, followed closely by James Gunn, opened my eyes to the idea that genre boundaries can be bent and twisted to tell stories that straddle the line of genre, heart, and humor.
Jennifer: We were both Spielberg kids. If Jurassic Park was Chris’ Star Wards, mine was Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a great movie and a perfect movie, which are two different things. I learned so much, and continue to learn so much, about economic storytelling watching his films. I really admire filmmakers who are wizards at completing a complex puzzle, where every tiny piece is perfectly calibrated in set up and pay off. That’s The Godfather, Rear Window, Die Hard, Back to the Future, Alien There’s almost a mathematical satisfaction to it.
The other side of this is who makes me feel the most. I like to be challenged and surprised and taken on a journey of tonal shifts that only work in the most deft of hands. I go back to David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, the Coens, over and over again. Their work is magical and haunting and stays with you for a long, long time.
1428 Elm: Do you have any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for that you can talk about? Do you have the urge to branch out beyond the horror/thriller genre, or is that your niche?
Chris: We don’t have anything we can talk about yet, but there are some really exciting things in the works. The Aviary is just a taste of what’s to come.
Jennifer: As far as our niche goes, we’re open to whatever excites us creatively. Horror is a wonderful space because it allows you to chase big ideas and social criticism at the same time as visceral filmmaking. Artistically, I think there are a lot of genre places we’d love to explore, but the branching out may need to be incremental for The Powers That Be to still fund our budgets.
1428 Elm: Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions about The Aviary, and I look forward to your future projects!
Have you seen The Aviary yet? What did you think of the film? Sound of in the comments!