It’s become something of a tradition now. It happened back in 2006, again in 2010 and now it’s happening for a third time in 2014. Local director Bret Wood celebrates the local debut of his new film as part of the Atlanta Film Festival tonight, just as he’s done with his previous narrative features Psychopathia Sexualis and The Little Death.
Wood’s The Unwanted, shot mostly in Atlanta with many local performers, bows tonight at the Plaza Theatre. It’s a world premiere thriller starring William Katt as Troy, a father leery of Carmilla (Christen Orr), a new girl in town who, while looking for her lost mother, gets rather friendly with his own daughter (Hannah Fierman). It’s based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella Carmilla.
When the filmmaker came across the story, he felt it was something he could bite into. “I like reading gothic literature; older literature,” he admits. “I don’t read necessarily looking for possible film material, but if something hits you, you grab onto it. I had been reading In a Glass Darkly, the collection which Carmilla appears in.”
It’s a conventional tale of a father living with his daughter. They take in this stranger and the father finds this mysterious stranger having some kind of close relationship with his daughter that he can’t figure out. Someone else provides the answer that she is a vampire, so the natural cure is to kill the intruder.
“I wanted it to be a mystery,” Wood says. “You don’t know if she is a vampire. It takes a while to figure out.” Troy is unable to comprehend the relationship or even consider that his daughter might be a lesbian, especially in a small Southern town dominated by religious fanaticism.
In stretching the material to a feature length film, Wood added a subplot about the two girls’ mothers. The original story finds Carmilla the last in the lineage of vampires; that’s where Wood hatched the idea of the multiple generations.
Though he’s always had a passion for film, Wood never really thought he could become a filmmaker. He grew up in the South — in Chattanooga — then attended the University of Tennessee before moving to New York. There he began working at Kino International (now known as Kino Lorber) where he produces Blu-rays and restorations of classic films. In 1998, he and his wife officially relocated to Atlanta.
Participating in a local project years later convinced him he could become a narrative director. “It wasn’t until I got involved with a local film collective called the Dailies Project that I met a lot of actors and fellow filmmakers and got motivated to make a film,” he recalls. That was 2003 and the documentary Hell’s Highway: The True Story of Highway Safety Films was already under his belt. “I didn’t really consider that filmmaking; it was mostly a compilation of clips.” Yet he was encouraged and realized he could turn to creative filmmaking. Psychopathia Sexualis and The Little Death followed in the years after.
Once he had determined The Unwanted was his next project, he sought out a cast. “I told different people in the arts community I was making this film and I was looking for certain types, age groups, who were not intimidated by the material,” he says. Once he had some actors in mind, he had to make sure they worked well together. “It was hard to pair people. Finding the right pairing was tricky, but I am happy with how we ended up.”
Katt is by far the most well known of the cast members. “A fellow I worked with at Kino also produces movies on the side,” says Wood. “Katt had been in a movie of his, and he knew Katt was interested in working on independent films. He liked the script and he had a fair amount of input into it. The character of Troy was written from the beginning identifiable as a villain. It was Bill’s idea to make him more morally ambiguous, to make it clear he does care for his daughter. He just doesn’t know how to take care of her.”
Wood says he has long enjoyed Katt’s work. “I grew up in the era of Carrie and The Greatest American Hero [Katt appeared in both]. You never know, when you bring something on, if they have a certain level of notoriety or are a pop culture figure, to what degree they will be willing or able to disappear into a role. He embraced the role and was not afraid to take it into dark place, into non-Kattish territory.”
Wood is attracted to what he laughingly calls the “non-genre” of erotic tragedy. “People’s struggle against oppression or their own repression — that is definitely a theme that runs through them all,” he says. He is also normally drawn to period pieces. “This is the first film I’ve made that is in modern times, and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be.”
His own background gave him some insight into the new film. “I come from a conservative religious background,” he says. “And to be honest, I grew up with a fairly closed mind. It wasn’t until I left the South, and spent a few years in New York, that I really began to see the world and know who I am. How can a person know who they truly are until they leave the environment in which all their values were shaped? On some levels, The Unwanted is about this process of self-discovery, of leaving home and [the] difficult, sometimes painful, process of severing those ties that bind you not just to a place but to a way of thinking — how you think of yourself, and how you view the world.”
As a three-time veteran of the Atlanta Film Festival, Wood is grateful that the festival is keen on local filmmakers — and not predictable in their programming. “One of the things I like about the Atlanta Film Festival is that they don’t do what a lot of festivals do and just play the films that come out of Sundance and South By Southwest,” he says. “They reach out into not just the Atlanta film community, but they welcome grassroots filmmaking from around the world. They have a large block of screenings reserved for the little guy. It becomes tiresome when festivals play the same film in every city. The Atlanta Film Festival has its own individuality.”
Wood has always funded his own films, but that might have to change in the future. “My film fund is pretty much dry now,” he says. “I am thinking of looking for investors, and thinking of the possibility of crowd funding. I haven’t really decided which way to go yet. The way I’ve always worked is that I always have a lot of scripts I am happy with at a time, and whatever opportunity presents itself determines what script I make.”
Over time, he feels he’s become a better filmmaker, as well as one who’s more spontaneous. “I think I’ve learned a lot about working with actors, and that it’s a collaborative process,” he says. “I’ve definitely benefited from the work-shopping process of working with actors, having table readings. You have to be open to change, open to new ideas. I’ve learned to not just create the movie in my head. I want all my collaborators to bring ideas to table so the film is organic, not the film I wanted to make but even better.”
The Unwanted has two more confirmed play dates. In early May it will screen at Dundead, the Dundee Horror Film Festival in Dundee, Scotland, and a few weeks later at the Twisted Celluloid Film Festival in Ireland. Wood is waiting to hear back from a bunch of other festivals before he thinks of distribution. “In terms of distribution, it will be determined by the caliber and number of film festivals we get in,” he says. “We are waiting a little longer before we try and make a deal with the film.”
Wood is married to journalist Felicia Feaster, herself a film critic. They met in New York in 1990, traveled to Atlanta while she attended Emory University, went back to New York — and then decided Atlanta was a great place to call home. He’s not afraid to seek advice from her — when the time is right. “I don’t involve her throughout the project,” he says. “Usually during the course of making a movie I will have people come in for a rough cut, and a different group in for another cut. There are definitely times when I will go to Felicia for specific scenes. The other day I showed her the trailer to get feedback, but I always try and wait to show it to her when it’s done and a finished movie — and not so much her husband’s project.”