Fantastic Fest Interview: Tyler Mager and Americo Siller, 'Witch'

Cast of Witch

The short film Witch is one of two Austin-shot shorts accepted for programming this year at Fantastic Fest 2013. It's screening as one of the Short Fuse selections. I spoke with local writer/directors Tyler Mager and Americo Siller about the production.

Slackerwood: Which of you had the idea for Witch? And what was the inspiration?

Tyler Mager: We came up with the idea together over numerous writing meetings. 

Americo Siller: It's a bar, a beer, a table, and a two-hour talk as Tyler scribbles everything down in a spiral notebook.

Mager: It started with an idea of classic supernatural monster mythology and how it would be looked at now. If a crazy psycho was going around eating the hearts of victims, most would automatically think it was, you know, some sort of serial killer. But what if it was a witch, an honest-to-goodness evil entity that lives through the life force of others. So we decided to maintain the realistic aspects of a potential serial killer while still staying true to classic witch mythology.

When structuring the story we realized we needed something else, an additional element that grounded the story a bit more, make it relatable to people and more interesting than just a horror flick. That's where the relationship stuff comes in.

Siller: It's about a public breakup stemming from two people cheating on one another. We want the relationship to be the plot, not the Witch. The story is about Cay and Rebeca detrimentally hurting each other. The Witch becomes an extension of their pain, eventually engulfing both lovers. The short's punch line is, what two people have to go through to say honestly, "I love you."

How did you get together to do this?

Siller: Tyler and I met through a mutual friend specifically to write together on Alamo Drafthouse's ABCs of Death competition in 2011. Unfortunately, neither of us had time to produce a short for the festival. At that point, we decided to start writing together for ourselves. 

Mager: We noticed we had similar storytelling interests in terms of how stories evolve and change throughout. We had a shared love for genre blending and although we're very different people, the end goal is always the same for both of us.

How did you split up writing the script?

Siller: The writing duties between us are nebulous. I championed the story, but the writing came from both of us spontaneously. Our writing methods are unorganized and organic. We banter in the script back and forth endlessly until an agreement is made. Tyler and I are so particular about word choice that every other word is ours. 

Mager: Lots of cooperative writing at first, which typically gives way to some isolated sessions usually coming together for finalizing and rewriting. Depends on the mood we're in, though, and the project. It's different every time, but the outcome always feels like us, if that makes any sense.

Did you direct different scenes or work together on the whole thing?

Mager: We directed everything together but split up duties throughout the production. I handled most of the actor interactions, while Americo handled the visuals of the film primarily working with the DP and art team. We ended up learning a lot, not just about directing, but more importantly about our individual styles as it relates to directing. In hindsight, I think we would've thought the process through a bit more, but we're definitely happy with the experience.

Is this the first film you've both made?

Mager: Yes, this is both of our directing debuts. We've written a few shorts together, but this is the first project either of us has completed from start to finish.

Siller: True true.

What did you find most difficult about bringing your vision to life?

Siller: There are two aspects that were very difficult. Compromising the script and shots due to time restraints, lighting restraints, location limitations, etc. These aspects actually fall into the second difficult thing. Understanding that your script will, without fail, change after traveling through the production machine. You have to let go of a lot and come to terms with several film technicians putting their own creative interpretations on it. The process is maturing. I have worked as a film crew member for three years and realize you don't truly understand what is to make a film until you make your own. 

Mager: The best possible scenario is one that has the crew understanding your vision while also able to add their own creative ideas to the process. Not just someone who will take orders, but someone who will contribute and enhance the film as a whole, that makes for a great experience.

How did you go about casting?

Mager: Casting was a bit strange because we were rewriting a lot of the dialogue throughout the entire preproduction process. The characters kept changing ever so slightly, except for the mysterious Woman, Quetta [Quetta Carpenter] was decided on pretty quickly and Kenneth, our producer [Kenneth Hoot], locked her in early on. With Cay and Rebeca, it was about finding two people who had a nice chemistry, who looked liked a real couple.

Siller: The main goal was to identify sincere sorrow at auditions. Jeanne Cruz's quiet, but deep performance [as Rebeca] was impressive, making her immediately stand out. Johnny Walter, with his brutish presence, displayed a vulnerability that was undeniably perfect for Cay. Quetta Carpenter had a fantastic, enduringly morbid sense of humor delivered with a sharp wit.  The actors needed to have an air of darkness about them. We feel Quetta, Jeanne and Johnny pulled it off.

Did you have an experienced crew? One of the big gotchas for first-time short directors is sound, but Witch has very polished, professional sound.

Siller: We did have an experienced crew. Tyler and I both work in the film industry on crews. A lot of the crew for Witch are our friends that we work alongside on other movies. We are first-time directors, but not new to the process of making films. With a few kinks aside, we knew the bare minimum needed to give the film quality. Our experience on crews allowed us some great connections, including getting our hands on [sound designer] Tim Bond. 

Mager: From the very beginning, Americo and I knew the key to the short would be sound. We didn't have the budget to obviously show a lot of the big time creature effects that we wanted to show so we knew that making the scenes come alive through the sound design was going to be the only way to truly reach out with the sense of tension and dread that we wanted. Tim Bond, our sound designer, did an amazing job coming up with the score in addition to a good portion of the effects you hear in the final product.

I also liked the wardrobe. The choice of hat for Quetta was subtle but striking.

Siller: The costume designer was Elise Garza. Elise's efforts were on point and her sensibilities in design are impressive. Particularly with Quetta, we wanted her dress style to be reminiscent of Stepford Wives. The Witch needed to be clean, sleek, and ordinary -- all the characteristics opposite of who she really is. The choice of the hat was to create sufficient shadow on Quetta's face. We wanted to subtly hide her eyes and specifically her intent. 

You've said to me you want your films to be thought provoking. Is there a particular thought you hope Witch inspires in the audience?

Mager: Different people might have different responses to the film, for us it's actually sort of a black comedy about relationships and the hell a lot of us go through just to say "I love you" that just happens to be really creepy with monsters and blood and gore. It's all in service of a sort of deeper theme of love and what that means to some people.

Siller: Love what you have, you never know when it will be pulled away from you.

SW: You mention eating hearts. Is that just a metaphor, or did it come from any particular research you did into witchcraft?

Mager: We definitely did some research, Americo did more than me admittedly, and obviously it helped. In some texts and stories you will find that witches sometimes only remained young or healthy by feeding off the lifeforce of others, occasionally by eating the heart since figuratively speaking that's where a person's essence or raw emotion comes from. You even see it in movies such as Stardust, which itself is sort of based off of fairy-tale tropes.

So you take that idea and relate it to love and relationships. For some, a relationship is a drain, emotionally and maybe even physically, it can be seen as leech-like possibly zapping one's lifeforce. Throughout the film we add little pieces of dialogue or a situation where the parallels are evident and we really wanted to hit home that in a way the woman/witch represents that aspect of the relationship between these two. 

Just what was that egg-yolk looking goop?

Mager: The creatures are husks of other human beings, captured previously by the witch, that evolved into these monstrosities. With that evolution their bodies are basically filled with bile. Like from a fly.

Siller: We wanted these creatures to have a similar eating behavior to a fly. As a fly regurgitates on its food before eating it, the creatures spit a bile based liquid on their victims before consuming them.

Mager: Adding a nature-based aesthetic with a touch of insect influence, specifically the cocoons and the effects gags, to some of the scenes in the kitchen and basement allowed us to push the film in a visually interesting and strange direction.

Have you started working on anything else?

Siller: Tyler and I are about to begin writing our first feature. Both of us have many other projects floating around, but our focus is on a buddy horror comedy.

Mager: It's one of the more "fun" projects we've come up with and little outside our comfort zone with regards to trying comedy. We're really happy with the concept and can't wait to get started on it and whatever else might come our way, maybe even a Witch feature if there was enough interest.

Witch is screening as part of the Short Fuse program on Sunday 9/22 at 2:15 pm, and Thursday 9/26 at 10:30 am.

Tyler Mager (L) and Americo Siller (R)

[Photo credit: Jeannie Carter-Cruz, Quetta Carpenter, Johnny Walter; and Tyler Mager, Americo Siller, both by Charlie Pearce. Used with permission from Tyler Mager.]