A Conversation With Ted Geoghegan
There are directors who make fantastic escapism, who craft incredible adventures and utilize the most cutting-edge technology to transport viewers to worlds they might never have otherwise imagined.
And there are directors who create heart-wrenching human drama, who mine the totality of our human experience to find the connective tissue, the shared tendrils, of what it means to be fallible, to be weak despite possessing great strength, and develop characters that speak directly to how we deal with specific events that happen with devastating randomness.
Ted Geoghegan is a lover, and student, of film and the impact that it can have on both individuals and populations.
From the visceral thrill of gory schlock to how a carefully considered camera angle can slowly ratchet tension, Geoghegan draws from his youth, allowing both obscure, little-seen genre films and verified cult classics to subtly and significantly influence his filmmaking style.
Despite having written and directed just two films so far, it’s safe to say that his contribution to the shared nightmares of genuine horror fans will continue for quite some time.
Following on the heels of his critically-beloved debut, 2015’s We Are Still Here, a wickedly unsettling deconstruction of the classic haunted house tale, Geoghegan has returned with a vengeance to transport viewers into the middle of a historical nightmare, the waning days of the War of 1812, when soldiers scoured miles of forest to uncover and usurp the native people who first claimed America as home.
His latest, Mohawk, is a savagely beautiful survival thriller that owes a great debt to the madness currently enveloping our country. It’s a deeply personal, decidedly political story that immediately draws parallels to the growing climate of fear and hatred that has divided the United States for the past two years.
Much like Get Out and Desierto, two other timely survival thrillers that focused on splintered factions of Americans taking the law into their own hands to beat back marginalized minority groups and refuse them basic human rights, Mohawk takes its cues from the early history of our country to show how little we have learned and how far we have regressed.
Mohawk tells the story of two young Native Americans, Oak and Calvin Two Rivers, who run up against a determined American colonel named Hezekiah Holt who firmly believes the Mohawk tribe, and all indigenous tribes, must be eradicated in order for America to flourish.
As Geoghegan explains, it’s not a film that chooses a side and then hammers home its message with blunt force. It seeks to shine a light on the raw, often muddied moments of cultural misunderstanding and blind faith that can spark bloodshed, exposing both its protagonists and villains as being susceptible to an explosion of violence even when peace remains an option.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have another opportunity to speak with Geoghegan by phone. In the nearly 10 years that this column has existed, Geoghegan remains one of the most relatable, well-spoken and engaging personalities currently making entertainment today.
BVB: It’s so good to talk to you again. We spoke almost three years ago for We Are Still Here…
Ted Geoghegan: Man, time flies.
BVB: I know, man. It’s crazy. So, Mohawk, I got a chance to watch Mohawk last week and I just, I loved it. I was just blown away.
TG: Awesome. It’s a weird one (laughing)
BVB: It really is, and that’s what’s cool. This isn’t the kind of story that people see very often anymore. I mean, it’s told from an entirely different perspective than most films, most mainstream films, and it just, it really kind of, it both educates and entertains. What inspired you to tell this story?
TG: When I was growing up in Montana, I was around a lot of native and indigenous people. When I moved to New York 10 years ago, I was really surprised by the lack of native people that I saw when walking around Manhattan. I thought, this is one of the largest cities in the world, obviously I’m going to be seeing lots of native people, and I was surprised that I didn’t. So, I started asking myself, where are the native people in these communities, and of course, every once in a while I would meet someone or read about someone, and it was always very enlightening and very nice to see. But, I just wasn’t seeing as many faces as I thought I would. Well, around that same time, I was exploring my new home, New York City, and I kept noticing all over town, on the front doors of buildings, on the tops of buildings, I would always see these signs that would say, ‘Made with Mohawk Construction,’ or ‘Mohawk Steel Working,’ and I was, what is that? Growing up, all I ever really knew a Mohawk was was the haircut. Deep down, of course, I was aware on some capacity that it was a native people, but I was very unfamiliar with the society. But, suddenly, I’m seeing the word Mohawk everywhere, and I go, this is so odd for these people who are so foreign to me were the people who originally lived in this land and built this town that I now call home. I said, I feel like I kind of owe it to myself to learn more about these people, and I just started reading up on them and I was amazed at the vibrancy and excitement and the tragic history of these people.
And, as We Are Still Here rolled out, and was a success, a lot of people were asking, what are you going to do next? The obvious answer was ‘Well, another haunted house movie!’ But, you know, given the way the world was shaping up at the time – this was pre-election, but certainly the seeds were being planted – my political self was getting into high gear and I thought, you know, I love the fact that We Are Still Here is a love letter to the films I grew up watching, but I think this time around, I need to make something that is a love letter to a marginalized people, a love letter to my country that I feel is quickly swirling down the toilet.
So, I came up with this concept about an indigenous young woman who was on the run from a group of wildly racist white men who didn’t realize that their outlook on society was going to put them on the wrong side of history. The script was co-written with my friend Grady Hendrix, who is a well-known horror author. He wrote My Best Friend’s Exorcism and Horrorstör, which were both bestsellers. Grady himself is a scholar of the War of 1812 and he knew so much about it that I didn’t, and was really able to help inform me and the story about what the Mohawk people went through during this time. The result is this very sad, very angry, very political film about the birth of our country. I say, it’s not about the people who wear the Make America Great Again hats, it’s about the men who set out with muskets in their bloody hands to make America great the first time.
BVB: (Laughing) I agree. When I was watching Mohawk, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the time we’re living in now.
BVB: I would think about the #MeToo reckoning, about activism groups like Black Lives Matter, and how certain factions of our society, it seems like they can never escape the weight of the expectation of how we perceive them. And I felt like with this story, you had the Mohawk tribe that’s not wanting to engage in violence, yet Calvin is swayed both by Joshua’s argument and just his own sense of loyalty and self, and he makes this decision for the collective by acting out on his rage that then forces Oak into her own journey of discovery and survival, and I really saw parallels, so I’m pleased that that was something that was very much in your mind when you were writing and lensing this.
TG: Yeah, you know, it’s the sort of thing where, the fact that marginalized people are still being hunted down by scared, angry white men over the color of their skin or the language that they speak or who they love 200 years after this was the reason that we made this film. The idea that Colonel Holt is alive and well in every single town in North America. He’s not a proto-Trump, but he’s a proto-Trumper. He’s one of these people who after decades of political and religious indoctrination has decided that these people are evil, and nothing is going to sway that. And the fact that Calvin decides at the beginning of the film to strike out against them after all of the injustice that they’ve put onto the Mohawk people, he doesn’t see this as Calvin seeking revenge, he sees this in the same way a lot of Americans saw 9/11, for example, which is, ‘Why did these people do this?’ Well, because of the horrible things that Americans did to them in the first place. The last thing I’m doing is saying what happened on 9/11 was justified, in the same way I’m saying what Calvin does in the film is also not justified. War is hell. War is the worst possible scenario that we, as humans, can have, and the thing that always comes out of it is revenge. And revenge begets revenge begets revenge.
And, so, Mohawk, like so many modern battles, is about people causing injustice on someone who decides to cause injustice on them, which in turn causes more injustice.
One of the portraits we tried to paint with the film is that everyone in the film exists in shades of gray. Holt, for all of his evil antagonism, is a confused, scared man who breaks down in tears in the film and is constantly unsure of what he’s doing, in the same way that our heroes are making violent, coarse decisions on the drop of a hat. They’re completely unaware of how that’s going to affect them and the society that they live in. For me, I like war films, but my favorite war films are those that don’t portray the heroes with halos and the villains twirling their mustaches and cackling like demons. Everyone is confused, everyone is scared. In most scenarios, there’s very clearly a good guy and a bad guy, and I’d like to believe there most certainly is in Mohawk, but those good guys and bad guys do absolutely exist in shades of gray.
BVB: Absolutely, the line blurs depending on the actions being taken, and the reasons why, which is very true to life.
TG: It calls to mind the moment at the end of the film, which might not necessarily be something you can print, which is why I didn’t want to mention it, but for the sake of conversation, very quickly, at the end of the film when Holt is transported back to his burned-out fort, where he lost all of his soldiers the previous evening, and his voice starts cracking, and he explains to Oak exactly why he’s the good guy, and he says these were farming boys, these were militia men, and your lover snuck into the camp and murdered these boys in their sleep. He never once acknowledges all of the injustice that his people are responsible for, including these quote-unquote ‘innocent boys’ who were killed in their sleep.
BVB: Exactly. It’s always, ‘We’re doing this on behalf of, these are people who had no choice, but really, they do have a choice and they have chosen to follow blindly instead of to have their own free thought, free will.
TG: All of Holt’s men are completely blind ‘yes’ men. And they are completely indicative of the modern American. While I don’t necessarily believe everyone is a Holt, I do think there’s a little bit of his soldiers in everyone. From the fact that the big, hulking Lachlan, who is technically, he’s the moral compass of the group, if the group was to have one, still strikes out whenever he is approached with anything. When they say, hang this man, he hangs him. When they say, punch this man, he punches him. He’s the moral compass, but he’s still completely susceptible to what this totalitarian leader is doing.