By Reid Ramsey
Early in Blood On Her Name, the audience learns of an act of violence. Unlike most mystery thriller movies, it’s fairly clear who committed the violence. Instead of obscuring this fact for the length of the movie, Blood instead spends its runtime unraveling why they did it. It’s a thrilling, tense crime story set in a small southern town and filmed outside of Atlanta. The movie stars Bethany Anne Lind and Will Patton, and it premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2019.
Southern Sights had the opportunity to interview director and co-writer Matthew Pope alongside producer and co-writer Don Thompson. Blood On Her Name will be released in select U.S. theaters as well as be available on demand in the U.S. on February 28th.
Southern Sights: I wanted to start by briefly sharing a little about my site. I created Southern Sights fairly recently to remedy a problem I saw in the film criticism industry where critics don’t take Southern films very seriously or they tend to shrug them off, not engage with them, or even dismiss them in some cases. Our goal is to engage with these films in a refreshing way and from the perspective of critics from the South as well. So when I heard that y’all were releasing a movie that was described as Southern gothic horror, I was really intrigued.
I wanted to kick things off by asking what drew you to making a movie set in a small town like the one in Blood On Her Name? What came first, the story or the setting?
Don: Well, I think the story probably came first. I’ll start out because I know your website has a bit of a Southern bend. Matt’s the resident Southerner here, I’m a coastal Los Angelino. But Matt and I wrote the thing on a farm north of Atlanta where we were both living at the time just on a little lake out there. We were trying to hack together the best story that we possibly could. I don’t think you can pull that apart from the setting, because we knew where we’d be shooting it. We knew we’d be shooting it in the rural South. It probably came mostly together. Matt, I don’t know if you have a different vision of it?
Matt: I think, you know, it’s not original advice these days to hear “work with what you’ve got” but we were obviously thinking through that lens as we wrote a few different scripts. Knowing the likely budget range we’d be working within and what we had easier access to in terms of people and locations and everything else was a part of that. That led us to developing the story, where it’s developed, and the type of setting. Obviously then you want it to work well with the story, the themes, and the characters so it was all sort of hand-in-hand.
I don’t know if one thing really came before the other, but there was always a likelihood that we’d be shooting around the types of areas where the film is set for practical reasons if nothing else. So we made sure we had a story that made sense there and felt at home there.
Southern Sights: What drew you to the small town? Or even better, what’s your relationship with the South? I know, Don, you said you live in L.A. and Matt you’re in Atlanta, correct?
Matt: I’m about an hour North of Atlanta. Three hours in traffic.
Southern Sights: Gotcha. I’ve got family in Marietta. So probably not too far from there.
Matt: Yeah, keep going past that and you’ll eventually get to me. Yeah, I grew up in the South. I was born in Mississippi. I’ve lived in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida. It’s a place that’s always just felt like home in a way that anywhere you grow up tends to feel like home. So I spent some time in L.A. and liked a lot of things about it, but for me there’s certainly a familiarity with the kinds of people and personalities that you experience and run into here. That sort of Southern Gothic thread of narrative is something that I’ve always enjoyed so it just seemed like a natural fit for a setting for a story like this.
Southern Sights: I think when most audiences hear Southern horror, they initially think of movies like Deliverance or some of the more famous ones. But when I watched Blood On Her Name, it reminded me a lot more of movies like Winter’s Bone and Shotgun Stories that are quieter dramas with a bit of horror running underneath. Did y’all have any specific influences you brought into making Blood On Her Name, or what are even more of your general film influences?
Don: I think you got two of them right there.
Matt: Deliverance, right?
Don: Yeah, Deliverance was dead on.
Matt: No, I’ll say this to start. I’m not sure, but there’s a lot of press that’s out there. I don’t have any idea where most of it comes from, but horror isn’t the word Don or I have ever used to describe the film. Thriller is more in the vein. We had the really great experience of premiering the film up at Fantasia up in Montreal this past summer. With that being a genre-oriented festival, some of the initial press that picked it up does a lot in that horror realm, and it got a little bit of verbal out there. But we’d certainly agree that Jeff Nichols is someone I’d be happy to have our film compared to any day. The other films that we certainly talked about and referenced as we were going through here, I’d say, we’ve probably been compared four or five times to Blue Ruin.
Don: Which is a fantastic film, and we absolutely love the comparison. And they’re apt. We very much play in the same story world as [Jeremy] Saulnier was in that one.
Southern Sights: Absolutely. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the ambiguity. From the beginning, it’s unclear to the viewer how the accident occurs. It seemed to me to be a bit of a reversal of the Hitchcock approach to tension, where he gives the audience information that the characters don’t have. Here the characters have information that the audience doesn’t have access to until later. What led you to that approach and is it more than a successful way to amp up the mystery?
Don: I think that was probably one of the earliest seeds of the story. The story starts with a crime event where you think you know what happens, but we’re not being explicit about what that is. I think it was the thing we thought was unique about it. So we wanted to put her into that situation and try to imagine: what would it be like if I were going through this situation? It would be an utter, chaotic mess. Somebody called it a whydunnit rather than whodunnit. And I loved that. We never said that when we were writing it, but I thought that was just a great way to describe it.
Matt: It’s really a reaction to… well we all saw how unsuccessful Hitchcock was with his way of doing it.
Southern Sights: Yeah, you don’t wanna do it like he did. Family seemed to be one of the most important themes of the movie. I was curious if y’all had insight into why you wanted to focus on this separated family, for those who haven’t seen it, the main character’s husband is in prison, and she’s raising her son by herself, and she’s also estranged from her father. So what led you to wanting to highlight that theme?
Matt: I think there’s a thread throughout that is certainly the family dynamics are relevant too, but I think it’s broader than that. Just the way people in this story are trying to navigate protecting the people they love and care about. Sometimes they’re family members, sometimes they’re not. Doing that in the midst of a situation where a lot of the characters are fairly isolated. There’s not a lot of connection for them to rely on. I think that is useful for putting characters into situations in which they couldn’t necessarily find easy answers or get help from the types of support systems that they might otherwise. But ultimately each of them is trying to protect the people they care about in whatever way they can figure out to, and sometimes that results in crossing moral lines that they think they wouldn’t cross or wish they hadn’t crossed.
That’s really the common thread. Whether it’s family members or a character like Ray, who’s not related to anyone but still is a tinge of family, if you will.
Don: I think we also like the setting and putting it in that type of family. There’s so much that feels like there’s a fraying of social institutions. Family is the last of the social institutions and to watch that fraying and how people react to that, I think it’s a powerful thing. It sets people up to make difficult choices.
Southern Sights: Yes, that’s fascinating. Especially the isolation aspect. They could be in this small town and have a hard time driving down the street without seeing her father, the police office, but she still feels isolated within that.
Southern Sights: Could you walk me through the process of getting Blood On Her Name made? What was frustrating or harder than you expected? What was easier?
Don: Nothing was easier than expected. Everything was harder. Matt, I’ll let you take the first crack at that if you’d like.
Matt: Sure. Don and I came into the process expecting to have a fairly… we sorta knew what needed to be done to actually make the movie itself. While it was extremely difficult to do all the things that are always extremely difficult to do on low-budget films, raising the money, all of it; it wasn’t unexpected.
I think one of the things that was frustrating, in the enormity of the challenge, was trying to get anyone at all to pay attention to the film from the earliest days. Whether it was in development or the casting or marketing and trying to get it out into the world afterwards. It’s such a saturated landscape these days and there is so much content out there. A lot of it is really good and free. So trying to figure out how to… I think you run into every conversation, every effort to get someone to pay attention to the film or your process of making it, is met by an initial assumption that they don’t want to waste time paying attention to you or your film if they don’t have good reason to. It was a huge hurdle to every step along the way just to be able to do something that actually had a chance of being seen and not just completely ignored.
Don: Piggybacking on that a little bit, there’s a bit of a challenge as well how much of the work we did out, in, and around Atlanta. Atlanta is a great production town, they’ve done a great job with their tax incentives, luring people in to make films in the area over the last decade, which is amazing. But a lot of the post-infrastructure, the sales-infrastructure, all of that is still in Los Angeles and the coast. It’s a bit difficult to get noticed in the landscape in the best of circumstances. It’s even more difficult when you pile on the fact that people tend to be about 2000 miles away from you in any direction.
The other thing though that I did not anticipate, going into this, was just absolutely how much it rained in Atlanta. We had an unbelievable amount of rain. We shot in May. Matt, do you remember, were there like three days we didn’t have rain delays or have to pause for rain on a 25 day schedule?
Matt: I think 18 out of 23 days in principle it rained.
Don: It was insane. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think it was one of the more rainy seasons on record so maybe that’s atypical. There were hours that we’d lose to not just rain but lightning. If you get rain, you kinda deal with it. We have a rainy film, it’s not a big deal. But when you have lightning, you’ve gotta shut down the crew, you’ve gotta find shelter, you’ve gotta wait till it passes. Dealing with that challenge on a non-studio shoot, we weren’t up in a big soundstage somewhere. We were out on location everyday.
Southern Sights: Right. You don’t necessarily have the budget to just add days.
Don: Nor the insurance to say, “Oh hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll shut down production today for an untimely weather event.”
Southern Sights: I want to ask a couple things about your crew, because I always love to hear answers about the crew because they aren’t always talked about as much. Is there one person on your crew who was particularly indispensable to this film outside of you two?
Don: Well, hey, you’re from Knoxville, right? Our DP, Matt Rogers, is from Knoxville.
Matt: Yeah and I would give him as the answer regardless of whether he happened to be in your hometown.
Don: Well, I’d be on the fence about it.
Matt: Matt was probably the first person after we decided to make the film. Matt and then Bethany, who plays Leigh. When we wanted to do this and do it well, they were the two we were confident in reaching out to first to see if they were on board. We’ve worked with both of them before and knew what we would get. We knew that it would be good. So that became the initial core of the team from the start.
Don: In terms of just like… Matt Rogers, the DP, has an incredible eye for photography, but he’s also a very practical filmmaker. When we throw something at him and are like, “Hey we don’t have any more money to throw at equipment or crew, how are we going to do this?” He figures a way to make it look stellar. So he’s definitely up there on the list of prime positions that this would not have been possible without.
Southern Sights: Fantastic. I’ve got just one more for y’all. So you are writing partners on the movie and therefore have a unique relationship in terms of creating it. I’m curious since Matt, you directed, and Don, you produced, and you obviously wear very different hats on set. Did you find yourselves fitting neatly into those roles on set, or was there more fluidity since you both had such a strong hand in writing?
Matt: I think it was a comfortable process. Since we both had co-written the script, we had a high comfort level that we were trying to make the same movie. That was really important to being able to be on set, having to make decisions quickly and move on. I think I knew that while I’m happy to get notes from anybody, if the note was coming from Don who was as often as possible by the monitor and watching the action as it was unfolding, I knew it was something to pay particular attention to because we were trying to make the same film. It was concerning if he’d raise a question like, “Is this right? Is this the vibe we need here?” I think that was an incredibly helpful aspect of the partnership, because we really did develop this story collaboratively from page one and had the benefit of feeling aligned on the story we were trying to tell.
Don: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the other thing that I enjoyed out of it, like so many times on a film this size, producing means cat-wrangling and going desperately to find the location you’re supposed to be shooting at in 12 hours because it just fell through. Matt and I have both done a fair amount of production, so we did our very best in pre-production to solidify all of those things that tend to cause chaos. There’s a certain amount that is inherent to production, but between shooting a relatively low-number of locations and having most of those locations set-up beforehand, I got to hang out at the monitor and mostly sit back and watch things unfold. I did, though, get to jump in when I saw something going awry. I don’t know if that would be the right word, but just missing a mark that Matt and I had talked about in the scripting phase. It’s a lot easier to catch that with two eyes than it is with just one set of eyes.
Southern Sights: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you both so much for doing this. You’ve been a pleasure.