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An Interview with Matthew D. Ward, Co-Director of Wichita

by Mike Haberfelner

July 2017

Films directed by Matthew D. Ward on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie Wichita - how did the project fall together in the first place?


Co-director Justyn Ah Chong and producer Yaniv Elani and I were roommates at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, so our friendship and the fun we were having in school consuming and creating tons of media was not only the starting point for our project, it is also a backdrop/theme of Wichita.


What were your sources of inspiration when writing Wichita?


I drew much from character studies of insanity - Psycho, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Taxi Driver, The Shining, as well as from self aware horror like Cabin in the Woods, Scream, and Funny Games. These films really hold a mirror up to us as individuals and to the dominant culture and its sort of mob mentality that demands violent content; real life spectacles of horror. I think this awareness in horror, and the participatory element, come from the French New Wave, and Godard’s Contempt especially is blown kisses in Wichita when Jeb quotes Bazan “film shows us a world that fits our desires,” and Raven’s all “This isn’t film…” She is right, it’s not film, it’s the new media that all have access to, and with this access comes new, heightened responsibilities for creators and consumers. Wichita is really about these responsibilities.


As director, to what extent could you actually identify with your lead Jeb, who pretty much tries to direct his own show?


I tried to keep Jeb external - this character that we’re all working on, but when I found that an actor, after a particularly arduous series of takes, had written “Matt is Jeb” over and over and over ŕ la “all work and no play,” I was really shocked and horrified, but he was right, and there was no turning back. Becoming Jeb led me to push people in a really true way, or at least in a way that was congruent with the film, but most importantly, it was fun! Some of my favorite scenes were improv where actors were almost laughing before action was called, and this tension, the giggles, and the creeps really make the film as unique and darkly fun as it is.


How would you describe your movie's approach to horror?


We didn’t really set out to make a horror movie as much as we tried to make a movie about fear. Nothing jumps out and screams “boo!” It’s actually quite the opposite; we want you to know that Jeb kills in the end, and we want you to want that. If what I just said rings true, I’m already scared, right now, at this coffee shop in this public location, because at any moment the tension could break, the demand for violent content could be met. Jeb is very real, and he is you, and you are we and we are all together.


You of course have to talk about your main location for a bit, and what was it like filming there?


Shooting at my parents’ house in an empty ski town at 9000 feet above sea level was the best and the worst. It allowed us to really get in the shoes of the fictional characters, and so much of the cabin fever and claustrophobia is real! Our female lead actually bowed out two days into shooting with bouts of altitude sickness, but then because so much of the film takes place in the house, we were able to shuffle and rework the whole thing - bless Persia White for making it out at a moment’s notice and saving our film. I hate admitting this because if you didn't know it, you could think the role was written for Persia and that she was attached for years, but this is in fact not true and it was the biggest obstacle we faced, both induced and saved by our location.


What can you tell us about your directorial approach to  your story at hand?


Well I was very at home on set - we shot in my house, get it?? But really, I just wanted to make a safe, comfortable collaborative space, and then to stand on the outskirts of this space. Much more of our time and energy went into creating and maintaining the space than actually manipulating what occurred inside it, and the film feels really natural and organic this way.


What was the collaboration between you and co-director Justyn Ah Chong acutally like? And how did you first meet even?


You phrase the question what was the collaboration “actually” like - haha! I wish for the sake of this interview that I could say something dramatic about my collaboration with Justyn, but I really cannot. In fact working with Justyn was the opposite of dramatic, it was incredibly grounding and stabilizing. We worked together on lots of stuff at film school at USC, and even lived together for a few years, so we know each other very well, and compliment eachother's strengths. Justyn is extremely technologically and formally adept whereas my focus, at least on Wichita, was largely on literature and dramaturgy. We knew this going in and pushed each other to be our best versions of ourselves.


Do talk about your key cast, and why exactly these people?


Jeb was the most difficult role for us to cast. He had to be this lovable anti-hero who we really fear and despise but also empathize with and even cheer for when he commits atrocious evils. As soon as we took a look at Trevor Peterson, we knew we had our guy. Trevor brought so much depth and dynamism to Jeb, and his passion and intensity are clear in his knockout performance; this same passion and intensity set the tone on set, and I think everyone really wanted to get it right for Trevor. The second most difficult role to cast was Momma, which makes sense, being the mother of this crazy protagonist Jeb, the root of his twitches, and the catalyst for the violent third act. I really can’t sing praises for Sondra Blake loud enough! She is such a powerhouse - brilliant, beautiful, totally technical and emotionally method, I learned so much working with Sondra, and she’s become my most valued and trusted mentor in everything I do.

I’m highlighting Trevor and Sondra because it’s their film. The key supporting roles are also played by tremendous actors who were absolute pleasures and are really going places.


A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


After losing our first week to an actor malfunction, things grew tense as we were really behind and did not have the money to go long, so it was go nuts or fail. Our crew was incredible at not only just working at top speed - 6+ pages a day and around the clock work, but they also adapted brilliantly. In our short 18 day shoot, we experienced every imaginable weather condition from summertime heat, to autumn downpours, and the final week it snowstormed, and yet somehow, it all plays wonderfully and tracks and expresses Jeb’s descent into madness and his isolation. So while intense and chaotic, there was an underlying love and passion that really held it all together, snow or shine.


Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Wichita?


Reception has been stellar, and you can see what viewers are saying on IMDb and Amazon! Wichita has plenty of flaws, but because it’s about this psychotic guy making a movie about a show in a movie and his detachment from an already fractured and constructed reality, it works - I meant it that way, in fact, I challenge you to tell when Jeb takes the reigns and Wichita becomes his creation, not ours.


Any future projects you'd like to share?


Justyn has been sailing around the world on a traditional Hawaiian outrigger with no power other than the sun-charged batteries on his cameras. I’ve just been cooped up writing screenplays -ha! I guess Chief flies the cuckoo’s nest, while MacMurphy’s stuck there lobotomized.


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Watch Wichita on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime! Keep an eye for us on Netflix and other platforms by Halloween. Thanks!


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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Robots and rats,
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Your Bones to

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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
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written by
Michael Haberfelner
Ryan Hunter and
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