Jackals – Exclusive Interview with Writer Jared Rivet

Jackals (review) is the latest movie from director Kevin Greutert (Saws VI and VII, plus Jessabelle and Visions). After the Powells hire a cult deprogrammer to take back their teenage son from a murderous cult, they find themselves under siege when the freaky followers surround their cabin, demanding the boy back. The screenplay is written by Jared Rivet; we got the chance to sit down with Rivet to find out more about Jackals.

Dread Central: What was it in particular about cults that made you want to tackle that subject and put it in the context of horror?

Jared Rivet: I had been trying to figure out a way to do a movie dramatizing some of the accounts that have been given of “satanic ritual abuse” during the whole satanic-panic hysteria of the 80’s and early 90’s. It seemed like any story I chose to tell would be the nastiest thing ever committed to film and I would never be able to sell it, much less get it made. (If you’ve ever read some of the supposed “eye witness accounts” of these alleged rituals, it’s stuff that would make Jack Ketchum vomit.)

And then in 2006 I was working at a company that did transcription (in the same office as Ryan Turek, former Dread Central writer and now director of development at Blumhouse) and a transcript showed up one day that was an interview with a former cult deprogrammer.

Now, cult deprogramming was another outmoded, questionable practice from the 80’s that was utterly fascinating: these people were basically bounty hunter psychologists. A concerned family member or whoever would go to a cult deprogrammer because their loved one had been brainwashed into a cult and wanted them back. The deprogrammer would locate the individual in question, kidnap them, take them somewhere, and then try to undo the brainwashing in the hopes that the subject would then return to his or her family.

The practice fell out of favor for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the questionable legality of grabbing someone against their will and dragging them someplace to force them to come around to your way of thinking. The other was that a cult deprogrammer didn’t really have to have any credentials and you’re asking them to do something that is questionable to begin with. You can see why that kind of business model might not have lasted very long.

Anyway, I had this lightning bolt hit me right there in the office: this is my way into a story about satanic ritual abuse. I won’t have to show the awful stuff necessarily, the deprogrammer and the boy can talk about it, and then the cult shows up outside and we know what they’re capable of, we get little tastes of it from their actions, and it turns into a siege.

And Ryan was there that day and I asked him if he could think of any horror movies about cult deprogrammers kidnapping someone out of a satanic cult only to have the cult show up outside to get the kid back and not only could he not think of anything but he immediately told me he thought it was a great idea and I should write it.

DC: So, did you sell the idea first, or did you write Jackals on spec?

JR: It was definitely a spec script, something I came up with on my own, which I then wrote and tried to sell. At the time I had the same manager as Tobe Hooper and he was the first director attached to make it. Tobe and I were working on that and the ill-fated White Zombie remake at the same time. Both movies almost got made with him directing, Jackals came close to getting made with Tobe on board three times!

At some point Tobe moved on and a number of really cool directors took cracks at it. But between the subject matter and this budget-busting third act that the script originally had, we kept getting shot down. By the fifth or sixth time it was killed because of the large scale third act, I finally sat down and got rid of that whole ending and kept the action relegated (almost) entirely to the cabin in the woods.

DC: Did you make the initial connection with the director Kevin Greutert? And what is it about him that makes so good at making horror films that also have heart and emotion to them?

JR: Kevin is so great and taught me so much on this movie. And I love that you asked about his ability to inject so much heart and emotion into his work because the one thing I was surprised by when I saw the first cut of Jackals was how emotional it was. It was there in the script but Kevin really amplified those elements in ways I wasn’t expecting. He definitely improved on what I had.

I wish I could take credit for making the connection with Kevin but it was one of the companies that had optioned the script like four years ago. They were looking for directors and contacted me one day to say that they had met with Kevin who loved the script and had a really good take on it. They liked him and really wanted to hire him.

By pure coincidence, I was working with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan on an unrelated project (something else that has been kicking around for years that is on-again/off-again) and when I told them that Kevin wanted to do it, their immediate response was “grab him and don’t let go! If he wants to direct your movie, you need to jump on that shit because he is awesome.”

And then that version shifted gears and Darren Bousman wound up on board for a time. He was also trying to get Abattoir going and when it eventually did, it happened right around the same time that things for Jackals started coming together with a different production company.

So Tommy Alastra, the guy who was now on board to produce Jackals asked me who I liked to possibly direct Jackals and I immediately said Kevin Greutert. I know Tommy was talking to a few different potential directors, but Kevin was clearly the right guy for it and I am extremely grateful that he recognized that and hired him to direct the film.

DC: You have a fantastic cast representing your first feature – first of all, what’s like seeing and hearing them deliver YOUR dialogue, and secondly, tell us who plays who and what makes them great in their roles?

JR: I was lucky enough to be on set for ten out of the fifteen days of filming and every day they’d be shooting something I had been living with on paper for ten years. To say that I got very emotional watching some of those scenes playing out by such first-rate actors would be a massive understatement.

There was one day they shot a scene that had remained virtually unchanged since the first draft of the script. When they wrapped, I turned to Kevin, I was more than a little choked up, and said “I’ve been waiting ten years to see that scene.”

The cast is definitely an ensemble, so it’s hard to break them down in any sort of order, but here goes:

Stephen Dorff is cult deprogrammer Jimmy Levine. He’s a no-nonsense, former Marine who does this for a living. Some of his tactics are a little rough to say the least, but he’s dealt with cults like this one before and he has a good success rate when it comes to deprogramming cult members.

In a weird way, Jimmy has been my personal favorite character from one of my scripts for a long, long time, and seeing Dorff come in and just nail it was an incredible thing. I have to credit Kevin and Tommy for that inspired piece of casting. Stephen is a very focused professional, a real pleasure watching him work.

Ben Sullivan plays Justin, the brainwashed cult member being held against his will. I hadn’t seen anything Ben had been in prior to his being cast in Jackals. I will say that Stephen Dorff, Johnathon Schaech and Debra Kara Unger were “offers” – i.e. roles that they didn’t have to audition for, everyone else had to audition. Kevin kept me posted about who he was considering for certain roles and even asked for my input, but Ben Sullivan was a “this is the guy” situation. Kevin basically sent me his audition tape and said “we found Justin.” It wasn’t even a question.

He spends most of the movie tied to a chair and has to go to some incredibly dark, disturbing, downright creepy places. Watching his scenes on the monitor was like getting lost in the movie, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The funny thing about how intense and serious his performance is is that he could turn it on and off just like that. He was one of the most fun people to be around on set, very funny, very real. Just a good guy to have around who also happens to be a powerhouse actor. “We found Justin.”

Deborah Kara Unger plays Kathy, the estranged mom in the family. She’s someone who has already watched her life fall apart once, the situation that she’s in when the movie starts is something that maybe feels like her last chance. But she’s tough and a survivor. I was so intimidated by Deborah when I first met her. And I will say that she definitely called me out on the fact that Kathy as a character in the screenplay was underwritten. And she was. A lot of what you see on screen is what Deborah brought to that character after having a dozen discussions with her during filming. She knew what she wanted to bring to that character and I think it’s up there on the screen.

After I got over being intimidated by her, I was nagging her constantly to tell me what it was like working with Cronenberg and Fincher and Refn. She was a real trip and I think she brings the pain and raw-nerve, emotional suffering of Kathy to life.

Chelsea Ricketts plays Samantha, the mother of Justin’s baby, a teenage girl who had to drop out of high school in order to raise a daughter whose father has gone off and basically joined our movie’s equivalent of the Manson family. She’s young and still loves Justin and wants her daughter to have a father.

A lot of actresses auditioned for Samantha and Chelsea was someone I recognized because I was watching the first season of Scream Queens (she’s the very first person you see in the very first episode, her character kept popping up in the 1995 flashback sequences). They were having a hard time deciding who to go with but Chelsea did this thing during her audition where she asked to do it one more time. It was an incredibly emotional scene – which she nailed – but she herself felt like she could do it better.

So Kevin said sure and she did it again and what was already a very impressive audition became a “holy shit” moment that, for my money, took everyone else out of the running. I pointed out this ballsy request she made to Kevin, he looked at her tape again and hired her. Her Samantha breaks my heart every time I see the movie.

Nick Roux plays Campbell, Justin’s older brother. Campbell is a very complex character, he’s a multi-layered bully with a heart but he’s also got a hair-trigger temper. I knew they had to get someone who wasn’t afraid to look like a total douchebag to play Campbell, the reward being that you eventually see that there is so much more to him.

I think what Nick did with this role was ballsy to say the least. Campbell goes through a wide range of emotions over the course of the movie and Nick was probably the most collaborative of all the actors, at least with me. If we were together between scenes, he always wanted to know more about this guy he was playing and what I was thinking about when I wrote him.

On a completely surface note, I was impressed that Justin and Campbell not only looked like brothers, but they also really looked like the offspring of Deborah Kara Unger and Johnathon Schaech…

Which is the perfect segue to Johnathon Schaech who plays Andrew, the patriarch of the Powell family, a well-off business man who has spent months trying to track down his oldest son and get him back. He’s hired Jimmy to deprogram Justin and it becomes clear that Andrew sees the deprogramming as a chance to heal his fractured family, make peace with his ex-wife, maybe face some hard truths.

Johnathon was a blast to work with. Not only did we have some painfully deep conversations about his character, but Johnathon is also a horror screenwriter and I pointed out to him that he and I were both working with Tobe Hooper on two unrealized projects at the same time (mine was White Zombie, his was From a Buick 8, both back in 2008 or so). He’s an extremely charming, friendly, down-to-earth guy, very present, very friendly with the crew, not stand-offish in the slightest. I would consider myself lucky to work with him again.

DC: What are some of the most scary and suspenseful moments in the movie, and how might they differ from what you originally wrote?

JR: I don’t want to spoil anything but there is a scene involving “vehicles” (I won’t say more than that) that is actually something that we went back and shot six months after principal photography which is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It’s as effective and suspenseful as I had hoped it would be.

Other than that, there’s a stand-off sequence maybe about 2/3’s of the way through that is always the point in the movie where, when I’m watching it, I forget that I wrote it and I get sucked in. Kevin’s direction and editing, Anton Sanko’s music, there’s something about the rhythm of that sequence (when folks see it, just know that it involves a dog collar) that kills me. It’s better than the scene I wrote.

DC: What is it about the horror genre that you love, and who or what are some of your influences when it comes to writing?

JR: I’m a horror junkie. I co-host a monthly horror trivia night with Rebekah McKendry in Burbank. I eat, sleep and drink horror and have for as long as I can remember. It’s something about the vibe a horror movie gives off, it’s an intangible thing, but it’s something I caught from George Romero and John Carpenter. There’s something about Laurie Strode walking through those suburban streets, or Ben boarding up the doors and windows, or Henry mopping up the bloody mess made by the monster in the crate, or Andy finding the piece of driftwood on the beach, or Copper walking down that corridor in the Norwegian camp to see what MacReady has found, that just feels like home to me. Comfort food for my evil, little heart.

And Romero and Carpenter are definitely the biggest influences. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and honestly, those two guys did more beneficial damage to my psyche than anyone else. There is something about the way they both worked so hard to create believable characters and then set them loose in worlds that were so lived-in, you never doubted the verisimilitude of what you were watching, no matter how outlandish the scenario was. And they both made movies that clearly had more going on under the surface. You knew you were in the hands of someone that wanted to scare you but also had something on their minds. Something they wanted to say.

Those guys are my heroes. And when you see Jackals I’m pretty sure horror fans will see the equal influence of both men on the script and the imagery.

DC: What’s next for you?

A month ago I would have told you that things had gotten depressingly quiet but that’s changed quite a bit recently. I currently have two feature projects that are in the early stages of negotiation that I am very excited about. I can’t say what they are, and things have a habit of falling through all the time, but they’re both horror feature projects based on scripts I’ve already written that I’ve been dying to do.

I also regularly write, direct and act in episodes of the Earbud Theater podcast. It’s a Twilight-Zone-esque anthology audio drama series (available on iTunes and at earbudtheater.com) with great actors and tech people making some top-notch stuff. My latest writing-directing effort was released in June. It’s called Trails and it stars Clarke Wolfe, Morgan Peter Brown from Absentia, Zena Grey from My Soul to Take and Tracy Clifton from KillCam: Live.

And I will actually be playing one of the leads in a five-part series Earbud Theater is doing this fall called After The Haunting which was written and directed by Casey Wolfe. It’s an extremely cool, serialized story that could almost be a sequel to Poltergeist if you stuck around Cuesta Verde after the house imploded, although honestly that’s underselling it a bit. Those will start going up in September and I think it’s going to be really impressive and terrifying. Be on the lookout for those!

Starring Deborah Kara Unger (Crash, Silent Hill), Stephen Dorff (Blade, Leatherface), Johnathan Schaech (That Thing You Do!, Arsenal), Nick Roux (Jane by Design), Chelsea Ricketts (“Scream Queens,” “True Blood”), and Ben Sullivan (“Hell on Wheels,” Stonewall), the film was directed by Greutert, produced by Tommy Alastra and TAP INC., and written by Jared Rivet.

Jackals will be released in limited theaters and On Demand on September 1st via Scream Factory.

Jackals is a disturbing vision of a fractured family that will do anything to get their estranged son back from a murderous cult, but find themselves under siege when the cultists surround their cabin. A vicious battle unfolds, testing familial loyalties and unleashing a bloodbath in which there are few survivors.


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Staci Layne Wilson

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