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Director April Mullen Talks About Wander

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Director April Mullen Talks About <I>Wander</I>

by Erica Corbin 06 December, 2020

Wander stars Aaron Eckhart as Arthur Bretnik, a conspiracy theorist whose grief over the loss of his wife and daughter has driven him to the edge. The former private investigator is hired to examine a homicide in the tiny town of Wander, but before too long, uncovers an insidious plot that may -- or may not -- be tied to the death of his family.

Eckhart is joined by heavy hitter Tommy Lee Jones, as well as Heather Graham and Katheryn Winnick of Vikings.

Though director April Mullen and writing partner Tim Doiron wrote the script five years ago, Wander feels eerily prescient. There’s been an explosion of conspiracy theories in 2020 that Bretnik would no doubt love to discuss -- from anti-vaxxers claiming Bill Gates will use a coronavirus vaccine as a means to microchip everyone, to QAnon’s human trafficking and absurd adrenochrome harvesting claims.

Of course, at the heart of every convincing conspiracy theory is a nugget of truth, and at the heart of Wander is the very real maltreatment of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPoC) by border patrol and other government entities.

ScreenPicks spoke to Mullen about this driving force and what else went into the psychological thriller.

ScreenPicks: Wander opens with a note about BIPoC and their continued oppression, brutalization, and incarceration by government bodies such as border patrol. Can you speak more about that dedication?

Mullen: At the end of the day, this is a psychological thriller, but we included that element because we hope people will think about these injustices. Those stories deserve to be told for there to be understanding and healing.

You know, my writing partner Tim and I started writing the film five years ago. We never dreamt it would be so current as it is five years later, with border control and violence against BIPoC being so relevant.

ScreenPicks: Can you speak more about your heritage and how that played a role with this film?

Mullen: Definitely. So, for some generations, my indigenous ancestry has been clouded in mystery, but in the last decade, it's sort of been brought to light. With great humility and pride, I am re-learning my culture and embracing my identity. I am Anishinaabe-Algonquin and we are part of the Thunderbird clan. I couldn't be more honored to be reintroduced to my roots and to tell stories through that lens.

ScreenPicks: What about the music in the film? There seem to be a handful of First Nations songs – most people won’t know the words but they certainly evoke a feeling.

Mullen: In Wander, it was important for me to include the healing medicines of the voices of our ancestors. So, I reached out to Jeremy Dutcher, with who I was hoping to collaborate with. I heard their voice on a Canadian radio station, I want to say five years ago, and it shook me to my core -- it's so powerful and such a unique sound -- the languages of our ancestors are set up in this stunning operatic voice! So, I approached them and told them how critical it was that the voices be a part of the film for our future and healing through the ancestors’ songs in the Wolastoqey language. There are about six of these songs in the film now. I really wanted to put them as a backdrop of healing throughout the whole film. Whether you recognize it or not, it just permeates your spirit. The idea that you're taking that in -- hopefully it is a message of light and love.

ScreenPicks: At the end of the film, there is a “Special Thanks” section which includes several of your family members including Grandma Mullen. Can you talk about how family has helped you either leading up to the film or during?

Mullen: My biggest blessing and gift in life was to be born of my family. My parents are huge believers in the impossible becoming possible and dreamers and you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it. They were the biggest support system anyone could ever ask for. I started making films at a really young age run-and-gun style, very independent. We shot in our hometown of Niagara Falls and there were only seven of us on the crew. That included my dad, who was doing location scouting and vehicles and everything else under the sun, like set construction and transport. My mom was doing everything from costume design to production design. My grandmother was doing craft and also allowed us to be in her home to shoot the films. I have three younger sisters and they've been a part of pretty much every different faculty in my films, whether it be acting or production design. You know, my sisters have become strong artists and kind of have careers of their own because of all this which is such a beautiful thing to watch unfold.

For Wander, they were all in [Carrizozo], New Mexico where we shot. My parents flew down. My mom flew down with a bunch of unique costume pieces that people wear in the film. Katheryn Winnick wears one of the jackets, for example.

I could not imagine doing a film without all of their support. It's just been such a unique family affair that it brings me to tears. To do what you love with those you love -- that's the biggest gift on the planet.

ScreenPicks: There have been some great works of art in the past five to ten years that highlight the struggle of Indigenous peoples. Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, for example, or “Highway of Tears” by Jessica McDiarmid. Can you recommend any reading or films to watch in addition to Wander that would help people understand the topic more?

Mullen: I just finished reading Starlight Tour [by Susanne Reber and Robert Renaudour] this summer. You know, Canadian history is full of a lot of government subjugation against Indigenous people, and yet, a lot of times we focus elsewhere because we like to see ourselves as a very peaceful country. This book really sheds a light on true stories of our past, specifically ones that happened in Saskatchewan, where Indigenous people are brought far away from town with no shoes, no coat, and left there to freeze to death. It follows one specific story about Neil Stonechild, a 17-year-old who was found frozen to death, and the injustice that happened to him and his family. It follows them through decades of fighting for the truth. I would say they are warriors of the light and the truth. It’s definitely worth a read.

ScreenPicks: This could be another project?

Mullen: Tim [Doiron] and I, along with other producers, are looking at potentially making that a miniseries or a feature film because it's just so essential for people to be aware of what happened in our past so that we can come to a place of acknowledgment and eventual healing.

ScreenPicks: You called Stonechild’s family members “warriors of light and truth.” Would you call Eckhart’s character Arthur a warrior of light?

Mullen: Yes, yes, yes. That’s what I’d always call Aaron. When we would message each other on set, I’d always called him my “silent warrior” and “my warrior of truth” and “my warrior of light.” That's how we both saw Arthur. Yeah, that’s him alright.

ScreenPicks: Sometimes there is a fine line between conspiracy theory and mental illness. Can you speak about the research you put into making Arthur’s battle with both authentic?

Mullen: Yes. So, like I mentioned, my writing partner and I started writing the film five years ago. This was when he was going through mental health issues – extreme paranoia and anxiety over government surveillance, Big Brother watching, and a lot of conspiracies. We sort of went into that dark hole of what had happened and then we thought the idea might be interesting [for a film].

So, when it comes to things like Arthur’s signs he has on the wall that say things like “I am protected” and “I am powerful,” those actually come from Tim. He has those kinds of mantras all over the wall. This was really his story in a lot of ways.

ScreenPicks: You never truly know whether Arthur is correct or delusional. Without giving too much away, which one do you think he is?

Mullen: You know, this story will evoke different emotions and different endings for different people. I’m not really dead set on any outcome. I want people to sort of allow themselves to have space to think about it and wonder which one it is because it really can go both ways.

That said, at the core of my and Tim’s hearts are hope and positivity and light. So, we are both in the mindset that Arthur does prevail. And in that last like, oh, that last 10 seconds, I love how unhinged Aaron Eckhart's performance is. It absolutely silenced the whole room and it came out of nowhere! I think it just it really conveys the moment of the truth finally coming out after so many years of being pushed down or silenced. So, yeah, I hope he prevails.

Wander is available in theaters, On Demand and digital today, December 4th.