The Pierce Brothers, Writers/Directors of "The Wretched," Talk Indie Filmmaking, Drive-in Success, and Witch Folklore
Brothers Drew and Brett Pierce grew up in a horror household. Their father, Bart, worked on the special effects for The Evil Dead, including the infamous meltdown sequence near the conclusion. As children, they encountered props from the film in their basement and can recall stories their mom shared about director Sam Raimi and crew taking over their house. Now, the brothers have grabbed headlines after their film The Wretched, a creature feature about a witch invading a lakeshore town, found an audience thanks to distributor IFC Midnight’s decision to screen it at drive-ins across the country, thus making it the #1 box office film as theaters remain closed.
The LA-based directors/writers talked to us about their influences, witch folklore, and the film’s success after it made the festival rounds last year, including at bigger fests like Fantasia and smaller fests like HorrOrigins, where it snagged two awards for Best Actor and Best Feature.
What was your first introduction to horror?
Drew: Our dad did the special photographic effects for The Evil Dead. When Brett was a toddler, he wandered into our basement and discovered bloody hands everywhere and jars full of cockroaches. He apparently watched a minute of the film’s final meltdown scene and was always terrified of everything in our basement. Our first experience was that horror movies are terrible and scary and something to be avoided, until we grew up and our dad transitioned out of production and did transfers of movies. We were the kids in the neighborhood that had the VHS player. Every week, he’d bring home another dozen videos that they transferred. He brought home Fright Night and all these classic horror movies that we watched.
Brett: When I was a kid, my friend Lisa’s older sister had a sleepover. I was a little kid and infatuated with teenage girls. I got invited over. I tried to be tough and watch A Nightmare on Elm Street with them. I probably left 10 times. I think I barely made it through the opening. It was terrifying. When our dad did that transfer work, Fright Night and Aliens were our go-to. We made it through them at a younger age, and they bridged us to the stuff that was scarier, like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Evil Dead.
What did your dad tell you about his experience working on The Evil Dead, and did his work inspire you to go into filmmaking?
Drew: We grew up with the lore of Sam Raimi and how young they were when they made that movie. We constantly got hit with stories about how exhausting the shoot was and how they worked so hard and so long to produce that movie. At one point, Sam Raimi fell asleep on the camera because he was so exhausted during the middle of a take. It sounds like the most difficult independent film ever made. They wanted to make every shot entertaining. They always said, we don’t have a lot of money, but we can spend a whole day on one shot. They did just that. They basically shot until something was kinetic and special. Sam Raimi will overshoot. With Evil Dead, they did shoot the original principles of photography, but afterwards, they shot for another year, on and off, little pick-up shots at our basement and different locations all over Detroit to make scenes work. They struggled to make everything work, so they kept shooting and fixing things. Even though they didn’t have much money, so much time and care went into every shot. That concept has been a huge influence on us.
Brett: The funniest stories came from my mom about how my dad and Tom Sullivan, the other effects artist, took over the basement. Sam, Bruce [Campbell], and all these guys took over the house. They destroyed all the mirrors in the house because they needed them for photographic effects. They brought cockroaches and snakes that got loose in the house. A lot of people don’t think about this, but the crew was just out of high school and college age. My mom talked about how one of the crew members would put bottles of Coca-Cola into her freezer, and they would explode. The house smelled like pot because it was a bunch of young guys that there were in that phase of their lives. My mom was a new mom, and my dad was a new dad. They invited this crazy film crew to invade their house for the summer to finish the film.
Drew: We didn’t grow up with a glamorized view of filmmaking. We thought of it as this scrappy, impossible endeavor. I think it fielded the way we approach everything. We dive in and pull everyone we know into it. We’ve taken that approach.
What are some of your other favorite genre movies, and who are some of your other favorite directors?
Brett: I like early John Carpenter. The original Halloween is a big inspiration for me when it comes to horror. Outside of how beautiful that movie is and how well the tension works in it, I think Drew and I love Halloween because of the story around Halloween. It was a scrappy movie. It was low-budget. They shot it, I think, under 20 days. They shot it in Pasadena and had to make it look like Illinois. They fought palm trees in the background and spread dead leaves over green grass.
Drew: Halloween is shot like a classic Hollywood movie. There are a lot of long takes. He moves on one frame and then moves and resettles on another frame. It’s a really cool style of filmmaking that we love.
Brett: We really wanted to shoot on anamorphic lenses with The Wretched. Halloween was our guiding light for how to shoot nighttime scenes. We love the look of the anamorphics with the nighttime stuff.
Drew: We worked at video stores all through high school and a little bit into college. We got our education in cinema and watched everything. We worked at a very indie video store that had all sorts of B movies and strange, weird movies that we got into. We got into French films, German Expressionism, and all that kind of stuff.
Brett: Though our dad worked on The Evil Dead, he was very much about Steven Spielberg and movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. That’s what he loved the most, adventure films. We were raised on that and lived and breathed it for so long. It was great to start working at the video store because it opened up the world to me. I discovered Japanese cinema, Kurosawa movies, and David Lynch movies. I’d share those with Drew. You don’t want to watch the same 10 movies by your favorite filmmaker over and over again. You need to watch other stuff to inspire you to do different types of things.
How does the collaboration aspect work between both of you in terms of the writing and directing?
Brett: We’re so close that it never felt like we had to figure it out. We’ve lived together for almost our entire lives. The joke with our friends is that we didn’t live separate from each other until I was 30. For us, we’re meticulous planners. Drew’s a storyboard artist by trade. He works on a lot of films and commercials. We storyboard a movie from front to back. We shot list a movie from front to back, but we also rework our scripts over and over again until we feel that we’ve worked out the problems we have with it. By that point, you know the movie in and out in your head, but I also have my brother who knows it in the same way because we’ve already had our fights about what we don’t agree on in the script and how to fix it.
Once we get to set, there’s never a disagreement once we start shooting because by that point, we’ve done all our homework as much as we possibly could. There’s not much else to talk about other than trying to pull off what the plan’s been for a long time. It’s great. We love it. Drew’s brought this up before, but the only thing we do on set that may be different is that when we do a take, we chat back and forth. We try not to overload people. We chat behind the camera, and then one of us will go up and talk to somebody, so we’re not doubling up on somebody. It’s all coming from one source. Outside of that, it’s great. I’m a morning person, which works great for shoots that go into the early morning or start early. I can carry us through those points when Drew drags. At night, I get tired around 1 or 2 am, so it’s great to have a brother who wakes up at that point and who’s about as sharp as he ever gets from about 1-3:30 in the morning. It’s helpful. I wonder how people don’t have a directing partner.
Drew: We’re such film fans. We still watch movies together. It’s usually just one of us reacting to something really bad or great that we’ve seen recently. We riff on it. It starts with this spark, and then if something hooks us, it develops. We start to pitch ideas and get excited enough to dive into the writing. That’s our process. It feels like we’ve been doing this since we were six years old. We just take it further now.
Of course, as writers, you may have one thing in your mind when you're initially writing a screenplay. How true was the final cut of The Wretched, especially the ending, to what you both originally envisioned while writing?
Drew: The final image was something we had envisioned early on. It wasn’t first draft early, but we always knew there would be a reversal at the end. We had everything as far as the character [Mallory/Piper Curda] and the shot. We got obsessed with the idea of a cool shot locked onto a boat, tipping back and forth. We thought that would be creepy, eerie, and interesting.
Brett: I think in the first draft or two of the script that it might have been a different character that was in that position, but it quickly became the character it is in the movie. That’s the one that worked best. It had the best emotional impact. It was something long-standing. People always bring up that shot to mention the possibility of a sequel. It’s not that we wouldn’t make one, but that was not the intention at all. We thought it was a great, ironic horror ending. I’m a fan of those types of endings, like the ending of The Thing when Kurt Russell (R.J. MacReady) and Keith David (Childs) are sitting across from each other and you don’t know which one is the thing. You know the story will go on in a dark way. One of them will probably end up dead.
Drew: In general, horror movies are about suffering in some way or failing in some way. It always seems a little disingenuous to me when characters get off scot-free and are happy at the end. We started to think about our main character’s [Ben/Jean-Paul Howard] flaws. We felt like, in a weird way, that ending brought up his flaws, the fact that he’s selfish and so self-absorbed. He can’t fix things. We took that even further. We felt like it fit the story.
Brett: From a behind the scenes aspect, what’s really funny about the ending is that our insurance policy didn’t allow us to go into the water. A lot of people don’t know this, but you must get an insurance policy to go onto the water with boats. Drew’s wife had to hide in the bottom of the boat and drive it out there to avoid insurance issues. She’s hiding in the boat during the wide shot with the kids.
Drew: We were running out of time. It was the last two shots of the day, and the sun was setting. We had just enough light in the sky to get that shot off. Brett took off his shoes, jumped into the water, and rocked the boat like crazy while I was on the shore trying to get this last shot.
What is something in The Wretched that makes each of you are proud to say, "Hey, that was my idea?"
Drew: For me, it’s something that came in from the original script and even the first storyboard. It’s the confrontation between Ben and Abbie [Zarah Mahler], the next-door neighbor, who’s possessed. It’s this tit for tat battle that they have. We thought about what that first confrontation was going to be, and it always felt like ground zero for the movie. That felt like that was the movie to us and what sets everything off. It’s even better than what we had thought it would be. We had all this planning that went into it, and the actors showed up and brought a little extra magic to these little moments and gave it personality. Then our composer [Devin Burrows] brought in the score, and it felt like exactly what I wanted the film to be.
Brett: For me, it’s a scene earlier in the movie when the family brings home the deer carcass, and at night, the wretch crawls out of the carcass. That scene was in an early draft of the script. It didn’t work at first, but I loved it so much that we kept pushing to keep it in all the way through production. It’s just one of those scenes that turned out how we thought it would turn out.
What is some advice that you can share with new screenwriters? How about directors?
Drew: For Brett and me, we wanted to be directors first. We had made several movies, and then we realized there’s a lot to learn about screenwriting. My best piece of advice is that the information is out there. There’s unlimited podcasts and YouTube videos about screenwriting. There are so many gurus and brilliant people out there. There’s nothing that should prevent you from becoming a great screenwriter. All the tools are there. There’s nothing holding you back. I have probably 200 podcast channels saved that I return to weekly to try to up my game. As Brett and I create, I’m constantly going to the gurus to have my mind in the right space. It helps me to critique stories that we’re working on.
Brett: Watch the films that you admire the most. For the purpose of telling a story visually, watch with the sound off. It makes you pay attention to the visual language and how they’re trying to impart tension or romance. Filmmaking is a lot of homework. I recommend people do their homework before they make a movie. When you’re writing a script, just finishing a first draft is an accomplishment, but you need to go through at least another 10 drafts before you have something worth shooting. Take criticism. Look at your work with a critical eye and spend time rewriting. It’s the same thing with directing. I think it’s advantageous to storyboard the whole film and shot list it because you’ll have a greater understanding of what’s going to communicate your story the best. You’ll also be able to accomplish more when you shoot because when you’re making an independent film, you’re always fighting the amount of time and money you have.
Drew: To piggyback on what Brett’s saying, when you come up with a story idea, you should pitch that idea to everyone and anyone you know. Pay attention to when they light up. Run with it. Keep re-pitching it until you get through the entire story and the person next to you says, “I would watch that movie.” You can tell whether it’s something they’d want to see in the theater. After you finish a script, find 10 people to give you notes on the script. It could be 10 friends who just love stories or love to read. Tell them to be brutal.
Brett: It’s not that you must take every suggestion. You need to trust your gut, but if you hear multiple people telling you the same thing, you should spend some time fixing that part of the script.
Can you comment on the success that The Wretched has found at drive-ins?
Drew: It’s amazing. As an indie filmmaker, you don’t expect your film to go anywhere beyond a handful of theaters. As terrible as this situation has been, the one silver lining for Brett and I is that it’s allowed people to find our movie. It’s hard to find audiences for indie movies. We’re fortunate we made the perfect drive-in movie. It works for that audience.
Brett: For us, it’s such a weird situation to be in. As a filmmaker, you’re happy with how your movie is doing. At the same time, the times are dark. A friend of mine pointed out that when there’s bad times but spots of light, you have to embrace it [the light]. Otherwise, you end up feeling bad all the time. When IFC first mentioned they were putting it in drive-ins, we had written off theaters because of the pandemic. We realized that we could offer escapism when things are scary.
Do you have any specific drive-in memories?
Brett: Our dad is such a cinephile, and he’s the reason we got into filmmaking. He took us to drive-ins because they would show older films, not necessarily the first-run stuff. I do remember being dragged to a lot of Planet of the Apes marathons at the drive-in. Detroit had its fair share of drive-ins, and with our dad, we went often. It’s a strong memory for me.
Can you talk about the folklore that inspired The Wretched?
Drew: When we came up with the concept of a witch creature feature, we had a couple of ideas for it. We dove into mythologies from around the world. We found many cool witch mythologies that we had never seen on screen before. For us, it became this process of trying to figure out which witch and what to source. We fell in love with this one English myth about a witch called Black Annis, basically this blue-faced hag who lived underneath a tree, had sharp teeth, and would go out and steal and devour children. We found this other myth called the Boo Hag, a myth about this skin-stealing woman who would leave in the middle of the night with no skin on. Ultimately, her skin gets salted, and she burns alive. We thought those were interesting and cool. We had never seen anything like that. We also felt like witch movies have been missing a set of rules. Zombies, werewolves, and vampires have these rules. We built up some of our own rules for our witch movie. We felt like we had our own unique mythology to base the story on.
Brett: I was always into mythology, especially witch mythology. You realize that around the world, the myth of the witch is something that’s been jumping from culture to culture, so there are shared aspects among cultures. It could be a hag-like appearance, or a very old woman who’s creepy, or a woman who takes and eats children. Maybe she lives in a hollow, tree, or mountain. Salt is an issue for some of them. Initially, we thought that maybe we’d call the movie Black Annis or The Boo Hag. Then, we thought that folklore has been passing around the same witch in different cultures. So we thought we could pick and choose our favorite bits and make a witch that reflects all of them in little ways so that for people familiar with one specific witch, they can watch the movie and visually get it a little more or take something out of it.
The Wretched was filmed near Omena and Northport, MI, near your hometown. What was the experience like returning to the area where you grew up and making a movie there? It’s also a great setting because it appears so safe on the surface. It’s a lakeshore town with a serious threat lurking in the woods.
Drew: The backdrop for the location we shot is a beautiful marina. My in-laws ran the sailing school at that marina. Making an indie film, you want to conserve resources. We knew that if we shot at that location, we could have access and shoot there for a bit. We rewrote our script based on that. We love horror movies that let you feel comfortable in the first act and let you settle in with the characters and their drama before you get hit with supernatural elements. That’s always so much scarier for us.
We’re originally from Michigan. We’re from the Detroit area, and we used to go up north and tell scary stories. As locals, it’s a lot easier to make a feature in your home state where you have homecourt advantage. You can talk to the local shop owners and ask where you can shoot. In California, where we live now, it’s so much different. People are so tired of film crews. Everything’s expensive. It’s nice to go away, and for us, it’s like going on a camping trip with 40 or 50 of your best friends. It’s an exciting experience and how we like to make movies.
Brett: Michigan’s a beautiful state with a lot of diverse locations, especially if you go to northern Michigan or get close to the water. You get woods. You get beautiful, old houses that date back to the Civil War. You get marinas and beaches, too. We knew that if we put ourselves near the water in Traverse City, we would also find the houses we needed. For weeks, prior to shooting, Drew and I drove up and down this peninsula just looking for two houses that were remotely close to each other that had a cool look. We found the houses, and they happened to be a bed and breakfast. They were owned by the same people. They also had two other houses on the property, so it made sense to set up there. Drew and I stayed on the property. It was very fortuitous. We also needed two houses close to each other. Our movie is very voyeuristic, like Rear Window, so we had to imply that people are spying on each other. It took a long time to find houses close together that had the right look.
The film, for the witch specifically, tends to favor practical effects over CGI. Can you comment on the decision to go with practical effects more than CGI?
Drew: We love working with practical effects. They’re more fun on set. We felt like to do some of the body horror and scarier elements we wanted to do, practical was the way to go. It was exciting. We found a great team and got to collaborate with them. Brett and I are such planners. Having storyboarded the entire move, it was as seamless collaboration. We were able to give our make-up effects lead, Erik Porn, boards for every practical effect that he would have to accomplish but also every angle and how long, roughly, they were going be on screen. There was a lot of preparation that went into every effect.
Brett: The attempt with all effects, be it CGI or practical, is that you want it to feel real or photo real. Our thinking has always been that if we can use practical effects, why wouldn’t we do that? It will be photo real because we can throw light on it and make it look the way we want it to look. Not that CGI is bad, but I don’t know why I would choose CGI if we can pull off practical effects. If it’s impossible to use practical effects, then we think about CGI. Jurassic Park handles it well. There are a lot of shots that would have been impossible to do practically. I can’t make a full-size T-rex running down the street, but I can shoot the T-rex’s leg dropping into a frame, or I can show a velociraptor’s head turning towards the camera. That makes those CG effects and practical effects more convincing because they share the same space. If Drew and I were to make a film that involved something more complicated than a humanistic-shaped creature, of course, we would love to use CG, but we’d try to figure out what elements we can create using practical effects.
I love the casting in this film. The teens are so believable and likable. How did you find John-Paul Howard (Ben) (who I should mention won HorrOrigins Best Actor Award) and Piper Curda (Mallory)?
Drew: We hired a casting director out of Los Angeles, Lisa Essary. Brett and I were terrified because the hallmark of bad horror movies is bad casting or bad actors. We just decided we were going to sit in on every single audition. We watched so many people that I have so much respect for casting directors now. It’s an exhausting process. They’re long days, but we couldn’t be happier with the people we found. With JP as Ben and Piper Curda as Mallory, they happened to be tapes. We didn’t see them in person. We trusted our gut. We feel so fortunate. I think they were amazing.
The movie also has both an interesting juxtaposition of imagery and music. Have you worked with composer Devin Burrows before? Did he have his own vision for the score?
Brett: Devin’s my best friend from second grade. He was that kid who loved every type of music and played a lot of different instruments. He’s just a music guy. We made our first film, Deadheads, an extremely low-budget movie, and we asked him to do the score. He had no experience doing film scores, but he was a huge fan of film scores. He was down for doing it. He did some test tracks for us, even before we shot. He sent us three or four pieces of music, and they sounded epic and huge. We were so impressed. When it came time to make The Wretched, it wasn’t even a question as to whether Devin would be involved. We always involve him early in the process. We give him a script and talk about the themes of the film. He usually starts fiddling before we start shooting. The only two films he’s ever done are Deadheads and The Wretched. He’s like our ace up the sleeve because he’s doing all of this on his own home system. He’s like a savant.
You guys have mentioned in another interview that there has been mention of your film having similarities to an Amblin film. One shot that draws a comparison is when the camera is under the car, rain is coming down, and the witch slowly climbs out of the car. How does it feel to hear that comparison?
Drew: We love a lot of Amblin stuff. We grew up on Spielberg and all the classic movies. We’re happy to have that comparison. We wanted to make a movie about teenagers with scary, over-the-top moments. We miss those elements, those darker, creepier movies that we used to get in the 80s and early 90s that were a little over the top. It goes back to when we were kids and walking in on our friends watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, and it was too scary for us.
Brett: Out here in Los Angeles, you realize that a lot of production companies are trying to make a hard R horror movie that features adults. They don’t think kids will be allowed to see the movie, or they make a PG-13 horror movie. They have to temper any gore, swearing, nudity, or subject matter. What I kind of missed, and what Drew missed, is that in the 80s, we had some scary movies featuring kids. Gremlins terrified me. The lead character in the original Child’s Play [Andy/Alex Vincent] movie is a little boy. We missed those movies that felt a little more dangerous because the leads were kids or teenagers, and terrible things could happen to them. We wanted to make something like that.
You screened at some big festivals, including Fantasia International Film Festival, for The Wretched’s premiere. How was it experiencing those types of festivals?
Brett: When we had a bad day shooting the movie, Drew and I would talk about the film playing at a festival on a big screen. At that time, you don’t know if you’ll get into a good film festival. You’re selling that dream to keep everyone excited. We were so lucky with Fantasia. They embraced the movie. We were lucky to get a prime spot on one of the big nights. We got the big house theater, and it sold out. I think it had 700 seats.
Drew: The audience responded to the movie in a way we never expected. We thought we had an audience film, but they laughed at every joke and jumped at the scares. They applauded towards the end. We felt like we had something special that worked for an audience.
Brett: In a lot of ways, you get nervous before the film plays. At the same time, it’s the first time you get any validation for what you did. Up to that point, it was like a giant roll of the dice for everyone involved. We came out of it on a high. We thought that was the apex of what the movie was going to be. We hoped and prayed we could get distribution.
Your team won Best Feature Film for HorrOrigins Film Festival. What are some positive things about smaller festivals like HorrOrigins that indie filmmakers should know?
Drew: That’s where other filmmakers are, people just like you. No one makes a movie by themselves. It’s about team building. The reason why we were able to pull off The Wretched is because we pulled in people from our shorts and our other feature. We’ve been able to build this team. It’s a family and friends thing, people that we met over the years through our love of filmmaking and cinema. That’s what you can do at festivals. Anytime that you see a short, especially, you can go up to the filmmaker and chat. A lot of the actors in these indie movies are also excited to share their art and connect with other people. That’s why they’re there. If anyone is there, they’ll be excited to talk to you. That won’t necessarily happen at the bigger, top tier film festivals. At the small ones, it’s all about team building. If you find people that you creatively sync with, you can connect with them.
Brett: What’s great about the smaller festivals is all the heart. I compare people who run film festivals to film crews that make movies. It’s all passion. People don’t start a film festival to make a lot of money. It’s people who love movies so much that they want to create an event for other people. What’s great about the smaller fests is that you know it’s all heart. You know the movies that they selected are movies they like. There’s no political intrigue. Some of the bigger fests are like that, too. Fantasia is a bigger fest run by wonderful people who just love movies.
What's next for you?
Brett: We have a werewolf story that we’ve been thinking about for a long time. We even wanted to do it before The Wretched, but budget-wise, we wouldn’t have been able to pull off an action-based werewolf movie that feels like Predator. We really want to do this story because we think we’ve figured out a unique take on the mythology that feels like a new story. I love werewolf movies, but you tend to get into the same cycle of stories. I think we figured out a way to make it new and different.
Do you have social media pages that where screenwriters, filmmakers and fans of The Wretched can follow your journey?
Brett: My Instagram is @jackstargrundy and my Twitter is @piercebrett. Wretched can be found on Instagram @thewretchedmovie and Facebook @thewretchedfilm.
Drew: Yeah, you can find me on Instagram @drewdraw and Twitter @drewdraws.
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