Interview with Ellie Wells, Writer & Director of Eagle Rock
In the film, Jay, who was a Bundy/Manson type, is very smooth and incredibly manipulative. He knew how to spot young women in crisis and he knew how to spin that to his advantage. In the late 1960’s, he does just that. First Alex, then Sasha, Jay gathers his little band of followers and weaponizes them. Three years later and the end result is three dead people, one of whom is Margaret Kelly, an athlete bound for the Munich Olympics to represent the United States in swimming. Jay reminds me of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. Did your background for this character evolve from an interest in the Bundy and Manson stories? Is this story rooted in or influenced by nonfiction?
It started with an interest in the Manson murders and in wanting to understand what would drive an ordinary young woman to become a murderer. I’d never written a character like Jay before, and I wanted to portray someone who was evil but still human. He doesn’t lack feelings, but the feelings he does have are all centered around himself. He cannot empathize with other people, and only sees them in how they can serve his own means.
The terrible reality is that people like that can often be charming and know exactly what to say. It’s the reason that they’re able to draw so many people to them in the first place. I started by reading about Manson and about Jim Jones. Bundy as an influence came later. It’s definitely inspired by non-fiction, but at the same time, I didn’t want Jay to be a carbon copy of any of the men mentioned above. I wanted him to feel like a unique individual, because the sad truth is that there are countless people like this out there.
They may not all become murderers or cult leaders, but they exist and cause real damage to other people’s lives. They are bosses and co-workers, family members, and romantic partners. They are able to blend well into society, tricking us into believing they care about us. In the film, Jay is an expert at this. He is able to be perfectly attune to what Alex (and later, Sasha) need, and then manipulate that to his benefit.
There is a moment in everyone’s lives when they suddenly become aware that their individual actions can have profound effects on other people’s lives. For Alex, one of Jay’s followers, that moment came in prison after she participated in a mass murder. Alex as a central character gives this story a very dark twist on the Coming of Age genre. Was that your intention?
It was. Before she meets Jay, Alex doesn’t quite live in the real world. She feels bored and trapped in her life, and escapes into something simpler through the books that she reads. She wants to feel as though someone truly notices her. That part comes true, but it’s also what ruins her life in the end. The first step in bringing Alex to life was to love her and understand her the way I would a close friend. I considered what was happening in the world when she was growing up. I knew her mother hadn’t been in the picture for a long time, and decided her mother would have tragically passed away from cancer when Alex was young. After that, nothing in her life was never the same. I watched the TV shows and movies she would have grown up with, from Bye Bye Birdie to West Side Story and even the original Mickey Mouse Club. I listened to the music she would have listened to and considered what defined her generation—the baby boomers. After a certain point, I had to remind myself of why I was writing this story and of Alex’s unshakable destiny that I had created for her. More than anything it was to show that in spite of what she does, she is not irredeemable.
Jo Davis is a reporter interviewing Alex in prison, and as Jo probes for answers, she provides them. Alex is quite aloof, still awash in Jay’s glow and fully aboard his brainwashing vehicle, “the cause.” Although 21 during the time of the interview, Alex doesn’t seem to have matured past the age of 18, which happens to be how old she was when she met Jay. Arrested development is clearly at play as Alex reminisces about how it all started with Jay. The interview structure of this script is very effective. How did you come up with the idea of using a news interview as the vehicle for the story? Did you consider other formats before choosing this one?
I first conceived of this as a short film, as a charismatic man indocrotinates his first follower. I wanted the audience to understand where the story was going, so I thought of a flashforward to the future. A news interview while Alex was already in prison made the most sense as then the audience would fully understand the stakes. Additionally, I want the audience to think about how Alex transforms from a shy and insecure teenager to murderer over a three year period.
From the time she decides to run away to be with Jay to the day she’s arrested, Alex lives her life outside of society as we understand it. She abandons high school and with it, her plans to go to college. She’s not living or working in one place. She is with Jay, driving around the country, camping in a different place every day. I imagine in these three years, she hasn’t been apart from Jay longer than a few hours. The more time that passes, the more Jay is able to convince her that her life before was a lie, that her truest path lies with him. In essence, he is her entire orbit and has defined her worldview.
Alex had been working in a bookstore, as much to get away from her unhappy home life than anything else. Jay showed up one day and casted his spell, and to Alex’s young mind, he was everything she thought her parents were not. Eagle Rock incorporated very accurate depictions of real recruiting and brainwashing techniques. Did you research cults and their use of mind control and behavior manipulation?
I spent a fair bit of time researching different cults. As I mentioned earlier, my desire to tell this story started with the Manson Family. I then did extensive research into the Peoples Temple (Jonestown), The Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, NXIVM and others. In all of these groups and in their leaders, I found commonalities. Usually, recruits are at vulnerable periods in their life. You don’t “join a cult,” but spend time “with a cool group of people.” Often, people stay for the other members of the group as much as they do for the leader. The outside world and anyone belonging to it is ostracized, with the leader instilling an “us vs. them” mentality. Difference of opinion is discouraged and shut down. The leader often physically isolates the members as well, and uses gaslighting tactics and a sweet/mean cycle to make them stay.
Later in the film, after Alex and Jay have been together for a few months, they pick up another girl, Sasha, hitchhiking. Sasha is in many ways just like Alex. I purposefully chose names that are both diminutives of Alexandra, in order to highlight this. In any case, after Jay starts showing Sasha more attention, Alex gets jealous. Jay is furious at his will being challenged. But he realizes he can’t afford to lose Alex and does his best to reign her back in. Writing the Jay/Alex confrontation scene definitely felt uncomfortable, but I managed to play into the discomfort and my actors sold it.
It is only over the course of the interview with Jo Davis that Alex seems to comprehend her personal responsibility in a national tragedy. Jo Davis is a character who comes off as very invested in hearing Alex’s version of events, but also in making her understand that what she did was wrong. Is Jo’s character intended to act as a sort of moral lodestar, leading Alex to this level of self awareness?
Jo was always intended to be a stand-in for the audience. Before I properly started researching this story, I definitely had my own preconceived notions of what cults were and the type of people that got involved with them. The more I learned and researched, the more all of that fell away. I wanted Jo, as a character, to go into the interview with a sense of who Alex is that is shattered the longer they talk. I always wanted the film to go deeper into why people become a part of cults, while demystifying some of the stigma surrounding them— it’s very intentional that the word “cult” is not said once.
I realized showing how a cult forms is something that I hadn’t seen before. I remember reading about Mary Brunner, the first Manson girl, and how Manson met her at her job at a local library. There was an instant attraction between the two of them. I started to think a lot about her, and what she thought she was signing up for when Manson shortly moved in with her, and how he convinced her to stay as he brought more and more girls into the picture. I wanted to shy away as much as possible from stereotypical depictions and cult members—acolytes in white robes, dead-eyed followers, ritualistic ceremonies, apocalyptic predictions—in order to focus on the ideas being communicated by the leader, and the essence of what Jay is offering these girls.
Paige Henderson does an excellent job of portraying Alex. What was the casting process like for this role? Was there anything specific you were looking for in actors?
I posted casting notices on a few different job boards. For the part of Alex, I must have gotten something like five hundred submissions.
Casting is always an exciting and nerve-wracking process. Any writer will be able to tell you that we spend a lot of time with our characters before anyone else knows who they are. They become real people to us.
Firstly, I had to narrow down all of the submissions I received into both who fit the look I imagined for Alex and who had strong reels. I had those actresses submit a self-tape of the scene where Alex and Jay walk through a park together. I chose that scene for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to see how each actress responded to “Jay”, even though he wasn’t there. Paige’s audition stood out to me because I thought she encapsulated Alex’s vulnerability in a way that I had yet to see. She made me believe Jay was there with her.
I had a few other self tapes I liked at that point. But something that’s important to me when looking for actors, in general, is whether or not an individual will be a good person to work with. So the final step is to schedule a call with the actor. This is both so I can get a sense of how we would work together and to make any further observations on how they would be able to bring the character to life, and ensure they understand the reasons I’m telling the story.
After talking with Paige I thought she not only understood Alex and the film, but would be someone I could have a strong working relationship with, so she was cast.
That didn’t mean the other actresses I interviewed did not possess these qualities. Sometimes it’s hard to put into words what makes an actor right for a role other than intuition. My advice to actors would be this: someone, even if it’s not me, is looking for exactly you. Not being cast, at least from my perspective, is very rarely a result of a poor audition and more often a reflection of fit. I also do my best to give back to actors. Having been one myself, I understand and empathize with the struggle. I don’t cast you initially, I always try to keep you in mind for future parts as they arise.
As a writer, I almost always have personal ties to my characters and their actions. Are there any events in your life that prompted you to make this film?
When I first read about the Manson girls, I related to them because I was young not so long ago— I still am— and clamored for feelings of acceptance. When I was seventeen and in high school, I felt like I didn’t fit in. I’ve never been in such a situation as Alex and Sasha find themselves in, but I had empathy for them and wondered how or if I would have fallen down that path myself. It’s easy to think it could never happen to us, but such breakdowns don’t happen overnight. The analogy I’ve often shared with my actors is putting a frog in boiling water. If you dump the frog in right as it boils, they’re not going to go in the pot. But if you put them in lukewarm water at first and slowly turn up the dial, before you know it, they will be boiling.
Is Eagle Rock a “self-contained” short film, or are you planning to use it as a proof of concept or platform for an expanded story?
It’s intended to be the proof of concept for the feature film we currently have in development. It was interesting because I first conceived Eagle Rock as a short film, but quickly realized that I had a lot more story to tell.
There are a lot of gaps in what we see in the short. We go from Alex and Jay meeting from Alex deciding to run away with him. Later, we skip ahead to them having been together for a few months and Jay seducing Sasha. Later, they meet Margaret Kelly, their murder victim. Of course, this is all framed by the prison interview, and mention of there being sixteen followers by the end. I already had a sense of who the characters were in my mind.
I must have written the first draft in two weeks while we were still in pre-production on the short. Having a sense of the full picture was extraordinarily helpful not only to me but to the actors as well.
The feature is set in the weeks before Margaret’s murder, as a series of events leads the group’s dynamic to erode to the point of Jay’s desperation. Beyond showing us exactly how Alex and three others end up in Margaret’s house on July 4th, 1971, however, it explores what would implore someone into staying in an abusive situation.
I consider the short to be a snapshot, a prologue of sorts to the main story. By focusing on six girls that are the closest to Jay, the feature will show the very real draws young women have towards cults without stigimazing them. Above all, it will show how common desires for love and acceptance can be manipulated to disastrous ends.
You can watch Eagle Rock on Amazon Prime and learn more about the film on its website, Facebook, or Instagram. You can learn more about Eleanor Wells on her profile, and visit Rebecca Raymer’s to become familiar with her work.