Bunker: "I was making this fairytale film, but I felt like I was actually experiencing a fairytale myself."
"Happily ever after does not come easily, or without a price," reads the tagline of Little Red, a contemporary retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood" that the Wisconsin Film Festival will screen Friday, April 12 (Chazen Museum of Art, 9:30 p.m.). The line serves as a warning label of sorts, one that hints at the story's mixture of familiar elements and deviations from the classic fairytale about a girl and a wolf.
Directed, co-written andc o-produced by Milwaukee filmmaker Tate Bunker, the film follows Red (Hannah Obst), an 11-year-old girl from Milwaukee who fools her family so she can visit some wild horses on Georgia's Cumberland Island. During her journey, she's noticed by Mark Metcalf (Animal House), who stalks her like a Big Bad Wolf.
Little Red has collected several awards on the local and international festival circuit since premiering last September. Bunker, who will attend with Metcalf, took a few minutes to talk to The Daily Page about the picture and the story behind it.
The Daily Page: What made you want to do a contemporary retelling of a classic fairytale?
Bunker: I was working on the film and the script. The story of this girl making this trip to see the wild horses was the original story. As I was working on it, as it happens sometimes, things are so obvious and in your face but you don't see them. I was showing the script to a filmmaker friend, and he said "You know, what you got here is basically Little Red Riding Hood." And so I was like, "Oh my God, you're right!' So it just kind happened. I didn't really set out to make that kind of film; I just was making a story I wanted to tell. I've been making movies for 20 years, but I make a lot of kind of fairytale-type stories. Not necessarily reinterpreting existing fairytales, but in a way, trying to make my own.
In the traditional Red Riding Hood story, the girl is on her way to deliver food to a sick grandmother. In your version, the girl is hoping to fulfill a dream of her own. She tricks her parents. Her mission isn't to do something nice for someone else. What prompted this change in the story?
I play off Little Red Riding Hood, but I also kind of deviate from the story. She goes to Florida. Grandma doesn't live in the woods anymore; she lives down [near] Florida, so we played off of that. But once she gets there, she's pursued. She's trying to get to the horses and she is fulfilling her own dream. But it deviates from the story in that, instead of the grandma, she meets this kind of companion figure who is kind of street-smart and kind of helps her, and together they go to Cumberland Island. So she picks up this companion, and that story kind of reminded me of maybe a Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn-type character.
In the world of mainstream movies, it seems like there's a boom in fairytale films. A lot of them look heavily stylized and action-packed. How aware were you of what other filmmakers were doing, and what made you go in the direction you eventually went in?
That was, again, just by accident. When I started making Little Red, I wasn't really thinking about what other filmmakers were doing or what was contemporary. It just kind of worked out that way. It was the opening film for the Berlin Independent Film Festival. I went there and people were really excited because they're like, "Oh, fairytales are in. This is really popular." But it was sheer luck.
When you realized that you had a fairytale story on your hands, did you resist that at all or embrace it immediately?
I embraced it. And there was even discussion that said, "You should not be so obvious about it." But I felt it would be a more enjoyable ride if we knew that information right off the bat. I ran with it and used it my advantage and played off it. In particular, when you start watching the trailer of the film, if you're familiar with "Little Red Riding Hood," you know the story right away. So, from a marketing point of view, that's really helpful.
The film was five years in the making. Was this a difficult project to get off the ground, or did it go relatively smoothly?
The funding was quite difficult because we shot it in January of 2009. If you remember, in 2008 that's when the economy really took a downturn. So I had investors that were signed on and then pulled out due to what was happening in the economy. We lost half of the funds that we thought we could make it for, and so there was some discussion of "Well, should we do this, or should we not?" We cut several positions and went on the cheap and steep. And I still made it because I didn't want to lose my actress, Hannah Obst, who is just amazing. I've worked with her on several projects, and she's just been brilliant. And I knew if I didn't make that film at the time that I did, I don't know if I would ever make it because my actress would have been too old at that point. We took a small Milwaukee crew down to the Florida, and that way it was a lot cheaper.
The production started a little rough, but it finished with a bang. We were shooting it on kind of an island, and that was one of the most spectacular experiences I've ever had as a filmmaker. I was making this fairytale film, but I felt like I was actually experiencing a fairytale myself. Cumberland Island is just such a spectacular place. People were saying it feels like Jurassic Park because as soon as we got to the island, there were wild boar running by us. It had a life of its own; it's a magical place. Overall, I think we had a really great production, and I had great people around me.