For his first horror film, “Antlers,” which centers around a boy’s relationship with a supernatural creature, director Scott Cooper said he wasn’t willing to get behind the camera without creature master Guillermo del Toro as producer. During a Comic-Con@Home panel on Saturday, the pair discussed how they created the part-digital, part real-life creature.
Based on the short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca (“Hannibal,” “The Act”), the central supernatural character in “Antlers” is based on the wendigo, a spirt found in Algonquian folklore. Legends describe humans transforming into wendigos because of their greed or weakness and are considered dangerous because of their thirst for blood and ability to bring about evil.
“The wendigo has very, very specific cues you need to follow,” del Toro said. “The antlers, for example, are a must. I said, ‘We have to remember we’re not creating a monster, we’re creating a god.’ So the design needs to have elements that are completely unnatural, that are almost surreal or abstract.”
That means something that looks “ancient, powerful, and one with nature,” he said. For example, the filmmakers made a decision to make the creature’s bones look more like coal, rather than anything that exists inside a living being.
Cooper, who directed the Oscar-nominated “Crazy Heart,” “Hostiles,” and “Black Mass,” said working with del Toro and his frequent collaborator, sketch artist Guy Davis, was a great learning experience. The three of them would work back and forth, continually refining ideas before the creature was actually made.
“Guillermo thought on a much, much deeper level: If we’re talking about what this murderous spirit is doing, it comes from the center of the earth — its crust, its ore, its ember — the wendigo looks like that,” Cooper said. “It’s incredibly beautiful design. Then, Shane Mahan at Legacy [Effects], who was the creature effects supervisor, used a costume-animatronic hybrid of techniques, which they used on ‘Avatar,’ ‘Jurassic,’ and ‘Terminator.'”
Del Toro described that technique as similar to what he’s been doing since his 1997 film “Mimic,” and more recently on his Best Picture winner “The Shape of Water,” where the physical monster’s eyes and micro-expressions were added digitally.
Cooper, who is white, said it was important for him to tap Native American and First Nations experts to help tell the story. Among them was “Smoke Signals” director Chris Eyre.
“The wendigo is an allegory where there’s a spirt that comes to reconcile what the people are doing incorrectly,” Eyre said in a featurette that debuted before the panel.
Other consultants included Portland State University Professor Grace L. Dillon, who Cooper said is the country’s foremost authority on the wendigo.
“She was the one who really educated me that [for] Native Americans, First Nations, it’s not folklore for them. It’s not a myth,” Cooper said. “They truly, truly believe in it, because it represents greed and colonialism when we first came to the shores of what is now America, and pillaged all of their resources and forced them [into] cannibalism. That taste of human flesh, which out of that rose the wendigo.”
The April release of “Antlers” was pushed back by Searchlight and is now set to hit theaters February 19, 2021.