Two Cinereach grantees, now in theaters. Two different genres. Two unique styles of biting wit. Two misunderstood subjects. Penny Lane and Madeleine Olnek are two of our favorite truth-tellers of 2019. In their latest films, each tackles historically misrepresented subjects by honing her lens on the underlying forces that have propelled those narratives forward: Lane, on bloodlustful devil-worshiper in Hail Satan?; Olnek, the preeminent American poet and rumored shut-in Emily Dickinson in Wild Nights With Emily.
A nonfiction filmmaker known for moving beyond preconception in whipsmart works like like Nuts! and Our Nixon, in Hail Satan? Lane adeptly tails the new Satanic movement in America, gaining unprecedented access and insight. Through candid interviews with The Satanic Temple’s followers and leadership, we learn that this is a group that values religious plurality and social equity—not human sacrifice. A New York Times Critics’ Pick this week, Hail Satan? is bound to turn your Satanic Panic into Pleasure.
With queer comedies like The Foxy Merkins and Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same under her belt, Madeleine Olnek returns to theaters with Wild Nights With Emily, a quippy literary biopic that rescues Emily Dickinson from the prevailing historical narratives that have incorrectly branded her as an agoraphobic spinster. Starring Molly Shannon as the ignored poet and Susan Ziegler as her lover/sister-in-law, Wild Nights uses the latest scholarship to shine new light on an old — and unfounded — portrait of the writer.
On the eve of the theatrical releases of their films, we spoke to Lane and Olnek about redressing bad history, dealing with critics, and some of their favorite movies.
You’re working against decades of popular misunderstanding about your subject. How have you dealt with how overwhelming that lift is, both in terms of selling this project to funders, audiences, and critics …and taking that leap of faith yourself?
Penny Lane: I think I’m quite lucky because the things I’m trying to convince people of are really simple, common sense, and not that crazy. I’m not asking people to believe the earth is flat, I’m asking them to say something like, ‘Well, if you want to know what a Satanist is and what a Satanist believes, maybe we should talk to some fucking Satanists and ask them?’ In what other religious context would you not think that is the obvious thing to do? If you wanted to know more about Jewish people, would you consult Hitler or would you, I don’t know, talk to a Jew?
At the end of the day, the approach that I took was so mind-bogglingly simple and obvious that I don’t know any other way I could’ve done it. And in talking to funders and all that kind of stuff, it’s much easier to show them than try to explain the transformation that I expect people to go through during the film in a five-minute pitch. You’re up against — you said decades, I would say millennia — of misconceptions of Satan and Satanists. It’s pretty hard. At the same time, I had a certain sex appeal built into the project. Satan sells tickets. So whatever you think of the ultimate claims of the film, if you’re looking at it from a commercial point-of-view it’s a good bet.
Madeleine Olnek: It is hard because I spent so much time researching this, that when I get a review that’s angry — not because of the movie — but because of what I’m doing, it’s upsetting. Both because I put so much time into it and also because I think we’re at a point in our society where we realize that there are stakes to not having honest representations of women.
One of the ways I did address it was by spending months on a 40-page historical packet. One of the biggest questions we’ve had is, “Why did no one know this about Dickinson?” I’ve tracked through the history of major publications related to rights issues and where certain ideas about her came from. They were often put out there as a reaction.
In 1951, when the scholar Rebecca Patterson wrote about Emily’s affair with Kate, Millicent Todd Bingham, the daughter of Mabel Loomis Todd (Austin Dickinson’s mistress) went and marketed and packaged The Master Letters. Seeing how that happened was interesting to me.
There’s this other book, The Life of Emily Dickinson, that’s considered the critically unsurpassed biography on her. Mabel Todd’s daughter gave that writer the trunk full of Emily’s papers. They were holding it and refused to give it back to the Dickinsons. She used the trunk to negotiate this book because Mabel and her daughter really hated Susan. She was vilified and made to have not existed during Emily’s adult life. That scholar wanted those papers, so he was willing to tell that story.
Later on, he wound up becoming Mabel Todd’s daughter’s literary executor. All the papers would be left to him. He had really big conflict of interests in writing her biography.
The leap of faith was that it could even get finished. A lot of people said we could never make it. It took me three years to finish the film, which is unusual for indies. There were times when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. The best part, really, was Cinereach coming in and giving me a grant so that I could include the story of another woman who ended up having an affair with Emily and wound up living, openly gay, in Europe. In light of her subsequent history, that was another level of making their story harder to hide.
So many well-educated and well-meaning people have misconceptions about Dickinson and Satanists alike. Why do you think that is?
Penny: It’s a millennia of conspiracy theories and lies from people in power. The idea that there are these people out there who worship the devil and commit acts of evil in the name of their dark lord — as far as we can tell in terms of scholarship, history, and archaeology, and everything else — those people never existed. The idea has performed a very useful useful social function for people in power for thousands of years. It’s funny because it’s not just devil worshipers. The things that these people have been accused of doing out in the woods are precisely the same things that people said that Jews were doing. It’s not surprising that the vast majority of us have just accepted it as truth because it was what we were told. People don’t even realize it’s a belief; they just think it’s a fact. I certainly don’t hold it against anyone that they would press play on this film while holding that idea in their minds, because that’s what I did.
Madeleine: Indoctrination. For example, we’d screen the movie-in-progress at my house and we’d invite different age groups. We worked really hard to show that Emily wasn’t a recluse. You’d see her outside, at a picnic, and a party. When we asked young people afterwards whether she was a recluse, younger people would say ‘no’ and older people would say ‘yes.’ Yet they’d all seen the same movie. It took a lot to undo that indoctrination. It was as though the older people came and they already had that story in their head. It’s often psychological.
Was there an invaluable trinket of footage or information that you discovered during research or production that changed the course of your project?
Penny: There’s a moment in the film close to the end where I’m in a room with Lucien Greaves, the spokesperson for The Satanic Temple and he is putting on a bulletproof vest because he is about to address the crowd at the religious freedom rally that he organized. In the weeks leading up to the event, there had been not one but many pretty credible-seeming threats on his life by white nationalist Christian groups like the KKK (which nobody wants to admit is a Christian group). It [Arkansas] is an open carry state. There are people with guns all over the place. It was absolutely terrifying. I kept thinking I’d wish he’d call it off.
I’m standing there, watching him put this bulletproof vest on and I’m thinking, “For two years, I’ve been making this film, and every fucking single person I’ve talked to has said, ‘Oh, Satanists! There’s just trolls. They just want to annoy people. They’re just out to irritate.’” These people are sitting at home in their air-conditioned rooms typing these things, you know. Fuck those people. The idea that this was just made me so full of rage. It was a very specific, revelatory feeling for me. It put me on their side. They weren’t having that rally just for Satanists, but because they wanted to protect the First Amendment rights of literally everyone in this country.
Madeleine: The one thing I thought about was how, in literary biopics, we leave the theater knowing more about the writer’s life, but not getting through to their thoughts or actual ideas. I wanted people to feel inside of the poems and to experience the ideas of them. Those are things that we don’t get to experience. But as an independent filmmaker, I could do that.
How does your choice genre help you get to the truth of the matter?
Penny: I’m trying to make films that are very challenging, but I also have a lot of empathy for my audience. I am not trying to alienate them, which I think a lot of artists do. They kind of take on this role of despising the public, trying to upset them as much as possible, and making sure that no one has any idea what they’re doing so they can feel superior to them. I definitely don’t think that’s what I’m doing.
When you talk to me in real life, I talk very fast. I am very confrontational. I’m not shy at all about expressing my opinions or calling people out on dumb or incorrect ideas, but I am also always smiling. I think the films I make are very similar to talking to me.
Madeleine: I feel like, if Emily Dickinson were a filmmaker, she’d be a D.I.Y. filmmaker. So I did try to think about what kind of film she would like about her life. I thought about that. I feel like the way that she would write poems with different endings. The way we shot this in pieces and put it together is representative of that.
Do you have a favorite movie in your genre (biographical portrait, nonfiction)?
Penny: There are too many! I would say that a really important film for me in my career and in developing my voice as an artist was Exit Through the Gift Shop, which came out in 2010. Not even a decade ago, but it seems, to me, like it’s so foundational that it’s been around forever, you know?
There was high-level intellectual conversation. But then, like, it was a hugely popular film. Let’s say 99% of the Netflix reviews are like, ‘Five stars! Funny movie! What a weird guy! Made me want to make street art!’ And you’ll hear the journalists say, “Look at all these idiots who don’t get the movie,” but I thought, “This is great! That’s exactly the kind of movie I want to make. I want to make a movie that’s so much fun and so entertaining that they’ll enjoy it even if they don’t get it.”
It’s an absolutely amazing thing to have accomplished. You don’t have to be boring, inaccessible, and so serious in order to be smart.
Madeleine: I do think The Hours manages, because it’s the story of three women and it’s a story about a writer, to catch the effect of people reading and thinking. There’s also a scene where Nicole Kidman is walking around outside and talking to herself while trying to figure out something in her book. And her sister says, “She has two lives that she is living.” They really captured that perfectly.
Interviews have been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Hail Satan? enters theaters nationwide today, Friday April 19. Find tickets here.
Wild Nights With Emily is now playing select theaters. To find a showtime near you, visit the film’s website.