Interview: Mitchell Altieri from "Holy Ghost People"

Photo Credit: XLrator Media
February 25th, 2014

Director Mitchell Altieri is happy to bring thriller fans his new film Holy Ghost People to VOD this week.  The film is an exciting new take on the practices, not only spiritual, of a snake handling church deep in the heart of the Tennessee mountains.  Mitchell sat down with us here at Movie Room Reviews to tell us all about this intense new film.

Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews: Congratulations on your new film Holy Ghost People which just came out on VOD

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, pretty pumped about it. Pretty excited about it.

MRR: Yeah, now it already premiered at South by Southwest last year right?

Mitchell Altieri: It did, last year, yeah. We did South by Southwest, and then did Cinema by the Bay, which is a San Fransisco International Film Festival, and Napa International, and it might have played in one or two other places, but I can't really remember.

MRR: Well have you changed the film since it premiered at South by Southwest really?

Mitchell Altieri: We have. When we premiered at South by Southwest the paint was still drying. We played it and kind of gaged reactions and whatnot, and even just ourselves kind of sit back and watch people and even though we did do test screenings, there's something to have a true live audience in there and so yeah, we went back in and re-edited. It's pretty strange sitting in a theater full of people and how obvious something is that they react to and I say, "Oh wow! I can't believe I just didn’t even see that".

MRR: I'm a wilderness explorer and this is the kind of movie that freaks guys like us out.

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah.

MRR: Could you tell us about the film Holy Ghost People?

Mitchell Altieri: Sure, well, the general concept is a girl goes looking for her sister up in the Appalachian mountains and as we all know, or as far as we hear, especially on the western side, there's spots there that you just do not want to go. Everybody knows that, and so she takes it upon herself to hire an ex-marine to kind of shepherd her journey up there and help, kind of basically almost be her bodyguard and she wants to find out what happened to her sister, but she knows that it's gonna be pretty tough to get answers from these people and what not. As they dig deeper and deeper they find the truth of what really happened to her sister and a bit disturbing.

MRR: You filmed this in Tennessee, right, in the Smokies?

Mitchell Altieri: In Tennessee, yeah.

MRR: I've been there, there's something mystic about those woods up there, don't you agree?

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, there really is. It's such a beautiful, beautiful place. Just like you said, it's also mystic, and you just know there's like so much. There's been so much war, and so much that's happened there and there's  such a thick, thick, history to the place. It's amazing.

MRR: It revolves around this snake-handling church. Now, is that something you studied and researched, and kind of wrote around? Or is this your own interpretation of what you think this church would be like?

Mitchell Altieri: No, I mean it was the general idea of the movie. I wanted to do something a little bit on the thriller side. Basically I wanted to shoot a movie where it was more of a stronger kind of a dark thriller than my usual stuff. I had this concept of a girl who's gonna go looking for her missing sister and they end up in this snake-handling church. I was well aware of the religion itself and the general concept of it, but it wasn't till at the time when I met Joe Egender, he's an actor who I work with a lot. Both of us wanted to do another project together and so I told him, I said, "I got this concept," but at that time as well Phil Flores, who is the other Butcher Brother and myself we were off to go shoot a movie, the sequel to The Hamiltons, The Thompsons in London. So, we said, "Hey, since we gotta go take off, why don't you and Kevin Artigue, the other writer, why don't you guys go ahead and start working on the script and then, once we get back, we'll kinda re-join into the process." And so once we took off, they really, Joe and Kevin, really dug deep and really researched the whole, the church and what not. It's pretty amazing, it's been around for a very long time. There's a coolness to it as well 'cause it's an outlawed religion. You're throwing rattlesnakes around, you gotta be a bad ass.

MRR: I couldn't tell if those were poisonous breeds of snakes or not, because I don't know how you would've gotten the actors to handle those if they were.

Mitchell Altieri: It's all safety precautions. We had one of the best snake-handlers in the business who came out there, and, basically, there's a lot of tricks and whatnot that you use.  People are talking about it right now, there's a preacher who just died from a snake bite. Literally, he's all over the news. It literally just happened like two days ago.

MRR: Wild.

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, so we can't. For a movie, we just can't.

MRR: Well, I thought maybe it was, I thought maybe they were non-poisonous breeds that you were just kind of playing off as poisonous breeds. You know what I mean? 'Cause I wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Mitchell Altieri: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And then that's what you do 'cause there's just no way... We couldn't, with our actors, you can't have them handle snakes like that. We had real rattlesnakes on set, but the actors could not touch them. The real rattlesnakes on set, they're vicious. It's amazing, I don't know how people just reach in there into the boxes and grab them, 'cause they're constantly just on strike mode. Once you open that box, they're literally just waiting to strike.

MRR: I don't know how people do that either. That's intense.

Mitchell Altieri: It is, it really is. It really is.

MRR: As you directed the film, what I wanted to ask you, too, was with a film like this, where did you draw the line with what to show the audience and what not to show them when it came to the church's practices?

Mitchell Altieri: Number one, we tried to respect the church as much as possible, we didn't wanna come in and just say these are the bad people from the church and what are they. We really just wanted to kind of show. my thoughts and ideas. Just kind of like, there's a good side to it, but there's also the the blindness to it, but we didn't just want to single them out. And that's where, with Charlotte, the main character, she also had her own issues, and she was kind of broken and blinded by ex-drug use and guilt, and as well as Wayne, who is a war vet and how he was blinded by war and whatnot.

So, it wasn't just the church itself. We weren't trying to single them out, it was more of, we were just saying some people are guilt-ridden, and sometimes they'll do anything for faith and to believe in something, and this is what happens in this kind of a melting pot. Though we did show their practices and obviously that's the fun stuff and it's amazing how these people pray to the five signs and how they'll handle serpents and drink poison and whatnot. At one point in the editing process of the movie, we had a lot of scenes in the services and whatnot and we actually pulled back from it. You kind of get the flavor of it and whatnot, but it's really not about the religion. There's this preacher that has a little too much power, and how people are blinded, and even with the outsiders coming in, how they're blinded by life itself.

MRR: I think that added a lot to the thriller concept of it because you don't know what they're gonna do in a certain situation.

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, yeah. And it's tough. I mean, that's what I wanted to really go after as well 'cause you just never know.

MRR: Especially the scene where Billy and the other guy, and Charlotte go into the church alone together towards the end of the movie.

Mitchell Altieri: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

MRR: You just don't know what's gonna happen. So, I thought that was really interesting the way that you did that. Now, one of the most important characters, Brother Billy, who, like I was saying, he almost needs to constantly confuse the audience, and how did you wanna portray him? And how did you get his hair like that? I mean he lives in the middle of the woods.

[chuckle]

He looked kind of like Elvis mixed with a Giovanni Ribisi.

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, Joe Egender, who plays Brother Billy, I've worked with him quite a bit and I really have this kind of rockabilly flare in a lot of my movies, like in The Violent Kind, and a few other films. I'm a huge fan of rockabilly. These guys do, if you look at these churches, they do have that kind of rockabilly flare to them, so they're almost like superstars. And so, I really wanted to like show that off and say, "Okay, this guy's really into it."

There's still this kind of badassness to it. He has like that moonshine, rock 'n roll, kinda Elvis that you're saying, and I really want to bring that out, especially in Joe's character. Yeah, I've worked with Joe, God, I think this might be our fifth movie together. And I knew he was the guy to pull this off because it's exactly what you said. At a point, does he really believe that he's doing good? Is he saving people? He's the guy, and there's a lot of moments where he was talking to Wayne or Charlotte and saying, "I'm trying to help you. You gotta kinda see past it."

But then there's a lot of times where even these people who they're up in the mountains and whatnot. We want to bring the good side of them where they believe in faith and really they help each other and they open their arms to people of different races, to people who've been in jail. They really are. They open arms. These are really kind people. You realize, "Oh, it's up there? They're not fighting a righteous battle or anything like that?" Nope, they're really open. But there's also the other side where if you cross them, it's like that southern shotgun wars. If you cross them, they're not gonna take it easy on you.

MRR: Right. Well thank you so much, Mitchell, for talking to me today. Holy Ghost People is now available on VOD for audiences.

Mitchell Altieri: Yeah, thank you, man. Thank you. I appreciate it.