There are some places that are deemed opportunistic for crime, control, and chaos. Various geographical locations can be the catalyst to divide one’s character by blurring the lines between good and evil. After reading an article detailing an American man’s mysterious disappearance on a Texas lake along the U.S./Mexico border, writer/director Sara Seligman knew this would be the inspiration for the location of her feature film, Coyote Lake. Honoring her Mexican heritage, Seligman aims to tell a story that is both culturally and universally relevant through themes of self-identity and strained family dynamics.
Inspired by the real life Falcon Lake, the fictional Coyote Lake is a reservoir on the Rio Grande along a dangerous drug smuggling route that is synonymous with mysterious disappearances and cartel violence. The film focuses on a young daughter named Ester (played by Riverdale’s Camila Mendes) and her overbearing mother Teresa (Academy Award and Golden Globe Nominee Adriana Barraza). The duo run a makeshift motel out of their home where they drug, rob, and drown unsuspecting human traffickers and drug runners who cross their path. When a deal goes wrong, the two women are held hostage as secrets begin to unravel towards an explosive conclusion.
Coyote Lake was filmed deep in the Texas woods of New Republic Studios, formerly Spiderwood Studios. While the studio has standard sound stages peppered across its expansive 200 acres, the majority of the land is open range and even contains lakefront properties that back up to the Colorado River. Upon arriving to set, I was transported down a bumpy dirt road to a two-story cabin nestled deep in the woods. The trees covered the film’s makeshift motel concealing it perfectly from suspecting overhead authorities but still leaving its inhabitants vulnerable to the relentless Texas sun. Tattered clothes and sheets hung on loose clotheslines, an assortment of pots and pans are littered along the perimeter of the wooden cabin, and an ominous ax is firmly situated into a tree stump not far from the front door. Despite the symbolic impact Falcon Lake had on the film’s location, another article Seligman came across ten years prior to shooting was the inspiration for the movie’s deeper themes and storyline.
During her time in film school exploring options for her thesis, Seligman was drawn to a story her mother had told her about. In France, during World War One, a mother and daughter rented rooms out of their house in order to make ends meet. They’d kill the soldiers and steal their money. Because of the ruinous nature of the war, they were never suspected of any foul play. It was this news article that sparked an interest in the concept of parent-child psychology. How often do we follow in our parent’s footsteps? What part of their path do we dislike, and how do we try to behave differently? Is it even possible to end up different from our parents? These are the questions Seligman began asking herself while constructing her thesis, and later, her debut feature film. Eventually, the story developed a theme revolving around one’s coming-of-age: learning about yourself and who you want to become.
Despite the dark subject matter and slightly eerie setting, Seligman greeted us with smiles and maintained a positive yet pensive demeanor throughout the set visit. I had the pleasure of watching her direct a scene where Teresa treats a wounded occupant. Seligman possesses a sharp eye for detail, and it was clear that every little aspect of the frame was of utmost importance. Even the close-up of a needle slowly entering a wound needed to be shot multiple times over to get the exact pace and desired placement. She carried herself with passionate and focused energy. When asked about her style of shooting within a short timeframe, Seligman responded “I think there’s this side of a director that needs to be over prepared, but there’s another side that’s required to where you roll with the punches. Each of the actors put their heart into their one character, and I put my heart into the whole thing.”
Walking around the exterior of the cabin, the strained mother-daughter relationship is evident within the set design. Under the second story patio, there is a basement where Ester sleeps. Small symbolic items like a globe, camera, and various make-up was spread across her living space alluding to Ester wanting to separate herself from her mother’s deviant ways. Inside the cabin on the second floor, Teresa’s room is exceptionally clean and minimal with spotless linen sheets and a single cross on the wall indicating a sterile, concentrated vision. Elaborating more on Ester and Teresa, Barraza emphasizes how Seligman “shows us all these different faces these characters have and all the different horrors humans can end up committing because it comes from such a deep down and powerful place.” She continues, “It’s about human beings and the dark places human nature can take us. Teresa does feel she is in the right and it’s a spectator that is going to judge whether that’s right or wrong.”
Mendes’ take on Ester is also layered in emotional complexity. “Sara sent me a few movies to watch in order to prepare for the film: Fish Tank, Jesus Camp, and Martha Marcy May Marlene. I only watched Jesus Camp once though; that was enough” Mendes states as she laughs alongside Seligman. When asked about genre films, Seligman emphasized that Coyote Lake “is not about whether or not it’s horror. It’s about interesting characters and relationships that do happen to be genre but with three-dimensional characters and strong female leads”. Seligman’s debut possesses a sociocultural and politically relevant narrative with a complexity that begs the audience to question the division between good and evil within human nature. Like the calm and murky river adjacent to the cabin in the woods, Coyote Lake is a thriller that appears to have more life (and death) under the surface than one may expect.