The film Them That Follow, which played at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of Mara (Alice Englert), an Appalachian teenager, and the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor (Walton Goggins) in a snake-handling church. Mara’s romantic relationship with Augie (Thomas Mann), whose parents are part of the church, but who no longer believes himself, causes her to question her faith. When that relationship results in a pregnancy, it also jeopardizes Mara’s church-arranged engagement to congregation member Garret (Lewis Pullman).
Co-directors and writers Dan Madison Savage and Britt Poulton made Them That Follow out of a shared interest in religious communities, their long-term effects on the people raised in them, and encouraging empathy toward misunderstood population groups. Sojourners spoke with the filmmakers and star Thomas Mann about how those motivations manifest in the film, and how movies can help build our capacity for empathy.
Abby Olcese, Sojourners: Dan and Brittany, how did you become acquainted with the practice of snake handling? What drew you to wanting to make a film about it?
Dan Madison Savage, co-director and writer, Them That Follow: The truth is that snake handling has been a lifelong fascination of mine. When I first saw the black-and-white photographs by Russell Lee, I couldn’t believe it was real, and I was a little scared, because I think it is scary to see someone put their life on the line for their faith. As a queer person, I am drawn to stories about misunderstood people, and I think that snake handlers are some of the most misunderstood people on the planet, not just in terms of their everyday lives, but in terms of why they pick up the snakes, what it means to them personally and spiritually. So, this project, for me, was an incredible opportunity to take folks on the same journey I went on, one of understanding and testing my own capacity for empathy, of really trying to sink deep into the life of another person, and what that might be like. It was a wonderful challenge for myself, and I hope it’ll be a challenge for audiences as well.
Britt Poulton, co-director and writer: I was interested in exploring what it means to be set apart from the world, and specifically what it means for a young woman to be set apart from the world, and to grow up in such a narrow space, and to have to come of age with those constraints and really reconcile big ideas of self and salvation and identity and alliance and all of these things, just to come into yourself. I was interested in exploring that pressure, a pressure I felt growing up in a Mormon family, and how that very acutely affected every decision I made, from who I wanted to kiss, to what I wanted to believe to what I valued to what I wanted, period. That was something that was really hard for me, and demanded things of a young person that I just don’t think are fair.
I wanted to explore a coming-of-age journey like that, which I find is very universal. We’re exploring a specific community, but it’s an experience that I think a lot of people can relate to. It’s a very harrowing journey to come into yourself and come of age. I think that’s particularly true of children growing up in religious families.
Olcese: What background do you have with faith? In what way did that influence your performance or the filmmaking process?
Thomas Mann, actor: I went to Catholic Church and communion. I stopped going around fifth grade. I didn’t have that same struggle, but my relationship with my mom is what really struck me in parallel with the movie. Just putting myself in my character’s shoes, and either staying with your community, and all the love you have in your life, or just starting over completely. That was kind of my entry in.
Savage: I grew up Catholic as well. I rejected it at a very early age. I got kicked out of Sunday school in second grade. My father’s a doctor, and I have three older sisters, so I learned some things a little earlier in my development than most people. I shared some of that with the class, and was asked not to come back. The truth is, I’m not a person of faith. That being said, I have an extraordinary amount of respect for people of faith. I think a lot of times the queer community is pitted against the religious community, and it’s just not that simple. So, for me, this film was about building bridges, listening to people that make you mad, that scare you, that make you upset. In our current political climate, I think that’s our only way forward.
Olcese: Given the current divided nature of our public and political discourse, what do you think role of cinema is in building those bridges?
Poulton: What I’m interested in doing is creating connection, and I think I’m never going to tell a story that explains something to you or tells you how you should feel. I’m interested in exploring the gray areas and shining a light on both sides of an argument, and letting an audience come to their own conclusion. With our film, I just wanted the audience to feel a connection to people they may not understand. Because that’s where it starts. I think sometimes understanding is sometimes asking a lot. Creating that connection is a step towards creating understanding.
Mann: I was thinking a lot about this Michael Jackson documentary that came out. And it’s obviously so unsettling. But if we don’t start talking about these things … we can’t just move on. You have to push harder and ask questions about these things and why they happen. It’s not easy, but you have to talk about it, or we’re not going to grow as people. It’s about having conversation.
Poulton: But also to really lean into that discomfort, and to let people feel uncomfortable, is something that Dan and I talked about when we were preparing for making the film. I want to make the audience uncomfortable with how much they connect to these people.
Savage: And I think that empathy doesn’t require a sort of deep, prolonged and sustained engagement. I think it can last a second. Empathy is watching our film, and watching Olivia Colman’s character, Hope, make a very difficult decision, and in that moment thinking, “oh my gosh, what’s she going to do?” Just that one moment where you can step into another person’s shoes and live a life that’s not your own. That’s the capacity that cinema has. Whether It’s for a sustained hour and a half, or even five minutes or just a second, that second is a step forward in the right direction.