Inside ‘Savageland’: An Interview with David Whelan

A&E%2FDave Whelan Interview%2FRoss%2FCourtesy of Savageland.jpgRoss Kiefer
    A&E Editor

One of the unique aspects of film is its ability to depict reality and fiction simultaneously. This is done in fictionalized narratives that share characteristics with events and attitudes that actually occur. Writer, director and producer David Whelan has capitalized on the anti-immigrant sentiment with his faux documentary “Savageland,” which presents a reality that seems all too possible.

David co-wrote “Savageland” with his two UCLA colleagues Phil Guidry and Simon Herbert.  “All three of us were writers, but with the cost of entry and cost of filmmaking, maybe there is something we can do instead of going the spec script route and hoping that the studio would take something on. We said ‘Why don’t we do something?’” This prompted David, Phil and Simon to work independently outside of a film studio.

David explained the initial conception of the film, “We started talking about thrillers that we liked and ‘Paradise Lost,’ a straight documentary that was classified as a thriller, was something that came up. And we were just sort of kicking around ideas, Phil had sort of talked about the idea of doing a found footage but with still photography instead of regular, grainy video, which we felt like had been done a little bit. And then we tied it into the local landscape and immigration angle and that’s how it all started.”

“Savageland” follows the massacre of a fictional town, Sangre de Cristo, Arizona, which rests a short distance away from the Mexican-American border. The massacre of the town finds 57 people brutally murdered, many of whom are mangled beyond recognition. The only survivor is an illegal Mexican immigrant, Francisco Salazar. Salazar is found covered in blood near Sangre de Cristo, is arrested and tried for murder. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Throughout the entire film, we see how polarizing the evidence against Salazar is. There is nothing concrete enough to prove he committed the murders, nor is there enough prove him innocent. One interesting aspect of the case is that Salazar is an amaeteur photographer, and actually on the night of the massacre photographed what appears to be evidence that the massacre was committed by a group of people, rather than one man. This evidence is later ruled ineligible in court.

The main narrative of the film is carried through a series of interviews with people involved with the case. Ranging from the town sheriff, Salazar’s attorney, an investigative journalist and a border patrol agent, the film really centers in on how divided public perception of immigrants can be. Most people of the nearby town think that Salazar is a monster and representative of Mexican culture. This is paralleled by a pyschotherapist and the border patrol agent, who remain sceptical as to how one man could butcher an entire town.

The real crux of the film is just how real and vibrantly honest it feels. If you weren’t told beforehand that it was a work of fiction, you’d probably end up Googling away everything that happened. “That was our biggest thing,” as David put it. “When the three of us sat down, there were a couple of things that were almost like ground rules, either we achieve this or we can’t make the movie,  and one of which was it has to feel real. It has to feel bigger than the world we actually have. Sometimes you see a lower budget, or micro-budget indie film, and you get the feeling that if you pull the camera back a little bit, you’d see the outset of the set and see that it’s all a construct. We wanted it to be as real as possible.”

David continued to talk about how little choices within the film added to the this perceived view of reality, “Well we can’t shoot in a courtroom, but we know a guy who can do courtroom sketches. That would feel real. Phil knew an architect, and we had him do an architectural rendering of the town. We started pulling from all these different places to put as many layers on top of each other, to keep that feeling of ‘Yeah there’s something here!’. Because if it doesn’t feel real the whole thing falls apart really fast.”

In terms of subject matter, they chose to focus on the immigration perspective because of the immediacy of the topic. “We didn’t want to just have bodies falling out of closets, I like that as much as the next person, but we wanted to do something that might be a little big bigger. Sort of have a social-thriller feel to it, and that was in issue that was right on our door step,” David explained. “It’s an issue that an elicits an emotional reaction from a lot of people, and there’s a fear of the unknown and there’s a fear, in a classic horror construct, of violence. If we build a wall we’ll be safe then, and we were interested in the origins of that fear and how that’s a very real fear. Probably more so than somebody running into your house with a knife.”

Part of working on a smaller film involves budget and equipment restrictions. David shared one especially difficult day of shooting. “So we shot a lot out in the desert, and there was one particular day where it was triple digits, 105, and it kept climbing. Turner Jumonville, our Director of Photography would borrow a camera, so on a given day we didn’t know what camera we were gonna get,” David added. “That’s why we went with the documentary feel because we know we weren’t going to be shooting on the same camera the whole time. So we wanted to use the different cameras to our advantage, rather than have it weaken the story.”

The scene they were shooting involves a single actor walking through the town, and takes about 20 takes to shoot. “Its an absolute inferno, and we’re starting to get concerned. We can’t have him pass out, none of us can pass out, but at the same time we’ve got to get all of this stuff done before the sun goes and we have to take the camera back.” David sounded almost exhausted just talking about it.

“When you have those constraints it forces you to work creative and to work pretty quickly,” David said. “Everybody who was in involved from the actors, to the Director of Photography to people who had come to help with makeup all had a great spirit about them. It was fun. The conditions weren’t exactly great, they were brutal, but it was fun. There were absolutely no ego’s on the set. In an independent film there’s not a lot of money and there’s not room for much ego.”

Providing apt social commentary on immigration and new attitudes becoming present in our culture, “Savageland” is a smart, powerful and compelling narrative that examines our relationship to fear and violence. Available for purchase on Youtube, iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Video, “Savageland” offers unique and thrilling experience.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Uncategorized

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17 replies

  1. Wow, I didn’t realize this movie has been out so long! I was looking on Amazon Prime for something to watch while on the treadmill, and I thought it was one of those reality cold case murders shows, you know where the crime actually happens and is never really solved, but it was years ago and now someone is taking another look at the evidence and telling who they think did it…
    I didn’t stop thinking that until I did a Google search and in the results saw the word ‘mockumentary’… Although there wasn’t a lot of detail to most of the pictures “Salazar” supposedly took, there didn’t need to be. What I could see was enough to give me ‘reasonable doubt’ of one man’s guilt. Common sense too told me that one odd job working immigrant who’d been living in the town for 7 years and who was known by everyone could not have committed this crime and left not only no evidence, but no witnesses!!
    I enjoyed this ‘movie’, and hope that the makers of this one do come up with more!!


    • I want to know if it was real or ahoax .so you tell me what you think about this.not one man.can do this in one does one man do it in one night


    • I would like to know why the main character is not listed along with the other “actors”? It seems odd to me the the main character isn’t named or the border patrol agent whom was giving his input. Is this another one of those “ cover ups?” 🤔


    • I think Lawrence Ross is a bastard for making the film …David Whelan has did no one any favors painting Mexicans in that light…i think they should be brought up on FRAUD CHARGES FOR REAL BECAUSE THEY LIED IN THE BEGINNING AND SAID IT WAS BASED ON A TRUE STORY…FUCK THEM!!! I HAVE JORDAN PEELE FOR ENTERTAINMENT


  2. I just watched this movie and was completely amazed.. I did exactly what this article said people would.. I spent hours just googling to see if I could find ANYTHING to imply the story might be based on an actual event.. I found absolutely nothing about the 57 murders; there were numerous articles on the name Francisco Salazar, including one case of murders.. but nothing I found remotely resembled anything in this movie..

    I think the movie was an incredible work of art theatrics.. I was totally able to believe it could have actually happened.. The Blair Witch Project couldn’t even come close to being believable..


  3. I agree this was a movie that was gripping and I thought could be a true event. Very good story telling that makes the viewer think about the options on what could have happened and by who. Relieved to hear it wasn’t a true event. Can’t wait to see the next low budget movie, this one was excellent.


  4. I watched the movie today and was amazed and great full that it was fiction. I thought how can something like this happen and no one heard about it. Great movie guys. You had me fooled. 5 thumbs up, give us more!!!!


  5. I really doubt one man committed all those 57 murders. I guessing it was a group of people dressed up to look scary so the wouldn’t be identified. I’m leaning towards a anti-immigrant racist hate group. From the start residents of surrounding cities of Sangre de Cristo said that it was a bad city that known having a large amount of illegal immigrants that they blamed for drug activity etc…This screams hate crime and local law enforcement is guilty of being biased. Therefore, they covered it up and swept in under the carpet. Hell they themselves can be involved.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ruth m I thought it was real .i thought there were people eating people. In it wasn’t the guy how was taking the really didn’t give me a racial feeling.there were people coming down the hill by his place so he had to go thru town an he wanted to save his friends.the picture that he had.when he went on trial how can they not believe he was just one man to kill 57 people an one night. I know it scared me when I watch that movie. I thought the government sprays the people with chemical.or the a shame.. thank the Lord it really didn’t did a really nice job the movie. I am still scared.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Maybe thats the point…why we never heard about it or seen any news about it in the mass media…because it is unbelievable, and would undoubtedly cause mass hysteria.
    Really was a gripping watch Must say..and I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities of such an uncanny event taking place!


  8. This film it’s amazing, I just played on Amazon prime because it has good stars and I was looking something to make it through the night. It was so good that I was terrified with the story thinking that it was a real event. I totally felt like they did an amazing job with this movie, it gives you the feel like everything might be real, you almost start believing in “the undead” and more than a movie it feels like a documentary, except by the fact that when you type everything down on google there’s nothing related to those events.


  9. Wow that was insane I still think its true that’s how believable it was n I still think it should be made into a movie with those effects that was in the documentary I have no words left I just watched it I’m a lost of words


  10. And for some reason I think this is being covered up like its not true when it is I wish someone could shed some light on it with facts


  11. Well, after scaring the bejesus out of me thinking this really happened, I am so thankful to find out that it was fiction! Excellently done in drawing in the viewer and convincing them that this was a true story. So glad I had the sense to Google the movie a few days after watching to see why I hadn’t heard anything in the media about this massacre. I have to laugh just thinking about the conversation I had with my husband after watching Savageland believing it was real!!! Well done guys, well done!


  12. Awesome movie. I thought it was real. I started googling it as soon as it was over. Good job!!!


  13. well this movie had me hooked from the moment i started to watch,It had me fooled all the way through and after watching it i had to google to read more about this event then realised it never happened.the only flaw was the police officer interview but then again that was well done really as i thought its just hate towrads immigrants..the photos where well done all in all it fooled me all the way through and in thinking it was real through out spooked me out after i watched it thinking wow i wonder what really happened there.very well thought movie and very well done on such a low budget ….well done enjoyed it very much and had me thinking for a long t ime after untill i googled it and found i had be taken on a ride and fooled totally


  14. Just purchased your fpund footage film and I have to say I never get tired of the genre. I only wish you would have killed that RACIST TRUMP LOVING SHERIFF at the snarling teeth of the late great Francisco Salazar. I think Francisco Salazar is the new Che. This film may one day come true with all the illegal immigrants that have lost their lives at the hands of bad border patrol agents, bad sheriff deputies and just all around vigilante Americans that think its their God given right to KILL these human beings that only come to our country looking for a better life. They poison water jugs left by good samaritans, place booby traps and bear traps to maime and kill these innocent people. One day the spirits of those that have been unjustly murdered at the hands of these racists Americans will meet the corpses of those that lay in that desert in unmarked graves and it will be a FEAST DAY ON DIA DE LOS MUERTOS. Beware of the many FRANCISCO SALAZARS that the American justice system has so wrongfully accused and put to death inside and outside of a court room. Great film!! Hope we see a part 2 or a new found footage film by you guys. Very thought provoking and so ahead of its time that it is literally what this country and alot of these border towns are facing in 2019. Hopefully this fool we have stirring up the PROVERBRIAL boiling pot doesn’t get re-elected in 2020.


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