Q&A: Director Mitchell Altieri on “HOLY GHOST PEOPLE” and the Perils of Snake-Handling
It’s another strange case of life imitating art: Just a day before HOLY GHOST PEOPLE, director Mitchell Altieri’s thriller set amidst a snake-handling cult, hit VOD on Wednesday, reports came down that a Kentucky pastor who took part in the dangerous practice—and starred in a reality show about it—had succumbed to a fatal bite.
Pastor Jamie Coots, who appeared in the National Geographic Channel’s SNAKE SALVATION, died last Saturday night after refusing medical treatment for being fanged on his finger. The tragedy hammers home the dangers of this religious practice, which forms the basis of HOLY GHOST PEOPLE, also hitting theaters today from XLrator Media. Emma Greenwell stars as Charlotte, a young woman desperate to track down her missing sister, who enlists damaged war veteran Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) to help her infiltrate the Church of One Accord—a community who have sequestered themselves away in the Tennessee woods under the sway of snake-handling Brother Billy (Joe Egender). Altieri and Egender also collaborated on the HOLY GHOST PEOPLE script with Phil Flores (with whom Altieri partnered as The Butcher Brothers on THE HAMILTONS, THE THOMPSONS and THE VIOLENT KIND) and Kevin Artigue—and as the director discusses below, they took inspiration from past reality.
FANGORIA: It must have been quite a surprise for the story about Pastor Coots to break just as HOLY GHOST PEOPLE was coming out…
MITCHELL ALTIERI: Yes. Obviously, it’s unfortunate that the guy passed away, but I’ve been getting links and messages from people all over the country about this story, because it was literally reported the day before the movie was released.
FANG: Was Coots someone that you and your collaborators looked at while writing the script?
ALTIERI: Well, we knew about him, but we really took inspiration from the older generations; there’s literature and books, and a documentary that’s also called HOLY GHOST PEOPLE. So we mostly pulled from those, though we were very well aware of the new guys and people who are active in it. There has been a big resurgance of preachers coming up who are doing the snake-handling, so as we were shooting, it was kind of funny that we kept hearing about these new, younger guys who are kind of fearless, and have their own Facebook pages and whatnot.
FANG: What’s the HOLY GHOST PEOPLE documentary like?
ALTIERI: You can see it; it’s in the public domain, and you can find it on YouTube. It’s an amazing documentary by a San Francisco filmmaker named Peter Adair. It was all shot in 16mm black and white, and he was able to gain access to the [snake-handling] service. It isn’t just about that—he did interviews too—but the bulk of it is the service, and it’s just so old-school.
FANG: Can you talk a little more about the origin of your feature?
ALTIERI: Sure—I wanted to do something new and different, and get into the thriller aspect a little bit, not just a typical, straightforward horror film. I was talking to Joe Egender, and he and I agreed that we wanted to do something together and started looking for the right project. I came up with the concept of this girl who goes looking for her sister, and I wanted to do something about the snake-handling church, so I spoke to Joe about it and we agreed that was a great subject. At the same time, Phil and I were about to go off to the UK to shoot THE THOMPSONS, so Joe and Kevin Artigue worked on the draft while we were there, and once we got back, Phil and I rejoined them and finished the script.
FANG: Did you try to strike a balance between making Brother Billy’s congregation threatening and also somewhat sympathetic?
ALTIERI: Absolutely, especially since it wasn’t like we were coming up with a fictitious religion. Our whole idea with the movie was—and you hear about this sometimes—that religion can blind people, or they can take it too far, but that can apply to many things that can ultimately be harmful to you. We didn’t want to just say that about religion; there’s Charlotte, who’s an ex-drug user, and Wayne, who went to war and came back close to suicidal, and they both have issues. The members of the church are just poor people who love God and believe in their preacher, so it’s more about how far he takes it, how much power he has over his congregation and about these broken people who come into it. We wanted to say, “Hey, the problems don’t just come from this one side; they can stem from anything, regardless of where you’re at.”
FANG: There’s a separate credit at the end of the film for Mary Hamilton, who was responsible for Charlotte’s narration. Was that material added later?
ALTIERI: Well, we knew we wanted to work with voiceovers, and that we wanted to bring in a female writer—just because we were four guys writing a story about this girl, and we felt it would be smart to bring in someone else to get that voice down. She really helped us capture Charlotte’s point of view.
FANG: Was this the first film you’d directed on your own, instead of with Flores?
ALTIERI: No, I did another movie called LURKING IN SUBURBIA, which was a comedy—that was filmed right before THE HAMILTONS. Phil also produced that, but it was my first solo directing gig. Then I did a movie right after HOLY GHOST PEOPLE called RAISED BY WOLVES [see story here].
FANG: Will you continue to divide your time between movies you direct yourself and those you and Flores helm together?
ALTIERI: I think we’ll definitely still collaborate as directors; at this point in time, we just know each other so well, and our styles. When you direct a film, there’s so much going on, and especially as we’re kind of do-it-yourself guys, there are always going to be projects we’ll want to do together. But there will also be movies like HOLY GHOST PEOPLE, which was kind of a passion piece, and something I had a very specific vision for. And you know, Phil was there as well, as a producer on that film, so there wasn’t that big of a change-up. We worked with a lot of the same crew and the same actors.