The new escape film The Aviary may be both an antidote for those who’ve felt trapped and isolated from civilization during the global pandemic as well as a reminder of our vulnerability of being controlled by manipulators that we allow to live in our heads.
The film stars Malin Akerman (Billions, Chick Fight) and Lorenza Izzo (Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood, Hacks) who play members of a New Age cult who make a run for it across the Southwestern desert from their controlling yet charismatic leader, Seth (Chris Messina, The Mindy Project) and his secluded compound known as Skylight. Carrying backpacks filled with just enough food and water to last them a few days, the two set out for Gallup, New Mexico in hopes of finding freedom. But the desert can be unforgiving so, with no navigational tools and coping with extreme temperatures, Jillian (Akerman) and Blair (Izzo) become hopelessly lost, winding up miles off course and inadvertently doubling back to an abandoned town. There also is the matter of the ruthless, controlling Seth remaining deep in their psyches, fueling their paranoia and instigating mistrust between the two women.
The Aviary is the brainchild of Chris Cullari and Jennifer Raite, who co-wrote and co-direct the film that was inspired by their respective controlling figures/institutions from their own childhoods.
The Aviary, from Saban Films and Paramount Pictures, will be in theaters, On Demand and Digital April 29.
Akerman and Izzo spoke via Zoom about making the film, which they shot in 2021 with a small cast and crew who bonded in their remote desert location.
Angela Dawson: You’re outdoors in the desert for about 95 percent of the film.
Malin Akerman: We were really stoked to be making a movie in the midst of Covid. What a perfect film to make—outdoors, just a two-hander. You could feel the energy on set. Everyone was really happy to be back at work and doing something this creative, interesting and fun.
Lorenza and I had met on this film. Luckily, a few weeks before, we got to meet with Chris and Jennifer a few times to go through the script and figure out how we were going to approach this crazy, mind-bending thriller.
We had an incredible experience; I love Lorenza.
It was really important to have a great acting partner when it’s a two-hander like this. It’s such a high-intensity and high stakes experience. To be able to hold that for each other was great. We were both in it for the right reasons and really wanted to make it the best version of itself, along with Chris and Jennifer. We really had a great time making it. And, even though it’s a crazy film, there were a lot of laughs on set.
Lorenza Izzo: For me, it’s a hard to watch this movie. Malin and I saw it together and even though I’m in it and knew what was coming, I screamed. I’m bad at watching horror movies. But I just can’t help talking about this without a big smile on my face. It was this job right smack dab in the middle of Covid, and we were outdoors working in the elements. It was a real “actor’s job” in the sense there was nothing to fall back on except us.
We had to trust the words and our directors and be there freezing our butts off at night and being really hot during the day. We had these lengthy scenes and had to trust that the work was there. That was available to me because I had a great acting partner. I’m obsessed with Malin. We were so lucky that we had such good chemistry right off the bat. It was such a delicious gift for me to be able to do something that required a lot of physical and emotional energy from me.
My character is having this identity crisis and I really got to vary up my scared looks that I haven’t used in a while. It was a muscle I hadn’t exercised in a long time, and it was something completely different. That journey was special because we had a small crew and we were outdoors. It was so much about everyone being there to make the same film.
Dawson: Chris’ “Seth” character is not physically with your characters, but he’s always their heads, and for different reasons. Blair has had a romantic relationship with him and Jillian was trying to advance in the hierarchy of the cult and dealing with the guilt of having gotten another member in trouble. But it’s not just cult leaders that have this kind of control over others. We allow people all the time to get into our heads and influence us.
Akerman: Even more so in this day and age with “influencers.” Society is really thick and heavy with them and it makes an impact on us. It’s a constant struggle. For younger minds, it’s very impactful, dangerous and sometimes hurtful.
As we know, mental health has become a big issue. I feel very lucky that I’m in my 40s. I’ve had time to figure out what’s mine and what’s my mother’s and what’s society’s. That’s a constant check-in we need to talk about. The parallel that runs with this is figuring out what’s yours and what battle you’re having inwardly and what’s coming from the outside and what needs to be worked on and who can you trust?
That’s the big issue here with these women. They have to trust in themselves because they’ve been brainwashed. The presence of Seth is so massive throughout the whole film. It’s a continuum. Even though they’ve escaped a cult, physically, mentally they’re still really struggling.
Dawson: Did you do much research into cult survivors or was it pretty much there on the page for you?
Izzo: A bit of both. I watched a lot of documentaries and spoke with a lot of people—women, specifically—that had been part of a commune, not necessarily a cult. The biggest through-line for me was the understanding of how easy it is for a vulnerable mind—for anyone, really—to fall into a cult, a commune or unhealthy situation like that.
As Malin said, our minds are very strong but it’s so easy for them to be malleable and to be turned by someone who’s manipulative or higher up, because we just want to fit in.
The biggest thing I discovered in watching these documentaries, reading the script and having these conversations with our directors and Malin, there’s this human need to belong somewhere. There’s a human need to become someone. That’s why my character, Blair, joined. She wanted to become more of herself—that’s what was sold to her.
She was at that vulnerable age where she fell in love with the leader of this cult. For me, it was so much about fitting in and finding a place within your community, your family and group of friends and that fragmentation of identity when you realize that that’s a complete lie.
Dawson: Do you feel that you’re in a place now where you can see something like this coming? Or do you think we’re all susceptible, no matter what our age?
Akerman: We have our moments of weakness. We’re human. That’s why it’s a buildup. I do believe that with age, we garner a bit more wisdom, just through experiences. But you can still get lured in and (manipulators are) cloaked in this veil of self-help, and this person says they can get you through this moment in your life.
We can say that about relationships. I’ve definitely been in some bad relationships, and it was because I was in a certain space at that moment, and this person came along and I thought it was real but, as it turned out, it just wasn’t the right thing. So, yeah, I think we’re all susceptible. But if we have some self-awareness and work on ourselves, we get better at detecting things as we get older. We sniff them out better. In my 20’s, I might have followed any cult.
Izzo: I agree. We’re all vulnerable and susceptible but we have to remain vigilant and be aware of when someone we trust is trying to manipulate us.