Breanna Lucci chats with Long Island native Elise Finnerty about her feature-length film debut, The Ones You Didn’t Burn.
Elise Finnerty is an immensely talented filmmaker. In July 2018, Finnerty co-founded the New York-based Red Booth Productions alongside Estelle Girard Parks. Finnerty’s debut feature-length film, The Ones You Didn’t Burn (2022), premiered at the 2022 Chattanooga Film Festival, where Finnerty and her team were awarded Best Feature for a First Time Director.
The supernatural thriller tells a haunting tale of sibling relationships, small-town dynamics, and witchcraft. Siblings Nathan (Nathan Wallace), a recovering drug addict, and Mirra (Jenna Rose Sander), a timid woman haunted by her brother’s addiction, return home to their expansive family farm after their father’s tragic and unexpected suicide. They meet the beautiful farm hands, sisters Alice (Finnerty) and Scarlett (Girard Parks), who are both mysterious and captivating. As Nathan and Mirra come to terms with their father’s death, unsettling truths about the land’s history and their family secrets surface to haunt them.
For about an hour, Finnerty gifted me her time to discuss herself and the intricacies of crafting this captivating film. The more we chatted, the more I came to appreciate how much passion she and her production team poured into it, which flawlessly translates to the big screen.
The Ones You Didn’t Burn internationally premiered at the 2022 FrightFest in London on August 27. Ahead of its premiere, Jinga Films announced its acquisition of the film.
Breanna Lucci: Tell us about coming of age as an actor and how you got into filmmaking.
Finnerty: I grew up in Eastern Long Island, I didn’t go to school for acting, but when I moved to New York, I studied at the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre. That’s how I met Estelle, but before I directed, I started with writing. I wanted to see my writing performed, so I started in theater by doing shorts and commercials. I still consider myself an actor, but it’s hard to call myself a ‘producer, writer, actor, director… everything,’ so I call myself a filmmaker. I think directing is more conducive to my personality, and I like having more control over the final product.
Breanna Lucci: Were you a horror fan before The Ones You Didn't Burn?
Finnerty: I’ve always been a horror fan. I was a really scared kid, as in, sleeping in my parent’s bed until way too late. I think I was attracted to the genre as a way of exposure therapy; the more I exposed myself to horror films, the less scared I was of them. I’m not a big slasher fan, I respect that genre, but it’s not for me.
My favorite films are more psychological, like The Shining (1980), Hereditary (2018), and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). Some of The Ones You Didn’t Burn reflects Midsommar (2019) because Dani’s experience is one of empowerment and growth and because of the heavy usage of bright light, which we had to do out of necessity, but it worked.
Now that I’m in the genre, I’ve found that the people behind the scenes (the actors, directors, distributors, streaming services) are the nicest people I’ve ever met. Horror is such a tight-knit community, and everyone is so kind and loving. It’s ironic that the darkest films have the nicest people!
Breanna Lucci: That’s amazing. Horror is a good outlet for every type of emotion. Can you tell us how The Ones You Didn’t Burn came about? What inspired it?
Finnerty: The film takes place in my hometown on Long Island, where a lot of farmland was settled in the 1600s. There were some witch trials back then, not involving any farmland, but I wanted witch trials to play a role in the film.
When I started researching witches, I found that many were independent landowners and midwives. Actually, that is what inspired the bad acid trip scene. That trip symbolizes Mirra's rebirth. Often, society blamed and killed the witches (or women, whatever you want to call them) if anything was wrong with the baby at birth. When discussing the history of witches, we’re often taught about Salem, but witch trials happened all over during the 1600s, and I wanted to showcase that.
I wanted to focus on modern witches too. There’s a whole subculture of modern witches with practices and rituals unique to them. I wanted to expand on our idea of what witches are and what society deems them as; they are strong, manipulative, sexual women who made men feel like they were out of control. That idea is central to Nathan’s character. He blames the women for losing control over himself, his land, his sexuality, and his sister.
Breanna Lucci: I was captivated by both Nathan and Mirra. Their character arcs and relationship hit home for me. Can you elaborate on your thought process behind the characters? Were there any challenges for the actors, or you, while creating and portraying them?
Finnerty: I wrote the characters for Nathan (Wallace) and Jenna (Rose Sander). We were all in acting classes together, and they inspire me as artists. Of course, there are parts of me in both characters and inspiration from relationships I’ve had with friends who struggle with addiction. I wanted Jenna’s character (Mirra) to have an arc of growth as she discovers her strength and femininity.
For Nathan, I wanted the opposite. He starts in a bad place and ends in a worse place. I wanted to bring a groundedness to addiction and grief, which Wallace did perfectly.
I’m fascinated by sibling relationships. It’s ironic because I’m close with my brother, who always asks why I’m killing siblings in my films. The different levels of a sibling relationship are something I wanted to capture, especially with grief mixed in.
Breanna Lucci: As someone with an extremely complicated relationship with my brothers, I deeply resonated with Mirra and Nathan’s struggles. What was it like to shoot the film?
Finnerty: While on set, our whole team was nine people. There’s something special about that; I learned, in a wonderful way, that if you can keep your sets as intimate as possible, then you have more of a shared vision and collaboration on the goal. All it takes is one bad apple to ruin the atmosphere, but we had no bad apples. Even Nathan and Jenna were helping. If Jenna was on screen, Nathan was behind the camera helping with smoke or other random effects, and vice versa. We all did everything. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, for sure.
Breanna Lucci: What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers?
Finnerty: I would say to invest in your community and the relationships around you. Surround yourself with people who inspire and support you. My friend and I like to say, “My success is your success, and your success is my success.” Because eventually, if you hang around long enough, your friends will start counting their wins. Naturally, acting has a level of competition – and I’ve always worked hard to reject that. It’s essential to surround yourself with people who inspire and support you.
Breanna Lucci: What does the future look like for you? Are there any projects in process or coming up?
Finnerty: Estelle and I are working on a feature that we co-wrote, which I will be directing, that is a psychological horror about trauma and what happens when you suppress it. It is called It Comes Back. We’re working really hard to get that going soon because we have so much energy and momentum. We are so excited about it.