Antlers: Guillermo del Toro Wants the Wendigo to Look Like ‘A God’

Filmmakers Scott Cooper and Guillermo del Toro talk about developing the monster design of the wendigo in Antlers into something godlike.

Keri Russell in Antlers
Photo: Searchlight Pictures / Disney

Antlers will mark filmmaker Scott Cooper’s first foray into the horror genre. That’s a benefit as far as producer Guillermo del Toro is concerned. Having gotten into producing films in order to “learn from [other] filmmakers,” del Toro wanted to see what Cooper’s idea of a monster movie might look like. And considering it ended up being about a wendigo—a mythological creature and/or evil spirit from folklore of the First Nations Algonquian tribes—it’ll certainly be something different.

“The film looks at the horror of being an individual in America today and all the crises that we are facing, quite frankly,” Cooper said during a Comic-Con@Home panel. “Climate crisis, drug addicted populace, our treatment of Native Americans, abject poverty, all of those things but without hopefully feeling like a message film, wrapped into a monster film.”

That monster is of course the Wendigo, an antlered supernatural being known for its malevolent and cannibalistic qualities. Indeed, legend says it could influence greedy people to transform into humanoid wendigos that are compelled to resort to human cannibalism in order to survive. It is the latter aspect that has caused alleged (and dubious) incidents of a “culture-bound” syndrome driving some people to crave human flesh. But as Cooper said during the panel, there are many Native American and Indigenous people of the First Nations who still believe the Wendigo exists, which provides fertile ground for a chiller.

“I thought it was something of an allegory or a folklore,” Cooper began, “but as it turns out my Native American adviser said that First Nations in Canada and Native Americans really believe in it… We know it is this murderous spirit that’s summoned by nature to seek vengeance on a callous mankind that has abused it.”

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For del Toro the appeal is that rich allegorical subtext, and how greed and consumption can spawn ever greater desperation.

Said del Toro, “I think there’s two things I’m really compelled by. One is the myth that [the more] it eats, the more hungry it gets; and the more it eats, the weaker it gets. There is a metaphor for the insatiablility that exists right now and the permanent depravation of everything.”

And the desire to depict this horrific figure of Native American lore correctly is a major sticking point for both men. Cooper noted that he worked again with friends and consultants in the Native American community, including Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre, on Antlers, just as he did Hostiles before it. Cooper also mentions discussing beliefs surrounding the wendigo with Grace L. Dillon, Professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University.

Thus when it came to designing the creature—a specialty for del Toro, whose own movies have birthed countless iconic monster designs from the filmmaker and concept artist Guy Davis—there was a desire to play toward the actual mythology about about the wendigo.

“The wendigo has very specific cues in the way you need to describe and the way you need to follow [it],” del Toro said. “The antlers for example are a must. I remember very clearly when I was working with Scott and Guy Davis, and later with everybody at Legacy creating the creature, I said, ‘We have to remember that we’re not creating a monster. We’re creating a god.’ So the design needs to have elements that are completely unnatural, that are almost surreal or abstract.” One intriguing note is that upon seeing initial animations of the creature with normal bone and fur, del Toro said, “The bone needs to look like coal…. We have to see he looks ancient and powerful, and one with nature.”

As Cooper explained it, “If we’re talking about what this murderous spirit is doing to the earth, it comes from the center of the earth, its crust, its ore, its ember. And the wendigo looks like that, and it’s an incredibly beautiful design.”

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With the film now opening on Feb. 19, 2021, we’ll have to wait a little longer to see it for ourselves. But I’m expecting something divine. You can watch the whole panel, complete with a new featurette at the beginning, right below.