By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Premiering on Shudder tomorrow, VIOLATION is a different kind of rape-revenge movie, and as powerful as the best past examples of the subgenre. It’s a galvanizing feature-film debut for writer/director/producers Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also stars) and Dusty Mancinelli, who spoke with RUE MORGUE about the personal inspirations and particular challenges of tackling this uncomfortable material.
Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, whose vacation at a lakeside cabin with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili), sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) takes a devastating turn. Though the film’s non-linear structure doesn’t initially reveal what happened to her, it’s enough to impel her toward brutal, exacting vengeance against Dylan–but meting out justice takes a heavy toll on Miriam as well. (See our review of VIOLATION here.) Much talked about during its festival run, which included a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a U.S. premiere at Sundance and a showcase at this month’s SXSW, VIOLATION is a complex and compelling expansion of themes Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli previously explored in their short films RAPE CARD and the award-winning CHUBBY and WOMAN IN STALL.
How did VIOLATION grow out of your previous short films?
DUSTY MANCINELLI: We met at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival Talent Lab, and I think we were both secretly looking for a collaborator. We decided to start making these shorts together, and noticed a common theme in our work: abuse of power, power dynamics between men and women, trauma. Our friendship is founded on our own shared histories of trauma and abuse in our pasts, and VIOLATION is really the culmination of all of these ideas and feelings. We really wanted to make a film dealing with the post-traumatic stress the body goes through when coping with residual trauma. We’re huge fans of the revenge genre, but from our experiences, we wanted to really focus instead on capturing the grisly nature of revenge.
MADELEINE SIMS-FEWER: Yeah, the reality of what revenge might look like if you actually went through with it. What would that feel like to a real person who’s not a psychopath, who’s not a Dexter-type character, but someone with real emotions and real reactions, who’s just gone through a traumatic experience and is so affected by it that she sees no way out other than this revenge. And then watching how the acts she commits mentally and physically unravel her.
DM: We’re so used to, within that genre, seeing a protagonist get their revenge, and as an audience we’re cheering them on; it’s romanticized, it’s this cathartic moment. Instead, VIOLATION is really the opposite; it’s almost an anti-revenge film, because it’s designed to scare you into not wanting to seek revenge, because you see how destructive it is and the toll it takes.
MSF: Our short films were kind of working out our opinions and what we had to say about this topic. We worked with some of our key crew through all of our shorts; our DP, for example, our composer, and we were really distilling what we wanted to say in VIOLATION.
Did any of the reactions to your shorts inform how you approached VIOLATION?
DM: Definitely not [both laugh], because if they did, I think we would have been scared to make the movie we made. I say that because CHUBBY is a very challenging film that deals with abuse of a minor, and it was very tough to make and very tough to showcase, and it’s been a very tough film to find distribution for.
MSF: With WOMAN IN STALL, we were quite surprised by the reactions, which were very strong, coming down on both sides of whether this woman did the right thing, whether the guy was a bad guy, whether he was just benign.
DM: I do think that informed how we made VIOLATION, in the sense of trying to show multiple perspectives, and we’re interested in the idea of recontextualizing characters. There’s something very interesting about the way the film’s non-linear structure forces you to rethink who these people are. It would have been very easy to make Dylan a straight-up villain, but it’s more interesting that he’s affable and charming, and then you see him do this horrific thing and suddenly have to rethink who this person is.
MSF: The satisfaction of watching a lot of revenge films is that you get these stock villainous characters, and you’re watching somebody–a woman, in a lot of cases–get vengeance on this evil person who’s done this evil thing. A lot more subtlety and complexity comes in when the character is not evil, when he’s close to her, when he’s a family member–someone who she, up to this point, really loves.
DM: And that’s just something that’s true to our own experiences.
Madeleine, I assume there was never a question of anyone playing the lead role except for yourself…
DM: You know, it’s funny: Originally, Madeleine was not set to play the lead. We always thought of her playing the sister, Greta. Originally, we were working with a friend of ours, who is super-talented and also a filmmaker, and happened to also have the opportunity to make her first feature, and the timing just didn’t work out. As we were getting closer to prep, I suggested to Madeleine, “What are your thoughts about playing Miriam?” We were writing, producing and directing the movie ourselves, a huge undertaking, but the moment I asked the question, it sparked something.
MSF: Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking about that. We wrote the character of Greta for me to play, and I related to her, and so many of Greta’s opinions were what I felt. So thinking about playing Miriam was quite tough at first, and I thought, “How can I relate to this person?” And that revealed a problem in the way I was thinking about Miriam: I was looking at her as a villain, and I hadn’t started fully considering her side. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I related to her quite deeply. I believe there was something inside me that was maybe afraid to tackle or face how much I related to Miriam.
How challenging was it dealing with all of the film’s intimate moments, and scripting them with the knowledge that you were going to be performing them on set?
DM: We knew early on that there were some very challenging sequences in the film, particularly the full-frontal male nudity. We had worked closely with Jesse LaVercombe on a few of our shorts, so we already had a pre-existing relationship and felt we had a foundation of trust and respect for each other. So broaching that subject was easy; we were candid and transparent about why we wanted to do it, and how important it was to us. We said right off the bat, “If this is something you’re not comfortable with, don’t even bother reading the script.” He’s a professional actor, so for him, it was about how to deepen the character, how do you not judge him as an actor, because he had to convincingly play the part, and really feel the connection between his desires, wants and objectives.
And then it meant while shooting, we had to have a closed set, with a lot of sensitivity regarding who needed to be there. The challenge really was the duration, because it’s a 10-minute sequence shot in all natural light. That meant we filmed it across five days, and Jesse was on set 12 hours a day fully nude, and the whole orchestration of that sequence could be incredibly taxing and grueling, both on Jesse and on Madeleine. So it required a lot of preparation.
MSF: Part of our job as directors is creating a trusting, comfortable atmosphere, which starts with conversations with the actors and getting to know them as people, not just as the characters they’re going to play. Then there’s a long rehearsal process, and having, like Dusty said, a closed set, one where we’re very sensitive and responsive to the actors and their needs.
There has always been a double standard about nudity in movies, where female nudity is accepted but male nudity is considered kind of a taboo. Was the explicit male nudity in VIOLATION intended as a pushback or a statement about that in any way?
DM: Well, we were the sole producers of the film, so we were able to do whatever we wanted. But it absolutely was a response to that. We’re so used to seeing women being sexualized, particularly in this genre, and there’s something refreshing and challenging about flipping that trope on its head. You have a woman who’s fully clothed and disempowering the man, and he’s incredibly vulnerable in his nudity. And that’s another thing: When we do see male nudity, it’s not in a way that makes a man feel vulnerable.
MSF: It’s usually comedic, when there’s male nudity in a film. And that’s something we were interested in as well, where his body is a threat to her, and we wanted the audience to feel that, to feel the threat she felt, and to understand why she is exposing him in this way.
DM: It’s important to challenge audiences, because the only way we’re going to steer away from those tropes is by making films that push us to think about the world we live in, and the biases that exist.
Considering what Dylan goes through, and that we see this before we learn what he did to Miriam, was there ever a concern that the audience might come to sympathize with him?
MSF: Yeah, and that played into the way we structured the film. We actually wanted the audience to sympathize with him, up to a certain point. We wanted Dylan to feel warm and kind, and to draw the viewer toward him.
DM: There’s something very interesting about the audience then hopefully feeling betrayed by him, because they’ve grown to like him. By the time he commits the act, hopefully people are not still sympathetic toward him. That would be problematic, but hopefully, they feel betrayed by him in the same way Miriam is betrayed by him.
How have the reactions to VIOLATION been so far, and what have been the most interesting reactions?
DM: The film has definitely been challenging and divisive. The most surprising responses have been how some audiences feel the film is too violent. That’s shocking to me, because there’s not a lot of violence in the movie; it’s just that when we show it, we depict it in a very realistic way that I believe leaves a lasting impression that we weren’t really anticipating, perhaps.
Was VIOLATION conceived before the #MeToo movement got started, or was that already in the air when you were putting it together?
DM: Definitely, it was in the air.
MSF: It wasn’t in response to the #MeToo movement. The story was something we had been thinking about personally for a long time.
DM: But for sure, there was that strong relationship between art and society drawing me to the movement. We were both talking more openly about our own experiences, and if there was no #MeToo movement, maybe we wouldn’t have felt so comfortable talking about them, and if we weren’t so comfortable talking about them, maybe we wouldn’t have had the guts to make a movie about it. So there was definitely a strong relationship, but it wasn’t a conscious one. I think it’s just a natural progression of the world inspiring people to come forward, and we hope the film does the same thing. We hope it encourages others who have suffered sexual abuse to feel comfortable coming forward. Hopefully, the point of the movie is that they realize revenge is not the answer.
Are there any past films in this genre that you’re fans of, or that you think handled the material the right way?
MSF: We’re fans of a lot of these types of movies. What’s interesting and important to us is that each film that deals with rape and revenge has something unique to offer to the conversation. That’s what we wanted to do–to add to that rather than to piggyback off it or say the same thing again. What’s inspiring about films like REVENGE, IRREVERSIBLE or STRAW DOGS is that they have a new perspective or a different angle.
What are you working on right now?
MSF: We’re actually working on a dark comedy. I think the grueling nature of watching VIOLATION again and again and again in postproduction made us want to do something a little lighter, though it still has very twisted themes.