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Interview: Michael Lombardi on the Heavy Horror of “The Retaliators”

Sunday, September 18, 2022 | Interviews

By RACHEL REEVES

Horror has always had a good relationship with heavy metal and hard rock. As the so-called “bad boys” of their respective industries, the lure of killer creative collaboration is simply too good to pass up. So while films like Trick or Treat, Deathgasm, The Devil’s Candy, and Black Roses are known and beloved for having sold their souls to rock and roll, the new film THE RETALIATORS turns the heavy horror volume up to eleven. 

Written by Darren and Jeff Allen Geare, THE RETALIATORS explores just how far one father is willing to go for revenge. It’s a story about love, morality, justice, and family. It’s also a bloody, riotous rock and roll-fueled roller coaster. Featuring a staggering amount of rock royalty, the cast of THE RETALIATORS includes Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach, Zoltan Bathory and Ivan L. Moody of Five Finger Death Punch, Spencer Charnas of Ice Nine Kills, and the one and only Tommy Lee. Add on an incredible score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of Stranger Things fame and a stacked soundtrack filled to the brim with bangers, and THE RETALIATORS truly is a force to be reckoned with. 

However, the film’s heart lies with Bishop, portrayed by Michael Lombardi (Rescue Me). Following a devastating loss, Bishop questions everything and everyone around him. When a stranger randomly presents Bishop with an unexpected offer, Bishop becomes forced to make unimaginable decisions and confront unthinkable terrors. On top of starring in the film, Lombardi also produced THE RETALIATORS as well. A true passion project from start to finish, Lombardi’s dedication propels the film from the inside out. 

In celebration of the film’s recent theatrical release, Rue Morgue sat down with Lombardi for a chat. We discuss his dual roles on the project, his love of horror, working with musicians, and so much more. 

You were deeply involved with THE RETALIATORS both behind the camera and in front of it. How did you first become a part of the project, and what creatively attracted you to it?

Michael Lombardi: I know the Geare brothers pretty well from back in the day. I lived in LA for a while though I am mostly an East Coast guy. But I was out there, I had a band and a record deal at the time. My music manager was like, “You gotta go write with Darren Geare and The Geare Brothers Music. They’re so talented.” So I used to drive to Southern California [to work with them]. 

Cut to a few years ago, and I hadn’t talked to them for a long time. I was like, “Hey man, I’m doing this charity event, and I’m singing one of our songs. I need to drop it a half-step, what do you think? Let’s talk about it a little bit. What have you been up to?” That’s when he goes, “My brother and I have been writing screenplays.” I said, “Send them to me immediately, dude.” And he did. 

I read a bunch of them, and there was THE RETALIATORS. It just jumped off the page to me — the wink at the 80s, the small town Spielberg-ian, Dante’s Gremlins beginning into this crazy slow burn with elements of Death Wish meets Sin City. Then this crazy third act with a Tarantino-ish kind of vibe. Immediately, these are the words I used and I’m still talking about it to this day. 

So I called Darren to say all this to him, and he goes, “Exactly. Those were our inspirations. Like Hostel, but what if there was a story? What if you cared about the characters?” That was what really appealed to me, to be honest with you. The character John Bishop that I play, this guy goes on a journey, you know? Talk about peeling back the onion. I love that. And I love that it’s a popcorn movie, right? A fun, crazy roller coaster. And, of course, the music jumped off the page. It just had that vibe. I had to play John Bishop. And it’s been nuts. It’s been a crazy three years trying to get it made. It’s so hard to make a movie. 

Was it challenging to balance the dual role of producer and lead actor? How did you navigate and balance those two huge roles? 

I didn’t even think about it. I’m serious. It’s so hard when you’re filming 12 hours a day. We had a big crew, and the crew was so wonderful and loyal through COVID, the shutdowns and all kinds of stuff. You can’t do it without those guys. It’s our movie. It really is. I think about each and every one of their faces and how hard they worked when I talk about this.  

We had fun! It’s not like I’m digging ditches here. We’re making a movie, you know what I mean? I’m so lucky. But you know, after 12-hour shooting days, all the fires you have to put out, preparing for the next day and the months on the phone leading up to it and throughout it, you take an hour-long shower back at the hotel. At least. Just to wash some of the character away, but also the fake blood and stuff too. Then you’re dealing with stuff for the next day. You’re on the phone trying to iron it out. 

There are many things I did to prepare for the character, but I can also tell you that you use what you can as an actor. After the beginning of the first act, [John] doesn’t get much sleep, does he? He’s rocked. So I was able to use filming like this and all these things to help me deal with it, and then just bring it into the character. That went on for years. It’s been crazy. I learned so much, though. 

The dynamic between Bishop and his daughters is incredibly sweet and authentic. What was it like working with Katie Kelly and Abbey Hafer again? 

We had a relationship from a film we did before, and I thought [Katie] was so great in that movie. They both were. I was like, “They need to be in this one.” And I think that’s how it works. You find people who you think are really good and are team players. You have to understand and see the final product and sort of work backward from there. You have to operate a little more like a helicopter than a tank to understand things. That’s what I’ve learned as I grow as a filmmaker and an actor. 

Darren and Jeff have been quite open about the inspiration for this film. Did that real-world connection and story inspire your performance in any way? Or, add any kind of extra pressure to how it was handled both behind and in front of the camera?

One hundred percent. Absolutely. It’s crazy because this film isn’t based on her story, right? But the story is inspired by what happened to them. We talked about it being a tale of revenge and, without going through the whole story, their sister was brutally attacked many years ago. This story will give you goosebumps. Through the process of trying to get the guy, their family is ripped apart. Years later, they get the guy through DNA. They have to now go to trial for years and years. It got dragged on and on. 

Anyways, they wrote this as a way to see themselves through this process. You know, Darren said to his brother, “Hey, man. What if there was a program where we could have a minute alone with this guy?” Right? That’s the question. And then that’s how it happened. 

Now, get this. They didn’t even realize this until later, honestly, but [their sister] was in firefighter school when this happened to her. And I was on a television show called Rescue Me. It was about firefighters post-9/11. I did close to 100 episodes of that show, and I was the probationary rookie firefighter. It was fun and an honor to be a part of.

So she was in firefighter school when this attack happened. Then years later, she watched Rescue Me all the time. It was a comedy, but it had heavy elements. She was a firefighter and a probie, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re running into burning buildings when people are running out. They’re heroes at the end of the day. So anyway, I was the probie, and I was her favorite character. So it’s really crazy and interesting. 

And then get this, all these years later, she is now one of the very few female firefighter captains in the world. It’s a healing story. She won. She overcame it all. So knowing all that, and then being the lead in her movie, there’s a tremendous responsibility. But, I just want to say, you can’t let all these things weigh on you, right? You just put your head down and work. And hopefully, people like it. 

There are so many incredible musicians who act alongside you in this film. While they are all absolutely incredible performers, they aren’t necessarily actors. What was it like working with them in this capacity? And what was the energy like on set with them?

Amazing. They’re so good. So my guy that I brought the script to, his name is Allen Kovac. He’s a legendary music manager and a founder and CEO of Better Noise Music. He had The Beeg Gees and Meatloaf back in the day, and on and on. Now he has over 40 bands [including] Mötley Crüe, Five Finger Death Punch, Ice Nine Kills, Papa Roach, Escape the Fate, all these great bands. I brought the script to him because the music jumped off the page. That wink at the 80s, those great films of that era with sick soundtracks, he got it. He goes, “Make the movie. Let’s do it. I got your back.” And then he’s like, “Here’s Zoltan from Five Finger Death Punch’s number. Here’s Spencer Charnas from Ice Nine Kills. Here’s Jacoby from Papa Roach. Talk to them about their parts.”

We handpicked their parts, casting them very carefully. I spoke with all of them about it before they got on set and they all came to play. They were so prepared. They did the homework. Of course, they’re natural storytellers, right? Now they had to just bring it in a little bit and keep it behind the eyes for the camera. As a director, I would rather work with someone who’s willing to jump off that cliff, go big and pull them back a little bit than have to pull the performance out and these guys did their homework. They were focused and emotionally prepared. 

The whole goal was to make it a movie first and then have this amazing silver lining of this built-in core fanbase. But I wanted people within our genre and movie viewers to go, “Oh my god. The bad guy was so good! Wait a minute. He’s in Papa Roach!?” That’s the way that I always felt, and Alan and I wanted to proceed with it. So, it was a collaboration creatively. 

There are a lot of nods to classic horror films in THE RETALIATORS. Are you a fan of the genre yourself?

I am a huge fan. My life was never the same after seeing Jaws. After obviously, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, It Follows, all that and more. 

This movie did really well on the festival circuit and has now been released theatrically. Is there anything that you hope people will take away from this movie?

I think the thing is, how many movies end up in theaters nowadays? You know, we’re not a Marvel, we’re not a big studio. I think what I love so much, and I’m so passionate about as a filmmaker, is that it’s an experience. This movie needs to live in a theater or a drive-in. I think it’s so important for people to experience film in a theater. It will inspire or move you in some way. It’s a fun popcorn movie. Hopefully, you’re entertained. Hopefully, you like the movie, and you’re moved. But maybe you could talk about it a little bit afterward, too. Talk about those provocative questions, morality and justice. Maybe it has a little more substance too. That would be fun. 

THE RETALIATORS is currently playing in select theaters. In addition, the soundtrack for the film is now available to stream on all major digital platforms via Better Noise Music.

 

Rachel Reeves
Rachel is a record store nerd from Boise, Idaho with an obsession for horror soundtracks and all things creepy.