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Interview: Writer/Director Alison Star Locke Unwraps Dark Christmas Thriller “THE APOLOGY”

Monday, December 12, 2022 | Interviews, News


Matthew C. DuPée is a horror cinema writer based in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area and author of A Scary Little Christmas: A History of Yuletide Horror Films, 1972-2020 by McFarland Books. 

The stockings might be hung by the chimney with care, but writer-director Alison Star Locke’s freshman outing THE APOLOGY reminds us that the holidays can be hell, especially when it comes to uninvited guests and deep-rooted family trauma. A troubled recovering alcoholic named Darlene (Anna Gunn) cuts her Christmas celebration preparations short after an unexpected late-night visit by her estranged ex-brother-in-law Jack (Linus Roache). Darlene, plagued by the mysterious disappearance of her daughter 20 years earlier, must confront her fears and guilt after a blistering winter storm shutters her and Jack indoors for a long and nightmarish night. 

THE APOLOGY is unflinchingly intense as it explores the complicated juncture where morality, justice, and revenge collide. Locke opens up to RUE MORGUE about the challenges and successes in making a heavy, emotionally charged Christmas thriller and how an unsettling dream inspired the story. 

Congratulations on making such an intriguing and impactful film. It was clear upon watching The Apology just how much of an emotional powder keg the story is as it unfolds, similar to a few other dark Christmas horror-thrillers like Body (2015), I’m Dreaming of a White Doomsday (2017), and The Lodge (2019). What were some of your influences when you were crafting the story and designing the visual aesthetics? 

I have not seen Body yet, but I’ve been reading your book and I’ve already added so many Christmas horror titles to my list of films to watch [laughs]. But I am so complimented to be compared to The Lodge; I absolutely love The Lodge. I was very taken with that movie.

 In terms of influences, Black Christmas (1974) for sure, which when I started reading your book, it struck me that we both have an adoration of that film. I really kept thinking about the lighting schemes in Black Christmas, and how it’s lit so darkly, yet you could still see what’s going on – the Christmas lights had a huge impact as well. The famous shot of the exterior Christmas lights on the sorority house was something we sort of did a recreation of in our film. Those were things we thought quite a bit about but also some of the thematic aspects of Black Christmas, such as the idea that women are always living with a certain amount of danger posed to them by men, and that’s this sort of shadow that’s hanging over us women all the time. This is something I thought about often when making The Apology. Darlene had been living with this type of danger and she didn’t even know she had, all of that time. That was fascinating for me, this type of danger that we all live with. 

And in a completely different direction, Gremlins (1984). I thought about Gremlins a lot, which is ironic because our film is not a funny film. It’s not a humorous film like that, but I was thinking about the aspects of time and space like the setting of a film and how strong of a setting that town and the home was in Gremlins – what the specifics of the home were like and also letting the mom be sort of this hero, like in that wonderful scene where she has this battle with the gremlins and even blows one up in the microwave. That really set my imagination off. What weapons would you use in your home if you had to? It had me thinking about how to make this story and these scenes more relatable. I also thought about the aesthetics of The Shining (1980) and how having a really formal type of composition for the first part of the film in a sense trying to put Darlene in this tableau that Jack has created in his mind, the way that this is going to go down – we’re going to sit down at the table and talk it out. Of course, that’s not up for him to dictate. A few other inspirations included films like Prisoners (2013) and Revolutionary Road (2008), movies that dealt with domestic drama. There’s obviously physical violence in The Apology but also emotional violence, which can often be more important and more vicious.

Anna Gunn as Darlene Hagen in the thriller, THE APOLOGY, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

The choice to set the story at Christmas, was there something specific that prompted you to set the story at this time of year? 

Well, like you I’m also obsessed with Christmas films [laughs]. I’m a huge fan of all sorts of Christmas films. For me, I’m a big holiday nerd in general, but I always wanted to make a Christmas film and make it a very dark one. Ironically, I didn’t do it on purpose as much with this project because what really generated my idea for the story was a dream I had. So I had this dream about a man coming to my front door and knocking in the middle of the night and saying “I know what happened to your daughter.” I could feel in the dream that this was at Christmas. This is what prompted me to think, “Okay, this is my chance to make a Christmas film – but in my style’ [laughs]. After this initial idea, it became a very conscious effort to get more and more Christmassy as we developed the project, to the point that we were first location scouting and we had chosen the house we wanted to shoot in, and we were talking about what we wanted to do with the space.

In my mind, I had this idea that Darlene had been so heartbroken about her daughter that even when she was going to host Christmas she would put out minimal decorations. It was just going to be a few things. My producer Kim Sherman, who was my creative partner on this project, told me, “Ali, this is your chance to make a Christmas movie and all you’re going to have is one little Christmas tree?” She kind of nudged me and encouraged me to go to town with it. So we did. 

We had an incredible art department headed by Tom Obed who was our production designer. Absolutely delightful folks, the art department, and they were on board with my idea to really load this house down not only with Christmas decorations but let’s be very specific about where the decorations came from. We had a lot of conversations about that. What has Darlene bought just for the occasion to host? What has she pulled out of storage – if anything? How much did she borrow from Gretchen? Those were the type of conversations because I thought it was important to think about the house as not being officially haunted but definitely haunted in the way most people can relate to, which is when you suffer the loss of someone who means so much to you. You can still feel them in the space so much. 

Linus Roache as Jack Kingsley in the thriller, THE APOLOGY, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

The art department did indeed do a remarkable job with the layering of Christmas iconography in such subtle yet present ways. And the cinematography is truly beautiful…

Jack Caswell, our director of photography, and his whole team were just hustlers. Extremely creative. I was so fortunate to work with them … I was in awe of Jack.

It definitely seemed like there was a lot of synergy on this production that ended up on the screen. Did you feel that when you were on set and shooting that everything was firing on all cylinders? 

Yes. This was a very short and very difficult shoot. This is my first feature, and the first film I have made in a while. I actually stayed home with my daughter who is autistic, and I’ve been her advocate for a long time, and the film is actually kind of a metaphor for that. I had put my plans for a career on hold to take care of her. That’s the long story short, but it felt like even with all the challenges that we faced with this shoot, I felt like I was protected and constantly inspired by all of this incredible artistry going on around me. Every single one of our cast and crew was hustling, brilliant and warm. One of our sound guys, Stephen, would wear a Santa hat and play Christmas music in between takes sometimes [laughs]. It was great and I’m very fortunate. 

Regarding the location, did you shoot on a constructed set or were the interiors shot in a real house? 

That was a real house we shot in. It’s in Los Angeles. Funny enough, well like I mentioned, the film was a metaphor, in a way, for the experience I had with my daughter. The house was located literally around the block from where I had her. It’s just funny that it was in my old neighborhood and it felt so loaded and right. 

And those stark, frigid aerial shots, did you shoot those in Wisconsin? 

Yes, those were shot in Wisconsin. Funny enough, one of our producers is from Wisconsin and he hooked us up with a production team there and we shot aerials and some exteriors over the course of a day. The story is actually set in Minnesota, but I didn’t want that to be an overwhelming facet. I set the story there for personal reasons, I still have a lot of relatives in Minnesota and I just think the world of them. 

Janeane Garofalo as Gretchen Sullivan in the thriller, THE APOLOGY, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

In terms of casting, what was the process like for finding the perfect Darlene, Jack, and Gretchen? 

It was actually a tricky process. Asking someone to play these parts that are incredibly dark and set during an equally dark period in their lives. We had plenty of actors that we went to, but many times, the response was “this is just too dark for me” or “I can’t handle this type of content right now.” Then we had the good fortune of getting Anna Gunn, and she was immediately into it. She said, “Well, I play in the dark so let’s do this.” We were basically in the same sandbox. She just got it right away and wasn’t shy about any of that darkness. 

Linus Roache was the same way. Just incredible. My producers knew him from their work producing Mandy (2018), and he had this incredible performance as a cult leader in Mandy. Janeane Garofalo, I just worship. I said to my producers can we please just ask her [laughs]? I wrote them each cover letters and explained why I thought they would be perfect for their roles. Janeane called me right away and didn’t even go through agents and said yes, she wanted to do the part. She’s as wonderful as you’d expect. I had such a great time working with someone that was gifted in so many different directions.

In terms of Christmas horror films, ’cause ‘tis the season, which are some of your favorites? 

There are so many good ones, how do you pick? I already mentioned Black Christmas, which I love, but I’ll go in another direction – Christmas Evil (1980). I adored Brandon Maggart’s performance. He was so incredible. The production design was stellar, just so grimy, gritty, but relatable. I loved that his psychopathy is so specific and grounded in his hope that has been crushed, you know, that he wanted Christmas to be a beautiful thing and for Santa to be respected. That’s probably one of my favorites of all time.

The Apology will open in select theaters and stream on Shudder and AMC+ simultaneously on December 16.

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