Film

Interview: Violation Filmmakers on Their Feature Film Debut, the Personal Nature of Abuse and Making Movies with Heightened Realism

Since its debut last September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, the horrifying drama Violation has been one of the most talked about and debated works about the justification for and extreme nature of revenge in recent memory. The film centers on Miriam (played by co-writer/director Madeleine Sims-Fewer) and the contentious relationship she has with her sister Greta (Anna Maguire). Miriam’s own marriage to Caleb (Obi Abili) is on the rocks, and while the two are on vacation at the country home of Greta and her husband (and Miriam’s longtime friend) Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), Dylan takes advantage of a drunk and barely conscious Miriam.

Violation

Image courtesy of Shudder

The incident, which Dylan believes was consensual, and her sister’s inability to believe her husband would do anything like that to betray her, pushes Miriam over the edge to the point where she commits an act of revenge so vicious, some audiences have been divided about who the bad guy of the story is actually meant to be.

Both separately and together, Sims-Fewer and her co-writer/director Dusty Mancinelli have made about a half-dozen short films, but Violation marks their feature film debut. It’s a graphic, brutal and emotionally raw work meant to spark conversation, and I wasn’t surprised at all during our recent talk that they welcome the divisive nature of the response to their film at recent film festivals, including Sundance and SXSW. The film, now streaming on Shudder, is as challenging as it is captivating, and this is a truly enlightening conversation about it. Please enjoy…

[Editor’s note: mild spoilers are included in the conversation below.]

You two have made a series of short films before you tackled this one, and I’m wondering what did you learn about filmmaking and each other’s tastes and visual style that you were able to transfer over to making this first feature together.

Dusty Mancielli: That’s a great question and one we haven’t really been asked.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I think when we started making shorts, we really had ideas separately as directors and directions we wanted to go in, but we hadn’t been brave enough or been given the space or allowed ourselves to have the space to experiment in that way. So when we came together as a team, I remember having conversations about things we hadn’t done that we wanted to try and strengthen. So I think we wanted to put performance first. We met at the TIFF Talent Lab and had this great workshop with Jean-Marc Vallée, who spoke to us about his process, and he talked about have a 360-degree approach, where the actors have total freedom within the space and location—there are not lights and sounds, it’s lit through shaping the light through the shape of lampshades and curtains, and that was so appealing to us, and it gave us such a sense of freedom.

DM: And we really got to practice that visual aesthetic with our cinematographer, Adam Crosby, who shot all three of our shorts. Again, will all natural light, we were slowly figuring out the technique of being incredibly cinematic and finding a very controlled look that sets a very specific tone and mood, using just available light, but learning the tricks along the way. Also, we were definitely experimenting with the idea of re-contextualization, so with our short Chubby, which also deals with abuse, we were really focused on the relationship between the past and the present—how does a sound or smell or other memory trigger us back to a traumatic moment? How does that shape and interpret who these characters are? And that really informed not only the structure of our relationship but the way in which we designed each character’s arc and how we wanted the audience to experience, for example, Jesse LaVercombe’s character. We’ve hopefully made him a character you like at first—he’s charming and affable—then suddenly, he does this thing that makes you feel betrayed as an audience, the same way that Miriam feels betrayed. So that was another idea we were experimenting with.

MSF: We wanted to blend between heightened cinema and really grounded naturalism; that was something that started in our shorts and carried through.

DM: That’s something we’re still trying to figure out, heightened realism. We’re aiming for grounded performances and visual aesthetic, and the violence is depicted in a naturalistic way, but there are definitely heightened components to the cinematography and sound design, an emotionally charged score. For us, the through-line is that we’re really interested in making visceral films, films that really put an audience in a very specific time and place. We’re mimicking the experience that the protagonist is going through to try to create as much empathy as possible, and I think why we’re drawn to this idea of heightened elements is that, for us, it amplifies that relationship.

MSF: Something we also realized—this question has really made me think of so many things—through our shorts, although we didn’t set out to do it in them, is this idea of exploring antiheroes and complex characters who do not do the right thing.

Jesse was in your short, right?

DM: Yes, and he was also in Slap Happy [from 2017], so we already had built a strong relationship with him. It was a really natural progression to give him this part.

I love the way that the film jumps back and forth in time, at first that seem random, but as things progress, we realize you’re holding back key information that changes your way of looking at certain incidents. I immediately wanted to see it again because I’m guessing I’d look at the film differently knowing what I know. Was that structure always in the screenplay, or was that something you discovered in the edit, or did you ever imagine telling this story in a linear fashion?

MSF: It’s funny because I think we shot ourselves in the foot with it, because it’s definitely a film that we wanted audiences to watch again, but it’s also a film that I think a lot of people won’t want to watch again [laughs].

DM: It was always designed to be non-linear. It’s funny, someone gave us the note in post-produciton “Have you thought of putting it in linear order?” So we spent two days putting it in linear order, just to see what the movie was, and we hated it. It didn’t work, and we were like “If we were going to write a linear movie, we would have written different scenes.” We got frustrated. For us, we were inspired more by films that deal with non-linear structure in a thematic way, like Pulp Fiction, for example. When you go back and watch Pulp Fiction, it’s really about the inevitability of these character’s trajectory; it’s not about the plotting of it. For us, it was about structuring the film around the idea of Miriam’s descent into madness, her emotional unraveling, and showing you how and why she emotionally unravels. She loses the support from her sister, her husband, and her brother-in-law. She basically feels completely isolated and alone and has not other course of action other than this extreme at of vengeance.

MSF: We also were really interested in re-contextualizing characters, so you’re led to feel one way about a character in a scene, and then we jump backwards and forwards in time, you’re shown a different piece of the puzzle that hopefully makes you feel a different way.

It wasn’t until the end of the film that I realized that not only is the film about Miriam, but it feels like it was made by her. It’s so much about her perspective and her relationships with these three other people and how they are damaged in some way by the end. I do get a sense that in the end, she does feel like she’s done something positive for her sister, not necessarily for herself. I’m not sure she feels good about what she’s done in general, but at least for a minute, she sees herself as a protector. Is that a fair statement?

DM: Yes, for sure. The arc for Miriam is that she’s convinced herself…

MSF: She had to do this.

DM: She is righteous; she is saving her sister. But hopefully in the very last frame of the movie, the last moment we leave you with: Miriam and her realization that she’s wrong. She’s destroyed her sister, destroyed herself, and she’s the only one who knows it and she can’t do anything about it. There’s something beautifully tragic about that, about a character who doesn’t learn the lesson in time, so that we can, as an audience, safely learn the lesson without having to go on that horrific journey.

And it is horrific. Her act of revenge feels like an exorcism, a cathartic rage, more than just getting back at somebody. People have had very different reactions about what she does, some were put off by how far she goes, but I think that’s kind of the point. At what point did you realize how deep into the horror realm you wanted to go with this?

DM: It’s mostly inspired by our own dark fantasies that we would like to take so far with what she goes through. When you’re violated, when something is taken from you, especially when you’re unconscious or asleep like that, it’s very upsetting, it does fill you with rage and anger, and there’s something about completely destroying someone’s essence of who they are—the idea that she’s flushing his flesh down the toilet, and forcing his family and extended family to consume him, almost like punishing a bloodline—there’s something really tantalizing about that, I think.

MSF: We were never in doubt about how far we wanted to take her and how far she does go. But like you said, I think that’s necessary. I think as well, there’s a forgiveness of men in cinema who do to these extreme lengths and do horrific things. People can still relate to them, and I think that people cannot relate to women in the same way.

DM: They struggle with it, and it’s crazy because we’re used to seeing evil antihero men. Travis Bickle has no redeeming qualities except that he’s Robert De Nrio, and we like to watch him. But he does terrible things. This woman has all of this taken from her and has these people in her life closing the door on her, yet we’re still quick to judge her. It was really important for us to humanize her in these moments when she’s doing these really horrific things. For example, she has doubts and she tears the bag off of his head, she can’t go through with it, but by then, it’s too late; she’s forced into it. In another moment, she has this guttural, physical response—she starts throwing up—we can see that she horrified and disgusted and repulsed by her own actions. Hopefully, the audience sees that she’s doing monstrous things but that she herself is not a monster.

MSF: She’s weeping as she strangles him; she breaks down; she’s not this cold, clinical, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

DM: She has a panic attack right before she disposes of the body. You’re seeing the toll it’s taking on her, but people seem to not recognize that she’s a woman, that if we switched the genders, we would totally be having a different conversation—how we’ve humanized the process of revenge.

Another thing people are fixating on is this idea of making the crime itself something that Dylan never understands he did. By doing that, people might be misinterpreting that as you two thinking the act itself is nebulous, but it’s clearly not. At the same time, he’s not a villain; he’s someone you want us to understand and see his perspective, because if we don’t, we can’t look at what Miriam does to him as horrible. Why did you want to humanize someone who does what he does?

DM: For us, this is a personal film. We’ve both experienced trauma and abuse in our past. From our experiences and from talking to other people about their experiences, it seems like there’s this real gap in pop culture about how this is represented. A lot of people’s experiences are with a perpetrator they know, someone they trust, someone close to them.

MSF: And someone who never admits to doing wrong.

DM: That’s right. It’s far more common that someone has been abused under those circumstances than a stranger in an alley. And it’s really easy [in film] to do this “stranger in an alleyway who’s this nefarious villain,” but that’s just not true to us. And the other thing that’s shocking about what the film reveals is the way in which people still talk about it being nebulous when it shouldn’t be. We’re not used to seeing rape in cinema where a woman or man is asleep, and something is happening to them when they’re unconscious, and what happens when you wake in the middle of being violated, because you can’t undo that. Really, there’s nothing she can do, whether she pushes him off or yells at him in that moment, it’s irrelevant because she can’t undo what’s happened to her. Yet there’s been this skirting of “What does that mean?” because we’re not used to seeing it portrayed that way.

MSF: Audiences and people in general like to reduce sexual violence to something very rote and stock and without complexity, because it’s easier when it’s not complex to wrap your head around it and say “This is right and this is wrong.” It’s so much more complicated when the perpetrator is someone who is a nice person.

DM: What do you do if it’s someone you care about? If it’s a stranger, you’ll go to the cops and have that person arrested and hold them accountable for what they did. In the scene in the tool shed, she offers him a way out; she says, “We can work this out.” There is this sense that this could have gone a completely different way because she’s still leaving room in their friendship for forgiveness. But when he begins gaslighting her, all doors shut at that point. That’s a really interesting dynamic that we felt was authentic to us, and we wanted to see more of.

Let me ask you about your roles as co-directors. Do you each take on different aspects of the production, or are you of one mind at this point and anyone can go to either of you with any question or conversation? And Madeleine, because you’re also acting in this, do you lean on Dusty to direct you?

MSF: It’s sort of a bit of both. We definitely strive to be of one mind, rather than delineating or passing off duties.

DM: But especially in the context of Madeleine acting in the film, there’s got to be a moment when she’s completely relinquishing directorial control, simply because it’s impossible to act a truthful moment if you’re self-conscious thinking about what it is you’re doing.

MSF: My directing role just had to take on a different role in those moments.

DM: Sometimes, I’ll direct an actor through Madeleine. If Madeleine is off camera but she’s in the scene, she can direct in a great way without the actors even knowing she’s directing. We’ll talk and we’ll know what we’re looking for in a response, so she can perform that provokes the response from that person.

I want to ask about choreographing what is essentially a fight scene in which one of the actors is completely naked. All I could think about were splinters in the worst possible places.

DM: We shot that scene over five days, but it was a closed set, so only people who need to be there are there. There’s a real professionalism and sensitivity on the day. We’re making sure that Jesse is feeling comfortable at all times.

MSF: There was a stunt double for certain moments.

DM: And the whole sequence was storyboarded to death. There was a real mechanical approach to technically how we could do certain aspects of the tape on the face, the bag over the face, the chair falling. So it’s really about breaking things down to smaller parts. We knew we wanted it to feel really scrappy, messy, and there’s a real grittiness to it, and I think a big way that comes through is that the camera was another character, so we were doing a lot of choreography with our cinematographer, really trying to position you, especially after the fall, where you feel like you’re with them, on the ground.

MSF: Part of the mess and the chaos.

DM: It was about being really patient, because we shot with all-natural light, we had this four-hour window of consistent light, so we could spend six hours rehearsing for one very specific moment so that we’re getting it perfect, and then shoot it for four hours. It required a painstaking amount of prep.

I hope you two keep working together and doing these really personal films, because the results are so provocative. Thanks for your time.

MSF: Thank you so much.

DM: We are definitely a united front and will continue making movies together. You’ll have lots of new stuff from us soon.

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