This SXSW Revenge Tale Gives Lars von Trier a Run for His Money
Art and Experience:
How do you put a new spin on revenge horror? These filmmakers did.
Violation was one of the last films I caught during Sundance. I went in fairly unprepared, and boy, was it an experience that left me reeling. The revenge thriller follows Miriam, who is staying with her husband, sister, and brother-in-law at a lakeside cabin when a sexual assault throws her world off-kilter. The film is a raw look at rape and retribution, and also at how trauma can make people do unthinkable things.
There are moments in the movie that are shocking in their realism—and they are not brief. These filmmakers want you to sit with discomfort and reckon with these characters’ actions.
The film is written, produced, and directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. Sims-Fewer also stars as the lead character. They’ve drawn comparisons to Lars von Trier for this work, and they’ll certainly be filmmakers we want to keep an eye on. Previously teamed on short films, this is their first feature.
The filmmakers spoke with No Film School ahead of SXSW 2021 and the film’s wide release on Shudder. They answered questions about the development of the film and what it was like to work with a life-size body double of one of their actors. Get into their insight below!
Warning: death, dismemberment, and spoilers for Violation follow.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I’m sure you’re getting a lot of questions about this, but I’m really interested in the writing side of things and how you structured the story. I think, especially on a second viewing, you see how well you wove things together and how you can look at points from a different perspective.
Dusty Mancinelli: It’s a great question. So we wrote it non-linear, and it was really important to us to try to structure the film around Miriam’s emotional, psychological unraveling. And to really help the audience understand how her betrayal, the betrayal of her sister, the betrayal of her brother-in-law, and the lack of support that she receives from her husband really alienate her and put her into a position where she feels alone, powerless, and that this is her only recourse. And also, at the same time, we were really interested in this idea of recontextualization.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah, we in all of our work—I think because we’re co-writers and we’re a man and a woman, we have these built-in different perspectives already. So we approach everything with these trying to really deepen each character, so while you may not like everything they do, you see no one is just a hero or just a villain. You get to know a character and you think you know what they’re all about and then we go back or forward in time and you see something that hopefully deepens your understanding of who they are as a person.
Mancinelli: And it’s also a cautionary tale, and there’s really something quite tragic about the structure in that you know this person is going to die or is going to be chopped up. And you see this scene where he’s got this moment where he could do the right thing, he could turn it all around, and hearing the sound of that winch whining over his face is just so tragic. And because the movie is really designed to scare you into not wanting to seek revenge, and it’s all about the consequences of revenge, the structure really allowed us to communicate that idea.
Sims-Fewer: And even when we were writing the whole script, we were thinking about all of these moments where if someone had just done one thing differently, then none of this would happen. It was almost a sense of, we wanted to capture a sense of inevitability, but then you’re seeing these small tragedies just escalate into one massive tragedy.
Mancinelli: Yeah. And the film is really a visceral experience about this one woman’s trauma. So trying to mimic the post-traumatic stress that the body goes through, right from the very first frame of the movie, and have that carry throughout that energy. That feeling was really important to us. And again, the structure really helps with that because as someone who’s experienced trauma and abuse, you can have this sound or an image or a word that suddenly transports you back to that residual trauma that you feel.
NFS: The first half of the film is a lead-up to that moment of revenge, and then the rest is dealing with it. I wondered what attracted you to seeing that process of her unraveling. Why did you want to explore that?
Sims-Fewer: We really love revenge movies, but they do tend to follow a similar emotional arc for the characters where the character’s traumatized near the beginning, and then they’re regaining their strength through the middle. And then at the end, they have the strength and the power to obliterate their rapist. And we really wanted to explore something where the revenge takes place quite early and then you see what might really happen to a person and to their morality, their sense of self, as they start to realize that perhaps the revenge is not going to bring them this catharsis that they hoped for.
Mancinelli: Yeah. So it’s really an anti-revenge film in many ways, because it’s not about wish fulfillment. And it’s this woman isn’t made whole because she’s killed her perpetrator. And I think that’s one of the problematic tropes of this subgenre is that the only way someone can be made whole is by enacting this brutal revenge. And we’re just far more interested in, well, what is the emotional psychological toll? How does it corrode your morality? How does it destroy the fabric of your relationships?
And that really meant putting it into the midpoint of the movie, because it’s not just about the revenge, it’s about the toll it takes on her and really showing you what that’s like. And also in a way, hopefully where you see that she’s human, trying to humanize her in these horrific moments. She’s drained the blood from the body and she’s vomiting. And hopefully, that shows the audience that she’s not this serial killer or this Dexter-like killer. She’s human, she’s horrified—
Sims-Fewer: She’s been horribly hurt. And she feels like this is the only way she’s going to get any sort of relief and release.
Mancinelli: And she’s repulsed by her own actions, and that’s really human. And I think that was really important to us to show that side of things, which you don’t really see within the wish-fulfillment revenge genre is that you’re used to that cathartic, celebratory, sensational moment of violence, where we all cheer at the screen and it’s—
Sims-Fewer: And then it’s all going to be okay—
Mancinelli: It’s all going to be okay.
Sims-Fewer: One person is now gone. But the trauma remains.
Mancinelli: And that’s the point of the movie is that the trauma never goes away. And revenge is not the answer and it’s only going to actually make things worse. And I think that’s really what we were striving to do there.
NFS: The dialogue is really naturalistic and everybody feels really grounded. I think I read somewhere that you did a lot of workshopping, so I’d love to hear more about how you developed those characters.
Sims-Fewer: Even in the script stage, we do a lot to develop the dialogue. We’ll improvise with each other just to get a natural rhythm before we put it on the page. And then it’s a new stage when we start working with actors, because we’re not precious at all about what’s on the page. We just want the dialogue to be grounded and to feel like it really comes from that person, from their mind, from their mouth.
So we had about 10 days of rehearsals with the cast. Everyone came out to the location and we lived there together. And while we rehearsed the scenes, we also spent a lot of time just improvising in character and doing character-building exercises so that we can use improv in the rehearsals and then find new things to add to enrich the scenes, to enrich the script, and to really build that sense of a real history between these people.
Mancinelli: And really what drew us to each other as collaborators is our ambition and love for performance. And so we really designed our sets around performance first. So we shoot with all natural light and we try to remove the artifice and the technical limitations that are sometimes put on actors. Just simple things like marks and having to slate for the camera. And all these obstacles, light stands and flags, trying to remove all of that. So really the camera is working around the actor and that gives the actors a lot of freedom and a lot of space to explore. And that’s really, I think, important in trying to find these natural, candid moments.
NFS: Speaking of the film’s visual language, you have all these wide, expansive, complicated, cold forest settings, and then you have all those really warm interiors, where the revenge is taking place. I wondered about those choices.
Mancinelli: We’re from Toronto. We drove up to Montreal six hours away, and were crazy enough to put the cast and crew up there simply because we were just so inspired by the foreboding, unsettling characteristic of these mountains and these lush pines. And the juxtaposition between that unnerving visual imagery and the claustrophobic intimacy of the other scenes was really quite striking to us. It really helped in a way illuminate Miriam’s isolation and alienation, while at the same time making the audience hopefully feel that anxiety that she’s feeling in those more intense sequences of the film.
Sims-Fewer: We also shot a lot at dusk and at dawn. And dawn gives—I mean, dawn is when the assault happens, and there’s a very, there’s almost a coldness to it, to the light. And then at dusk, there’s this real comforting warmth. So we designed a lot of the schedule around that. So we had these small windows to shoot scenes that we’d spend the day rehearsing and setting up and shooting other things that didn’t need that specific window of light. And then we would shoot as much as we could within that small window of time. So often, just a one and a half-hour window, two-hour window.
NFS: Well, the result is stunning. You have been making short films together for quite a while. What advice would you have to an up-and-coming filmmaker wanting to move from shorts to features?
Mancinelli: We were making shorts [individually] for over 10 years, and then we met each other, and [we’ve been] making shorts for five. And there’s this daunting feeling of making your first feature. It’s shrouded in mystery. And I think that the most surprising thing for us is that it’s the exact same thing—
Sims-Fewer: Yeah, just on a longer scale.
Mancinelli: And the piece of advice really is, train for a marathon. Because that’s honestly what I would do differently, is physically, we were not prepared for the toll it would take on our bodies having to be up at 3:00 in the morning and then doing that for three months where you’re just constantly putting the strain. Wear really comfortable shoes, and just [think] about it as an actual marathon. And I think that even mentally, too, preparing because of all the obstacles and challenges.
But honestly, there’s so many great things about making a feature that make it actually easier where you have this freedom and flexibility to go back and reshoot things if they don’t work out. There’s less pressure. You really get to find your momentum on set. You get to really build strong relationships with the cast and crew, whereas on a short, you get three or four days and that’s it. So I would say endurance and stamina—
Sims-Fewer: Also, your crew are so important, the personalities of your crew members. Somebody gave us the advice of, approach building your crew the same way you approach casting your film, that you should really be thinking about what are the qualities these people are bringing—
Mancinelli: What are the dynamics?
Sims-Fewer: Yeah, exactly.
Mancinelli: Yeah. That’s quite critical. And we’re so fortunate to have found such talented and just lovely people to share our time with who really came together to create something far beyond our actual means. And I think, yeah, we’re indebted to them.
NFS: Is there anything you wanted to add before closing?
Sims-Fewer: I don’t think so. I think that’s a good place to end on. The crew, the crew were everything.
Mancinelli: The crew were everything. I would maybe just single out Tenille Shockey, who’s this really brilliant special effects makeup artist who did a full-body cast of Jesse LaVercombe and painstakingly painted this body and punched in the hairs and did the freckles and just everything, with the level of realism that was really remarkable.
Sims-Fewer: We honestly couldn’t tell the difference other than one didn’t move and the other one did.
NFS: Just a quick question on that. Did you only have the one? Because it gets cut up—did you have multiple—
Sims-Fewer: We only had the one.
Mancinelli: We only had the one, so you had to shoot in a very specific order and you can only do certain things to that body at the time. But even for example, there’s a closeup of the feet being pulled up by the winch. I mean we could have shot that with an actor, but the thought of having to put an actor upside down and the dangers involved in that, it just made a lot of sense to do that with the full-body double. And the detail, it’s just really uncanny.
Violation will be available exclusively on Shudder starting March 25.