It’s been a few months since Sundance has passed, but one film that has stuck with me since is Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s debut feature Violation, which hits Shudder today, March 25th. The film which was both written and directed by the pair is a non-linear narrative that follows Miriam (Sims-Fewer), who is a self confessed, “not very nice person.” She’s on the verge of divorce when she spends a long weekend with her younger sister Greta and her charismatic husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at their idyllic lake home. Dylan, who was a childhood friend of the sisters, betrays Miriam’s trust when he rapes her the morning after she drunkenly kisses him. It’s that level of complexity of the interconnected relationships at the heart of the film that eschews the traditional expectations of the viewer who’s been down this dark road more than once.
Because Miriam’s story is not only about how this transgression colors her relationship with Dylan, but that of her sibling and her childhood that gives the film a dimension that some may not be prepared for. Even though I have seen more than my fair share of films from this genre I found Violation excruciating to watch in its depiction of its premeditated violence and retribution. But Miriam isn’t simply looking to get bloody revenge here, as you’d expect; she is looking to erase Dylan from the fabric of reality, and goes to insane lengths to do so in the hopes of repairing her bond with her sister. It’s a deeper dive that jettisons the more exploitative elements you’d expect in favor of investigating the ties that bind us to those around us and what we would do if those were broken or severed.
After raving about the film since catching it at Sundance, I jumped at the chance to chat with Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli who not only wrote and directed the film together, but Madeleine also starred as Miriam. They were thoughtful and generous in discussing their foray into this sub-genre and what they did to both subvert and elevate it, and I found it extremely enlightening for those looking to delve a bit deeper into this film. Enjoy! (Video Embedded at bottom of post)
Dan Tabor: First off, congrats on the film. It was one of my favorites at Sundance and I have to ask with this being your first film together, why tackle the rape/revenge sub-genre and what were some, the films that informed your take on it?
Dusty Mancinelli: Thanks. So yeah, we met at the Tiff Talent Lab in 2015. At the time we were just both making our own shorts, but I think we were secretly looking for a collaborator and we decided to make some shorts together as a directing team. We started to notice a common kind of theme throughout our work, it was really inspired by our own personal experiences of trauma and abuse in our past. I think Violation is really the culmination of all of those ideas. We wanted to try to capture the visceral experience, that the body goes through when you’re dealing with post-traumatic stress. Within the sub-genre of rape/revenge films, we’re so used to seeing wish fulfillment and the climax of the movie is this cathartic, emotional, very sensational moment where we cheer on as the protagonists goes through with this horrific thing. Instead though we’re far more interested in the grizzly nature of revenge. What are the consequences of revenge and how does it erode your morality and what does it do to you emotionally and psychologically?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah, I think in terms of what films we were inspired by at the time, it was really films that kind of didn’t sit in a particular genre. So films that were maybe a horror film, but also a film about grief. Like Don’t Look Now, or something where it’s a mystery with horror undertones, like Caché, but it’s also kind of this domestic drama. Because we knew that we wanted to say something about sexual assault, but also we wanted to say something about family, and about trauma within families and how that can really shape how you see people and shape the actions that you take.
Dusty Mancinelli: One thing we noticed within the sub genre is there something really problematic that happens where the only way a victim can be made whole is by murdering their perpetrator and that was just not true to our experiences. Instead the film is all about, the challenge of coping with residual trauma, how trauma is always there. You have to live with it every day and you’re brought back to it. It’s a sensory experience.
Dan Tabor: One thing I loved about Violation is how it explores what some may perceive as “gray areas” with sexual assaults, with the relationship between two close friends with some romantic intertanglings, but it still manages to feel very black and white in cause and effect. How much work was that to keep those lines clearly drawn and was that all settled in the script or was that something was came up in shooting and the edit as well?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: it was always very important for us for this not to be a film about just a hero and a villain — it was much more. We wanted to say something about how these kinds of bad things happen to people who are complicated and that doesn’t make it less bad what’s happened to them. So we knew that we wanted the sexual assault to be explicitly a sexual assault. We didn’t want there to be ambiguity there in terms of what is done to her is something that is awful. But then the way that she deals with it, the way that he deals with it, and their relationship prior to it, definitely, we wanted that to make things complicated because our experiences are complicated and life is complicated.
When you see films that make these kinds of situations completely black and white it’s easy to then, to see life as very black and white, and to approach someone who, you know, who’s been raped or assaulted or abused in those black and white terms. I think that we really hope that we’re creating or adding to a conversation about how do we deal with these things that are more complicated. For example, it was very important to us from the script stage that she kisses him by the fire and we definitely got the note many times to not have her do that. But for us it was important to say, yes, she does kiss him in that moment. She does have a lapse of judgment, but that’s not an invitation for rape.
Dan Tabor: I dug that even though this film kind of fits into the box of the rape/revenge film, the relationship between Greta and Miriam is the real fuel for Miriam to literally attempt to erase Dylan from existence. I was really curious about the sister dynamic in the film because I think it really captures the sibling relationship in a way we don’t always see on screen. Was there something you drew upon personally for that?
Dusty Mancinelli: That’s a great question. Yeah, that’s really the heart of the film. It’s really about these two sisters and what happens when the person in your life that you feel will be there for you, no matter what, isn’t. They don’t support you and then they betray you. It’s almost worse than what he does to her and I think that’s really interesting.
I have a brother and a sister, Madeline has two sisters. So I think we’re definitely drawing from real life, and I think this is also a through line in our work is familial relationships. What is the inner dynamics of family and how does that complicate and challenge the topic? A really pivotal scene in the film for us is the tool shed scene, because she leaves room for him. You know, she says we can work this out. So there’s this space, because it’s her friend, because they have this shared history there’s space there. But he doesn’t take it, he gaslights her and it’s very similar with the relationship with Greta. It’s like, there’s these moments where you can see the film could have gone a completely different direction. But what happens when the person in your life that is supposed to be there for you completely closes the door.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah. I think there’s something really interesting and truthful for me as a sibling, in the way that your sibling relationships are shaped when you’re a child. You see them in a very particular light, in a very particular way. You see them as being this type of person, and this is how they’re going to react and you have these conceptions of who they are. Then you move away and you become adults and quite often you change and you lose those things. But because that was kind of your formative years, you always see them that way. So there isn’t this room for them to be a new human being, they’re always that, that person, and it can make conflict incredibly difficult and painful.
Dan Tabor: Yeah. I thought it was really done how you did that with the timelines and how it kind of showed the relationship and how it fractured and how it eventually almost re-righted itself at the end with what happened. I have to applaud the use of male nudity here, and how you used it in what I will just call “Dylan’s scene”. Because that is most definitely Jesse (LaVercombe) and when it comes to transgressive cinema for some reason that male insecurity is always sort of glazed over with CGI or a prosthetic effect? I mean for Gaspar Noe Irreversible, which is like the height of transgressive rape/revenge cinema, he used a CGI penis? How did that scenario and how it played out come together from intention and planning to execution, because I applaud Jesse for going there, because that’s a huge subversion.
Dusty Mancinelli: I mean, that’s exactly it. When we were talking about that particular sequence and we were looking at past films, we were just so sick of seeing women being sexualized in these sequences. We wanted to show a scene where a woman is fully dressed, where she has the power, and she’s disempowering the man, by removing each article of clothing from him. What we’re not used to seeing, it’s not just the male nudity and I think this is really important, it’s the juxtaposition of the male nudity and his vulnerability and the association of violence toward him, which we’re just not used to and it’s really interesting the responses we’re getting. Because there’s people like you who really see the intention and what it’s kind of doing , but there are some viewers, men who are really incensed by it, but that’s kind of the point. It’s like we don’t bat an eye if we’re watching a film like this, and there’s a scantily clad woman running across the screen with a rifle.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Even I can think of several scenes in movies where women are being held at gunpoint or knife point, and they’re told to strip, and it’s kind of the exact same,
Dusty Mancinelli: It’s inverted. You’re inverting a trope that we’re just so used to seeing. And it’s shocking. It’s really startling, I think, but that’s the point.
I think in terms of Jesse, we were very lucky because we worked closely with him on two of our previous shorts. So we had built a foundation of trust and respect and transparency. When we brought him the script, we said, “Hey, before you read it, there’s full frontal male nudity. It’s really quite important to us that we’re and we’re producing it, so there’s no censored cut. This is the cut. So if that’s not something you’re interested in, don’t bother reading it.” But he’s an incredibly professional actor, and that didn’t bother him at all. I think for Jesse, it was all about how we can deepen the character, make it more complex and more intricate, so that we can challenge the audience.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Jesse is such a fearless actor, but also he’s so sensitive and thoughtful. I think he really approached the character with a deep sensitivity, that I think makes it so much more tragic. Yeah.
Dusty Mancinelli: Yeah and I mean, technically it just requires a lot of open conversations that are really matter of fact about, what’s being seen, when is it being seen? How is it being seen? I think it’s just a matter of having a, a safe space on set where everyone feels incredibly comfortable with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. But it was so essential to the story that we wanted to tell. It really elevates the whole film, because it forces you to confront your own individual bias of what you’re used to seeing and how you’re used to dealing with it. Even the fact that it shocks you, why does it shock you? Should it shock, and that’s interesting to us.
Dan Tabor: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of films in that genre and that definitely by far was shocking because the way it was handled and like the fact that you could tell it was him, the dynamic between the two actors and the way you guys played it. He just lost himself in those moments, which was great. So going into some mild spoilers, it’s a very methodical sort of situation Miriam has set up, how did you come up with that? And how much planning went into that? Because I don’t get squeamish often, but my skin was crawling when I was watching it. I also have to applaud practical effects, because they were seriously on point with that scene in particular.
Dusty Mancinelli: Thank you, we often talk and fantasize about the revenge that we’d like to enact and the great thing about being a creative writer is that you get to carry those out safely on the page. That’s what we will say.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah, just a lot of full out frank discussions about, how would you do that?
Dusty Mancinelli: How would you do it?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: This is how I would do it.
Dusty Mancinelli: Oh wait, I’ve already thought it through 20 steps ahead. That’s what helped me sleep that night. You know, I think there’s something really horrifying in how mundane it is too. You know, she’s using these everyday household items that suddenly have a new meaning to them. Because it’s not something you tend to think about when you think about when dismembering a body, a laundry detergent bottle. It wasn’t like we were searching for those images, we were just thinking about, okay, what is in your house, that is nondescript, that you can put in your trunk of your car and if you got pulled over by a cop and they happened to be suspicious, no one’s gonna bat an eye.
What I think is really important is the way the violence is kind of handled in the film. Though she’s doing this horrific thing, though it’s methodical, She’s planned it. She’s not prepared.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Not prepared…
Dusty Mancinelli: …mentally. Right. And it’s, you see the moment of doubt, you see the moment where she decides to rip off the bag, but it’s too late. She’s forced into it. You see the moment where she has to actually use her bare hands. It’s like, she didn’t want to physically have to do it and now she’s forced to, and then the moment where she vomits. So you see that she’s repulsed, she’s disgusted by her actions. It was really kind of important to us to try to humanize her in moment, where she’s losing her humanity.
Dan Tabor: Do you, do you know, if it will air on Shudder completely uncut? Is what we saw at Sundance, what’s on Shudder?
Dusty Mancinelli: That’s the plan.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer:Yes. I mean, from the moment that we first spoke to Shudder, they were so passionate about what was there and about preserving that and about just showing the movie as we intended.
Dan Tabor: So for Madeline, was it hard to leave that headspace of Miriam behind once you were done filming, cause that had to have been an insane sort of character to inhabit?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I mean, it really was, it took a few months, to completely leave that character behind. There was a moment where my dad came to set, and he was actually in the last scene. We shot a little bit more with him that didn’t make it into the final cut, but there was something about part of my real life, coming to the set, and being there that suddenly made me realize how deep into the character I’d gone and how disturbing and difficult the emotional places that I was in were to me. I was really, really upset that day. Normally I was able to kind of leave the character behind at dinner time and sit around with the crew and had dinner and it was all fine. But that day, it suddenly just hit me in a very personal way how deep I was going into that character, if that makes sense.
Dusty Mancinelli: It was interesting too, when you think about it, is that the last shot of the movie, is you looking at your actual sister? Right?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah my own sister is in the movie.
Dusty Mancinelli: That’s literally who she’s looking at in that moment, which is an interesting coincidence, because I don’t think we planned it that way.
Dan Tabor: Finally, what do you guys have lined up next? Are you going to do something lighter, like a romantic comedy to lighten things up a bit perhaps?
Dusty Mancinelli: Close!
You know, first of all, we’re, uh, you know, we see ourselves as a creative partnership, so we’re exclusively working together on everything and we’re writing a dark comedy that we’re really excited about. It’s very different than Violation.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: But again from really personal experiences.
Dusty Mancinelli: I think it’s about for us, we love so many different kinds of films and genres and the thing that hopefully will be, we’ll stay consistent in our work is that it will be visceral. It will hopefully surprise you and we’re really interested in relationships. So it’s the dynamics that really, we find so compelling and trying to just unpack the complexities of certain relationships.