In Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s debut feature film, VIOLATION, we meet Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) as her marriage is about to implode and she has returned to her hometown to seek solace in the comfort of her younger sister and brother-in-law. But one evening a tiny slip in judgment leads to a catastrophic betrayal, leaving Miriam shocked, reeling, and furious. Believing her only recourse is to exact revenge, Miriam takes extreme action, but the price of retribution is high, and she is not prepared for the toll it takes as she begins to emotionally and psychologically unravel.
For the SXSW Premiere of the film, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to chat with Co-Directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli about VIOLATION where we discussed everything from how the film is a cautionary tale, the price of revenge, and more.
TW: Interview contains subject matter surrounding rape/sexual violence
If it’s not too personal to ask, how did this story come to be?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: The story did come from a personal place for both of us. It was born out of when we met at the TIFF Talent Lab where we were both directors on our own stuff independently. We became friends really quickly and, through our friendship, we started to share similar stories of abuse in our past, and that kind of emboldened us to tell this story. We made a few shorts together and our shorts kind of skirted around the edge of these themes and we were beginning to dip our toes in and then each short got a little bolder and revealed a bit more about ourselves. VIOLATION is really kind of the culmination of everything we wanted to say about trauma.
Dusty Mancinelli: For us, we were really focused on trying to create a visceral experience for the audience that captures the post-traumatic stress that the body goes through, specifically with residual trauma. We love revenge films and we wanted to do something different within that space. We noticed that when we were thinking about our own fantasies that are so tantalizing when you think about wanting to enact revenge on someone we were far more interested in looking at the consequences of revenge. So within the rape-revenge genre subset, you have the cathartic wish-fulfillment release. It’s really sensational and almost glorified like we celebrate the revenge at the very end. We wanted to instead look at what is the toll that it takes on someone’s morality, on someone’s emotional, psychological underpinning. Instead, just focus on that and that’s why the act of revenge is in the middle of the film. That’s why the film itself is not glorifying. It’s designed in a way to scare you into not wanting to seek revenge because you can see it’s not fruitful. The other thing we noticed within the rape-revenge genre is there’s something really problematic about this idea that a victim can only be made whole by murdering their perpetrator. So for us, it’s not about being made whole it’s about recognizing that trauma is something you constantly have to deal with. It doesn’t go away.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: To add to that idea, there’s something very limiting, as a woman, I think, about the idea that sexual violence is the worst thing that can happen to you ever and once it happens you will never be whole again, you’ll never be a person again unless you can get rid of this person that’s done it. There’s just something about that that both of us wholeheartedly reject.
Dusty Mancinelli: It’s just disempowering. We were more inspired by Greek tragedies in the sense that it’s a cautionary tale where Miriam doesn’t learn the lesson in time, but we as the audience can safely, vicariously live through it.
What I found to be so powerful about VIOLATION was how our lead, Miriam, is a flawed person and the way in which those types of people are treated when they speak out about sexual violence. It’s a reminder that this can happen to anyone. Was that important for you both to showcase?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: One of the criticisms that’s been leveled at the film is that Miriam is unlikable. It was, of course, something we thought about. We were not blind to the fact that she is not the most likable character. But some of our favorite characters, and personally my favorite characters in movies growing up, are highly unlikable. Harvey Keitel’s character in Bad Lieutenant was one of my favorite movies and he’s an asshole, but you are still rooting for him. You’re still interested in his story and you’re still invested in it because he’s deeply flawed and there’s something in him that wants connection. Although he’s doing all these horrific, stupid, awful things, there’s still that one part of him that wants to be good. And I don’t think that there’s very much room, at the moment, for female characters that are that nuanced. What we typically see [are] women who are all virtuous or women who are pure evil.
Dusty Mancinelli: For us, showing that this kind of assault can happen to anyone and that doesn’t make it any less horrible should be obvious but it’s not, unfortunately. We were very conscious because it could have been easy to make Miriam likable, right? And it would have made our work easier in getting the audience to sympathize with her. But the challenge is actually getting an audience to empathize with someone who feels very human, who is flawed and complex and there’s a line in the film that I think really sums it up: medium shitty.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: On the opposite end of the seesaw as well is Dylan’s character who does a horrific thing but hopefully is quite likable through the first half of the film where he’s very affable and charming and sweet.
Dusty Mancinelli: And then you feel betrayed as an audience because we made you like him. That’s what it’s like when you’re assaulted by someone close to you, someone that you trust, someone that you care about.
Speaking of Dylan, there’s a pivotal moment in VIOLATION between Miriam and Dylan where the audience is lead to believe one thing is going to happen, and instead, something completely different unfolds. Furthermore, I loved the use of his nudity and the vulnerability it provided. Can you talk about preparing for a scene like that?
Dusty Mancinelli: Yeah definitely. It was always important for us to flip the trope on its head. We’re so used to seeing women who are scantily clad and sexualized in these scenes. And it’s really shocking, even though it shouldn’t be, seeing a woman fully dressed and disempowering a man as well as the juxtaposition of the nudity with his vulnerability and the violence that’s about to happen to him. I think that’s also what’s quite pivotal. We were very fortunate that we had developed a really strong relationship with Jesse LaVercombe, who plays Dylan, over the course of many years making shorts together so we had built a really strong foundation of trust and respect. When we wrote the script and we knew that that sequence of how we wanted to shoot it was really important to us, we were just very transparent with Jesse upfront and we said, “Hey, look, there’s full-frontal male nudity if that’s not something you’re open to, don’t bother reading it.” But he’s a trained professional. He’s very fearless.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: These are the kind of roles that he loves. Jesse is the opposite of the characters that he has played in our films. He’s been in three of our films and he’s always this kind of repulsive character (laughs). What’s so great about it is he just really wants to understand the motivation of the character and to kind of deepen his insight and his empathy for these people who he is absolutely nothing like.
Dusty Mancinelli: We had also developed a strong relationship with our cinematographer, Adam Crosby, who shot all of our short films. When we were on set together there’s a lot of sensitivity. There’s a closed set, only the people that have to be there are there, but we’re all familiar with each other because we work together. There’s a friendship or respect and trust and really the most important thing is a constant communication and transparency in a way that’s very matter of fact and clinical so that everyone understands what’s happening when it’s happening, why it’s happening. Once you create that real safe space for someone then Jesse can feel completely comfortable being vulnerable and I think that’s really what it took. I can’t imagine having to do something like that with someone we didn’t know because it would’ve been so many more obstacles to overcome. But because we had that solid foundation to begin with it made it much easier to create that space.
I had read that you wanted the film to have a fairy tale quality to it which is really interesting up against the juxtaposition of sexual violence. What was the reasoning behind doing that?
Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We wanted it to feel like a fable and like a cautionary tale and almost that feeling that fairytales have where they’re relevant no matter what, there’s a timelessness to it where it feels like this could be happening now or it could be happening in 50 years or a hundred years ago, and there’s still an emotional truth and a social truth and relevance to it.
Dusty Mancinelli: And there’s an inherent tragedy in those fables that we were compelled by, so it felt really appropriate.