If you’d have told film critics five years ago (or maybe even just last year) that a rape-and-revenge film released in 2018 would be lauded as a feminist triumph, many probably would’ve told you that was wishful thinking.
And yet, here we are, awash in think pieces that proclaim French writer-director Coralie Fargeat’s feature debut, Revenge, to be an exemplary moviemaking achievement of the burgeoning #MeToo/#TimesUp era. It’s telling that when I saw the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the person I struck up a chat with before the lights went down told me that gory genre films weren’t at all her thing—and yet, as we piled out of the theater, she was lit up with excitement by quite possibly the bloodiest film to screen at the entire fest. How is a film that belongs to a subgenre that’s niche even in most hardcore horror fan circles flexing such crossover appeal?
It could be that the narrative twists and turns Fargeat’s screenplay deploys in a pulsating, rhythmic cadence carefully subvert cinema’s predominantly male gaze. With its clever male and female character revelations, Revenge manages to eclipse most contemporary films’ trite outlook on what constitutes female “empowerment” in situations superficially similar to what Matilda Lutz’s Jennifer faces. What Jennifer’s survival of sexual assault unleashes, here, is her innate strength—a force that borders on the supernatural—rather than a kind of strength that so many rape-and-revenge films throughout film history have imagined women can only “grow into” after they’ve endured sexual violence. (Because my own gaze is male by default, I’ll leave this up to women viewers to decide with greater certainty.)
Apart from Revenge‘s intriguing gender and sexual politics, what shines through are Fargeat’s clear feel for the heft and weight of expertly crafted action sequences, absurdist sense of timing that steers the horrific into the realm of the comedic, and discerning visual design that makes star attractions of neon-tinted wardrobe accessories, dust-blown cat-and-mouse chases, and an all-white living room that, when soaked in gallons of blood, turns into a sanguinary Slip ‘N Slide.
MovieMaker sat down with Fargeat at L.A.’s House of Pies to discuss how she managed the creative and logistical challenges of her first feature, shooting in the Moroccan desert, writing with her editing choices already in mind, earning the trust of investors early in her career, and more.
Max Weinstein, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What’s refreshing about Revenge is that the film never uses the act of rape to degrade or humiliate. That’s something often seen in the rape-and-revenge subgenre—that the so-called “horror” comes from the debasement of the female lead. But here, the rape is present more as a catalyst for a complex chain of events. Going into development of the film, were you conscious of the messy history of the rape-and-revenge subgenre and seeking to comment on it in any way? Or were you just focused on the story you wanted to tell?
Coralie Fargeat (CF): I was aware of the rape-and-revenge subgenre, but it was not at all the direction I wanted to go in. I haven’t even seen I Spit On Your Grave. My intention was to make a revenge movie, more than rape-and-revenge. My inspirations were much closer to revenge movies like Kill Bill, Rambo, Mad Max where it’s more about the birth of a hero who is at first a victim and is going to grow throughout the film, set in a phantasmagoric universe that takes the story elsewhere. The rape isn’t the main element. It’s the most violent, maybe—the most extreme. I used it as a symbol of all of the violence that can be done to this woman because she is a woman—presenting herself a certain way, playing with her sensuality. I wanted to make the movie wider than just the rape element, and deal with the rape in a symbolic way. That’s also why the desert was an important element: It was a way to take the characters out of reality and it functioned as a mirror to their states of mind. I like to play with all those elements, create something between reality and total phantasmagory. For me that was the origin of the movie—the unrealistic visual aspects.
MM: The film’s desert location plays up the hunter/hunted metaphor, which initially begins with Jennifer, the Matilda Lutz character, being the prey, and then inverts that. What were both the logistic and creative challenges of shooting in the Moroccan desert?
CF: Finding the location was a big issue. We had to find the villa, the desert, and the water in the same country. I loved the idea of not being able to recognize exactly where the desert is. I was looking for landscapes that could be filmed in a way that kind of bends reality. That was an important aspect for me when we started scouting. We finally found the locations in Morocco. The villa has this empty landscape in front of it. It’s so silent, very striking. There is a small village in the background, but we didn’t film it, to create the sense that the characters in the film are totally alone.
On our budget, we couldn’t build something with fake rocks, so we shot the cave in a real cave. Logistically speaking, it was a nightmare. It’s cold, it’s wet, there’s dust everywhere, it’s very humid. For the crew and for Matilda, it was very tough to shoot in the real cave. All of the crew was wearing winter clothes—big parkas, coats, boots—and Matilda had to be in a bathing suit. The location added something on-screen, but it was very tough for her and the crew.
For me, being in the desert was one of my favorite parts of shooting because you’re in very remote landscapes with nothing around. You’re on the top of a mountain with everyone carrying gear, climbing hills. You have your lunch breaks on the rocks in the middle of the desert. You’re far from everyday life. Even if it’s difficult, the crew sticks together. All you have to bring there—cars, tents, trailers, the FX guys who need all their ingredients to make the blood—it’s like you’ve built a small village in the middle of nowhere. No one is returning home at the end of the day. You’re all out there together for six weeks, with the actors, blood, and fake dead bodies. All of this is the magic of the experience.
MM: That’s part of the adventure and excitement of moviemaking. But, this being your first feature, not being able to count on the comfort of returning home each night could also intensify high-pressure working conditions. How did you foster solidarity on set and with your crew?
CF: Your first movie is always hard to get everything you want. You have to make choices all the time and it’s a challenge to make the right choices—what to focus on, what to cut, how to spend your money. Only the director has the whole picture in their mind. The director can form a mental picture of the images with the sound the way they want it, the way in which it can be edited, the music they want to set the rhythm. The crew only understands partial elements. The sound guy is going to think about the sound of the scene we’re shooting, the DP is going to think about the image of the shot were making, but neither is going to think about the whole process. For me, it’s all about getting everybody to follow your intention and your direction even if, at any given moment, they don’t understand and can’t picture everything.
When you don’t have a lot of time and money, some scenes are shot very quickly without time to explain to everyone the “why” and the “what.” That can be very tough. When it’s your first feature, some people think they know better. At some point, it’s your job to make those decisions, follow your instincts, and have everyone come with you to join your vision. What makes a movie successful is when it’s a vision someone has in mind, and that person makes choices and sticks with them. It can go wrong at any point, and at every stage it can be diluted. If you’re listening to everybody’s opinion, it becomes a soup without a real personality. For me, that’s the toughest part on set: You have to open the road yourself.
Every shoot is different. Each time, you have issues you have to fight for. You have actors you won’t get along with. Some members of the crew will be problematic. You’ll lose a location. Some days, something you were waiting for will never arrive. You have to deal with these realities. You’re never going to have enough money, or time, on a project of any scale. There are things that are going to go wrong, but what’s important is your ability to find solutions and discover ideas different than your original ones that will still be faithful to what you want to do. I prepare for this while writing—thinking about the way I want to shoot things, thinking about my editing in advance.
MM: Since you write with your editing scheme in mind, how would you describe the tension between cuts that are premeditated in your screenplay and edits that shape your film in unforeseen ways after you’ve shot the material?
CF: I like to say that what I’m doing while shooting is giving life to my obsession. Some directors like to improvise a lot, don’t think about editing at all when they shoot, don’t do storyboards, and don’t prep a lot. I prepare a lot, it’s my way of working. The more you know yourself, the more you can polish your craft from film to film. For Revenge, and in general, my editing closely mirrors what I initially have in mind and in my script. In movies that rely on a lot of action, there’s not a lot of dialogue. It’s about rhythm, and which rhythm is going to work for the scene. A movie I love for this is Steven Spielberg’s Duel. It’s amazing because it focuses on nothing but a car and a truck, and manages to keep your attention and its tension for more than an hour. I love to play with very few elements that can be used powerfully to keep building and building with a kind of grating stress. To succeed at that, I think you have to be able to think about the editing in the writing—being able to know, “Why is this scene tense?”
I also write while listening to music. That’s an important part of establishing the rhythm of a scene. With Revenge, I knew I wanted something very hypnotic, electronic, and something that would go in circles— something repetitive that would drive you crazy. Sometimes you shoot a scene exactly the way you wanted to, but it doesn’t work in the edit, and you might not totally know why. It’s three very different processes: There’s the process of the writing, the process of the shooting, and then the edit. You have to be able to kill some of the ideas from your script while shooting.
MM: Is that killing of your darlings you’re talking about something you found you could prepare for as well?
CF: No. There are always things I learn I would have done differently, having had the experience of having done them. But what’s good in the writing process is to not think too much—not to be too aware. Of course I’m aware of the length of things, how long certain scenes or shots would take. But you need to have a certain area of freedom where you’re not going to censor yourself. You have to keep dreaming, imagining crazy stuff. Maybe that stuff is going to be very expensive, but you can usually figure out a way to do it anyway. If you start out writing too logically and realistically, you cut the creativity of the film. In the writing, I keep this freedom. That’s also why the first feature is very spiritual: It’s creating from nothing.
After what I learned on Revenge, I’m better at being able to tell what’s going to work and what you’re going to trash. Editing is the process of digestion, of giving birth. It takes time to find your movie, and you’re going to have as many outside opinions as there are viewers. During the editing process, I don’t like many people to watch the different cuts of the film. Sometimes there is no “truth”—only what you want to do and what someone else would do. For instance, the foot scene, when Vincent Colombe takes a piece of glass out of his foot… Everyone during the editing process said, “Cut that thing, it’s too long, make it shorter. We get it!” But I felt that what’s interesting about the scene is that it’s long. This guy becomes obsessed with taking the glass out.
MM: At the screening I was at, that scene got the strongest reactions by far—groans, laughter, yells…
CF: Yeah! It’s not for nothing that, during the edit, everyone was telling me to do one thing, yet I felt there was something there that I should keep. Everyone gives their opinions according to their agenda. Financiers are going to think about money. Producers are going to think about selling the movie for international sales: “The shorter the movie is, the easier it is to sell.” The responsibility of the director is to only think about his or her own agenda. Of course you listen to good advice to improve the movie, but your job as a director is to preserve what no one else but you can preserve.
MM: Speaking of financiers, in a recent interview, you said that you felt that moviemakers only have credibility in the eyes of investors once they’ve made something. What advice would you offer to independent moviemakers on how to earn investors’ trust—be it in meetings, pitching, building your portfolio, or networking?
CF: It’s a great question because it’s something I learned from my experience and from other filmmakers’ experience as well. The first movie is the toughest. More and more people want to make movies, and there is a lot of competition. Be logical in the choice of your first feature. If you’ve never directed a movie, it’s probably not good to write a space opera that’s going to cost $250 million. No one is going to trust you to make that movie as your first feature. As filmmakers and writers, we all make those mistakes at the beginning—thinking too big, not being conscious enough of how the industry works and how producers and financiers choose a director or a movie to fund. My colleagues and I didn’t know at the time how to make a feature, but we decided, rather than complain about the industry, that we would get to know how the industry functions, and choose better projects. We created a group, gathered once every two weeks, and invited people from the industry—producers, screenwriters, people from networks. We learned how they work, where they come from, why they choose a project, what’s important when they work with directors. What are their successes, failures? Doing this for a few years, once every two weeks, gave us a better picture of reality and the ingredients we needed to include to give our projects the best chances of success.
I wanted my first feature to be a genre film, and in France, that’s kind of impossible. Those kind of movies are not really done in France, it’s very difficult. I knew I had to do a short film that could allow a financier to trust that I could make a feature in a similar vein. That helped Revenge get financed. I knew I had to work with producers that would trust the project and really fight for it. I knew producers who were interested in discovering new directors. Solidarity between filmmakers is a great help in getting better, making more friends, and having all the ingredients to make your project happen. MM
Revenge opened in theaters May 11, 2018, courtesy of Neon and Shudder.