"There's a Salem that exists in almost every state across America..." - hmv.com talks to Assassination Nation director Sam Levinson
Of all the dark chapters in the history of colonial America, the period which saw the Salem witch trials take place in Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693 must rank as one of the most notorious. Led by the Puritans of the protestant church, the trials which took place in Salem are regarded as the deadliest witch hunt in America's history, and with more than 200 accused and 19 executed for crimes of witchcraft and heresy, the story of Salem has become a cautionary tale against mass hysteria.
These days, most of us would probably like to think that we've left such hysterical behaviour behind us, but with the rise of targeted abuse on social media and in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which some of Hollywood's less enlightened figures have described as its own kind of 'witch hunt', director Sam Levinson sees some disturbing parallels with the story of the women accused in Salem and those subjected to all manner of harassment and persecution in modern times.
It's this idea which forms the basis of his new film Assassination Nation, which stars Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Abra and Hari Nef as four high school girls living in modern day Salem when a series of events causes the entire town to lose its collective mind.
When an unknown hacker steals the personal details of everyone living in the town, publishing hundreds of intimate photos and other information revealing its inhabitants' darkest secrets, an angry public starts looking for someone to blame, placing the four girls squarely in their sights.
With film making its arrival in UK cinemas this Friday (November 23rd), we spoke to Assassination Nation's writer-director Sam Levinson about his new movie...
So essentially the film is very loosely based on the story of the Salem witch trials, but a very modern take on it – how did that idea come about?
“Well, I wrote it just over two years ago and I think I was just trying to make sense of where we were headed as a country, and trying to unpack this growing sense of righteousness on all sides of the political, cultural and ideological spectrum. I think the only analogy that I could find in American history was the Salem witch trials, in terms of the pure hysteria that seemed to be growing and how it could lead to violence.”
It does feel like a very apposite film for the times we're living in. It's kind of framed as a black comedy, did you feel it was important to inject some humour to get a point across without the film becoming too weighty or preachy?
“Yeah, I mean I always write with a sort of humour I think, I always like humour in things because I think it's a part of life, no matter how bleak it gets, you know? The pitch for it, in short, was basically: 'imagine if the comments section came alive and started to kill everyone you know and love' - it's that crossed with the Salem witch trials. So even from its inception I was building a kind of humour into it because there's no way to look at what's happening in America right now without a certain kind of humour, because it's just too f***ing absurd.”
In terms of getting the film made, finding funding etc. - how did you find the experience of doing that in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement. Did you find people more receptive to making a film like this?
“Well, it was actually made way before that. I wrote it over two years ago and I finished shooting it almost a year and a half ago. So it wasn't until the picture was locked that the news about Harvey Weinstein and all that stuff actually broke. But I think that, in general, any time you try to make a movie that doesn't have major movie star cast, and also a movie that kind of defies genre in as many ways as this does, then it's always difficult to find financing for. We got very lucky in working with Bron Studios and Aaron Gilbert because they were down to take the leap with this one, because it's a challenging and kind of crazy movie.”
How did you go about finding the cast? Did you have anyone in mind when you wrote the script?
“I wrote this script without anyone in mind because I wanted it to be people that we had never really seen before, I wanted it to be a largely unknown cast in terms of the four girls. I mean, granted, there are some recognisable faces in there, for sure, but there's something about the anonymity of Lily and finding someone who we didn't have an preconceptions about. So the casting was long and intensive, but I think as soon as we found Odessa Young I knew that she could carry this film, and then it was just about assembling this group of friends that you'd really believe have each others' backs until the end, creating a chemistry and a friendship that's real and palpable. That the stuff that's hard to fake.”
It was filmed in New Orleans, right? How did you go about choosing the location?
“Well, there was always this idea of Salem being a kind of loose concept, that there's a Salem that exists in almost every state across America, that Salem could be anywhere. So it was about building a world that felt like it could be a sort of Anytown, USA. I didn't want it to become something that was too specific to a particular area. So it was more about finding the individual locations that allowed us to shoot it the way we wanted to shoot it, and in a way that we could play with the production design and the lighting to create a kind of reality that these girls wish they could live in, as opposed to this sort of gritty, normal kids kind of reality.
This is your second feature film as director, were there any things you learned from your experience on Another Happy Day that you were able to bring to this project? Did you approach anything differently?
“Yeah, very much so in the sense that Another Happy Day was very formal in its construction, in terms of the language of the way it was shot and unfolds, it's not unlike a play i that sense. With this film, from the outset it was: 'How can I play with the structure? How can I play with technique? How can I push the visuals and create a film that's indicative of the kind of rapid fire emotional volatility of the internet right now?'
“You know, when you wake up in the morning and you're looking through Twitter, you're looking through your feed and it's like 'here's a cat video, here's a shooting, here's a story about a stolen election', all within the space of a few minutes. And it's like: 'What genre is that?' So I wanted to create something that could compete with the pacing of that. Our phones are so much closer to our faces than movie screens, so going into we were asking ourselves how we could create something that's both cinematic and visually rich enough that it feels like something you can't take your eyes off.”
Are you the kind of director that encourages improvisation? Sometimes writer-directors can be a little more prescriptive than if they're directing a film where the script is written by someone else, do you find yourself doing that?
“I love improv, and I love actors' feedback. In general I tend to write characters that aren't me but they're reflections of me in different bodies, or different ages and things, so part of what I always do is I write a script and I get it to a certain point, then I sit down with the actors that I cast and we have a lot of conversations about life and the character and various things. Then I'll always do a re-write based on those conversations, to bring it closer to who they are as a person. It gives it a little bit more authenticity and at the same time it gives that actor a little bit more ownership of the character, which I think always results in a better performance.”
Assassination Nation is in UK cinemas from Friday November 23rd and will be available to pre-order in our online store the same day.