In conversation with FrightFest about his sophomore feature ASSASSINATION NATION, director Sam Levinson reflected on his uncertainty as to how he could not reflect on contemporary America, and presenting a snapshot of a generation deprived of choice.
High school senior Lily (Odessa Young) and her group of friends live in a social media haze. When an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, events spiral out of control. As Lily and her friends become victims of the mass hysteria, they are faced with the terrifying reality of not surviving the night.
FrightFest: Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Sam Levinson: would say because there is nothing in my life, particularly as a young person that had a greater impact on my ability to see the world from different perspectives; to see new ideas that thrilled me, scared me or made me cry more than cinema. I watched one if not several movies a day [laughs] for as long or since as young as I can remember. In many ways it has just always felt like the only means of expression or communication.
FF: What are your first memories of discovering exploitation film, and how has the experience of making ASSASSINATION NATION impacted your impression of this type of cinema?
SL: The first time I ever saw an exploitation film was when I was eleven years old, and my mother naively had more of an innocent memory of PINK FLAMINGOS. I was kind of a weird out there kid and she said: “I think you'd love this movie called PINK FLAMINGOS, it’s really fun.” When she took me to the video store and she picked up the box, I saw that it was NC-17, and I thought to myself: Oh my God, she has no idea that it's NC-17. I was so excited because I had never seen an NC-17 movie before and I remember it was the longest walk from literally the shelf to the clerk, and it was this thing of: Is he going to say something? He’s like: “PINK FLAMINGOS?” And she's like: “Yeah, it's a fun movie.” They’re talking and he's ringing it up and I'm thinking: Please don't say anything. He didn’t say anything and I took the movie back home, went into a room and closed the door. I put it in the VHS, turned the sound low and I watched PINK FLAMINGOS for the first time.
I just remember thinking: Holy shit! You are allowed to do anything you want in film. It's like there are no boundaries or limits to any aspect of it. It was this shocking, eye opening experience that filled me with so much excitement - it was so outside of the bounds of anything I had ever seen before. I remember watching it five times over the course of those two days before we had to return the video, and I think that's what led me down this route of cult and exploitation film. Ultimately I worked at a video store for several years in which I went through everything, but one of the exciting aspects of cult and exploitation films in general is the limitless aspect of expression, and the ability to confront audiences. And in particular, in how it relates to this story, I wanted to make an exploitation film about exploitation. I wanted it to be about a group of teenagers that are consistently objectified and psychologically pushed around by society at large, until they ultimately fulfil those superhero-esque roles of an exploitation film. Someone like DELINQUENT GIRL BOSS, or they become a girl gang, characters who are fighting for their survival.
FF: Picking up on your point about the provocative nature of exploitation cinema, a film such as ASSASSINATION NATION is exploring themes of the hyperbolic nature of society and the hypocrisy of righteousness. In as much as you confront your audience on an emotional level, there is also a thoughtful form of provocation.
SL: Look, as an American citizen right now, it's difficult at this point in time to write or make films without dealing with who we are as a country. I don't know how to do it, and it’s ultimately an emotional and frightening time. Part of what has always been interesting about exploitation films is their use of fantasy. You look at the fantasy and the symbolism of revenge, power and guns, and in movies like MS. 45 there's a certain element to them that is cathartic. So what I wanted to do was to loop this film into the very real life anxieties of being a teenager right now, of dealing with and navigating social media and the internet, this consistent feeling of being judged and having to measure up, and of the shame and mob mentality. But through the lens of fantasy and exploitation so that we could in fact at a certain point leave reality, and move into this world that can be cathartic. This was the design of the film from even the script stage, to create something that mirrors or mimics the emotional volatility of being online right now. Of waking up in the morning and reading your Twitter feed and seeing a cat video, a shooting and a thing about electoral interference, and all within the span of about three or four minutes. What genre is that? I often think about what genre we are living in right now, and it is this mix of comedy, drama, tragedy, absurdism, horror and pure exploitation. So in some ways it felt like the only truthful way I could tell the story arc of these four girls.
FF: In terms of being provocative, the characters are not necessarily likeable from the outset, yet one gradually comes to connect with them. One almost has to be patient and allow their story arc to unfold, before that all important connection occurs as a consequence of our sympathy or empathy, or an interest in them as characters.
SL: Yeah, well it's interesting because I wanted to in some ways play with the audiences complicity in judging them. Sometimes they can be insightful, sometimes they can be superficial and catty, and sometimes they can be really thoughtful and heartfelt about things. That’s just part of life as a teenager and what's interesting about their journey, or hearing that take on their journey is that ultimately you come to in some way empathise with their struggle, and with the world they are trying to navigate. I hope the film says and does allow us to have an empathy, irrespective of their beliefs or opinions, the mistakes they make, or the things they do that they like or dislike.
It’s also true that they are part of this generation and they didn't choose this world. They didn’t choose this system nor their Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. All these things were there when they got here, so there's no ability to disconnect from it unless they are going to disconnect from life in general. If you are a teenager and you are in High School, so much of what happens in a given day happens online, and it is hard not to be sucked into your phone. So I think it's about how difficult it is to be a teenager these days and part of the design of it is they can be hard to relate to at times, unless you are of that very specific generation. Or even if you are, maybe you are still not crazy about them. But by the end of the film I think you understand their struggle and you care about them, and can see how they have each others backs and see what they are up against.
ASSASSINATION NATION is released by Universal and in cinemas 23 November 2018.