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Resurrection director didn’t want the horror movie to be “sadistic”

Resurrection director Andrew Semans tells us about not punishing his protagonist in the thriller movie, and the "dignity" Rebecca Hall brought to the film

Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

In Resurrection, the new psychological horror movie from director Andrew Semans, a woman is terrorised by a sadist and former who’s decided to re-enter her life. As appealling as that might sound, even then it’s reductive what goes on in the disquieting thriller movie starring Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth.

Carrying on from last year’s ghost movie The Night House, Hell delivers another beguiling performance as Margaret, a single mother who will do whatever’s necessary to keep her teenage daughter safe. When Roth’s David appears after over a decade, Margaret’s defences are tested by his ability to squirm under her skin.

The resulting feature is a portrait of narcissism and sadism dismantling someone’s life. Despite a lack of gore and explicitly obscene visuals, Resurrection is no less difficult to watch, especially for those who understand all to well the dynamics at play. We sat down with Semans to chat the underlying concepts, the stunning performances, and what he wanted to convey in the ethereal ending.

TDF: Resurrection resists simple description. What was your elevator pitch for the drama movie?

Andrew Semans: God, I think I’ve intentionally forgotten it. I was hoping that at this stage, I would never have to deliver the elevator pitch again. So I can’t remember – it was probably something, ‘It’s the story of a successful single mother, whose life is very much under control, who is visited by a sinister figure from her past who begins appearing randomly in her environment in public places, and the return of this person fills her with terror, and gradually, she comes to believe that she must stalk him, contained him and ultimately killed him to protect herself and her child from harm’.

But see that’s a bad elevator pitch. That’s a bad little synopsis, because it doesn’t really get at what is fun about the movie, it makes it sound very generic. But I probably said something like that. That’s a pretty shitty answer to your question, because I should be trying to sell the movie rather than talking about how I’ve got a bad pitch.

No, I can totally imagine that in the run up to it that it would maybe be a little bit more succinct.

No, never succinct. Brevity is not my strong suit, I’m afraid!

Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

I understand that your script was on the Hollywood blacklist for a while, and there was interest from others producers. Were there any false starts before the version of the movie that came to be? Or was it just a case that people wanted to make it from the off?

Oh, no, I mean, it took a while to get made, the project had the the same core, few producers from the very beginning, and that was well before it was on the blacklist. Its appearance on the blacklist certainly helped raise its profile and legitimise the project, but it wasn’t the catalyst to get it going. We had been working for a while to try and get it off the ground.

Like so many low budget independent films, it took a long time to get it together, to get our package together to raise the money. Being on the blacklist was something definitely that was a benefit to the project, but it wasn’t the thing, it wasn’t a particular catalyst. The thing that really got the project going is was Rebecca coming on board, once Rebecca was was was attached in the lead role, suddenly that the project took on a much greater degree of viability.

On Rebecca Hall’s performance, outstanding is the only word I can think for it. It’s incredible. She seems so committed to the material, and she really brings this psychology to it. What did she bring to the character that maybe wasn’t already on the page?

You know, I’ve been asked this question before and I’m not great at answering it because what struck me so much about her performance, and her general presence, her general way of being, is how precisely it conformed with the character on the page.

It felt to me at the time and feels to me even more so now that this character is a perfect fit between character and performer. Her intensity, her intelligence, her ferocity, her vulnerability, all these things that she brings at the same time to role after role after role just was mapped on so precisely to this role.

Tim Roth and Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

I think one thing that she brought to it, this didn’t come as any surprise, but it is something that I think makes it such a special performance is she brought to this character, indeed all her characters, she brought this tremendous sense of dignity.

This is a character who is in incredible distress through most of the movie, who is on a downward spiral, who is potentially losing her mind. It’s very easy to play it in a very broad way, or in a way that feels like it’s trivialising the experience, especially as things go really haywire.

But Rebecca has such a powerful sense of dignity, she’s someone who just commands respect, and bringing that dignity to every frame of the film, to every section of the film, gives it so much more weight and credibility and lends so much more sympathy to the character than I think that many other actors would. It’s such a gift to the movie; again, not a surprise, because she does this all the time, but something that just really elevated the script and really elevated the project.

Talking about the dignity there, something that’s remarkable is that even when her character is undergoing these very traumatic events, she’s in a part doing this agonising contortion for hours on end. you never lose the sense that she’s doing this because she beleives she’s protecting her family. The movie never becomes about her suffering.

It’s very important for us, although this is a movie about a woman who has suffered and is suffering and is in a state of emotional and sometimes physical extremis through-out the movie or throughout a lot of the movie, not to make it feel like an exercise in some kind of suffering porn. Just watching scene after scene in some sort of gratuitous or exploitative manner, watching scene after scene of someone endure pain, but she is experiencing a lot of emotional and attempts physical pain.

So what we tried to do is at no point linger on her suffering, and beyond anything that was that was really absolutely necessary to convey what we wanted to convey. We would just try and communicate what was absolutely needed for the scene or for the beat or for the story and get out so it didn’t feel like our intentions were sadistic.

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This is a story about a sadist to a certain degree. David, the bad guy in the movie is absolutely a sadist. But as filmmakers, we are not sadistic, and I didn’t want to punish my protagonist unduly and I certainly didn’t want to punish the audience. I’m not interested in trying to get people to sit through something really grueling. That holds no pleasure for me. It’s just a matter of trying to depict these things in a measured, controlled, and non-gratuitous manner.

Can you tell me about Tim Roth’s performance? He balances this thing of, at first, David acting like he’s not the guy she’s looking for, but he makes it clear it is him, but the movie never quite gets extremely explicit that he is exactly who she thinks he is, or it’s just as she sees the guy she thinks he is, she sees the guy from her past in him.

Well, to my mind, David is the man from her past, and he has returned, and that’s a fact. The movie has plenty of ambiguity in it, but I wasn’t trying to create any mystery around whether this guy is actually a man from her past or a fantasy or a projection or that she was imbuing some other person with these traumatic memories.

You know, I mean, if you want to kind of look at it that way, and that’s interesting to you, by all means, but to me, David is, is very much a real person, and very much someone who has returned after two decades into this woman’s life, to try and resume control of her and her life and her body, and every element of her.

The way it’s designed in the movie, we felt that, David had to re-insinuate himself into her life, very, very slowly and very, very gradually. If he showed up on her doorstep, with a bouquet of flowers, or if he grabbed her out of the blue one day, she would immediately fight back with everything she had.

He needed to find a way to somehow slither back into her consciousness in some insidious way to kind of gradually poison her mind with a sense that he has returned, and he has returned with a malevolent intent, and that he’s capable of doing almost anything, and yet he couldn’t do anything that was overtly threatening, or anything that was illegal.

Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

So his MO is to be very, very gradual and very, very passive. One thing that I think is interesting about the David character is that he’s an incredibly passive villain. He does for much of the movie, almost nothing. He doesn’t lay a hand on Margaret, and he makes no overt threats. But he does just enough to make her think that he’s capable of doing something terrible.

And then, of course, when she is aggressive towards him, then he gives himself permission to be aggressive in return. But the idea was that he had to become just a figure of her obsession by being nearly present, and that obsession would compel her to follow him, to be consumed by him, and then she would, through her actions, start the process of reintegration into his world and into his way of thinking.

The movie made me think about times I’ve encountered people like David, which was fascinating for me.

Yeah, I think anybody who’s known a person like this, a malignant narcissist – a sociopath, and most of us have encountered these people – the thing about them is that they don’t present as such. They’re working very, very hard to seem normal and charming. They want to build your trust; they want to be seductive. People who are manipulative or abusive want you on their wavelength.

So they’re not going to come to you like a villain, like an evil person. They generally construct a personality that is very approachable and very charming if they can. It was important to us that David seem like a normal man, like a non-threatening man, and I know Tim Roth was very interested in doing this, in playing him as someone who is really working to cover up, to gloss over, to normalise all these aspects of yourself that are truly toxic, truly sinister, very, very dangerous. But it also just felt more realistic, it also felt scarier to us.

Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

I think Resurrection ends right at the perfect point, where it leaves just enough obscurity that you really feel like you’ve gone through something with Rebecca Hall’s character, and it falls in line with other recent A24 movies like Saint Maud, Midsommar, as well as Censor. Would agree with that comparison? And what did you want to achieve with the conclusion?

You know, I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t seen Saint Maud, and what was the second film you mentioned? Censor?

Censor. Possibly a bigger movie in Britain than it might have been in America?

Yeah, I’m afraid I’m not familiar with it. I’ve certainly seen Midsommar which is a film I love. You know, I don’t want to compare this to other movies, especially movies I haven’t seen but I can speak about the ending certainly. The ending is intentionally ambiguous. The movie, and the third act moves in a fairly extreme direction, it shifts genres to some degree, and it blurs the line between reality and fantasy or hallucination. But we wanted to leave it up to the viewer to determine for themselves what they felt was the most satisfying interpretation of events; what was real, and what was not real.

I thought – and still think – that’s exciting and interesting if it feels emotionally and psychologically earned and if it’s dramatically satisfying. What we see in the climax, in the epilogue, is something that is, to me, the perfect ending for the movie, a perfectly reasonable emotional ending to the movie. It’s the end. It’s a perfect happy ending for the character, and it was very important for me.

After putting this protagonist through everything she goes through in this movie, it was very important for me to depict her catharsis, to depict her get everything that she desired because it just felt so cruel not to do so that I needed to put on screen, what to her would be heaven.

Whether it’s the reality or whether it is a fantasy, a wish-fulfilment dream, a death dream, it doesn’t matter. what matters to me is this character is finally granted everything she desired. So you can see it as a very happy ending or a very tragic ending. But it hopefully is an ending that feels like it completes her journey, and closes the book on it in a way where where she finally has some measure of satisfaction and self-love.

Resurrection is available on digital in the UK now.