Action Assassination Nation

‘Assassination Nation’ Writer/Director Sam Levinson and Stars Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra on Making the Film

September 21, 2018Ben MK

Though we often look at social media as a form of entertainment, it is ultimately a tool — and like any tool, it can be made to serve both good and nefarious intentions.

Take for example, Assassination Nation, which follows four teens who find themselves the target of online vitriol and real-world violence, after someone in their small town of Salem leaks the very personal, very private information of half the town's citizens, from the mayor to the principal of the local high school. Forced into a literal kill-or-be-killed scenario, this foursome must defend themselves, with bloody and oftentimes over-the-top results that give a whole new meaning to the phrase "going viral."

In the lead-up to Assassination Nation's Midnight Madness premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down for a roundtable interview with writer/director Sam Levinson and three of its stars — Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra — to chat about the film. The following is a condensed and edited version of that discussion.

Why did you want to write this story and bring this film to life?

Levinson: I was writing it five days before my wife gave birth to our first child. And I was really nervous about where our country was headed, just the amount of vitriol and rage that seemed to be bubbling up. And I wanted to emotionally unpack it and deal with it in the only way that I know how to — as a writer and a filmmaker. That was part of it. And then also, I wanted to write a film that I felt mirrored the emotional intensity and volatility of the internet.

You open up your phone on any morning, and here's a story about someone getting shot, here's a street fight, here's a cat video, here's someone singing a song to a dying family member — and that's all within a span of five minutes. It's this emotional roller coaster, and I think it's so intense. It adds this dizzying feeling about how do you navigate this world and keep your sanity.

And I think that if you were to take that and mix it with young people today, in some way this movie serves as a road map for how to navigate the world, and the fantasy of how you sometimes wish you could navigate the world. Which is by saying, "You know what? Fuck you. I don't give a shit. I'm not gonna take it anymore." But at the end of the day, I wanted to reflect the madness of the internet.

Waterhouse: It's like being on the other side of being so scared about your privacy, or anyone knowing anything about you. And then the other side is like, "You know my worst parts, you know the things I'm capable of, and two fingers up to you. I don't care, I’m gonna survive."

As both writer and director, how did you manage to make the characters — these young women — feel so real?

Levinson: The wonderful thing about the internet is that it's a way to express how you feel about the world, no matter who you are. And I think if you seek out people's perspectives, their experiences, if you listen to what they say, if you empathize with them, if you look at the world from their perspective… it's not hard to figure out what people are feeling. And I think part one of it is ingesting it, not judging it, and then sitting down and writing from that perspective. [But] I can only get so far.

Part of what was really wonderful about this cast — and what I think I looked at all of them for, individually and collectively, was to go, "Here's my experience. Here's my thoughts on this." And as a writer, I then start to rewrite it a little bit. I start to weave in a little bit more of who they are as individuals. Because then you end up with something that's more emotionally honest, that's more accurate.

You end up with a better performance in the long run, because there's a closeness to the material. And it's also the way I like to work. I don't like to work with a rigid perspective in that way. I like collaborating and talking, and hearing ideas and kicking them around.

Nef: There was a lot of improvisation, and there was a lot of free-wheeling. So much of the film is rooted in these fantastical elements, but I think those scenes where we're just lying around in the bedroom talking smack grounds all of the larger-than-life things that happen in the film in this realistic, almost naturalistic relationship between these four girls.

It's very much rooted in character and heart and all of these warm, fuzzy things. But I think that the brashness and the no-punches-pulled approach that these girls take to talking about the world is a part of that — and perhaps the most important part of it.

One of the most shocking parts of the movie is the violence, because you realize that people are actually capable of these types of things. What was your approach and attitude toward that aspect of the film?

Levinson: I wanted to elaborate and bring to life the anxieties and fears that these four characters have about the world. So I wanted to realize that, in the sense that I wanted to make the audience feel complicit in it. I wanted the audience to sit there and judge the way they talk about guys and life and school, and all the other shit that they talk and everything. And to judge 'em for it and think, "Look at them, they're narcissistic or self-obsessed," in the way that people judge almost all young people — specifically young women. And then see that judgment reflected in a very real, very brutal way, and then flip that on its head and say, "And this is how they wish they could respond. This is their own fan fiction. This is how they wish they could write their ending and their response to it."

So I wanted the violence to be real, and I think there's always a fine line in putting violence on-screen. At what point do you glorify it? At what point does it feel like it’s not real enough or not true enough? That's a tightrope that a lot of filmmakers walk, and you just have to trust the instincts of the people around you. You have to trust the instincts of your cast, and figure out exactly where that balance is. But I think a lot of thought went into it. And while it is violent, it feels true in some weird, horrific, scary way.

Nef: All of this hate and all of this judgment that's coming before the violence cues up the violence, and you see the multiple forces — discursively, psychologically, culturally — that lead up to that moment. Obviously, the violence is shocking to see, but the fact that it's going on is as American as cherry pie. It's what happens in this country to people, to women who are deemed guilty of something egregious. The fact that we get to see it is shocking, but the fact that it goes on should be very familiar.

Levinson: And to be honest, the stuff that is really disturbing, more than anything, is the psychological violence that precedes the actual violence. That's the stuff that, in some ways, is the most disturbing. And in a lot of ways, is the least talked about.

If there was one thing that you would want audiences to take away from this movie, what would it be?

Abra: I wish we all could have more empathy and be less judgmental about everything. Just step away from the lens — question your lens for a second. Even if it's the right one, just step away for a second.

Nef: I would like people to question their own certainty of the truth — of what is right, of what is good, of what is kind. I think that our nation is stratified along two sides right now that are 100% sure of their own righteousness. And if this film could incite people to parochialize that point of view a little bit and dig deeper and perhaps question it, that could be a catalyst for positive conversations.

Levinson: Yeah, and conversations that can ultimately move things forward. Because right now, at least in America, I feel like we're in this sort of standoff. And standoffs don’t normally end well. It's nerve-wracking for all of us in many ways. And this film is about discourse; it’s about the way in which we communicate. It's about the idea that if you operate with an absolute certainty that you are right and that your actions are therefore just, that is a recipe for a horror film — that's what this movie's about.

Assassination Nation is in theatres now.

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