Victoria Film Fest Interview: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli on their film ‘Violation’

Violation is the first feature film by Canadian filmmakers Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. A take on the rape-revenge genre, it is a tense and uncomfortable film, but in the best way possible. I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with the pair via Zoom during the Victoria Film Festival.

Needless to say that this interview contains spoilers for Violation. You can read my original review of the film here.


Matthew: Nice to meet you both. I really enjoyed your movie and I thought we just talk a little bit about it. So why don’t we start out with a brief introduction to the two of you and your movie?

Dusty Mancinelli: Sure! [Madeleine and I] met at the 2015 TIFF talent lab. And at the time, we were just both making our own short films but I think we were secretly looking for a collaborator.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah I think both of us had collaborated with people and like the process of collaboration, but hadn’t really found a creative partner that we wanted to make a lot of stuff with. We immediately just really hit it off and had loads of ideas that we shared with each other, and then thought “Hey, why don’t we just try making some of these together?” And it worked out!

Dusty: We made three short films together: Slap Happy, Woman in Stall and Chubby and all of them dealt with very similar subject matters and themes. We noticed a kind a through line in our work of power dynamics between men and women, trauma, abuse, and really Violation is sort of the culmination of all of those ideas and themes.

We started writing Violation a few years ago, we had just made our second short together, and I think it was around then that we realized “Hey, this is really working, this collaboration, let’s just exclusively join forces and work together.” And so we made that jump. We were very lucky to receive financing through Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch program, which for micro-budget first features for emerging filmmakers, along with a Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grant to make violation.

Woman in Stall, a Short Film by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli

Madeleine: We knew that being our first feature as well, that this was maybe the one opportunity we would get in our careers to kind of put everything on the table as filmmakers and do whatever we wanted. We’re the sole producers as well. So we didn’t have to answer to anyone. And that was it. That was incredibly scary, but also incredibly freeing, because we probably won’t ever get to do that again.

Dusty: Yeah and I think for us Violation comes from a very personal place. We both have experienced trauma and abuse in our past and we really wanted to create a visceral experience for the audience, one that captures the post-traumatic stress the body goes through both when you’re experiencing a trauma and when you’re reliving a trauma. That kind of residual impact that it has on the mind and the body. We were really focused on just trying to tell this story from this one woman’s perspective, and hopefully trying to capture throughout the whole movie that unsettling sense of disorientation that Miriam’s character feels.

Matthew: Wow, that is a complete answer. I’m thinking you guys have done these interviews before!

Everyone: <laughs>

Matthew: The thing I really liked in the film, and this comes pretty much in the first scene of the scene where Miriam is confronting Dylan in the cabin, we get his version of what happened, and then what actually happened. How did you come to write that scene? How many of the choices there were deliberate in terms of staging his version versus hers, and how it played out?

Madeleine: That’s such a good question and one we haven’t gotten before. It’s always fun when you get a question. We are so interested in the idea of audiences recontextualizing characters, and making sure that every character is equally complex. When we were writing, we definitely thought quite deeply from both sides. What would happen if you were accused of something like this? How might you react? How could someone interpret this in the complete opposite way? And that’s what was really kind of interesting to us, with this type of revenge film and the subject matter is somebody who isn’t this dark, evil stranger in jumping out of the bushes, but someone who cares about the protagonist in their own way, and is clawing his way out of the accusations that she’s laying at his feet.

Dusty: Yeah, it would have been really easy to make the character of Dylan be this kind of moustache-twirling villain; like Madeline said that stranger in an alleyway. But he’s really affable and charming in many other scenes. When you do see what he does, and when you see him in that tool shed, you’re really conflicted, and hopefully, it sort of captures what it feels like when you’re betrayed by someone you love or care for, like someone close to you in your family or a friend. That’s really I think, that level of betrayal that Miriam’s feeling in that scene, as well.

We worked really closely with the actor Jesse LaVercombe –who plays Dylan– workshopping that scene. We knew that we really wanted this really kinetic energy, where they’re almost talking past each other, and they’re both trying to convince one another of their viewpoint, but in a way that felt hopefully really organic. We rewrote that scene a ton of times and finally found the right pace for it with Jesse’s help, by workshopping it and then rehearsing with him for several days.

Madeleine: Yeah and in the earlier scene when Miriam seduces Dylan’s character, it was quite a balancing act in the writing, because we didn’t want to completely give it away. We didn’t want her to be too overtly seducing him, either; we wanted the audience to feel that there’s something wrong under the surface, that there’s something that she’s not quite revealing and that her questions are leading that there, but he doesn’t know because of his desire and his interpretation of what’s happening. He doesn’t see it, but we do as the audience.

Matthew: In those scenes, where he’s, you know, Miriam was very much like “you raped me.” And his response is “I didn’t rape you.” In your minds, does he legitimately not believe it? Or is he just denying it?

Dusty: I think what was really important to us when we were working closely with Jesse was for him not to judge his own character. From his own point of view, he does not feel like he raped her.

Madeleine: But also it that his immediate reaction is to protect himself and to deflect and defend.

Dusty: Right, so hopefully, in that scene, you see a shift. There’s a moment where he really is taken aback, shocked by what she’s accusing him of but he’s quickly the wheels are turning in his brain, and he starts gaslighting her. And then that’s conscious, that’s an effort to protect himself from the potential consequences of these accusations.

Madeleine: because he could listen to her and hear what she felt happened, but he doesn’t.

Dusty: What we’re also interested in is that things could have worked out. If he had admitted, if he had acknowledged what he had done, she did leave some room there for them to have a conversation to resolve things with themselves. Same with her sister; we’re seeing this woman who really feels like she’s got no other recourse because she’s been pushed into a corner because she’s been betrayed not only by her brother in law but also by her sister. So I think that’s also really important to show how it could have gone the other way with just the acknowledgement.

Matthew: That plays into what I was gonna ask next, actually. What I really like about the movie is that it subverts a lot of expectations when it comes to the rape-revenge story. In many of these movies the woman is raped and then at that point, she’s at her lowest point and feels she has no recourse. In this film, Miriam approaches everyone in her life to find some support first, how did you come to that?

Dusty: I think we were very consciously trying to subvert audience’s expectations and also flip some genre tropes on its head.

Madeleine: Also just do something new, and that was uniquely our take on revenge genre.

Dusty: Yeah, I think one thing we noticed is that women are sexualized in these genres constantly and if it is a rape-revenge film with a female lead, the woman regains her agency through the course of enacting her revenge. So it’s this weird feedback loop: she needed to be raped in order to gain agency in order to reclaim herself and we were sick of that kind of cycle.

Instead, we were more interested in, you know, what is the grisly nature of revenge? What does it really do to a character’s morality? And how would it impact you emotionally psychologically, and, and what’s the fallout, the destructive nature it has when it comes to your relationships. For us, it’s more of a cautionary tale instead of this kind of wish fulfilment so as an audience instead of feeling this cathartic release and you’re celebrating the revenge, you’re horrified by the revenge, you’re disgusted by it, and she, at the end of the movie, realizes she’s destroyed her life, she’s destroyed her sister’s life. It was in the name of this righteous righting a wrong, but ultimately, she realizes it, but it’s too late. It’s that like Greek tragedy at the end.

Madeleine: We also wanted to create a character and a character arc where she doesn’t become a hardened killer at the end. So it’s not one of these films –although we also love those films like Revenge where she becomes this really ruthless, hardened, shutting off her emotions, revenge machine– we just wanted to try something different and show someone a woman’s pain and anguish and anger and rage and terror, in all of the spectrum of emotion. Rather than shutting that emotion off, the revenge kind of opens up all of that.

Dusty: And that’s why it was really important for us. There’s this moment in the film where she slits his throat to drain the body, and she throws up. It’s this really graphic horrific, realistic, moment. You’re watching, and it’s designed in a way hopefully that you start to see that she’s doing a monstrous thing, but she’s not a monster. She’s sickened by herself. She’s like Madeline said, she’s not just this Dexter-type character who is just a sociopath. She’s pushed herself to this extreme, but she is reeling from it. She is impacted.

Matthew: At the end of the film, when it sort of cuts to black and she’s fed everyone the ice cream –I guess this is more of a question for you Madeline– but in the end, in your mind, what is she feeling? Can she ever go home again?

Madeleine: For us what we what we hoped to convey in that last close up is that she’s realized that revenge isn’t at all the answer, and that she can never go back. That actually, if she had approached things differently, she could have healed her relationship with her sister, and maybe her sister would have helped her. But it’s too late.

Matthew: Going back to the earlier scene, just for a moment: in a lot of these movies one thing I always noticed is that the nudity –usually female– is often quite exploitive. Is that a deliberate flip on your guy’s part in making him get naked, and it to not feel that way at all?

Madeleine: Yeah, definitely. It’s something that we were never willing to compromise on. From the conception of the idea.

Dusty: We’ve worked with Jesse LaVercombe comm a few times with our shorts, and when we sent him the script, it came with a disclaimer, there’s Full Frontal male nudity so if you’re not cool with that, don’t even bother reading it, because it’s something that’s important to us.

Madeleine: We keep giving Jesse worse and worse characters!

Dusty: But you know, the reason why it was important was just for that reason alone is that we’ve just not seen a film like this where a woman is not being sexualized. In fact, she has all the power in the scene: she’s stripping him of his clothes, and the audience is not used to seeing the male body in that way. There’s something shocking and disturbing and confronting, I think as an audience, when you’re seeing that. I think that it’s good that the audience feels that discomfort and it’s designed in a way to hopefully create more space for different kinds of stories that are.

Madeleine: It’s funny because that there’s definitely been criticism from some people about the explicitness of the male nudity and just the way that it does feel quite gratuitous –and it does. I think what I would just say to that is that it’s funny, because there’s so many films where we gratuitously linger over women’s bodies, and show them in the most sexual ways, even in moments that are completely unsexual and quite horrific, and they’re rarely criticized.

Matthew: Yeah, I was gonna say, if it had been the other way around, no one would ever bat an eye about it, because it’s just what happens.

Dusty: Yeah, exactly.

Matthew: Shifting gears a little bit to cinematography, the film was also gorgeous. You worked with the cinematographer a number of times before as well, right?

Madeleine: Yeah. We’ve worked with him on a lot of short films, Adam Crosby, he went to film school with us as well. So we’ve known each other for a long time.

Dusty: One thing we learned working closely with Adam is we really wanted to develop –and we’re still striving to do this– a visual aesthetic that’s really grounded in naturalism, but yet has a cinematic quality to it.

Violation
Violation

We shot with natural light, and it’s really about working closely with our amazing production designer, Joshua Turpin, designing the blocking around natural lighting sources and finding the right curtains and lampshades to really sculpt the light that is available to us.

Then our Assistant Director did like 50 schedules because we’re planning around very specific times of day like dawn and dusk where we know “Okay, we can only film one shot one angle in this hour, right? And we’re gonna shoot this same scene five over five days, just so that we can get the coverage that we need.” Adam is just incredible. He’s really like another character in the film. There’s a kind of choreography between the camera and the, the actors in the space. That really happened quite seamlessly when we start getting on set.

Madeleine: He’s really unique in that he’s so sensitive to the narrative of a project. He’s not just thinking about something looking beautiful. He’s thinking about how do I help tell this character’s story in in a way that’s going to support what we hope the audience will feel.

Matthew: I really also enjoyed how usually in stories are set in remote cabins it’s lots of big wide shots and big beautiful scenery and sunsets, forests and stuff, but a lot of this shot in pretty extreme close-ups. What led to that as a choice?

Madeleine: We started to explore this in our last short film Chubby, where we’re really trying to capture a feeling. In Violation this feeling of trauma and the idea that something sensory, like a smell, or a sound or a word can instantly bring you back to this moment of trauma. With macro close-ups it gives that feeling of the texture and that just sort of isolated moment in time.

Dusty: Yeah, using these long lenses and shallow depth of field really allow us to create a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety within the audience that hopefully mimics that trauma that Madeline’s talking about so that when we do step back, and we go to those wides, it’s almost like a breath of fresh air comes in for you as an audience because you felt so stuck in that box with that character. I think it also helps situate us with Miriam’s perspective. When we’re constantly seeing the story unfold in close up, and we keep returning to close-ups of Miriam I think we can start to better understand what her thought process is and how she’s experiencing the events.

Matthew: Somewhat random question, but the very beginning of the film, there’s a scene of a wolf eating a rabbit. Please talk about that.

Dusty: We really wanted to start the film with a really vicious image that’s just part of the natural world, the ruthlessness of nature. We don’t judge a wolf eating a rabbit, because that’s what a wolf does. This constant question kind of throughout the film, which is, “who is the prey?” And who like, “who is the rabbit? who is who is the wolf?”

Madeleine: And also, “what is morality?” Like this idea that there is no morality in nature? We’ve created it and what does that mean for us?

Dusty: That’s exactly it. So hopefully it’s challenging you to think about both of those questions throughout the film. And I mean, it’s pretty cool to watch a wolf eat a rabbit, I have to admit.

Matthew: This is –at least by my count– the third festival Violation has played, how has the response been the overall? It seems to be very positive so far, but how’s it been for you guys? has it been like a roller coaster? Or is it been all up? Or ?

Madeleine: It has definitely a roller coaster, just just putting out your first feature into the world. I think when you do shorts no one really cares, and the people who do care are there to see shorts and support you anyway. I think with a feature, it’s still nerve wracking, even though the reception has been largely very positive, and we feel incredibly grateful that people have have understood what we’ve tried to do.

Dusty: Given COVID I think a lot of filmmakers would be very disappointed with virtual festivals, and not being able to be in a theatre with a live audience. And of course, those things are really terrible, but we’re so fortunate and lucky to have found such great homes for the movie and, and in fact, I really believe that we got more attention simply because TIFF and other festivals were cutting down their programs. So it just meant that more people were watching our film than in a regular year.

Normally TIFF programs 250 movies, and it’s hard to get the same kind of attention. It’s a small movie. There are no big actors in it. So getting just more industry and more audiences across Canada, I think the accessibility just is really amazing. How you don’t have to be in Toronto to go see the film, and you don’t have to be in Victoria. There’s this equality –I think– that’s been created through the virtual platforms. So I do think that more people have seen it.

Madeleine: It’s definitely divisive to some people!

Dusty: It’s divisive for sure. There’s always people that hate it and or are frustrated by it, but we hope genuinely that it just sparks meaningful conversations about trauma about consent. Even if someone doesn’t like it, but they want to talk about it, they’re so bothered by that they talk about it that I think that’s important, and that’s meaningful to us.

Matthew: Now you’ve been playing in the festival circuit at least since TIFF, so for like 6-8 months now. Is there a release plan at this point?

Dusty: Yeah, so we just had our international premiere at Sundance last week, and then it’s playing at South by Southwest in March, and then right after that, it’s going to be on Shudder in the US, UK, New Zealand, and Australia. It’s coming to Shudder Canada in April, but I believe TIFF and VIFF are doing a one month virtual release just before the Shudder release. So in March in Canada it will be available coast to coast for audiences who don’t have Shudder but just want to rent it or watch it another way.

Matthew: Well, that’s awesome because the VIFF platform is fantastic and Shudder is probably actually my favorite streaming service. So it’s excellent news for me!

Dusty: We’re so lucky; Shudder is the kind of the perfect home for the movie.

Madeleine: Yeah, they completely understood it and supported us and championed the film. And we feel really, really happy to be working with them.

Matthew: What is next for you guys? This film is obviously on its way to release, so what do you guys have in the works?

Dusty: Because we’re the sole producers on this, we’ve been so inundated with just the monotony of delivering a movie to a distributor. We’re itching to write that next thing. Right now we’re just developing a handful of projects, and we’re hoping that we will make something very soon. We’ll see.

Madeleine: We’ve just started writing again in the last week!

Matthew: That’s all the questions I have. I just wanted to say again, thank you so much for your time. I greatly appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Dusty: Thank you!


Violation is available for two more days (today and tomorrow) as part the Victoria Film Festival for all residents of British Columbia. Be sure to keep an eye out for it on Shudder in the coming months, too.

As this interview was conducted via Zoom, there will be a Patron-exclusive post of the video of this interview –with an extra question or two!– closer to the release of the film on Shudder Canada.


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