LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR is the kind of flick that gets you excited about indie film. Set in small that has fallen under the control of a low-grade drug king pin who even has the local clergy on the payroll, John Swab and Corey Asraf’s film follows the return of Drew Glass (Niko Nicotera) to the world he escaped – the family business. Having made good elsewhere (we are never told where or how), he has come back to settle debts, including rescuing his adopted sister June (Sam Quartin) from the clutches of their abusive father (Mark Boone Junior). Plied full of their father’s product, June is barely hanging on but finds new hope when she agrees to watch over a kidnapped girl. Drew arrives brings a reckoning with him, and when his father catches wind, he hires a recluse assassin “Pope” (Marilyn Manson) to ‘take care of it.’
In this rural gothic tale, the co-directors (Swab also wrote the script) avoid many of the clichés of revenge tale, which often find themselves swimming in more blood than plot. Instead, they focus on the characters caught in the middle of this tragedy, a tragedy which unfortunately is just life as normal for too many people. They take chance after chance in telling this story, eschewing the violence, much of which takes place off screen and we only see the aftermath – breaking a pretty gigantic screenwriting rule. While the film is set up as an interrogation, with Drew telling his story to a cop (who is probably less interested in what Drew was doing as what happened to the kidnapped girl), the confession includes scene after scene that Drew could never have seen – because he is not there, and those people later end up dead. In a screenwriting class, its problematic structure, on screen it’s the classic unreliable narrator who is more interested in expressing his theme than telling the story in a linear fashion.
“That’s the most fun part for me,” says Swab, “you’re essentially doing a magic trick when you’re writing. You’re slowly and methodically revealing things, and especially when you can use a device like an interrogation room, it’s all a recollection so the truth of it—you have to believe what he’s saying or you can choose not to.” Asraf agrees, and believes that even if Drew was not physically in these scenes he is a product of these people, they have a long history together. “In a way, it really is Drew’s crucible,” he says, “it might not one plus one equals two, but ultimately it is a pretty practical decision to go there [home] and to leave that empty headed.”
I had a chance to talk with Swab and Asraf just before the film world premiered at Fantasia International Film Festival this last week.
BEARS: Okay, so first thing that I want to talk about, because its one of the things I absolutely loved about the film, are all these moments where you expect to see a big killing scene with a lot of blood and gore and you don’t give us those scenes. You cut away and then we come back and we see like this tableau of dead bodies, like we are doing Greek Theatre or something — which I love. I think that’s a totally ballsey decision. Can you talk a little bit about the decision on incorporating that kind of style where we’re seeing a lot of the aftermath of the violence, but not necessarily seeing the violence?
SWAB: Well I think for us its more valuable. Especially in modern cinema, its all about quick fixes. When you give the audience that gruesome scene, it provides totally different and emotional experience than when you leave it out and allow them to kind of put the pieces together and then come back to it. We really wanted to focus more on the emotional experience of this film rather than the dramatic, grandiose thing. With the rest of the film, we like to pose a lot of questions to the audience that only they themselves can answer and we thought we should include the violence into that too.
BEARS: Was there ever any pushback from anybody with producers or investors?
ASRAF: John and I are the people who produced this movie at his apartment, but we did actually receive pushback from investors. We were initially funded, we were ready to go and before we actually received the money, an investor gave the script a read. He said ‘well, you kill priests,’ and that really bothered him. At the end of the day, we pretty much own it. There’s rape. There’s abuse, there’s drugs. We kill priests, it’s all for a reason…these experiences and situations in this film are drawn from real experiences we had. Once you take ownership of something like that, like the story, people can’t really say much to you.
BEARS: I just think it will be an interesting sell in terms of the film going forward and talking about it. Because if you read what it’s about, I think you’re diving into a world that you expect there to be a lot of gunplay and violence, like an old school Tarantino— “Natural Born Killers” or “True Romance.” But it’s not that kind of film at all. It’s a heavy film, about emotional journey, it’s about understanding where you are in the world, which I love.
ASRAF: It is. And I think that’s why we made the decision not to put gun violence in it. We shot some successful scenes that were shoot outs but we thought it would be much more powerful to give the audience more poetry than gunfire. At the end of the day, we only shot this film in 20 days. If we spent 4 days— I don’t know if you’ve ever shot a shootout before— but its taxing on everyone, and the crew, and all the actors. But we really wanted to take that time to tell the story in a much more peaceful way, you know? That wasn’t the film we were trying to make. The last thing we wanted— we discussed this for a long time— we don’t want this to be another crime drama action movie. We almost wanted to take guns out of it entirely. I think that would have been extreme. But a little bit goes a long way. I think a little bit really goes a long way. And even the shootout scenes we do have where Drew kills Hondo [June’s sometime dealer], we’re not even fully giving you the full scene. It’s really about the score and the atmosphere, the junkie’s bloody trailer. We tried— we put it in the cut. It wasn’t that it didn’t look good…
BEARS: I love it. The other thing I really thought was cool was there are all these scenes where we’re not— you’ve done something with the voices and sound. We’re getting muffled voices where we’re not fully clear of what someone is saying. It’s kind of pushed into the background. Or there’s another scene where there’s loud music and this guy’s talking on the phone, and you give us some subtitle. So we’re only privy to what you want us to hear in terms of the sound. I thought that was really interesting.
SWAB: We really wanted to throw you into it. And not give you tools as to what you’re getting into. It’s kind of like this bread crumb, where you’re just picking up these little things and you’re trying to piece it together. A lot of things we left out were total creative choices because we wanted the viewer to have a personal experience. So when you get out of the theater, your answer as to what happens to the little girl at the end or where somebody came from or what their relationship is, is totally your own.
ASRAF: It was interesting to play with people’s sensory and people’s perception. We wanted to kind of muffle in, you could hear some words but really you’re hanging onto those words and you’re listening.
BEARS: You guys co-directed this. How did that break down on set? Who did what or was everything a joint decision.
SWAB: We’ve been working together— we learned together. We’ve been best friends for almost a decade now and it because this film is based on real life experiences and has a lot of real truth to it, we both really clung to this story like a life raft, and had tunnel vision and seeing this as the only way to really let go of some of the horrible things that happened. So really in that process of getting here, we developed a pretty singular vision for this story.
ASRAF: We’ve trained ourselves to leave the ego at the door because that’s what gets in the way— that’s it. A lot of the times, when you leave the ego out of the conversation, and we’re talking about the story, we’re talking about making a perfect vision to make this story as tasteful and articulate as possible, it’s not hard conversation. And just from a practical sense, John wrote the film. I’m somebody from a technical background, I’m an editor. So we really meet somewere right in the middle, but if it’s a question of character, and there’s any doubts between us, that’s gonna go John and if it’s a question of technicality and of executing the picture, of course that’s going to become something I have a bit more knowledge on.
BEARS: I feel like I have to ask ‘cause you thrown it out there pretty immediately that this is based on real-life experiences. The story is crazy and there’s a bunch of murders in it. Do you want to tell me a little bit more about what exactly is from real life? Cuz you’re not in jail…
SWAB: The abuse and the addiction, those elements of the story are really what made me start writing. I’ve had some abuse happen when I was 15 years old that is emulated in the film and that’s what drove to start writing. And I used that. This story, as Corey and I say, as a proverbial dollhouse where I could stick these traumas within it and be able to take control of it. You can control the outcome of the story. A lot of the people are based on real people from life. The issue of addiction, obviously we wanted to be as authentic and honest about it as possible and not glamorize it in any way. The elements and the subject matter is very true. Are the actual components of the story true? No, but in a metaphorical sense, that is the movie. In short, that’s the answer to that without going too far.
ASRAF: The original script was such— way more cryptic— it’s excellent poetry. John had written a book of poetry called ‘Let Me Make You a Martyr’ before the script of ever really turning into something that was a producible film, The whole interrogation thing came up way later. We had shot films over the years and failed repeatedly. We realized okay, if we’re going to go ahead and make a feature film, we’re going to have to turn this into something that people are going to sit through and watch and understand, but also we’re going to push the boundaries as far as we can. We’re going to avoid clichés. We’re going to embrace the concerns that we have.
SWAB: Neither do we.
BEARS: but I’m just wondering why— is there something about that show that just felt right for this cast or how did you end up with that?
SWAB: We’ve never seen the show. It had nothing to do that but when casting a movie like this on the budget we had, we didn’t have the resources to hire a casting director. So we used the actors we had. Specifically Sam Quartin, the lead girl, who she a connection to Mark Boone Jr. We got him the script, I asked him, “what do you think?” and he recommended Nico and then in time, he recommended Manson. It just happened that way. It actually really worked to our advantage cuz they had a relationship on screen and on a personal level, so we needed to play on that in the story and it really came through.
ASRAF: We really took our time to really get to know everybody as much as we could. That’s really important to us because off set we don’t really have a traditional film background where everything’s built to a hierarchy. We’re open to people coming up to us and asking us questions and challenging us. That’s okay. I think just beyond their performances, they really brought of their experience to us as first time directors of a featured film. It was just an amazing experience to work with someone so experienced as Mark Boone Junior. He’s in MEMENTO, the DARK KNIGHT, he’s been in so many films that were just so out of our league. He’s really incredible.
BEARS: Did you ever feel like you were ever in over your head a little?
SWAB: We didn’t have time to think like that. When you’re working in an environment like that, it’s a community of people that all believe in a singular vision and nobody’s above anybody else. When you built out like that instead of up like that, there is no “in over your head”.
ASRAF: There’s a safety net there of friendship where if there was any doubt – I mean we had to rewrite whole scenes — we shot the whole thing over 20 days and if there was anything could go wrong, it went wrong. We got a 1987 shit box car, we randomly got one and it broke down in the middle of the shoot. We thought we were going to have to put this thing on a trailer and just shoot everything— some guy at that was going to a Quick Stop and saw the same car, the same year, the same color, everything— it looked like it had the same rust on it and we got a duplicate car. It’s like a 1987 random shit box car that looks like we just pulled of the street.
SWAB Everybody was pulling their weight.
ASRAF: Everybody was keeping their eyes peeled. Everyone was doing everything they could. Everyone wanted it to happen. That’s why we actually needed to finish, to give equity in the film, so that everyone gets a piece of it.
LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR made its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival. With a stellar cast delivering nuanced and fascinating performances and a connect-the-dots plot, it draws the audience deeper and deeper down the well of revenge. Swab and Asraf’s film succeeds in standing out from most southern gothic tales. This film puts character above blood and ends up revealing a far more horrific tale than most run-of-the-mill thrillers would offer under same plot points. This film seems destined for a long life on the festival circuit and on streaming and VOD platforms. Let me also just add Manson is fantastically subtle in the film. Coming off his strongest album ever (yes, I just said that), he has had quite year — can’t wait to see more of his work on screen.