The “Night of the Living Deb” filmmaker knew the story of the victims of a school shooter might draw controversy, but he wasn’t sure if it would resonate as much internationally, given that school shootings are far more prevalent in American than anywhere else.
Isabel May stars in the action thriller as a teenager who must try to survive a group of armed assailants who are live-streaming an attack on her high school. Thomas Jane is her father, an ex-special forces member who bonds with her on hunting trips after the death of her mother. “Prince of the City” star Treat Williams plays the town sheriff. Voltage Pictures handles international sales.
The film’s subject matter was already controversial, but Rankin confronted a different issue when the film’s production company, Cinestate, became implicated in a sexual assault case. Executive producer Adam Donaghey, who was arrested for sexual assault of a minor in April, resigned from his role on the project and no longer works with Cinestate, the Dallas studio which is known for making films appealing to conservative viewers.
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Rankin talked to Variety about the process the film went through to get made before Venice kicked off.
Were you surprised to be contacted by Venice? How do you think Europeans view this subject?
Completely surprised! I was aware that the competition would be very fierce. I do look forward to finding out what Europeans’ response to it is.
You originally wrote the screenplay in 2017 – does the subject resonate differently now?
Given the list of priorities for our country, I think we’re a step or two removed from school shootings. Maybe it’s an opportunity for it to be looked at in a different light. After the Las Vegas shooting, we sat on it for a few months, then we went out to some places and then Parkland happened. People were saying, “This is a great script, but there’s no way we’re going to make it in this political climate.” I started to feel it was a movie that may never be made and I started making peace with that.
Why did you decide to persist with the project?
I see that it is worthy of existing, it has a positive reason to exist. I couldn’t think of a movie like “Elephant” that didn’t focus more on the perpetrators. I wrote it because I was horrified by the pace of the mass shootings building, the quantity of them. We all side, of course, with the victims, so I thought it was worthy of telling a story from that perspective.
How did you find Isabel May?
She sent in a video audition that was quite strong. I got a lot of star vibes off of her, the same kind of feeling I had when I worked with Shia LaBeouf a long time ago. I told her people might see it as controversial or see it in a negative light, so make sure you want to work on this movie, and she very much did.
Why do you think it could be seen in a negative light?
I guess they could see it as exploitative. I would hear in meetings, “We can’t make it because we worry that we would be exploiting some of the horror involved for entertainment purposes.”
What is the audience for the film?
My hope was that two friends or family members, perhaps on opposite sides of the political spectrum, could each talk about it, each feeling like the film would have not have denigrated their position.
Does it come down on one particular side politically?
I feel it is somewhere in-between. I felt a great deal of freedom not trying to appeal to any one side. It’s an action thriller, and it has a great deal of heart as well.
What was it like working with Treat Williams?
He was so funny, really enjoyable. He made me laugh a lot, he would play up being the diva. He was very game, and got along well with the young cast members.
What about Thomas Jane?
He’s brimming with talent. I remember being intimidated the first morning – we pushed on each other a bit and then we got along really well after that.
How did you become aware of the situation with Cinestate and that executive producer Adam Donaghey had been arrested?
I was blown away. When the news broke, it was sad and shocking. I believed Cinestate that they didn’t know about Adam’s past and that they were working hard to restructure their company and have very safe sets.
I knew that I ran a very safe set. I knew my side of the street was clean. I thought I could stick around and effect some change.
Is his name still on the film?
I believe it may have been scrubbed from the credits, but I’m not sure. I’d rather it weren’t on Imdb, but I’m not sure if that’s possible.
It was an explosive and corrosive event, and that was challenging to watch from the outside. I hope justice is served.
Are you involved in getting it distributed in the U.S.?
I’m kind of just letting Dallas do his thing, I’m being the creative and I’m not worrying about it too much.
I know I made a damn good movie, we’ll see what happens to it. I have some faith that the right thing will happen.