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Sundance Film Festival Interview: Andrew Semans Explains the Fear of ‘Resurrection’

With his mindblowing sophomore feature Resurrection, writer-director Andrew Semans delivered one of the most talked about films at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Harnessing the sensational acting power of Rebecca Hall, this thriller follows a woman who begins unraveling after encountering a terrifying figure from her past. In our Awards Radar interview, we learn more about Resurrection as Semans sings the praises of his star and explains the fear that drove the making of the film.

Shane Slater: What was the inspiration for this film?

Andrew Semans: When this film came about, I was trying to come up with an idea for a story. Something that really meant something to me personally. And one exercise that I do sometimes is to think of something that really frightens me. Something that feels like a very fundamental fear, or very persistent fear, and try and build an idea around that if I can. And in the case of Resurrection, I started thinking about fears around parenting. Specifically, fears that your children will be vulnerable, you’ll be unable to keep them safe. The fear that you’ll somehow fail in your fundamental duty as a parent to keep your child from being hurt, or from being victimized in some way.

So I was thinking about that, and that got me to thinking about the parental vigilante sub-genre, which of course, trades on these fears, and provides this very romantic, grandiose vision of parents who are galvanized by harrowing circumstances in which their children are threatened. And they are heroic, and it all works out great. And I thought it might be of interest to try something in that space.

So I went from there, and tried to build a scenario and character around those ideas and themes. And as I was doing so, a friend of mine became involved in a very unhealthy relationship with a very toxic person who was very controlling and manipulative. I was witnessing this relationship unfold and I was trying to understand it. I was trying to help my friend in any way that I could. And I became very fascinated and very frightened by the dynamics of this relationship and relationships in general, when there’s a very toxic controlling person and the techniques they use to control and manipulate and form these powerful bonds between themselves and their victims. And as I tried to educate myself on this topic, it came to inform the script in a pretty significant way.

SS: What was it like to work with Rebecca Hall and how did her presence inform the character?

AS: We got the script to her and she responded to it immediately. She was on board straight away. It was remarkable and so exciting that she required no great persuasion. She just related to the character and was excited to play the character from the get go. And she came on board and was on for quite some time as we tried to get the project up and running.

The collaboration with her was, from my perspective, extraordinarily easy because she required so little from me. She understood the script comprehensively. She had the character in mind so precisely and was so well prepared, that there frequently was little to nothing for me to do. So it was often a case where I just simply tried to get out of her way and allowed her to work. And she was always totally committed and always totally brilliant. It was amazing.

SS: How did you work with Tim Roth to formulate his character’s psychology and avoid presenting him as a caricature?

AS: Well, that’s just what we talked about, is how can we make him feel like a real person and not just a stock villain? And I think one thing that Tim gravitated towards, that I did too, is this notion that people who are like this are highly manipulative people who are sadistic and sociopathic in their behaviors, tend not to want to advertise that very much. They tend to present themselves as people who are extremely harmless, or extremely charming. People who seem quite benign.

So we wanted to approach David in this way that he is not projecting malevolence all the time. That he understands himself as someone who is a normal person. Someone who is just a romantic at heart, trying to do the right thing by this woman and himself, and trying to recreate this great love that was lost. We talked about how he sees himself as the protagonist in this story, David. The character of David sees himself as the protagonist of the story, and not as a bad guy at all. And that’s, that’s how Tim approached it. And I really appreciated that style.

SS: How did you strike the balance between ambiguity and grounding the film in reality?

AS: It’s always kind of a high wire act when you build into something, especially in the third act of this movie, the ending is highly ambiguous. And when you’re opting to do that in any kind of story, it’s dangerous because that could be a provocative ambiguity that could be exciting, and something really fruitful to mull over after the movie. And hopefully something that is thematically resonant. But it can be something that could frustrate viewers. So it’s hard to know exactly what is the right level of ambiguity, certainly in a story like this.

And my approach was always, well if it feels clear and potent and satisfying dramatically and emotionally, which I hope it does, then the ambiguity will be acceptable and interesting to an audience member because it was something that felt satisfying. On an emotional level and on a dramatic level. And then I’ll be willing to go there with you and think about what it might mean to be excited by that. However, if it doesn’t work dramatically, or if it doesn’t work emotionally, well then you know that viewer is probably not going to be on board.

SS: The detail of Margaret having a mentee at the office is such an effective way of exploring the theme of motherhood. What was the idea behind this plot detail?

AS: I always imagined Margaret as someone looking for surrogate daughters, and looking to mentor young people, particularly young women. And being treated with the kind of admiration or reverence that she doesn’t get from her own daughter, played by Grace Kaufman. Abbie gives her mom a hard time a lot and does not think of her mom as as maybe the strong and powerful woman that Margaret would like to feel like and would like to present to the world. But Gwen does look up to her and does admire her and emulate her.

I feel like that’s something that is very important and very nourishing to Margaret. And it also is very important to her to try and steer young women into directions that will prevent them from encountering some of the things that she encountered when she was young. Some of the harrowing misfortunes that she had to endure.

SS: This film feels like benefits from the communal experience of a theatrical audience. How was the response following the virtual premiere at Sundance?

AS: It went very well, the Sundance experience. I mean, they’ve been terrific in setting up a situation that simulates physical festival as best as possible. And the premiere went very well. It was odd, because I was just at home in my apartment. So it felt strangely like being at home in my apartment, because that’s what we were doing! [Laughs]. But it was still tremendously exciting. And it has been absolutely fascinating. The response the movie has been getting has been quite lively.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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