Remaking a groundbreaking and classic film – specifically during a time when studios, to much derision, have seemingly been churning out more remakes than ever – must be a particularly intimidating undertaking when your intent is to do it right. Credit director Steven R. Monroe with pulling off that rarest of cinematic feats – a remake that consistently displays its respect to its source material, and even manages to surpass its original in many ways (read my ***1/2 review here). With his 2010 release I Spit On Your Grave, and with the blessing of the original film’s writer/director Meir Zarchi, Monroe delivers a gritty and intense thriller that more than lives up to the original – defiantly unrated, the film is a refreshing example of what can happen when the right team of people set out to remake a film for the right reasons.
I met with Monroe to discuss his remake, the oft-misinterpreted original, and the current string of Hollywood horror remakes.
MC: How did you become involved with this project?
Monroe: I was at Cinetel’s office right when they acquired the rights to the original, and I found out and said, “I need to direct that.” I kept checking in, and it was almost a year later that Lisa Hansen called me and said they had a first draft, and would I like to meet with Paul Hertzberg. I read it, and then I told them all my thoughts, all my concerns, my fears, what I thought could be mistakes, what I thought could be enhanced, and what I wanted to do with it visually. Lisa called me about an hour after the meeting and told me I got the job.
It sounds like it was Lisa’s idea from the get-go to involve Meir Zarchi in the production of the film as well.
Oh yeah, and that was one of my first questions as well. From the beginning. I don’t believe in remaking a film unless you’re going to REMAKE the film. People complain about films being remade and then being the same, but you know, that’s the point of doing a remake. There are certain things you have to keep with. I really wanted him to be involved. I thought it would be great for the movie. He loves it – he’s really excited about it.
I truly enjoyed your film. I will admit to being ultra-sensitive to remakes, but there are a few that have impressed me. I was skeptical about “The Last House on the Left” because I thought there’s NO way that a modern release would keep the seriously dark and graphic material intact, but it went to those places. I was relieved to see your film do so as well, and so effectively. For a while it seemed that horror films were being cleaned up and sanitized in the name of a more general audience; lately, it seems that things are finally shifting. What do you attribute that to? Is this more because the right kind of auteurs are getting behind the camera, or do you think maybe producers are starting to pay attention to the backlash? Or both?
I think it’s both. I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this because I think people misinterpret it, but when people ask me why I directed this film I tell them it’s mostly because I was really worried about this project getting into the wrong hands, and not being done properly. That was the same mindset with Lisa and Paul – they knew I would take that care and preciseness. You have two lines to walk – you have the original fans who love the movie, and you have new fans who want to come in. You have to make the movie for both of them. But I do think it’s both – the directors are starting to say, “Get me that job, because I want to make sure it’s done properly!” I hope that’s what it is, because I know that more and more films that people would consider untouchable – like “Straw Dogs” – are being remade. I hope there is more of a trend of, Let’s be really true here. I’d rather see “Straw Dogs” get remade in its form, then get “reimagined.” I think fans of originals would rather see that – see something close to the original. While the new audience still gets something new.
What was clear as I watched your film is that you were cognizant of the fact that while the original was repackaged and resold as “exploitation cinema,” it wasn’t Zarchi’s intent to release a gratuitous, exploitative film.
It totally wasn’t. I just had a conversation in an interview about that. Someone said, “Don’t you think Meir’s film was exploitative, and don’t you think yours is?,” and I said, “I don’t think mine is, I don’t think the original was.” And it wasn’t a horror film. It was embraced by horror fans when it was banished and taken away.
I find that word “exploitative” very interesting. I was just speaking with Zarchi about words like “exploitative” and “torture porn” and how they get slapped on to films.
Well and what’s the difference between “cool exploitative” and “not cool exploitative?” So if Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez does it, it’s “cool,” and if some unknown director does it, it’s crap.
I believe some people don’t like being taken down the uncomfortable and unsettling paths that some films take them, and they fight back by labeling those films with words like “gratuitous” and “exploitative.”
Right, and it’s become very easy to take sex and nudity and the word “exploitative” and put them together, especially in a genre film, a low-budget genre film by a relatively unknown director.
…that’s also a remake of a film known as being “exploitative.”
Exactly. But when you think about it… How you can say that watching a very disturbing sequence where a woman is raped, and getting upset and emotional over it, is “exploitative,” I have no clue. I mean, I want to push people’s buttons – I want to make people think – and if I have to do that in what’s considered a “horror film,” I’m happy to do it because – this country is starting to scare me, in terms of how milquetoast we’ve become. For me, when I was young, that’s how I learned how to really think forward and see the world, and know what’s really out there, was through movies that pushed my buttons and made me think. I’ve said this many times – I don’t think ALL movies should push buttons, but if we don’t make movies that push buttons, we can all go see “My Best Friend’s Wedding” again and again and again. I think it’s really really important. But people are always going to take offense to it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Absolutely nothing.
Well I admire the fact that cinema is not so tied up that independents can’t still make movies with integrity and vision and daring, and that filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier and Takashi Miike can survive the attacks that they get and continue to put out new films, and other visionary filmmakers like them who do push buttons, and who do get under people’s skin, and who are known and celebrated for doing so.
Well they’re all lucky enough to get the funding! They should kiss the ground they walk on every day! When you’re centered in Hollywood – I mean, I grew up here – it is not easy to get films like that made. Those guys are very lucky to keep getting financing over and over again. Especially when those movies don’t make a lot of money. They premiere at Cannes, but they don’t make a lot of money. Man, I wish I could have a career like that. But I gotta keep working, and right here in Hollywood.
When is the film being released? And will it be a wide release?
October 8. It’ll open at the Mann’s Chinese. It’s limited, because it’s unrated.
I’d like to talk about the sound of the film. On top of everything else I appreciated about the film, I was blown away by the sound design of this film. The things that happen indoors in this film are disturbing enough on their own, but when you’re outdoors in this movie, and there’s generally nothing going on, there is no absence of this foreboding, creepy atmosphere. I’m not a “sound guy” – I don’t particularly pay attention to sound when I watch a film – but little things like branches snapping, leaves…especially because I was already disturbed, these little nuances caused a stir, they were unsettling. And I know they weren’t meant to “Jar” – this isn’t the case of the cat flying across the screen. Just…very subtle little touches that helped build a world and a mood.
To me atmosphere is very, very important. Sound and picture are equally important. There are a lot of cuts to black in this, where there is still sound over the black. And there are times where there are pictures, and no audio. To me it comes down to keeping a real atmosphere. There were several discussions about, “Oh, should we scare people here?,” and I would say, “NO, we shouldn’t ‘scare’ people here, because the movie is going to do that anyway.
Well when you’re trying to put someone into a “this is really happening” frame of mind – and unfortunately rape happens, and it’s a brutal and horrific thing – the more “real” the film stays the more palpable it is, and a cheap scare would betray the whole endeavor. Regarding the rape scene, and the psychological torment scenes that bookend it – can you describe your approach towards shooting these scenes?
Definitely. There were plenty of conversations between me and the actors in terms of what would be needed. There were plenty of conversations between me and my cameraman and other department heads – closed set, and even when it’s not a closed set, no chattering, no laughing, no talking. If you have to do something, do it quietly. I know a lot of people who don’t get film sets, and who’ll roll their eyes at this, but ONE little thing that goes wrong can throw off an actor from where they need to go. I’m really, really strict on that. I’m not a big advocate of “Method Acting,” but as a director I have to support it – you have to understand and support every single style of every actor. Usually on any given set you have a combination of everything – you have the Method Actors, and you have the George Clooney-types who could be telling a fart joke, and as soon as the slate clicks “ACTION!” he starts crying and then “CUT,” he finishes the fart joke. You have to be ready for everything. But yes, a very quiet and calm environment. There was enough horrible things happening in the film that between the takes, things stayed very calm and quiet. Everybody stepped up to the challenge.
Sarah Butler (as Jennifer) was phenomenal. I think it’s very easy to say “brave performance” when someone is simply nude on screen, or simply when their character undergoes a traumatic experience, but she went above and beyond with a terrific performance throughout. Far before the attack progresses to sexual, there is already very unsettling terror in her eyes. She conveyed sheer terror, utter helplessness. At that level, I think the word “brave” strongly applies – to pull emotion like that.
She was amazing. I’m a two or three take guy, and we’d be on the second or third take and she would sense it – she’d go, “I’m starting to get desensitized,” and I would say, “We’ve got as much as we need – we got it. We can stop.” I don’t like to push people past where they know they can go.
-Diego Mena speaking with Steven R. Monroe
September 27, 2010 – Los Angeles, CA
On Assignment for Tonight at the Movies