Shaking The Foundations of Humanity
To say recent times have been somewhat testing on everyone is obviously an understatement, it’s genuinely incalculable the ramifications and scars that will be physically and mentally borne for all our lifetimes and probably beyond, as we are seemingly assaulted on all fronts of our very existence by our fellow ‘humans’ and nature’s response to humans.
That’s somewhat ominous-sounding, though it’s not meant to be presented in that way, it’s just the honest reality of 2020. It sounds intense as generally modern societies are not very well adjusted to dealing with difficult subjects in what may be deemed an adult manner, we are generally treated as toddlers, and are prone to reacting as such.
But it’s that very adult state of mind (according to psychiatrist Eric Berne in his theory of transactional analysis) that all the solutions come from (possibly even salvation), those conversations that are potentially and initially difficult to initiate, yet bloom into a radiance of genuine tangible and lasting solutions
Despite the seemingly ceaseless eroding turmoil that currently tornadoes around, it is incredibly profound the levels of humanity that have been revealed underneath the societal detritus. The harsh battering daily news sands have indeed blasted away the top surface of what was our normality, but there is a fresh, untarnished (if tender) radiance showing through. There is also a willingness by most folk to take on these challenges for themselves, and especially others. It may appear to be a period of destruction, but there is huge growth, it’s as if the forest fire that is raging through society is clearing the way for new shoots, a transition, a rebirth.
This is all a precursor to an outstanding movie that upon first impressions given the subject matter, may seem more than a bit all too real to be adding to your must-see list during the continuing weight of lockdown. And you couldn’t be more wrong. To miss this would create a tangible absence in your experience of outstanding storytelling, sublime film making, and a career-defining performance from an A list actor, who it could safely be said, you would never have expected them to take on the role, nor present such a devastating realistic performance (devoid of any award baiting prosthetics), we’re talking Oscar levels here.
I was incredibly fortunate enough to see Romans (2017) a couple of years ago with a private screening offered by the directors, brothers Ludwig and Paul Shammasian. I’d seen a couple of their previous works and it’s safe to say was blown away by the humanistic stories they told and wove with writer Geoff Thompson, in particular The Pyramid Texts.
Between them they skilfully balanced raw truth with staggering deceptive simplicity, mixing in some of the most substantive and timeless of subjects. What was also inherently clear was the integrity of all parties involved, particularly in the case of Romans (now called Retaliation). The primary goal was clearly honouring the story with absolute sensitivity and astute honesty. This respect for the story was done out of implicit professionalism, but also because the story was born from personal experiences that Thompson had in his youth, and has spoken about publicly.
Malky (Orlando Bloom) is in many ways your average everyday contemporary bloke. He works hard all week grafting as a demolition contractor, it’s tough, harsh work, but he’s extremely good at it. It enables him to release an apparent volcano of energy that is constantly bubbling underneath a seemingly calm surface. But the cracks are increasingly showing.
The movie starts with some ominous sounds, tense darkness and an unsettling (but great) score by Stephen Hilton. Malky is demolishing a local church that he used to frequent as a kid, and where his mum happened to have been employed as a cleaner for years. The parishioners, priest and his mum (Anne Reid) have moved on to a newer, more modern, more presentable building, but Malky hasn’t, he can’t. With each strike of his lump hammer he’s not only knocking down the walls of the church, but also the scaffolding of the very essence of who he believed he was, what once was covered is slowly, yet violently being exposed.
With a fleeting, seemingly inconsequential passing moment during a night down the pub with his mates, memories of his youth have been shaken free, and genuine horrors have been released from the abyss of his consciousness, rising swiftly to the surface. Malky was abused as a young kid, and the abuser has returned to his world. The spider web cracks become tears, then ruptures, and there’s a notable change in Malky’s demeanour and behaviour. His actions are increasingly curt, mean and harmful, especially to himself. Something is wrong, and due to his circumstances and standing in the world, he has never been given the tools to fix, nor say, only destroy. So he is doing what is natural to him, he smashes, physically and verbally.
Given his upbringing, there is almost a preordained ritual set of subsequent moments that rise like a Holy Communion at a mass, or sacrifice. Echoes from the very environment that created the turmoil, start to seep through to the present where Malky is recognised by another individual who has had his own demons to battle too. Amidst the suffering seemingly caused by religion, Malky believing himself to be penitent, begins to effectively use the rites of mass, creating his own confessional in the hope of forgiveness. There are moments of brutal torture, even stigmata as if carrying his own emotional crucifix to his own deterministic end. Intertwined on this apparent road to Calvary, there are many moments where the actors soar with the words, breath-stopping monologues and mini-stories Thompson has deftly used to bring nuance and huge depth, heart, humanity and humility, but of course pain, whilst also showing the complexity of the contemporary world we might all well be all drowning ourselves in.
It would be a disservice to Retaliation to go much further into the story, but it’s safe to say it is phenomenal. So potent and bare is the subject that again folk might feel they would want to steer clear of such a harsh reality, which may be a reason why the directors have had such a difficulty in finding distribution (it’s currently not available in their home country the UK). But despite the subject, there is a staggering amount of tenderness amongst all the reality. It’s clearly not a subject that should be dealt with any flippancy, and admirably, it has created an environment where everyone involved got to a sincere truth.
It’s that very environment created by the brothers and Thompson’s writing that has enabled not only all the cast to maintain an excellence, but for Bloom to blow every performance he’s ever done out of the water. There’s clearly a strata of movies where some actors are vying for personal recognition, but this couldn’t be further away from that. There is a distillation, purity, absolute vulnerability and recognisable legitimacy about everything that’s on screen.
Bloom said in a recent interview how he was deeply affected by his research for the role, in particular having spoken to 1 in 6, an organisation that deals with male abuse, which only increased his realisation of the necessity and the importance of the story being told. The statistics for the abuse of females is even higher.
It is that very willingness and recognition of contributing in any way possible, by everyone, all of us, no matter what field they’re in, to try to create a better platform, or foundation of support for others who have endured similar abuses, to not only begin to talk about it, but that we have a society that is willing to listen too, and doesn’t turn a deaf ear to an endemic problem in our society.
Retaliation isn’t just a movie, it’s a conversation that desperately needs to happen.
Retaliation is available to stream or on DVD in various regions throughout the world. Check your local Amazon for more info. If you have been affected by the content of this review, or the subject of the movie, please contact 1in6.org
Avid admirers of the Shammasian brother’s work, Flush caught up with Ludwig and Paul to talk about Retaliation. Here is their very generous response (behind the scenes photos by Luke Varley).
Q: You and your brother Paul have been working with BAFTA-winning writer Geoff Thompson on a number of projects and features now, how did this collaboration start out?
Geoff came to the screening of our first short film “The Carriageway” and he connected with our style and filmmaking approach. He wanted to write something for us and we were also looking for the next project. At that time we were talking about finding something that had gravitas and were exploring the themes of forgiveness. We had also recently finished reading one of Geoff’s books called “Watch My Back” and a particular chapter had us hooked as it revealed his chance meeting with his own abuser decades after the crime and his decision not to exact revenge physically but rather to forgive him and separate himself from the toxic relationship that had controlled him for so many years. It was immensely personal, brave and deeply poignant and we knew it could make for a very challenging, timely short film. So we asked Geoff to write it as a short film for us and it became our first collaboration called “Romans 12:20”. LS
Before collaborating with Geoff on our film projects, I had known him a few years before through martial arts and we became good friends. I saw him transition from Martial Art Instructor to screenwriter when he wrote Bouncer, which was nominated for a BAFTA and then Brown Paper Bag which won a BAFTA. During that time me and Ludwig were honing our technical skills as directors on music videos, commercials and a short film. When the time was right the opportunity presented itself to work with Geoff. He has a very raw, powerful and unique voice, so to merge that with our considered and sensitive directing style was a very exciting prospect. The collaboration felt perfect and we have since developed a strong creative bond. PS
Q) The same writer/directors team had previously made a short film version of this story in 2008, titled ‘Romans 12:20’. When and how was the decision made to expand it into a feature?
When Geoff wrote the short film “Romans 12:20” for us we had no intention of turning it into a longer film. It just didn’t occur to us to think of it as a feature as we believed the story was told complete enough in short form. It was maybe six or so years later that Geoff called us up and said he had an idea about expanding the story to cover aspects we missed in the short, specifically the mother’s denial. At that time, Geoff was writing a stage play called Fragile which was a monologue about a demolition worker who is so damaged by sexual abuse he doesn’t trust anyone, so he uses a tape recorder to record all the things he needs to say that he could never say to his mother who was full of shame and denial. That one added element suddenly opened the whole film up and it became a far more complete way of looking at the barriers people can face when coping with historic child abuse. The shame and the denial from loved ones. So, many years after the short, we were suddenly and very unexpectedly developing the feature version which was both exciting and hugely challenging. LS
Q) The story admirably deals with the difficult subject of child abuse and it’s subsequent effects on the victim in adulthood. Not every actor would be prepared or capable of dealing with such a subject. How did Orlando Bloom come on board?
We knew casting Malky was going to be challenging. The film’s themes are very polarising and Malky is a deeply complex character who is based on our writer’s true-life story about his own sexual abuse experience. It really wasn’t simply a case of us thinking who might be right in the role because so much depended on an actor’s connection with the part, with the heavy material and their willingness to embrace it with honesty and not shy away from the darker aspects. Not all actors want to go to these places or do films that could be interpreted as contentious, so part of the casting process was always going to involve sitting down and talking with actors about the project. When our casting director first made the suggestion to look at Orlando Bloom it was not the obvious choice for us but at the same time, there was something beautifully inspired about it. The fact he hadn’t done anything quite like this before made it even more appealing and we couldn’t wait to speak to him about his thoughts. After our first conversation with Orlando about the project, it was clear he was our man. He had connected with the character already, he knew the material inside out and genuinely embraced the honest approach we wanted to take as directors. In fact, he wanted this to be as brutally raw as it could be and felt if anything gets watered down, it would do the film’s core message an injustice.
We wanted to tell this story in a way that had a chance to resonate with victims of sexual abuse. That was the creative vision for us going in so we always knew that approach would absolutely have to risk disconcerting some people, because if we didn’t take that risk then we would certainly not be telling the story in the way it deserved to be told. Given this, my initial concern with casting our lead was this thought that an actor might try to tone down the contentious elements in the story but it was completely refreshing to start a creative relationship with an actor who embraced this idea that the darkest place to be is where you’ll see the stars the most clearly, so to speak. That was really important to us as film-makers. LS
Q) Orlando releases a phenomenal, career-defining performance, going to places of extreme honesty and vulnerability. As a team how was this prepared for, and was there involvement from Bloom in evolving the script at any stage?
No two actors we’ve worked with have had the same process and we try to create as much of a safe place for their approach as possible. Having said that, an early creative collaboration is a great way to start for us. So Orlando came on with passion and ideas and we were all open to exploring this. Some things stuck and others came and went but when they went they would often leave nuances that were not there before, so the whole process was positive and essential to draw him closer to the material and role. LS
The role required Orlando to connect with deep-rooted and sensitive emotions in order to deliver an authentic performance. If he needed any support or guidance we were always at hand. However, I believe just as much as a director can support and help to guide a performance, there are times to know when to step back and not get in the way. To give space and allow the actor to find the character. A majority of the time Orlando would call on us to know where in the story we were emotionally and thematically. Once the emotional parameters were discussed and set, we encouraged Orlando to explore these boundaries on his own terms. At first, this was a daunting prospect and unlike anything he had done before but he used that energy and transmuted it into the performance we see him deliver on screen. PS5) The script, direction and performances are extremely powerful, but in no way sensationalist or Oscar-baiting. There is a familiar everyman portrayal, where the viewer can immediately relate to the characters on screen. Was this an overtly conscious decision from the very beginning?
In terms of the direction, this was not the type of story that called for an ostentatious approach. We were all there as a team, doing our part and serving the project the best we could. The story, the characters and the overriding message had to shine above everything so we tried to almost get out of our own way as directors to present this in the most honest way we could. It was really important for us that the final film felt authentic to victims of childhood abuse, so respecting the true-life events it was based on was critical. LS
As this film is a character-driven drama, it would have been very difficult to decide on a style of direction before the shoot and try to enforce this during the filming process. We were all technically and emotionally prepared, but the soul of the film was born during the filming process. Each one of us guided it on a daily basis until we ended up with the finished film. This sensitivity to allow the piece to unfold itself ran through every aspect of the film making process – from the script, story board, performance, editing, sound design and music. PS
Q) Geoff Thompson is on record and has held many speeches about his own experience of abuse when he was 11 years old. As well as Geoff’s all too real experience, was there any other research done in the film’s development and production?
No, not really. Everything you see and hear that manages to reach deep into the soul of this delicate, complicated subject all comes from Geoff and his years of experience with it. He laid down a brutal authenticity in the script in his very own distinctive, straight for the heart/gut voice. LS
Being a close friend of Geoff’s for many years and understanding him on an emotional level provided crucial insight into the character’s psyche. PS
Q) There are some very demanding scenes in the movie, which are not only difficult to watch, but also to perform. These moments require complete faith in the directors to be able to go to these places, how did you go about creating this environment?
A lot of open and honest communication with all the actors. If something is needed that is sensitive, the last thing I want is that actor on set feeling unsure about the scene and its place in the film. At that point, we all need to be on the same page and we hopefully achieve unity by talking and qualifying decisions before the shoot day.
The most controversial scene in the film where Orlando’s character self-harms had become a bit of a talking point amongst the production team as everyone was worried about how we would persuade any actor to do it on camera in the way it had been written. We were even asked to write half a page justifying that scene that would be used on request. When we did our script page turn with Orlando and finally got to that sequence, he not only recognised how important it was for the story and character arc but made suggestions that actually made it even more hard-hitting. Orlando was all about keeping this brutally honest which is exactly what the project needed. On the day we shot that scene it was scheduled in for quite a few hours more than other scenes because production was expecting it to be difficult to do and they didn’t want to rush Orlando. I remember speaking with him just before we rolled and told him we have 3 hours so no rush and he said he just needed 30 minutes and that’s pretty much exactly how it was done. It ironically turned out to be one of the easiest scenes to film.
The same applied to Janet Montgomery, who plays Orlando’s girlfriend in the film. Her work ethos was incredible and her dedication to the role was always about finding the honesty in the part and scene. Again, with Janet, we spoke about all the demanding scenes and qualified why we needed certain things and her input was so valuable. LS
It’s about creating faith in the story we are trying to tell and making sure every decision we make honours the story. It’s difficult to convince actors to believe in sensitive or challenging scenes when the motive of that scene is gratuitous or unwarranted. Actors are very quick to pick up on bullshit as well. The difficult scenes in Romans served a definite and crucial purpose, and once the purpose of those scenes was discussed with honesty, the actors embraced every challenge. PS
Q) There is a recurring theme of dealing with challenging subjects and human frailties in your work. Was there any particular seed to this, individually or collectively?
I like characters who face challenges that lead to growth or a deeper understanding of the human spirit. But I also feel a great story is a great story, and both Romans and The Pyramid Texts were stories that moved me and helped me look at my own life in a new light so I felt they were worth telling. LS
These are stories I am naturally drawn to. Challenging subjects and human frailties are themes that, for me, create foundations for the most compelling and engaging narratives. Whether it be Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King, Mat Damon in Good Will Hunting, Tom Cruise in Rain Man, to even more fantastical characters such as David Banner and Bruce Wayne, it’s their emotional arc that captivates me. PS
Q) The social awareness, aspiration and responsibility that permeates the collectives work is on par with the likes of English directors such as Ken Loach, Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine. Are there any particular directors/writers/actors influences on your work?
My taste is hugely varied but I don’t necessarily feel I’ve been consciously influenced by a particular director. As far as the craft of film-making goes, I’m a fan of Michael Mann. The Insider is one of my all-time favourite movies, along with 12 Angry Men. I’m also a Spielberg fan. Raiders, Jaws, E.T. are cinema gold. LS
I am a big David Lynch fan. His working methods have influenced me a lot, primarily about allowing the story to find itself. Once you’re able to discover the soul of a project and connect with it and allow it to talk to you it’s a wonderful journey to undertake. I admire the works of Terry Gilliam, the sheer imaginative landscape of Time Bandits and the magical drama of The Fisher King. I have discovered that people who at first influenced my work have actually ended up influencing me to find my own voice and style. I am inspired by seeing people who perform at their best and this inspires me to step up my game. PS
Q) Are there any non film-related individuals that guiding you or have inspired you the most?
People who accomplish great things every day against insurmountable challenges help me keep my film career challenges firmly in check. I love what I do but it’s not the most important thing in my life. LSI love music, from Rock to Jazz to Classical. A good piece of music is like a short cut to an emotional state which is important when working on projects. Led Zeppelin have been a band that I’ve hugely admired on all levels – artistry, technical ability, artistic integrity. Whenever I need to feel creatively inspired I listen to Kashmir live at Knebworth. How just four individuals can create that sound and emotion is astonishing as well as inspiring. PS
Q) There is an inherent optimism in your work, in that though they are fragile, raw, damaged tales, universal/timeless human issues, the fact that you are covering these subjects provides the initial stepping stones to acceptance, and hopefully a healing process. Is this a considered approach, and will be a key mark of your work?
I think it’s an unconscious choice, yes. I believe absolutely in the human spirit and the need to face our demons to destroy them. I believe there is growth in pain and that it is actually a beautiful thing. If people never pressure test their ideas or confront their fears there is no fertile path to move forward on. Funnily, now that you ask this, Paul and I have written our own screenplay which is a road movie about a man who confronts a personal tragedy by rescuing a dog and going on a road trip. The whole film is itself a healing process for both man and dog. LS
I am very rarely drawn to stories that don’t have an inherent optimism. The work can be very challenging, difficult to watch and hard-hitting but there has to be some form of optimism for me to be interested in it. Even if that optimism is in the form of a valuable lesson that the audience takes away with them. For example, in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, the end is heartbreaking but the audience is left with a valuable lesson about the beauty of human dignity in the face of adversity. PS
Q) Does dealing with such subjects make it more difficult to get distribution? Ideally, ‘Romans’ would be broadcast on the biggest platform possible, or presented on BBC/Channel 4/Netflix.
Yes. Also, sadly, it goes deeper than that too. Our films are independently made. Truly independent, in that, they are not affiliated in any way to any of the British traditional finance institutions so our journey is unfortunately up against the odds before it even starts. Romans has had a theatrical release in various countries around the world and has also been sold to the USA, but nothing has happened in the UK, despite being shot here, with an all British cast and crew. It’s a very common scenario for so many independent film-makers.
Yes, we would love for the film to have a bigger platform as it has an important message. We are looking at ways to push the film forward but at the same time need support to get it in front of audiences. As directors of the film, we can have the passion and tenacity but we need on the ground support. PS
Q) What have you learned from your movies and film career so far, and what do you aspire to?
The industry is full of people who give advice that can easily derail you creatively and cost you a lot of wasted time. Stick to what you believe in, strive for it fearlessly and protect it with all you got. LS
I would also add that apart from sticking to artistic integrity, work with people you trust and who challenge you creatively. The films I have made have taught me that being scared and intimidated by a subject matter is often a great sign that it’s worth exploring. And the moment I feel comfortable with my work or that something is going easy, I quickly step back and look for the discomfort as that’s where the originality and power exists. PS
Q) You have also written some short films too, how has this helped evolve your directing?
I think the early shorts helped define our style. It was a hugely interesting process because we wrote the words but were not thinking about how we were going to approach the making of it. Then we looked at the project almost as if it was not from us and asked ourselves what is this asking from us? But of course, when we put pen to paper we can choose the subjects and characters that appeal to us which is wonderful. It’s complete freedom. L
Writing a short film is driven by imagination. Once that imagination is transferred to the screen, it’s a great lesson in understanding how effective you are in realising your vision. For me writing and then directing a short allowed me to understand my style of directing, my strengths and weaknesses and what I had to improve on. PS
Q) Have you any advice to any directors/writers who are starting out, or indeed need to grow?
Don’t wait for acceptance. Write your idea, go shoot it, edit it and get it out there. Keep doing it until the phone rings. The technology available today enables this to happen far easier than 10-20 years ago. Granted, that means everyone is doing it, but if you shoot a piece of dynamite, you’ll shine above that many more people. LS
Take yourself out of your comfort zone and collaborate with others you admire and who have powerful stories to tell. Be open to criticism, learn from it and keep moving forward. PS
Q) What are The Shammasian Brothers working on next?
We’ve written our own script, a US-based road movie, that is our passion project. We also have a few other films at various stages of development and fingers crossed something should get announced very soon. LS