I’m going to be loud and clear for you fright fanatics: John Swaf & Cory Asraf’s LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR is quite easily one of the most intensely poignant films to hit the festival circuit in years (review). A mixture of the quiet southern-noir and the terrifying hitman looking for his target film, the duo created one hell of a movie and definitely one of my favorites in quite some time. I mean, really, where else are you going to see Marilyn Manson play a scary as the devil Indian hitman in a film about two on the run star-crossed lovers who also happen to be siblings?
Swaf & Asraf took times out their busy schedules to chat with Icons of Fright about all things LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR, so read on!
Swaf: Jerry!, Baby! We loved the review!
I loved the movie so much, I thought it was extremely unique and it was something that I just haven’t seen before, so it’s our pleasure to chat with you guys today.
Asraf: Yeah man, we really appreciate it. Yours was the first review we got, so it was very very awesome to read.
Swaf: I think the term we’re looking for is validating, so thank you.
I’m glad to hear that. Making such a unique film, I’m curious how the project came to be, it’s such an interesting story.
Swaf: We started writing the script like 10 years ago, it’s all for the most part based on real people and most of the subject matter is stuff that we’ve personally dealt with, so it all kind of worked its way into the story. It’s kinda like a therapeutic, cathartic process going through getting the film made, and you know finally releasing it to the world.
Asraf: I signed on a few years after he had written the first draft of the script and since then he and I have worked together collaborating as co-directors on multiple projects and through making those projects we really found our voice as filmmakers and over the years we tried, we failed and eventually we got the opportunity to make a short film that was the prequel to LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR,which is where we found a lot of the actors and once they came in, it really brought a whole new life into the project. That really got some fire under our asses and that’s how we got the opportunity to get (Marilyn) Manson and Mark Boone, Jr and all the SOA guys through making our short film.
I was curious about the performances. I mean every performance seemed so naturalistic, so realistic and think that’s what makes Manson’s character just so terrifying to me. It never feels like that cliché hitman thing, plus you can really identify with every character, but at the same time, every character seems extremely dangerous. You mentioned the short film prequel, which of the actors were in that one and who came later on in the process of casting the feature?
Asraf: In the short film, we had the girl who plays June, Sam Quartin, Gore Abrams, who plays Brown in the stand off in the beginning with Manson,and also the old man in the feature, Marvin.
How did you come to cast Slaine and Marilyn Manson? I thought both of them were so different from what you would expect, different then what you know of their normal “personas” but damn, they both just worked so well for the film.
Swaf: Slaine we got because of our short film. We kind of just drove around the country and rented out movie theaters and screened it, just to try to bring awareness to the feature and he came to the screening in Boston. We talked to him after the screening and it really resonated with him and he said, “I’d love to work with you guys,” so when it came time and we called him, he was in. Manson came through Mark Boone, Jr. Dude, right up until two days before the film, we didn’t have that role cast because people had dropped out. Mark called Manson and Manson said he was into it so he drove overnight and showed up. Fucking crazy.
Was his dialogue all on the page or was there any improvising going on? His scenes are so quiet and intense and the dialogue really got to me.
Asraf: Not a lot of improv, but he definitely brought something very different to it. We initially we had written it for a full Native American, so once Manson came on we kind of had to reconstruct the bones of the character and the presence of it, so we really spent a lot of time discovering who this character was. It wasn’t like we had a lot of time to talk to Manson about it, so we really discovered it while we were shooting and he was great about it.
One of the countless things that really stood out to me, is that with every location it just felt like you could of like feel the paint chip off the walls, it felt like almost like a run and gun type of film as far as the locations, they just felt so realistic. Was that set design? Or did you just find a lot of really interesting places to film?
Asraf: Both. I mean Oklahoma is just like a forgotten place, there’s so many run down houses, that’s a big reason we shot there. We had the liberty to enter all of these places that we normally wouldn’t be able to get into like the police station. That was this an old police station that wasn’t used. Marvin’s house was like a fucking mess, you couldn’t even stand in there for more than 10 minutes without getting sick. These places were really authentically disgusting, you know? I mean we had an amazing set designer who added so much to the film, but most of the locations were authentic and real. As far as the whole run and gun thing goes, John and I started shooting with us and a monopod, like with a Dslr camera and we would go around and we would flew out to New Orleans and we broke into places and we shot some film there and we would go to Chicago and bounce around the hood, the fucking grittiest neighborhood around that we could find and shoot there. I mean we’ve always been attracted to the run and gun approach and a lot the locations we didn’t really have until two hours before. The church particularly, Oklahoma is in the bible belt, we couldn’t get a church to give us permission to shoot there because when they read the script, we killed two priests! (Laughs). What we had to do was write an alternative version of that scene, and give them different sides. It pretty much tells them that a kid is coming to find you know guidance through the church and then we went in there and shot something entirely different. We had to fuel a lot of the scenes, we had to break a lot of rules to you know to make the film happen, we really embraced the guerrilla filmmaking style and we always have and we always will. I think that really came through in the film, when you said it really felt gritty and authentic and real because you know, these were real locations and a lot of the time we just showed up and left it was it was, you know.
That adds to the film in so many ways, it’s so unlike any other film, it feels dangerous to watch and I think that’s just a testament to what you guys were able to accomplish.
Swaf: It kind of felt like you poked yourself on a dirty needle or something, right?! (Laughs).
It reminded me a lot of those southern noir thrillers, I’m curious if you were inspired by any films in particular with this one?
Swaf: We have a lot of films that we relate to and identify with I think. As far as what we wanted to achieve, it was more of like an emotional thing that we were trying to capture that I personally hadn’t seen before and that Cory and I didn’t really know whether or not it existed. We wanted to capture this thing that made you hold your breath and was more of like an emotional thriller than a visual thriller. We really wanted it to be a visceral experience that left everybody questioning themselves and how they felt about it, and allowed them to fill in the blanks.
Asraf: We were just having this conversation this morning over breakfast with Slaine. If you look at the old work that John and I had done, the first film we had shot together, in Chicago like five years ago, it’s actually up on the internet, you can see you can hear poetry, you hear the same writing, you hear the same sound design, you see the same aesthetics, the same motif. That was just like us, we stayed up for four days straight and we were just partying and just making this film and that was the first thing we did, we didn’t even really know each other that well. What threw us together was this film. You can see it as plain as day, I think it had always really been there, but as far as like what film would have been a direct influence, I can’t really say. I love all kinds of films like shitty b horror movies, or other types of movies like CASINO, you know what I mean? So a lot of different influences and we try to throw some dark comedy in there too. We didn’t want the film to take itself too seriously. We didn’t want to come across as pretentious or ostentatious.
The performances between the two leads, their chemistry was just so great that it felt like they had months or years to get to know each other, but like you said, you had that run and gun mentality, how were you able to pull those performances from them? Were they naturally just that great?
Swaf: Sam particularly had two years to play with this character. She plays the character in the prequel, in the short we made, so she had a long time to really develop and live with this character and she knew this story. And it also helped that these characters in film hadn’t seen each other in a long time, you know it’d been six or seven years, so we kept it that way and actually made it so they didn’t see each other until we actually shot so they showed up in the diner when they first see each other, that’s what we shot first with them and we just threw them in and rolled on rehearsal and it was amazing. We had a lot time to talk to Nico about it, but really I can’t take anything away from them, because they both did an amazing job, that kind of emotional thriller thing we were talking about that we wanted to achieve. When they meet in that diner, and the camera stays in that one shot and kind of pans back and forth, Cory and I were looking at the monitor like ‘Holy Fuck, man this is fucking amazing. I can’t believe we’re getting it.’ it’s really on them man. They really are phenomenal. I can’t take anything away from them.
They’re absolutely great. When it comes to the plot, the idea of the characters being adopted siblings and lovers at the same time, I think handled by anybody else in any other film, it would feel very exploitative and stuff, but it doesn’t in your film for a single second. You care about your characters and you want them to get out of the situations that they’re in and I think that’s a real testament to not only the writing, but also to the performances. Were you ever kind of concerned about maybe people’s reaction to that or were you just confident that the story would tell itself that well?
Asraf:: I think it had less to do with them being related but more to do with a love being forbidden, you know? I think that was the biggest idea behind it and it’s interesting, it’s intriguing. I think a lot of people came into the film expecting to see something entirely different, which is why we got a lot of coverage from like horror sites and such. When you sit down and watch the movie, it’s not what you expect, it’s not a slasher film, there’s not a lot of violence on screen, everything is pretty understated, I think it’s kind of like another thing about the story that you wouldn’t expect.
Swaf: We didn’t want to put a lot of exposition in there about the characters’ past, I mean it’s all there in the subtext and the dialogue, but there’s so much in there, it’s not overstated and we didn’t make a big deal about it or play it out to where it would be this kind of cheesy or exploited thing so we were kind of trying to be careful about that too.
When it comes to the film from here on out, are you gearing towards taking it on the festival circuit route first, or are you hoping to kind of get it out there distributed on the dvd/blu-ray platform and that kind of stuff? Are you kind of wanting it to sit with audiences first?
Asraf: We have another international premiere scheduled in Barcelona in October, but we haven’t made any commitments between now and then to any other festivals. Of course we want to pick the right festivals and we want to make sure we’re going to be ready, but as far as distribution goes, we want to make sure we find the right home. We’ve been talking to a few different people, but the biggest thing is making sure that we’re going to have control of the marketing and maintain a certain level of integrity with like how the film can be packaged, and brought into the world, because the last thing we want is for this film to be is to be exploited, and that’s just the reality of the film we made, we just want to make sure we maintain integrity throughout the entire marketing process of the film and the release of the film. We would love a theatrical release, because this film is meant to be viewed in the dark, it’s going to need to be recolored and revisited for sound and color, because there’s so much in the sound design and it’s so dark in the color grade that if it’s going to be released digitally, we’re going to have to revisit it, because it just wouldn’t look right, this film was meant for a theater.