Matthew A. Brown's JULIA has been gaining rave reviews , it is a powerful film, one that is hard watch thanks to it's subject matter, but it is a film that Ginger Nuts of Horror highly recommends you watch.
Rehab for anything can be a real bitch. Especially if an unorthodox treatment is sought but not followed to the letter. The result could well be psychological damage with horrific consequences. Enter Julia Shames (THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (FIRST SEQUENCE) star Ashley C. Williams), a meek and mild clinician at a thriving plastic surgery business, who dates the wrong guy and ends up being drugged and gang-raped by his friends. Catatonic after suffering such brutal trauma she hears about a new kind of therapy being whispered about for her damaged condition as practised by the mysterious Dr. Sgundud. What that restorative cure entails takes Julia into a whole new shadowy area of her personality, one that teaches her how not to become a victim anymore and transforms her into an empowered Angel of Vengeance.
Alex: First of all, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Julia is your debut feature film – how did your experience in short films prepare you for the experience?
Matthew: Thank you for having me. Without having made all four of my shorts, there’s no way I’d’ve been prepared to do what I did with JULIA. I’d come from a background of acting, so with my first short, for eg, my focus was entirely centered around the actors, and I chose a ‘dogme 95’ type approach visually, also being heavily inspired by John Cassavetes, as well as Krzysztof Kieslowski, but basically didn’t really know what I was doing with the camera, and frankly didn’t know enough to understand after the fact what worked, why it worked, what didn’t, and why it didn’t. It was on my second short, at this point having really started to delve into cinema with a more directorial eye, that I started to have a sense of the camera as storyteller, and most fundamentally the camera as means to tell the story outside the picture—What the film is really about beyond the surface narrative. And the way I learned on this 2nd short was actually by NOT getting what I wanted visually. I’d worked out an entire shot list on my own, and then discussing with my DP and in the interest of time and her own preferred aesthetic, among other things, like working with kids, most of them non-actors, I let go of what I’d envisioned as the most effective way to tell that story—but this time around, it was clear to me what the film was lacking and why. My 3rd short, VICTIM, is when I feel like I started to become a filmmaker. In the interim, I’d also attended the Binger Film Lab in Amsterdam, so that too helped, but by the time I came to VICTIM, I’d had two features come painfully close to getting made and then collapse, and I’d been preparing by doing all of the above—as well as watching movies almost religiously—so when all collapsed, VICTIM came out of me, which now for the first time weighed more heavily on the stylistic/ aesthetic / tonal aspects. But still I wasn’t satisfied with VICTIM, it was something I just had to shoot as I hadn’t been on set for a couple of years and I was going insane after having put so much work into the two films that collapsed, while living in Berlin at the time, feeling isolated, etc. The other thing about VICTIM, and how pivotal my shorts were to realizing JULIA, is that VICTIM in fact led directly to JULIA—it’s the short on which JULIA is based. But it was my final short, CRUSH, in which for the first time I felt I’d successfully married content and form and told the story in precisely the way I’d intended. Also, with CRUSH, I’d started to really explore this marriage of the raw vs. the poetic, beauty vs. cruelty, which is very present in JULIA.
Alex: Where did the concept for the movie come from in the first place? It's a really interesting core idea.
Matthew: I’ve always been drawn to stories of transformation. As I’d had my own ‘crisis’, or whatever you want to call it, around the time the two films I mentioned collapsed—naturally it wasn’t only about the films collapsing—but basically a lot of anxiety came up, I couldn’t get any rest at all, and I went into therapy and got into meditation. Through the meditation, I had quite a radical awakening, and for the first time since I was a kid, found myself actually able to ‘play’ again. Everything, literally everything and anything, took on this striking light… even things most would associate with ugliness, I only saw extreme beauty… Also at this time I’d become fascinated with Asian cinema, Japanese and Korean revenge thriller/ horrors (like Miike’s Audition, Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, among others) and Hong Kong gangster noirs, most notably the work of Johnnie To, as well as the work of Melville, Le Samourai, and this existential genre cinema, going hand in hand with a ‘cinema of process’ … So when I was approached re: turning VICTIM into a feature, it was like this explosion went off inside me. I saw the possibility of fusing all my own then cinematic-and life-obsessions into this narrative in which a woman, who, through intense suffering, undergoes a transformation into this empowered being-albeit a twisted one-of light. I thought of it as a holy evil awakening… So the psychiatrist’s therapy, which was at its core about transcending the ego and awakening to who you really are, came straight out of my own experience via meditation… But again, in the film, this was used to evil ends to service the doctor’s own suffering, even though the irony is that for Julia (the character), the therapy actually worked!
Alex: Was it difficult to decide how much to show when it came to the more brutal scenes in the movie?
Matthew: Not particularly. I was always clear that the emphasis would be on Julia and her inner emotional state and how she’s reacting to the violence as opposed to the violence itself. That said, I was also aware that the genre demanded a certain level of graphic violence, and I didn’t want to let down our audience. A funny story on this though— As you know, there’s a very graphic shot at the midpoint of the film—which incidentally has been cut to secure our R rating for our upcoming theatrical release in the states—so my cinematographer and I were over at our SFX guy’s house discussing the various SFX shots, and we didn’t touch on that shot (the dick slicing shot) as even in the script, I’d noted that the camera stays on Julia and Sadie’s faces during the act. But Brian (Spears) suddenly busts out, “oh and I know you said it’s O/S in the script, but I’ve got a couple of extra penises laying around, so if you want to…” My DP and I just looked at each other and were like “we have to shoot it.” Then, in the edit, it initially felt like the scene was stronger with it in, and no one objected to it, until a year down the line in the form of the MPAA! But interestingly, the way the scene now plays is more in tune with my original vision, and the notion of staying with Julia’s experience of the event vs. the literal event. Not to say it’s any less brutal.
Alex: There were a lot of real close ups of Julia - was this a conscious artistic decision?
Matthew: Yes. JULIA is about this woman undergoing this intense metamorphosis… I wanted to live and breathe inside her universe… inside her experience of the world around her… And then during the edit, we focused even more intensely on her in this way, staying with her all the way. This was also due to the strength of Ashley’s performance. The story is her story. It is about what lives and breathes in her blood, her tears. If I didn’t have someone who could deliver on the level she did, my whole vision in a way would have collapsed.
Alex: I saw this very much as an alternative 'rape revenge' movie - have you watched others in the genre like Last House on the Left, Irreversible and so on?
Matthew: The only rape/revenge film I’d seen before shooting JULIA was Irreversible, which I think is a brilliant piece of cinema. I wasn’t even familiar that this whole ‘rape revenge’ subgenre existed until after Julia first premiered at FrightFest in London. My influences were primarily even outside the horror genre, ranging from the work of Melville and the Asian filmmakers’ referenced above, to the work of Michael Mann, Fincher, and even Tony Scott’s True Romance. Those were the films/filmmakers I referenced early on with my cinematographer (Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson). We also discussed Let the Right One In, the Swedish version… So it makes sense that people speak about JULIA as being rape revenge ‘like nothing you’ve never seen before’.
Alex: The movie paints a very unpleasant picture of the male gender - although I'd argue not an entirely inaccurate one. Was that something that you set out with as an intention?
Matthew: Well, the thing is, we have to remember that Sadie teaches Julia how to target a very specific kind of man. So it’s not like they head out there and then any man they look at will do. Sadie’s a pro, she knows what to look for, and she imparts this to Julia. So this was not meant to be a comment on the male gender in any way, only a specific type of man, and the type they target – here I have to add we struggled a bit on the extras casting front to pack the bars with the actual types they were after, it being a small indie and all – so, yeah, the type they target, well, I may agree with you, the picture Sadie paints for Julia may not be entirely inaccurate!
Alex: For the most part, you kept the 'therapist' very much out of shot - what was the reasoning behind this?
Matthew: There are a number of reasons for this—one is I felt it would add a layer of tension, keeping the evil lurking faceless, this sort of disembodied voice that allows the viewer to imagine who this man is, as the imagination of the viewer can often be infinitely more powerful than anything we could show, but the more fundamental reason was the intention of the entire piece to be WITH Julia as she’s drawn towards her dark destiny, and then even more so the power of Ashley’s performance almost demanded we stay with her. We ultimately went with what was strongest in the edit, in fact sacrificing a fair amount of the psychiatrist’s story, which some viewers have felt was lacking. But I think what we have is what was always meant to be.
Alex: How has the response to Julia been on the horror festival circuit?
Matthew: It’s been pretty solid. We’ve played many of the biggest genre fests, have won almost 20 awards to date, including I think 8 Best Actress awards for Ashley. I think audiences tend to either love or hate the movie. Some respond to the style, the look and feel, the music, etc, more than they do the story, but in this case the elements all working together I think still satisfy on delivering a powerful viewing experience. And this movie really is so much also about that story outside the picture, the spirit of this broken girl who becomes an empowered being through the course of the film.
Alex: Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?Matthew: I have a number
of things in active development now, including a NY-based gangster film, a WWII horror film, also a kickass and truly ecstatic Yakuza film, but don’t want to give details beyond that right now. Soon though!
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