As its title gives away, the new film Assassination Nation is not a gentle experience. Writer-director Sam Levinson even offers nervous audiences a head’s up before the film really begins, flashing the words “A Few Trigger Warnings” on-screen before cycling through images of drug use, violence, murder and more. It’s safe to say that the following two hours live up to Levinson’s cautions. Focusing on a small American town that tears itself apart after a hacker starts uploading everyone’s private texts and photos to the cloud, the thriller drowns the viewer in blood and sex. But can cinema be shocking if it only has shock on its mind?
Ahead of Assassination Nation’s Canadian premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival the other week, a vaping, 33-year-old Levinson (son of Rain Man director Barry Levinson) sat down with The Globe and Mail to discuss technology, ideology and why too much is never enough.
Did you have a particularly disastrous online experience that sparked this idea?
I started writing this five days before bringing a child into this world, so that was the impetus. I’ve been on social media in the past, and I found that rarely are the rational or sane or moderate voices heard – it’s the extreme voices. This was about looking at how we’re relating to one another and trying to make sense of the vitriol and anger that’s springing up.
There’s a line toward the end of the film – “I did it for the lulz” – which is popular on sites such as 4chan. How deep did you go into researching that corner of the internet?
I get the question a lot about, “How do you write for these characters who aren’t yourself, and have these different backgrounds and identities and genders?” I think what’s exciting about the internet, though, is that it’s like everyone’s diary has gone public. That’s beautiful, because you’re now able to understand things from different people’s perspectives that you were maybe never able to comprehend before.
The ending of the film suggests that there’s no hope for the current culture, that we’re all a bit doomed no matter what. Do you believe that?
I don’t think so – I think the movie ultimately is idealistic, despite how vitriolic and mad it gets. I know it’s angry and it’s shocking and a lot of those things, but I think that at the end of the day, the movie is a criticism of righteousness. I mean that on all sides, irrespective of politics. The movie is ultimately saying that the real villain is not social media, it’s not the medium, but the people who operate with absolute certainty that they are right and that their actions are just. That’s a recipe for a horror film, and that’s what this film is.
On your comment just now about how to write for certain characters: This is a film focusing on four women, a female-led ensemble cast and it’s a feminist-forward film. Why did you think you were the right person to deliver that?
I always find this interesting: people ascribing a certain ideology to the film. When I sit down to write, I don’t say, “I’m going to write an ideological tract.” I try to write from a character perspective. I don’t design stories to fit some political ideology. I design stories about characters who I love and care about, while trying to make sense of an increasingly mad and toxic and insane world. Now, I chose four young women to tell this story through because, when I think back to when I was a teenager, I was really angry. And I was thinking, okay, it’s now years later, so how do I tell this story about teenagers who are angry at the world they’re living in? Who are the best characters? And it just seemed like it was these four girls.
Why were you so angry?
It has to do with how you navigate who you are, in terms of identity, in terms of who do you belong to. It’s a confusing age, and I remember feeling everything so greatly and strongly. I didn’t conform to gender stereotypes, and I had no control over the world that was built around me. I was very sensitive, so when sensitivity has no place to go, it’s often turned into anger or frustration. I don’t know, I could lay down on the floor here and we could get into a whole therapy session …
Ha, that’s all right … You use trigger warnings here at the beginning of the film, but what are your thoughts on the prevalence of trigger warnings in real life, on campus and such?
Let me put it this way: On a purely intellectual level, I don’t understand the use of trigger warnings. On an emotional level, I understand why people are sensitive to certain pieces of material. Do I think that, when we’re teaching a book at school, should we go through a myriad list of trigger warnings? No. But I understand why people desire it. I’m not trying to control ultimately the process through which these decisions are made, and I have no interest in it. I look at things from an emotional perspective, and an intellectual perspective. But I can only respond to things through what I do, which is tell stories. And my story is about a generation that believes in trigger warnings to a certain extent, and is trying to navigate an increasingly unsafe world because of the level of anger directed at them anonymously online.
There’s a lot of imagery in here that is intended to shock. Have you always admired what could be called “shock cinema”?
Absolutely. I remember John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, that was the film where I realized you could do anything you want – there were no boundaries. Ultimately, I do believe this, and the debate around films right now, there’s a conservatism in filmmaking today that didn’t used to exist. Films should be provocative and should offend people. They should break genre and form and challenge us and our perspectives. At the same time, I don’t think this film is pure shock – it has a lot of heart. And it’s non-judgmental in many respects. Ultimately, I hope the film feels emotional and cathartic, in some weird and perverse way.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Assassination Nation opens Sept. 21