Steven Shainberg is admittedly not a big horror fan, but this hasn’t stopped him from making a horror film. The director, best known for his provocative 2002 film Secretary, premiered his latest film, Rupture, at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Rupture is a film that can get easily muddled and complicated when trying to describe the plot. At its core is the transformative nature of fear. Noomi Rapace carries the film as a single mother, Renee, who is kidnapped by an alien enclave who insists they are helping her. According to these creatures, humans are capable of transcending their humanity by being exposed to their greatest fears, which causes them to “rupture” and essentially become post-humans.
Mashing together science fiction and horror, Rupture is to fear what Martyrs is to pain. It asks the question, “What makes us human?” and answers it with a single word. Though genre fans will note the overt nods and homages to their beloved cinematic history, Rupture somehow also feels like an outsider film. It is a horror film made by someone who has not lived and breathed horror—a tourist.
Shainberg sat down with Paste the morning after the film’s world premiere. High on its warm reception and marveling at the legions of international genre fans, Shainberg spoke with us about fear, spiders and what a whirlwind horror education did to his directorial aesthetic.
Paste Magazine: With Rupture you’ve stepped into genre film for the first time. Why now? What inspired this?
Steven Shainberg: I went to see Paranormal Activity. I was interested in two things about that movie. The first thing was that it is really about something we don’t see, and I thought that was very interesting. It was interesting to me that it could work. And the second thing was that it is really just a movie about escalation. It gets scarier and scarier and scarier, and closer and closer and closer. From my point of view it was almost an art piece. I had this idea coming out of that movie, because I had been reading a lot about people who thought they had been abducted by aliens. There is a lot of work that has been done—strangely enough at Harvard—trying to analyze what is the group psychosis of those people. Well, what if a friend of mine called me up and said, “I just saw a video on YouTube of a person who was abducted by aliens, and it is real, and it happened,” and that was verified? I started to think of a found-footage movie like that. I mentioned this to the producer I was working with at the time, Andrew Lazar [American Sniper], and he got interested. Slowly it evolved past a found-footage movie. But the thing that interested me the most through the development of the movie was how long you can hold the audience without them knowing what’s going on. In Paranormal Activity, you don’t see the creature, and you don’t know what’s happening. She doesn’t know what’s happening! It’s the experience in horror of the unknown that I think is most intriguing. It’s the confrontation of the unknowable, on a grander philosophical level. It isn’t just simply not knowing what is behind the door, but it’s also that you don’t know a million things. To take a character to a place where she doesn’t know what’s happening to her for a really long time, and to see whether or not the audience can be held through that was intriguing to me.
Paste: It’s interesting that you are bringing that up because one of the layers of horror in Rupture is that Renee (Noomi Rapace) is being tortured by a very specific fear. She needs to name it, and they even have categories for it. So not only is she dealing with her extreme fear of spiders, but she is also grappling with the fact that she may never see her son again.
Shainberg: The spiders are the little door that she can pass through. In our own lives, we have these doors. They are not generally so literal. Film needs a physical metaphor, and a visual metaphor. But within ourselves, we know what these things are. They are our spiders, and we have to find a way to pass through them. If you take 100 people that would be assessed, you could eliminate half of them, for various reasons. And then another half. You would be zeroing in on people who have this access. One of the reasons they are observing Renee is that she is in a very specific moment in her life. She has a bad relationship with her husband, so she is fragile. She’s about to go skydiving, so she is looking for a transformation. She wants to open something new in herself, and she doesn’t even know what it is. She is very “ripe” as far as they are concerned.
Paste: Have you had fear in your life that transformed you?
Shainberg: I think that all transformation deals with fear, by necessity. That is the nature of transformation. It involves some kind of inner experience. Those ideas are linked in my head. That’s the same thing that Diane Arbus went through in her life and in my film Fur. She had to go through that terror of what it meant to pick up a camera and go photograph someone that terrified her. That was the door through which she had to pass in order to discover her particular genius. That’s how things are.
Paste: Have you been a horror fan for life, or do you merely dabble?
Shainberg: I’m a dabbler. I don’t like films that are gruesome; I like films that are psychological. I’m more inclined to watch Polanski’s work, like Repulsion, than I am to watch Saw. I’m more inclined to watch The Shining than I am to watch an Eli Roth film. My tastes are more sophisticated, but that was one of the more amazing things about working with Karim Hussain, the cinematographer [Hobo with a Shotgun, The Theatre Bizarre, We Are Still Here]. He has lived in this world for a really long time. When we first started talking, I gave him “normal” horror references. He was like, “You’ve got to watch some stuff.” He basically kidnapped me and took me to his apartment where he has this giant screen, and for three weeks [I watched] stuff that I could not believe. It was great.
Paste: From that horror education, what stuck in your memory?
Shainberg: These Italian, baroque horror movies. These gave me the courage to make the colors in Rupture so aggressive. I would have naturally been inclined to be more subtle about how far to visually push it. He encouraged me to do it in a way that made sense for these characters. Their bodies are more sensitive to light. So those movies helped me with this film in a big way.
Paste: Were there any other films you were pulling from? There is a fairly obvious visual nod to The Shining, but I’m wondering if you had fun planting other geeky eggs in there for the audience.
Shainberg: [Laughs] There is other stuff, but you’ve got to find them. One of the big things I got from my Karim Hussain seminar and by coming to this festival is that there is an aggression to horror imagery. But if you look at Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, that is as graphic as any horror film. It is done in this high-minded context. I am curious about how to take the aggression in horror imagery into another place. I’m not quite sure what that means, but I know that it is interesting to me.
Paste: It is also interesting that you bring up aggression. These aliens have aggressive methods, but there is a certain kindness to them.
Shainberg: They think that they are doing something wonderful.
Paste: Precisely. So you’ve identified their aggression but then intentionally removed it.
Shainberg: To me it is too easy to make them perpetrators of lunacy. We’ve seen that a million times. What throws you and intrigues you is that they don’t behave like people who are doing evil. When Lesley Manville says, “You seem to be doing just fine,” that is a crazier thing to experience if you are in Renee’s situation. Why aren’t they the way that I would think them to be? That’s even more disconcerting.
Paste: What would make you rupture? Do you have a fear that would cause you to transform and transcend?
Shainberg: Lots of things! In order to make this movie, one would have to have ruptured in one way or another. And that was the criteria for all of the people playing the aliens. We had actors who came in, and were great, but producer Andrew Lazar and I would look at each other, shake our heads, and say, “No rupture.” It was a weird thing, but we understood what we were talking about. There must have been some deep experience that altered their lives. They needed to have a connection, with having gone through that kind of change. A lot of people don’t have that experience. They might think that they do, and as an actor they might try to invent something. But the bottom-line feeling from them is not going to be of a rupture. I hope that our group of people “fit.” A different group of actors would not have the right feel for the movie.
Paste: Is most of your casting a gut feeling?
Shainberg: What else do I have? If it is all going through me, and I’m making those choices, then they are naturally going to have a consistency. I did have criteria for them … I think.
Paste: You talk about feeling visually empowered after working with Karim Hussain. Did the story of the film transform at all after your horror education?
Shainberg: Did you see 10 Cloverfield Lane? That film does what we did not want to do. [Ed. Note: Spoiler alert.]
At the end there is a spaceship, and a bunch of aliens, and she gets away from them in a ludicrous manner. It is silly. One of the things I was interested in was taking this trope, and never allowing it to be silly. Nicolas Roeg did it in The Man Who Fell to Earth. You fucking believe that! Obviously some of it is just Bowie. I wanted to see if it can be done. And can you do it in a way that starts on a suburban street? Yes, the aliens’ faces reveal something completely creepy and otherworldly, but they are moving amongst us. There is an ordinariness to it. The film itself doesn’t follow those obvious beats. We don’t bring in a spaceship at the end. We don’t use all of those genre conventions. Maybe this makes it more interesting—I don’t know. But it definitely makes Rupture different.
Paste: We are in a renaissance of contemporary horror film where you are afraid of the unknown, like It Follows.
Shainberg: It Follows is a great example. What I really like about It Follows is that we never know what “It” is. We get the rules, right at the beginning when she is in that wheelchair. He tells her, “It is going to do this, this, and this.” What I think is really beautiful about it is that we all know what It is, but the movie never says. That is a purely conceptual horror film.
Paste: Any other horror films you’ve seen recently and gotten a kick out of?
Shainberg: Ex Machina is a work of absolute freaking genius. Beautiful. Incredibly great.