Sam Levinson on Creating Chaos in ‘Assassination Nation’

Levinson discusses his polarizing sophomore feature.
Assassination Nation
By  · Published on September 26th, 2018

One of the most highly-buzzed films to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Assassination Nation is absolutely chaotic. Writer/Director Sam Levinson pits four high school girls against an entire town run amok. After the malevolent data leak exposes the secrets of Salem, the townspeople target Lily (Odessa Young), who has been falsely accused of executing the leak. Thus, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) come to their friend’s aide and violently ward of the crazed townspeople. With its ultra-violence and insanely relevant subject matter, the film is a sight to experience. Following the Sundance premiere, I sat down with Levinson to discuss how the film explores privacy, violence, and trigger warnings in the digital age.

How long have you had the idea for the film?

I’ve probably been thinking about it for maybe about a year before I wrote it, but I didn’t know what shape or form it would take. I started writing it in May 2016, it was about five days before my wife gave birth to our child. It just all clicked and I saw the story and how it went. I started writing and I wrote the first draft in three and a half weeks. Which is the draft we ended up going out with originally. I sent it to Kevin Turner, my producer who is brilliant, and he immediately understood it. Then we went out to everyone else and that was when I found out that a lot of people didn’t understand it. There was a lot of pushback on the script initially, because of its content. I also think that it’s hard to tell when something like this is on the page – you don’t necessarily know how it will be shot or how it will come together. We ended up getting it going and then we started shooting in March of 2017.

You mentioned that your wife was expecting a child when you thought of the film. I think it’s an important question to ask, were you expecting a girl?

It was a boy. We didn’t find out until late what the sex of the baby was. I would find myself thinking and imagining, “Alright, if I have a girl, what’s her life going to be like? If I have a boy, what’s his life going to be like? What’s the world going to look like? What are my anxieties and fears about the world based on gender and experience?” I think a lot of the script came out of my anxieties of what the world is like and how difficult it is for young people to navigate today.

How did you cast the four leads?

I always look at it like a family. I’d seen a photo of Odessa Young shortly after I finished the script and I inquired about her. I said that I’d love to have a Skype meeting with her, but I couldn’t get ahold of her for three months. We started casting other roles and then she came back around I remember the first Skype meeting I had with her. I opened up the Skype call and she was sitting there on her bed, cross-legged, in front of a giant American flag on the wall. She was like, “What’s up man? How you doing?” I knew right off the bat. She’s perfect for this. Once we attached her it was all about who was going to play Bex and Em. I remember the day Hari [Nef] came in. She walked in, she sat down, I had a feeling about her. I’d heard about her and had seen a little bit of her work. It was the morning after the election. She came in and read the first scene and I thought, “Alright I’m done. We found Bex.” With Abra, I’d seen a FACT Magazine documentary on her. It was just her walking around London talking about music. There was something that felt so young and loose – she just had this great charisma. Same with Suki [Waterhouse], who has this manic, fun energy. I think as you go along you start wondering, “How is this person going to play off of this person?” You start to connect them in that way and hope that when they get together there is an electricity.

The film tackles issues of privacy and mistreatment of private information. Of course, these discussions are very relevant today. What was your initial approach to handling these very real issues?

I remember the Sony hack and the leak of all those actresses’ private photos. I always remember, it’s like, you read some article and in the article, they just link to it. Here’s the link to read this person’s emails, this person’s photos. What fascinated me about it – and also troubled me about it – was the industry that hacks and leaks create. The sheer economics of it. They tend to outweigh everything else. Even if you’re writing a think piece against it, against this invasion of privacy, they’re literally still linking to it because they know it will garner clicks. This idea kept playing over and over in my head. We as a country, our lust for entertainment has sort of superseded our sense of self-preservation. Everything is spectacle. Everything is entertainment, whether it’s shame, invasion of privacy, abuse, no matter what it is it’s become almost a sporting event. It’s like the new Roman Coliseum in a way. I find that to be quite troubling. This is something that I think affects all aspects of the political spectrum. It’s not reserved for one or the other, it’s truly American.

So it was the leaks of photos and emails that began the thought process of crafting the film?

It was leaks, it was privacy, it was what seemed to be – I was fascinated by how the internet was heightening or sort of intensifying people’s ideologies. Whichever ideologies they may be. They seem to get stricter and more extreme and I started to notice that on Twitter, on various social media sites – the more extreme the voice, or the opinion, the more they were heard. This kind of interesting thing happened where there was a kind of righteousness building on in all sort of pockets. At the same time, everyone felt sort of unforgiving. I think I wanted to make a movie that dealt with the flaws of ideology and the messiness of it. How ideology doesn’t always encompass the human experience and yearning and discourse in general. It’s not about the evolution of an idea but whether or not you have that specific idea at this moment in time. It seemed to be a pretty frightening sort of thing. We’re all fucking messy. Anything can be taken out of context and anything you say or do is not necessarily an accurate reflection of who you are in your totality. There are small moments of your life that when taken into account with the rest of your life start to paint a picture. But we’re not this one stupid thing we said three years ago, or ten years ago, or even last week. We seem to judge people as if they are. It just seems to me that it was worthy of exploring in as cinematic a way as possible.

The violence in the film is pretty polarizing. How did you decide how to approach its visualization?

It’s interesting. I’ve thought a lot about the violence in this film and I think there is something about it – it’s real people imitating movie violence, in a way. It is informed by the symbolism of film violence. The sexuality of guns, the amount of blood in a given scene. There is something about it that I definitely believe is a bit much – or heightened. What I wanted to do was combine that with a kind of wheel in motion and therefore it still hits on a visceral level, but I think it’s a bit more meta – meta in the way that I would hope it to be if that makes sense.

Where did the idea come from to include “trigger warnings” at the beginning of the film come from?

It was actually written into the script. It used to come after the first act, which is a bit sly and felt a little too cool. It just felt like, because I knew this movie was going to go to a pretty crazy place, I did feel like I needed to prepare the audience for what’s to come. I also wanted to have fun with it. Whether it was “fragile male egos” or things like that. They’re fun, but they’re also real trigger warnings. These are the things that happen in this movie and if you’re not okay with it, or if you’re sensitive to it and it’s something you don’t want to see, you can head out. In some ways, they’re both playful and very honest. Well, what did you think about it?

I agree with the honesty. Everybody has their own opinion about trigger warnings and where and when they should be used. This kind of works on both sides. If you think trigger warnings are ridiculous, it’s funny. If you take them seriously and are an advocate for them, here they are.

Yeah. I think there’s something interesting about the concept of safe spaces, and wanting to remove yourself from these things. I think it’s a natural reaction to the internet, which I think often feels like a very unsafe space where you can’t guard yourself or protect yourself. I don’t know if on a philosophical or intellectual level whether I agree or disagree with trigger warnings. I understand the emotional reasoning for them, especially given how fucking mad and insane and cruel random fucking people on the Internet can be to one another. I don’t know. It felt like a natural extension of the world of the film.

I wonder if you could talk about the setting. Of course a callback to the Salem witch trials.

It’s not too literal in any sort of way. I wanted to draw the parallel to the time when a whole fucking town went nuts and targeted a bunch of innocent people, mainly women. There are Salems everywhere. I always thought it was Salem, Illinois in my mind. I like this sort of mid-western Salem. But yeah, I think in some ways the Internet is the new land. I like that just on a metaphorical level. We’re figuring out how to construct a civilized world in a society in the Internet age. We’ve yet to get there.

Did you collaborate with the four lead actresses when crafting their characters? Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra are roughly the same ages as these characters. Each of them has an online presence and social media personality. When you were trying to capture that properly, was there collaboration?

One hundred percent. Look, as a man writing women that are about a decade younger than me – I can only get so far with a character. I can only get to a certain degree of authenticity. In casting – I’ve done this my whole life. It doesn’t matter what character is it, but whenever I cast someone, I sit down with them and I begin to discuss life, experiences, what they relate to in the character and what they don’t relate to, what feels authentic and what doesn’t. Then I’ll always do a rewrite based on those conversations. It makes the character more authentic and in turn, the world more authentic. At the same time, I always think it enhances performance – suddenly there’s a part of the actor in the character. There’s something true to them and true to their life that they’ll want to fight for and preserve. I think it’s important to do that for any character anyone writes. I don’t think you can have something that feels too real otherwise. If this movie feels authentic to the experience of what it’s like to be a young woman today, that’s probably a testament to the actors in the film and to the ideas and thoughts that they brought to this piece.

Assassination Nation opens wide on Friday, September 20.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.