Interview: Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer on Making Their Mark with “Violation”

Every once in a while a scene comes along like the one that takes place in the middle of “Violation” that it is bound to rattle around in your head for days if not weeks after seeing it, and in the case of Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s ferocious debut, at least six months since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival with no indication it’ll leave any time soon. It took nearly a week to film the moment Miriam (Sims-Fewer) confronts her brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) during a weekend lakeside retreat, where she’s brought along her boyfriend (Obi Abili), to spend some quality time with her sister Greta (Anna Maguire), and without going into detail, a body cast was made — requiring LaVercombe to lay still for hours on end while it was made — and every angle of the cabin it takes place was scrutinized to capture a clumsy act of revenge, executed with immaculate skill.

For a film about a woman falling apart in the wake of a sexual assault, Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer have been building towards it for some time, collaborating on a series of arresting shorts since they first met at the TIFF Talent Lab in 2015 that may not have overtly led to “Violation” but have displayed a talent for pushing the envelope as they investigate stories of lines being crossed. Gathering a crew of trusted collaborators from each successive shoot, the pair has been able to create a comfort level on the set to go to more uncomfortable places narratively, buying themselves the time to explore any given scene when they had a limited budget for their first feature by wasting none of it setting up light when nature could provide it and creating a schedule where scenes could be reconsidered for days when they were collected in bits and pieces to get just the right mood from what the weather was giving them.

The thriller itself is fragmentary, reflecting Miriam’s attempts to piece her experience together as she works through not only an attack but a strained relationship with Greta, which she has to worry will be threatened by her encounter with Dylan, but between Sims-Fewer’s fearless performance in front of the camera and her work with Mancinelli behind it, “Violation” can’t help but coalesce into a film of undeniable pull, able to reach truly harrowing places and opening up an experience that might be intimidating to contemplate to be immensely rewarding. With the film arriving on the streaming service Shudder after a festival run that included stops at Sundance and SXSW, the co-directors spoke about their unforgettable feature debut, crafting a process that would keep things open to the shape the film wanted to take and the unexpected moments that made it into the film.

The way that your shorts built up to this film in some ways, did they contribute to what you ultimately did here when from what I understand, the idea was in mind from a while back?

Dusty Mancinelli: It was a natural evolution from a technical point of view. We were definitely very interested in this idea of grounded performances and a grounded visual aesthetic, and with our shorts, we were trying to figure out how to achieve that working closely with our cinematographer Adam Crosby.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We were also starting to work out what we wanted to say about the complexities of relationships and those specific relationship dynamics, as well as the way that trauma can inform the past and the present and the way your senses bring you back to that moment of trauma wherever you are in time.

Dusty Mancinelli: All of our work comes from a personal place, and I think the shorts gave us confidence, or made us feel more comfortable, talking about our own personal experiences of trauma and abuse, so that by the time we got to “Violation,” we weren’t afraid to hold back anything. So it was really a chance for us to really say what we wanted to say in a way that was unvarnished.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: And without restraint.

How did you find this fantastic location?

Dusty Mancinelli: We always have been super-inspired by nature and the power and beauty of woods and pines and the mountains. But we don’t have that in Ontario. It’s very flat, there’s the Niagara Escarpment, but that’s a cliff…

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: It’s almost a bit barren and we wanted this very lush feeling, almost like a Romanian forest.

Dusty Mancinelli: So we went to the mountains in Quebec, a really specific place called the Laurentian where normally it’s really ski culture you see represented when it’s in a film and it only feels like there’s a few locations in the film, but there’s probably 20 or 25 because there was a quality of light that hit a bridge in a certain time of day that only was in that one spot. For example, when they’re chopping wood, there’s this very beautiful walkway that we found and that was only that one spot where it looked very painterly. Something that we really wanted to do was use our natural environment to really showcase the beauty and the power around us.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: We just ended up stitching together the ideal location after the patchwork of different locations.

Dusty Mancinelli: [It was] a month of prep, just searching, constantly searching. What’s funny is when you’re in the mountains for that long, you just start to see the ruthlessness and the beauty of nature. We couldn’t have planned those [shots with the insects] or even scripted them. For example, we were filming the scene where Miriam and Greta are confronting one another outside of the house, and it just before she goes in and does the thing with the ice cream [at the end], between takes, we look over, and there’s a spider eating a fly. It’s just happening, right there. And I think filmmaking is so much about noticing what’s going on in your environment, and being really agile and quick and adaptable to it, so it was about really paying attention. There was this moment — it didn’t make it into the film — but we’re shooting and a deer came by, and I remembered I turned to Adam and I said, “Film the deer.” And he looked at me, we’re in the middle of a take, and I was like, “Turn the camera.”

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: And you were in that shot! [laughs]

Dusty Mancinelli: I did ruin the shot, but it was like, “A deer just came out!” And it was like, “This is insane! Let’s film this deer.”

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: There were many moments like that where we just had to stay really open and make sure we were looking around us and taking in what was happening. One of my favorite shots in the movie is the shot at the lake covered in these little water beetles. We just went down, shooting some [random scene] of me coming up the stairs, and [Dusty] noticed that the lake was covered in these bugs at this specific time of dusk, so we just went down and shot it.

Madeleine, it’s such an intense role you have in the film – does being a co-director actually help in knowing the buck stops with you or do you need to compartmentalize things certain things to protect the performance?

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: It’s a question I was asking myself right up into the beginning of shooting because I trained as an actor. I never had this level of responsibility, and it really came out of a combination of prep and trusting myself that I could just let go of the reins when I was in a scene and completely forget about the directing and know that Dusty’s there. That’s part of the value of our collaboration is that we’re there to support each other and to pick up the slack whenever the other person isn’t able to.

Dusty Mancinelli: Because we spent so much time writing the script together, our creative process is all about an alignment that was really critical all along the way — we’re seeing, hearing and feeling the exact same movie, which I think gives Madeleine that comfort when she’s performing.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: But there is a bit of a compartmentalization that has to happen — and it was more about feeling, where I would act a scene that I wouldn’t feel the way that I felt it needed to feel. then it’s just a case of speaking to each other and saying, “Well, that didn’t quite feel right to me.” And [Dusty] will say again, “It didn’t feel right to me either,” and then we would just find a new way to approach it.

You go way back with Jesse LaVercombe, but the role of Dylan is incredibly demanding as well in so many ways. What’s it like asking him to commit to this?

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: I remembered calling him, and we were both at work, and I was in the hallway and I was shitting myself that he would say, “No.” [laughs] But I think we just had to be so candid about really telling him that we knew he would be the best person to the part and he could bring so much thought to it, and [it was important we were] just totally open about what it entailed, because it’s such a challenge.

Dusty Mancinelli: Yeah, it’s not in a script, you could just slip by without coming. So there was a lot of preamble beforehand, before he even read it, where we said, “Hey, the full frontal male nudity is really important to us. There’s a lot of it, so only read it if you’re comfortable with that.” Those kinds of conversations happened really early, and it was just about being really professional, candid, and honest because it’s almost like a clinical approach to how you approach the material, just so that you’re never talking around the subject, but you’re talking about it clearly so everyone’s comfortable.

I understand there is a fair amount of improvisation that you may do in order to find scenes. Was there anywhere where this went in an exciting direction with any of the actors that you may not have been expecting?

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: This happened more in rehearsal, but the scene in the shed between Jesse and myself, we rehearsed it, and then we really picked apart the motivations and the subtext of each line, and what was really going through the head of each of us, and we rewrote it on set and that ended up being one of my favorite scenes because of the scrutiny we gave it. We didn’t stick to the script, we just kept working on it.

Dusty Mancinelli: I love the John Lennon line because I don’t think that’s in the script. And in fact, so much so, that you could see Jesse’s shocked by what you said because I don’t think he knew that [about] John Lennon, and I love John Lennon, but he’s a complicated man.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: There were lots of things in that scene that I liked. Also, the scene with the Bosnian couple in the motel parking lot was completely improvised. It was like we had scripted it, but at the very beginning of shooting that, we threw all the dialogue away.

Dusty Mancinelli: Because it wasn’t about the words.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: Yeah. It was just about the emotions of the characters, and that made that scene so much better.

Because of the fragmentary structure of this, was this actually what was in the script or could you play with things in the edit in terms of their emotional impact?

Dusty Mancinelli: For the most part, the structure remained intact and the discoveries and the things that occur that were spontaneous were really in the [scene] transitions. There were just magical moments that happened on set. For example, specifically with the drone where we were shooting at dusk and we were shooting a sunset, because we had shot them so many months apart, we remembered that we had shot something earlier that we could do something with a camera and then it would be a really great match on action cut that will transition us from the present to the past, so there were little things like that you can’t really script, but generally, it was intact structurally [from the original script].

The score from Andrea Boccadoro becomes such an enveloping element of this – it’s quite grand. How did you come to collaborate?

Dusty Mancinelli: We’re really lucky. He’s just such a sensitive, thoughtful, patient, and talented composer. I met him in Reykjavik and Madeline met him in Berlin — it was just two random occurrences at festivals where we met the same person and we really connected with his creative sensibilities. He did the music on our shorts, “Woman In Stall” and “Chubby,” and we’ve developed a relationship with him, so it was really easy, though he’s in England, so a lot of our conversations are over Zoom. But it was about finding a balance between this very specific Baroque style and…

Madeleine Sims-Fewer: …More avant garde classical music. He’s somebody that is constantly pushing himself and pushing us — that’s something that we do in our own collaboration, and we really respond to with him as well. It’s such a fruitful collaboration because he’s constantly trying to get better and trying to deepen his understanding of the characters, in order to really create the best experience that he can with the music.

“Violation” is now available on Shudder.