NAVIN RAMASWARAN INTERVIEW
The official trailer for 'Poor Agnes' is released today (8th December) so we caught up with Director Navin Ramaswaran to discuss his award winning serial killer horror-drama.
Firstly, congratulations on the success of Poor Agnes, which has recently won the Barry Convex award at Fantasia. On a personal level, you must be very proud of the recognition?
Thank you very much. I’m very proud of the recognition and certainly very proud of the movie and what we were able to pull off. I always knew we were making a solid movie that would resonate with some, but you can never anticipate a movie’s success, or how an audience will connect to a movie. It’s extremely subjective, but we took an honest approach to shaping the film and so far it has been well received.
Poor Agnes is still on the festival circuit and recently had its UK premiere at Grimmfest. What sort of feedback and reactions are you getting from genre audiences?
Audience feedback and reactions have been extremely positive. When I’m at the theatre for a screening of my own work, I prefer to watch the audience’s reactions more so than the movie itself, and it’s particularly interesting to do that for Poor Agnes. Different demographics have varied responses - sometimes the dark humour gets the biggest reaction and sometime the psychological violence does. We often get a lively discussion going during the Q&A, and some people are interested in further discussing the movie and it’s themes beyond that, which I love. It’s always my goal to make movies that spark opinions and conversations. I’d rather have a movie that people have a strong reaction to - positive or negative - than create something that is mediocre or forgettable.
The jury at Fantasia described Poor Agnes as a "powerful middle finger against established filmmaking". Was that always your intention?
It wasn’t my intention to defy genre conventions or filmmaking norms necessarily, but a big reason why I signed onto the project was the fact that is was unusual, bold and stood out in my mind. The intention was to create a tone and style that would be immersive and unlike most content you’ve watched. It was definitely an honour to be recognized by the Barry Convex Jury at Fantasia and it's something our entire team is very proud of.
Like Poor Agnes, some of your films (Chasing Valentine, Nara) seem to focus on unorthodox relationships and submerged personalities. Why are they subjects that you feel drawn to filming or writing about?
I find human relationships extremely riveting - we sure are an interesting breed. It never fails to amaze me to think about the stories and history each of us have; multiply that by the population of the world and we have an endless combination of inspirations. Extracting the most unique and unorthodox human connections is what I truly enjoy exploring as a filmmaker.
You reportedly had some distribution and ownership issues with Nara. Did that change the way you approached filmmaking after that?
The distribution and ownership issues I had with Nara didn’t necessarily change the way I approached the creative side of filmmaking, but certainly the business side of it. Nara was my first feature as a solo director (I had Co-Directed one film previously) and I certainly learned a lot from it. I wore too many hats out of necessity and it ended up being my "real-world film school". I learn something new with every movie I make, but Nara was probably the most eye-opening as it made me truly realize what the filmmaking “business” really is (even at a self-funded micro-budget level).
Lora Burke is quite simply brilliant as Agnes, and she said she connected with the character on first reading the script, although they are (thankfully) totally dissimilar. Was she always the first choice for the role?
Lora Burke was one of my top two choices. She was definitely a standout who impressed everyone in the room as soon as she walked in. Even when I’m in the audition session, I will afterwards re-watch the tape to pickup nuances that I might have missed (the audition process can be long and exhausting sometimes). I certainly appreciated all the subtle things Lora was doing and it read really well on camera. Very quickly she became my top pick and we saw her for a chemistry reading, and the rest is history. Lora just immersed herself in the role of Agnes and it was truly a pleasure shaping the character with her, and then working with her on set throughout production.
There's a simultaneously great and awkward natural chemistry between Lora and Robert (Notman) as the two leads. Was that something that was obvious as soon as you started filming?
I really like doing chemistry reads once we have a shortlist of actors. We did that with Lora and Robert (and Chris too). They worked really well together and the energy and uniqueness each actor brought to the characters stood out and felt very cinematic. By the time we were on set and started shooting the movie, everything just fell into place. It was wonderful!
Although there's some great black humour in there and some shocking moments, the dinner scene where Agnes mocks her drugged victim seems to have been a sequence that could have gone terribly wrong, but is pitched just right. Was getting the right tone for certain scenes always at the front of your mind?
That scene was a tough one, and I initially cut it down drastically in my Director’s Cut. On paper it made me feel uncomfortable (as intended) but shooting it felt even more so, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to be received by viewers. The cast and I really worked the tone and level of discomfort, and pushed it pretty far. It was important to me that the scene had a purpose, was effective, and wasn’t just there for shock value. Personally, I'm against using the “R” word; I’m an advocate for the charity Motionball which strongly believes that there is no right way, time, or place to say it. Ultimately this scene was reinserted in the final cut of the movie, but as you said it was pitched appropriately, and served to remind viewers that Agnes - while charming - is not supposed to be a likeable person.
One question that most people have on watching the film is; "Why doesn't Mike just run when he gets the chance?". Does this represent an abusive relationship or is there an element of "Stockholm Syndrome" involved?
To me it’s a little bit of both. Mike starts off as a cocky loner that doesn’t really have much going for him besides his job. When he’s captured and then broken down methodically by Agnes, he comes to realize there’s nothing really out there for him and starts to depend on her not only for companionship, but also in his existential definition. They form an odd symbiotic relationship that fulfills certain voids that they didn’t know how to reconcile.
In a previous interview Lora said that there was a lot of research involving real-life psychopaths, and Aileen Wuornos was a one of those mentioned. Was that case ever in your thoughts for reference when you were filming?
The Aileen Wuornos case did come to mind, but only because she was a female serial killer. Her modus operandi and general in your face demeanour was the opposite of Agnes. But Lora pulled different aspects from different real-life psychopaths, both male and female and that’s how Agnes was shaped so multidimensionally.
Poor Agnes has drawn (favourable) comparisons to films such as American Psycho and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Were any of those an influence on you when making the movie?
American Psycho was definitely an influence, and I immediately mentioned it to Lora as a reference. I was obsessed with that book and movie when it was released, and Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman was out of this world. Other influential films were Maniac, Psycho and Chained. While the influence of these movies comes through in “Poor Agnes", it was very important to me that we created our own unique character in Agnes and design a movie that was original.
It's interesting to note that the male characters are mostly ineffectual in the story and it seems that only Agnes herself and the female Police Officer are strong-willed and efficient. Was there a conscious effort to get away from some of the misogynistic undertones of some slasher films?
The screenplay was shaped that way and we built on that. However, to me the inefficacy of some of the characters wasn’t because they were male or female, but it was because that’s just how they were as people. The way I see it, Agnes is an intelligent person who happens to be female and a serial killer. She targets certain types of men who she knows she can manipulate and overpower. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious effort to detach from misogynist undertones of some slasher films, however the role reversal and portrayal of Agnes was a refreshing departure from the classic serial killer formula. Often in horror movies female characters are pigeon-holed into only being one thing, but Agnes proves that she’s multidimensional; she can be attractive, smart, sexual, and strong - she can be more than just one thing.
There is some ambiguity around the ending, but a follow-up certainly seems possible. Would you do a sequel if the opportunity arose?
I love the ending of Poor Agnes, especially because it's ambiguous and open to interpretation - I feel that it’s an appropriate conclusion to Agnes and Mike’s story. If a strong screenplay with a logical continuation of that story were to appear, I would certainly be honoured to do it!
Finally, as 2017 edges to a close, what are your film-making aspirations for 2018?
2017 has been a really great year. I’m really happy and proud of how well Poor Agnes is performing, and am looking forward to the home video release of my previous film Chasing Valentine. My main aspiration for 2018 is to get my next film set-up and going. I’ve made some amazing connections over the past couple of years and recently had some great screenplays come across my desk. Now it’s time to get all the pieces together and get back on set!
A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship.