Bringing a distinct new voice to the world of indie filmmaking are Corey Asraf and John Swab with the dark and tense directorial debut LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR.
Very much a personal and semi-autobiographical story at its core, this cerebral revenge film follows two adopted siblings/lovers as they hatch a plan to serve up justice against those responsible for their tormented past.
Terror Time caught up with Swab and Asraf after a successful screening at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival as they explained how the film served as a tool to help navigate their own emotional experiences and ultimately deal with some of the darker issues their own lives have dealt them.
Terror Time (Howard Gorman): I know the characters are based on people you’ve known during your lives. How autobiographical would you say the film is?
John Swab: Yeah. Mostly every character is based on a real person. Obviously, you’ve got to exaggerate it for the screen, but for the most part, it’s all based on personal subject matter and real people.
With most of the dark subject matter like addiction and the abuse, the story kind of served as a way to deal with those issues. The main character was a catalyst to navigate through the emotional experience and control it through the story.
Corey Asraf: And we’ve been working on the script for like seven years so it evolved as our lives changed. John and I had dealt with different traumas in our lives and all we’d learned about ourselves all came through within the film. Even in the craft of making the film itself; if you look at our early work you can see how it’s evolved and what we’ve carried with us from our short films and other collaborative projects. At the end of the day, I really think that we found our voice with this film and we’re really proud of it.
TT: John, can you elaborate on the writing process because the dialogue is particularly metaphorical and philosophical?
JS: It’s been so many years. The first initial draft of the script I wrote was way too dense. It was like one big metaphor and it was like poetry. It was really more about the process of elimination and just using enough and not too much because I tend to overwrite, but because of the personal nature of the story I really wanted to put a lot of subtext in there. I mean, there’s not a lot of action on the screen so I wanted to give the action in the dialogue. Also, because we throw the audience into this thing very quickly, you have to leave breadcrumbs throughout the script for them to then use to piece together what we’re trying to say or what these characters are trying to do.
Corey and I were both worried that the film might go over peoples’ heads but what’s happened is that the audience that we wanted to identify with found it. They hear the words and they can read between the lines. I think it will resonate with the people that need to see this film and they will find what we’re trying to say and appreciate it.
TT: With the film so heavily based on real life, was it a challenge deciding on the actors that would best represent the characters?
CA: We shot a short film, which was a prequel to the feature. Once we’d actually cast that, that was when the characters really came to life and really came into form. Because of that we ultimately cast a lot of people from the short for the feature.
Some of the cast were pretty obvious choices. For the role of Uncle Marv, Daniel Martin Berkey’s audition tape was great. Before he even started talking we could just tell he could play that role.
JS: Yeah. With the budget that we had it wasn’t that we could really pick anyone that we wanted but luckily the people that we went after and the people we talked to about it identified with it on a personal level and really wanted to make this project their own. The biggest thing for Corey and I was casting people that could relate to the story and could bring their own elements and truths to it from their own lives.
CA: Our whole approach to working with the actors is that once they read the script, as long as they understand the emotional context of the scene and the moment then we’re just going to let them go. We really believe in cutting people loose and doing their thing and really feeling the moment.
TT: Was it a total coincidence that you reunited various actors from the “Sons of Anarchy” show?
CA: That just happened naturally. You get one and they’re all friends.
JS: We’d never actually seen “Sons of Anarchy.”
CA: Yeah. We were like, “Sons of Anarchy? You mean that biker drama?” We checked it out but we didn’t really base our decisions off any of the performances. We looked at most of their other work. Mark Boone Junior had a really impressive body of work. Then with Niko Nicotera, we actually had the chance to spend some time with him to casually get to know him and he just seemed like he would drive really well with us.
At the end of the day, what was important was what kind of people they were and if we were going to be able to sit down with them and have conversations and communicate with them. For the energy on set, we tried to instill authenticity and magic and we wanted people to believe that the film was going to be successful. Right now, there’s a problem with indie cinema: You can make a movie for nothing and you can turn shit out and you can turn a quick buck. You go on Netflix and you see a million movies that are just shot with no integrity but we want people to really believe in our movie. We wanted that to really come through, if you get what I mean. I’m not trying to sound pretentious but everyone really believed in the film and that was a huge reason why we chose most of the people. We were all on the same page.
TT: I have to ask you about Marilyn Manson’s involvement. He doesn’t have a great deal of screen time but when he does he is so calm and collected yet so overwhelming and disturbingly unpredictable.
JW: Manson naturally has that ability about him, but at the same time we wanted to avoid making this a movie that just featured Manson and instead we wanted to fit him in this ensemble cast. There are so many great performances, and Manson’s is one of them, but I think everybody really rose to the occasion too. We wanted to make sure we really understated Manson straight away from what people thought or how they knew him as his persona. He just got it. He showed up and came on only two days before the film so we all had to discover the role together and kind of figure out who the character was.
CA: I think there’s also this underlying psychological factor when someone like Manson comes on. I’m reluctant to use this word, but they have this kind of “star power” so when he’s on screen, he’s going to demand that attention and we knew that that could work against us. We had shot a lot more with him and there was tons of great stuff, but we really wanted to refine it and make him as stilling and understated as possible. The last thing we wanted was for this to become a vehicle for Marilyn Manson and to seem like we were exploiting him. That’s the last thing he wanted too. We really wanted to respect that boundary.
At the same time, it’s not like he had a cameo. He’s in the opening scene and he’s in the last scene and that was all written in the original concept. We didn’t do that with any intention to exploit him. In terms of the press promoting LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR as a Marilyn Manson film, when we finished this film, we had a hard drive with 26 or 27 Terabytes of footage, we had no money, we’d lost our Kickstarter, and Rolling Stone had reached out to us because I guess they’d heard it through the grapevine. They asked us if Manson wanted to do an interview, and he did, so I think that because the first piece of press was a Manson interview, that set a kind of precedent and we couldn’t really backstep from that. But at the end of the day, we’re happy with the amount of exposure that we’ve had and we try to make it as tasteful as possible and I don’t think that Manson thinks that he’s exploited in any way.
TT: Can you walk us through how you work as a duo when it comes to directing?
CA: Well I come from a highly technical background. I’ve always been a shooter, a director, editor and producer. John’s been a writer and a painter. John wrote this script so if there are questions about characters then John is naturally going to have the authority.
JS: There was kind of an advantage to it too. I write and direct and Corey directs and edits so we’re both looking at it from two totally different perspectives but we’ve been working together for so long that it’s a pretty singular vision. There’s no ego or arguing to make a point. I understand things from a ground up character perspective but Corey can see them further down the line in terms of what things are going to cut to so it gives us a complete 360 perspective when it comes down to being on set.
TT: The use of sound plays a significant role in the film. The afro funk songs and the actual scoring are particularly disparate and really keep the audience on its toes and then you tweak what we hear in certain scenes to evoke a stronger reaction from the audience.
JS: The sound design was a decision that we made down the line in the editing room because we really wanted to push this cerebral, ethereal idea. Because this is so much more an emotional thriller than anything, I think Corey and I made a creative decision to take the liberty to mess with the audience’s senses and give them a perspective of these characters and this world as we go through and deal with the things that happen. You can’t necessary tell the audience how to feel through the character all the time so we started messing with the sound to give the overall effect of what was going on in these characters’ minds. We wanted to make the audience some kind of benevolent witness in the theater.
CA: And then the afro funk music was something that we had known we were going to use forever. That was in our spank bank for like a decade. I think it works so well because it’s juxtaposed against this dark, gritty, dramatic noirish aesthetic and it lifts the film up a little bit. It’s just so really out of place. And then Gingger Shankar’s original score was amazing too. She’s Ravi Shankar’s niece so she was bringing in all kinds of instruments that we’d never seen before. I am a musician myself but it’s difficult to even approach the instruments she brought in because they are so foreign. A lot of people think there was a piano in there but it was actually a dulcimer, which was cool and gave us a unique sound as it was a bit more distant than a piano would have been. When it comes to Gingger Shankar, we have to give credit where credit’s due because she did an amazing job.
TT: It’s clear that this is a very personal project and you just mentioned how all you learned about yourselves came through in the film. What would you say were the most important lessons you learned about yourselves whilst making the film?
JS: Corey and I sat down on the eve of our premiere and Corey leaned over to me and he said, “This film has made me believe in God.” That kind of sums it up for both of us. It’s been a very cathartic experience. Including all these personal traumas in this story and being able to therapeutically approach them has really given us a perspective on ourselves that we could not have gotten otherwise.
CA: Even from a practical sense of just producing the film, we just learned so much. Look, this is our first time at a film festival. This is the first time being involved like this and doing all the press. We’ve shot various short films before so we’ve really learned the value of being in the trenches with filmmakers, seeing all these pitch sessions and all this industry stuff. We’ve really learned a lot and I think were much better equipped for next time around to bring a movie into the world.
TT: Talking of which, is there anything you can share in terms of what you have planned after LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR?
CA: My father had a crime ring in Miami in the 1980s and that’s a story I’ve been waiting to tell my entire life. Whether or not I’m going to be able to do it is dictated by how successful the MARTYR is and what opportunities are offered to us. But we both have many ideas.
JS: The same from me really. I’ve got all kinds of stuff ready to do but it all depends on how this film proceeds.
Terror Time would like to thank John Swab and Corey Asraf for their time and we can’t recommend LET ME MAKE YOU A MARTYR enough. You can read our review right here and we’ll leave you with the trailer below to whet your appetite. For all details on any further festival or release dates, be sure to follow the film over on Facebook and Twitter.