Director Matthew A. Brown and Star Ashley C. Williams Talk About Julia

Director Matthew A. Brown and Star Ashley C. Williams
Mark Bartlett at caught up with Director Matthew A. Brown and Star Ashley C. Williams (The Human Centipede) ahead of the release of JULIA on DVD and VOD.

Williams delivers a memorable central performance in this violent, stylish revenge fantasy that sits somewhere in-between I Spit on your Grave and 2013’s American Mary by way of Kill Bill.

Julia, a young plastic surgeons assistant is drugged and raped by Piers (Ryan Cooper) and his friends, and then left for dead. She manages to make her way home, where we discover that Julia has spent most of her life being abused by various tormentors and has turned to self-harm as a result. Later Julia overhears someone discussing a revolutionary new therapy that sees victims taking back power from their attackers.

Be warned that some SPOILERS follow. JULIA is available on DVD  and VOD now. I really enjoyed Julia (if that’s the correct word for a film that tackles such a difficult topic, admired maybe?) I feel it’s vastly different to many of the revenge based horror films I’ve seen over the past few years. In some respects it felt like Julia’s arc was almost like a comic-book movie, in that her origin story is dispensed with quickly and then she’s mentored and becomes a revenger and anti-hero of sorts. Do you feel that there’s more story to tell with Julia’s character should you ever choose to go back?

Matthew: Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, the arc of Julia’s character is extreme and it was always that that most interested me in the story in the first place. I’ve always gravitated towards stories that involve characters undergoing profound-even radical-transformation. At the time, when I was approached about adapting my short VICTIM into a feature, which became JULIA-I was very into Asian cinema, Japanese /Korean revenge thriller/horrors (like Miike’s Audition, Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil, the Old Boy trilogy), as well as Johnnie To’s Hong Kong gangster noirs, particularly Vengeance, so this all fused together into this dark and ecstatic story of this meek girl evolving into this striking empowered ‘anti-hero’ as you say.  Funnily enough, I’d always envisioned JULIA as a trilogy, and so yes there is A LOT more to tell with Julia’s character… Of course Ashley and I have spoken about this, so we’ll see what the universe has in store.

Ashley: Well, the way the film came to me was as a proposed trilogy, so it would be so so cool to go back to her story and continue the journey. I do feel that there is so much more to explore. Matthew and I have spoken about what it might entail and there are so many exciting avenues we could take. Ashley, This was a really great showcase for you as an actress beyond the tropes of the horror genre and I can see why it would be such an appealing role. I have several scenes in my head that really stand out for me as being great, but looking back, are there any particular sequences in Julia where you personally think to yourself ‘Y’know, I did a pretty good job there!’?

Ashley: Thank you! I think these types of roles don’t come around very often. I am extremely grateful to have been given that opportunity as an actress.  When i watch the film, i am definitely pleasantly surprised at myself in certain scenes. When i’m in the moment, i don’t actually remember what happened afterward, or what i did. So when watching the film, its interesting to see what actually transpires outwardly through what i’m feeling internally. I think definitely the shower scene stands out to me. The long moment when i turn my head to look into the camera and break the 4th wall in a way. That was actually the last scene we shot after a long month of shooting and i remember being so exhausted but just feeling so IN THE ZONE of this character. I was at the height of the characters transformation in a way. In this scene, Julia for the first time, senses her destiny, this dark path ahead of her. So in a way it was absolutely perfect that it ended up being the last shot we did. Cause all of what she ends up going through in the film was already in me. I had lived it already. Visually, JULIA is a stunning film. The colour palette, with all those beautiful reds, greens and yellows really stood out to me thoughout. Was there any story driven intention behind these choices or was the colour scheme chosen a result of your personal aesthetic/what you think looks cool?

Matthew: The visual style for me is and was intensely connected to the actual story I am telling. Fundamentally this is a story about a woman, who, through intense suffering, undergoes a transformation into a holy ecstatic albeit violent/evil being. Almost like a twisted urban fairytale… As Julia awakens, she begins to associate things most would consider dark or ugly with extreme beauty, so everything was about this juxtaposition of beauty/ugliness, beauty/cruelty, the raw vs. the poetic… the dark fusing with the ecstatic… as this is what was living inside this woman and this is what I wanted to manifest externally and experientially. Also, the story takes place in the underbelly of NYC, an NYC seldom scene, Julia as the meek and broken nurse had chosen to live in Brooklyn’s Chinatown where she could hide from the world, where those around her couldn’t speak her language and vice versa, and of course I’d be lying if I didn’t say that visually that small stretch of Chinatown in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park area on 8th Ave is the only place that really excited me visually when searching for where she lived. But I did this while still working on the script. So again it was all embedded in the story. And then yes, as noted above, my then fascination with Asian cinema, the ‘neon-noir’ lighting schemes, and the vision of Julia as the creation of this new almost mythic anti-hero, all was integrally part of both story and aesthetic… There never was for me the question of what I thought would look cool or not, it was that this whole story and vision was designed to deliver a brutal and ecstatic rush, which IS Julia’s own experience. The soundtrack throughout is absolutely awesome, so thank you for curating a new playlist for me! I especially love the two Ske tracks ‘Julietta 1 and 2’, coincidentally named or did you always have these songs in mind during the writing process?

Matthew: Thank you! So this is one of those magical synchronicity things that happens I believe when you are committed all-in and acting from a place of real conviction. We were editing the film in Iceland as both my editor, Sverrir Kristjansson, as well as my composer, Frank Hall, are Icelandic, so it made the most sense logistically. So I was having dinner at Frank’s place one night and we were talking about his Icelandic band Ske and I was like, “man, I need to listen to this stuff, who knows…” and then BOOM, this song comes on, and my skin shivered, I was “like this is it”—for the opening shot of Julia coming up the escalator, for which we hadn’t yet found the right track—and Frank wasn’t sure, he thought initially it’s too poppy; I asked what it’s called: “Juliette 1”. I think I almost cried. Then another track comes on, the only other track on the album I really responded to, and I thought, fuck this is perfect for when Julia’s floating all high through the streets the morning after the castration, and again Frank felt maybe it’s too poppy…What’s this one called?: “Juliette 2”. These were the only two tracks sung by this Japanese singer, who turns out wasn’t even a singer, rather an artist and then girlfriend of one of the band members and she just made up the lyrics on the fly. For Juliette 1, when Julia is coming up the escalator on her way to her dream date, the lyrics are (in Japanese): “he loves me, he loves me not”. I really enjoyed how the Ske tracks introduced the three acts and communicated the concept of fate/destiny and transformation for Julia, the bookend scenes with Ashley on the escalator illustrate that best for me. The escalator is leading Julia to a predetermined fate at the beginning, Julia walks to a similar track at the beginning of act two and is thus in control of her own destiny, then finally her fate is sealed again (and her transformation complete) for the final act. On the second watch I also noticed several shots composed in thirds with multiple reflections of Julia, was fate and destiny a big focus in the script initially?

Matthew: Thank you for this. The entire vision was built around Julia being summoned towards her dark fate/destiny. This is the story outside the picture I was talking about before. This is THE driving force for so much of the approach—when sitting down with my composer for the first time, for example, the discussion was all about how to create the feeling of eternity in the frame… the feeling that the universe is summoning us to be and own who we really are, and the indescribable beauty of realizing that fully. The opening shot in the escalator was so fundamental strictly because of this: It IS Julia being summoned towards this her dark fate. The other even more fundamental shot I will talk more about below as I saw you brought it up… I’ll give up my favourite and say I absolutely loved the slow zoom shot in the bath-tub post attack. Ashley communicated so much with just her eyes, and when she looks directly into the camera it’s like Julia is breaking the forth wall and addressing the viewer directly. I thought there were a few ways to read this scene but did you have any particular intentions when the scene was conceived?

Matthew: This is the moment in Julia’s life when for the first time she senses the dark path, her Destiny, ahead of her… The feeling is beyond words, it comes with a certain certitude, a knowledge, that she is here for something much greater than she realizes… though she doesn’t yet know what to do with it. It is the universe speaking directly to her soul. Julia’s turning and looking directly into the lens like this was scripted as such… because the entire vision of the movie is encapsulated for me in this moment. The incredible thing is that this shot was literally the very last take of the very last set-up of the entire shoot—It wasn’t intended to be that way; we’d had to make up for not having made one of our days—in fact the only day throughout the shoot that we didn’t make. It was the way it had to be. Self-harm and sexual abuse are obviously very complex topics to tackle in genre cinema. Did you feel any responsibility to tell a story that would resonate with victims in a helpful/meaningful way?

Matthew: My intention was always for JULIA to live in a heightened reality as opposed to a gritty docudrama type of film which would necessitate tackling the subject of rape head on, so it was very important for me to establish the tone of the story right from the get-go—pictorially, tonally, emotionally—so my hope is that this could not be mistaken for something other than it is. But I was always very conscious of the gravity of the subject. My mom is a clinical psychologist who’s dealt a lot with patients not unlike Julia so I spent a lot of time discussing with her, also with regards to the therapy—not that she thought this was a viable way to heal—but it was important to me that it was grounded in truth, as I in no way wanted to sensationalize the act. We chose to show the rape in flashbacks so as to allow the audience to come close to Julia inside her pain, to make it about the darkness she’s living in on a day-to-day basis, rather than about the act. For me this is not a film about rape. It is a film in which a woman, who has spent her whole life suffering abuse at the hands of others, is pushed to the point where she cannot live with herself any longer. To force a character to the extremity of being and perception at which Julia arrives, wherein they have no option but to either transcend/ transmute the pain, or not go on living any longer, something truly terrifying needed to happen to her, something that would break anyone—man or woman—and rape, I don’t know of anything that could tear at someone’s sense of self more than that. At one of our festival screenings in Australia, a woman approached Ashley and I after the screening, saying that watching this film made her understand a friend’s suicide—a friend who had undergone something akin to Julia. This had a huge impact on both Ashley and I. I only hope others who may have had similar experiences can also take something away from what we’ve created.

Ashley: I think Matthews answer to this question says everything i feel too! Ashley, My wife was thrilled to hear that you were in her all time favourite movie ‘Willow’ at a young age! Was drama and creativity a big part of your family growing up? Did you have any particular heroes or influences?

Ashley: Ahh thats so cool! I love that film too. So cool to have been a part of it. So yes, I was brought up in a very creative environment. My parents made sure we had a lot of freedom to explore. I had a lot of energy around the house, so I was constantly, singing, dancing, I played musical instruments, made forts, went exploring, and eventually my mom started taking me to auditions for local theatre productions. I started booking roles like Tigerlily in Peter Pan and Annie in the musical Annie. I loved being on stage. I don’t know what it was, but i guess I started getting good at it and loved it so much and eventually I was like hmm.. maybe this is who I am. I was obsessed with musicals at a very young age too. I think Barbara Streisand was a big influence at the time. Then when I started watching more adult movies, I was truly inspired by Vivien Leigh’s performance in Gone with the Wind. I wanted to do that. Be her. I started reading books about her and her career and what it was like to be a movie actress and play such challenging roles so convincingly etc. My idols became Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Isadora Duncan and Meryl Streep. I moved to New York City and went to acting school. I wanted to be rooted in theatre first. Get good at my craft. I think when i was younger the current Hollywood turned me off a lot and i had nobody pushing me in that direction. So i didn’t start to pursue the main stream until about 2 years ago. I didn’t want to be known as a pretty face or sucking up to some producer. I wanted to be known for my work as an actress. Little did I know that that would be the longest, hardest road imaginable. Maybe if I had gone to Hollywood at a much younger age my career would be in a very different place now. But it has proved to be the most rewarding and growing experience of my life. I’m looking forward to seeing you appear in feature roles outside the horror genre, anything coming up that you can share with us?

Ashley: A few things are in development. Will be able to share that news soon ! Matthew, Do you know what your next project is yet and would you mind sharing any details?

Matthew: I have a number of things in active development now, including a brutal and tragic NY-based gangster film, a WWII war/horror film, also a kickass manga-style Yakuza film.. but don’t want to give details beyond that right now. Soon though! Thank you for these insightful questions.