The Running Woman: Writer/Director Andrew Semans on His Rebecca Hall-Starring “Resurrection”
Director Andrew Semans’s 2012 debut feature, Nancy, Please, follows Paul (Will Rogers), an unraveling Ph.D. candidate obsessed with reclaiming his dog-eared, notes-filled copy of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit from a spiteful ex-roommate (Eleonore Hendricks). Despite his increasingly desperate attempts, Paul just can’t get Nancy to relinquish the book from their formerly shared apartment. As the ex-roomie continues to live rent-free in Paul’s head, his deteriorating mental state prevents him from completing his thesis. Less interested in why Nancy won’t relinquish the book than why Paul so easily accepts his newfound submissiveness, Nancy, Please is a dark comedy about not being able to move forward and how one’s life can crumble as a result.
A decade later, Semans’s second feature, Resurrection, is equally focused on a toxic relationship from which the story’s lead cannot break free. Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a single mother in Albany, raises her 17-year-old daughter (Grace Kaufman) with an overprotectiveness that would concern even the most staunch helicopter parent. One afternoon at a medical conference, Margaret recognizes a man (Tim Roth) who prompts her to recoil in physical disgust and abject terror. Over the subsequent days, the mysterious gentleman will continue to pop up in public spaces with seemingly no purpose other than to intimidate and threaten the safety of Margaret and her daughter. Who is he, and what secrets from her past does he hold?
While the man’s identity and connection to Margaret is revealed by the conclusion of Resurrection’s first act—by way of a thrilling, uninterrupted monologue that Hall performs with the utmost sincerity and complete commitment to Semans’s words—what’s most impressive is how the film uses elements of psychological thrillers (how can one convince others of the dangers of a man who has seemingly yet to do anything wrong?) and gory body-horror to tell a story about a mentally abusive relationship. Not since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have a man and woman so sadistically battled over the memory of a loved one, happily waging psychological warfare to exert one’s control over their shared narrative.
From a first draft written soon after the theatrical release of Nancy, Please to the script’s 2019 appearance on The Black List (an annual survey of the year’s best yet-to-be-produced screenplays), Resurrection has taken a long journey to the silver screen. Shot during the summer of 2021 and premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Resurrection seems poised to take Semans’s career another step forward. This is also true of his personal life: in addition to his second feature, the writer-director is eagerly anticipating the summer arrival of his first child. I spoke with Semans about his career between his two features, Resurrection’s extended gestation into production, his appreciation for intricate sound design, his love of monologues and more.
Resurrection opens in theaters on July 29th from IFC Films and hits streaming on August 5th via Shudder.
Filmmaker: As it’s been a decade since the premiere of Nancy, Please, I wanted to begin after that film’s release. What path were you hoping your career would take?
Semans: Nancy, Please premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012. It was a microbudget movie made for very little money; nonetheless, we were quite scrappy and able to get it made and, after Tribeca, it went on to receive a small theatrical release from the mighty Factory 25. While the critical response was good, nobody saw the movie. It didn’t exactly launch my career into the stratosphere! After Nancy, Please was done, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have another project planned, nor did I have a career trajectory in mind. I was in the wilderness for a while, at least in terms of my career. Creatively, I felt a bit disillusioned. I didn’t know where my strengths were as a writer or director, so I was a little blue.
Gradually, I took an interest in some other stories and ideas and tried writing scripts that were more commercial. I was hoping that I might be able to break in [to Hollywood] as a screenwriter and make some money, but even that didn’t really work. I’m not very good at imitating other writers, which, to a certain degree, was what I was trying and failing to do. I started writing Resurrection as an antidote to that, where I would give myself permission to write whatever interested me and follow my impulses, my unconscious, and see where it took me. I didn’t think anyone would take an interest in the script, nor did I think it would go anywhere, but it turned out to be the screenplay of mine that people were most interested in. I felt weirdly vindicated, and once I’d gone through a few drafts, it started getting noticed by people whom I was interested in working with. From there, the long, slow climb to production began.
Filmmaker: Is it true that part of the inspiration came from a friend who had been struggling with a toxic relationship? Knowing that you yourself were not a parent while developing and directing the film, what led you to writing from an almost strictly female point of view about motherhood and maternal protectiveness?
Semans: I found myself intrigued by the parental vigilante genre that continues to be very popular. I must’ve had the Taken movies on my mind and was attracted to the genre as something to mess around with. It felt very primal, like something anyone could understand and relate to regardless of whether or not they were a parent. “Parent protects child from dangerous predator” is such a simple and emotionally gripping concept, right? I was intrigued by how parental revenge/vigilante movies trade on and exploit fears around parenting, of being unable to keep your child safe or protect them from injury, harm or exploitation. These are very natural, deep-seated fears that I wanted not only to exploit but also to provide with a grandiose, narcissistic fantasy. Margaret is a normal parent who is suddenly transformed into a sort of unstoppable superhero when her child is threatened. I think this idea is very appealing to parents and non-parents alike: “If the thing I love most in this world is threatened, then I will turn into something more than human. I will be[come] indomitable.”
I began filling in the basics of the story, the specific traits involved in the idea of a parent whose child is threatened and who must act alone to protect them. I immediately based the parent character, at least initially, on my own mother. And, as I was trying to figure out a way into this genre and its trappings, a friend of mine became involved in an unhealthy relationship with a very toxic, sociopathic individual. I was witnessing it play out firsthand and doing my best to try to help her and understand the incredibly dangerous bond that had formed between them. Really, it was a trauma bond that had formed between them. I found it very frightening but also fascinating. As I researched the subject [of trauma bonds] and learned more about the psychology of victim and victimizer in these relationships, it influenced my script in a significant way. I’ve had the misfortune of knowing a couple of true malignant narcissists in my life, real sociopathic men—I guess it’s inevitable, working in the film industry—and they served, to one degree or another, as inspiration for David, the character played by Tim Roth.
Filmmaker: Over the years in which you were receiving attention for the script, were you returning to it every few months to revise or work on a new draft? Or did you lock it away in a drawer and resist that temptation?
Semans: It became a backburner project. I had other things I was trying to write, so I would work on Resurrection piecemeal or whenever the spirit moved me. It did not come out in one big, cathartic gush [laughs]. It wasn’t a case of being up for 72 hours and writing the script continuously, then locking it away. It was pieced together over a long time, but the amount of time I actually spent writing the screenplay was, if you were to add it all up, fairly short, at least when creating early drafts.
Filmmaker: Was being included on The Black List in 2019 a turning point for the project?
Semans: It certainly helped, and it legitimized the project in the eyes of some people in the industry. It’s a nice feather in your cap to have, and if you say that a certain script is on The Black List, people are often inclined to pay more attention and take it more seriously. Rebecca [Hall] coming onboard was the big turning point for us, though. [In addition to starring in the film, Hall served as an executive producer.]
Filmmaker: Did the numerous production companies involved, including Secret Engine and the newly formed Square Peg, come aboard fairly early? Was there a domino effect where one company signed on to develop the project and connected you to another?
Semans: I initially got the script to Tory Lenosky and Alex Scharfman, who at that time were working at Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen’s production company, Parts & Labor, which now no longer exists. Once the company disbanded, Tory and Alex remained interested in the film and wanted to keep working on it, so I went with them. Around that time, Alex was in the early stages of forming a production company, Secret Engine, with [producers] Lucas Joaquin and Drew Houpt, so the film subsequently became a project with Secret Engine and Tory Lenosky. They all ultimately produced the movie. Lars came back on a little later, having formed the production company Square Peg with [Hereditary and Midsommar writer-director] Ari Aster, to help out. Like a lot of indie movies, it took a long time and required real patience and dedication, which I’m lucky the producers had. They didn’t get discouraged. They stuck around, and God bless them for it.
Filmmaker: Did the script always specify that its two leads be English?
Semans: No, it didn’t.
Filmmaker: I’m assuming that change was made once Rebecca Hall signed on, and watching the film, I was really struck by the idea of two English characters with a dark, shared past coming back into each other’s lives in… Albany, New York. Was setting the story in the state’s capital also a later development?
Semans: That addition also came later. Regarding the characters being English, the script was originally written with American [characters], and when Rebecca joined the film, she was planning to play the role as an American. She frequently acts with an American accent, and she’s very good at it! But at a certain point, it was Rebecca suggesting, “I would like to do this with my English accent.” She hadn’t used her native accent [in a film] in some time, and I didn’t see any issue with it at all. I actually quite like [her character being English], in that it creates a sense of difference and separation between herself and her environment. There’s a sort of alien presence to [her character], as if she feels as though she’s from another land. It felt appropriate. Later on, once we had another English actor, Tim [Roth], on board, if Rebecca was to be using her English accent, it would’ve been silly for Tim to not use his, and it was very easy adjusting the script to accommodate that. Again, I liked the idea of having these two people who don’t belong in this rather mundane-seeming American environment, somehow otherized by the environment they find themselves in. It felt right, and I think both actors were more comfortable speaking in their normal voices.
The script was originally set in New York City, but, for a variety of practical reasons, we did not shoot there. However, choosing to film [and set the story in] Albany wasn’t a choice made for creative reasons but for a host of production-related ones. Albany is a strange and fascinating city, a very odd place that’s frequently both beautiful and bleak. There are several bleak landscapes that I really came to appreciate and like for the film. At first glance, it seems like such an ostensibly mundane city, but then you look again and it’s not. It’s very eclectic and old, and honestly one of my regrets about the movie is that we didn’t maximize the Albany landscape enough, primarily due to time constraints. We couldn’t take full advantage of the city’s infrastructure, which still saddens me, as visually, it’s a very cool, cinematic city.
Filmmaker: You open the film with the camera locked on Margaret’s intern, Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone), recounting a toxic relationship she’s currently stuck in and apparently seeking Margaret’s advice. It’s a kind of one-shot on Carbone, then we hear Hall, off-camera, asking follow-up questions as if she’s Gwyn’s inquisitive therapist. Not long after this scene, Margaret herself delivers a monologue (to Gwyn) about her own toxic relationship.
Semans: The notion of opening the film with an extended shot of Gwyn was always in the script and was actually the first scene I wrote. To be honest with you, I don’t know what impulse led to [shooting the scene in that way]. I think I liked the idea of withholding the protagonist for a moment and enjoying the slight reversal there, the idea that you feel that Gwyn is likely going to be the lead character—or, at least, a lead character—then, at the end of the scene, we switch over to the person who is actually the lead. We also shot a whole take from Rebecca’s side and tried a version of the scene where we cut back and forth in a more conventional, shot/reverse shot way, but it just felt boring and didn’t have the same emotional impact. I like the way we shot the scene, as yes, it sets the viewer up for Margaret’s monologue later in the film, like “Oh, this is the kind of movie that might have a sustained, near static shot on a person for quite some time!” It just felt right.
Filmmaker: I believe you shot Margaret’s big monologue twice and that at one point you even considered interspersing it with edited-in flashbacks of the memory she’s describing. Now, it’s primarily a static shot of Rebecca Hall with a few subtle zooms snuck in. How did you envision the look of that scene?
Semans: The shot was primarily influenced by Alan Arkin’s 1971 film, Little Murders. Have you seen that?
Filmmaker: Yes, I have.
Semans: I love Little Murders. It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s a very talky film, and that’s somewhat due to it being based on a play. [Adapting his 1967 Broadway comedy, playwright Jules Feiffer originally penned the film adaptation that, before landing on Alan Arkin as director, was at one point in pre-production to be helmed by Jean-Luc Godard]. One of the many things I love about that movie is that right at the midway point, Elliott Gould’s character brilliantly delivers a wonderful monologue that, up until that point in the movie, is a departure [from his character’s enigmatic figure]. We don’t really know what makes his character tick. and we don’t know anything about his backstory, or at least very little. Then, boom, Gould delivers this origin story in his six- or seven-minute-long monologue, all done in a single take. I loved the formal strategy being employed there. I did something very similar in Resurrection, where, through the first 35 or 40 minutes, you know that there is some significant backstory informing this character’s behavior, even if it’s not clear what actually occurred. I liked the idea of it all being revealed in one fell swoop and it was always my intention (or hope) that it would be shot as a single take. It was very scary because if the monologue isn’t performed impeccably, it’s going to completely destroy the movie. At first, it felt like a real risk, but after working with Rebecca for one day, I was wholly confident that she would pull it off brilliantly.
To your earlier question, at a certain point in the script there were in fact very brief dream-like flashbacks interspersed into the monologue, which I thought we should maybe shoot just to have, just in case. I think I was worried that people coming onboard the movie, financiers, might see this three-page, continuous strain of dialogue on the page and respond negatively, like “No way. This is going to completely ruin the movie.” So, I broke it up to make it, at least on the page, feel more cinematic. I thought that if we were to at least shoot these flashbacks, who knows, maybe we could use them somewhere. In the end, we decided not to shoot them at all. I took them out of the script in the run-up to production, and now I think that if that monologue were intruded upon by flashbacks, it’d be very frustrating and would suck.
Filmmaker: Unless my eyes deceive me, the lighting gradually changes during that sequence too, no?
Semans: It does.
Filmmaker: Rebecca Hall feels more in silhouette. I was curious how, in shooting a performance-heavy long take, you still found ways for the camera to be very active.
Semans: There is a very, very slow push-in on Rebecca’s face that’s almost imperceptible. Now, if you were to fast-forward through it, you could clearly see that the camera does in fact move quite a bit, but it’s very slow. And yes, in the color grade, we wanted her to be increasingly enveloped in blackness. Her background melts away and you just see this face looming in black. It was simple to do and didn’t require any particular trickery. The idea was, how do we give just a little sense of visual development here (while including movement) and subtly reinforce the trajectory of the story by using blackness that gradually appears to encroach around her? The color gradually drains over the course of the monologue or, at the very least, gets less saturated and much cooler. She looks less and less healthy as the monologue moves forward—but again, all of it is so gradual and incremental that most viewers won’t notice.
Filmmaker: Is that also true in regard to the lighting in the sequence between Margaret and David at the local diner? When they first sit down in a booth for a tense conversation, the sunlight bathes down on them through the window, but then, as their conversation gets darker, the lighting gets colder.
Semans: Yes, we did something similar there. When they’re sitting across from each other and David mentions wanting a “kindness” from Rebecca, we shift the tone of the lighting, darkening it a bit and making it feel a bit more somber and threatening, although hopefully in a way that’s subtle and doesn’t knock you over the head. Honestly, we did that in a few scenes. The visual strategy in general was that we wanted the movie to be very simple, rather austere in its design. We didn’t want to do a lot of coverage and didn’t want a style that called attention to itself and was very expressionistic. We wanted to maintain a sense of a rather mundane reality while, at the same time, shooting in a way that was handsome, attractive and cinematic, but that didn’t call attention to any particular visual strategies or trickery.
I like the idea of this story, which is admittedly quite outlandish and operatic, taking place in an environment that felt extremely familiar, even banal. The film takes place in offices and in apartments, a park, a hotel room, etc.—boring, commonplace locations. What we tried to do was maintain that sense of banality while funnily and insidiously bringing in a sense of menace, of paranoia, in a way that isn’t too overt or immediately detectable by the audience. It was always a balancing act. How can we make it look real and relatively plain but also suspenseful and thematically appropriate? And how do we make sure it still all looks good? I think we found a nice balance.
Filmmaker: Did finding a balance between banality and threatening menace also apply to how you approached the film’s sound design? At times, the aural landscape feels like a merging of Rebecca Hall’s breathing, Jim Williams’ score, and other ambient sounds that subtly begin to lurk in.
Semans: We gave ourselves much greater permission to be stylized or expressionistic in the sound. I imagined the visuals were the facts of the case, and the sound was Margaret’s [subjective] experience. We certainly pushed that in certain scenes and refrained from doing so in others. On a sound/audio track, you can get away with doing a lot of weird or goofy shit, and the audience doesn’t seem to notice. Hopefully they feel it and it goes on to augment their experience, but if you are very, very stylized visually, it’s just much more apparent, consciously, to the viewer, than if you’re [playing with audio]. On a soundtrack, you can get away with a lot more, so in the sound design and the mix, we gave ourselves more latitude to really mix things up. Our sound designer, Ric Schnupp, had a really good time with that.
Filmmaker: Was that also the case in the scene where you incorporate Margaret hearing a baby’s cries emerging from the loud traffic underneath the overpass bridge? Were you working with separate audio tracks (i.e., a baby crying, very loud cars) and going back and forth to raise the volume on one while lowering the volume of another?
Semans: Somewhat. That particular scene where Rebecca is apparently listening to her infant child was a lot of fun because we were going to try to incorporate the infant sounds within a swirling mass of environmental sounds from the busy roadway above. Much of those sounds came via sirens and loud trucks and other things passing by. We took those environmental sounds and blended them into a big mass, while also incorporating wailing baby cries. We had many discussions about how explicit we wanted those baby cries to be. Do we want [the viewer] to just detect them? Do we want to make sure everybody hears them and doesn’t miss it? How much should they be integrated in with other similar sounds in the environment? I think Ric was a bit disappointed [with me], since he had these crazy baby noises built into [the sound] and then I’d say, “No, I think we actually want to be more subtle here.” [laughs] I think Ric was a tiny bit heartbroken that these nerve-jangling baby screams he had so lovingly put together had to eventually be discarded.
Filmmaker: Given the heightened situations some of your characters are placed in, what was your experience like directing the performances, and Rebecca Hall, specifically?
Semans: The actors on this movie made it incredibly easy for me. They’re all very experienced, and each had a strong sense of what I and the whole team were going for. It didn’t require a major intervention from me to get them to a place that was appropriate or effective in each given scene. With Rebecca, she just came ready every day and without any discussion or guidance, would just knock it out of the park on the first take. It became apparent to me early on in production that the less I directed Rebecca, the better. Had I tried to verbalize any adjustments, I just would’ve gotten in her way. If we did a take that wasn’t 100 percent perfect, we would just do another one and knew that that take would be remarkable. She is a director’s dream and does all the work herself. That’s extremely welcomed on a movie like this, where there’s so little time and very little money. Having her come in and just nail it from the jump on every scene, on every setup, was an enormous gift to the production.
Filmmaker: I also appreciate your use of Rosemary Howard in the film [a character actress, Howard plays a small role in Resurrection as a stern hotel desk clerk whom Margaret encounters].
Semans: Rosemary is great! Please include a shoutout to Rosemary in this. [laughs] Also, her scream is so intense. She’s the scariest screamer ever. When she screamed at Rebecca on the first take in the [hotel room scene], the entire crew jumped. Everybody was terrified, and nobody knew this woman had it in her! That too was quite a revelation for us.
Filmmaker: As you’re nearing the release of this film, how would you say the project has grown over the years? I’m referring both to the long journey the film took to getting made as well as your own personal journey with the story. For example, you’re currently on the cusp of parenthood. I’m sure the long duration of time it took to get the film made isn’t something you’re eager to go through again, but was the decade of living with this story rewarding in other ways?
Semans: Oh my god.
Filmmaker: It’s a big life question, I know.
Semans: I don’t know. Ask me that question in a year, and I might have more perspective on it! Right now, honestly, I still love the film. When you make a movie, it becomes such a part of your day-to-day life. It becomes more about completing a series of tasks or identifying challenges and new problems to solve. Often, I think I forget to step back. We’ve had good success with it thus far, but I’m only now waving goodbye to it. Saying that it dominated about a decade of my life is true, and while I still love it, I’m eager to move on to telling other stories. A couple of big releases in my life are happening at more or less the same time in July. In a couple of years, I will have been a parent for a couple of years, and I’ll probably look back on the film and ask myself, “Knowing what I know now, what did I get right and wrong about parenting in this movie?” But I have no idea how I’ll answer that question, because I haven’t had the experience yet.