We loved our selection of July films – usually, the summer months are a little bit on the quiet side, however this time the competition was fierce. Among others, we had a very amusing attempt to spice up podcast viewership ratings by livestreaming an alien invasion in I Made War of the Worlds, stepped into a deep, dark forest in search for answers for mysterious disappearances in Trespasser, and took a look at an extremely dysfunctional relationship in Coerce. After plenty of debate, the latter was our July 2023 winner, and so we had a chat with Rory, the director and screenwriter, as well as Laura and Matt, the lead actors.
Rory Wilson, winner of Best Director, Screenwriter and Cinematographer
JL: Rory, congrats for the not one, not two but three wins! What a film Coerce was – how did you come up with the idea?
RW: Thank you! Seeing this response to the film is really encouraging and reassuring to myself and my team. A few years ago there was a widely publicised story about a young man, Alex Skeel, who suffered abuse at the hands of his girlfriend. I found the story to be harrowing and felt a strong connection to Alex; we are the same age with similar interests and were both in long-term relationships from very young. I’m grateful to say my relationship has been the most positive influence on my life, but I recognise how the nature and dynamics of a relationship can create a very vulnerable environment. Even in the best of relationships, you tend to become somewhat isolated from friends and family. If someone has a tendency to control, manipulate and ultimately abuse, then suddenly this becomes an opportune dynamic. Alex’s story was told comprehensively, through articles, interviews and a documentary, but in a very objective way. I spoke with Alex very early on in the development of Coerce. What I proposed to Alex was to create an intensely subjective film, inspired by his story along with other accounts, to get closer to understanding the psychology of an abuse victim and the power of coercive control. I had this idea to create a film that not only put the audience in the shoes of the abuse victim but actually tries to coerce the audience into thinking that staying and saying nothing is better than leaving and seeking help, which is exactly what Sam is coerced into thinking. Matt Rolls and Laura Masters turned in absolutely incredible performances and if we got close to achieving this effect on the audience it is largely down to these guys.
JL: The first time the police officer comes to investigate the domestic abuse report, he initially asks Morgan whether she is alright. This feels like a common misconception – that men cannot be the target of domestic abuse. How are you using the film to tell the other side of the story?
RW: Statistically, women are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse and coercive control. This fact is not lost on me, however, I have never seen a film that depicts the other side of the story. What I found when exploring stories of male victims of abuse is that it offered a new perspective on the subject matter. There are nuances which allow for a reassessment of where the boundaries lie for coercive control and domestic abuse. The abuse in Alex’s story has an undeniably physical element to it, but what stood out to me was the power of the emotional manipulation, the mind games and the psychological torment which in some ways supersedes the physical abuse. As much as I want this film to break the stigma against male victims of abuse, I also believe the film can raise awareness of the nuances of domestic abuse for all victims.
JL: You wrote and directed Coerce – what was the biggest challenge you faced in either process?
RW: Despite being a short film, I wanted it to feel dense and relentless. This meant there was quite a lot to shoot and we ended up filming it in two blocks. As a result, the writing and directing became intertwined. We would shoot for three days, and then have two months to prep the next block of filming, during which I was editing and reviewing the footage. I remember coming away from the first block of filming so energised and inspired by what Matt and Laura were bringing to their characters. I ended up expanding certain scenes and finding moments to push the characters even further in an attempt to get closer to understanding their strange and complex dynamic. What became challenging was being discerning when it came to the edit. There was so much great material and incredible performance moments, but I had to find a way to streamline the story, and most importantly keep focused on Sam’s story. As a director, I love the visual crafting of a story and experimenting with structure, but underpinning these flourishes are the performances from the actors. I knew my biggest challenge would be casting the right actors and then making sure we were treading a careful line to avoid the performances becoming too heightened. Early on in the project someone mentioned the potential for Morgan’s character to be akin to Kathy Bates in Misery, which I could see, but the last thing I wanted to do was turn this into a horror film and for Morgan to be the evil villain. Laura (Masters) and I were determined to create a multi-faceted character that had the power to scare you, but also seduce you into sympathy. Laura brought loads of ideas and commitment to the role. We found a way of playing against the text with feigned sincerity, to subvert the intention behind each line, which gave a new dimension to Morgan’s threat and manipulation of Sam.
JL: One of the great things that the film does is creating a wall between its central character and everything else – there is a sense of isolation, not only physical but also emtional. How did you achieve this?
RW: There is something unresponsive about the character of Sam which Matt was able to pick up on and use in his performance. Sam is a passenger of his own life. This isn’t exactly a discreet motif in the film, we see him as a passenger in a car four times! The idea of this wall that you describe between Sam and everything else is exactly what Matt and I wanted to achieve, to show a disconnect and total lack of autonomy and control of his circumstance. One of the main things that emerged during the shoot was that I was always wanted to shoot slightly above Matt’s eye-line. We are always looking down on him, which has a belittling, infantilising effect, whereas Morgan we meet dead on. Matt brought a beautiful subtlety to his performance and one of the main things we wanted to create was this idea of constantly treading on egg shells. Matt created this by having a delayed reaction to everything, a beat for Sam to consider the safest way to proceed. Whilst Sam is saying one thing, his eyes are clearly saying the opposite and Matt brought this to life so expertly and delicately. A big part of the isolation is the idea that there really doesn’t seem to be a way out. An impending doom. As soon as Sam says “I’m doing it to myself’ to the police officer, he becomes complicit in his own abuse. If he ever changes his story, then it just becomes his word against Morgan’s. By the end, Sam literally turns his back on the fight. If not for the deus ex machina in the form of the returning police officer, this story would have a very different ending. I wouldn’t have been able to make that film.
Laura Masters, winner of Best Actress
JL: Laura, that was an outstanding performance, congratulations! Your portrayal of Morgan was so convincing, she was scary! What was your preparation process for the role?
LM: Hello and firstly thank you so much! It’s been lovely to receive the news and see COERCE doing well. Morgan IS scary, I think I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how to inhabit that though. A lot of it came from her voice for me. Morgan has such a distinct way of making herself sound…harmless? High pitched sounds and soft, delicate pronunciation. Physically I tried to pair that with something unsettled underneath, usually being held like a sort of question in her eyes. A ‘don’t challenge me’ sort of look I suppose. She is very counter-intuitive with characters that aren’t Sam. I do head-tilting to show polite, active listening and constant eye contact. I listened and watched a lot of the material which inspired the film to get into the mindset for the day and all the scenes we were shooting. It was from that I got the use of a childlike voice and tiny gestures to try and exhibit a lack of any aggression or strength. When Morgan does lose control, I tried to let that show by losing the softness in the voice and making myself as physically big/wild as possible. The things Morgan does are awful, but as an actor who is a woman, it’s not often I get to play roles like this, and at times it was strangely freeing to be loud and big!
JL: Morgan very quickly shifts her stances, from brutally assaulting Sam, to pretending like nothing happened and going about her day as usual. Is this to prove a point to Sam and punish him for his initial reticence to have a baby, while preserving a sense of normality towards her son, or something else?
LM: I think Morgan is in denial about just exactly what she’s doing. She does know, but it’s buried under her insecurities and desire to stay in control. In her mind I do truly think that she believes that by acting the way she does, she is ensuring Sam won’t leave her for someone else. I think she has a deep-rooted fear of abandonment and is a paranoid person. She enjoys masquerading in the role of ‘victim’ because she likes the attention that ganders and the freedom it gives her to act how she wants in a way. It’s why she often acts passive and polite to others in the film. It enables her to keep pulling strings unseen. With Sam, it’s not so much about punishing him for his initial reticence to have a baby- though it does hurt and anger her that he isn’t immediately overjoyed by her manipulation into having a family- it’s more like an ongoing punishment she dishes out, so that he dares not even think about the possibility of acting against her desires. Like she’s constantly trying to squash the idea before it can exist. Punishing him for things he’s never done – so he’ll never do them.
JL: On that subject – what do you think Morgan’s emotions are towards Sam, and towards their son?
LM: I’ve thought a lot about this. It may be that Morgan believes she loves them, in her own way, but that really, it’s superficial and momentary affection, serving as a way to get what she wants. I think she wants to appear to have a ‘good life’, which means ticking off all the life boxes: Uni, boyfriend, child, house. While her role as a caring mother may appear more genuine in the film, I do truly believe that is just because Theo isn’t old enough to exercise his own agency yet. Morgan needs control. Complete control. And no relationship can last like that, not even between a parent and child. It may be easy to believe that Morgan’s lack of empathy renders her somewhat of a narcissist who might be unable to develop meaningful relationships. Though I would disagree. There is humanity in her I think, but she has lost it. I’m not sure if after the events of the film she’ll find it. Her mental health must play a part for me, and though not an excuse by any means, I do think she may not be a very well person. So, her emotions towards them both are…sadness. But sad because she hasn’t gotten what she wants. I don’t think when we leave her at the end of the film, she yet has the capability to feel anything beyond what directly affects her, and I believe that her anger and bitterness towards Sam for what she sees as a betrayal, will be something she never let’s go of.
Matt Rolls, winner of Best Actor
JL: Congratulations, Matt, what a performance! How does Coerce play against societal norms and expectations, and what is your main takeaway from it – as a viewer?
MR: Thank you! Whilst I believe it was important to highlight the disturbing and perhaps surprising statistics regarding male victims of domestic abuse, for me the film is less about playing against expectations and more about exploring why someone may choose to stay or feel trapped in a relationship of such brutality, and this of course can be a relationship between people of any gender. My main takeaway is how complex such a relationship can be as well how complex the emotions and feelings of both abuser and victim can be in that scenario.
JL: I also asked Rory about this – there was a marked distance between Sam and pretty much everything else – the audience, his son, and any little spark of joy. How difficult was to convey this sense of absolute emptiness from Sam’s perspective?
MR: I credit Rory for creating a working environment that allowed the actors to have the freedom to explore and then trusting us to focus and deliver what felt real, whilst also gently pushing us where needed. When you have that freedom, it’s much easier to tap into the most extreme emotions. Most of all, I was just relishing being on set every day and having the opportunity to work!
JL: What prevented Sam from reporting Morgan, or talking to his mum about the situation and the abuse?
MR: Definitely a mix of many different reasons, and I think the film’s job is to explore those without giving a definitive answer. Ultimately, I think the audience will find familiar reasons for staying in that relationship and question what would they do in in similar scenario.