Director Robert Lieberman discusses his thriller The Tortured, debuting in theaters June 15
Robert Lieberman is a director who definitely can't be pigeonholed into any particular genre. He's done sci-fi (Fire In The Sky), family sports drama (D3: The Mighty Ducks), episodes of hit TV series (Dexter, Eureka, Nikita), and everything in between. The filmmaker returns with the taut thriller The Tortured, debuting in limited release on June 15. I recently had the chance to speak with the director about his new project, which centers on a young couple (Jesse Metcalfe and Erika Christensen) who take extreme measure to exact justice on the man who kidnapped and murdered their only son.
Here's what he had to say.
Can you talk about your early encounters with the writer, and how it all started coming together?
Robert Lieberman: Well, it was a first draft script when I signed on to it. You've got to put it in the perspective that it's brought to you by the people who brought you Saw. They had a certain expectation of what the film should do, as far as the horror genre. I had a certain expectation, as far as the movies that I make, which are really human-based, whether they be science-fiction or horror or just straight drama or comedy. My movies are always imbued with as real a story about the human condition or human behavior as possible. It was my thesis that most science-fiction and horror and genre films broadcast themselves as being what they're going to be, right from the get-go. It gives the audience the chance to insulate themselves and prepare themselves for the worst, whereas, if you catch them with their guard down, and have them buy into the humanity of a real dramatic movie, but the people are real. I did a movie called Fire In The Sky, and I kept telling people that I wanted it to be like Midnight Cowboy, and what happens if a flying saucer lands in Midnight Cowboy? You've already invested in all those characters, and believed it was really New York and really Ratso Rizzo, and all these characters. Then, all of a sudden, it would be hard to divest yourself of, in this case, in The Tortured, the horror that you will now have to face. You've bought into the characters, you've bought into the premise, now there's nowhere to hide. It becomes rather frightening. The idea was to really create a couple that was very real, and had the really idyllic, bucolic life going. He's a doctor and has this little boy who's adorable, and that's very important. Then, they suffer this loss and suffer this indignity of injustice at that loss. It seemed to me that, initially, with their impulses to try to even the scales of justice, what the film ultimately says is that you can't.
I really loved the twist, but even if the twist wasn't there, you know that this couple is already scarred, just by doing it.
Yeah, absolutely. I thought that was a great double entendre.
Robert Lieberman: Thank you.
Robert Lieberman: Yeah, sure. I had seen Erika in Traffic as Michael Douglas' daughter. I had seen her in a couple of other things, and I thought she's getting to the age where she's looking to make the next step from ingenue to young mother, which would be a good thing. This is such a complicated deal. It's so complicated for the actors, emotionally, and for the story. The morality of it is questionable. I probably had more conversations with actors on this than any other film I've ever done. You walk a very fine line, as an actor. There are only a couple of things that they gave me solids for in making this film. One of them was he was a doctor, because, as a doctor, you're insulated against the gore and horror. It becomes very pragmatic, cutting people open, but the average guy on the street, it would scare us, and we wouldn't be able to do it. For a doctor... eh, it's work as usual. That helped me believe they could do this. Where I came at odds with the producers, at some point, was I felt that when does the victim become the perpetrator? When have you crossed the line? I always held that they were completely justified in kidnapping this guy and killing them. I have kids, and if somebody did that to my kid, I would probably kill them, and then I'd probably kill myself because I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. Once you stuck a screwdriver into a man's leg and seen him scream... it's like 'I'm not sure I want to keep doing this anymore. I'm not sure it's much fun or satisfying.' The producers felt pretty committed, and we walked down that line very carefully. In my heart, I believe that this couple is really coming off the rails. It starts out as a very moralistic position, to avenge the death of my child, and then it becomes a very immoralistic issue, as you put somebody through that kind of pain, knowing what kind of pain you put them through. Is it really satisfying, once you put them through it once or twice? I just felt they were off the rails, they committed to it, and now they were just as nutty as he was, basically.
There are all these instances where one wants to stop, but the other convinces the other to keep going. I liked how you played with that
Robert Lieberman: Thanks. I think that is really important. Every one of those conversations had to do with a moral issue that was brought up. One of them was can you punish someone for doing something that they can't even remember doing? What's the point? I felt very strongly that the end twist was what gave the whole piece the raison d'etre, that, whatever you thought you were doing, on another plane, you made it worse. You can't do it.
Can you talk about where you actually shot this, and what you were looking for in the locations? The abandoned house was really perfect.
Robert Lieberman: I shot it in Vancouver, British Columbia, which is where you're talking to me right now from. I'm doing another film here. It's a pretty gray place to be. It's overcast most of the time, it rains a lot up here, so that kept in style with the filmmaking. The house they start in, I wanted it to be very bucolic, eclectic, like a young couple that would just throw some stuff in, an old house that had warmth through it and charm on a beautiful street. Now, in contrast to that, the house they bring him into, it's an abandoned, cold, dark, drab house. The house has to embody the horror that's going to take place inside it. That farmhouse worked particularly well for me, because I wanted them to live above him, and for them to go down in the basement. This house had a great basement, and, you actually never see it in the film, but there is great access from the outside to the basement, so you can get into the basement, and then plug it up and it only looks like you can get in from downstairs. There were storm doors that went right in to the outside. The property was very secluded, so we could use the other buildings that were in it and around it. It's just really creepy.
Can you talk a bit about IFC Films picking this up? They have a very diverse slate of programming and midnight horror programming.
Robert Lieberman: I'm not keenly aware of what their programming is, so it's kind of unfair for me to comment on it. I think this probably does fit into their pattern of midnight horror screenings. My films, very often, become cult-ish. They aren't necessarily the largest box office movies. I've had the good fortune, and the bad fortune, of being able to make films in almost every genre, and keep my brand undefined, which is the bad news. If you have your brand extremely well-defined, then it's easy for them to slot you and and get more of it. I've kept my brand open. Last year, I did a movie called Breakaway in Canada, which is about Canadian hockey players. There's no rhyme or reason to what I do. I did an action picture with Steve Austin, I did D3: The Mighty Ducks, I did Fire In The Sky, a sci-fi movie. This is the first real, flat-out horror movie I've done, and I think this fits in with their idea of bringing in interesting, smaller works, that would otherwise not get the studio, 5,000-screen release.
Is there anything you can say about the project you're shooting now in Vancouver?
Robert Lieberman: We're in preparation right now. I've been in prep for about a week, and I've got another four weeks of prep. It's a four-hour mini-series called Dark Universe. It's about a particle accelerator gone wild. It's another sci-fi piece, and it's like a sci-fi/disaster movie.
Will it air on Syfy?
Robert Lieberman: There's no distribution as of now, except for in Europe. We're making a series of these with a company called Sonar, which used to be RHI. They're making five of these mini-series', and each one is a different disaster. They're going to package them up.
Great. Well, that's my time. Thank you so much. It was great talking to you.
Robert Lieberman: It was nice talking to you too. Thank you for your interest.