Q&A: Director Merlin Dervisevic on the Personal Hell of “CRUEL AND UNUSUAL”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Amy Seidman
Imagine, for a moment, the worst thing you could do to a loved one, which inevitably causes their death. Now imagine living it over and over again. Sounds like a bottomless pit, doesn’t it? That’s the scenario explored in CRUEL & UNUSUAL, the just-released directorial debut of Merlin Dervisevic, who discussed it with FANGORIA.
In CRUEL & UNUSUAL, now available on Netflix, Edgar (David Richmond-Peck) is trapped in his own personal hell, where he is doomed to constantly relive the moment his wife is murdered. While the predicament is his, he shares the torturous experience with others in an institutional setting, where each participant’s experience is tailored to the event that brought them there in the first place. But this hell is about more than just endless torment; it involves understanding, learning and growth as well. In an age of excuses and unaccountability, you cannot run from, ignore or twist the truth; moreover, you must share it with others while going through the darkest moment of your life in an endless loop. Think GROUNDHOG DAY on a nightmarish level.
The British Columbia-based Dervisevic, who also scripted CRUEL & UNUSUAL, employs a storytelling style harking back to Christopher Nolan’s MEMENTO, and cast genre regulars Michael Eklund (THE DIVIDE, THE CALL, BATES MOTEL) and Richard Harmon (GRAVE ENCOUNTERS 2, EVANGELINE, BATES MOTEL) in supporting roles. His vision of hell contains no lake of fire, though there are demons and an eternity of damnation, and resembles the set of SAW minus the torture contraptions. Dervisevic eschews such devices in favor of delving into the backgrounds of his tormented characters, allowing him to tell their stories with little distraction. Fango chatted with Dervisevic to shed more light on his eternal home for the wicked…
FANGORIA: What inspired this very dark, complex tale?
MERLIN DERVISEVIC: I was channel-surfing when I chanced upon a popular TV series, in which the lead character was being flogged mercilessly in a cavernous, fiery abyss—apparently, he was in hell. I started pondering non-theological concepts of hell and thought that if I were to design it, the torture inflicted on the inhabitants would surely be psychological rather than physical. Assuming he is not a psychopath, what better way to punish someone who murders his parents in a fit of rage than by making him do it over and over and over again?
FANG: Why did you choose the title CRUEL & UNUSUAL?
DERVISEVIC: It’s meant to describe what the main characters are forced to endure. They’ve all done horrific things to their loved ones, and their punishment is to repeat the misdeed for eternity and scrutinize it in group therapy. I think that title effectively captures the tone of the film.
FANG: While the characters are in group, they are expected to talk about what they did to gain understanding, and accept and be accountable for the crimes that got them there. Do you feel there is a lack of accountability for such things in this day and age?
DERVISEVIC: Definitely. We tend to make excuses for the guilty, regardless of the severity of their crimes. In Edgar’s world, there’s no room for that. In fact, accepting responsibility for one’s wrongdoing is one of the key objectives of this hell. It’s only when an inmate accepts 100 percent accountability that his punishment ultimately becomes effective. Ironically, achieving acceptance also provides a somewhat masochistic satisfaction. As William says to Edgar after his acceptance, “Now you can feel the comfort that comes from your pain.”
FANG: Each character bears a mark that signifies their specific atrocity. Do you feel that someone’s personal trespass is something stamped on them psychologically?
DERVISEVIC: The tattoo on each character’s arm does more than identify him or her to others; it serves as a constant reminder of the crime they’ve committed. In dramatic terms, it’s a metaphor for the inescapable remorse one feels after doing something gravely regrettable.
FANG: That old expression, “There is a special place in hell for people like that”—do you see that as a fair assessment of these characters?
DERVISEVIC: Absolutely. Edgar finds himself in a specific place in hell reserved for parricides. All of these people have murdered a family member, aside from one curious exception. I imagine that this vast institution houses an endless array of rooms, each hosting a group therapy session for a different breed of transgressor.
FANG: There are two authority figures that we only see on television. Who and where are they?
DERVISEVIC: The Facilitator and the Counselor are two bureaucratic administrators Edgar encounters in hell. Their purpose is to ensure that hell’s inhabitants are on the correct path of punishment. They provide the information and the environment to guide the inmates toward acceptance of their crimes and, ultimately, self-torture from their consciences. These characters are depicted as images on old-fashioned CRT monitors, with the intention of dehumanizing them. While they can see and communicate with the inmates, they never appear in the flesh, drawing a clear line between those in authority and those in custody. Despite giving these characters a unique embodiment, shooting a pixilated CRT monitor, especially close up, results in a strange and somewhat unsettling image.
FANG: Can you explain the importance of the power struggle between Gogan (Monsour Cataquiz), a young foreigner, and Edgar, who comes across as an old middle-of-the-road type?
DERVISEVIC: In this story, the importance of the Edgar/Gogan power struggle lies primarily in the audience’s perception of it. The conflict is used to dramatize an important theme in the film: “Perspective changes perception.” The audience is initially led to believe that Gogan is a foul-mouthed, ungrateful little shit who’s taking advantage of Edgar’s generosity. It’s only when we see Gogan’s situation from a different perspective that we realize he is being severely antagonized by the world Edgar is forcing upon him.
FANG: It’s quite rare for a movie to create people with specific existences in life, death and somewhere in between. Did you spend a lot of time working out the profiles for such complete characters?
DERVISEVIC: I obsessed for a long time over their authenticity. I’ve always been intrinsically drawn to offbeat, surrealistic stories, provided I believe in the characters. If audiences are to invest themselves in a fantastic story, we owe them tangible, textured roles. When I conceived CRUEL & UNUSUAL, I ran into some resistance due to the fact that my main character dies in the first scene. I was told it was impossible for my protagonist to have anything at stake if he was already dead, but I disagree. There is a lot at stake when you consider an eternity in hell.
FANG: You secured distribution in Asia first. Do you believe, as an independent filmmaker in a time of such instability in the movie market, that it is important to lock in foreign distribution before doing so on your own turf?
DERVISEVIC: I tend not to think too much about distribution strategies. I’m more interested in the creative side of making films. It might be a naive approach, but I make movies that I’d like to see myself, that are unconventional but entertaining, that challenge an audience and engage them too. It makes me happy when people see my work, and it makes me even happier when they like it. I’m told that some of the philosophies in the story are similar to those in Buddhism; maybe that’s why CRUEL & UNUSUAL has been well-received in Asia. For whatever reason, the film seems to have found a genuine connection there. I’m hoping it finds a similar connection with the rest of the world.