Sam Levinson on Assassination Nation: 'There's a religiosity to ideas and ideology nowadays that's frightening'

Sam Levinson on Assassination Nation: 'There's a certain kind of religiosity to ideas and to ideology nowadays that is pretty frightening'

Actress Hari Nef and writer/director Levinson discuss the reimagining of the Salem Witch Trials

'There's nothing scarier than a large group of activated, mobilised people who believe 100% in their own unbreachable righteousness. It's so scary in fact you can make a thriller movie about it,' explains actress Hari Nef who stars in Sam Levinson's reimagining of the Salem Witch Trials, Assassination Nation. The film wears its heart on its sleeve in painting a disturbing portrait of modern America and engages with the dangers of pack mentality in the social media age with electrifying visuals and gonzo violence. Nef plays one of four teen girls, starring alongside Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse and singer Abra, who are brutally targeted after a hacker slowly releases personal online information about Salem residents. The hacker begins with the mayor, then moves on to the principle of the high school and finally as privacy keeps being attacked the population hide away and take brutal aim at anything outside societal norms in the fear that they will be next. When the finger is pointed at the group of women as the masterminds behind the hacking all hell breaks loose.

Levinson who wrote and directed the film explains his thinking behind what he wanted to convey saying, 'What this film gets at is that the internet just happens to be a new kind of frontier … the part where it gets scary is when righteousness, mob mentality and incessant vitriol gets injected into it. I think that's what this film deals with. There's a certain kind of religiosity to ideas and to ideology nowadays that is pretty frightening. That's why I used the Salem Witch Trials as a backdrop to explore this current time. I was trying to find another point in American history where shame and hysteria could lead to violence in the same way that I believe we're seeing nowadays.'

Touching upon women's sexual liberation and feminism, the fact that a man has written the film is a contentious point. Why does Levinson get to tell this story of teenage girls' rage? Nef says his script was surprising to her too. 'I had a lot of my own prejudices about who gets to tell what kinds of stories. I think how it was written, if you look at the script, was so much better than you would usually expect from a male screenwriter, especially one who isn't the same age as the girls. Reading it, it felt like it was coming from a place of urgency and a place of concern about where highly polarised ideologies and self-righteousness is leading us. From meeting Sam, his ability to listen and the sponge like quality he has, and the way he uses the internet he was able to get a sense of how we talk now.'

The conversations between Levinson and Nef led to a deeper understanding of group dynamics and teen female friendships. Levinson elaborates saying, 'I can only get to a certain point as I write and then I have individual conversations with everyone that I cast. I always do a rewrite based on the conversations. I think out of everyone, Hari and I, our conversations and our dialogue between one another resulted in actual dialogue between Lilly and Bex in the film. I spoke to her about her experience being a teenager, navigating high-school and the specific challenges she faced.'

The latter part of the film dips into genre and moves into revenge fantasy with a skilfully crafted home invasion finale and street brawl inspired by Japanese Sukeban films from the 1970s. Why did Levinson look to this genre for the climactic scene of Assassination Nation? 'Those films allowed their protagonists and their girl gangs to just be angry and to fight back in a way that was unapologetic. Specifically, where it comes in the film, it's this jumping off point from the horrors of real life into the kind of fantasy of how you can fight back against it.'

Assassination Nation is in cinemas from Fri 23 Nov.

Assassination Nation

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 48min
  • Directed by: Sam Levinson
  • Cast: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse
  • UK release: 23 November 2018

When an anonymous hacker attacks the town of Salem, Massachusetts, spreading people’s secrets, a climate of hate and distrust takes over. Young is unforgettable as the dry central narrator and the central quartet of friends are refreshing and authentic in a film whose violence, dialogue and mayhem cuts close to the bone.