During a summer in which theaters are packed with remakes, reboots, and huge-budget spectacles, there stands a few independent exceptions: whose scales are smaller, narratives more complex, and messages more difficult. Imperium is such an exception. Not just in the landscape of this summer’s film offerings but even more generally – with this year’s explosively violent Green Room (and near-classics like American History X) standing as outliers – few films have so intimately explored the brutal realities of the neo-Nazi movement in the U.S quite like this one.
Bolstered by extensive research and rooted in a true-life tale, first time director Daniel Ragussis spins a story that’s part thriller, part informative horror show as he places audience surrogate Nate Parker (played by Daniel Radcliffe, who’s shed every speck of his “Harry Potter-ness”) deep undercover inside a white supremacist group that’s both virulently hateful and, more importantly, unsettlingly mundane.
We had a chance to speak to Ragussis about his directorial debut – including his intense (and often incredibly dark) research process, his collaboration with Daniel Radcliffe, what he learned on the set of his first feature, and whether or not he hopes the kinds of neo-Nazis he’s depicting actually see the film.
COLLIDER: So, let’s start at the beginning – this feels like a topic you don’t sort of just fall into. I know you initially did a short film that was tangentially related but, how did you find this community and what was the research process like?
DANIEL RAGUSSIS: As you mentioned, I had done a short about a WWI chemist, Haber, so as part of that I had done a lot of research on WWI, and that sort of led me to an interest in WWII and in the Nazis. I was actually doing research just on that and sort of accidentally fell onto the neo-Nazi community in the United States. When I was reading about Hitler I watched a few of his speeches on YouTube and there would be hundreds of comments on the videos from people saying like, “RIP Adolf, this is the greatest leader of the 20th century,” and all this crazy stuff. So I was immediately like, “who are these people?” And what I found was that the neo-Nazi and then the larger white supremacist community is actually much, much deeper and more expansive and diverse than i really ever could have imagined. And so it immediately seemed like this was a group of people that we didn’t really know a lot about, we hadn’t really heard a lot about, but that I felt a story needed to be told about. And so then once I felt that way and was interested in the movement and the movie, I needed to find a way in and I was just doing more research about the whole thing and then I came across Mike German’s story. And then it seemed immediately like that would be a great way in, that proxy, to use an FBI undercover agent to get into this community. So then I got in touch with Mike German, we decided to do a fictional and modernized story and not to use his real life and his real cases, but to use something that would match the authenticity of that. And then we went from there and wrote the script.
And what was it like, having that real-world contact? And how did you balance going with a true-life story versus sort of communicating the narrative you had envisioned?
RAGUSSIS: It’s fantastic, there’s no substitute for it in a way, all the books I was reading, the research I was doing, it was voluminous and it was great. But then I also had a guide and a mentor who could point me to resources, who I could say, “hey, I read this thing, is that true? Does that make sense?” And he would either say “yes” or “well, they’re positioning this a certain way,” it was really helpful and useful. It’s like you’ve got an interactive person that’s lived in this world and lived this life. Because in addition to all the research on the white supremacist community I was also reading a lot of memoirs about FBI undercover agents who were in all sorts of different communities. So then I could ask Mike, “how does this undercover experience compare with yours? Is this all real, does this make sense, etc.” So he was just a constant guide and mentor to go through all the resources and take from them what I needed to get the story right.
And we have to talk about Daniel Radcliffe, because he’s, between this and Swiss Army Man, this is like the summer of Daniel Radcliffe.
RAGUSSIS: I mean, we got the script to him through his agent, he responded to it very, very quickly which was really gratifying and exciting, and he and I did an initial Skype which went really great, he really responded to the material and was really enthusiastic about doing it. Then we just spent a little time trying to figure out where it would fit in his schedule. And then it just happened! We could not have been more thrilled with the way that worked out.
Was there ever a time on set where you got everyone there and you’re talking about crazy, just awful stuff and you had to take a second and be like, “fuck, man – this is rough”?
RAGUSSIS: I would say that happened really even more in the initial research and writing phase. There was a period up front of about three or four months where literally, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, I was reading all these materials. [laughs] In the middle of that – because they’re you’re alone and you’re in your room reading this stuff, night and day. And I did have moments where I thought, “why am I doing this? This is really, really dark.” And it’s not just the darkness and the horrors of the worldview, and then the behaviors that it leads to. It’s not only that, it’s also that the conviction these people have about their beliefs is so strong, so much stronger in some ways than a lot of the convictions that we have about all sorts of things. Then really you start to become hopeless that you can ever change their minds. And that’s very depressing. With that being said, people leave the movement and people change their minds all the time, you know? Every memoir that I was reading by someone who was in the movement was written by someone who had left it. So it’s not like it doesn’t happen, it does happen. It’s not as easy as a five minute conversation. And I also don’t think it’s going to happen, which is part of the point of the film for me, by just calling someone a monster and saying that they’re evil and all the rest of it. That’s not going to bring them out of it. So that’s why it was important to me to try to humanize these characters and to try to get inside their head as much as we could. And to create an environment where there can be dialogue and conversation.
I think you do that really well – I mean, I think the most sort of horrifying and perfect scene in the film is when Nate and Sam Trammell’s character – who’s pretty much the worst of the worst – connect over that Brahms composition.
RAGUSSIS: It’s so funny you say that because, there’s an actually very specific inspiration for that, which is that I had this thought, which is equally weird and horrifying where I, when I was studying Hitler I found out that he was a huge Wagner fan. And I’m an enormous Wagner fan, I love Wagner. So I’m listening to Wagner, I’m having this emotional experience, and I’m thinking, “the emotional experience that I’m having right now is exactly the same one that Adolf Hitler had.” [laughs] And in this moment, the exact same thing is happening to both of us. And that was a really crazy and bizarre and very complicated thing to realize. So that was the direct inspiration for that scene. And obviously there’s a larger point which you’re alluding to is that which makes all of this complicated is that there’s a common humanity that all we have. It comes through in the way that we listen to music, it comes through in the way we love our family, all human beings laugh, all human beings fall in love, all human beings have some form of artistic appreciation. We all share those things and that makes it complicated and very difficult and probably not useful to say, these people are monsters. They’re human beings, just like us, no matter how abhorrent their beliefs may be.
Do you think this is something that’s going to be present in that community? Do you think they’ll know about it?
RAGUSSIS: I mean, all you have to do is go look at the trailer on YouTube and look at the comments section. There’s plenty of conversation. It’s a very vocal community, they have very strong convictions and they like to voice them. So number one, yes, I think that’s certainly already happening. Number two, we all feel like – I don’t know how realistic it is, but I would love to believe that people in the community would watch the movie and be affected by it in a positive way. Even if it happens to one person, then that’s something. That’s a difference that’s been made. But it’s also, can we as a society learn to deal with this community in a way that’s more effective. As painful and complicated and difficult as it may be, figure out how to have a dialog and a conversation.
I’m assuming some of this is incidentally topical more than by design only because films take so long to actually make, but can you talk about the timeliness?
RAGUSSIS: Well, I think the thing is, yes, it’s unexpected that it would be this topical. That David Duke would be a name that’s being talked about in the national news media, very topically, that’s not something any of us expected. But it’s not like what’s happened in the past year is that millions of people have adopted this belief. What’s happened in the last year is that it’s become illuminated that millions of people have this belief, that’s become clear to the larger society. When I was taking this script around people would always say to me, “really? People don’t think this way anymore, people don’t do this.” And Mike German would say to me, “50 years ago, this was mainstream thought.” For the entirety of most of Western civilization. It’s only very recently that this idea of universal civil rights and equality has become the norm. Which is good, obviously. But we still have a ways to go, and these sorts of beliefs are still very ingrained in large portions of the population all over the world. We have work to do in terms of dealing with that.
I also, just as a fan, am obsessed with Tracy Letts. How did you get him? He’s only been acting for like one, two years, he’s been popping up in all these indies all of a sudden.
RAGUSSIS: You know, I, like many people I had known him more as a playwright than I had as an actor, but once I started to discover him as an actor, everything I saw I was blown away. And that moment, it’s like within ten minutes of thinking about him in the role, I could not imagine anyone else doing it. It was like instant gelling. And then it was like “oh, please do the role!” [laughs] So luckily he wanted to do it and I was thrilled and honored. Anybody can have him in a movie is really fortunate.
I’m sure your thoughts on this could sort of fill a book, but is there any way you could give me just a few takeaways from what you learned making your first feature?
RAGUSSIS: I could definitely write a hundred books. [laughs] I would say build a great team and rely on them. That’s huge: the people you get as your DP, your production designer, your editor, that’s number one. That’s the best thing you can do for yourself. I would also say just trust your instincts. The times that i don’t listen to my gut, I usually end up regretting it. Something that a friend of mine once told me is “always remember the initial thing that got you excited about the material.” That should be your north star, because once you get into the weeds, you can lose track of that sometimes. And you get so stuck on details you lose track of that thing that made excited about it in the first place. And that will bring you back. I can tell you one more thing! I got it from Francis Ford Coppola, he said he would prepare by going through every scene in the film and list two things: what is the essential scene, the most important thing he had to get, and what was the most important potential pitfall, what was the thing he had to make sure didn’t happen. And he would write down those two things for each thing. And I’ve done that for every film now and it’s enormously helpful. It’s like, when you’re in the storm and there’s a million things going on, it’s really nice to have something that’s simple and meaningful that you can rely upon. Whenever you start to lose your way, you can go, this is what this scene is about, this is how you have to make sure you don’t fuck it up. I guess you can’t print that.
No, you can let ‘em fly!
RAGUSSIS: “The director talks like a sailor but other than that…” Well, there ya go.
Imperium is currently playing in select cities.