Buoyant and clearly still brimming following the release of his film Imperium, director Daniel Ragussis sits down with Film Juice’s Janet Leigh to discuss the thriller that cast former Harry Potter Star Daniel Radcliff. Once JK Rowling’s chosen one, Radcliff drops the robe and drapes himself in the role of FBI agent Nate who goes undercover to bust white supremacist.
This was a big undertaking for a first movie. There were a lot of delicate issues to deal with. Were you nervous?
Sure, I wanted not only to authentically portray the community and the movement the way that it is, but I also wanted to authentically portray the experience of being undercover.
Did it come out as expected?
I don’t think it ever does. They say you make three films, the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you edit. You’re constantly revising the movie and reimagining it. Well if you’re doing your job right you are.
Did you feel it went well?
I hope so. Ultimately the viewer is the judge. I was happy with what we came out with. I was really happy with Dan, with all the actors, with their performances. I was happy with what we were able to do and it seems people are responding to it well.
Yeah, when I watched it I actually had a dream about it straight afterwards
(Laughs.) That’s good! That’s great. Fantastic. Put that in your article.
Tell me a little bit about the FBI agent Mike German?
He was an undercover agent for 12 years. Four of those years were spent among right-wing groups. Both Neo-Nazi’s and anti-government militia. He left the FBI in the early 2000s as a whistle-blower to raise awareness about some of the issues going on in the FBI.
Imperium was based on a true story. How close are we to the truth of Mike German’s situation?
So, just to be clear, it’s inspired by his cases but we modernised and fictionalised everything. However, in addition to working with Mike, I also did a ton of my own research. Read a bunch of books by people in the movement, about people in the movement. So most of the main characters and figures and inspired by or are composites of real people.
What was the most fascinating thing you discovered when you did research for this movie
I think really the size, depth, breadth, and the degree to which there is a large component of (the movement) that is middle class, affluent, that is highly educated, that is suburban. You could find intellectuals quarterlies that are written every year filled with articles by people who have masters and PhDs. It’s crazy, right? It’s insane. Your (horrified) face is exactly it. People assume that this is purely the province of the poor and the uneducated, but it’s not. I feel that was an important thing for me to realise and to capture in the movie.
What was it about Mike’s story that inspired you?
I first became interested in the world and in the movement when I discovered the things that we were just talking about. I felt that it was really important to tell a story about this. Then, I was looking for a way in from a narrative perspective and I came across Mike German’s story and I thought, this is the perfect way into this world. It just seemed like the perfect vehicle and mechanism to explore it.
An uncomfortable vibe runs throughout the entire movie. From the minute Daniel Radcliffe -aka Nate – slips into the roll of the passionate white supremacist. How did you create that?
That’s where Mike German’s experiences were very helpful. Even though we couldn’t use the actual details, we tried to stay very true to the emotional reality of it. One of the things that he would talk about was how in that work the tension and the pressure was completely unrelenting. Any second the situation could turn. You could be on top of the world then suddenly an argument breaks out.
Was it a difficult task – trying to humanise white supremacists? Make them seem relatable?
It was and it wasn’t. What I discovered in all of my research and in looking at all of these people is the common humanity that they share with us. There’s a particular thing that happened to me early on and it’s the inspiration for the scene between Jerry and Nate with the music. I was doing research on Hitler and I discovered that he was a huge Wagner fan – as am I. I realised that, when I was listening to Wagner, I was having the exact same emotional experience that Adolf Hitler was having.
That’s quite haunting.
Yeah. It’s very bizarre and it’s challenging and it’s complicated because you realise that these human beings – however abhorrent their view points and even their behaviour can be – share so many of the things that make us human. They have families and people they love. They like to laugh at a joke, they like to eat a meal, they like to do so many of the things that we like to do. And in that moment we’re having the same experience but outside of that moment – it’s very bizarre, it’s very disturbing.
*SPOILER* I almost feel so guilty for feeling bad for Jerry at the end when he’s been betrayed by Nate.
(Laughs.) Alright – the movie did its job. That’s the thing, loyalty and betrayal are still emotions someone like that can feel and feel sincerely and profoundly.
If you could have played anyone in this film, who would it have been and why?
Oh wow. I’ve had that question before. I’d be Nate (Laughs). No… who would I be? It’s funny, I always thought one of my favourite characters was probably Dallas. Tracy (Letts) did such an amazing job, so the thought of anyone doing it other than him, let alone me, is horrifying. But certainly I think one could have a lot of fun with that role – and he did have a lot of fun.
Daniel Radcliffe has admitted in the past that he was rather green in terms of acting experience and capability when shooting the Harry Potter movies. How far do you think he has come along now? Did he capture Nate the way you had imagined?
Oh my God, yes. I can’t speak for what he was like in Harry Potter but if he was green then he’s come a long way. He’s remarkable. In addition to what you saw on screen. One of the things that he is amazing at is he gives you an incredible first take. That’s not something every actor is capable of doing. Every time his first attempt is strong, and interesting and well thought-out. Which, for a director, is an incredible gift because right from the get-go you have something you know that you can use and that gives you the opportunity to actually experiment with more takes. It was a real privilege for me and it makes my job a thousand times easier.
I watched an interview of Daniel’s in which he said that the scene where he shaves his head had to be shot in just one take and he we was quite nervous that he was going to mess it up…
I mean, we all thought the same thing. We only had one chance to get this right so everyone was nervous. But, in a way, a situation like that is always helpful because if everybody is tense it can actually add something.
Who would you say your directing style is similar to and in what way?
I wouldn’t say there’s anyone particular person. Certainly I’m very inspired by the American films of the ‘70s. That’s sort of my creative touch stone. So I like everyone from Scorsese to Coppola, Kubrick, De Palma. Those are the filmmakers that I really loved when I was growing up. I always reference and review them before I embark on anything.
With the rise of extremism and immigration, it is such a sensitive, racially-charged time right now. How much do you think some of the views in this film reflect real-life attitudes and opinions?
From my perspective, 100 per cent. And what we’re discovering is that it’s not just in the absolute fringes of society, but that it bleeds into the mainstream. I think that’s the thing that everybody ’s coming to grips with in the past couple of years. That’s extremely upsetting.
It’s kind of bizarre to think you could be sitting next to someone with such extreme views and you’d never know it…
That’s exactly the thing. You could even spend an hour with them and get along great, be having a great time and then you’re like ‘wait’, what did you just say?
Tell me about the rally scene. Daniel Radcliff says it was particularly difficult because passers-by got the wrong impression. What was your experience of that day?
That was the hardest day of the shoot because in addition to the scene, as filmmakers luck would have it, there was a hurricane that day. Every half hour, suddenly this crazy rain would start. So two or three hours of the day on the most challenging day was consumed just with [herding people inside and outside making sure they were dry]. Then there were reports that people had driven by and called the local news claiming there was a KKK rally in town, which I suppose is the greatest compliment any filmmaker could have.
You did it authentically and it was believable…
Exactly, and that was the big pressure for me because I’d read about these things. I’d seen a million videos on YouTube and I really wanted to authentically recreate it.
What’s next for you?
So, there’s a number of projects that I’m working on. There’s a short film that I did called Haber – about the German chemist Fritz Haber who creates chemical weapons – and I’m doing a feature version of that. There’s a script about Freud when he was young, hypnotising people, discovering his theory of dreams.
Maybe someone could analyse my dream after watching Imperium?
There you go, bam! Exactly! And that would give us the perfect Segway into our next interview (laughs)