With the recent release of his debut feature, Imperium, Culturefly sat down with director Daniel Ragussis to find out about what it’s like documenting white supremacists and shaving Daniel Radcliffe’s head.
Culturefly: The film’s subject matter is quite heavy, so what was the research process like?
Daniel Ragussis: There was two tracks of research. On the one hand, I had Mike German (co-writer and ex-FBI agent). We had a weekly get together where we would spend four or five hours, I would interview him and talk about his cases and experiences but then parallel to that, there was another track where I was doing all of my own research. That was everything from books by sociologists who had spent time living amongst people in the movement, to memoirs written by people who had left the movement, to biographies about famous figures in the movement.
Then of course there is also the Internet, which is a huge repository of information and there were online communities on the Internet where you can find people not only talking about their political views but about their favourite painting, favourite music, exchanging recipes, talking about their love life. It really paints this full and nuanced picture of these people as human beings and that was one of the things I was hopefully trying to achieve in the film.
I found the film took a very non-judgmental standpoint – it displayed them as humans – and I felt that you never demonised the white supremacists but wanted to showcase their opinion. Was this something you wanted to accomplish from the beginning?
For sure, because it was something I discovered right from the get go, when I was researching, I wanted to replicate my experience for the viewer. I think we have that stereotypical view of the skinhead that we have seen portrayed before and that’s real, that’s not like that doesn’t exist, but when I discovered that was the tip of the iceberg and that there was a much bigger community underneath that, that’s what really got me interested.
Also, as a filmmaker, hopefully you want to be doing something that’s fresh or new in some way, you don’t want to just be doing something that a million people have done before, and I thought hopefully that was something that hadn’t been done before. So I was immediately attracted to it, and it became one of the most important touchstones.There was such vile language in the film but the scene that really got me was the bit with the kids and the treehouse – it felt like they didn’t know why they were saying these things, it was just because of their Dad (Sam Trammell). Was discovering this part of society having these views a surprise to you?
The surprise was that people could be affluent and educated, and living in a suburban community and uphold those views, that was a surprise to me and so hopefully it’s surprising to a viewer for the same reason. We don’t normally think about these people in that way, but also when I was researching people within the community, to them the way they would position it, it’s an issue of how do we pass down our culture, how do we protect this very important cultural heritage in an extremely hostile environment where the minute you go outside the confines of your home and start talking about these political views, people, you know, call you a racist and all sorts of things.
What was it about Daniel Radcliffe that made you think he was right for the part of Nate?
The inspiration really comes from Mike German and his personality and character. Mike was nothing like what I imagined a typical FBI agent to be like. He was this very unassuming, soft spoken, articulate, literate man who had been a philosophy major in college and spent half the time talking about art, culture and movies. Not at all what I would have expected and I asked him about this and that’s sort of when he made the point that we talk about in the movie; being an undercover agent is really about social skills and getting people to like you, to trust you and open up to you. It’s not about physical dominance at all. So, once I conceived the character in that way, I thought of Dan and it seemed like the perfect casting for the role.
The film is more about emotional and personal relationships. What made you want to concentrate on the personal rather than making it like a shoot-out and violent film?
Again, that was very much based on what Mike had told me about the true nature of undercover work. So early on we were talking about his cases, how to make this authentic, how to make this realistic, and he explained to me the minute that there is a shoot out or guns or violence of any kind, the case is over. The real tension comes not from surviving shoot outs but by making sure there is never a shoot out, that all you have is, like Mike said, his brain and his mouth and that you have to continually manipulate people in situations to make sure that things never reach that point.
When he told me that I thought, well okay, that’s not necessarily the most typical cop movie idea I’ve ever heard but to me, it seemed really interesting and also exciting to portray that experience authentically and to see someone having to use their brain and their wits to make sure that nothing ever got out of hand.With all the research, did it change your views on terrorism?
For sure yeah, what it made me realise is that this isn’t just true of this community but true of any terrorist organization. People are human beings and that they have families, that they tell jokes, that they like to enjoy a meal and that no man is the villain of their own story, that they all believe they’re doing good in the world. You know the Al-Qaeda magazine is called Inspire, so you know this is a very common thing among all these groups and so how we view these people customarily to talk about them as evil, as monsters, and the way that they view themselves, that was really striking to me.
I mean it’s complicated and disturbing in some ways to realise that these are just human beings in the same way as you and me, that many of them we could probably talk to for several hours and have a lovely conversation before suddenly something came out and we were like, what!? But yeah, I think my view of that certainly changed through doing this research and understanding these people, and one of my hopes is that the viewer’s point of view changes as well.
Were you ever scared or worried about the reaction it might get from people in the white supremacist community?
I asked Mike about this early on and I said you know, what do you think the reaction to the movie is going to be, what about something like American History X. And he said, well that’s every skinheads favourite film and I said why, it basically repudiates the whole ideology. What mike said was they would say that’s a Hollywood twist that they put at the end of it but just the fact that a movie is portraying their community, that it’s actually allowing people with those viewpoints to speak, Mike said, is something that’s very positive for them.
They very much feel that they have been marginalised by society and that their viewpoints don’t ever get an airing, so I think to see them portrayed, hopefully somewhat authentically, in a movie is something that is novel for them and, hopefully, that would again encourage them to start a conversation because that to me is what we want, is to be in dialogue with these people and try to change some minds.What was the experience of making your first feature like, especially with someone like Daniel on the project?
It was great, it was hard. You’re constantly working with resources fewer than what you need and you’re just trying to not let the outside world damage the product. You’re constantly trying to direct the film and make sure that it is able to be everything you imagine it would be. It’s in equal parts exciting and thrilling and wonderful, and in some ways you wake up everyday like the happiest person on earth and also the most terrified.
It’s a very high pressure environment but at the same time you’re surrounded by people that are working towards a common endeavour – that’s one of the most important decisions you make is who to hire so you have a good crew around you. You have someone like Dan who’s fully committed and has a positive attitude and everyone’s working to overcome those obstacles and make the best movie that they can.
How was the integral head shave scene?
It was a lot of pressure because it was kind of like blowing up a house – you only have one chance to do it and he had never shaved his head before. There were both mechanical, technical aspects of getting it right and making it look right, and making sure we were recording but also getting the emotion right for the character in that scene, which was helped by the fact that he was really doing it. I would say it was a little scary for everyone because the pressure was so high; we knew we only had one chance to do it but hopefully it came out well.Did you not fancy having a go yourself?
I didn’t but several other members of the crew did. The Director of Photography shaved his head, several other crew members did and of course with the cast, everyone from supporting roles to major players had to shave their head, so there were people getting their head shaved all the time.
With such a heavy subject matter to move on from, have you got any plans for your next project? A light rom-com perhaps?
Haha, yeah, a musical maybe. I had done a short film about Fritz Haber, who was a World War One chemist, that’s a project that I have a feature script about. There’s a project about Freud, when he was young and hypnotising people and discovering his theory of dreams. So all very light topics. I’m definitely drawn to true stories, almost everything I’ve done has been some form of true story. It’s not the only thing I would ever do but that’s something that attracts me a lot. I have those, some other projects, so hopefully as a filmmaker you want to just be able to keep making films, so hopefully I’ll have the opportunity.
IMPERIUM IS OUT ON BLU-RAY, DVD & DIGITAL HD NOW