Andrew Semans on Resurrection: ‘It came from thinking about parental anxiety’

Ahead of its Scottish premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, director Andrew Semans talks to Alistair Harkness about his new chiller Resurrection, starring Rebecca Hall and Tim Roth

Rebecca Hall in Resurrection
Rebecca Hall in Resurrection

It’s early July and New York-based filmmaker Andrew Semans is talking via Zoom about the origins of his unsettling psychological horror film Resurrection.

“It came from thinking about parental anxiety,” he says of the film, which stars Rebecca Hall as an over-protective mother whose tightly controlled life starts unravelling as her teenage daughter prepares to leave for college.

As it happens, Semans is ten days away from becoming a parent for the first time when we speak. “I’m anticipating being an incredibly worried parent,” he confesses cheerfully.

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    But he also wrote script seven years ago when his anxiety wasn’t yet fuelled by personal experience. “I didn’t have children at the time, but these kinds of fears felt very real to me, so I thought, ‘Okay, well, maybe I can tell a story about that.’”

    This is how Semans likes to work. He grew up in New York with theatre actor parents and has been obsessed with film for as long as he can remember. When he gets an idea – something primal, persistent, elemental – he starts thinking about how he can use it. “I find focussing on fears to be very productive when it comes to narratives.”

    With Resurrection, which is his second film (his first, Molly, Please, was a micro-budget indie that played some festivals a decade ago without really launching his career), the basic fear everyone has about protecting their children led him to start thinking about the seductive appeal of parental revenge films.

    “A lot of these films star Liam Neeson,” he quips, referring to the Taken franchise – a prime example of the sort of movies that serve up what he calls a kind of grandiose narcissistic fantasy of being an ordinary parent who transforms into an unstoppable avenger when their child is threatened.

    Resurrection puts a different spin on it, though. At one point Hall’s character, Margaret, a no-nonsense executive in a biotech firm, gives her soon-to-fly-the-nest daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman), a speech in which she promises to hunt down anyone who dares threatens her. It’s supposed to be re-assuring; Abbie looks at her like she’s insane.

    But there’s a darker aspect to the film that helps explain Margaret’s increasingly extreme parenting. When David (Tim Roth), an older man from Margaret’s past, suddenly re-appears after 22 years (creepily missing a tartar-ridden tooth that has already turned up in Abbie’s purse), the panic attack Margaret experiences clues us in to the fact that her adult life has been shaped by a strange, coercive relationship from her youth.

    “That became predominant in the movie due to a circumstance that a close friend of mine was in at the time,” says Semans. “She was in a very toxic relationship and I was witnessing it first hand and trying to understand it as best I could.”

    Resurrection treats these themes as seriously as you’d expect for a contemporary thriller released in the age of #MeToo. Yet Hall’s commitment to capturing the psychological reality of trauma and abuse makes the film all the more unnerving when surreal horror flourishes – involving the aforementioned tooth, nightmares about roasted babies, and a bizarre series of tasks known as “kindnesses” – force us to question what’s real and what’s not.

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    In short, the film becomes a little deranged, something aided by Roth, who plays David with the insidious charm of a cult leader.

    “He’s like a cult leader of one person,” agrees Semans. “I always thought of the character of David as someone who would be terrifying to almost no one yet would be the most terrifying, most evil and most toxic influence possible for one individual.”

    If Roth’s recent starring role in Bergman Island tenuously brings to mind Persona, Semans quickly bats away any comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece about motherhood and fracturing psyches. “That’s raising the bar too high,” he laughs.

    Lowering the bar, we talk instead about the trashy, high-gloss, stalker-revenge thrillers that ruled Hollywood in the 1990s, movies like Single White Female, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights – films that Resurrection consciously echoes.

    “What we were trying to do was engage a lot of familiar images and tropes and circumstances from those kinds of films,” says Semans. “I like the idea of kind of tiptoeing up to genre cliches and then taking a left turn.”

    That left turn comes courtesy of a seven-minute monologue in which Hall outlines Margaret’s backstory. In a movie culture where filmmakers are trained to show, not tell, such a disruptive, theatrical conceit is weirdly effective given how unhinged Margaret’s story ultimately becomes.

    “It just seemed like an exciting formal gambit for me,” says Semans, who’d seen it done in a long-forgotten Elliott Gould movie called Little Murders, from 1971.

    “It’s very risky,” he continues. “If the monologue doesn’t work, the movie’s just dead in the water. But after working with Rebecca for a very short time it became immediately apparent that she was going to not just pull it off, but execute it brilliantly.”

    It also leads the film into proper late-night movie territory, so I ask if he has any favourites?

    “Oh god, I always fail this question. You know, I’m going to answer this in perhaps the most pretentious-sounding fashion, but it’s what just came to mind. I’ll say the short film Possibly in Michigan, by the American video artist Cecelia Condit. It was a big influence on Resurrection.”

    I watch it later on YouTube. It’s an outré feminist horror musical from 1983 about a cannibalistic serial killer. It’s also in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and became a viral sensation in 2019 when TikTok users discovered its songs.

    Anything else?

    “Maybe Klute. I’m a big fan of Klute.”

    A horror-tinged avant-garde art film and a classic paranoid thriller starring one of the best actresses of her generation? Sounds like perfect preparation for Resurrection.

    Resurrection screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 13 August, https://www.edfilmfest.org.uk/edinburgh-international-film-festival