Compulsus Tara Thorne

With Compulsus, director Tara Thorne makes a #MeToo-era revenge film

We spoke with the Canadian filmmaker about her micro-budget revenge film, which reimagines the genre from a woman’s point of view.

“It all started when Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars,” director Tara Thorne recalls over the phone. “I’ve been angry for a long time at men and the patriarchy. He sang this song called ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ which was all about the Oscar nominees who had done topless scenes.” What followed was the MeToo era, the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the trial of Jian Ghomeshi in Canada. “And I knew him a bit and two people who accused him. It was an era of live-tweeting trials, and everyone was watching. Very naively at the time, I learned how many people I knew were victims of sexual assault.”

Tara Thorne channelled this anger into a feature film script written as part of a workshop at the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative. It was geared toward writing scripts that could be made for 150k, mainly the Telefilm Talent to Watch program. “The teacher would say, ‘a big mistake that I see a lot is that people write these really big stories. They just don’t understand the budget level.’ Not everyone finished their scripts, but I did.” 

Thorne explains, “[Being sexually assaulted] has to be the worst thing that can happen to you aside from being murdered, but it’s so common, and people are just walking around with all this trauma. I thought, well, what if they didn’t? What if they didn’t depend on the justice system and all the, you know, systems that men put in place? Essentially, what if they didn’t do that, and instead just took revenge themselves?” And thus, Compulsus was born.

Compulsus follows Wally (Lesley Smith), a queer woman who sympathizes with her straight girlfriend’s struggles with men. When she hears about a popular neighbourhood chef who has had non-consensual incidents with women in the neighbourhood, she decides to take matters into her own hands. As she also develops a stronger relationship with Lou (Kathleen Dorian), Wally is increasingly torn by her growing need for power and revenge.

The rape-revenge genre is rich in cinema history, with movies like I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left considered pinnacles of the genre. Both popular and conscientious, audiences can’t quite settle on whether these films are misogynist exploitation or cathartic. “I’ve never seen them because you have to see the rapes, and I’m just not interested in that,” says Thorne. 

Instead, Thorne made a different creative decision. No man’s voice will be heard, and his face will never be seen. “Yes, you get to see the catharsis for revenge,” says Thorne, “but you have to see the horrible thing first. I knew nothing horrible would happen to Wally.” Thorne points to how even in movies like Kill Bill or The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, the audience has to watch heroes be raped. “If you look at Batman or John Wick, okay, they have mommy issues, or their dogs are killed, but that’s it. We are subverting standards of not just the rape-revenge genre, but action films. Not showing a man’s face or hearing their name is a way to erase them, make them disposable in the way that so many female characters have been.”

Very much a pandemic production, the script was nominated to Talent to Watch in March 2020, and they found out in the middle of the pandemic that they got it. Casting was done over Zoom. Thorne has been involved in arts journalism and also local theatre for years. Her first list had over 100 people. Most tried out for five roles. Even though Lesley Smith and Thorne didn’t know each other, they had mutual friends. “We got her [audition] in the middle of the process, and I knew there that she was right. To be fair, we went through everyone else’s. By the end, we knew she was definitely the person.” 

Smith lives in Toronto, and rehearsals also took place over Zoom. “We just did read-throughs. You can’t properly direct over Zoom when you’re not in the space,” says Thorne. Most of the cast had extensive experience in theatre and were very good at memorizing their lines. “I was so lucky I had these people who just showed up, knowing what to do.” Thorne doesn’t like to micromanage performances, either. “I hired you because you’re the best person for the part, you interpreted the text the best. Why would I sit here and nitpick it when you’re already giving me what I need? Honestly, when you’re with the actors was my favourite part,” she says.

With this film already in the bag, Thorne is now looking for a change of pace. She had so much fun working with the cast that she wrote a second script for them. They did something serious, and now she wants to allow them to have fun. “I want to create a summer camp kind of vibe where we get to hang out in improv and have everyone be funny.” It will be “an ensemble comedy and we’re going to try to shoot next year,” she says. ■

For updates about future Compulsus screenings in Montreal or elsewhere, please click here.

Compulsus, directed by Tara Thorne

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