Steven Shainberg on directing Noomi Rapace in the claustrophobic thriller "Rupture": "It's a dream, a nightmare and a sexual fantasy"

Best known for the BDSM romance "Secretary," Shainberg puts another heroine in an unsettling predicament

Published April 28, 2017 10:59PM (EDT)

Noomi Rapace in "Rupture"   (AMBI Media Group)
Noomi Rapace in "Rupture" (AMBI Media Group)

The fiendish thriller “Rupture” plays like a big-screen version of “Fear Factor,” with characters being forced to confront what scares them most. Renee (Noomi Rapace, the Swedish “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and now the star of "Alien: Covenant") is en route to go skydiving with her girlfriend when a flat tire leads to her being abducted. After she is taken to a facility and chained to a stretcher, her situation becomes even more horrific when she is injected with orange goo and told she will “rupture.”

The film, directed by Steven Shainberg (and based on a devious story he devised with screenwriter Brian Nelson), revolves around Renee’s fear of not knowing what the men and women holding her captive want from her. They also prey on her fear of spiders. The folks in the facility say they want her to “get past” her fear, but what she endures is best left for adventurous audiences to discover. Rapace delivers a phenomenal performance, but it is Shainberg's intense, claustrophobic film that will get under viewers' skin. 

The director, who previously helmed the BDSM love story, “Secretary,” with Maggie Gyllenhaal as a submissive assistant to James Spader, and then made “Fur,” the woolly biopic featuring Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus, enters into sci-fi territory here and at times the realm of the fantastic. Shainberg is looking to unsettle audiences with “Rupture” — and he will. The thrills here are both psychological and physical — and they are unnerving.

The director spoke with Salon about making “Rupture” and what scares him most.

What warped mind — I mean, how did you come up with the idea of this film? It is super creepy. 

Yeah, super creepy is what we were going for. [Laughs.] The audience gets really still. They are terrified to get up and go to the bathroom. I think the scariest element is that you don’t know why [the captors] are doing what they are doing. Their intention is obliquely stated for so long.

It was about withholding the information for as long as possible, to make the information as slim as possible. The best version of the movie, which could never exist, is that you never know why they did what they did. That you exit still in the state of the unknown.

You can’t do that [as a filmmaker], and there is value in satisfying the curiosity of the audience. But the movie is to a large extent the experience you don’t have that often: I just don’t know why they are doing this? Which is the situation that Noomi Rapace’s character is in. That’s what makes it so creepy.

I love that there is enough point of view and intimate camerawork that the connection with an audience happens, and that gets folks scared — whether they are scared of spiders or not. Cuteness is something that Spielberg can’t resist. It’s built into his nature. This stuff is very natural to me. I took to this genre very easily. I don’t watch these kinds of movies, by the way, but I felt this was a good place for me to try to make one.

You tend to torture female characters in your films. While they are strong, tough characters — and sympathetic as they suffer — you could be accused of being a misogynist. Can you talk about binding women up and handcuffing them? Why is this is a theme in your films? What’s going on with you?

[Laughs.] You gotta get better info from my psychologist! People have accused me of misogyny. Richard Schickel did in Time magazine, which was sort of rude. I think that there are ways in which fragility and vulnerability — and the way in which we experience fragility and vulnerability and how that then becomes an avenue to personal transformation and growth — is better expressed by a woman than a man.

With “Secretary,” I’m much more the Maggie Gyllenhaal character than the James Spader character. Emotionally, what she’s going through is the experience of realizing who she is. That vulnerability and openness and that capacity to be emotional always seems more naturally portrayed through a woman. They asked [Polish filmmaker] Krzysztof Kieślowski why all three of his “Red,” “White” and “Blue" protagonists were women, and he said that he found women much more interesting than men. That makes perfect sense. There’s more emotional availability that one sees in women. I like women more than men. The next three movies I’m trying to make are with male protagonists, to challenge myself.

About three weeks before shooting this movie, I realized how scared I was to make the film. One of the reasons was that I adored Noomi, and it was against my inclination and personality to put her through what I was going to put her through. I started to feel very nervous about having her do this.

How did you work with Noomi on the character and what she was being asked to do? It's a hell of a performance and she is entirely convincing throughout. 

She is physically tremendous. She’s an athlete. She works out and takes care of her body. She’s adept, physical and very strong. You had to believe that when you see her. She is going to make it through this thing, and if it looks faked, the movie’s dead. That’s difficult. It meant that 99 percent of the stuff she’s doing, she’s actually doing. Crawling, climbing, pulling and all that raw strenuous stuff is her. You need to have someone excited and interested in doing that. She said, “Let me give that a try!”

The use of space in the film is particularly distinctive in “Rupture.” Without giving too much away, you move from a bright, open exteriors to a dark, claustrophobic environment. How did you conceive of the visual palette for this film and what decisions did you make in terms of crafting the look and magnifying the intensity?

The key to any particular space is that you have to make it very uncomfortable. In terms of the crawl space or the gurney, where [Renee] is restrained, it was a question of how long can I keep her on the gurney and keep it visually alive and not make the audience tired of seeing her being tied down — and make it so tense that the audience would not exhale or look at their watch. It was a built set so we could pull walls out, but it was an uncomfortable room because it was small. I was obsessive about the size of things and how long the hallways and doors were.

These architectural questions can be manipulated for effect. We were conscious of taking her into a place that made everyone uncomfortable. The color choices were meant to be strange. The [cinematographer] and I discussed that the group that abducted her had problems with their eyes. We put lighting fixtures in places where one doesn’t normally put them. And when we did that, the look of the movie changed. The lights are not in the appropriate height and position. You should feel that but not quite notice what is wrong. It’s just not lit in a normal way.

How would you describe your survival instinct? What would you do in the situation Renee finds herself in?

[Laughs.] For me, the entire thing she’s going through, from a filmmaking and emotional point of view, is a spiritual metaphor for the terror one feels when you start to let go of the assumptions of yourself. That’s what’s happening to her. It might be a horror film or psychological thriller, but she’s seeing who she is and letting go of the known. That’s an experience I’m familiar with in life, and it’s hard.

How are you familiar with that experience in life?

In my own life, being in deep relationships where you trust the other person, and who is talking to you not in a hurtful way about your limitations and where you are caught, or in spiritual practice, which I’ve had experience with — meditation retreats — that experience can lead to a place of real fear. It can lead to a place in therapy, where a therapist can show you where you have been. I assume that while I’m not a person who would go skydiving or down the Amazon, you can get to that in those ways, too.

There are some strange and vivid images in the film that will haunt me — the clear mask with spiders on Renee's face for example, the extreme close-up of the spider. And I’m not afraid of spiders! How much did you create with CGI and what decisions did you make about keeping things realistic or letting go of that? 

All of the spiders in the entire movie are CGI. Isn’t that amazing? There’s not a single spider that’s real. That said, there is a lot of work put into what those spiders look like and how they move, and that was fantastic fun. On paper we tried a lot of different things, but the realism [and] surrealism drove the filmmaking. We played with that feeling that it’s one of the few ways that you can experience reality as a believable reality, but it also has that dimension of a dream . . . or nightmare. That’s what drew me to make a scary movie. What is more nightmarish than Syria or solitary confinement or paralysis? Those are nightmarish realities.

I was sent the script for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and the only way I could imagine that story was as a nightmare. The producer said to me, “It’s a triumph of the imagination.” So I said, “I’m not the guy, I don’t see that.”

You have to see it as you feel it. The way reality is walking hand in hand with dream and nightmare at all times in life — that’s what I like to do in movies. My whole approach is to make a believable reality that feels like something unconscious is going on. That came out of my love for [David Lynch's] “Blue Velvet.” I love [Dennis] Hopper entering that room and he says, “In dreams, I walk with you.” And Dean Stockwell sings that. A lightbulb went off in my mind when I saw that. It was a dream, a nightmare and a sexual fantasy simultaneously.

How did you work with and against genre tropes? What can you say about your approach to the story?

The best thing I think we did is we didn’t push the pace too hard in the cutting. There were times I tried to cut faster, and it would become too manipulative or obvious or forced. When she’s trying to get away, she’s sneaking around. We could have pushed her pace more, and I thought it was more interesting to have the rhythm of a normal heartbeat in that environment and with those actions. So your heart beats faster.

We didn’t want to turn it into an action movie. We wanted her to be in a place she doesn’t understand and where the audience feels they have never been. We had to work against the normal way of shooting a scene because we didn’t want the audience to feel in a familiar place even if they were fans of the genre.

The timing of the cut, the lighting, the proximity of the camera and the pacing have to keep you ill at ease. That makes you feel it in your skin and bones; it makes you more nervous. My unfamiliarity with the horror genre was an asset. I was going through my body. I was not trying to re-create anything. I just felt it.

So what are you afraid of?

[Laughs.] It’s funny. I was having that conversation with my wife the other day. Other than my children being injured, the thing I’m most afraid of is that I won’t make the movies I want to make.

So no fear of heights or spiders?

Oh, on that level, I’m afraid of everything — heights, spiders, snakes. I’m claustrophobic. I’d go crazy locked in a room for five minutes. I am utterly squeamish about everything. But I lie awake at 3 in the morning wondering, Will this movie ever get made or will it always only be a script?

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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