Director Pat Mills, in his latest film The Retreat, noted that “While queer people love horror films, it’s not a love that comes easy: slashers have a history of sexualising their victims and are told from the cis, white, heterosexual, male perspective”. Mills’ first feature film, the black comedy Guidance, was a New York Times’ Critics Pick upon its 2014 release, and his return to filmmaking offers more nuance on dark film tropes.
The Retreat follows Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen), a same-sex couple leaving the safe haven of their city home to a remote cabin on what was supposed to be a retreat for gay couples, turned deadly by militant extremists. Pirie and Allen took time to chat with Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell about their experiences making the film.
Bethany Gemmell: What were your first impressions when you read the script for this film?
Tommie-Amber Pirie: My first impression was that is a very well written script. It was exciting, a horror film – a genre that I had never done before. So that was obviously very enticing to me.
The content is obviously quite tragic in nature, but it is also a story of a couple where there’s a heroic nature to it — and it being a story about two queer women that was written in a way that felt right to me, made it feel like something that I would really love to participate in.
Sarah Allen: Ditto to all that.
How do you get into character for this kind of film?
T-AP: I’d never thought about getting into character for any of the roles that I’ve done. I haven’t done anything so character-y that it’s felt like I’ve needed to transform myself as of yet, knock on wood, but I would love to do those roles.
I think that every role that I approach, it’s an aspect— it’s a combination of finding the qualities in myself, and then the aspects of the character that aren’t necessarily a part of me naturally. Trying, whether it’s textual analysis, or really figuring out who this person is at her core in her heart, what her fundamental values are, and beliefs are is an important thing. Then hopefully, after enough work on the day, I can show up on set and that can be represented — so it is me, but with a different shell.
SA: For me, it was about building the relationships and making them real. That’s what makes the character for me, because the biggest difference between me and Valerie is the relationships with the people in my life.
I was looking at the director’s notes for this film, and obviously, it’s got quite a heavy political theme, particularly about homophobia. Do you research this sort of thing before filming? Maybe you look at the news, or you try and read people’s life stories, or do you totally avoid that sort of thing?
SA: When I prepare, I guess I just don’t really know — I kind of go fishing for things to come into my life. Right when we started filming this, we were listening to the news but I listened to a podcast about the Taliban and the oppression of communities by the Taliban — I just went into the terrorism aspect.
I fell into that — places where it was happening in the world, where it was real, where I guess I hadn’t really listened to that clearly before. And then the things that were going on the world also became more scary, when I allowed myself to think that way.
T-AP: It’s the absence gets really scary to jump into that mindset to because it’s so tragic. We’re bombarded with the news, and like Sarah said, podcasts I listen to — everything that is happening in the movie is happening next door, and, unfortunately, I don’t want to have a cynical outlook on what’s happening, but there’s a lot of horrible shit happening in the world right now. So being prepared in the sense of the weight of what this means to tell this story.
Which, in terms of motivation, we could either pretend or we can just be like “this is legitimately happening, what if we were legitimately in this situation? God forbid that would ever happen, but it happens everywhere”. Every day you’re reading a new article, or listening to a new story about the about the tragic nature of this happening in the world.
SA: Also, having Allison Richards, the writer/producer, there. She wrote it, but it came from feelings that she was feeling while she was way in our retreat. So it was nice to have her perspective to go off as well.
Do you have a different acting approach when it comes to horror?
T-AP: When I saw the trailer, I don’t know if you feel the same way, but I was like, “that was so scary!” When you’re acting, it’s not that I necessarily approach a genre as such. That being said, all I can be responsible for is bringing authenticity to my character and to the story, and to make sure that we’re landing in the right place in terms of character arc. So much of a film is done in post, so there’s only so much that we have control over.
SA: I mean, the script got us there, I think it was really well written. The circumstances are easier to commit to when they are staring you in the face and you are tied to them.
The Retreat is a very intense film – how did you cope with that atmosphere on set?
T-AP: I think it’s day-to-day. In the scenes you’re shooting, we don’t see it as like one big picture. In some sense, there is the big picture of like, “Where’s my character starting? Where did she end up in the middle? Where is she ending? What’s her relationship with Val? What’s her relationship with all these people around her?” But day-to-day, I feel like my job as an actor is just to really commit to scene by scene.
You’re shooting these things out of order. On the first day of the shoot, we were shooting something really intense, and then something really, really intimate that was intended to be later on in the film, and it’s like, all you can do. You kind of have to let go of the control aspect of that, and trust that there’s people on set that know what the hell they’re doing, that can make sure that they have the bigger picture in mind.
SA: You do all your prep before. You know the whole story — you’ve got it in you, whatever that means, and you just trust and go. I think it also really helps that there was, as Tommie was mentioning earlier in another interview, it was so physical, so there were some scenes that you didn’t have to do much acting.
As I’ve said, The Retreat has a very strong message about today’s political climate and the existing dangers within it. How would you like audiences, once they finish watching the film, to think about your characters?
T-AP: That’s a really great question. I think so many of us, in this day and age, have been lucky, you know, there’s a lot of people where the oppression that resides in their world is unbelievable. I like to believe that after somebody watches this film, if they didn’t know, if they were living under a rock, that they now know what the hell’s going on in the world, and that this exists everywhere. That plight of the LGBT community and how it continues to manifest everywhere in terms of acceptance and safety.
And that also powerful women were able to fight back! Because I think there’s something important about that. I think the violence obviously is, you know, we’re making a movie, and that’s not necessarily how we would like the world to end up, but we fought back and it fucking felt good!
I think for a lot of people that will feel good, not that there’s not a better ways to solve things. There are better ways to have peace in this world. But we’re watching the film here with two powerful strong women who are not going to be taken down, and that is lucky in that they didn’t have a choice to talk it out. People that are hunted everywhere, every single day, across our border, every single day hunted for no reason other than the colour of their skin, or their sexuality, or of their gender. And it’s an abomination, it’s so sad. I just hope it keeps the narrative and the conversation going. And then we can keep talking about this. Will it be solved? Probably no. But we can make it better.
SA: Sometimes I think a story like this might help me look at the state of the world and wonder what’s going on? And actually admit it to myself like, “Oh, it’s scary out there. This could happen to you”. That it’s not just a fantasy, because this has happened. It has happened to people. This happens to people all the time, and it’s awful. Horrible, horrible, horrible.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length*.
The Retreat is available on VOD May 21st
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany graduated from The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time.