Near the end of my phone interview with filmmakers Corey Asraf and John Swab, I asked them about the fate of one of the characters in their debut feature Let Me Make You a Martyr (read our review). “What do you think happened?!” was their reply. “That’s what we want to know…we’re sick of everything being explained to the audience.”
This reply was, to me, refreshing.
For Corey and John, the road to their first feature film was paved with DIY tactics. It started with their 2014 short film, Judas’ Chariot, which acts as a prologue of sorts to Martyr. In the feature, Drew Glass returns to Oklahoma to take care of some unfinished business. In Judas’ Chariot (which you can watch online), we see what happened the day before Drew left.
“John had the script when I met him eight years ago but we weren’t really prepared to shoot a feature because we were just kids,” Corey explained. “We had been shooting all sorts of music videos and short films for years, just sharing them within our creative network. Eventually it felt like we had graduated to the point where we could tackle producing a short film. We shot it in Asbury Park, NJ over three days. It was a really magic experience for us.”
Rather than hustle on the festival circuit, Corey and John screened the short themselves at various venues across the country – using word of mouth to draw an audience. This approach worked and led to backing for Let Me Make You a Martyr, which had its world premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Their initial backer was enthusiastic, but once he read the full script, was turned off by the film’s taboo subject matter, which includes child abuse, rape, and adopted brother/sister love. John explained, “We travelled around the short film and our last stop was Oklahoma. The next morning a guy called and told us then and there he has the money for us. So a few weeks later we had gone into preproduction and the cast. Then he asked to read the script and after he did he pulled out all together. He was like, I can’t do this.”
Many of the characters in the film and the hell they go through came from a very personal place for John, who had to open up to that initial backer in order to give him the full picture. “I sat him down and had a personal conversation about why these subjects are there. He still wasn’t enthralled about the subject matter but he understood the necessity to the story.”
Like I said in my review, it’s not an easy film to digest. That’s why I was eager to talk to Corey and John before their screening to pull the curtain back a bit on their film. One thing I was interested in was the strong religious thread that runs throughout the film. “I think there’s nothing we’re trying to point a finger at, but I think more than anything, the film is about the martyr specifically,” Corey said. “He’s recalling all these things that have happened and while he’s not directly repenting for them, he’s actualizing his thoughts. So I think religion and spirituality play into that. And Oklahoma, it’s the Bible Belt, so religion is a valid element to the story. But we’re not trying to point our finger at Catholicism or any religious sect.”
John added, “This supernatural thread is almost like a justification for the world itself. I feel like a lot of the subject matter warrants the question of God. Is he real? What is his role in this? That’s something I’ve asked myself in dealing with addiction and abuse. That’s an important theme for this type of subject matter.”
The characters exploring this heavy subject matter are portrayed by a wicked ensemble, including Mark Boone Junior, Niko Nicotera, Marilyn Manson, Slaine, and a few actors from the original short, like Sam Quartin. Corey said that the cast “came together naturally. For the short, we used actors we already knew. From there, we pooled our resources to find out who we knew. That’s how we got Mark Boone Jr. and we met Slaine through our short film. Manson came from Mark and Niko Nicotera. So it was really just getting people the script and once we got to them, we shared the personal elements of the story and everyone was really enthusiastic about it”
Much of the hype surrounding the film’s premiere was, of course, Marilyn Manson, who portrays a reclusive, philosophical hit man named Pope. He signed on to the film at the last minute – just 48 hours before shooting began. “We initially wrote him as a Native American character. Obviously Manson came on and we had to kind of abandon all of that and discover the character with him while we were shooting. But I always wanted Pope to exist completely in the grey. I wanted him to be this omniscient presence, a force of nature that’s constantly gaining steam towards Drew and June. We discovered a lot of that character on set with Manson.”
“Pope was a really delicate character. We had to really walk the line so we didn’t just make it seem like a Manson vehicle. So we had to be way more conscious about him as an actor and conscious of the hit man stereotypes. I’m really proud of the way we handled those things.”
Shot in John’s home state of Oklahoma, Martyr captures a lot of the bleak landscape of the Midwest. John: “It has this sort of untouched, forgotten aesthetic. I don’t think we would have been able to capture that in a city. And also, Oklahoma really opened itself up to us and was really excited about the film, helping us any way they could. It really complimented the story. We wanted to tell the story about the underbelly of Middle America and all of the locations that aren’t filmed.”
I also asked about he film’s esoteric dialogue. John: “I started writing poetry and to me poetry is a lot like dialogue. There’s a rhythm to it. It has to sound right and be honest. Out dialogue is very dense, there’s a lot of subtext in it. There’s almost a whole other story going on in the dialogue. You’re seeing one story, but when you really listen to what they’re saying, you’re seeing this wall of information.”
As for what’s coming next for Corey and John, “We have a lot of ideas and scripts written. Ultimately it’s not up to us, what we’re going to get the money for. At this point in time, we have no shortage of ideas.”