Christmas fairy tales best connect with their audiences when their stories are grounded in true emotions, particularly drama and grief, and their visuals reflect people’s dark nature, in both a thematic and literal sense. That’s certainly the case for the estranged family in the upcoming thriller, ‘The Apology.’
The family has long lost its patience and hope in their continuous search for their missing child, but is still grappling with the worry of what happened to her, especially at Christmastime. The relatives must learn how to reconnect and work together in order to not only try to find the answers they long for, but also achieve a collective peace to help them survive.
Alison Star Locke wrote and made her feature film directorial debut on the project. The drama stars Anna Gunn, Linus Roache and Janeane Garofalo.
‘The Apology’ will be released in theaters, courtesy of RLJE Films, and streaming simultaneously on Shudder and AMC+ this Friday, December 16.
Set 20 years after the disappearance of her daughter, ‘The Apology’ follows recovering alcoholic Darlene Hagen (Gunn) as she’s preparing to host her family’s Christmas celebration with her best friend Gretchen (Garofalo). Late Christmas Eve, Darlene’s estranged ex-brother-in-law, Jack (Roache), arrives unannounced, bearing nostalgic gifts and a heavy secret. Soon, Darlene finds herself caught between reason and ruthless instinct. Trapped together by a dangerous storm, a battle of wits escalates to a violent game of revenge.
Locke generously took the time recently to talk about scribing and helming ‘The Apology’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that she enjoyed working with the cast members throughout the production, as they not only wanted to thoroughly discuss and develop the family and themes in the story, but they were also dedicated to performing their own stunts as much as possible.
The conversation began with Locke explaining what inspired her to pen the script for the drama, and what her writing process was like as she was developing the story. “I started working on the script in 2016, and I was in a writer’s group at the time,” she shared.
“I had a dream that there was a knock on my front door in the middle of the night and there was a man on the other side, saying ‘I know what happened to your daughter.’ In the dream, he was a stranger, but in the script, he evolved from that point,” the writer explained.
“Once I woke up and started writing about it, I kept exploring who these people could be and what dynamic they would have, knowing they were trapped together by the snow. I also thought what their conversation would be about, and what they would want,” Locke added.
Besides scribing the screenplay, Locke also thought it was an incredible opportunity to make her feature film directorial debut on the project. “I had worked on short films with Stacy Jorgensen, who’s one of the producers on the film, a few years ago. She lifted me up into this amazing opportunity to make the film,” she said.
“Kim Sherman, who’s the creative producer on the film, helped me every step of the way. I like to joke that she’s my translator because there were times when I was over chatting or over prepared with a lot of details, and she would say (to the cast and crew), ‘What she means is this,'” the filmmaker shared with a laugh.
“We stayed true to what I wanted, but she helped me put that forward to people and work with a team like this. I had always self-financed my shorts, and there would be maybe 10 people involved. But on this film, there were 100 incredible artists and veterans working with me,” Locke continued. “So it was such a treat to be on set or in the edit room with (the film’s editor,) Lana Wolverton, who would constantly motivate and inspire me.
“It was very cool, but very difficult, too,” the helmer admitted. “It was a huge learning curve to make my first feature. It was a very hard project, but what an opportunity it was to go from being a stay-at-home mom to making a feature you wrote.”
Locke then delved into what the casting process was like for the movie once she began working on her directorial duties. “I knew that I wanted to work with folks who have a lot of experience. I wanted to cast people are character actors, not just movie stars, who would want to dive into the realities of these characters and go into these dark places,” she revealed.
“So the producing team and I would brainstorm who would be fun in these parts, and work within their parameters. So they proposed Anna, and I was a fan of her work,” the filmmaker divulged.
“The casting process was interesting; every actor we ended up with was someone I was a fan of. Sometimes, the way your mind works, you don’t immediately think of someone, so the producers introduced me to Anna,” Locke noted. “I love ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Deadwood,’ and think she’s so brilliant. She’s not afraid to get messy and do dark things.
“I had known Linus Roache from ‘Priest’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove,’ and all of his fantastic work in not only America, but also his native England,” the helmer gushed about the actor. “He said yes in our first Zoom meeting because we just immediately connected on being willing to be very vulnerable when you’re willing to do the work together. We were also willing to share personal things and be ambitious about the thematic work we were going to do with the project. So it was very meaningful to work with him.”
Locke also shared her enthusiasm about working with Garofalo on ‘The Apology.’ “I had written each of (the actors) a cover letter, making my case of who I am, why I think they would be great for their roles and why I wanted to make the film. I had included my number on these cover letters, and Janeane called me on a Friday night and said, ‘This is Janeane Garofalo.’ It was amazing; she was so encouraging from the beginning. She said, ‘I think you’re going to do great, and I’m so excited for you.”
Once the actors were cast in the thriller, the filmmaker cherished the opportunity to work with the actors on developing their characters’ arcs. “I had written extensive character bios, and like I said, I had been writing and workshopping the script for a long time. Then going through the script with the actors, I had long conversations with them, especially with Anna and Linus, of course, since they have the biggest roles,” she said.
“While talking to them, Anna was a little more focused on understanding each line, and what I wanted from each line. We had a lot of long Zoom conversations because she had a lot of detailed questions, and we wanted to be on the same page,” Locke divulged.
“With Linus, it was more about understanding the family and themes, so we talked about the things that we were exploring in the story,” the director added. “We also did about two days of in-person rehearsals before we started to shoot.”
While Locke enjoyed the experience of working with the actors in developing their characters throughout the production, she admitted that it was challenging at times to create their physicality and action sequences on the set. “I wanted the stunts to feel as they were being performed by real people, and not by people who have experience with fights. But I also wanted it to feel really scrappy and hard. So that combination made it a bit of a challenge,” she admitted.
“Linus did so much of the stunts himself, and Anna did a whole lot of them herself, too. There were some stunt folks on the set, and we rehearsed scenes with the stunt team, thinking they were going to do most of the heavy lifting, but the actors ended up doing a lot themselves,” the filmmaker said as she praised the cast. “I really appreciated and admired that.
“We all kept trying to look out for their safety and endurance, and made sure they felt safe and emotionally well, since this is all dark material. Then you add the physical aspect, and it made it tricky,” Locke noted.
“We did have an incredible, dedicated stunt team. If one of our leads needed a minute, the stunt team would jump into the detail of what we were doing. So I felt very fortunate to be able to work with them,” the helmer gushed about the stunt performers.
“We had some pretty intense stunts in this, especially for a small film like this one. But they were incredibly, and game to do whatever we needed,” Locke continued.
“Everyone was obsessed with safety, and I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one who was concerned about it. Everyone was sending that message, every step of the way, and would go above and beyond,” the filmmaker also shared.
“We never used real weapons, for example; they were all unfirable and basically toys, in a way. But we would check the weapons everyday, anyway. So we had that wonderful community of everyone looking out for each other,” Locke added.
‘The Apology’ was shot in both Wisconsin and Los Angeles, and the director felt both lucky and challenged while she secured the project’s locations in both states. “We got really lucky with the first part of it, and then had a really hard time after that. For the first part, the very first house we looked at was the house that we shot in. We also looked at a few others after to make sure we weren’t insane, and then thought, we already hit the lottery, so we’re not going to continue to play,” the director shared.
“So we focused our energy on this house, but then realized that we’re shooting this in Los Angeles. So we asked, how do we build snowstorm exteriors with that?,” Locke divulged.
“So then we realized that we could go and shoot the exteriors for a day in Wisconsin. But the weather didn’t cooperate with us there, either. So then we had to do more second unit shoots. Kim Sherman, my producer, directed the second unit aerial stuff and some other scenes. All of these scenes ended up having to happen at the same time since they had to keep being pushed because of the weather. So I was directing scene work while she was directing aerial stuff, as we had to keep making things work,” the filmmaker also shared.
“We also had a great visual effects and art departments. Our production designer, Tom Obed, was just a tenacious guy. He and his art department just kept put in all this detail. I have to say that was one of the great joys of the film because I love dark, snowy movies, obviously, as I wrote one. So I was a giddy dork whenever we were doing snow work, even though it’s a pain,” Locke admitted. “Our fantastic PAs had to keep sweeping the snow out of the frame so it matched what it looked like before. But it was so fun to do.”
With ‘The Apology’ being released in theaters and on Shudder and AMC+ this Friday, the helmer then delved into how she secured the dual distribution for the project. “Company X, which is the company that produced the film, had a relationship with RLJE Film, and they’ve also been supportive of other films that they’ve made in the past. So they’re a part of the AMC/Shudder family. So it was a very clear line that the film would be on AMC+ and Shudder. It was a huge compliment to my life was when AMC+ and Shudder said this film is one of their big films this year, so they’re going to release it both in theaters and stream it on VOD,” she concluded.