Let The Great Axe Fall: Interview with Savage director Brendan Muldowney

by Alex Towers

Nowadays the description “revenge film” can be a bit of a burden for any new release that purports to offer a fresh take on the genre. Though often derided as over-simplistic, mindless and unnecessarily sadistic, films in which the hero inflicts a terrible retribution on those who have wronged him (or her) have enjoyed a comeback lately. Quentin Tarantino kicked it off the with his Kill Bills, Gasper Noé pushed the envelope with Irréversible and the surprise success of Liam Neeson’s Taken shows that audiences are willing to look past plot simplicity, provided there is a hefty amount of vengeful violence dished out.

Their designs are often duplicates of each other: Act I has a wrong committed, Act II shows the wronged person planning payback, and Act III has the payback acted out. Their popularity is beyond dispute. But such films can also develop beyond the basic ‘get them back’ approach, and can be used to explore more psychological subject matter. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver could hardly be labelled as just a “revenge film”, nor could Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.These are the films that detail the innate tribulations and aftermath that come with seeking vengeance.

Director Brendan Muldowney’s new thriller Savage is such a film. After a string of award-winning short films, Muldowney has emerged with a debut of shocking severity and uncompromising aggression. Savage tells the story of Paul Graynor, a naïve and lonely press photographer who, following a incomprehensibly brutal random attack, must try to regain control of his life whilst nursing desperate desires for vengeance. However, Muldowney’s film eschews many of the conventions of the genre, instead presenting a chilling reflection of masculinity, anger and hostility set in a grim and menacing manifestation of Dublin. I had the opportunity to interview Muldowney about Savage and he discussed the reasons he wanted to make his first film such a relentless assault on the senses.

Savage trailer

So how did you come up with the idea for Savage?

The idea for the film really came from two things. The first was a case involving a man called Bernhard Goetz who became known as the subway vigilante. He shot four lads on a subway in New York after they tried to mug him. When it went to court, the trial became quite contentious – it transpired he had been mugged before and had taken to carrying a gun sort of looking for trouble. So there were people saying he was a mad vigilante and others saying that he had every right to defend himself. This is what interested me – the idea of the two sides to the story. We’ve had similar cases in Ireland, particularly the farmer who shot a traveler. I think he had been robbed and had taken to actually sitting with his shotgun almost waiting for them [Pádraig Nally was convicted of manslaughter, but this was overturned in an appeal in December 2006]. So I actually think there is something really interesting in the idea that after someone is violated, they can go off the rails, yet remain within their rights as they are just defending themselves.

In a way this film separates itself from other revenge thrillers. You show Paul’s breakdown after the attack in excruciating detail and you really get a sense that he is losing his mind.

Yes, exactly and that leads into the other influence I had when making Savage. Revenge films, if you actually take a look at some of them, many are really quite clever. And there are other films that I might not label as revenge films, but instead are films that deal with violence without giving easy answers. Of course I’d have to say I was also heavily influenced by another obsession of mine – violence, and the whole inherent ugliness of it. I mean I’ll always remember seeing the violence in the North and especially the media focus on it. I recall reading the morning paper and seeing bodies that were stripped and beaten. So I do think that there is this consideration that seeing violence in the media, can have a very profound effect on you

The violence in Savage is so beyond the normal violence seen in cinemas. I was turning away at points due to it being too visceral.

Believe it or not, if you were to actually look at the violence in this film, there’s actually very little. There’s a cut here and there. It’s mostly suggested rather than shown.

Maybe it’s the way you conveyed the reality of it. It doesn’t start over-the-top or ridiculous. In fact, the scene at the beginning when Paul is attacked starts off like the kind of thing you see every night in Dublin.

Well, that scene is all about control, it’s about bullying someone and really degrading him or her. I think that’s what is really uncomfortable about it. It’s happened to us all. When I was growing up I certainly experienced it. A thug will try and exert control over you and they are nearly having fun with it. It’s a really nasty side of human nature and something I wanted to convey in the film. And in terms of the violence in the film, I think what really makes it work is the reality. Well I can’t really call it the reality. But it’s not easy, it’s not simple and it’s not the way you expect it to be.

In addition to the violence there are a lot of scenes that are darkly comical.

Yeah but you know that again comes back to the reality. I did want to show how some things could be funny, despite the subject matter. And so I enjoyed it being funny but also wanted it to say: “things never really go the way you expect them to.” This is especially true with the violence and the different types of violence you can use. For example there’s the reality of violence, like Michael Haneke [director of Funny Games and The White Ribbon] or certain other directors might use. Even Scorsese to a point. Actually, his violence is still a little bit cartoonish. And there’s also just stupid gore in films like Hostel which you can’t really believe because it’s so over the top. But I prefer the less is more approach. Now you may think that I didn’t use that, but I think I did. In the end there is very little violence actually present in the film.

But is there a particular message you’re trying to convey with Savage? Is it just that violence begets more violence?

Not really. What I’m really trying to achieve is to assault the audience and make them feel the same way I have felt when I witnessed violent scenes in the media or read about them in the paper. I wanted to capture that sort of broken-heartedness that you can feel. It’s as if you can sense your humanity breaking. I don’t know how that makes other people feel, I just know that it’s definitely good for me. But again the film is not about violence. Then again, lots of people see different messages. I really wanted to leave the audience with a visual and emotional impact, so they will all go off in different ways. Some will be waiting for Paul to explode and take revenge while others will be dreading it.

You portrayed Dublin as a nightmarish labyrinth. It was actually unrecognisable as Dublin as most would know it. Is this your view of our nations capital?

No. To me this is Dublin of Paul Graynor. It’s his particular journey, especially after his attack. How he sees Dublin and what he’s going through, so you and me wouldn’t see the dark alleyways as he would.

The use of sound in the film also significantly adds to the paranoia and desperation, making it very uncomfortable to watch at times.

Again, I wanted it to be an assault on the senses. When you’re dealing with a fractured mind you have to realise how to show it. Even if I had ¤10 million I would still be faced with this problem of how much you show. I wanted to use sound to get inside the head of Paul. So that’s why the sirens are so loud, and the baby crying and the IV drips and all that stuff. It’s all part of Paul’s breakdown.