Writer-director M.J. Bassett spoke with Solzy at the Movies about her upcoming film, Rogue, which stars Megan Fox and will be available on Friday.
M.J. Bassett directs Rogue from a script co-written with her daughter, Isabel. The cast includes Megan Fox, Philip Winchester, Jessica Sutton, Calli Taylor, Brandon Auret, Adam Deacon, and Sisanda Henna.
Rogue releases this weekend on Digital/VOD before getting a Blu-ray/DVD release next week. Was a theatrical release in the plans or did the pandemic mess that up?
M.J. Bassett: The pandemic killed us, darling. There was always talk of it because it turned out really well. It looks great on a big screen. But the reality of it is right now, we’re all facing the challenges. A VOD release—for me—gets it to a bigger audience faster. I don’t feel particularly aggrieved by that. It’s always lovely to see your movies in a theater with an audience—a group of people experiencing it, particularly with a film like Rogue. It’s got a couple of nice big jumps in it as well and you want to see everybody reacting. It is what it is in the world we live in. I’m happy to have it out there at all to be honest.
I don’t often see action thrillers that come with an environmental message or at least it feels that way. How tricky was getting the message across without it taking over the film?
M.J. Bassett: It’s really important to me that I didn’t make a movie, which is just a big, depressing message picture. Not that they aren’t super valuable but I’m a genre filmmaker. I wanted to make something which was going to be exciting, scary, character-fallen, funny, and do all of those things that I love in a movie but not just be an empty case if it actually was about something and have proper characters talking about things. It was one of those ones where as I wrote and I wrote this with my daughter. As we wrote it, we little by little sort of said, Okay, that’s hitting a bit hard or this is a good place to have this conversation.
Ultimately, I believe you’ve seen the movie. It finishes with a little piece of information for the audience if they want it. I think that’s the important thing. I want to get people who don’t know anything about lion farming, have never really thought about it, or maybe even care about it just for a moment to say, Yeah, we shouldn’t be doing that. It’s a bad thing. There’s got to be better things that we can do in our time rather than exploiting this animal for no good reason. It’s a delicate thing but I think with Rogue, I succeed because I think the movie is entertaining in its own way without hitting you over the head with a message.
Can you talk about the writing process and collaborating with your daughter, Isabel?
M.J. Bassett: The movie came about because I was having a conversation with a producer friend of mine, who’d said she thought she could get a small amount of money to make a movie—a genre picture, which had an environmental theme. I was originally asked if I just be the executive producer because she knew that natural history was my passion and one of things I know a lot about like conservation. And I said, No, no, I want to write and direct these as well—it’s important to me to have all this control. If you have a very low budget, you won’t get paid much. I don’t care about money. I just want to be able to do the thing that I’ve always wanted to do. It was the idea of having an opportunity to make all the stuff I like—running, jumping, chasing, action, horror, comedy, all those things—and do that message thing for myself. I had an idea of pretty quickly that I wanted to do it about the lion farming and have the lion as the as the nemesis—the monster if you like—and the threat to our characters but not just randomly but for a reason.
I wrote an outline. My daughter is a really good writer. She was 20 years old at the time when we put this together. I was working on a couple of TV shows so I didn’t have time to get a first draft of the script together so I wrote an outline for her and said, Can you give me a first draft? I just put it together. She’s not a genre fan so it was really interesting having a writer who doesn’t really specialize in this area taking the genre picture and hammering that into shape. I had a very clear idea of the structure. I got her first draft, which I liked a lot. I then rewrote it. She came back to me with her notes and it was a kind of a back and forth relationship. We had to put the parent-child thing away for a while and just treat each other like adults. It’s a hard thing to do but we got to a place where we both really liked script. She said she could play one of the one of the kidnapped girls because we didn’t have enough money to get lots of actors who are going to be expensive. She was on the set with me as well just keeping an eye on the narrative. If she thought I was doing something which maybe wasn’t consistent with the characters we talked about, she’d give me a note. I could comment on it, could ignore it, or whatever but it was it was a really, really lovely process working so closely with my kid who is a far better writer than I am and very talented just to see her kind of spreading her wings in this way—great experience.
Can you talk about working with Megan Fox and what you were looking from her with regards to her performance?
M.J. Bassett: With Megan, it was interesting that she came on board because I hadn’t really seen her in the role when I was writing it. Samantha O’Hara, the character she played, is a really tough, no-nonsense woman who is—her gender is irrelevant. She’s just tough and good at her job. She’s kind of suppressed her femininity and her maternal instincts to exist in this very male world. The script came out really, really well and everybody liked it and suggested we start sending it out to some big name actresses. Megan’s name was on the list and initially, I was like, I don’t see her doing this. I’ve never seen her do anything like this. We got it down, she read and she liked it so I went for a meeting and we sat and had some coffee.
I realized that that woman I kind of thought I was going to meet was not the person who’s in front of me. She’s a thoughtful, intelligent woman—a mother of three—so she understands that aspect but she also understands how she’s perceived and how her energy is put out into the world. She wanted to try and shift that a little bit by doing a role which is kind of antithetical to who you think Megan Fox is. Now, the trouble with that is of course nobody was saying, well, Megan can’t do it, but she really can’t. We got it for a couple of days. We work with some military friends of mine. I’ve done a lot of other military stuff myself in my life so we gave her some basic training, some weapons work, some movement, just to get her into the mindset. The rest of the cast—they all have done action or they have real life military experience. Philip Winchester, who played the male lead, he plays Joey Kasinski—he and I have worked together for years on action stuff and military stuff and he’s incredibly well-trained. Surrounding Megan with that kind of energy and those people all kind of allowed her to be a little bit different, be a bit tougher and be a bit less winsome than she has been and certainly less sexual. She’s an incredibly beautiful woman but that became not really relevant to the story we were telling. Her femininity is important because her maternal instincts are important but really nothing else about her was as the baggage that she normally carries. I think she really got something out of the experience and sort of developed as a person as well as I’ve benefited and my movie benefited from having her presence because people are talking about the film.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
M.J. Bassett: Shooting Africa is pretty tricky. I’ve shot here a lot. I love it. But really, the challenge with this movie was it because it was very low budget, there was not much time. We shot the whole thing about 22 days. For a movie with this many moving parts, that’s super challenging. It was a production point of it. The actual aspects of shooting that kind of action, that kind of horror—that’s the stuff I love to do. Every day, though it was physically challenging, was a wonderful experience. This is the most fun I’ve ever had making a movie because I was surrounded by people I knew and I loved and the crews I’d worked with before. The environment where we shot it was a game range just about 40 miles outside Johannesburg in a place called the Cradle of Humankind, which is an extraordinary place to visit. There are ferric hillsides and they’re full of iron, and every night they draw down lightning storms. There are those kinds of conditions where you have a massive downpour lightning storm you’re shooting at night, you have to take shelter for a while. Physically those kinds of things—jumping in and African river and being swept down African River—I never asked my cast to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I’m first in. I’ll jump. I’ll go near an explosion. I’ll get in the back of a dusty Jeep. All of that stuff I’m very, very happy with. I always feel that if I if I lead from the front, and everybody will have the confidence to do what I’m doing. Obviously, if it’s a big dangerous stunt then we have the team who take over for me there. But yeah, the physical challenge was just cramming it all in to the time we had.
Have you found yourself getting more or less offers since coming out as trans?
M.J. Bassett: I get different offers, which is lovely. Since coming out as transgender, the world opened up. As a human, I’m more open to those kind of slightly more emotional things to do. There are lots of filmmakers who make romantic comedies and those kinds of dramas much better than I ever will. Being out as trans doesn’t make a difference as a director—you’ve still got to do the damn job. That’s the first thing you have to do. I treat the crew and the cast and the experience slightly differently than I used to do it. It’s less than aggressive, straight ahead, this is a military process, and it’s much more what can we discover about ourselves while we’re having this intense action-packed time? As soon as I came out, I started getting trans stories and I start getting more romance stories. One day I will tell a trans story but it will be within the context of my love of genre. The world opened up and I can only be grateful for that.
You grew up wanting to be a vet and work with wildlife—have you considered making animal documentaries?
M.J. Bassett: I actually started working in that area. I always wanted to be a vet. As a teenager, I was a vet’s assistant and I ran a wildlife hospital for years. I was on TV in the UK hosting natural history programs for a few years. I was trained as a wildlife photographer and wildlife filmmaker. I never had a lot of success and I didn’t do it very long before I moved into making a fiction project. There are filmmakers out there who are so extraordinarily talented, patient, and gifted. I would never presume to go back to that. It’s always whenever I watch these incredible wildlife documentaries that a little bit of me wishes that I had gone down that route.
During the pandemic, have you found it harder or easier to be creative?
M.J. Bassett: The pandemic has been awful for my creativity. I spent most of my time wishing I had more time to write and now that I have all the time in the world to write, I can’t find the motivation. It’s been a very strange time. I live in Los Angeles but I’ve been stuck in the UK for the last five months. Being away from my partner and not being at home has been pretty challenging. That constant sense of I’m not where I need to be to be creative—you think you can open a laptop and just work anywhere. I’ve written a couple of screenplays and I’ve done a lot of work but nothing that I’ve really felt super connected to and grateful for. The fact that I’m about to get on a plane and go and start making another movie in a few days is the greatest gift in the world. I know it’s been a very difficult time for lots of people so I’m not going to complain but creatively, I found it very stifling.
Is the new film going to take more time then originally scheduled with all the protocols in place?
M.J. Bassett: Well, we’re shooting it in Kenya in Africa. They have different protocols. And again, it’s a movie which takes place very much out of the wilderness. It will be a super small crew that we can isolate. Hopefully, what we’ll be able to do is—we have our safety protocols in place but because we’re not doing a big, sprawling, complex thing, this is the perfect movie to come back into the world. The protocols are challenging, all the testing is challenging. I won’t get any more time. I’ll just have to be even more creative.
One thing I’ve found interesting lately is with the protocols coming out of the UK is to expect to go back to the Hays Code era
M.J. Bassett: (Laughs) No touching.
M.J. Bassett: I don’t know. I think this is gonna pass and ultimately, COVID will become something that we do manage. The vaccine is going to be a little bit a little way off. I think we are learning to live in a world where this is definitely a thing. If you’re going to shoot in Africa, or in the jungles of Thailand, somewhere—there are constant disease pressures. There are issues of parasites. There are communicable diseases. There are insect-borne diseases. These are all things that as a filmmaker working in exotic locations, I deal with all the time. For me, COVID is another horrible nuisance and something which is obviously taking many lives and disrupted the whole planet but it is well within the capabilities of me and my team to deal with a threat like this.