Arriving this Friday, 31st July, Derrick Borte’s Unhinged is perhaps the most talked about film among the first batch shown in cinemas post-lockdown, primarily because of the combination of Russell Crowe in the lead and the tag “road rage movie”.
Crowe plays a menacing motorist who relentlessly pursues another driver, Rachel (Caren Pistorious) after he’s offended by what he sees as her lack of courtesy, and he’s hell bent on teaching her a lesson she’ll never forget. The result is a thriller with echoes of Spielberg’s debut, Duel, Schumacher’s Falling Down and, as Borte tells The People’s Movies Freda Cooper, another Spielberg movie. Jaws.
He talks about Crowe’s initial reticence about playing the central role, his thinking behind the film’s explosive opening sequence and why the character is known simply as The Man. Borte also admits he’d never thought of him as a present day Man With No Name, but it’s an analogy he likes.
Freda Cooper What appealed to you about the script when it came your way? What made it stand out from everything else?
Derrick Borte What drew me to the script was the relentless thrill ride of it all. It meant I couldn’t put the script down, I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen on the next page. And after getting through it, it started to resonate with me on a deeper level, as a relatable reflection of the world we’re living in today, where civility has gone out of the window and anger and rage have taken over the headlines everywhere. So it got me on multiple levels and I felt it would be challenging and exciting to explore.
FC Why did you choose Russell Crowe for the lead role? Did you have to persuade him to do it, or was he up for it straight away?
DB (Laughs) When the possibility came up, I jumped at the chance. Just thinking about him in the role was really exciting. Then I went and met with him and we had a good conversation about it, but I left having no idea whether he would be interested or not, and whether he was interested or not. I found out later that he was scared to death of the role because he found the idea of trying to inject some humanity into the part scary.
Then he asked if he could watch my last film, American Dreamer, which he did and that prompted more questions. We immediately started clicking and talking about this character, digging into this phenomenon of people who are lashing out and expressing this rage they feel in violent ways and the train started moving from there. We were working together every day, trying to break the character down in some way so that he was playable and that was a pretty exciting time because working with him really got the production started, trying to find a human starting point for this character. And then we ended up with what you see on the screen.
FC And his character doesn’t have a name. He’s only listed as The Man. Why did you decide not to give him a name?
DB He didn’t have a name in the script – he was literally called The Man in the script I was given. I see him as a metaphor and a reflection of these things that are happening around us and he just didn’t seem to need a name. He’s some kind of an amalgamation of the invisible nihilist that takes out his rage through violence and retribution in the film and we decided that giving him a name didn’t feel right.
FC So does that make him The Man With No Name for 2020?
DB (Laughs) That’s a very good way to look at it. I hadn’t thought of that. In some ways, yes. He is certainly symbolic of a phenomenon that is becoming too prevalent here in the States at least. People aren’t taking responsibility for their own situations and are trying to put the blame elsewhere, and inflicting pain on others, so I guess you could say that.
FC The opening sequence of the film – with him on that dark stormy night outside the house – tells you an awful lot but there’s no dialogue, or no words that we can actually hear.
DB I would rather ask questions of the audience than give them all the answers. That scene opens the film in such a way that you can start to project your thoughts onto The Man and try to figure out what’s brought him there and why he does what he does. There are clues along the way, but it helps when you’ve got somebody like Russell in the scene because he can convey so much without really saying anything. It just felt more powerful and disturbing and evocative by playing it out that way.
FC The tension is unrelenting. Did you ever consider putting in one or two lighter moments, so that your audience could take a breather?
DB (Laughs) Tone and pace are always something you’re conscious of and having played a few versions of the film and seeing how it played in a large room full of people, it seemed that the unrelenting pace that we have in the film was so impactful, so powerful, that it was the clear choice.
FC Did you have any other films in the back of your mind when you were making Unhinged? Falling Down, perhaps, or Duel?
DB Initially on reading the script, Duel came to mind and characters like Michael Douglas in Falling Down as well, but I ended up gravitating towards Jaws. The character that Russell plays and the way he shows up and leaves carnage just felt like Jaws to me. Obviously the film’s not based on that, but there was something in his character that came to mind.
FC You’ve talked about how audiences responded to the film pre-coronavirus. How do you think they’ll react to it several months later, post-lockdown?
DB It’s the kind of film that, once it starts, I think people will forget about the chequerboard seating and wearing masks and just escape into the film for 90 minutes before going back into the COVID world. But the film seems to resonate in such a powerful way that I hope it takes them away from COVID for the period of time that they’re sitting and watching it.
FC How do you feel about it being one of the first films to be shown in UK cinemas post lockdown?
DB It’s a complicated thing. I feel excited and happy that people are going to get to see it and it’s going to get out there, yet I also want to be responsible and trust that the people handling it and making those decisions are doing it in the right way so that people’s health and safety are put first. It’s going to be the first step in figuring out what the new normal is for the exhibition world.
FC You’re happy with it being shown in cinemas rather than being moved to digital?
DB As long as it’s done safely, then yes. It’s a film that plays very well in that immersive, communal environment. As a filmmaker, you never want to think that people are primarily watching your film on an iPhone by themselves, so it is exciting and I’m happy that some people will get to watch it on a big screen, that’s for sure.