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Writing and Directing the Crime Revenge Tale: An Interview with ‘The Apology’ Writer-Director Alison Star Locke

Alison Star Locke shares with Script how she found a story within a dream she had, following her North Star, incorporating levity into a harrowing revenge tale, collaborating with incredible talent both in front and behind the scenes and so much more.

Twenty years after the disappearance of her daughter, recovering alcoholic Darlene Hagen (Anna Gunn) is preparing to host her family's Christmas celebration with her best friend Gretchen (Janeane Garofalo). Late Christmas Eve, Darlene's estranged ex-brother-in-law, Jack (Linus 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. 

Be prepared to be on the edge of your seat when viewing this nail-biting, hair-raising, stomach-turning thriller from Alison Star Locke. The feature marks Alison's feature directorial debut and she simply hits it out of the park. 

I recently had the utmost pleasure of speaking with Alison about how she found a story within a dream she had, following her North Star, incorporating levity into a harrowing revenge tale, collaborating with incredible talent both in front and behind the scenes and so much more. 

[L-R] Anna Gunn as Darlene Hagen and Linus Roache as Jack Kingsley in the thriller The Apology, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

[L-R] Anna Gunn as Darlene Hagen and Linus Roache as Jack Kingsley in the thriller The Apology, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: Where in the world did this story idea come from for you?

Alison Star Locke: It came from a pretty cliche writer place, which is that I had a dream. [laughs] I feel like whenever I tell that part of the story, I have to acknowledge that reality of it. Yeah, so I had a dream about that front door knock - a man knocking on my front door in the middle of the night and saying, "I know what happened to your daughter." And it felt like Christmas time at the time. And so, when I woke up, I was like, ‘I'm gonna honor all that.’ But let's play with what these characters are. What would they want from each other? This is a rich dynamic. I just knew I had something that would be a lot of fun to play with. What do I want to explore? And what do I want to say about that kind of story? What would my crime revenge tale be? And I definitely knew I wanted it to be a full-on Christmas film. I'm a big fan of those. And I think there's something so pure about what Dickens did with the Christmas Carol and I wasn't conscious of that until later. But thinking about Jack as sort of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Alison Star Locke

Alison Star Locke

And then I also realized, of course, because as you write something, it kind of changes for you, it deepens, hopefully, you're figuring things out - personal stuff comes into it. And pretty quickly, I was like, the reason I'm so fascinated with these true crime stories was, because I was connecting with these searching families because my daughter is autistic and has needed a lot of advocacy and a lot of help. 

And that's where I've been, that's what I've been doing before I made this film - I was home with her and trying to fight for her. And obviously, that's completely different than what I could imagine it would be - I know where she is, she's safe. It's OK. I never pretend that's the same thing. But just that thing that happens when you're an artist where you're connecting to somebody's experience on this very human level. 

Searching families would talk about needing binders for the paperwork and needing to be polite when someone's being rude to them about their kid and saying presumptuous rude stuff about them and I thought, ‘God, I know what that's like.’ And again, it’s not the same thing but I just kept carrying that through and it really emboldened me to keep making it personal right down to there's Christmas decorations in the film that are mine, there are family photos of mine in the film. So, just trying to keep all of that individuality in the movie.

Sadie: Tapping into that maternal instinct as well. There’s nothing scarier than a mom on a mission and it's all in this film.

Alison: Mhmm, exactly. [laughs]

Sadie: What I enjoyed most about this film is the simplicity of it all – one location, three characters, this circumstance, and then there’s this levity that you brought to it. Which also makes it incredibly eerie. How did you approach interweaving that levity into this story?

Alison: Well, originally, I had a lot more levity, if that makes sense. I really loved the movie Death Trap, I think it was the early 80s. They did an interesting tonal tightrope that I love in movies like American Werewolf in London does a great job of that as well, but I really wanted the humor to be - or the levity - that sort of fairy tale level of dialogue and I wanted it to feel like real life, almost like when you're at a funeral and you crack jokes more when you're at a funeral because you're coping, it's too big and awful. And so, of course, you start making jokes, and you start telling stories and that sort of thing. So, I kind of wanted that to be a big central part of the film, because that's certainly been a big part of my own personal survival or mental health is just being like, 'That was nuts, right?' [laughs]

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Sadie: Absolutely. It makes the dialogue feel more organic too, like, ‘Oh, they're actually having a conversation about this thing that is also very, profoundly disturbing.’ I’m sure also having the actors that you did in these roles made it easier for you.

Alison: Oh, definitely. If you're going to try to put some levity in it, have a comedic master in that part, that's going to help you a lot. [laughs] But it was great, because she [Janeane Garofalo] would always do my dialogue to start, and then she'd tweak things here and there, but she would always be making it better. We were very respectful of each other that way. And Linus [Roache] really got what I was going for, in terms of this interesting tonal tightrope. I think Anna [Gunn] had to live a little bit more in the reality of the drama of it and so that wasn't something that connected with her as much, but it kind of works for me, because it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, she's too in the weeds of what's happening to her.’

Janeane Garofalo as Gretchen Sullivan in the thriller The Apology, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

Janeane Garofalo as Gretchen Sullivan in the thriller The Apology, an RLJE Films, Shudder and AMC+ release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films /Shudder/AMC+.

Sadie: Once you had those parts cast, did you go back and refine their voices?

Alison: With Anna, to a certain degree, what was going to be a real driving force for her with her connection to the story? And I did a little bit for Linus, but not so much - they've all done theater work, they're all incredibly trained, gifted actors - but Linus, he's English, he went to an amazing English acting school, he comes from ‘writer's King’ so he was like, ‘No, I'm going to make this work.’ And every once in a while, I would have a slight tweak or he would say, 'Oh, actually, that one is kind of hard for me to do. Can we tweak just one word?' So little things like that.

I kept rewriting the film, even up through production. And so, I would kind of go, ‘Oh, if I'm rewriting it, then I'm going to try to really sing in Janeane’s voice for that section’ or something. It is really a hell of a tool to be able to know who your actors are actually going to be so you can write to their voice and have the opportunity to continue to figure out a way to serve that.

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Sadie: With this being your feature directorial and writing debut, what is something that you learned through the development, production, or even post-production process of this film, or something that you're going to carry with you on to your next film?

Alison: Two things. One really kind of boring one which is that just because you've introduced the concept into the film doesn't mean the audience is going to get it. Thinking about that it's not just the line, it's everything that surrounds it. It's not just the shot, it's everything that surrounds it. That was a really big surprise to me, I have to admit. And I made short films, I went to film school, I've been writing for years, but writing and directing something at a feature-length and that level, that was a big revelation for me. For example, all that family backstory, trying to make that clear for people without bogging it down too much. Some people would think that Sally died when she was five, because we had that incredible shot of little Esmé. And how to kind of sculpt it around that so people would understand that no, that was her instinct – it went to small child - but she was actually 16. Things like that. One of the biggest lessons that I think I'll take to the next thing.

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Also, always remembering to keep my North Star of what I want the movie to be about, because you get so mired in so much detail - the writing and the directing, every part of it. We'd get into sound design, and I'd be like, 'Is this to the North Star of what this movie is? Or is it getting just more fun and exploratory for its own sake?' Just keeping that through the whole process is a really fun challenge. I literally had a note card that said North Star.

Sadie: Oh, I love that. We could go do a deep dive into the sound design and the opening and closing bookend shot for this film too.

Alison: Oh my god, can I just give a brief incredible shout-out to Julie Diaz and the Unbridled Sound team? That place is like you could make a movie just to hang out with them. [laughs] They're so smart, they're so sweet, they're like a family - crazy creative. And then Uèle Lamore for her score. Some of my notes to her and our conversations were quite in-depth, and one of them I literally wrote "violent, messy, quick" and she's like, 'OK' [laughs] and then I listened to the whole track, 'Alright, genius mind.' [laughs]

The Apology will be in Theaters and Streaming simultaneously on Shudder and AMC+ on December 16th. 


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