Article first appeared on Austin Fusion Magazine.
In the past, we have explored how films can operate as a release from daily life or a tool to educate on an uncommon subject. Film can also be used in another way, as a way for us to plummet into the deep corners of our soul and evaluate our center. This can sometimes be an uneasy experiment, but one that promises a reward at the end.
“The Automatic Hate” explores just that, the primal desires we all have yet don’t want to acknowledge, and how that can deteriorate and eat away at our insides. Two cousins, Davis (Joseph Cross) and Alexis (Adelaide Clemens), reconnect and uncover why their fathers have chosen to isolate themselves and their families from each other. It’s during this investigation that dark secrets are revealed and intimate connections formed.
The film walks a fine line between taboo and normalcy, but never exploiting either for shock value. The purpose of the film wasn’t to shock and awe, but to allow the audience to take this ride with the characters and take an intimate look at opposing view points. For director Justin Lerner, and his co-writer Katherine O’Brien, this journey was paved with revelations.
“When Katharine and I decided to build a story around an incestuous relationship, we thought, how can we make a cool story around it and almost earn it,” explains Lerner. “It is a mystery film about a family, discovering something terrible, a grudge between two people, and passing that down from the older generation to the younger. It was never to shock and run out of the theater, but shock that makes you want to stay.”
Lerner and O’Brien’s script may touch on the taboos of our culture, but it never forces the audience to think one way or another about it. This is why the audience stays, not because we want to watch someone crossing the line, but instead because we begin to answer those questions in our head about our reactions if presented with this same circumstances. It’s a complex story where the light and the dark are within the same person.
“We all have our shadow, our dark sides and the things we’ve done that we’re not proud of, that we don’t think represent us, but we all have that,” Cross explains. “For me that was the fun part of doing the movie, playing the character and exploring that.”
“I think it’s the responsibility of films to explore these darker sides, it’s taught us more about ourselves and our nature,” O’Brien adds. “Setting up an ideal to aspire to in our heroes and the way they perform, might be greater than most people can do.”
The story, as complex and clandestine as it is, would not have been enduring if it was not for Cross, Clemens, and the other amazing actors that Lerner and O’Brien were able to gather. It’s through their eyes that we see the heart of the characters, the subtle glances that speak volumes that the characters can’t express themselves.
“We saw Adelaide’s audition tape and had one meeting with her and she just basically created the character of Alexis,” Lerner explains. “She took this person we had kind of imagined and made her into something we could never write. She used our words but did something completely on a secondary level.”
The story may center on Alexis and Davis, but the catalyst for the story is the conflicting relationship between Davis’ father Ronald (Richard Schiff) and Alexis’ father Josh (Ricky Jay). It’s through these characters that the years of torment are represented. Ronald may push it down and deny its existence, but Josh runs to an environment where he can live as he wants to.
With powerhouses like Schiff and Jay, the characters flew off the page into well-rounded full-bodied characters. They worked closely with both Lerner and O’Brien, allowing their true craft to blend with the magnificent script.
“We focused on developing each character, but we hadn’t quite gotten there with Ronald by the time Richard came along,” O’Brien adds. “He was just a shut down dad who was incommunicative with his son. Richard wanted more meat to work with, so we sat down and we talked about it, and decided that as this academic, his way to connect is through the cerebral.”
The complexity doesn’t stop with the two sides of the Green family, but instead is just the tip of the iceberg. Lerner and O’Brien used the concept of nature versus nurture and represented that through the two fathers chosen living arrangements.
“The two brothers come from the same exact genes, yet one has decided to live in the wilderness and the other one is living in civilization,” Lerner says. “It’s an argument on the idea of what is considered taboo, and that we all have these primal urges.”
This play between the urban and the rural was a deliberate choice when establishing this world. There was this constant pull between the world Davis knew, the structured environment he grew up in, and this alluring temptation of the free spirited life his extended family live in.
“Davis has chosen to avoid a more classic life than his upbringing, making a conscience choice to not follow in his father’s career path,” Cross says. “He knows there is something missing in his life.”
“We needed a New York intellectual up in the woods, which was a conscience choice and strategy for us. Seeing these not fit together is a nice visual conflict that takes us into the scene,” Lerner adds. “To take Davis from the city of intellectuals into the country, into the wilderness, he’s the glue that brings them together.”
“What happens a lot in this film are resolutions, but not where a family can’t continue to go forward and it’s not in a neat little bow that happens at the end of the film,” O’Brien explains. “Its people agreeing to not talk about something so they can stay together. In a way, that’s how people find a way to exist and move forward, even if it involves lying or full disclosure.”
After all is said and done, the audience is able to participate in an exploration of self, one that was unexpected yet is exactly what they needed to experience. The way the film is able to blend the filmiatic elements and emotional center that lingers long after the film ends.
“If you can’t go there in your real life, you should be able to go there in movies. The idea of living in a fantasy for a few seconds, with fears and desires, going into a movie where you get to explore some desires,” Lerner says. “Getting to indulge in those for a moment in a safe way, I think that’s a real value of films open to take that risk, there is some reward.”
Written by Lisa Mejia
Images by Micael Monroe of Go West Photography