Butler, Sarah (I Spit on Your Grave)
Dread caught up with Sarah Butler, star of Cinetel Film’s controversial I Spit on Your Grave, a week before the film’s September 29th Hollywood premiere (see our coverage of that here) to chat with her regarding her courageous turn as the survivor of a filmic, yet altogether brutal, gang-rape and the repercussions that follow.
A remake of the 1978 Meir Zarchi-directed film of the same name, the Steven R. Monroe-directed I Spit on Your Grave (review here) is being releasing unrated today (October 8th) in theaters across America courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, a ballsy move indeed! As written by screenwriter and author Adam Rockoff (Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film), I Spit casts Butler as ‘Jennifer Hills,’ a novelist who rents a lakeside cabin in the deep South in order to concentrate on her literary pursuits and who subsequently and tragically finds herself the object of unwanted attention by a quartet of backwoods locals.
With mainstream press having already glommed on to the more sensational aspects of the flick’s narrative, as directed by Monroe (see our extensive interview with the filmmaker here), there’s a bit more going on in the update, and at the time of this interview, the then under-the-weather Butler proved tentatively excited regarding the film’s imminent opening as well as thoughtful regarding its sub-text, the possible response by female audience members, and the impact it may have on her career, among other things.
“I didn’t see it until I was cast (in the remake),” the twenty-five-year-old actress (whose previous screen credits include the television series "I <3 Vampires") told us of the original I Spit on Your Grave. “I wasn’t aware of how infamous it was because I’m not a movie buff at all, and especially not with the horror genre. But after I was cast and before we went to shoot, I rented the (original) film, and I watched it. I think I was mentally prepared to watch it, having read our script and knowing that it followed some of the same plot lines. I knew I was going to see some really tough scenes, and I kind of psyched myself up for it, but even with that mental preparation I still tensed every muscle in my body watching those rape scenes, and I had to concentrate on relaxing every one of them, one by one, because that film really does get under your skin.”
Given such, we wondered what appealed to her in essaying the role in the remake?
“For me it was maybe the controversy that attracted me to it,” said Butler, who’s currently on a demanding press tour for the flick. “It’s also such an honor as an actor to portray a character that goes through so much both emotionally and physically, and who has such a huge arc, so that was very exciting, too. And the fact that the character comes out on top and it’s kind of like a victory - and in some ways I guess you could say that ‘Jennifer’ is the heroine of the story - is truly an honor.”
Dread questioned Butler regarding her thoughts as to what is inarguably the fundamental difference between both films, from the often perceived as exploitative approach of the lead’s machinations in the original (as portrayed by actress Camille Keaton, who sexually lures her rapists in the third act in order to exact her revenge) to the character’s rather believable modus operandi in the redux.
“It appealed to me, yes,” Butler replied regarding the lofty heights of uncompromised violence to which her character ascends. “I found the difference between the two kind of shocking though because I had read the (Adam Rockoff-penned) script just before watching the original film, and I found the original kind of weird. I know discussion also broke out about this when we got to set, and I know that (Cinetel producer) Lisa Hansen felt very strongly that the original wasn’t believable – that a woman would be able to look at her attackers at all in that kind of a sexual way. She felt that anger and revenge would prevail in more of an angry way and not manifest in some kind of conniving, sexual, cat-like kind of game, and I completely agreed with her. I think that modern audiences will find this film much more believable.”
Unlike most horror flicks, which often present their antagonists supernatural in either design or personality, I Spit on Your Grave posits its villains as the boys next-door, socio-economically depressed Anglo-Saxon males, who in their angst-ridden malaise latch easily onto the most identifiable target for their frustrations: an educated, seemingly financially successful urban female. Further, the film also tackles the horrific plague of Western sexual abuse (last year, one in six American women experienced rape or attempted rape, according to U.S Department of Justice statistics), and in doing so smartly - and frightfully - grounds the narrative. Dread was curious as to Butler’s thoughts on this inherent sub-text, as well as to whether or not she felt I Spit on Your Grave may prove cathartic to victims of sexual violence who may see the film.
“I basically decided that in taking on this role, I had to go all the way, and in having no personal context to rape, that I just had to rely on my imagination and in being in the moment,” Butler communicated. “It was helpful that I had these amazing actors (Jeff Branson, Rodney Eastman, Daniel Franzese, Chad Lindberg and Andrew Howard) who were able to bring a lot of malice, surprisingly enough, to their characters. A lot of things they were doing to me were really happening. There was real fire involved. There was a real baseball bat being swung near my face and a real gun. I had to really be there and to picture what it would be like, but I don’t think I ever could (regardless) as much as I tried, be able to fully put my feet in the shoes of a woman who has been through something like this, and I know that there are woman out there that have been, and I can only hope that I got close to doing justice to the emotions that they would go through in a situation like that.” (Writer’s note: In conferring with female friends post-premiere who were in attendance for the screening, and who sadly have suffered real-life abuse akin to what transpired to Butler’s character on-screen, I came to find that the cinematic retribution doled out did prove for them entirely cathartic.)
“It was a weird feeling,” continued Sarah of shooting the rape sequences of I Spit on Your Grave. “There were quite a few moments where I felt that I was falling out of control, but I knew that having that feeling was really going to help with what we were trying to accomplish in the film so I had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I had to know that I could give myself completely over to that feeling. It was tough. But (director) Stephen was just so amazing during those scenes, and he decided early on to shoot all of my close-ups in the first couple of takes in order to achieve the intimacy of the emotions I was going through and to make the audience feel as if they were right there with me. That really helped because going through those emotions once or twice was one thing, but having to do those scenes over and over again for days on end was very draining. I really owe a lot to him in regards to my performance.”
We wondered given the grueling nature of the shoot (the actress was on-set for every day of principal photography but one) if Butler felt a twinge of mild PTSD post-shoot, as demonstrated to an extent by one of her male co-stars (Eastman stated that the production briefly clung to him following wrap – see our interview with him here).
“Surprisingly, after having to be so ‘on’ for so long, and having expended so much energy, ‘no’,” answered the actress. “We wrapped just before the Thanksgiving holiday, and I flew immediately to Seattle to be with my family and to start making gravy and casseroles and baked biscuits and things. It affected me more the first time I watched the finished product. I cried during that screening, and I wasn’t able to let it go for a couple of weeks. It was very affecting. I know that people that have already seen it have felt the same way.”
As for her feelings in regards to today’s theatrical release of the film, “I think I’ll definitely get some butterflies in my stomach, wondering what people are going to think across the country when they see this,” mused Butler. “What’s unique about this film is that it’s shocking and crosses a lot of (cinematic) boundaries that people assume are there. I’m grateful to Anchor Bay for having the guts to release it unrated. I feel that people will talk about it, and whether they say something good or they say something bad, they will say something.”
As for what she’s up to next, following the press circuit for I Spit, Butler concluded with her inherently infectious and good-natured laugh, “I’m being careful and looking for the right project. Maybe a romantic comedy might be a good thing!”
Got news? Click here to submit it!
Spit on things in the comments section below!