The Apology is the directorial debut feature film from Alison Star Locke, whose previous experience has been with short films and television…and it’s an incredibly strong introduction. It’s about Darlene (Anna Gunn) whose teenage daughter went missing twenty years ago, and who has been working on recovering from the trauma ever since; then late on Christmas Eve, she is visited by her sister’s ex-husband Jack (Linus Roache). I’m not going to spell out what ensues after that—watch the film when you get the chance—but there are some mild spoilers ahead.
The Apology is described as a thriller by publicists, but as it’s soon to be available on Shudder, I started by asking Alison if she sees it as a horror film. “Oh absolutely,” she answered, with no hesitation. “I’m a big horror nerd and I call a lot more things ‘horror films’ than a lot of people do; to me, if something is horrifying, it is a horror film. A lot of folks call this a psychological thriller, but in my mind, that’s sort of a horror subgenre anyway, and there’s so many horror elements within it as well.”
There was one particular moment, near the start of the film, which I found especially powerful; when Jack was getting ready to seriously start talking to Darlene and moved her kitchen knives out of reach. Alison wrote the screenplay as well as directed the film, so I asked her how she went about writing that scene. “That was one that was rewritten many times,” she smiled, “trying to get the right tone. I always wanted to make these characters as rounded as possible, even though they are more verbose and articulate than I think the average bear would be in that situation, and I wanted to lean into some of those horror elements. You know, Jack has come there in his mind to do something good, but in doing so, it’s actually quite twisted. Part of it is his need to control the situation, so I really wanted him to look in that moment like you could see him thinking ‘I’m about to drop a bomb, what can I do to keep myself safe and not get into a fight?’ He really wanted to talk, not fight, but have a conversation.”
That was such a blatantly arrogant attitude! “Oh, so arrogant, right,” Alison agreed. “I did a lot of formulistic framing on purpose because I wanted the sense of Jack trying to put her in this tableau in his mind; they’re going to have tea and talk! What a violent act that is!”
I was a bit nervous about asking my next question. (“Go for it, I’m an open book.”) You can never tell if it’s going to bring a subject to tears or just raise a truly mundane answer, but I had to ask: what inspired the story? Surely not real life…“Not real life in that way,” Alison reassured me. “But in a roundabout way. I’ve said I’m a big horror nerd, always been fascinated by true crime stories as well, so I’ve always been interested in these stories of missing girls and their families. One night, I had a dream, and there was a knock on my door; a man was there, and he said, ‘I know what happened to your daughter.’ I have a daughter, but luckily, I know where she is, so it was not that personal. When I was writing, I realised I’d stayed home with my daughter for years: she’s autistic, she needed a lot of help in terms of advocacy, taking her to therapies, tracking all of this stuff, and I realised that there were ways in which I connected to those mothers. It’s light-years different, of course, but there are parallels: all the paperwork you have to fill out, how polite you have to be when someone’s being insensitive and sensationalist, talking about your little one. And so over time, I realised that was turning into a metaphor for what it’s like to be there for your child, fight for your child, and also have your own voice.
“The process in making the film was quite overwhelming, going from being a DIY short filmmaker and writing scripts in my own time to having a hundred people on the set, incredible actors and artists and producers; they all want to know what I think, what story I want to tell. It was so fantastic and difficult in that way because it was overwhelming; not like I couldn’t function or anything, but the feeling that ‘wow, I’m really growing,’ and I wanted Anna’s character to feel that way too because she was going from a place of despair to empowerment; but I didn’t want it to be in a cheesy way, but to feel hard won, because I think that’s how it actually does feel when you have that kind of change for yourself.”
That certainly rang true with what I saw in the film. I asked Alison as a filmmaker, a writer, and a parent, whether making The Apology had been a cathartic process. “Absolutely,” she said, “cathartic in so many ways. Realising that it was OK to make room for myself, make room for my voice in such a way that I could hopefully be helpful to other mothers, other women. For example, I’m so excited about Jeanne Dielman being at the top of the Sight and Sound list, not just because I love that film, but because that film is looking at mothers, and looking at women’s work, turning the camera on it and making us focus on it. The whole process of making the film has really emboldened me and made me feel I can share that voice with folks. What I’m fascinated with is interesting to others and a universal fascination as well.”
Company X, the production company behind The Apology, is female-run; I asked Alison whether that had an impact on the film. “Oh, a hundred percent,” she said. “It was so wonderful; we are all mothers, and Stacy Jorgensen, one of the producers, is an old friend of mine: we used to make short films together. I brought her the script and said, ‘Do you know anyone I can send this to? I really need to make this film, make something, I’m losing my mind.’ And she read it and said, ‘I want to make it.’ It was like a fairy tale, even literally: it happened right before Christmas. When the company said yes, I was literally at the airport, picking my mother up for Christmas. Kim Sherman was my main creative partner on it, and she would constantly say, ‘It’s OK, whatever you want to say with this film is OK; we don’t need it to be a typical thriller, or hit these beats; what’s interesting to you?’ It was a moving experience in that way. I’m proud to say we got the ReFrame stamp with so many women on this film and having so many women involved was very empowering.”
As I’m sure anyone who watches The Apology will be keen to find out, I asked Alison what she’s working on next. “I’m writing a bunch of scripts and trying to decide which one I want to do,” she said. “There’s a haunted house story, which is a little bit more on the heavy side; then there’s a slasher comedy… I like to write things with a little real-life levity thrown in. So, we’ll see!”
The Apology will be in theaters and streaming simultaneously on Shudder and AMC+ on December 16th.