“For the extreme moments I just went with what felt most intense and upsetting to me”
After tearing a hole in eyeballs at the UK premiere, The Sadness is back to traumatise audiences with its blend of satire and ultra-violence at next month’s Grimmfest. We sat down with director Rob Jabbaz to talk about his zeitgeist baiting pandemic horror, the boundaries of taste and the gender dynamics of extremity...
The opening scenes of The Sadness see a pandemic in full-swing, complete with people being sceptical of how serious it is. How did the real world experience of Covid over the last 18 months affect the crafting of those early moments?
Absolutely. All of those little conversations and points of view were just things that people were saying to me in the early days of the Covid19 pandemic. I tend to note conversations that I have and use them later in stories… Stuff like that is always better than any fabricated dialogue I could come up with on my own.
There’s a really interesting tone throughout that walks the line between schlocky gore, satirical comedy and being deeply disturbing. How difficult was it to combine those disparate elements?
I’m glad to hear you say that, because this kind of tonal balance was something I was trying very hard to maintain throughout the film. Ironically, I think the meanest and most upsetting moments of the film are the instances during which I was trying to show the most responsibility to the material and to the audience. In those scenes, I wasn’t trying to treat violence as a punchline. I was trying to represent violence and cruelty in a way that was truthful to the way I see it… And I see it as one of the most terrible things imaginable.
There are other scenes where I feel like the seriousness of tone is still present, but the gory violence is clearly exaggerated. In those moments I was trying to give a bit of a wink to horror fans and let them know that they need not feel too guilty if they are sitting in the cinema with a big grin on their face.
I guess ultimately the strength of performances, the atmosphere created by the art direction and the music, and the severity of what’s at stake is what helps bind together the disparate tones.
The central couple of Kat (Regina) and Jim (Berant Zhu) anchors all the surrounding mayhem in a relationship that feels very real. Can you talk about the process of achieving that chemistry?
I’m not entirely sure why that worked out so well. They’re just a couple of cute kids that sort of look good standing next to one another. They went through some basic stunt-training together. Also, they participated in some tough sessions with a demanding acting coach. This helped them to access some pretty intense emotions that we were able to catch on screen. Maybe experiencing those things together helped them form a bond… But I think I just got lucky with them.
Some of the most distressing moments deal with gendered violence, where everyday male privilege suddenly mutates into a more explicit and violent version of itself. As a male director, was tackling patriarchal violence important to you?
I guess the only answer that I can give to that is that I wanted the more extreme moments in The Sadness to feel very intense and upsetting. So, I just went with what felt the most intense and upsetting to me.
In cinema, I personally find violence toward women much harder to bear than violence toward men. I supposed this is a pretty traditionalist perspective that is rooted in patriarchal sensibilities… but, for better or worse, that’s the way I feel. I simply followed my own intuition toward what made me feel the most uncomfortable but tried to handle it as responsibly as I could.
The film will definitely be too much for some viewers. Were there ever moments where you wondered if you were going too far? Or anything that you considered including but decided to cut out?
I don’t think the film goes too far. To me, it feels like it gets very close to being in bad taste but never crosses the line. Based on my own judgement, I believe it’s on the right side of being okay. However, I’m sure there will be people who disagree.
We released a version in Taiwan that had about 6 more seconds than the cut we’ve been showing to international festivals. The newer version is the official director’s cut, and I feel like removing those 6 seconds was a good idea. Basically, it just showed a little more of a particularly nasty scene of someone doing something to someone in the street. It was suggested by our distributor that it get trimmed and I ended up agreeing… I think the film works better the way it is now.
What’s next for you?
I’d really like to make a monster movie.
The Sadness will be screening at Grimmfest on 8th and 9th October 2021. Tickets are available here.