Daniel Ragussis interview: Imperium, Daniel Radcliffe

Director Daniel Ragussis chats to us about making Imperium, and working with Daniel Radcliffe...

Daniel Radcliffe’s latest effort to throw off the image of a boy wizard and establish himself as a daring young actor is Imperium, an undercover thriller that sees him shave his head and infiltrate a gang of Neo-Nazis who the FBI fear may be plotting a major terror attack. As well as offering a stand-out role for Radcliffe, the film also shines a light on a very serious issue: the white supremacy movement in America.

Domestic terror is a problem that doesn’t enter the public consciousness as much as other forms of terrorism, and this is something the film wants to draw attention to. It’s a taut, exciting thriller regardless of the subject matter, but there’s a lot more being attempted here. We caught up with first time director Daniel Ragussis to talk about the extensive research he did for the movie, how he co-wrote the script with a former FBI agent (who actually was undercover in the white supremacist movement), and finding humanity in monsters.

So how did the movie come about? I presume this isn’t something you take on lightly…

Yeah, this doesn’t come out of nowhere. I had made a short film about a German World War I chemist, and my interest in WWI led me to an interest in WWII and the Nazis, and while researching that stumbled upon the white supremacist movement.

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Right away I was stunned by the size and depth of it. It was something that I wasn’t aware of and I didn’t feel people in general were aware of. And I thought this is a really important, and interesting, subject to make a movie about.

You co-wrote the film with former FBI agent Mike German, who’d been undercover with white supremacists himself. How did he get involved?

So once I became interested in the community, I started researching it. And in that research I came across Mike and his story. Immediately it felt like a great way into this story, to see it through an undercover agent’s eyes. So I tracked him down. At the time he was a Policy Council for the American Civil Liberties Union. I went down to DC to visit him, and we agreed to do a movie that would draw inspiration from his story, though we had to modernise and fictionalise things.

What sort of research were you doing?

I had weekly four hour meetings with Mike, but I was also doing all of my own research. Everything from sociological studies of the movement, to books written by people who had left the movement, to biographies of famous people in the movement, to memoirs by former FBI agents. And then of course with the white supremacists, there’s a ton of stuff online. I then workshopped with Mike to get a realistic story idea, working out how could we take all the elements and put them into a fictional story, and it grew out of that.

It is a pretty heavy, depressing subject to be immersed in. Did you find it emotionally draining to be constantly surrounded by it?

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Absolutely. There was a three or four month period where it was just research twelve hours a day, seven days a week, where all I was doing was reading this stuff. And there were times during that where I was asking “Why am I doing this movie!?! This is terrible!” But it’s not just because the worldview is so dark, and consequences it leads to are even worse. It’s that you feel the incredible sense of conviction these people have about their worldview, and you start to feel hopeless that you could ever change it. But there are people who leave the movement all the time.

There are several montages of photos and videos of real life Neo Nazis and KKK rallies in the film. What was thought behind including those?

One of the comments that I kept getting was people saying: “Does this really exist? People don’t still think that way today, do they?” So I thought would be important to some way show the authentic reality of {the white supremacists}. I came across the work of photographer Anthony Karen, who has spent several years living amongst these communities, and he is responsible for a lot of the photos in the film. I thought his work was amazing. So I incorporated his material, so that alongside the fictional representation, we also see the real world as it exists today.

The film opens with Daniel Radcliffe foiling an Islamic terrorist plot, and Toni Collette’s character is criticised by her superiors for suggesting that smuggled bomb material might come from white supremacists, when everyone else presumes it’s from Islamic extremists. Were these deliberate attempts to show how Muslim and domestic terrorists are depicted?

Absolutely. So I’d say a couple of things. The opening scene is very closely based on a real case that Mike German had pointed me to, as the sort of thing that’s going on in law enforcement. Also, Mike has often made the point that the actual number of deaths that occur in the US because of white supremacist terrorism is something like 3 to 5 times higher than from Islamic terrorism. There’s this way in which both law enforcement and the media focus almost exclusively on the Islamic threat, and don’t pay attention to the domestic threat. And that was an important point to make. If we’re going to have a dialogue about terrorism, why not make it as accurate as possible?

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One of the huge issues with this whole problem is how do we define terrorism. There can be a very selective and arbitrary designation when it comes to the word. For example, there are incidents of white supremacist violence that don’t get classified as terrorism, whereas any sort of violence from anyone with an Islamic background almost immediately gets classified as terrorism. So I think that affects the statistics, it affects the reporting, the whole lens in whichever look at things.

Here’s the thing: there are many different definitions of terrorism. The way I look at it, it’s violence that has a political intention. So if you look at it that way, any act of violence that’s committed by a group with a strong ideological purpose and intended to further that purpose is terrorism. Looking at why we call some things terrorism and not others, and making an effort to be consistent with those definitions, would be useful.

Toni Collette’s character tells Daniel Radcliffe that he has to understand them, and find common ground with them, to truly get on the inside. Do you think it’s possible to see the humanity in the white supremacist movement, as a filmmaker?

I think that on an intellectual level, they’re basically trapped within a massive conspiracy, and that’s very easy to reject. And certainly when it comes to their views on people different to them – I find those views repulsive and abhorrent. However you do try to understand them as people, and people who have been victimised, who feel like they have been excluded in life, who feel like the world is working against them. Those kinds of feelings are something that a lot of us can relate to from time to time in our lives. That’s how you find your way in.

(Mild spoiler after the image)

One of the most interesting figures in the film is the right-wing radio host, who initially appears to be part of the plot, but is revealed to actually just be saying what he says to make money off gullible white supremacists. Was that based on a real person?

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Absolutely. A big issue in the movement is people who are seen as opportunists, careerist, and cynically taking advantage of it to make money out of it – which probably exists in all ideological movements. For example, it was a charge that was laid against William Pierce, the author of The Turner Diaries [a racist novel revered amongst the far right that is referenced frequently in the film]. There was some episode where the book became available online for free, and Pierce instigated a lawsuit, saying if you’re gonna read it, you gotta pay for it. And everyone in the movement said he was just trying to make money out of it. That is a very real issue and there were several figures that I based that character on, that have been held up as examples of profiteering.

I was wondering if you’ve seen Green Room yet, which came out earlier this year and is also about Neo-Nazis?

I haven’t yet, I’m dying to! I loved Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film [Blue Ruin]. The problem with making a movie is that you see no other movies!

The film definitely draws comparisons with other undercover movies like Donnie Brasco. Were there any films that were an influence on you?

I watch all the ones that you named, and I tried to watch basically every undercover film that I could get my hands on. There wasn’t one in particular that influenced me, I just think it’s important, that when you’re making a film about a topic, to know what body of work about that topic that already exists. It was not only all the undercover films, there were all the films about the white supremacist community, because you want to be conscious of that, and hopefully do something that’s a little different.

Finally, have you had any reaction from white supremacists to the film?

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There’s certainly a ton of online reactions. Go to Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or YouTube or any public site and you’ll see tons of comments violently reacting against the film. There’s even reactions on some of their own websites and communities. I’ve seen all that. Unfortunately it’s depressed some of the user ratings for the film! But think that they’re entitled to have a reaction just as anybody else is. And if that promotes some sort of dialogue or conversation, then so much the better.

Daniel Ragussis, thank you very much.

Imperium is in UK cinemas right now.