'The Perfection' Team on Netflix Thriller's Timely Twist: "It's About Empowerment and Strength"

The Perfection Production Still 5 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix
Stars Allison Williams and Logan Browning and writer-director-producer Richard Shepard talk about the making of the horror movie, which features shifting perspectives as characters' true motivations are gradually revealed.

[The following story contains spoilers from The Perfection.]

Netflix's twist-filled horror movie The Perfection began with a simple, but universal pitch of the terror of getting sick in a foreign country.

Writer-director-producer Richard Shepard shared with co-writers Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder the "seedling of an idea," involving a bus sequence.

"He basically came to us and said one of my biggest fears is being in a foreign country and getting gravely ill on a bus," Charmelo told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of a red carpet screening of the film in New York, with both Charmelo and Snyder sharing that they could relate.

"You're in a country where you don't speak the language and you feel really ill and you don't have access to medical care," Charmelo added, "And in this environment where xenophobia is rampant, it certainly felt zeitgeist-y."

That bus scene, where accomplished cellist Lizzie (Logan Browning) becomes violently sick while traveling to a remote part of China with fellow cellist Charlotte (Allison Williams), unfolds early in the movie and is one of the few extended scenes shown in the trailer.

But after seeing Lizzie take extreme measures to rid herself of an apparent flesh-crawling virus, the film literally rewinds and viewers watch the sequence unfold from a different perspective to get a fuller picture. This process takes place again later as viewers learn more about the true motivations of and trauma experienced by Charlotte and Lizzie. It's ultimately revealed that their music teacher, Anton (Steven Weber), sexually abused Charlotte (and presumably Lizzie and his other students), and Charlotte's trying to stop his predatory behavior.

The final twists give the film a timeliness amid the ongoing #MeToo movement, something that Charmelo, Snyder and producer Stacey Reiss said they leaned into when they were making the movie.

"I think it's a film about empowerment. When we were breaking the film, it was truly the backdrop, I believe it was the first Harvey Weinstein story had just broken, and when we were writing this, we honestly felt compelled to finish it quickly because we knew we had to get it out there based on what was happening out in the real world," Charmelo said. "And it really is, I think, just a reflection of the times."

Writing the film as the Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal was unfolding, Snyder said, "I think it really fueled us to tell a really strong story where our characters overcame adversity, they fought back. I think people have been talking for the past two years about trying to find the right #MeToo story and that wasn't how this began but it evolved into that. It makes you uncomfortable at times. It makes you emotional. I think you're scared, and I think by the end you feel their strength and you think, 'I won't let this happen again.'"

Reiss, who produced her first narrative film with The Perfection, added, "I think this movie is very socially relevant. As a woman and a woman who's been working in this industry for many years, there are many times that I'm like, 'Hell yes!' This is a fierce movie with two female leads and I think people are going to root for them along the way. There's a scene in the movie where I think every woman is going to put a different face on a certain character."

Alaina Huffman, who plays Anton's right-hand woman Paloma, said of the film, "I just think it's really interesting timing wise with the whole #MeToo movement and the abuse cycle not only in Hollywood but I think in our society, so I think it's really empowering — two female lead characters and protagonists that are taking their power back. It's a little graphic and gory, but it's also very fitting with this movement."

As for how much Paloma knows of what's going on between Anton and his students, Huffman said her character has a "devious side."

"And you know that saying, 'hurt people hurt people'? That sums up, I think, the whole situation," she said.

Browning told THR that she felt Lizzie and Charlotte's similar pasts helped forge their bond.

While Williams wouldn't discuss the film's #MeToo moment before it was released, she did offer, "I think that power dynamics have always been complicated and are particularly complicated in any kind of student-teacher scenario, and in one where someone holds all the power, leaving a complete vacuum, that's where a lot of damage gets done."

Shepard similarly was reluctant to give too much away but hoped viewers would discuss the issues raised by the film.

"I hope they have a really good time and I hope they're scared and also freaked out and surprised and then I hope that they talk about it afterwards because it's a lot to take in," he said. "In the guise of what is a genre movie, there is a deeper story, which I think is what people are looking for now, like Get Out, which also had a deeper story and it resonated with people because they got their cake and ate it too. They got a really entertaining movie that was about something, and I think that is what people are looking for."

While this is Williams' first film since her role in Jordan Peele's race-based horror movie, she wasn't hesitant about making another foray into the genre.

"I was just curious that these were the two scripts that appealed to me the most in a long time because it's not a genre that I grew up watching, so it's not like I spent my whole career working toward the opportunity to be in a psychological thriller — it's just reading all of these scripts, this is a genre that just kept speaking to me because the characters are so meaty and they're so interesting and layered and the movie takes its time with them and lets them sink in and doesn't rush the process of developing them, so I just found that very, very appealing," Williams said. "They sort of incorporate other themes into them in ways that ideally changes the conversation and I find that amazing."

Williams and Shepard's bond from working together on Girls, where Shepard directed a number of episodes, including "The Panic in Central Park," which focused on Williams' Marnie character, also played a key role in the two reteaming on The Perfection. Williams said she and Shepard had talked about doing a movie together before he sent her a text telling her he had an "insane" script for her.

"I thought if Richard thinks it's insane and he thinks I'm going to think it's insane, it's definitely going to be wild," Williams said. After reading it, she was in: "The whole thing just sunk its teeth into me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I couldn't put it down."

And while Shepard appreciated the familiarity of reteaming with Williams and others, like Weber, whom he'd worked with before, he also valued Williams' strong, female voice.

"I also wanted Allison because she's so smart and she asks a lot of questions and as a 54-year-old white man, I wanted to have two young actors in the movie who were going to question me all the way through, especially since there are questions about sexual politics and violence," he said. "I wanted to make sure I was on the right side of the argument, so that was another reason why I hired Allison because she's not a shrinking violet when it comes to speaking the truth."

But ultimately Shepard said he wanted to "tell a story that had a lot of twists and turns that was unexpected. I think we have so many movies that you kind of know what's going to happen so I was trying to do something that was twisted and weird and out there."

And it was those twists that attracted the cast to the project as well, as Browning explained.

"I loved that I thought I knew what I was getting into when I first read it and I enjoyed that film that I thought it was in the first 20 pages of it and then immediately it takes a sharp left turn and turns into this psychological thriller, more horror than I anticipated and it's constantly almost switching genres on its head at every turn," she said. "Above that I loved the character — I loved her strength. I loved her devotion to the music, and I loved that she had so many places to go and her character was developed as she was developing and discovering things about her past that she didn't really even recognize in the beginning of the film."

As for why he literally rewound the footage in the film, Shepard said, "It's sort of fun to see a scene from a different point of view, and the movie is sort of built on the idea that you think you're watching one thing but you're watching something else. We didn't want to reveal everything until it was the right moment, so hopefully audiences would stay surprised from the beginning to the end."