Directed and co-written by transgender filmmaker M.J. Bassett, the entertaining action thriller “Rogue” opens with an exciting 20-minute sequence. Samantha O’Hara (Megan Fox) leads a group of mercenary soldiers — including Joey (Philip Winchester), Bo (Kenneth Fok), and Pata (Sisanda Henna), a Maasai guide — on a mission to extract several young girls being held captive by Zalaam (Adam Deacon) in South Africa. But saving the girls is only the beginning of their adventure. Holed up in an abandoned house, waiting for rescue, the team is without ammunition or power, and being stalked by a hungry lioness. The action comes to a head when Zalaam and his crew turn up to take the young girls back and all hell breaks loose.
“Rogue” may have an “And Then There Were None” feel to it as the lions dispatch the humans at every opportunity. (One killing is strikingly filmed in night vision). But Basset has an agenda— to address issues of “lion farms” and the importance of wildlife conservation.
M.J. Bassett cooks up an action/ horror/ character study film
In a recent Zoom interview, she discussed her new film, “Rogue.”
GARY M. KRAMER: The extraction sequence is really exciting. What can you say about creating a rollercoaster experience for the viewer? Because the tension doesn’t end once the characters wait to be rescued; they have to fight off lions that attack!
M.J. BASSETT: The movie is designed as a machine. The extraction sequence is the first act — the team going in, trying to rescue these abducted girls, it goes wrong, they go on the run, and they have to escape the bad guys. I wanted to be inside the experience of that extraction — handheld camera, right up close and personal in the shooting. There is an escalating structure. I have to build obstacles every step of the way. They escape and think they have a respite, but then you realize there’s another problem, the lioness. We allow the audience to go from an action movie to a horror movie to a character piece.
Pata, the Maasai guide, talks about being co-opted into a belief system and a society he didn’t have a choice in. Zalaam reveals his own country didn’t want him. Then you have Bo’s speech about what we are doing to the wild animals in the world for traditional medicine.
KRAMER: I like the way the film empowers women, from Megan Fox as team leader, to the kidnapped girls, Asilia [Jessica Sutton] and Tessa [Isabel Bassett, co-writer with M.J.], deciding to fight back. Is there a feminist statement here?
BASSETT: Writing the script, I knew I wanted a female lead to play Sam. The villain was female — she’s a lioness, who are the real killers. Sam buried her femininity and maternal sense to exist in a largely male world of being a soldier. For Sam, her journey was to be a complete badass and still be a complete woman. I’m still exploring my femininity and figuring out what it means to be a tough woman in a man’s world. It’s not saying it is a feminist movie, because it doesn’t wear it on its sleeve, but it does allow a woman to exist in a non-sexualized way. Sam has no love interest, no sexy costumes, and she’s not objectified. She’s just a person doing a job.
KRAMER: I appreciated the homoerotic bonding between Joey and Bo. Did you have an intention to queer the film up?
BASSETT: Joey is bisexual. It’s just a throwaway line because I wanted it to be inconsequential. I want to tell a trans story at some point, but it won’t be a “Brokeback Mountain,” because there are plenty of filmmakers that can tell those stories I don’t know how to. But I can blow shit up and tell you a trans story in the middle of the explosions. I have no issues whatsoever with placing a queer narrative within a genre film because I think they belong there as much as they belong in any straight drama. I’ve known Philip Winchester a very long time and he is super alpha straight dude. It was funny to me to have Joey as an all-comers dude; he’s driven by his appetites rather than anything to do with gender. There’s a love between him and Bo.
KRAMER: What prompted you to address the issue of lion farms in “Rogue?”
BASSETT: There are so many issues to deal with regarding conservation. I was working in South Africa on other stuff and learned that the medicine market moved from tigers to lions. They were starting to poison lion prides. Then it moved into the notion that lions breed well in captivity. They were bred for cub tourism, and canned hunting was using them. It became a huge, legal market. It’s another aspect of how we are utilizing the natural world in a horrendous and disrespectful way. Lions are big, powerful, dangerous animals. They make a good monster for an action movie. I could get what I needed for the action but actually say something useful about them as well.
KRAMER: “Rogue” has some jump scares and bloodletting. Can you talk about your decisions about the violent content?
BASSETT: The bloodiness and the visceral nature are in keeping with the chaotic energy and violence of the world they are playing in. Because the movie goes from action to horror, there are jumps that are telegraphed, so you know they are coming, which is the delicious nature of the genre. And a few jumps are totally unexpected, I hope. If you are attacked by a lion, it is a very bloody experience. We chose to use digital lions, rather than real lions. I don’t like having animals on set or trying to get them to perform. I decided I’d rather have a digital lion as opposed to putting stress on real animals, which seems counter to the ethos of the whole movie. It was a moral and ethical choice.
KRAMER: If you were put in the situation that the characters found themselves in, how would you handle yourself?
BASSETT: They say your lead character is basically you, so [laughs]… I’m a badass. I know what I’m doing with a gun and I know what I’m doing with a lion. I think I could have made that night. I might have broken a few nails. That’s the worst thing, I break them on guns when I show them to actors. I might hand a gun to someone else to preserve my manicure.
ROGUE | Directed by M.J. Bassett | Lionsgate and Grindstone Entertainment Group | On Demand and digital beginning Aug. 28 | lionsgate.com/movies/rogue
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