Interview: Mark Renshaw + Christopher Carson Emmons
Chris, as the director, you brought forth a patient yet striking visual narrative with this short film. How were you able to achieve the vision you sought with the numerous effects shots and other stylistic challenges that the film required?
The team tried to achieve many unconventional things with this project, it is essentially a silent film from the point of view of an unreliable narrator (due to his alcoholism we see some things that are only in his mind) and is also a mental health and addiction awareness piece masquerading as a horror/thriller film.
I felt that showing literal manifestations of the main character’s inner demons throughout would help communicate why as an addict he consciously makes the wrong decision time and time again. The temptress character at his office is a living manifestation of the addict’s impulse to do the wrong thing while being aware it’s wrong, perhaps seeking ultimately punishment and intervention from external forces before the darkness inside completely consumes.
I also wanted the viewer to experience what a day in the life of this man was like from his point of view, in an effort to hopefully help them empathize with what otherwise may have been a deeply unsympathetic character. To me, the core issue of the character was a lack of self-love, which caused him to lash out at loved ones because he didn’t feel he deserved them and he simultaneously punished and medicated himself constantly for this with alcohol.
We tried with the visuals to thematically imbue a sense of not trusting the world around the lead character or the character himself early on. Even the water bottle he puts clear alcohol in is misleading, but alcoholics viewing the film would know that there are many ways such as this to disguise addiction. With the sound, we tried to really illustrate the decay inside this man physically and spiritually. Every time he takes a drink of alcohol, you hear the sound of his insides burning. The music is really the dialogue, which communicates most of the emotion throughout the journey.
Mark, as the writer and Executive Producer, you drew from some personal accounts when you envisioned—and eventually scripted—“Surrender”. Please tell us about your personal journey that led to the genesis of this unique and important film.
At the time of writing this, I’m three years, nine months and two days sober; not that I’m counting or anything!
I was a functioning alcoholic. I had a successful career, a fantastic family and a lovely home. At face value my life was perfect. I seemed like a happy, normal guy.
Inside I was dying.
Physically, mentally and spiritually, I was a wreck. I couldn’t cope with the real world, so I started to rely on something which took me out of my anxiety and into my own version of reality. The only thing keeping me going was the promise of that bottle at the end of each day. It became my solution to everything.
Eventually I had my rock bottom, I reached my jumping off place. To quote from Pulp Fiction, “I had what alcoholics describe as a moment of clarity.” I admitted defeat, reached out for help and began my recovery.
When I wrote “Surrender”, I wanted to encapsulate how it feels to exist as a functioning alcoholic. I wanted to show how different they are from the stereotypical, drunken tramp-like figure most people imagine when they think of an alcoholic. My goal was to highlight how ordinary they appear at face value, as well as how deceptive and manipulative they can be.
The main character, Dave, isn’t me, but he does represent key elements of my battle with the booze. “Surrender” also drew on many shared experiences I’ve heard from alcoholics over the past few years.
However, I wanted to avoid a potentially dull narrative were we simply observe a character drink heavily and wind up in trouble. I initially wrote about a guy who existed in a completely isolated world when he was sober. The only way he could cross into the ‘real world’ and interact with people was to take a drink. This would allow him to operate normally for a while but he would eventually spin out of control and wind up back in the ’empty zone’ when he woke up.
After reading this script, Chris suggested that I try a more horror-based approach, in which we could see his fears, anxieties and all his inner demons materialized. I loved this idea. And thus, “Surrender” was born.
What do you hope audiences leave with after viewing “Surrender”?
Chris: My hope with this film is that people take a moment to question what the differences are between someone’s surface demeanor and their inner lives. What is the person who publicly seems happy all the time really thinking and what does this temperament do to their soul? What are the depths of compassion the person you deem awful or irredeemable is actually capable of?
Functioning alcoholics are often masterful at seeming like they have it all together, which makes them incredibly difficult to diagnose let alone get to seek treatment. It is an internal struggle that I think deserves examination and awareness.
The film unapologetically presents an addict who is self-destructive in all aspects of his life on his road to rock bottom. When presented with the concept of rehabilitation by his wife, we end the film on his response, which is simply “How?” This is one of the most important questions we should all be addressing about addiction, and it is my hope that the film ultimately contributes to that dialogue.
Mark: This may seem strange but I would like viewers to have a strange taste in their mouth when they watch “Surrender”. I want them to be hooked into Dave’s journey but be slightly uncomfortable about the ride.
Dave represents the ‘Yet Factor.’ I drink a bit too much, but not during the day…yet. I drink but at least I’ve not lost my job…yet. Well, I’ve passed out a few times but I’ve never woken up in a strange place…yet. Etc.
My hope is that anyone struggling with addiction, both personally or through someone they know, will identity with Dave’s struggle. When they get to the end of “Surrender”, I want them to realize that no matter how far down the ladder they may have fallen, they can always climb back up. I also hope that they are as curious as Dave as to how this can be accomplished and seek the help to do so.