An exploration of power and consequences, The Unhealer tells the story of a bullied teenager who gains a supernatural power that reflects violence directly back on his attacker. Poetic justice spirals into brutal revenge as Kelly (Elijah Nelson) and his bullies clash in increasingly vicious circumstances.
The film explores how power corrupts, injustice is upheld and how indigenous cultures are exploited for personal greed.
We spoke to director Martin Guigui, writer Shawn Harris, producer Cristi Harris and actors Elijah Nelson, Adam Beach, Kayla Carlson, Adam Beach and Branscombe Richmond ahead of the film’s UK premiere at Grimmfest 2020.
Kirstie: Tell us about your film The Unhealer.
Martin Guigui: The best way to describe the movie is that it is The Unhealer.
Cristi Harris: It is a fun independent film that we had a blast doing. It’s definitely something different, something people haven’t seen. It talks about bullying and a young man’s eating disorder called Pica, and how, through a miraculous healing power, he’s able to take on his bullies and start getting some revenge. It’s a delightful, in my opinion, revenge story and it really keeps you guessing the entire way. It really makes you question your own alliances to each character as the story goes on. Hopefully everybody will enjoy it at our UK premiere, so we’re really excited to be at Grimmfest.
Kirstie: What inspired you to create a supernatural revenge story?
Martin Guigui: For me, it was a combination of the unique element of the reverse pain, the anti-bully theme, the old adage of whatever seeds you plant then that’s what you’ll sow. There’s a love story and entertaining characters. When the screenplay was presented to me, it hit all the marks that I look for. It had originality to it and it had enough of a sense of humour for it to be really entertaining but still carry some gravitas. It had a timeless aspect to it as well.
Adam Beach: When I was invited into the film, I liked the idea of how they were showing the exploitation of indigenous medicines. We live in a time now where people are still doing that same thing. With respect to those teachings, there’s a law and order in what they do, and if you don’t follow it there are going to be mishaps. I hope that when people see this they can compare it to what people are doing now in terms of manipulating indigenous knowledge for their own financial benefit.
Kayla Carlson: What drew me was the aspect of reversing things that happen to you. It reflects the need to treat others the way you want to be treated. You see how Kelly starts off using the power for good, but then he lets it get to him and obviously ends up using it for not so good things. It creates a dilemma of “how far is too far?”. When are you doing things for revenge and when are you doing them for justice?
Cristi Harris: I was going to piggyback off what Adam said. When it came to the supernatural element and the mystical Native American powers, we talked to Adam and we had consultants come on too to make sure we were honouring the traditions and the medicine and the culture. I think that hopefully comes across in the film. I think it’s quite different from what you may see in other films.
Kirstie: Where did the concept of karma as a superpower come from?
Shawn Harris: My writing partner was doing some research while we were looking for another script to develop. We wanted to go into the horror genre. We came across some articles we thought were interesting. One was about Pica and another one was about a little girl that couldn’t feel any pain. His mind just sort of blew that up into this story that we developed over the years. I love the idea that if you do something to somebody you feel the pain, because we don’t have that in our society.
Kirstie: What was your trick to constructing a realistic community, using archetypes without detracting from the uniqueness of the characters?
Shawn Harris: I can tell you that was down to casting. We got really good actors. We spent a lot of time making sure that the people we got could really handle the parts, and they did a fantastic job. That’s a lot of the work.
Cristi Harris: I think the writing was fantastic. Of course, we all know that’s my sibling Shawn. When we had Martin and Shawn on board, we went through lots of different versions of the story and finally came up with one. Martin brought his magic and his vision and his ideas to what Shawn and Kevin put on the page. We were lucky enough to get the most incredible cast members. Every single one of them knocked it out of the park. So many of them brought so much more than what we ever imagined was possible. I know everybody has seen me go “oh my gosh, that’s the moment!” when we were watching on the monitors. I just know they can see it after the take.
Kirstie: The film explores how people react to having sudden powers. What was your trick to creating a character that pushes moral boundaries, while keeping viewers hooked on his story?
Elijah Nelson: For me as Kelly, what I loved about him as a character was that he starts out as a good guy. I love the way Shawn and everyone creatively involved crafted this character in a way that made you understand every choice he makes. You’re with him, you’re empathetic and your heart bleeds for him when he gets bullied. When he gets the power, you celebrate with him, you finally see him on top. With every choice, he was just doing what he saw was right. It made sense in his mind at the time. But as it progressed, it got warped until things got out of control. As an audience, there’s a moment where you step back and think, oh no, wait, this is wrong. But you still see how he got there. I love his character.
Kirstie: What was it like playing that role when you get to the point where he leaves the audience behind morally?
Elijah Nelson: When I played him, I never saw him as a bad guy. Even at the end, when he does cross that line, he wasn’t evil per se. There was a moment where he makes choices that are wrong, but the world and his bullies and his trauma have pushed him there. He decides that this has to be done and barrels forward. I don’t want to spoil it, but one of my favourite scenes in the movie is one with Adam and Kayla in this football field in the aftermath of all the craziness that happens. It’s an awakening for him. I love the way the character gets tested, and the way his view of the world gets flipped and then flipped again. It was a blast to play.
Kirstie: That scene has some great special effects. For most of the film, the effects are subtle, then towards the end it gets more graphic and explosive. How did you go about creating those effects?
Kayla Carlson: Yeah, there was a bit where Elijah was just walking around, like at the craft service table, with a realistic drill hanging out of his knee!
Elijah Nelson: The team behind it did an amazing job. Most of it was practical. The building you saw get blown up was real. There was actually a trailer that someone in Arizona let us blow up.
Shawn Harris: We used a lot of practical effects to get that realism. With the explosion, we really did blow it up but I did add some fire to make it more intense. You can’t really have that kind of fire, especially in the summertime in Arizona – you’ll burn up the whole country!
Martin Guigui: We were really trying to maintain the sense of realism on film. There’s a fine line there. There’s a happy balance for the talent to be able to carry on in the scene to bring an authenticity to each sequence. You have to hit that balance between how much you have on set and how much we have to imagine to keep things free creatively. It needs to be entertaining but also grounded in realism, so you can hold onto the audience’s emotional beats for three whole acts. I remember we talked, in the various versions of the screenplay, about how early we were going to introduce the reverse pain. Once that’s done, the audience has to stay with you. I think the overall identifiable component is that early on we feel an emotional connection with Kelly. As soon as they first call him “trash boy” and they stuff him in the garbage pail, we get it. In that first sequence, we find out everything we need to know, the relationships, who they are, and we’re there in the story. The VFX team, the cinematography team, especially in post-production – Shawn, shout out to them.
Shawn Harris: Lampion Pictures out of Hungary. They did a very expensive job for our very low budget. And we had a great make-up artist. All the face stuff except for the very end is practical. I love to have practical effects. It gives you that throwback to the ‘80s movies.
Kayla Carlson: As an actor too, it’s really fun to play with that stuff. You don’t have to pretend or act it out, it’s really there. It’s fun to play with those elements and also to see everybody walking around afterwards still with wounds, going to the drive-through looking all messed up.
Martin Guigui: There were performances every day that were inspired, and it became contagious. One of my favourite scenes is when Lance Henrisken, who plays Pflueger, and Branscombe, who plays Red Elk, are having a conversation. It grounds the movie completely, no matter what you’ve seen or what visual effects there have been. You realise that this is a very deep personal matter that has history. The Native American powers have history. It didn’t come out of left field like poof, there’s the magic. It has a history that also takes us into future generations. It touches upon those values that even now people are re-evaluating.
Kirstie: What do you hope people will take away from your film?
Branscombe Richmond: For me personally, I hope that people take away the understanding of how injustices happen. As Guigui said, power is a very interesting fact of our lives. It’s a selfish entity. It has been happening in Native American country for so many years, and the narrative really hasn’t changed. I hope – in a nice, understanding way – that people have an opportunity to digest those problems. In the end, we’re all dealing with the same power imbalances. Not just in America, but in all indigenous cultures.
Martin Guigui: Both Branscombe and Adam were incredibly valuable and influential, not just because of their brilliant talent, but because they brought a lot of their experience and knowledge to the screenplay and the process. We would have all these conversations between scenes. Adam and I chatted for hours. They would say “wait, you can’t use those words – use these ones”. Adam brought us the chant at the end of the film, if I remember correctly.
Adam Beach: Yeah, I got it from a friend of mine who is a medicine man. I said that we needed a song that brings truth to the experience. A lot of the ceremonies that the Navajo use are secretive and kept safe and used under proper conditions. He allowed us to use a portion of a particular song that resembles a ceremony that we go through in the film. It’s very realistic. It’s not one hundred per cent of the ceremony, but it’s enough to bring the realism and to let people know that we weren’t just making things up. A lot films with an indigenous taste have romanticism involved about who we are and our so called “hocus pocus”. There’s a truth to all of it, it’s just that you have to go to the source and think about what you can do to make it realistic. It’s there, but not a lot people go out to reach for it or get the language or hire indigenous people. It boggles my mind that they still want to use us but don’t really need us. Working on this film, you could tell that the red carpet was rolled out. We felt respected. You can see the results on film.
Kirstie: What are your hopes and plans for the film going forward?
Cristi Harris: Obviously, as filmmakers and artists, we all want to see it on the big screen. With the pandemic, it hurt opening up in theatres. We’re working on a few things right now that will make us all very happy, but until they’re confirmed we can’t talk about it. I hope people respond to it the way people have so far, with screenings and Grimmfest and the cast and crew. I can see it having such legs for everybody. There are so many different storylines and concepts woven throughout it. I hope people continue to respond to it as well as people have been so far.
Shawn Harris: First and foremost, we want people to be entertained. Part of being entertained is seeing all those levels. We hope we can make people think a little bit, especially right now in the US. We have a lot of problems with people not treating each other well at all. It’s scary. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we made a difference?
Adam Beach: And in society we all have responsibilities towards each other. Whether you’re a popular kid in high school or a police officer, or a coach or a friend, you have to be kind to each other. This film really explores the differences we have from each other in our cultures and how we use that responsibility. These are what we’re looking at in society right now. There are people in power and authority, and if you’re not responsible and kind, there are going to be repercussions that come with that. I’m hoping that a lot of people can get a sense of calmness in their hearts with what’s going on in the world.
Kirstie: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into this kind of work?
Cristi Harris: If you have the opportunity, do every side of the business, especially if you’re an actor. I’ve been an actress before, and I had no clue how many things were going on behind the scenes. Anybody who has an opportunity to do every single thing, take it if this is where you want to be. The relationships you create with each and every job are special and hopefully they’ll last.
Shawn Harris: You have to love it. It’s so much work. I’ve been on this now for many years – three years or maybe five since we first starting raising money. You have to love what you’re doing otherwise you’ll never make it.
Kayla Carlson: I would say perseverance, especially as an actor. You can be insanely talented but there is a lot of rejection and a lot of challenges, and if you can’t persevere through, it’s going to be a lot more difficult.
Elijah Nelson: Yeah, buckle up.
Martin Guigui: If you have an idea – it doesn’t matter when it hits you or how old you are – and for some reason you feel that that idea is part of your journey and part of your purpose, you have to write it down or grab a camera or shoot it on your iPhone. Connect with people that feel the same way you do. Whether it’s your first movie or your fiftieth movie, the process doesn’t change when you come across a great story and you feel you need to share it with the world. You have to do it. It’s part of the journey for those of us who do it, regardless of the obstacles and the hurdles. We jump out of bed to do what we do, and when you connect with good people at the right place and the right time, you make great things happen. That’s what happened here. All the cast and crew on this picture, we were all holding the same brush and painting the same picture.
Adam Beach: Getting into acting requires a lot of study. It’s not just your typical study of books and going to school, which a lot of people do. It’s observation. What’s happening in society? How do people talk to each other? A lot of people ask me “what can I do to get started as an actor?” I always tell them to study their parents, find out where they get their voice from. Why do they do what they do? It starts at home. Then you go amongst your friends and you start to emulate them. Everybody has a unique way to dress. And in films, we steal their ideas, we take their characters and their identity and we use it for ourselves. That’s who we become. So when I have to play a police officer who has to be authoritative, someone has to teach me authority and how to stand like an officer, to show authority so I don’t have to hurt you but can make you fear that I might do something bad. There’s the voice and the relationships. But an actor should love it and never stop, because it is endless.
Branscombe Richmond: Have a lot of fun with it!
Martin Guigui: And if you have good hair it helps.
Branscombe Richmond: Don’t get into this business if you think you’re going to get rich. Have fun. Do a lot of listening. Share of your heart, share of your mind, and most of all, share of your spirit.
Revenge Ride is screening at Grimmfest 2020 from 7-11 October.