The opening scene features a beheading, while the final 10 minutes features someone’s eyeball getting plucked out of their socket. Minions: The Rise of Gru, this is not.
The dark and twisted horror-thriller The Retaliators stars Michael Lombardi—most famous as firefighter Mike Silletti on all seven seasons of FX’s Rescue Me—as John Bishop, an upstanding small-town pastor who preaches turning the other cheek. That is, until he embarks on a vigilante mission into the criminal underworld to avenge his teenage daughter’s murder.
Directed by Samuel Gonzalez Jr. and Bridget Smith, the Better Noise Films production played the film festival circuit a full year ago in autumn 2021. It makes its theatrical debut exclusively in cinemas this week—on Wednesday, September 14—courtesy of event cinema distributor CineLife Entertainment.
Better Noise Entertainment consists of a film division that produced the movie, plus a music division focusing on hard rock acts, several of which either cameo in the film or contributed to the soundtrack. Allen Kovac is the company’s CEO and founder.
Boxoffice PRO interviewed Lombardi and Kovac together about the film’s complicated journey to the screen, its intense gore, its larger themes, and even its cameo from rock legend and tabloid fixture Tommy Lee.
The Retaliators is coming out exclusively in cinemas. Why was that important to you?
Kovac: One of the films I was a producer on was [Netflix’s 2019 Mötley Crüe biopic] The Dirt. Mötley Crüe’s music streaming increased 400% with the film. Last week, they just finished a summer stadium tour. They had never done stadiums. And they just sold their catalog. [BMG bought all the band’s songs last November for a reported $150 million.] After my experience with Netflix, which was terrific, I thought the only thing we missed was the theater experience. So we chose to launch in theaters around the world.
Where can you hear the sound better than a theater? The score itself is the Stranger Things folks [Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein]. If you really want to get across the music, and the experience of the music with film, the theater is the best place to do it.
Lombardi: As a filmmaker, we’re competing against a lot of big dogs here: Disney, Marvel. I think this film, as Allen said, has an incredible soundtrack. It has a nice throwback feel to all those wonderful films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s horror, but with story. I think it’s entertaining. We want to take the audience on a roller coaster ride. Hopefully, they leave thinking about some topics in it.
It’s not mainstream. Maybe it’s not for everybody. But any good movie isn’t for everybody, in my opinion. I think it takes a lot of guts to believe in something from day one, and a commitment to excellence to bring it all the way across the finish line and put it in theaters, where you believed it should live from the first place.
When you say this film “is not for everybody,” that’s an understatement. Do you have a family member or friend, maybe someone who’s easily grossed out by the sight of blood, who can’t watch this movie even though you’ve been talking to them about it for the last several years?
Kovac: My wife was in the Royal Ballet. She now choreographs opera and ballet, so she really understands story. What was important to me, my goal when we obtained the screenplay, was to execute the story. The story is what we were buying. She just freaked out at me at the end of the film, and said to me, “This is going to ruin your legacy!” But she is coming to the [New York City premiere] screening because she’s since been able to reconcile that horror and rock have always been around, since Alice Cooper and even before.
The idea of doing something in that genre but making it story-led—with actors from Ozark, Game of Thrones, Rescue Me—all these actors index with our rock artists. First responders love rock music. I said to her, “You don’t like Ozark, but a lot of people do.” She’s come around to it now, from that point of view. The art of making a horror film with a story, as opposed to trying to compare this to a drama. It’s not. It’s a horror film that’s also a thriller.
Lombardi: If I were explaining this movie to someone who maybe didn’t appreciate blood, Tarantino is certainly an influence here. By mentioning the master’s name, I’m certainly not comparing! But what I am saying, it does have a Tarantino-ish third act that maybe doesn’t take itself too seriously. But that’s the fine line that we walk with this film.
I think I would touch upon the topics of morality, religion, justice. Revenge is a primal instinct that we all have. It’s as old as cavemen. If the saber-toothed tiger attacks the children, the cavemen go out and hunt the saber-toothed tiger. That’s the premise. It’s been told a thousand times, but I think it’s a little different here, because it’s told through a man of the cloth.
And I also think people should know that this was inspired by a real story. Long story short, the writers’ [brothers Darren Geare and Jeff Allen Geare, with their first produced screenplay] younger sister was brutally attacked and they wrote this as a form of therapy. The family went through a lot, trials, and one of the brothers said to the other, “Imagine if you could have a minute alone with this guy [the assailant].” And they started to write this script.
So it’s actually based on something I think a lot of people could relate to, but we have some “movie stuff” in there as well, which is in the genre. Allen and I really liked this story, but making it a roller coaster, fun, entertaining movie as well.
That “movie stuff” includes a lot of gore—as in, a whole lot. There’s even a scene where a guy gets ground through a wood chipper. What was the craziest scene to pull off on the actual set?
Lombardi: The wood chipper is an Easter egg and a nod to Fargo, because we had to throw a little of that in. All of the effects are practical. We’re very happy about that. There’s no CGI. “The eyeball” happens to be one of my favorite effects. To me, it seems real.
There were a lot of stunts on this. Our stunt coordinator, who was also the stunt coordinator and technical advisor on Rescue Me, he was in the Navy. His name is Norman Douglass. So all those fight scenes, we had him.
Tommy Lee cameos as a strip club DJ. How did he get into character as a hard-partying hedonist? That must have been so hard for him.
Kovac: It didn’t take a lot of work. [Laughs.] He actually moonlights as a DJ when he’s not in Mötley Crüe. If you’re an actor, you’re serving the same function as someone who’s on stage: the lead vocalist, or in Tommy’s case, he’s a showman drummer. So they’re already actors. That’s why I was so confident they could all pull off their parts. They do it every night when they’re touring, they do it every time they make a music video.
Lombardi: All the musicians, we sat down with them all before they got to set. We talked about their characters and their parts. We were very careful in the way we wrote them in and cast them, because we wanted it to be a film first. So if you weren’t a huge fan of Papa Roach, you would just think Jacoby Shaddiz was an awesome actor. I think they all came through, they all brought in, they all knew their characters, their objectives. It was the same for Tommy’s cameo. These are all Allen’s guys. We had access.
Is it true that you were shooting in March 2020, the month that everything changed?
Kovac: We were shut down in New Jersey. Then we went to California, then Nevada. Finally it was filmed on property that Michael and I own in Roxbury, Connecticut. We kept going over a two-year period and executed the film.
Lombardi: We were able to stay in a bubble in Connecticut, and we needed a lot of wooded area, so we brought a 50-person crew there. A SAG [Screen Actors Guild] guy said to us, “I just wanted to let you know, you’re one of only two productions still filming in the country.” I said, “Oh yeah? Where’s the other one?” He said, “Arizona.” We didn’t even get to finish the entire shoot there [in Connecticut], we had to wrap a day early. But we ended up filming a couple things more.
Kovac: Being able to persevere with the crew, the actors, the musicians, despite having to move to four different states to make the film? To see everyone come together as a unit and work together was really inspiring. At any time, folks could have said, “Hey, you’ve had your time. Now I’m off doing something else.” But they focused and stayed on. A lot of films wouldn’t have been made under these kinds of conditions at that time.
Lombardi: Absolutely. Don’t forget, at the time of this, Covid tests were outrageously expensive, if you needed a 24-hour turnaround or an immediate turnaround. So it cost production a lot of money. Obviously, Covid affected everyone terribly, but you congregate for the arts. You need to be together. It was really difficult. We got shut down, not because any of us got Covid, but even just any scare, the protocol was unbelievable. The loyalty of the crew, Allen backing this thing and saying, “Let’s go until we get it.” Actions speak louder than words. And let me tell you, it’s hard to make a movie anyway, to get that script you love on the screen, but this made it very challenging.
The opening credits list two directors, but the closing credits list Michael as ‘additional director.’ So what was your role exactly?
Lombardi: Again, it’s a Covid thing. We had Bridget Smith, who was phenomenal. She creates the warmest set. Acting is about jumping off of cliffs and trusting your directors, so Bridget was there for all of the story, all of the stuff with me and Menchaca [Marc Menchaca, who plays the character Jed]. We knew we had Samuel [Gonzalez Jr.] for the super-stylized horror. So we knew this collaboration would be phenomenal.
But then Covid hit, so we had to go back and we brought in Randy Bricker. Allen said to me, “Let’s get an editor who knows story and horror.” Randy was an apprentice on the film The Firm with Tom Cruise, he edited I Am Legend, all the way to the Halloween franchise. Now he is the head director on the Chucky series. So obviously, he has horror and story. So me, Randy, Allen, and the writers sat down. We knew we had to go out with a small crew now, during Covid, and get some extra scenes that we weren’t able to get. And I directed those.
Through very carefully sitting with the editor in the editing room, I knew the line I had to walk for this perfect collaboration. Because I was on set as a producer and an actor every single day, for both directors. So it was sort of the next natural step to take.
You’re releasing the film in September, even though it takes place in December. Did you consider releasing it in December, to better coincide with the film’s plot?
Kovac: By releasing it in September, if you’ve noticed, pumpkins are starting to be sold for Halloween. Then there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas. So we felt having the middle of September through December as windows for different aspects of distribution was the right way to go. We were willing to wait.
Michael, your character is named John Bishop. He’s a figure in the Christian church, but he’s not a bishop! Did you want to rename him John Pastor or something?
Lombardi: [Laughs.] You know, I talked to the writers about this. They were very careful, the way in which they named their characters, actually. John Bishop was something they wrote early on and it just stuck. But it’s funny because the few times people have said, “So you’re a bishop?” I actually do like the name John Bishop for the character, but it can be a little tricky. I said to Darren Geare, “Hey, man, this has happened to me a few times now. Did you think about that?” He said, “You know, we actually did, but we fell in love with it.”
AT THE MOVIES
Is there a childhood cinema you grew up attending?
Kovac: Of course. Whether it was a midnight movie that the radio station in Houston put on, or it was a movie that you had to go see, we were always going to the movie theater. My movie theater of choice, back in the day? If I’m being honest with you, I can’t remember the name. [Laughs.] But I’d go to the Galleria Mall, near my high school, we always went to it. You’d go to the mall, hang out, have some dinner or lunch, then watch a movie. So yeah, I have fond memories.
Lombardi: I grew up in a place that really doesn’t have much art, you don’t have much exposure to that. However, I was fortunate enough—like Allen—to have a mall. The first film that I can recall that I saw was a re-release of the original Jaws. I remember never being the same again after it. Swimming in a pool, I could see the shark’s POV. Hearing that amazing score? [Starts humming the John Williams theme.] So it had a profound effect on me.
And then I remember also, after that, I have a couple of early memories of going to a drive-in, actually, and seeing Grease as a re-release. So I was definitely exposed to those throwback films. It really made an impression on me.
What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
Kovac: Woodstock. [The 1970 documentary chronicling the prior summer’s 1969 concert festival was edited by a then-unknown Martin Scorsese.]
Lombardi: It’s not a specific movie, but we used to pack all of my cousins into a car and one of my aunts would take us. Just having popcorn, candy, the whole thing. Every time I go to the movies, I still do it because they just take us on a journey and change us in some way. Hopefully, you’re not the same or you have an experience that you either learn something from, whether you like it or not, at the end of it. So honestly, every time I go to the movies, I’m ready to go on that journey.
What’s your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
Kovac: Popcorn. I don’t eat popcorn at home! Popcorn at the theater is an experience. You take it with you, there’s all sorts of sizes. You can munch away while you’re watching your favorite film.
Lombardi: Couldn’t agree more. Popcorn, numero uno. With extra butter. There’s nothing like movie theater popcorn.