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Director Travis Taute on Mental Health in His Film ‘Indemnity’

Director Travis Taute on Mental Health in His Film ‘Indemnity’

On the whole, mental health has not received the attention it is so deserving of on the big screen. BGN had an exclusive online interview with director and writer of Indemnity, Travis Taute, on February 11, 2022, in which we were able to ask about the nuances of trauma and mental health in his latest project. Not only does this film touch on the sensitive subject of PTSD, but it is also grounded in an exciting mystery thriller with hints of science fiction.

Travis Taute

Can you tell me a little about your new project, Indemnity?

Indemnity is a South African action thriller about a fireman (Theo) suffering from PTSD. His trauma is from an incident in which he was inadvertently responsible for the death of his comrades on a rescue mission gone horribly wrong. As a consequence, his life is falling apart. His relationship with his wife and son deteriorates, and Theo has taken to the bottle to numb his pain. Then, one morning, he wakes up and finds his wife dead next to him. Although considered the prime suspect in her murder, Theo believes that he was not responsible, despite having no recollection of what happened. He decides to go on the run to figure out who did it. In the process, he comes to grips with his trauma.

The fighting and action scenes were marvelous. What can you tell us about these scenes?

Thanks so much! It was incredibly important to keep the action grounded and reflective of reality. I was blessed to work with an amazing stunt team in Vernon Willemse and Grant Powell with whom I worked closely in developing the fight choreography. Jarrid [Geduld, who played lead Theo] was always keen to do his own stunts, which I was grateful for because it allowed us to be in on the action with him. We never needed to rely on any stunt doubles for any sequence, which gives it an emotional edge. But the choreography was vitally important to nail because each fight reflects Theo’s current emotional and psychological state. It was important for us to track exactly where he is at any point throughout the film.

Theo Abrams is an amazingly sensitive character. What stood out to you about Jarrid?

Theo is suffering from an immense amount of trauma. His coping mechanism is to avoid confronting his emotional and psychological scars. What I loved about Jarrid from the get-go was his empathetic nature. He brought something incredibly vulnerable to the character. Theo does and says some things that could easily make him not so likable, even though you understand why he is the way he is. But what Jarrid nailed so brilliantly was the ability to allow us to see through Theo’s bravado and recognize his pain underneath. The action and stunt work were second to having a character the audience could empathize with, and in that sense, Jarrid was the only choice.

Are you at all like the characters you created? 

If I am, that’s a scary thought! But I would have to say no. The characters in Indemnity all have an unhealthy relationship to trauma. Through my own life experiences, I’ve learned to deal with emotional scars in a far healthier way due to the support structures I was fortunate enough to have. But most people don’t have that luxury, which formed part of my motivation for tackling this issue. It’s the stigma attached to the way people deal with mental health in general that I wanted to shed light on, in hopes that it may challenge and change perceptions and attitudes.

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What’s challenging about bringing this script to life?

The most challenging elements of translating the script to screen were the various action sequences. Action is notoriously expensive to produce, and we don’t have the kinds of budgets used in Hollywood films. So, for us, it was about deciding which set pieces were going to be the ones we would spend the most time and money on. But in saying that, the various sequences were all important to the overall story as they provided context to Theo’s emotional state. So, our challenge was to achieve an ambitious amount of action with extremely limited resources, which meant we had to be clever in designing certain set pieces. We tried to contain a lot of the fight sequences to confined spaces and limit their scope, which enabled us to spend a little more time on the more challenging sequences that involved practical fires on set.

The film has such an emotional component to it. Was it a conscious choice to make the film end on a hopeful note?

Action in any film can quickly become a meaningless spectacle. So, it was important for me that the audience is able to resonate with Theo and hopefully recognize a part of themselves in him. It’s always the emotion at the core that attracts me to any story, and I wanted Theo’s journey, despite the intense number of obstacles he faces, to be redemptive and end with an element of hope. Human beings are resilient, and I wanted that to be the ultimate takeaway — that with just a little bit of help along the way, we can overcome almost anything.

This film has such an incredible story. What do you think is the best aspect of it?

We aimed to differentiate this film by having a purposefully diverse cast, staying true to a particular subculture in South Africa, and telling the story from this perspective. We tried to be authentic in our representation of Theo (a man of color), who represents what is often the worst affected community of PTSD in South Africa. The same can be said about how we’ve represented the police and the political landscape. Where it stands out is in the various sub-genres at play within the context of this action film. We move between a paranoid psychological thriller, to a political conspiracy story, a family drama, and even border on sci-fi (when one thinks of the Indemnity program itself), and I love that we bounce between these different sub-genres.

Indemnity is currently in theaters and on-demand.

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