The release of debut writer Daniel Ragussis’ film Imperium makes for eerie timing in the wake of the current political tensions resulting from the American election. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Nate, an undercover FBI agent who tries to infiltrate a white supremacist group. Loosely based on the experiences of FBI agent Michael German, the film redefines what an undercover agent should be like. Ragussis also directed the psychological thriller to great effect, showing an impressive understanding of people who subscribe to disturbing ideologies and a keen eye for dialogue and suspense. The drama plays to the strengths of a top-flight cast and the results are insightful, gripping and thought-provoking. As the western world is now on the cusp of change with a new President, Ragussis’ approach to understanding those who are anti-establishment is now more relevant than ever.
I sat down to talk to Daniel Ragussis about Imperium.
Q. I couldn’t believe Imperium was the first major film that you have written and directed, as it is a very bold choice of subject matter. What was your first glimmer of inspiration? Did you decide to write a movie about the far right and terrorism in order to make a bigger point considering the political climate in the last few years, and that terrorist incidents should not merely be labelled as having Middle Eastern religious perpetrators?
A. That’s a good question. I actually became aware of the Neo-Nazi and far right community in the United States first. I had done a short film about a German chemist, Fritz Haber, who was active in World War 1 and that led me to an interest in World War 2. Then when I was researching that I accidentally became aware of the American Neo-Nazi movement. Once I started researching it, I became aware of the breadth, depth and extent of it in the United States which was a real shock to me. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone today but this was three and a half years ago, so I was seeing a lot of things that we are seeing now and I was really stunned by them. Once I became aware of the community, I felt that it was something really important to tell a story about. Then I became aware of Mike German’s story which seemed like the perfect way to get in – through the process of an undercover FBI agent. It was through his guidance that he led me to understand the ways in which we were detrimentally focusing on Islamic based terrorism, and far right extremism is actually responsible for many more deaths in the United States than Islamic based extremism. All the things in the movie follow from that, so it was really a journey of discovery. I never set out to make these points from the beginning but as I discovered them, I felt they were very important to write about.
Q. It couldn’t be more on topic considering what is happening politically in the United States. It does seem like a lot more people are moving towards the far right at the moment. Do you think these people are around in high numbers and pose a serious threat?
A. When I went around showing this script to movie companies and producers, I was always hearing the same thing, people would say, “this really isn’t an issue – is your script set in the 1960s?” I don’t know if more people are moving towards the far right but I think more people are becoming aware of it. Three and a half years ago when I was researching this, all the things I’m reading now in the American press, all these organisations and groups existed at that time and I was familiar with all of them. Now that’s not to say I don’t think there is some movement, but I think they are trying to legitimise a national mainstream movement to make it more acceptable for people to be a part of. I think people seem more comfortable talking about such things. Mike German said to me, “the solutions they were talking about undercover twenty years ago are now being talked about on mainstream television.” So I don’t know how much of a shift there is, but there’s much more awareness and visibility for these people.
Q. To me this film was such an eye-opener because I thought there was one type of person who would subscribe to this disturbing ideology, but you really dispelled any stereotypes through Sam Trammell’s character. How did you come to realise this?
A. It was through the research. I didn’t realise that either, in fact one of the things that drew my interest to the community was that I found their thinking incomprehensible, most of us do. So I found myself thinking how is it possible for anyone, particularly of a certain level of education, to hold these views? So that was one of the initial things that drew me. I was just as shocked as you to discover that there is a huge community of highly educated, suburban, middle-class people that do believe in this way of thinking. I could give you the search terms and you could go to Google right now and in ten seconds find journals that are about the holocaust to eugenics, written by these people who have PHDs and went to good universities. So it’s crazy and something I was really shocked by and I thought it would be a really good thing to get into the movie.
Q. I imagine when you researched the topic, you had to plumb the murkiest depths of the internet, was there one thing that stood out that surprised you the most?
A. The fact the people were highly educated but Mike German always said you have to remember that fifty years ago these were mainstream views. We consider it bizarre because of the time we grew up in but in most of the western world supremacy and racism were considered normal to everyone then. So it’s only recently we have been throwing off all this stuff, so the fact it’s still alive to a certain percent of the population is a little less shocking. Also, insanely enough, we share a common humanity with these people – like us they enjoy music, they enjoy reading, they have friends, they love to laugh. That’s difficult to process, but I realised as I was researching that it was something that I wanted to include.
Q. I liked how you tried to arrive at an explanation as to why people are drawn to such an unpleasant ideology. Do you think there are ways of preventing this, or will it be something that is always an undercurrent in any society?
A. I think the important things are understanding and dialogue. I don’t think labelling people as monsters is ultimately going to help us win them over or understand the nature of the problem. I think having a compassionate attitude towards people from these communities is part of the solution and I think that’s in incredibly short supply at the moment.
Q. You really created a realistic insight into how people involved in a secret cult would operate. How closely was it tied to Mike German’s story, were Nate and Mike very similar?
A. The story and the character are invented but we were constantly using his experiences as an inspiration. So all the events and people in the movie are inspired by people like Mike German that I have come across in my research. In terms of Daniel Radcliffe’s character, one of the main inspirations for him was when I came across Mike. You know I was expecting this huge FBI agent to come in and burst down the door and Mike was this very soft-spoken, literate, cultured and likeable guy, not physically imposing at all. So I told him that was shocking to me, and he said that being an undercover agent is about the social department, not physical. It’s about being the most liked person in the room, not the most feared. So all these qualities he had made him an ideal undercover agent and that gave me a fresh approach to this character and then the idea of approaching someone like Daniel. So in that way, we were very inspired by the real man.
Imperium is out on DVD & Blu-ray and on Digital now!