How Trump’s Election & U.S. Culture Wars Inspired Jesse Eisenberg Drama ‘Manodrome’: Berlin Film Festival

EXCLUSIVE: South African director John Trengove’s crisis of masculinity drama Mandrome, which world premieres in Competition at the Berlinale this weekend, is one of the most topical Golden Bear contenders this year.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Ralphie, a disenfranchised young man whose life spirals out of control when he falls under the spell of a cultish ‘family of men’.

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Money pressures and his own difficult childhood have left Ralphie conflicted about impending fatherhood with his girlfriend (Odessa Young) as he struggles to find his place in society.

When he is embraced by a group of supportive older men, led by a charismatic father figure (Adrien Brody), he is hooked but an initiation ceremony unleashes dangerous emotions within him

Deadline unveiled a first teaser ahead of the world premiere which you can watch here.

The film is Trengove’s second film after his award-winning debut The Wound, about a closeted relationship that unfolds against the backdrop of a Xhosa initiation ceremony. It also debuted in Berlin.

At a time when the so-called Manosphere is back in the news following the recent arrest of controversial social media influencer Andrew Tate, the film hits a raw, zeitgeist nerve.

Deadline talked to Trengove ahead of the world premiere in Berlin on Saturday (February 18).

John Trengove (c) Antonia Steyne
John Trengove (c) Antonia Steyne

DEADLINE: There’s media buzz that the film is a comment on toxic masculinity and is partly inspired by real-life figures like Andrew Tate or Jordan Peterson. Is that the case?

JOHN TRENGOVE: The starting point preceded all this stuff. There was a moment around Trump’s election when I had this sense that the world had just gotten out of control. I couldn’t understand what was happening anymore. The culture was moving so quickly and things that were unthinkable were happening.

I was clutching at straws trying to understand what was going on. Somebody gave me Angela Nagle’s book Kill All Normies. It sparked something so powerful that here we are five years later and I’m talking about a movie that was inspired by it.

DEADLINE: In what way?

TRENGOVE: The book lays out very lucidly the online cultural wars that led to the election of Donald Trump. One of the chapters in the book is about the so-called Manosphere, this cluster of online communities that spans everything from the Alt-Right to the neo-Nazi movement, to groups that I’d never heard of like MIGTOW, Men Going Their Own Way, a 100-year-old movement that proposes the idea that men are shackled by domesticity and procreation, and essentially, by their relationships with women.

DEADLINE: Is the ‘family of men’ in the film directly inspired by a real-life group described in the book?

TRENGOVE: What struck me on a very superficial level was that there was something inherently gay or queer in this idea of men rejecting women and forming new movements.

I was very sure that I didn’t want to get into these communities and make a film about the internet. I was interested in the idea, but I intentionally pulled myself away from talking about any of these immediate things, like the Proud Boys or Andrew Tate.  They felt abhorrent to me and not something that I’m interested in at all.

Instead, I invented my own little universe around the idea of the chosen family and what would happen if these men were to migrate off the internet and form real-world families.

The idea of chosen family is very much a queer one. When you’re rejected or traumatized by the roles that society inflicts on you, then you find others like yourself and your chosen family. I brought these two ideas together, of men feeling disenfranchised and needing to reinvent themselves in a homogenous way.

DEADLINE: Adrien Brody’s character of Dad Dan is an enigmatic figure but at the heart of the drama at the same time. Can you talk a bit about him?

TRENGOVE:  On the surface, he presents this ‘bougie’ reality of men indulging themselves in a kind of domestic fantasy. But he also introduces Ralphie to the idea of honoring himself, of avenging the inner child and taking his darkest and irrational impulses, especially rage and anger, and externalising them as a kind of noble pursuit.

That is where the problem lies. On paper, this is an interesting idea to Dan, but in reality, for a character like Ralphie, it sets him on a collision course.

There also was something interesting about the class dynamic as well in that Dan and the dads are kind of middle class and comfortable. Ralphie, with his struggles and internalized desperation, brings something into this world and is affected by it in ways that they can’t understand.

DEADLINE: The film presents a bleak vision of contemporary America, were you trying to make a more general comment about the country?

TRENGOVE: I’m fascinated and terrified by America. I’ve spent some time in America. There’s something about its news cycle that I can’t keep my eyes off, a kind of spectre of issues.

I wasn’t trying to be specific in terms of the time and geography. I decided at the writing stage that I wasn’t going to put that kind of burden on myself, but that I would rather express the feeling that I have in response to America; the lurid and intense aspects of that society, such as its gig economy and the instability of this culture in the economy.

We were also shooting there over Covid, in Syracuse. There were signs of a society collapsing. It was mid-Covid, so a year or two into the pandemic. It was devastating. There was this idea that people weren’t coming back to work and a real sense that the system wasn’t working anymore, that it was disintegrating. We were quite preoccupied with that when we were shooting and it became something that we were keen to bring into the story.

DEADLINE: The film never specifically reveals that the film is set in Syracuse. Was that deliberate?

TRENGOVE: There are one or two tiny hints, that we are somewhere in Upstate New York, but it was very much intended not to be representative of a specific place.

For me, it’s a kind of fever dream. That was the word that I’ve always used. We’re inside Ralphie’s head, inside a version of America that is projected and imagined. His experiences aren’t always reliable in the sense that we don’t always know what’s real and what’s not.  All of that was part of reaching for this feeling that I talked about before, that the world was kind of insane and there was a kind of madness percolating under the surface.

It was a feeling that I was carrying around in me at that time, and it’s channelled into this film. I’m very happy that the film is now coming out so that I can hopefully let go of this feeling to some extent and find a little bit more at peace with myself at least

DEADLINE: This is an unusual role for Jesse Eisenberg. How did you get him onboard?

TRENGOVE: Jesse was the last person I thought of when I was writing the script. When I wrote Ralphie, I was trying to describe the kind of man that terrifies me, the kind of person that I would cross the street to avoid. That was my entry point.

When it came to kind of casting and considering actors, it started feeling less interesting to kind of go for the obvious, alpha male. I started to explore the idea of a character who’s not that but is rather trying to be that character, who is essentially failing and is at odds with himself.

When that conversation opened up, Jesse was one of the first names that came up. We sent him the script. He responded immediately, saying, “I never get sent material like this.”

Suddenly, there was this possibility that I found very exciting of imagining the character very differently, kind of filtering it through that idea of somebody who’s essentially soft. Ralphie is terrified of his own softness and is running away from it, trying desperately to be hard, to be this idea of what a man is that doesn’t even exist.

The insanity of that is something he completely found. I’m incredibly proud of Jesse. He is just the most extraordinary person. He’s hilarious and intense and very smart. He threw himself into the role with complete abandon. It was a really difficult shoot. We were up against a lot: we had a very limited schedule; we were shooting in the freezing cold and it was Covid madness.

Adrien Brody (c) Wyatt Garfield
Adrien Brody (c) Wyatt Garfield

DEADLINE: How did Adrien Brody fit into this dynamic?

TRENGOVE: It’s interesting because Adrien tries a lot of different things. On set, he’s very intuitive and all over the place in a way. Then when you get to the editing room and you start crafting the performance, he emerges. That was the very surprising thing with Adrien. There’s this performance that that you didn’t quite see so clearly on the day. He’s astonishing.

DEADLINE: Gina Gammell and Riley Keough were on board the project as producers under their Felix Culpa banner. How deeply were they involved in getting it to fruition?

TRENGOVE: There were four people who were very important to the project. Riley and Gina at Felix Culpa, and then Ben Giladi at Liminal Content. They were on board from the very beginning. I met them when I was beginning to think about the project. I hadn’t even written the first draft. The fourth person was Ryan Zacarias who came on board closer to the shooting.

I owe them so much. They fought such a battle to get this film produced. It’s a very difficult time to make dark and complicated low-budget movies. Their commitment to the project and to seeing it through and getting it done was just remarkable.

DEADLINE: Keough was originally announced to play the role of Ralphie’s girlfriend Sal, rather than Odessa Young, what happened?

TRENGOVE: She sort of inspired the character of Sal. When I was getting down to writing, I was having a lot of conversations with Riley. There was an idea that she would play the role but then Covid happened and by the time we finally shot, she was completely tied up in another project.

But Odessa, who is a friend of Riley and Gina, we sent her the script and she just bought it and owned it. She’s a phenomenal actor. And she brought such a sense of intelligence and a kind of clarity to the character. I was just blown away.

DEADLINE: Your last film ‘The Wound’ also dealt with issues of masculinity and a community of men and your shorts have also dealt with male group dynamics. Is this a thread that you think will continue through future works?

TRENGOVE: It’s true there’s a lot of crossover in the two films, but then there are a lot of things that are very different. The Wound is also a deep dive into the ideas around masculinity but it was also a project that was very preoccupied with authenticity and accurately representing a cultural practice [the Xhosa initiation ceremony]. We only worked with men who had been through the initiation, and there was a workshop process working with writers and actors. It was almost a kind of documentary in its approach.

I don’t think I’m going to make a third feature about masculinity necessarily. Now suddenly, it’s the only thing I get offered but there are many things that I’m kind of interested in. I’m currently writing a project that is also to do with closed-off communities with a different kind of focus and a female protagonist.

DEADLINE: You also talked about seeing parallels between the Manosphere groups and LGBT chosen families and the storyline in ‘A Wound’ revolves around a closeted relationship. It is important for you to weave LGBT elements into your films?

TRENGOVE: Is it important to me? I don’t know. It’s very much my perspective as a gay man that gave rise to my interest in the idea of the performance of masculinity.

There’s something inherently camp in the idea of bodybuilding and of putting on a show and a front, that idea of something that doesn’t really exist. And then, there is the schism between that and the sort of soft child that sits behind that mask.

And as I said at the start, there is a kind of queering of these radicalized men’s groups. It’s something that’s me, that’s my starting point, my interest. It remains to be seen whether Manodrome is actually a Queer film. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily going to be embraced by Queer cinema. But for me, that’s the starting point of thinking about it and the reason for doing it for sure.

DEADLINE: Can you give a bit more detail on the project?

TRENGOVE:  It’s an idea that I’ve had in the back of my mind for a very long time. It’s got to do with Satanism in South Africa, a sort of Satanic Panic that happened in the 80s, during Apartheid. It’s not a film about devil worshipping. It’s a film about moral panic, essentially, this idea of a community becoming obsessed with the idea that there is a dark and satanic network operating just below the surface of what they can see when actually, there’s nothing there.

It ties into the political context at the time and the so-called White utopia of apartheid, this closed-off, religious, mind-controlled community, living in fear of the Black rage that might engulf them, and inventing a kind of crisis in their midst.

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