The words in director Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary, penned by Micah Bloomberg, contain the kind of teasing erotic friskiness that endlessly rejoices in nudging you toward the edge of satisfaction, and pulling back just as you’re about to explode. It’s a kind of flirtation that, crafted and performed so well between the characters within the film, transgresses its bounds to seduce viewers, too. Sanctuary is a masterfully carried film that knows that the moment before the bloom of pleasure can sometimes be more delicious than the pleasure itself.
The film is about Margaret Qualley’s Rebecca, a young dominatrix, and her client Hal (Christopher Abbott), an heir to a renowned hotel chain. Taking place within a single boldly-colored room in one of Hal’s family’s hotels (its walls red like blushing skin and blue like royal satin or bruised, whipped muscles), and over the course of a single night, the film charts the fraying and entwining of Rebecca and Hal’s relationship — Hal tries to end his employment of Rebecca, who doggedly strives to maintain it, having become increasingly dependent on Hal’s compensation. It’s a cat and mouse game of a film, as it upturns Hal’s and Rebecca’s view of things — we see both that Hal needs Rebecca and Rebecca needs Hal; it shows us that Hal and Rebecca are bound inextricably in a master/slave dynamic, it’s just not clear who exactly holds the upper hand, whether the slave is really master, or vice versa.
The film plays out almost like a Samuel Beckett play — dialogues about dialogue, script, and meaning making abound. When I ask Wigon whether, in face of the diegetic analysis the characters perform in Sanctuary, there is a right way to interpret the film itself — whether Rebecca is right in her way of seeing the relationship or whether Hal is right in his wanting to end things — Wigon intimates that the thrill of the analysis, the fact of various possible answers, is part and parcel of the point.
“It’s one of the things that’s so interesting about the film,” Wigon tells me over Zoom. “If I weighed in on it [whether there is a right way to interpret the film], I worry that it might close off possible avenues of interpretation for different viewers. I think one of the thrilling things about watching movies is two people can watch the same movie and have completely different interpretations. And so often, not always, but frequently, sometimes if people read the director saying, ‘Well, it’s this way,’ some people will be like, ‘Eh, whatever. Who cares what the director thinks?’ But some other people will be like, ‘Oh, that’s what it means.’ And then they kind of stop thinking about it. So I’m always sort of wary of presenting a definitive interpretation of what’s happening.”
In Sanctuary, though the matter at hand is deeply sexual and sex is literally depicted — Rebecca is a sex worker and Hal buys her services, after all — it is often the dialogue between Rebecca and Hal that is much more exciting than the literal stuff. Throughout the film, Rebecca and Hal each share their theories of how their unique situation ought to be interpreted and therefore resolved. For example, it’s a point of contention between the two how scripts ought to be interpreted and performed: Hal often writes scripts for Rebecca to act out as part of their play, and Hal believes that taking a literal, surface-level approach to his written words, acting out exactly what is commanded, is the way to go. Meanwhile, Rebecca believes in performing a more incisive, close read of matters so as to get to the animating impulse of discourse; Rebecca believes it’s okay to stray from the written word for the sake of delivering ethos. It’s this back and forth that’s so exciting, as each wields their understanding of the other to make them understand and come to their side; and it’s this intimate understanding of the other’s psyche that’s so sexy. The mind games Rebecca and Hal play within the hotel room often feel like a kind of role-play or foreplay, of massaging certain erogenous zones. It’s an exciting game they play on screen — in showing each other why their point of view is more tenable, they ultimately convey how much they rely on the other to nudge them to completion, to wholeness.
It’s more interesting if it’s up to the viewer to decide meaning, Wigon says. Sometimes, this film seems to show us, talking, debating, the continuance of the moment, of weaving stories — all of this is more precious than the resolution itself. It’s a thrill before the thrill that promises a kind of liminal endlessness that is so much sweeter than the finality of an answer, of orgasm.
“I really am fascinated by how the movie is connected to storytelling and filmmaking in so many interesting ways,” Wigon says. “There’s a lot of really interesting conversations that they have about performance, about script.” Often Hal is hung up on whether Rebecca has said a certain word or phrase exactly as he’s written it, while Rebecca tries to show him that the words don’t matter so much as meaning, that psychological connection and feelings and the oscillation of power within their games, their relationship itself, are more than words merely said.
“It’s really fascinating because, when Micah and I were talking about this in the beginning and developing it and he was writing it, it was never something that consciously crossed my mind,” he explains, in reference to the work Rebecca and Hal perform to make meaning in their unique ways. “And I can’t speak for Micah, but he never brought anything up about it either. But it seems to have worked its way in there and it’s something that I think is so deep and that’s sort of why I hesitate [to talk about how to interpret the film]. I don’t mean to be coy, but that’s why I hesitate to give a sort of definitive answer, ‘cause I think you could delve into that [meaning] forever, in a way.”
Though ideas of power are integrally baked into Sanctuary, when it came to bringing this story about power dynamics to life, Wigon tells me the endeavor was much more collaborative than Rebecca and Hal’s tug-of-war of ideas.
There was a sort of deal during the 18 days Wigon and his team had to film the movie. Wigon pre-blocked the film because he wanted to do things with the film that were visually ambitious and interesting, such as creative camera maneuvers within such a confined space. “I tend to work best if I’m able to pre-visualize, and you can’t pre-visualize your shots if you don’t pre-block,” he says.
“So it [the deal on set] was sort of like, ‘If you guys are cool with me just pre-blocking it, you can kind of roll with this blocking, [working] within the confines of that blocking, and, basically, just go for it. Do whatever is interesting to you. Do whatever’s fascinating to you, as long as it’s interesting and as long as it is real, it’s gonna be great.’ And you can do that when you have phenomenally talented actors. And Margaret and Chris are phenomenally talented actors. So it feels like a collaboration. It’s sort of like playing jazz. Someone said once, I forget where I read this, that when you’re playing in a rock band, everybody’s trying to be one unit. [But] when you’re playing in a jazz band, it’s more like, you don’t wanna step on the other person’s toes. You’re united and collaborating, but you wanna let them do their thing and you’re gonna kind of do your thing.”
This ethos of collaboration uses the script as a springboard for creativity, and this can be sensed in the film’s score, too.
“The inspiration behind the score was really just the effects of what’s going on in the story,” Wigon explains. “There’s as many different approaches to this craft as there are people who do it. And I know that there are some directors whose ideas maybe are in conversation with other movies, and that often makes for really interesting films. But my approach is a little bit more like, it’s all growing out of the screenplay. And it’s growing out of the characters. It’s growing out of the emotional situation. The way that I was thinking about the music [was that it] was always attempting to emphasize whatever effect was happening in the scene between the characters.”
But this came with a potential risk of producing a score that left the film feeling inchoate. “There’s a lot of different effects,” Wigon says. “So the score is gonna have to be really all over the place and spanning a very wide range of musical styles. And [so I wondered], ‘Is it possible to have a score that spans this wide range of musical styles, but also simultaneously feels cohesive and of a piece?’ That’s a really hard needle to thread. And I was very fortunate to work with Ariel Marx who did the score. And I mean, again, it’s like when you work with someone who’s really talented and really knows their craft, they are able to do amazing things. Ariel in my opinion is absolutely brilliant. I didn’t have to do very much other than be like, ‘It kind of feels like this.’ And then Ariel would send [the music] back and it was just wonderful.”
Collaboration requires a great amount of trust and ultimately respect. And trust and respect are something abundantly evident in screwball comedies. In a screwball, the male lead spars verbally with the female lead, who is more than capable of not only calling the man out on his bullshit, but also of dishing it back, of measuring up to him and his witticisms. There is a give and take within a screwball’s dialogue that could not take place between unequals. Despite gender, in a screwball, the female character is always a cerebral equal of the male character. Respect is evident in how the male characters take the time to creatively nag their female interest, knowing to an extent that she will offer some delicious retort to continue the exciting banter.
Films like Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday contain dialogue that is like sex — at a time when production codes strictly limited what could be pictured on screen, writers got creative in an effort to keep viewers’ attention. In the screwball, dialogue is spitfire and lacerates like razors, with characters verbally exchanging sexual undressings and cerebral flirtations. This creativity had the effect of building up deeply interesting female characters, with almost “traditionally-masculine” psyches but the divinely feminine faces of Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell.
Screwball-esque verbal flirtations are abundant in Sanctuary, and so too is respect. The film contains the kind of flirtation that Old Hollywood screwball comedies mastered, making a meal of biting dialogue, the film trenchantly explores gender politics and class, punching holes in essentialist thinking. The collaborative production process Wigon describes shows within his work as a director an immense respect for his colleagues. Accordingly, the film is robust and roiling; respect from the director, for his writer and his actors, has allowed for a fulsome exploration of both Rebecca’s and Hal’s psyches. In Sanctuary, despite class and gender, Rebecca is more than able to take the rich and proud Hal on. Rebecca is a wonderfully penned character, and Qualley performs her with an unparalleled and free physicality, allowing for the tenor of the character, her beliefs, to resonate through her muscles, to radiate off her coiling hair.
Wigon says he had screwballs in mind during production. “When I first was conceptualizing it [the film], genre wise, I was like, ‘Okay, we’re in psychological thriller space,’” he says. “But the thing that’s so amazing about Micah is [that he’s] such a great writer and also so funny that you get this other sort of muscle, this other register that you can work with. So pretty early on I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what if you did like an erotic thriller or a psychological thriller, but then you blended it with the old screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s?’ And that was when it really started to lock together for me.”
In a screwball like Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn’s characters do terrible things to each other, but it is evident between the two that they see each other as equals, as able to withstand the cruelty dished out, because ultimately these characters are romantic equals, their sparring a sexually thrilling foreplay. And it’s much the same in Sanctuary, which straddles a uniquely complex middle ground between screwball comedy and psychological thriller.
“The flip side of it [comedy] was that there’s a lot of erotic or psychological thrillers that you watch and sometimes there are unexpected laughs in those movies,” Wigon explains. Think of moments of absurdity in films like Basic Instinct. “And so I was like, ‘What if there is like a hidden tunnel between screwball comedies and erotic or psychological thrillers? And what if this movie lives in that hidden tunnel?’ That was a kind of light-bulb moment for me early on.”
The film’s end seems taken right out of a screwball like The Awful Truth, with the protagonists kissing as an elevator door closes them in, leaving us out. It’s endlessly romantic and almost sweet, but also obliquely jarring in face of all the violence we have seen Rebecca and Hal throw at each other. It’s an ending that’s swift and seems beside the point, which is why Wigon is wary of giving a definitive response when I ask him whether Sanctuary can be seen as a love story.
“It’s another one of those things where it’s like, if I provide too definitive of an interpretation, I worry that it might close off different ways of viewing it,” he says.
It’s an ending that, sweet and satisfying and clean and romantic as it is, certainly pales in comparison to the thorny pleasure of all that came before it, that thrilling dissatisfaction nurtured by the film’s screwball-esque, throbbing convulsions.