Ahead of its premiere this September, I sat down with co-director and star Michael Lombardi to discuss his killer horror film The Retaliators, which left me impressed as hell.
Lambardi, who made a name for himself in movies like Last Knights and series such as “Rescue Me,” plays the lead in The Retaliators about “an upstanding pastor who uncovers a dark and twisted underworld as he searches for answers surrounding his daughter’s brutal murder.
Kelli: You not only direct the film but also star in it, will you tell us a little bit about who John is?
Michael: “Yeah, so, um, John Bishop, he’s a small town pastor. The film starts in a sort of Spielbergian-Joe Dante Gremlin way. He’s beloved by his community. He’s a man of morals, a man of the cloth. And one of the things that the writers had put in the script, which really was a shoo-in for me. He’s a rock star in this environment. He’s also a single dad raising a teenage daughter and, and another younger girl, so a single dad of two daughters. And, he’s a man of the people of the community. And of course, now he’s hit with this, with this situation. Now he’s struck with this crazy, situation and this provocative quest for justice, and this is what lies at the core, the theme of the core of the film. If you had a minute alone with the person who killed your loved one, would you take it? And I think when you take a guy like John Bishop and put him in that situation, can make for an interesting story. And that’s why I was very attracted to the script and his writing, to begin with.”
Kelli: “Right. And it is an interesting question. What would you do?”
John: “Well, you know, I’ve been playing this guy for so long. I think that what’s interesting is it’s been three years since we started this production. It’s the oldest tale in the book, right? It’s a primal instinct. Uh, I think that I understand it. I would wanna seek revenge. I would want that minute alone, but you know, when you’re put in front of another human being, are you really able to hurt that person? You know? And I think that sitting in a chair or from your seat, it’s easy to be on the side of yes, yes, yes. And that’s what I feel like half the audience will be like, yes, yes, yes. And the other half will be sort of teetering on the fence, you know, do, uh, should we do this? Or you know, for it, but not sure, but I think it’s really hard to say unless you have a human being in front of ’em and you have to like hurt them, you know?”
Kelli: “Right, right. I’m, I’m sure that would be a hard choice for a lot of people.”
Michael: “Yeah. You know, and that’s what I love. The movie gets into that. It’s a roller coaster. It takes many twists and turns and, and, uh, and tries to tell that story in a realistic manner. And, uh, you know, there was a lot of the backstory and a lot of homework done to play this character and sort of peel that onion because it’s deep. And that’s what I loved about the script. It’s a horror and a thriller as well. It’s story-driven and it’s on the high brow side of horror and it’s a slow burn, you know, which always really interested me very much. That’s what I loved about the writing and why I wanted to take the project on character-driven first, you know, and even though it’s this fun popcorn movie that you can have fun with, and it’s sort of like a wink at those films of the eighties and early nineties like The Lost Boys and The Crow with awesome soundtracks and judgment night, you know, hopefully, you leave being able to maybe talk about it a little bit and, you know, having those questions of religion, morality and, and justice, you know?”
Kelli: “Yes. And then actually it did lead me doing just that.”
Michael: “Oh, I’m so happy. That’s wonderful because you know, you read a script and I was so touched by the script, but the crazy part is, reading a script and then actually making the movie can become something very different. And then of course, in the edit, something very different again. It’s crazy, you know? It’s really nice that people are picking up on the things that I loved about the writing in the first place.”
Kelli: “And it’s so different from what we normally get. And that’s one of the big things about it for me is, cause I see so many recycled plot lines. When we actually get a movie that’s different, it’s, you know, like, wow, you gotta watch this, you know?
Michael: “Yes, thank you so much. It means a lot because again, we, I think it sort of crosses genres. You know, I even saw when I, when I read the thing I saw like sin city novel, I saw a little touch of a Western. I saw Charlie Bronson’s Death Wish then you get into this Tarantino-ish, crazy third act with, uh, you know, a nod to the evil dead. But what I love too is it’s not sort of traditional and it’s, and it’s unexpected. So I, I think you, for your words and sort of walking away from that, that certainly means a lot to us.”
Kelli: “Right. It is fantastic. And, and it’s not just, you know, the story itself, but the cast, there’s a lot of big name folks there.”
Michael: “I came up in New York City as an actor and I studied at the William ER studio, which is like this amazing will bill. ER’s like one of the best and so many amazing actors have come out of there. Um, you know, Sam Rockwell and, it just goes on and on Kathy Bates, Jeff Goldblum, um, Paul Vinno some of my favorites. And anyway, when I saw the part of Jed, that’s the detective, I was like, this is a small town detective, who do we cast here? And then Marc Menchaca came across the plate. And I was like, wow, this guy, he has so much gravitas, right? In his voice and who he is. He’s such an interesting sort of actor if you will. And I’m like, this is the guy we need and then come to find out, he studied with Bill Esper too. So he and I had a lot of wonderful, chemistry together in these scenes. And, you know, at the end of the day, hopefully, it worked, but we had a lot of fun making the film together. And then we’ve got Joseph from Game of Thrones, and then we’ve got some wonderful cameos, some from some incredible musicians as well.”
Kelli: “Marc Menchaca is brilliant. He was amazing in The Outsider.”
Michael: “Yeah, he was also on Ozark. He’s a really great, interesting character and a really great actor. And like I said, for me to take this on, I’m like, look, I love horror. Of course. I loved the script, but I knew that this was very character driven. And you had to care about these characters to go on this journey. So I was like, this casting is everything. We really have to be sure that we put the right people in. So that was very meticulously thought out. And at the end of the day, we ended up, you know, making some, what appeared to be good decisions. You know, it certainly was fun. And, I felt like everyone was doing good work. So we’re really happy with the results.”
Kelli: “I think everything fell in place wonderfully. It’s dark, it’s twisted. It’s heartbreaking. It’s brutal. I mean, you nailed it. And that, that one scene with the bracelet, I’m not gonna go into detail ’cause I don’t wanna spill anything, but that was so cool.”
Michael: “I know what you are talking about. That’s all practical effects too, which I really was happy with. You know, I’m glad we made that decision because I was really pleased.”
Kelli: “It was something I wasn’t expecting. The film is a lot deeper and a lot better than what I was expecting. And the soundtrack is fantastic!”
Michael: “Killer. Well, that was another, so yeah. So basically in terms of the soundtrack, when I got the script and it came across my plate, I was like, oh my gosh. And, a friend of mine and my partner and this, his name is Allen Kovac. And he is a legendary music manager. He is a CEO and founder of a company called Better Noise Film and Better Noise Music. Now, we have a film division, but point is, I brought him this script and he said, ‘Hey, let’s do it.’ Back in the day, he had the BeeGees, and Meatloaf, and now he has Motley Crew, Five Finger Death Punch, Blondie, and the list goes on and on and on. He has 40 major bands. When he read this script, I mentioned those films of the eighties and nineties with the soundtracks, the music just jumped off the page. So, and it certainly did for him too. And he said, let’s make this thing. And his loyalty never wavered. Like, I was the guy on the set, making the film, but he knew what he wanted to do. And he gave me access to all his incredible musicians. And basically, you know, I talked to them all I thought the guys from Five Finger Death Punch, they’re huge bearded, dreaded, tattooed, scary guys, right? They’re the sweetest guys in real life, but scary guys, in the biker gang. The point is, you wouldn’t know if you, weren’t a fan of Five Finger Death Punch that that’s this band, they’re the second most streamed band and they’re so great in their roles. Then Jacob Shaddock from the band, Papa Roach. He plays one of the bad guys.
My goal was to do this in a very non-gratuitous manner. And one that was very symbiotic and it was very important to me to make this a film respected in our genre first. But then if you, you know, to think Jacobi Shaddock is an actor, but then to know that he’s the elite singer of this band because I think the genres have crossed several times music and film, but we wanted to make sure that we were really making a film first and that they were getting new audiences too. And we weren’t just fully leaning on their core audience, you know, of music and we wanted to make something good. And you know, now that it’s getting out there and I’m hearing from people like you, it’s really nice to hear because you try your best. And it’s all about the work at the end of the day, but it’s nice to see that it’s being received, and we had a good festival run too, which gave me the first indication that people were enjoying it.”
Kelli: “I think people are gonna love it when it comes out. I know I did. I see big things for The Retaliators.”
Michael: “Unbelievable. Thank you. I think that within our genre, people could hopefully catch on and, you know, they get some hype and some word of mouth, and people enjoy the ride.”
Kelli: “Well, it is gonna get a glowing review from us. I have to say it is an action-packed movie and while there’s a bunch of gore. It never went overboard. And I appreciate that it’s not gory just to be gory. It was gory because it should have been.”
Michael: “Yes. And we also wanted some of those moments. You might laugh in a few of them, you know, not to take itself too seriously in some moments, because other moments it is very serious and that was a fine line to sort of, sort of navigate as well.”
Kelli: “I noticed quite a few easter eggs and nods to horror classics, like the scene where the camera focuses on a hook. It took me back to Texas Chainsaw.”
Michael: “Yes, yes, yes. Those were all little Easter eggs in there. We did that on purpose.”
Kelli: “Could you tease some of the Easter Eggs?”
Michael: “Oh geez. There’s so many, well, you know, obviously like all the effects of the one-liners, which are so, you know are obviously from the eighties. I think another thing that I really like too, I’m saying with the one-liner, you know, what happens in the Christmas tree lot and then where it ends up? I think you know, another thing that I love most too was, when my character goes, ‘Those aren’t zombies,’ but it takes a while to find that out. ”
Uh, there were some fun things and I gotta tell you creatively there’s several like this, but we had to fight for them a lot. Not everyone understood them. And, the writer, Darren Geare and I, he was like my right hand, creative man. Um, you know, my feet were on the ground filming and producing and fighting these battles, but I knew that all those things were so important to us making the film we wanted to make. At the end of the day, the film’s not for everybody, but I don’t think any film that I like anyway should be, you know, you can’t please everyone.”
So, we had to fight a lot of creative battles to bring these things sort of getting ’em home. One of the things I’m most proud of, looking back now, is that we stood our ground. Not that I didn’t listen to people and not that I did, but, I knew how important it was to this script. I loved the wink at the eighties, the nods to all these other films, crossing genres, you know, the bad guy, literally being just like the Terminator. Not multi-layered, and straight ahead, cold as ice, you know, like Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or something like this guy. We didn’t need to give him more than that. I wanted, you know, some people would say, oh, it’d be great if he had this. But I wanted him just the way he was because that’s a nod to the Terminator and the films of the eighties. Remember, I told you, I felt this graphic novel-like feel to the script as well. That was one of the elements. So anyway, all these little battles that you have to fight through making it, to end up where you are, it’s not easy, you know?”
Kelli: “I mean, I know how tough it is to get a horror movie made. But it’s when everything comes together, the way this film did, I think it may be a classic in the making. As for Joseph Gatt, he’s a scary dude.
It’s not just the horror, it’s the drama it’s mixed with. I mean, it’s intense. And for those who aren’t familiar with the bands, I think it serves as a great introduction. There was one song that hit me and I was like, I gotta look that up. I gotta add that to my playlist. You know?”
Michael: “That’s so cool. That was one of the goals too. Like I told you, to make this a horror film first and bring horror fans new to the band instead of just relying on the band’s audience, you know?”
Kelli: “I have to ask, is there a sequel in the work by any chance?”
Michael: “Oh boy. Well, I will tell you this, we loved this process so much that at this point, let’s see where we go and we may have been working on a sequel. Yes. Just because it’s so fun to fully fit. And that’s what we did with this too. We love it. You can’t make a movie unless you’re passionate unless you have a love for it, you have to run through walls and we just love the characters and the stories so much that we’ve been having fun with writing more. Yes.”
Kelli: “That’s awesome! There are so many different ways a sequel could go. I was very impressed with the story, the cast, the everything, it, it nails it, I mean, it really gives some fans a little bit of everything. And there’s always been an overlap of horror fans and this type of music, so people are bound to love it.”
Michel: “We wanted to make sure it was done in a very non-gratuitous manner and they were good in it. I talked to all the musicians before they got the set. We talked to them about their characters so they could come in about their performance, their characters, and their point of view. l talked it through and thought it out so they could all shine in their parts and they were all incredible because musicians at the end of the day are storytellers. They do that on stage, but here it was just a matter of reigning it in a little bit, but they all brought it. So they were great to work with.”
Kelli: “They blended in as actors as well. If you didn’t know who they are you would’ve just assumed that they are regular actors.”
Michael: “Yes. Yes. Well, that’s huge cuz that’s what we were striving for.”
Kelli: “What was it like, working with the bands and getting the soundtrack put together?
Micheal: “Uh, amazing! Well, they were all incredible. As I said, they were just there, so ready to play. I just wanted them to be comfortable because that’s how you’re gonna get your best work and that’s what you’re gonna get with the best performance on the screen. So there were some concerns. I come from a musical background, so it helped. Uh, but yeah. It was fun to pick the music and what’s gonna work, obviously the song needs to heighten the actor’s emotion and the story, and the objective of the actors in the scene. So, we hand-picked the songs that would be in it and that would enhance the experience of the audience. So that was fun to do. And that was again, Allen Kovacs at the music label and me and the writers.
It took a creative ensemble to do this. And then we’d pick where they would fit best. It was a wonderful experience and you know, what’s great, I’m going to see Death Punch in concert on Monday because now I get to see them in their world. You’d think they were pros when they were on the film set, but it’s gonna be great to see them on their stage as well.”
Kelli: “They are awesome. Speaking of characters, your character Joly goes through some rough stuff.”
Michael: “It was a lot of work, deep, emotional work. You know, you don’t wanna have to go there, but you can, you can find the meaning behind this story. If you put yourself in that situation, if you have a son or a daughter or a niece or a nephew or someone you’re close with, you’ll understand. I did a lot of background on John. He turns really, he gets pretty badass, you know? And you’re like, what, how did he start? So maybe there was something in him beforehand that turned him to be a man of the cloth, you know? And he sort of chose to be passive. I had to do the work on how much his daughters mean to him and how his he’s a single dad. So what happened to his wife? Is she the one who brought him to religion, you know, and now she’s passed away and maybe he sees his wife in his oldest teenage daughter? There just was all this work that you sort of do. I did some research, I went to sermons, and you just kind of put it all in there. And then I’m gonna tell you something else that helped in playing the characters during those long, long days of shooting and then also producing because you’re exhausted. There were always fires to put out. When you get back to the hotel, you take your hour-long shower just to get clean of the character, but also all the fake blood and everything. And then you’re on the phone for a while putting out the fires. And because it’s, COVID, we’re filming during COVID and then all the other creative challenges. So, you know, I was near exhaustion a lot. And then you just use that because you have to do that as an actor, find what you can use. So physically that helped me because he’s pretty beat down after the first act, you know? So for the rest of the filming, I was able to draw upon that as well.”
Kelli: “He’s such a good character and you can tell that you put his heart into it.”
Michael: “You’re worried about him. Is he gonna be able to go through this? Is he gonna, you know, what’s gonna happen next?”
Kelli: “Exactly. I did catch myself cheering him on. I would love to see a sequel. I want to know where his journey takes him next.”
Michael: “Yeah. We will see. We have some cool ideas. I’ll give you the exclusive if there is a sequel. Let’s do it again!”
Kelli: “Oh, that would be awesome! So when can people see this badass movie?”
Michael: “The soundtrack’s available now out on pre-order. The movie’s hitting theaters on September 14th, worldwide. And I think there’s like a four-week exclusive there and then we hit digital and streaming and all that closer to Halloween.
What I think’s special is that we fought hard to get it to cinemas. If you’re not a Marvel movie, and not that there’s anything wrong with them, but it’s just tough to get into theaters, you know, or if you’re not a big studio, but we felt as independent filmmakers that this movie played best in a theater with a big crowd, a ruckus audience, a soundtrack cranking and you know, some old school fun. So we fought hard to get it to movies. So, hopefully, people can enjoy it there. It’s also going to streaming, but that was just something that we were proud of to be able to bring it to cinemas.”
Kelli: “Well, we are happy that it did get made. It really should be seen.”
It was a pleasure talking with Michael Lombardi. When a filmmaker puts their whole heart into a movie it really shows. Few movies impress me these days, so when one does I get really excited about it and The Retaliators happens to be one of those rare ones. Luckily you don’t have to wait long to see it for yourself, it is out this week, on the 14th!