Director Anthony Mandler on Surrounded
A quick glance at Antony Mandler’s IMDb page hardly makes one jump to the thought that he’s the perfect choice to make the next great western. One of the most prolific music video directors in the business, Mandler is more likely to be mentioned in conjunction with Beyoncé or Selena Gomez than with cowboys and horses. Surrounded, a new film from MGM and Amazon Studios premiering on digital platforms this week, demonstrates in both its story and its director that it’s a mistake to think you can have someone pegged at a glance.
“A storyteller is a storyteller,” Mandler says. “Whether your weapon of choice is a music video or a commercial, theater or a film, as a director, you’re a leader. You’re someone with a vision who hopefully loves character, story and drama.” The 50-year-old filmmaker has directed 16 music videos for Rhianna and has also helmed videos for 50 Cent, Eminem, The Killers and more. In 2018, Mandler broke into feature films with the legal drama Monster. “I think that Monster and Surrounded are both explorations of character,” Mandler says. “As someone who comes from short-form media where we’re often criticized for not being able to get performances … I think that I’ve demonstrated a willingness to put character first and really be able to cast a movie.”
“Whether your weapon of choice is a music video or a commercial, theater or a film, as a director, you’re a leader. You’re someone with a vision who hopefully loves character, story and drama.”
Mandler titled his University of Southern California senior thesis The Western: From Shane to Unforgiven, and taking his own shot at the genre has been in his sights for a long time. “I think using tropes as a way to bring people in and then turn that on people gives a movie a complexity, which is what I’m interested in,” Mandler says. Surrounded uses the western formula to explore such timely themes that include racism, sexism, disillusionment and societal division
Surrounded stars Letitia Wright (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) as Moses “Mo” Washington, a Black woman who served as a soldier while disguised as a man, a ruse which works in large part because prejudice and disdain prevented most people from taking a second look at her. In 1870, five years after the end of the Civil War, Mo heads west to lay claim on a gold mine and finds her stagecoach ambushed by a group of outlaws, lead by Tommy Walsh (Jamie Bell). When an attempt to fight back leaves several dead and Tommy’s gang scattered, Mo is tasked with keeping watch on Tommy while the other survivors go to get help. Unlike the rest, Tommy looks Mo in the eye and sees her for who she is, though he’s hardly prepared for her strength and tenacity.
“I think using tropes as a way to bring people in and then turn that on people gives a movie a complexity, which is what I’m interested in.”
“We identified pretty quickly that Letitia was who we wanted to make the movie with,” Mandler says. Wright liked the premise and quickly came on board as star and a producer, helping shape the development of the screenplay and adding her perspective as a woman of color. Mandler felt that Bell was the perfect actor to pair with Wright, and much of the film centers on just the two of them on screen. “I love that Jamie is this incredibly powerful, authentic kind of actor that’s also kind of small, like Billy the Kid,” Mandler says. “So it’s two unexpected characters that both represent so much danger, both physically and metaphysically.”
The ensemble also includes the late Michael K. Williams (Boardwalk Empire, The Wire), who died in 2021, as Will Clay, a manipulative stranger who may represent Mo’s biggest threat. “Michael was a gentle, beautiful, loving soul who just knew how to play some of the meanest characters in recent times,” Mandler says. The two had been close friends for over 20 years, and directing the acclaimed actor in his final film is something that Mandler holds as a great honor.
Williams battled addiction throughout his life and faced many challenges before becoming a successful actor, including a period of homelessness and a bar fight that left him with a scar on face. “It’s a testament to the trauma of his life prior that he was able to gather all that information and translate and actually metamorphosize into these characters that were the furthest thing from who he was,” Mandler says. “I watched my friend disappear in the character and then reappear when the day was over.”
“I watched my friend disappear in the character and then reappear when the day was over.”
As Surrounded makes its premiere before a wide audience, Mandler is looking ahead to various projects, including a science fiction film involving black holes and a project about the war on terrorism. Regardless of the size of his films, Mandler remains committed to telling character-based stories that come with a deep sense of social commentary and something to say. If Surrounded is any indicator, audiences have some ambitious, thought provoking and masterfully crafted films to look forward to in the future.
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