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Exclusive Interview: Elizabeth Röhm on making her directorial debut with the ‘essential’ story of The Girl in the Basement

Elizabeth Röhm credit: Lifetime

Room was nominated for four Oscars, with star Brie Larson winning Best Actress, for its story of a woman and the boy she gives birth to while being held captive for seven years in a single room. Now, Lifetime is telling an even more horrific story of a young girl held captive for 20 years by her father.

Inspired by actual events, The Girl in the Basement is the story of Sara (Stefanie Scott), who was looking forward to her 18th birthday so she could move away from her controlling father (Judd Nelson). But before the big day, he imprisons her in the basement of their home, where, over the years, he tortures and rapes her, resulting in Sara’s giving birth to several children.

“I think it is important to tell a story honestly and authentically, but there is no reason to be sensational, especially when you are dealing with incredibly difficult topics like incest, imprisonment, sexual abuse, and rape,” Elizabeth Röhm, who is making her directorial debut with the ripped-from-the-headlines Lifetime movie, told Monsters & Critics.

“It is implied pretty quickly what has happened and then it is more interesting to understand the psychology behind the character and the ultimate strength of will of Sara and the psychological fragmentation and sickness of the monster that Judd Nelson plays.”

After decades of captivity, Sara finally escapes, and her family learns the devastating truth about her plight in those 20 years – something that took place right beneath their feet, and possibly gives them pause to consider their own role in the event.

“Part of how a monster gets built is by people who are close to that person ignoring the signs and allowing that monster to grow right in front of them,” Röhm continues. “We are talking about familial abuse and generational abuse, and the lack of accountability about abuse.”

We spoke more to Röhm about her take on how she feels something so horrific could happen, saving a small role in Girl in the Basement for herself, and making her directorial debut.

Elizabeth Röhm and Stefanie Scott.
Elizabeth Röhm and Stefanie Scott. Pic credit: Lifetime

Monsters & Critics: This is also a story about a family, wouldn’t you say it’s about more than just what happened in that basement?

Elizabeth Röhm: Yes, there was an aspect of this film that was extremely important to explore, which is the relationship between Joely Fisher [who plays Sara’s mother], who did an incredible job of playing someone who deeply needs the love of her partner, but also the comfort of her home, and she is willing to overlook anything to maintain her life and her lifestyle.

Because of that, these women all lived with the seedling of a monster, and with the lack of accountability, he grows into a sex monster, basically, and an abuser, a rapist, and an incest monster and that’s what he becomes because he is not held accountable.

So, looking at this family abuse and the secrets we keep for those we love because we just want to get through it and we don’t want to turn our lives upside down, I’m suggesting in the film this is where the problems begin. We do have to shine light on abuse to eradicate it so it doesn’t grow into this kind of a monster.

M&C: Why this particular project for your directorial debut?

Elizabeth Röhm: Well, I feel if you are going to direct your first film and pivot in that way, there needs to be a real reason why you are doing it. So, I didn’t just want to direct. I wanted to direct something that I had to direct. I wanted to direct something essential.

So, this story, this topic, the amalgam of events from these ripped-from-the-headlines stories that inspired the script by Barbara Marshall, it was a necessity for me to direct for my first film. I am glad that Lifetime supported me and gave me an incredible film that I had to direct for my first opportunity.

M&C: How did you study for this moment in your career? Was there a director in particular you shadowed?

Elizabeth Röhm: I was really lucky to have done a movie with David O. Russell to really see the masterful work of a genius really, but in this particular film, I had my creative EP Manu Boyer, who had directed me twice in movies and he was there really being my mentor.

And my cinematographer Pierluigi Malavasi, it was also my third movie with him, so I was flanked by two guys who knew me very well, so because of that I had a really strong support system within the structure of this movie.

I’m going to leave and do another movie for Lifetime and have the same cinematographer, so again, it’s all about collaboration, trust, and being able to surround yourself with a strong team.

M&C: Being an actress, how did that effect your casting process? Is it different than someone who is solely a director?

Elizabeth Röhm: Probably. I don’t know. It is hard to compare. I think being an actor, I respond to great actors. I am not impressed by resumés, I am impressed by great actors. That is what motivated me in my choices as far as who I was going to cast. I really feel with the actors, I was very blessed with a strong team, who brought 150 percent to their roles every single day.

M&C: Stefanie Scott is still so young, but, obviously, you needed someone young to make this work. How did you know she could carry it off, and also the aging process?

Elizabeth Röhm: She is a star. She has that ability, that depth, that maturity, that reservoir of emotion, that fearlessness, that ability to drop into her emotions and her character with effortlessness. She makes it look easy. I don’t really know what her process is other than what I discovered with each of the actors I worked with is that they are all different.

They need to be spoken to differently, communicated with differently, inspired differently. Stefanie embraced a very tough role with vigilance. Not even having children of her own, she played an incredible mother. And being very young, she then played a 40-year-old very convincingly, world-weary and weary from her abuse and her imprisonment. She is a natural.

Elizabeth Rohm directing The Girl in the Basement
Elizabeth Röhm Pic credit: Lifetime

M&C: At the end, I wanted to see more of what happened after.

Elizabeth Röhm: Again, it’s not a full feature where we have the time to really explore that. I think it was also where did you want to live and breathe in the story. I would have liked to have spent more time with her post the trauma of her experience and her imprisonment, but we just needed to show that she got out of where she was and survived.

M&C: You saved a small role for yourself. Why?

Elizabeth Röhm: I saved that tiny role for myself mainly because my producers asked me to do it. It was not intentional to have a Hitchcock moment, but it was fun acting with my actors.

I did that scene with them many days into the production, so the relationship and the rapport was already established. It was a fun break and it was nice to level the playing field because it was my first film and everybody knows me as an actor, so it was fun to be able to relax and act with each other.

M&C: How do you envision your balance between directing and acting going forward? 

Elizabeth Röhm: I am really focused on directing for now. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to act. It means that you can only do one thing well. Now, I’m off to direct another movie for Lifetime and that’s going to take many months of my life. I look forward to acting again soon, but I’m not going to act in this movie that I’m going to direct. I would love to act when it’s the right role and the right time, but directing is my focal point right now.

Girl in the Basement premieres February 27 at 8/7c on Lifetime.

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