Psychological Games: Robert Lieberman on ‘The Tortured’

The director of Fire in the Sky explains how to get in the audience's head, and why he had serious reservations about his newest horror film.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Most audiences probably know Robert Lieberman best as the director of 1993's Fire in the Sky, an alien abduction movie that captured audience's attentions for its terrifying portrayal of alien abduction, at a time when fascination about extra-terrestrials was arguably as its zenith. But Lieberman is a prolific director of both TV and film, and has also helmed such wildly disparate properties as D3: The Mighty Ducks, Table for Five and episodes of "Stephen King's The Dead Zone" and "Dexter." His latest film, The Tortured, stars Jesse Metcalfe ("Desperate Housewives") and Erika Christensen (Traffic) as the parents of a little boy who is abducted, tortured and ultimately killed by a deranged killer. When the criminal justice system fails them, they decide to do a little abducting and torturing of their own, working through their grief by using their son's murderer as a personal punching bag.

Robert Lieberman joined me by phone for an in-depth discussion about the kinds of psychological and ethical themes The Tortured raises, and I was intrigued by the difficulties he himself had tackling the project. Lieberman himself is a father of four, and reacted to the material very, very personally. Read his thoughts on his new psycho-thriller (with just a hint of torture porn), and check out the film on Video on Demand today. The Tortured also opens in select theaters this Friday.


CraveOnline: We’re here to talk about The Tortured, but first I actually wanted to say, and I’m sure you get this a lot, but Fire in the Sky was considered by me and my friends to be the scariest movie ever made when it came out.

Robert Lieberman: Well, thank you. Thank you, I take that as a compliment. And so does the entire industry of psychoanalysts. I’m approached by many people who say, “I spent my life on the couch because of you.” So, yeah, that was my intention. That was clearly my intention.


Clearly. While I feel it’s not directly related to The Tortured, I feel what both films do really well is focus on the characters and their personal tragedies, so when the horror really kicks in, you’re so invested…

You got it. That was exactly my theory. My idea, basically, was based on the fact that I felt that the science fiction and horror genre kind of telegraphed itself to the audience right at the “fade in,” and so [audiences] kind of bolster themselves to take whatever’s coming their way. You have psychological games. You say, “Oh, that’s fake movie blood, that’s this, that’s that.” There’s ways of safing yourself up in the theater once you know what the genre is, but if you don’t know what the genre is…

For instance, you’re watching The Godfather, and Sonny Corleone buys it at a toll booth, you’re not ready for that. And even though you know in your mind that it’s Jimmy Caan, you are devastated by that event. You’ve invested so much in his character of Sonny Corleone. And so […] when I was brought on to do Fire in the Sky, it was supposed to be a real. They claim it was a true story, and I said, how can I convince an audience that it actually happened? My thought was to make a movie that was ostensibly a dramatic movie about real people, and then let this kind of enter that genre. Obviously it worked, and actually you’re correct, I used that exact same philosophy in The Tortured.


The Tortured is not screwing around. It’s dealing directly and frankly with some disturbing and ugly issues.



Was this script brought to you, or did you develop it early on?

I didn’t develop it. The script was brought to me. We worked on the script after that, but the basic notion was, where does the morality of that couple go? That was always an issue for me. Is there real satisfaction in giving someone their comeuppance, even though your son is dead, and you can’t bring him back? That was always the dilemma for me, because I didn’t want to make them out to be worse than he was. And in some ways, it walks a very fine line with that, for me.


Your first act really stands out, in that you’re really showing the intensity of their tragedy. You’re not shying away from anything, so when it gets to the point that they actually have a conversation about what they want to do, it’s justified to the audience.

I think it’s based on the irony that this woman is just devastated by the loss of her adorable little boy, and then finds out the jurisprudence system might just punish the guy for seven years. Like, he’d be back on the streets. That’s not fair. It’s just not fair in anybody’s book! So that’s what we used to justify them coming off the rail a bit, because what they do is kind of off the rail. They’re taking the law into [their] own hands, and then frankly, relishing in the suffering of some other person that is… That was a bit difficult for me to kind of… There were some internal conversations about that, let me put it that way.


How did you gauge whether you’re going too far? There’s a scene in particular, and I’m not going to ruin it, but it’s really amazingly gruesome.

Yes, yes, it is. […] This was made by the company that had made their fortunes off the series of movies called Saw. So their intent was to do another version of a Saw, so they wanted it to be gruesome. I was of the mind to not make it as gruesome. I was of the mind that said, I think that the scarier part is what happens to this couple. And I think that their intent to want to even the score is warranted, but my feeling… the only thing that gives me any solace, in terms of what they did to this guy, is that fact that he’s a doctor. And as a doctor, he’s used to that kind of thing. He’s operated on people, he’s opened people up. It’s not like you or I doing it, it would be majorly gruesome. But I’m sure in surgery, a million times a day, it is amazingly gruesome. So to me, it’s kind of peppered with that kind of gruesomeness. That’s the only saving grace for me. Otherwise, [if it was] two people off the street, and one person was an insurance executive and the other was a teacher, I would say this is way off the charts for these people. They would not be able to tolerate it themselves.


There’s something that Erika Christensen’s character says early in the film that rings true, because we’ve all felt this when personal tragedy strikes. She says she’s just looking for someone to blame.



And as the film went on, I saw that having the freedom to torture someone that you blame, even psychologically if you want to put it in a real world context, that’s a very dark catharsis.

Oh yeah, oh yeah. Very dark. I agree.


How did you talk about this with your cast, tapping into something that even people who actually do it might not be comfortable thinking about?

First of all, they were game to the story. And I think the initial motivation is pretty well handled, so I understand “why” they want to do it. I understand why they [actually] do it. The issue becomes, which I mentioned earlier, is once you’ve done it, you’ve got to have the stomach to keep doing it, because it’s now become some kind of a delight to see this guy in agony. It’s the initial threat, “I’m a doctor, I can keep you awake. You think you’re going to pass out from the pain, [but] you’re going to experience every moment of this.” And somehow they’ve lost their god. They’ve become godless, I believe, because god is turn the other cheek and so forth, and they’ve come to a point where it’s not just satisfying enough to kill the guy, they want him to experience every nuance of what their son experienced, the horror that this guy had perpetrated on their son. And at that point I think they derailed. I think they derailed emotionally, I think they derailed religiously, and I think they now are walking a very fine for me, as I said. So there were many discussions in the making of this film as to where that line was, and frankly I landed on a much more conservative place than the film ended up. I felt less was more.


You talked about the torture. I was watching the scene where we actually see the killer with their son, as much as we see, and it seemed like he was in his own way reenacting his own childhood torture.

Correct. I think he is.


For me, that got me thinking about the cyclical nature of… not just violence, because violence can be very sudden, but torture is a long experience that has long-lasting repercussions. Seeing the victims of torture throughout the film, forcing torture on others to make themselves feel better.

Right. The reason why I named the film The Tortured, it was my idea to name it that. […] Originally it was called Tortured, and then I came up with the title “TheTortured, because it refers not just to the victim, it refers to the couple, who are tortured. They have been tortured. So it’s really all three of them [who] form a kind of triad of tortured humanity. I find the torture that the mother and father go through – I’m a father of four – is horrific, and… I’ll be honest with you, I weighed this up, and truthfully, if someone had done what this man did to their son, to my child, I would certainly give my life to end his. I would probably do that. I probably wouldn’t end up torturing him. I’d just end up killing him, and then I’d probably kill myself, because I don’t want to spend my life in prison. So I definitely feel that the only way to end the cycle of justice is to end this guy’s life. They want to teach him a lesson before they kill him.


It’s interesting that you bring up this personal connection. I feel like there’s a lot of films, a lot of the more interesting psychological horror films, that really only play when you’re an adult, and have had certain experiences. I don’t have children, but I can imagine this film being even more harrowing if I had, and could then truly project myself into this situation.

No question about it. I’ve been a film director for forty years, I started in a little town called Buffalo, New York. I didn’t know anybody from Hollywood. I only dreamed of being a director and now I’ve done it for forty years. And I can tell you clearly. My father was a door-to-door salesman. He told me that the most important thing he did with his life was to have me and my sister, and I’m telling you that the most important thing in my life was to have my four children. So once you have children, they define your life. If you’re a good parent, they define your life. They are your life, they are your legacy. You brought them into this place. They’re the thing that will continue on breathing and contributing, hopefully, to society after you’re gone. So there’s a link that parent has to a child that is stronger than any other emotional link between any other two people, whether they be husband and wife, brother or sister, uncles and aunts, whatever. Parents to a child is the strongest link, and probably mother to a child is a little stronger than a father to a child, but in my case, I find it equal. So these people are really, like you said… I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the film setting the stage so you understand what their loss is, because unless you understand what their loss is, you could not at all entertain what they’re about to do.


I obviously don’t want to reveal the ending, but it could have gone in two different directions. Do you feel that if it had gone the other way, it would have been at all satisfying? It’s an interesting choice.

I understand, and I will keep it rather vague, because that was the thing that roped me into doing the film. I thought that the real true justice of the film came out at the end, because that’s my belief, my personal belief, is that what they’re doing is not right. And so it turns out that what they thought they were doing, they weren’t doing, and I find that the big saving grace of the whole film, for me.

Photo Credit: Bob Akester