The 1 percent may be enjoying some serious #lifegoals at the minute, but they’ve been having something of a tough time on screen. Parasite, Triangle of Sadness and The Menu are just a few recent films that have shifted the power dynamics away from the super wealthy and into the hands of those grubby lower classes, with sometimes deadly results. Coup! — from Austin Stark & Joseph Schuman, who both wrote and directed, and closing the Venice Days sidebar — is set to join this growing list.
Set during the 1918 Spanish Flu, the darkly comic thriller stars Billy Magnussen as Jay, a progressive, velvet slippered U.S. journalist sheltering from the chaos with his family — and their servants — on a swanky island estate (all the while penning angry articles that suggest he’s in the thick of it in New York). But when Peter Sarsgaard’s mysterious grifter Floyd shows up as their cook, the devious newcomer spies the chance to upend the social strata and spark a rebellion to seize his mansion (and more).
Unsurprisingly, early inspiration was drawn from recent pandemic, when Stark and Schuman — friends since the age of six — found themselves living together in Long Island.
“It was a time where New Yorkers with means were just fleeing, whether it was to The Hamptons or upstate New York or to farms in Pennsylvania,” says Stark. Magnussen’s character was partially shaped by former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, who Stark says was “broadcasting from his basement in the Hamptons and implying he was in New York — although there was enough ambiguity that he didn’t get completely fried for it.”
Although the flu serves as the backdrop, Schuman says it was deployed merely as the “canvas that gets our characters marooned on a deserted island.” The setting allowed them to poke around and have fun with the idea of “what happens to this upstairs downstairs relationship when the social order stops functioning — do the expectations of the employer and employee still apply to this situation?”
As Schuman notes, “these broad scale emergencies have a way of betraying the fault lines of the class system, which was deeply appealing to us to write about.”
This was one of the reasons why the two decided to turn the clock back 100 years, creating a layer of distance so that Coup!, despite it’s contemporary roots, wasn’t a COVID film. And the progressive era of that time was a good mirror to the conflicts of the present day. “Especially in that not that much has changed,” says Schuman.
Sarsgaard had been eyed from the start as the chef-hatted rebel Floyd, the sense of calculated energy in the actor’s eyes making him perfect for the role. “You always feel like his gears are turning — and he does dark very well, but he’s not given enough opportunities to do comedy,” says Stark. For Magnussen as Sarsgaard’s pampered target Jay, it was more of a reversal of his usual characters. “He plays the tormentor in so many other roles that we thought it would be really interesting to put him in the part of the tormented.” Midway through Coup!, there’s a small cameo from frequent cameo-maker Fisher Stevens, who pops up as the real-life muckraker Upton Sinclair. Coincidentally, Stevens happened to be a huge fan of the writer and political activist. He signed up.
While the filmmakers admits that they did take inspiration from Parasite (they hadn’t seen Triangle of Sadness when writing the script), they claim the aim wasn’t solely to do a take-down of society’s upper echelons. By putting Jay and Floyd together in the same house, they hoped to create an immediate conflict between figures representing two sides of a sharply polarized country, a conflict Schuman describes as having a “darkly esoteric edge” to it.
“We weren’t thinking so much about it being an ‘eat the rich’ film as much as just doing something original and something that appealed to us, that spoke to our class struggle and social divide,” says Stark. “But it’s really cool to see this kind of sub-genre take shape.”