Demonic possession is all the rage in Hollywood. This year alone, we’ve been haunted by Huesera: The Bone Woman, Attachment, Evil Dead Rise, Talk to Me, It Lives Inside, Run Rabbit Run, and The Nun II. Hell, they even rebooted The Exorcist with Ellen Burstyn and cast none other than Russell Crowe as a boozy Italian man of the cloth who locks horns with al diavolo. Now there’s In the Fire, a new film from director Conor Allyn (No Man’s Land).
On the surface, it has all the trappings of a traditional demonic-possession thriller. In the 1890s, a young boy in a remote South American town, Martin (Lorenzo McGovern Zaini), is believed to be possessed by the devil. Strange things keep happening, from plagues to fires to murders, and the community places all blame on the tiny shoulders of the bug-eyed boy who, some time ago, trampled his mother to death on horseback. With nowhere left to turn, Grace Burnham, an alienist from New York, is summoned to assess the boy and determine if he is in fact possessed or it’s the townsfolk who’ve lost their marbles. Rather than mollify the mob, however, Grace’s presence enrages them further. They tear off her clothes, hold her down, and whip her in the public square while chanting “Witch!” and demanding she repent (for what, who knows).
And the alienist here is played by… Amber Heard, who knows a thing or two about angry mobs, having been subjected to a virulent, relentless harassment campaign during her recent Virginia trial with famous ex-husband, Johnny Depp.
“It is not a coincidence at all that I saw in her strengths that were paralleled by the character of Grace in the movie, nor did I think it was a coincidence that she read it and closely connected with it,” Allyn tells Rolling Stone. “She’s been facing public backlash from her marriage to Johnny Depp since she filed for divorce. In this movie, the main character is a fearless truth-teller whose convictions get her dragged through the public square, whipped, and beaten. And that is what I see in Amber. I see a fearless truth-teller whose convictions have gotten her the 2022-2023 version of that, which is getting dragged through social media on a global, epic scale.”
During the trial, pro-Depp troll accounts launched daily attacks against Heard, as well as seemingly anyone who would post favorably of her, and spread selectively-edited courtroom clips on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. YouTube influencers hopped aboard the Heard Hate Train, cosplaying as amateur court reporters for clicks (and revenue). Bot Sentinel, a research group that monitors social media misinformation and molestation, called the online war waged on Heard “one of the worst cases of cyberbullying and cyberstalking by a group of Twitter accounts that we’ve ever seen.”
“It’s very unfair and it’s just wrong,” Allyn says of the harassment Heard’s faced from the pro-Depp crowd. “Some of our other cast, one of whom is a gay man who has a daughter — they came after him. And it’s fucking wrong. End of story. That shouldn’t happen. We shouldn’t allow that.”
“I had no idea how big it was going to be. I think it was a surprise to everybody,” Allyn adds of the trial. “There are so many parallels [to the film]. We talked about it. She wasn’t trying to make this movie about herself. But I do think she was able to draw upon those experiences.”
While Allyn co-wrote the screenplay to In the Fire back in 2014, by the time it landed in Heard’s hands it was 2020, and she’d already been subjected to years of harassment over her domestic abuse allegations against Depp. When they met, Allyn says he was impressed by how Heard spoke fluent Spanish, had lived in Mexico City, and was an avid reader. Over the ensuing months, the two exchanged notes on Freud and other 19th century psychiatrists.
Filming for In the Fire took place between late February and mid-March and consisted of a 12-day shoot in Ostuni, a tiny city in Puglia, Italy, at the very heel of the boot, and 12 additional days in Antigua, Guatemala. During the Antigua shoot, the Volcán de Fuego was erupting on a near-daily basis, so they added shots of that into the film. The Depp v. Heard trial began on April 11, just a few weeks after the movie wrapped. Despite all this, Heard turns in a strong performance as the compassionate doctor who will do anything to protect young Martin.
“The trial was most definitely in her mind,” Allyn recalls. “She left Guatemala and went straight to Virginia. I give great credit to her. It is hard to be the lead in a movie period. There are wildly long days, it’s hard work, and she’s in every scene, so that takes a heavy physical and emotional toll. She was incredibly committed to the movie. And then she’d wrap her 14-hour day, be a single mom, and go do trial prep, worrying about the looming cloud of allegations from her celebrity ex-husband. To not crumble but excel given all that is amazing.”
Allyn was busy editing In the Fire while the Depp v. Heard trial took place. Witnessing the ways the pro-Depp mob weaponized clips of Heard in her films against her was in the back of his mind during the cutting process.
“There’s a section of the movie where there’s a hypnosis scene and the little boy is using his hypnosis powers against Amber’s character, and he’s saying, ‘What is your lie?’ and she admits, ‘I’m a fraud.’ Even at that time I was like, ‘Fuck, that sounds like a meme,’” admits Allyn. “But should I cut this scene because maybe some assholes will use it on the internet? I think we just made the best version of the movie that we could.”
Heard ended up losing the first Trial by TikTok. When the trial was over, she phoned Allyn.
“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I’m so sorry that this has happened and that my personal baggage might hurt the movie,’” he remembers.
“She was calling me to apologize and that tells me all I need to know about her character. And it just seemed so surreal to have this person who’d just gone through everything that she’d gone through apologizing to me for a movie. Look, I love what I do, but this is her life being ruined, and she’s still sticking up for me and taking the blame.”
Allyn calls Heard an “excellent collaborator,” and the two are already talking about joining forces again on another project he has in mind.
“I want it to be the start of a comeback for her so her life can be about more than a trial,” he asserts. “I don’t think that should have to define the rest of her life, and it certainly shouldn’t have to define the rest of her professional life. She’s a smart, hard-working actor, and she should be able to pursue that.”