In 2010, just prior to beginning his studies at ArtCenter, Ward heard an NPR report on campus rape victims that explored the failure of colleges to prevent and resolve cases of sexual assault. “What really got me fired up was that the students reported the criminal act to the authorities and still nothing was done about it,” says Ward of his initial inspiration for the story.
Ward soon began reading additional reports of similar incidents happening around the country. “In some cases, the victims had to continue going to classes with their assaulters,” says Ward. “The shock, trauma and the letdown in justice they experienced was unbelievable.”
Outspoken matches that horror with a turn for the fantastic. In Ward’s story, when the authorities refuse to help Judith, she begins receiving mystical visions of beheadings. These visions—transmitted to her by a mysterious figure—contain obscure instructions which will help Judith find the justice (albeit a bloodier Middle Ages brand of justice) that society failed to provide.
“I was thinking about stories of the saints, especially Joan of Arc,” says Ward, explaining Outspoken’s second main source of inspiration. “Particularly the way she was divinely guided and seeking justice, not for herself but for her people, for France.”
This notion of divine justice brought Ward back to that original question: What happens when your protectors turn against you? “What occurred to me was that there needs to be some kind of law,” says Ward. “Call it ‘karma’ or ‘cause and effect,’ but there’s got to be another element that kicks in when the material world lets you down.”
As part of his research for the project, Ward interviewed several victims of sexual assault. Most eye-opening to Ward was that several people he knew personally revealed themselves as victims once they learned about his project. “This is something a lot of people hold within,” says Ward, adding that most sexual assault victims don’t tell their stories. Or, if they do, it’s usually two or more years after the attack. “Every victim deals with it differently.”
Asked whether the growing #MeToo and #TimesUp movements helped shape his story, Ward says they didn’t directly link to Outspoken—he finished the first draft of his screenplay in 2013 in a course taught by the late Film faculty member Michael Gottlieb. However, he acknowledges that there did seem to be an uncanny alignment between the development of his project and the stories of sexual assault in the news.
“As I worked on the script, I started seeing more and more similar stories come to light,” says Ward. He points to the story of Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who only served three months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as being very close to the events he depicts in his story. “These stories have always been happening, but the telling of these stories, and what they’re exposing, has increased immensely.”
Ward credits Jordan Peele, director of the box office smash and critically acclaimed Get Out, and his branding of his tale of interracial romance turned horror story as a “social thriller,” as having helped him find a way to go about pitching his project. Because, Ward says, like Get Out, he hopes his project will thrill audiences but also spark a much-needed conversation.
“I designed the film in such a way that I think it’s going to get a dialogue going,” says Ward. “Some people don’t agree with the ending. Some people don’t agree with the decisions that Judith makes. But I want to get a rouse out of people. Not just to irritate them, but to awaken them. And hopefully get them to have a talk after the film.”