A lads night out usually comprises of endless pints of fizzy lager, copious amounts of pork scratchings and politically incorrect remarks about the new barmaid before everyone goes home, waking up the following morning with a hideous hangover. Director David Bruckner’s new film, The Ritual starts off in a similar vein but ends tragically and the four remaining friends reunite some months later for a hiking trip deep in the Scandinavian wilderness. But as the old children’s song goes, ‘If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise’. And what a surprise it is as they find themselves lost in the forest, and worse still there’s something unseen that’s coming after them.
Based on the critically acclaimed horror novel of the same name, The Ritual by English writer Adam Nevill, this is the feature debut of David Bruckner whose previous work has been segments on the horror anthology films, Southbound and V/H/S. Bruckner has cast Rafe Spall as the lead, an actor who, though he’s had roles in Prometheus and Shaun of the Dead, is not readily associated with horror.
With the film being shot on location in the bleak cold of the Carpathian mountains we spoke to David Bruckner about the film and its menacing presence within the forest…
SCREAM: How did Adam Nevill’s novel first come to your attention?
David Bruckner: Well I wasn’t familiar with Adam’s work but the script was bouncing around and it came to me through my management company at the time and I got hold of it and I thought it was totally lunatic in all the best way and it was just very refreshing and I got talking to (Executive Producer) Will Tennant over at Imaginarium (production company) and I read the book and I just fell in love more and more with the project. It really just started as a conversation. It’s always a challenge to adapt a book for screen as there are certain fundamental things that translate and some that you don’t have to carry further and having that conversation was the arena in which I got involved.
You’ve cast Rafe Spall as the lead and apart from Prometheus he’s not really known for horror and he’s said he’s not a fan of the genre either, so how did you convince him to accept the role?
DB: Well I’ve been a big of Rafe’s since before Prometheus and there’s nothing more sacred than for a horror director to take an actor into a different context. There’s something about it that feels slightly inappropriate in a way. I’m LA based and he was working on a TV show in Venice and we met up and had a lot of ideas and had similar ideas about performance and how we would handle that in a film like this and I’m just really interested in making room for the actor in a genre like this. It should feel intimate in a way, especially in a horror film, you need that familiarity. We had a lot of similar attitudes about the ideas and we’re very fortunate that he jumped on board and he was the first person that we cast.
You’ve filmed on a remote Carpathian mountain range. That must have caused all manner of trouble carting a crew, lighting, cameras and cranes up there.
DB: (laughs) I’m glad you asked me. Coming from an independent filmmaking background I don’t always measure my ambition. You sort of strive for the impossible. We had a really great production services company in Romania and we’d looked in a few different places to shoot it but we were shown this immense range of forests in the Carpathian mountains in Transylvania which is about 7000ft high and at that elevation you get dark coniferous forest that kind of feels very Northern European. I fell in love with that look. I’d never seen wood like this. I grew up in the South East of the United States and those wood structures felt too familiar to me and I wanted them parachuted into a bizarre nightmare so we had to shoot there. We got a lot of support but it was incredibly challenging. It’s a mountainous area so getting a steadicam on there at 40 degrees, as I’m sure you can imagine, is not an easy feat. Every day we were in a different place and we scavenged that forest and really used as much of the area as possible. The weather at that elevation is also a problem, as well as bears…
You got attacked by bears?
DB: (laughs) No they just like to circle the set at night occasionally and in the morning one of the crew would have filmed them but we were well protected. It was a very remote landscape and hopefully that sense of immersion shows up on screen.
So having to deal with all that, what became your most complicated scene to shoot?
DB: Well we had a running joke on set where I’d ask, “What’s been the hardest week so far?” and the 1st A.D. would say, “Next week”. But some of the genre stuff at the end of the movie which required a lot of technical expertise, a lot of planning and dealt with prosthetics and CGI and stunts, all co-ordinated and were not on a sound stage. We’re doing it all on location and all of those things are troubled by the weather. You’re on multiple weeks of nights and you’re stepping on one another and sometimes it presents some very intense technological problems. The hardest thing for me was on the first week up on top of one of those mountains because we wanted to shoot it all for real. There’s nothing in the way of painted backgrounds or anything like that but we took in all those landscape images but with the wind chill factor it was absolutely absurd. There was a scene where the guys just had to have a calm normal conversation and we were all just getting eaten to pieces by the wind. Just trying to maintain composure between shots was extremely difficult but for an endurance film about these guys going deeper into this nightmare situation you just try to embrace it as best you can.
So you’re up a mountain, in the cold, in the dark, in a foreign country. Did the locals try and spook you?
DB: (laughs) I don’t know that there was any superstitious stories going round but there was this one night where I left my bag on one of the sets and we had a 100 person crew maybe and we’re hopping around on these locations and I needed to retrieve my bag. So I said to one of the PA’s that we’d walk down one of these trails with a flashlight and I think he was a bit more accustomed to dealing with the possibility of bears and he said that the stunt crew had spotted one so we should project our voices. And there’s something about walking along a trail with a flashlight, hollering, with some abstract idea of a bear creature that might have been present. I actually felt some amount of fear. It was bizarre and I did the math and said we can come back tomorrow but it was typical for the movie in many ways and it didn’t help that we came across one of our creepy sets in the dark either. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to scaring myself.
Your creature was designed by Keith Thompson who did a lot of work on Guillermo Del Toro’s films. In the book it’s described as quite goat-like but you’ve moved away from that description for the look of the creature in the film.
DB: It was very much a collaboration. There’s one way of thinking about monsters in the movies. You can start with the pre-existing myth and then you service that myth in some way. I did a movie with a Succubus so it was a case of how do you bring that to screen? So some are metaphors and you choose what path you want to go down. There’s no concrete idea that you’re trying to bring to life necessarily. The other approach is that the monsters are fabricated nightmares and part of their fears and you design this creatures both visually and archetypically as a counter point to a characters journey and it gives you licence to explore and in the movies there should be something refreshing about it, you know, kind of, ‘I’ve never seen that before and I can never unsee that!’ and so for that reason we were very interested in Keith.
In the book you get impressions of the beast and it’s a nightmare version of it unwinding in the men’s mind of what it could be and because of his prose and the language he uses you never get a firm concept of its size and there are certain attributes that I could kind of literalise. It’s always kind of changing in my experience of reading the book. You may not conjure a characters specific look when you read a book just an idea of their face if that makes sense. So it very much grew out of a conversation between Keith and I based on the book and the impression we had. But there’s something so human about it that we wanted to bring it together and Keith would sketch something and send it to me and he came up with some really incredible ideas and when he slipped one idea by us it took me a second. He had literalised, if this makes sense, some of the expression that I felt were coming across in conversation. It was the idea that it had a human quality about it despite the fact that it was very much an animal and just presented us with something that I felt I could never unsee again.
The film’s produced by Andy Serkis, so is there any element of motion capture with the creature, as it seems to be part practical and part CGI also?
DB: A little bit of everything (laughs). I would be interested to know what we got away with but yeah all of the above.
So you’re going to keep it a secret?
DB: I guess at this stage as only a few have seen it. I’m just wondering where we… it’s about trying to hide the line, the seam because audiences are pretty attuned to it. I’ll say this; it was great to work with Andy and we absolutely did work some mo-cap into our process. How we did it on screen changes quite a lot but it’s an amazing tool to get everyone on the same page so that you can direct in a traditional way. The face is quite human like if you do mo-cap and this is quite a departure and it changes the nature of how you use mo-cap.
Now, I’ve not seen a First Assistant Director get a credit at the start of a film since black and white films from the forties but you do it here. Was there a reason for that?
DB: I think it was just appropriate for us. I mean AD’s put so much into it and Liam (Lock) was front and centre with us with every decision that we made. I don’t know what the convention is so not knowing that I just felt that that was the way it should be. They’re the hardest working people on set.
So what’s your favourite horror film?
DB: I try to come up with singular answers but I’m going to sidestep you and say I love Carpenter, I love this current period of horror right now. I mean I love the classic 80’s American horror tropes. I think A Nightmare on Elm Street is the Number 1 central horror conceit I’ve ever come across. It’s just absolutely terrifying ,it’s horrific. I love 70’s horror. I always find myself ,for better or worse, actually making a conscious effort to not think that much about other horror films when we were making it. It was trying to relate to actual fears that you might have, you know, Is there a bear in the woods? or stuff that was more personal, you know, ‘This is a moment where I suffered a loss of confidence with one of my male friends’. In total honesty, I just can’t pick a favourite. It changes year to year.