It's no picnic for bears in these woods
Down in the deep dark woods, you never know quite what you might find. The Ritual, adapted by screnwriter Joe Barton from Adam Nevill's 2011 novel, follows a group of men whose holiday hiking trip sees them veer off the trail to take a short cut through a forest after one of their number is injured. As night falls and the shadows lengthen, a series of sinister incidents convinces them that there's something else there in the dark, watching and waiting for its moment to strike.
David Bruckner made his name with Southbound and The Signal before working on this film. "The Imaginarium had been developing the movie for quite some time. I read a draft that they had been working on and then I read the book immediately after that and got involved from there," he told me.
It struck me that many directors would have tackled the film as found footage, and I ask if that was something he considered.
"No, it was never really on the table for me," he says. "I mean, I've done some found footage work in the past and it's something I have a huge appreciation of but I think, for me, one of the huge entry points on this - and this comes straight from the novel - was the sense of the surreal. It's dealing with a lot of classic horror tropes and old symbols from early mythologies, and a lot of that stuff really speaks on a subconscious wavelength, so I think this movie was always an opportunity to get a little bit psychedelic and get into the protagonists' minds, and that's something that's hard to do with found footage."
The surrealism stands out in the contrat between an early scene, which sees main character Luke (Rafe Spall) and his friend encounter volence in a supermarket, and the very different style and mood of the scenes shot in the wild.
"There's a few different reads on it. Either you're dreaming about past events or the movie itself is the nightmare you have after traumatic events," David explains. "To obfuscate that was always really interesting to us."
Once we get into the forest and the main action begins, there are similarities to The Blair Witch Project. Was that an influence or did he feel he was dealing with a very different mythology?
Saying farewell to a friend
"You know, it's interesting: I'm a huge fan of the Blair Witch franchise for a lot of different reasons but it wasn't something that came to mind readily for me when I read the book, because the malevolent force that's pursuing them is so different. I think the fact there's a certain rhythm to wandering into the woods, getting lost and then being provoked by something at night while you sleep means there are certain similarities there but it wasn't something that we went to a whole bunch. There were different influences for us throughout."
Has he been scared like that on trips to the woods himself?
"It's funny - I was always a car camper." He laughs. "So I never had gone on a backpacking trip until after we premiered the movie in Toronto. I had a group of my old friends from when I was in my early twenties and we went on a backpacking trip through Zion National Park in Utah, and I'm happy to say that it was very fulfilling and nothing bad happened. But those woods were pretty terrifying and it's not hard to let your imagination get away from you for a second if you're wandering around in that forest. And it's very hazardous to shortcut through those woods."
It's tricky, I suggest, to make a film about a group of middle aged men experiencing fear like that and keep the audience engaged with it in the right way.
"One of the huge exciting things for me about this was that you don't see a lot of horror films with middle aged people. You don't see many horror films with an all male cast. In a sense this was a particular exploration of masculine weakness. I think that's part of the fun of it, is to take some guys with all of their internal mechanisms - they all have an ability to appear strong to one another and they don't want to show weakness - and to break them down and emasculate them in front of one another is kind of one of the reasons you make a movie."
Better think twice about that short cut
So was he interested in how they reacted one another's fear as well as how they managed their own?
"Absolutely. I'm interested in all the ways they act out against one another when they're afraid, I think you see a lot of that all around you. The movie very much deals with the former alpha. Luke, you get the sense is kind of the leaders of the group, or the one that presents the most, and because of his act of weakness at the beginning of the movie - which is debatable, whether or not he should have done something - he loses the confidence of his friends. That's the first time that happens within the group. I think it's fascinating to watch how long it takes these guys to come together and be honest with one another, and that's definitely the territory of the movie that was most interesting to me."
One of the ways the film builds up tension is by using sound. Did he have a clear plan for that from the outset or was a lot of it developed after shooting was complete?
"You kind of shoot it knowing that you're going to rely on it quite a bit. We did the movie on a budget and you're trying to come up with inventive ways to give it a sense of scale and in a forest there's always the power of what you can't see. We had a wonderful team of sound designers and a wonderful sound mixer. I think they understood that there was an opportunity here to really bring something to life."
The shoot itself turned out to be quite a challenge, he says.
"It was a really remote wilderness shoot. We were on a plateau in Romania and we were constantly at odds with the elements. There were hailstorms, it was frighteningly cold, and we wre kind of racing against winter, because at any moment the snow was going to drop and then we would lose continuity. And then, you know, much of the movie takes place at night.
Luke begins to confront his demons
"I like to think that being out there in the elements, having such a physically and emotionally challenging shoot, that that creates a stressful, intense, high-activity environment that shows up onscreen to some degree."
Did it also affect the way the film's central mythology and creature developed?
"The forests in particular that we discovered in Romania have a very Northern European feel - I think that's because of the elevation - and there's a certain harsh sensibility to it. I mean, I'd never seen a forest quite like that, and we'd been thinking about Norse mythology and all these mythological tropes and wanted to create something that fekt like it belonged in that world and in that universe. There was a bunch of research that we'd done and a wonderful designer, Keith Thompson, that we brough on board. All his creations have a certain flavour to them and I think that's what speaks to me as well."
And what about the creature's worshippers, whom we eventually meet in the forest?
"It was an invention but it was also something that came from a lot of research. In this particular film I don't think we felt an obligation to conjure or service a particular mythology that had been charted but to sort of treat this as one of the stories you haven't heard that came from that particular canon of ideas. This is the Norse nightmare that you have, slightly uninformed, about some of those ideas - the possibilities that could have been. And obviously we took creative license because you also always want it to be about the characters and the modern problems that you're taking on. So I think we took a lot of inspiration from the ast in how we organised the cult in particular, but it's also very much about Luke."
David's previous work has featured some interesting creatures. I ask if they're a major part of the appeal of filmmaking for him.
The Ritual poster
"I'm fascinated by monsters," he says. "I think there's something fun that you can do cinematically, which is take an archetype that exists in your mind, sometimes, and you're afraid of a certain ind of person or a certain kind of voice, maybe due to past experiences or something that you've compltely conjured, and you can literalise those ideas. The monsters are really a reflection of us, in a sense, and they're a blast to create. So yeah, I would absolutely continue to go down that path. But it's not all I'm interested in.
"I'm a science fiction nerd, so a lot of stuff that I'm interested in is more technological. Maybe our monsters are a bit predictive of things that could come to be... The Signal's a good example of that - also the kind of satirical quality in that. I'm a big fan of the Black Mirror series and I think that that particular flavour of film is interesting because it can be frightening and there's a universe to explore in that direction."
So what appealed to him most about this film?
"I think the most enjoyable thing for me in The Ritual was really dealing with the actors and the character relationships. I really enjoy peering into how people respond in extreme situations and looking at the psychology of that. I would also say that for me personally it was a really exciting trans-Atlantic adventure. I got to be in London for a year and travel to the other side of the world - I'm based in LA - and make a movie about confronting all sorts of things, and the experience of that was extremely challenging and very fulfilling."
The Ritual premieres on Netflix on 9 February.