Red in tooth and claw

Berkley Brady on venturing into the wild with Dark Nature

by Jennie Kermode

Dark Nature
Dark Nature

Beginning with mundane but no less disturbing domestic horrors and moving on to a survival situation in a remote part of the Canadian Rockies, Berkley Brady’s Dark Nature is one of those films which evidently has as much story behind its development as it puts up onscreen. It played as part of 2022’s Fantasia International Film Festival, and it follows a troubled woman, Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson), as she tries to get over an abusive relationship by going on a hiking trip with a therapist and a group of women who have all experienced traumas of their own. I met up with Berkley early on in the festival and asked her about the origins of the story.

“I was definitely always interested in the dynamics between people, and dynamics between women,” she says. “And, I think, the role of friendship and being in the wilderness. I've had a lot of experience out there. So it was a matter of bringing a few of my favourite things together.”

I tell her that I was drawn to the fact that the women here are not just the familiar skinny blond teenagers but are a range of ages, races and body types, which immediately makes the film seem more real.

“Oh, good,” she says. “That was very important to me. Very, very important. And I really I just wanted it to look like the people I see in my world. It was important to me also that Dr. Dunley was older so that she could have more authority. I have a lot of respect for the elders in my life, who have a lot more years than me, so I think that it would have been a very different movie, if we had cast someone younger for Dunley. I think it still could have been really powerful, but I really like just showing, yeah, she's older, and she's totally able to do all these things. The hiking, she's a leader. And I'm 41 now so I want to see that, I want to see women who are older than me that I can look up to and, you know, see as just cool, complex people. We don't see it enough. They're all still beautiful actors, but they are all themselves.”

Does she do a lot of outdoor stuff herself?

“Yeah, I do. Well, my parents dragged me into the woods a lot growing up. If I wanted to see a Beastie Boys concert, they would make me go on a new trip. I actually don't do as much now as I used to, but I did for a really long time, and I know that area extremely, extremely well. There's still always things to find. There's more to learn about it. But I did have a general sense of where I'd hoped to shoot and what it was like, and was always writing with that in mind.

“For the specific locations, my husband actually suggested the place where the water is, and we took our dog down and had a swim to see how that water was going to be. It was really cold.” She shivers at the memory. “I loved it, though. And then a friend suggested where the canyon came in. In the location scouting in the beginning, I was just driving around with people and hiking after dinner, just going for three hours.”

Whenever people shoot in spaces like this, there is a balance between trying to get the proper outdoor atmosphere and make it seem like a huge open space, and actually being near enough to a road to get the equipment to where it needs to be...

“Definitely, yes. The practicalities of where we were, were a big part of it. So making sure there was a road close by. For that canyon, we'd have to hike about 20 minutes from the trailers before we could set up, then for lunch and back again. So that was definitely a day event. There were people in the crew who were not prepared. They were like, ‘This is a little too hard for me.’ But the majority of people were okay. Everyone was tough. They all did it. I think the crews in Alberta are very, very tough, and we were all doing it together so I think that helps – you see the other person doing it and think, ‘I can do it.’ And everyone was committed to making the film as good as it could be, and that was just part of what it was going to take.”

So was everyone okay about the cold water as well?

“The cold water was definitely the most psychologically hard for the actors. It was the first thing they asked about, you know, ‘Where's that going to be?’ I made sure to swim in it before, and then we had custom wetsuits made. A big chunk of our wardrobe budget went to their custom wetsuits that are skin coloured, so they are actually wearing wetsuits under their clothes. And I was like, ‘You can show this to your grandkids one day if they ever give you a hard time, because you are tough.”

The way that parts of the film are shot suggest that she wants to show us what’s going on, and make it scary, without triggering trauma survivors too directly.

“I do feel that people are aware they're going to be seeing disturbing or possibly triggering things,” she says. “I think it's a bit of a self selecting audience, keeping in mind that people who don't want to be scared are not going to go see a scary movie. I'm keeping that in mind. I feel it's very truthful to those characters and what happened between them. I really wanted to show that experience through the main character's eyes, and make it as subjective as possible.”

A lot of the film is about processing trauma, and different approaches to therapy. Did she do a lot of research on that prior to writing?

“Definitely, definitely. I myself have had very positive and very negative experiences with therapy. I think therapy with the right therapist is the most amazing thing, and I'm glad I had student insurance which allowed me to have it at one point in my life. I don't think it's not really accessible for most people. But I do think it can be so helpful. I've seen people have great success in 12 Step programmes and support groups that have really changed their lives. Also I did a documentary about a vision quest, with a Cree elder, but they prepare for one year just psychologically be able to do it. It's four days and four nights without food or water and you're out on the land on your own. So I’ve seen her process and how healing it is for the people who do it, and people do it many times.

“I do really believe that you need to get out into nature, and get away from so many distractions, and just sort of be human, really. And so I was looking at all those different things and thinking, well, I really want to make it so whoever you are in the audience, you'll be able to project what you already think about these types of modalities onto this character. In our day and age there’s a lot of self help phrases and things that are thrown around which, like, are those helpful? Are they harmful? What do they do? When Dunley is saying ‘You've made major strides,’ what does this mean? Is it just more mindfuckery, or what? So yeah, I'm interested in all of that. I really don't like didactic storytelling, so I wanted to keep it as open as I could.”

We talk about older ways of understanding violence, and the way that the idea of possession might help when Joy is wrestling with the idea that she loves this man but he's done all this harm to her, and needs to know that her feelings of love are valid but so is the need to escape from him.

“Abusive relationships so complex,” she says thoughtfully. “They don't make sense to everyone else. You can say like, ‘Why are you with that person? They're clearly not good for you.’ But if you're with someone, especially if you've got love bombed, or you’re with a narcissist or someone who's manipulative. If you're not that person you're going to have your own issues, like co-dependency or things like that, like you're going to love and be attached to someone who harms you. And who knows, in her past, she maybe even equated that with love.

“Those are things that I think from the outside don't make sense, but they don't make them any less real for the person who's there. In terms of him being possessed by a force, I think it is true that a lot of abusive people are themselves suffering incredibly, and in a lot of pain. That doesn't excuse what they do. And I don't think they deserve to be coddled. It doesn't mean they shouldn't be held responsible and accountable for what they do. But it doesn't mean that they're not worthy also of understanding or empathy. But it's tricky. It's sort of like playing with fire. Especially if there was a romance involved.”

The women on the hiking trip seem to be under threat, as a group, from from an external force, and maybe that's something which helps Joy to understand that it's not her who's responsible for the things that she suffered.

“That's an interesting approach to it, yeah. Obviously there’s a twist in the movie, about something that has happened between her and him. I think maybe, if anything, it's bringing her out of herself. Because I think one thing I wanted to put out there that I hadn't seen before was, there's sort of an inherently selfish aspect sometimes to getting over something or being a hurt person or a sick person. I think it can be necessary to be selfish, but it also can make you a bad friend. It can mean that you're kind of self absorbed as you're trying to get through something. And it can be like any difficult thing I think, like an intrusive thought could be like rolling around in your head, and then you're not really listening to your friends talk about their problems, or their problems don't seem as important. Like you're the one who's going through a major thing, and that's natural, and that's okay. But I think going through this, she is really in her own head in the beginning. And by the end, she's not in her head anymore, and she's stepping up to be a good friend.”

That seems especially relevant, I note, to a group in which everyone has experienced trauma, though not always in the ways we might assume.

“Yeah, I was very much trying to not put any stereotypical, like, this person looks like this so that means their trauma must be that. It's like, it's different. They all have a very specific story, and I thought a lot about going more into each of their stories. I think that is really exciting and interesting but I really backed off on that because I didn't want to make it like trauma porn. Like, ‘Oh, look what's happening to her and look at what's happening to her.’ I think we have enough of those images in our world and in our minds.”

We talk about the way that the therapist encourages the other women to carry bear spray, and I tell her that it made me think of a scene at the end of Rosemary's Baby where Rosemary is walking along with a knife in front of her and she seems a lot more vulnerable because she's got the knife, because she doesn't really know what to do with it. Is the bear spray really going to do anything at all to keep the women safe? It seemed more like a token thing that they were being told to believe in.

She laughs. “It's funny – I went to school in New York but when they found out where I was from, they're like, ‘Oh my God, have you ever seen a bear?’ It was like the bear in the imagination of really urban people. But the true case really is most brown bears will run if they see you. They’ll run up a tree, like sweet little souls. And then even grizzlies, it's so rare that they attack. Humans are so much more dangerous than bears, and so much meaner. I have so much love for bears.

“So I thought, yeah, when you're out there, even knowing these statistics, it's terrifying to think if it comes down to me facing a bear, what if I make the wrong move? And it jumps and thinks I'm running away? Like, what do you do? You are not going to win the battle with the bear, as we saw in The Revenant, so bear spray really is your only hope. But it's also basically so dangerous for people – it’s like a really strong mace. When you're a woman and in a city, there's that trope, like the woman would have the mace in her purse and be ready to spray the the rapist or the burglar. And so I thought, like this is sort of like the outdoor version of that.”

We are approaching the end of our time, so I ask her about casting and, specifically, about finding Hannah Emily Anderson, who is a terrific lead.

“I went through a casting agent, and then I watched some of her work and her other movies and I was just like, ‘Oh, that's really good.’ And I am so happy with her performance and on set, I could give a note to her and she just does it. She's just so skilled. I have so much admiration because I cannot act at all. I had to do it in my training, we had to learn.

“It was the same with Madison Walsh. I've worked with her before on an episode for a TV series about Louie Riel, and I also was really impressed by her. I've worked with Helen Belay in a horror short that I have done that is still come out, but we shot before the feature. And I just wanted to really work with someone local. I think we have such amazing talent in front of and behind the camera in Alberta but from living in bigger cities I know that sometimes people look down at people in smaller places. The talent pool is smaller but that doesn't mean that what's in the pool isn’t just as good. So it was really important to me to try to get some local people and that was the same with Roseanne [Supernault] who plays Shaina. She’s local as well. And I absolutely hope to work with them all again.”

Making it to Fantasia with the film is something she’s thrilled about.

“It's amazing. I heard always so many good things about this festival, and they're all true! It's just such a great, amazing group of people. It's such a luxury just to know that all day you could go see a film, see a different film, and then go talk to people about it after. And I think genre, and especially horror, it's just the most badass genre, it’s actually people who really understand and are able to tolerate the breadth of human experience. It’s just to be with a group of people who all feel that way.”

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