Something in the trees

Teresa Sutherland on filming in the forest and Lovely, Dark, And Deep

by Jennie Kermode

Lovely, Dark And Deep
Lovely, Dark And Deep Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

One of the most impressive directorial débuts at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, And Deep is the richly atmospheric story of a young woman (played by Georgina Campbell) who has worked hard to become a ranger and get assigned to a specific area of one of the US National Parks so that she can go looking for her sister, who vanished many years before. Teresa previously wrote The Wind and there is something of a similar character to this one, with a lone woman pitted against the natural world and, perhaps, something deeply unnatural. The visual aspects of the film are what immediately grab viewers’ attention, however, so when we met I asked her if it was those, rather than the story, which came to her first.

“What came first was I fell down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about National Parks and discovered a lot of these like really creepy videos,” she says. “They're talking about these stories of people who went missing in strange ways. I was so taken by that. And I think after that was plugged in my brain, it was definitely the visuals. I grew up camping for vacations, and I wanted to do something that had a tent in it for a long time. I think tents are terrifying. The idea of any kind of safety inside a tent is wrong, and they're also really great at projecting shadows. I was like, ‘This is the craziest place you can possibly be.’”

The ranger hut feels very insecure with its canvas sides, I agree – and then later in the film, there’s a scene in which the ranger faces an immediate threat and has nowhere else to seek safety but for her rather insubstantial little tent.

“Yeah.” She nods. “For me it would be like, okay, I don't know, here's the place where all my stuff is. It's like a little home, but not the same.”

How many of the conspiracy theory podcasts which the ranger listens to during the film are real or based on real ones?

“All of it is based off of things I heard on of the podcasts. We tried to get a lot of different podcasts but we were only able to get licenced for one, and that's Last Podcast On The Left, which is one of my favourites. So thank you very much to them. It was incredible to have them. But they do have a little bit in one of their podcasts that talks about this, and then there's so many others. I mean, if you search on ‘podcast, National Parks,’ or anything like that, you will get lists of different people talking about this phenomenon or this conspiracy theory. From there, we asked some podcasters to record for us. I got some friends who have great voices to record for me, and some actors. It was like trying to find a mix of what sounded like a podcaster and what could really sell this, in this montage talking about the real story.”

The opening of the film, with its dizzyingly skewed shots of forested hills, makes a big impression. Was it intended to knock viewers off balance?

“Yeah, yeah. Kind of jokingly, but for storytelling purposes, I was talking a lot about the title and how the first third of the movie is like our lovely part, right? This is the part where we're like, ‘This is beautiful place and beautiful things can happen here.’ And then the second part is our dark part. We've gotten some of unease in the first part, but it's starting to creep in and things are starting to happen and then we literally go deep down. Thematically that works really well with our title but yeah, when when I was editing that's how I broke down how I wanted to do certain things. It's not a long movie. It is kind of broken up into thirds, naturally. But yeah, as soon as I can plant something in people's minds or in people's bodies like that, I just want to get to that because then if you feed and water it, it'll grow.”

We get a little seed which tells us about grace’s troubles when we first see her and she’s biting her finger, something which she does at intervals throughout the film. it struck me that, if her memories are to be trusted, that’s the last part of her which touched her sister.

She smiles. “What’s wonderful about filmmaking in general, but also getting to tell these strange stories that are smaller and feel more like a community makes them, is we get a chance to explore different things. There are lots of intentional things in there. I never thought about that. And that's incredible, and I love it. I love that part of it. That once it’s done and once we've all kind of signed off on it, and we've got a movie, I think of it as no longer mine anymore. It's no longer ours anymore. It's everyone's and everyone gets to find what they like. I know how I feel about things, and I know what I think it is, but I learned very early on just to let people have the movie for themselves.”

That’s an unusually health attitude for a filmmaker, I tell her, and she laughs. I note that films which are not too firm in their conclusions often have more staying power, however. There are aspects of this one which remind me of Picnic At Hanging Rock, which still haunts people decades later because its central mystery is unresolved.

“Yeah, yeah, and those are the movies that have always meant the most to me. Things where you get a brain worm, like an ear worm sort of thing where I go to the theatre, I experience it, I have my feelings about it, I enjoy it, but then I get in my car and I go home and I’m thinking about that a little bit. Maybe I decide to go camping in two years and when I'm out there all of a sudden something happens and I'm like ‘Oh shit, that makes sense!’ Now that movie’s back with me and I feel like that's so important. Wanting to know, like, what is really going on? I think none of that's important. I think the important part is you absorbing it and just letting it be for you.”

The film also focuses on the lack of closure which the ranger has had in relation to her sister’s disappearance. A lot of it seems to be more concerned with the processes of grief than with anything else.

“Yeah, that was something I was very aware of. I was having a hard time at that time, in my life, and just writing it and getting through it and then realising – going back and looking at it in its finished form – that absolutely I was talking about trauma and how to look at it and face it and how you have to to get through it and come out the other side. That it was not what I was thinking about when writing it, but it was most certainly what I was writing it. Watching it now I'm like ‘Oh, of course that's what you were talking about!’ but I try not to put too much in my projects of myself, and just be where my characters take me. It's so funny how they always take me to back myself.”

I want to know a little bit about the casting process, because the central performance is really powerful.

“Georgina was just an obvious choice, so I thought, ‘Let’s try!’” she says. “When she said yes it was incredible. And then meeting Wai Ching Ho and meeting Nick Blood, I was like, these are these people, to me, and it feels so wonderful. All of this stuff just worked out.”

The supporting cast are all local to the area where she shot, she says, and she feels really lucky to have found them. I ask about some of the trickier scenes in the film where different characters share the same space without all being aware of each other, and how she managed that as a director, keeping each in the right register.

“Georgina’s a pro. We had three weeks to shoot it. We would not have been able to make this movie if she couldn't just show up and bring it. And I was just like, ‘She's doing great. I want to know what she wants to do first and I want to see what she wants to do first,’ and most of the time that blew my mind. It was just always the most incredible performance. And then if other cast members had issues or were uncomfortable or needed help with something, I could be there for them. Also, I think in one of the moments you’re taking about, we weren't shooting them at the same time. A lot of times, they weren't even in the same space or area. So they were able to have a really lovely conversation, and then we had the other take and you do see them together. But yeah – shoot the nice stuff first, always.”

It’s often really hard work shooting out in the woods – or even at the edge of a road with carefully chosen angles – but she seems to have had luck on her side with that too.

“We were fortunate that it was just really lovely temperatures for the most part. It was really nice. I am a klutz that was always getting myself bruised climbing up to see something or whatever. There's a waterfall location where as soon as we sat down the sound people were like, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘Okay, okay.’ But it ended up that we used that location and it worked a lot better than I think any of us thought because it was a waterfall that we were sitting right next to.

“For the most part, for me anyway, it just really made it nice. You got to be outside. You weren't just standing on pavement outside. We were in the woods with shade and lovely food during like breaks and beautiful things to look at. Sometimes we were right next to the lake. And I remember coming to set, and Georgina and I were going down to walk through what would happen, and we were on our way back up to base camp, and somebody yelled at us from the middle of the lake and it was Nick. Nick was swimming in the lake and he was like ‘Hey! What’s going on?’ I was like ‘What are you doing?’ So he comes back out and he tells us it’s a beautiful lake. And Georgina had to get into it later so she said ‘Okay, good to know.’ Yeah, having nature around us was wonderful.”

So how does she feel about the film screening at Fantasia? It’s a big step.

“It's so big,” she says excitedly. “I'm so grateful to be at Fantasia and to have that audience see this for the first time is huge. I'm a horror person. I'm not going to leave the horror genre. I’m going to be genre adjacent forever. This is my passion. I love this. I don't want to go anywhere. And to be there with the people who are into it....” She runs out of words and just beams, needing a moment to process it before getting back on track.

“The Wind premiered at TIFF and we were there and that was incredible. It was my first time doing anything even remotely close to that. But everybody was coming to see it – audiences who were into dramas and comedies and weird stuff and whatever. But here I'm just so excited to just have that concentration of horror people and just say ‘Yes, let's watch cool stuff like I would watch. I hope I have time to go see that Talk To Me movie, but it's right before mine. I'm excited, yeah.”

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