There is a solemn way to approach the story told in “Nina Forever,” then there is what the brothers Ben and Chris Blaine come up with.
“Imagine being fucked by someone that intense,” says their lead Holly (Abigail Hardingham), only moments into the film, her eyes widening as she learns of the suicide attempt by her co-worker Rob (Cian Barry) at a local supermarket. His despair is understandable, losing his longtime love Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) in a motorcycle accident, but forced to carry on, he holds an undeniable appeal to Holly, who wishes she had someone as devoted to her, but discovers far more than she bargained for once she actually starts dating him.
Giving new meaning to grisly business of starting a new relationship after tragedy has robbed one of their old one, “Nina Forever” explores grief from a unique perspective as an undead Nina shows up once Rob and Holly start to get serious, bearing all the bloody marks of the day she died and able to impose psychic scars on those still living in the world she once inhabited in corporeal form. While the Blaines recognize the absurdity in the situation, wickedly adding touches of black comedy throughout, they also find the genuine anguish in it, as Rob reconciles his past with his present and Holly adjusts to loving someone whose heart may always belong to another to some degree.
Despite the copious amounts of blood and nudity, there’s a maturity and sophisticated to the story being told and how it’s told on the part of the Blaine Brothers, who make their feature directorial debut on “Nina Forever” after honing their craft on a series of celebrated shorts, that go well beyond their years. Shortly before the film is released on American shores after a solid run in the brothers’ native England, the fraternal directing duo spoke about the literally sticky situations they got themselves into on “Nina Forever,” the strong influence of music on the movie they made and the freedom that comes with not overthinking things too much.
Ben Blaine: It was an idea I’d been kicking around for some time in various shapes and it became increasingly important to us to have stories that took on more and more significance as the older we got and the more people that we knew and loved left us. Other films we were writing were starting to want to be around grief, and often that meant they were being pulled out of shape – we’d come up with a strange or an odd idea, like “Nina,” and then by the time we finished putting it into that shape to look back and all the things that originally got us excited had gone away – so we thought okay, we just need to sit down and write something that really talks about what we’ve been going through.
So we though about trying to write something that’s purely for us. Let’s not try to make it three acts and have a hero’s journey. Let’s just tell a story as we want to tell a story and let’s not try taking it to anybody and asking for money. Fantastically, from doing that, everyone we showed it to really connected to it and saw something of themselves reflected in it, so it’s been fantastic.
Not to sound prurient, but each of the sex scenes in the film seems to mark a significant story turn for the characters – did you actually build the film around those scenes?
Chris Blaine: So often when you see sex scenes in movies, storywise there’s nothing extra happening here and it was really interesting to us to be in that most intimate, most exposed place, totally naked and totally honest and raw with your emotions with other people, and being able to write stuff where the way that they’re having sex is entirely all about story. It’s not about seeing stuff, it’s about this way they’re behaving each time.
Ben Blaine: Yeah, trying to use the physicality between the three of them to pass off their conversation. Sometimes the story moves forward because of what they’re saying to each other, but a lot of the time it moves forward because of the way in which they’re being with each other [physically], so fundamentally, the story does get structured around those physical encounters. There was a lot [thematically in the film] about the physical loss of someone and [here we could show] the way that Rob is not just missing Nina, but he’s missing the physicality of being with someone. There is that pull between the three of them was really important to us in writing and [the actors] really captured that in their performances incredibly well.
Practically, with all the fake blood and other makeup involved, would you only get a few chances at those particular scenes?
Chris Blaine: [laughs] Yeah, we had a lot of difficulties with the blood. We’re not really from a horror background, so we didn’t realize quite how sticky fake blood can be. To start off with, we actually found that Fiona, who plays Nina, kept getting stuck to the bed, then she’d be ripping off prosthetics when she was trying to move, so you’re either trying to hide that with some blood or you’re having to wait ages to actually reset that makeup. That was really tricky. We found that the best way of making the blood less sticky was to use KY jelly. We were using sex lubricant to try and stop people from sticking to the bed. We had to send off runners to the local supermarket to turning up at the counter with basically an entire shelf’s worth of KY jelly saying, “It’s not for me, it’s for the film.” [laughs]
At least it looked quite good on screen, as did everything else – was there a general scheme you adhered to for the visuals?
Chris Blaine: We knew we wanted it to be something where we’re really composing the shots and probably using less shots than other films, trying not to do coverage but finding the right shot, the right angle and the right location that will tell the story in as simple a way as possible.
You’ve mentioned also how you wanted to have locations as plain as possible to have Nina stand out. Was that idea there from the start?
Chris Blaine: Most of the stories we write aren’t particularly horrific and when we were first writing this one, it’s a magic realist story and for it to work, it needs to be something that everyone just has to accept. That was really important to us because we’re talking about grief and the feeling when you’ve lost someone and you’ve got a million emotions going on in your head all at once and it feels quite monstrous. You feel like, “My god, everybody’s staring at me,” and you feel quite embarrassed about yourself, yet to everybody outside, you just look entirely normal. So it was really important that you got this weird thing happening, but for all intents and purposes, it’s just everyday life.
You’ve also said how you actively involved the actors in developing the story. Were there were any key contributions they made?
Chris Blaine: God, yeah. We wrote it very quickly, quite deliberately so that we wouldn’t get too attached to it as a script, and we actually were lucky enough to get a week’s rehearsal, which on a film of this scale is quite rare. It was fantastic because the cast brought so much to it, particularly that first scene where Nina turns up. We had very much written that scene almost as a farce, and it played much more quickly [in the script we wrote]. Then when we got there, just the three of them in that space found an entirely different energy to it. Suddenly, it slowed down in a mesmerizing way. Being on set watching them play that scene was almost like being in a dream, wasn’t it?
Ben Blaine: Yeah, there’s a real fascination to it. Right after we shot that scene, [Chris and I] suddenly were like, “We have to completely restructure the film.” In what we’d been planning, that scene would be quite quick and the set-up was taking ages beforehand, but now we needed a much faster intro to it. That was where some of the cutting styles starting coming from for the film where actually we were responding to what the actors were giving us and trying to make it so that we were showing off exactly what they were doing in the best way possible.
Did you actually think about how you would edit it before shooting? I love those cross patterns that you get between the stories at the beginning and then throughout the film it just seems very controlled.
Ben Blaine: The editing style definitely developed during the editing process. Some of it did come through shooting because of what the actors were doing and we wanted to give space to that. But to be honest, the first part of the editing process of being like “we want to do something more interesting with this” [was when] I was having a discussion with Cassandra, our producer, about whether or not to cut to the mobile phone [screens] that the [characters are] using for texts. She was dead set against that and really wanted us to put text on screen. We weren’t quite sure about that because we’ve always wanted it to feel like we’re being observational.
Actually, when we started putting text on screen and being able to stay on their faces, that was a really nice thing to do, and that led towards doing the Godard-style cuts and recuts, where your camera is staying on somebody’s face and you’re just using those different sections of that performance to cut together. It gives you more of an impression of just them and their headspace and from that, we started working out the way of being able to cut the beginning of the first scene with Nina. [That scene with the texts is] much harder and confusing, so that when Nina turns up, you’re quite happy to be in this really sacred, fascinating space because you’ve been bamboozled before that. Working that cutting style out just slowly developed. We did a lot of test screenings with the film and it was really fun. Rather than being like we need to tick the box, any time that we were pushing the film further, the more the audience responded enthusiastically.
Chris Blaine: I really like what you said about patterns – that’s a really nice way of thinking about it because you can imagine what you might do, but it’s only when you’re in the edit that you can really start seeing the patterns and feeling [like], “Hang on, that image actually is really nice when you stick it next to this entirely different thing.” It creates a really nice pattern, a really nice resonance.
Ben Blaine: We’ve done a lot of editing for other directors as well as ourselves and most of the time what you’re doing is you’re just picking the best takes and you’re sticking them together. With this one, it was really a jigsaw puzzle in that there was definitely one way that the scene was going to work in the best way possible, but you would just have to keep trying until you found that.
Chris Blaine: If it was a jigsaw puzzle, on the cover [of the box] it was a picture of the seaside and then you opened it up and it’s just a bunch of pebbles. We thought, “What do we do with this then? Eventually, we got there.
The song choices are also quite strong. Were those choices you made beforehand?
Chris Blaine: Obviously, we had limitations of budget and music can get very expensive. But right from the get go, one of the first things that we did was put together playlists.
Ben Blaine: Yeah, and on there was Amanda Palmer. The big thing for us in terms of music was that thing where there’s loads of sad songs that other people were suggesting to us as things that really felt like they summed up the movie, but the acting and the story itself is already giving that mood, so what we really want to do is undercut it and get that bounce, which was really important to us in terms of the music — loads of stuff with drums.
Chris Blaine: Actually, that was one of the reasons that we worked with the composer Dan Teper, who we’d worked with before. He was really surprised when we first approached him because his first instrument is the accordion and his music has a sense of humor — it’s almost like circus music a lot of the time, or loungecore, so I think he was like, “Guys, this script is really dark, why are you asking me?” We knew that he was such a talented musician that he could bring other stuff to it, but that he’d have that fundamental bounce and that energy. He was great in helping us choose some of those tracks and some of the musicians that we worked with also brought so much to it.
Ben Blaine: Yeah, there’s an artist in there, Mara Carlyle, who’s got two tracks in there, and actually she’s a friend of Dan’s and came and sang for him for the score as well.
Is it true Abigail actually had her own playlist that she brought in for her character?
Ben Blaine: Yeah, music is very important to her. She sent us three CDs worth of music — it was a couple hundred MP3 tracks. Before each scene she was listening to specific tracks. I think it was the first day or so we’re like “Hold on, what is it you’re actually listening to?”
Chris Blaine: Yeah, [she’d say] “This is all Holly! This is what Holly is listening to.”
Ben Blaine: Actually, it was is a really nice way of being able to direct [Abigail] because then you’re not just talking about the words that you’re going to say, but it’s all about the mood and the feeling and the intention of the scene. Talking about that in a way through music was really great.
Chris Blaine: Every day was a bit mental. We were always up against time and incredibly relieved when we managed to make it at the end of the day.
Ben Blaine: The day that blew my mind — I still don’t quite know how we did it — was when we shot the B&B sequence. That’s one of the amazing sets that our designer built and we knew that for scheduling reasons we only had that set for a single day. It had to come down. We knew going into that day that we were scheduled to do twice the number of shots than we’d managed on any other day, so we were a bit worried about how we were going to fit it all in.
There was supposed to be a day off for Chris and I, but we met up with our DP Oliver Russell, to go through the whole thing and see if we could rationalize it. We sat there looking at it and we got this phone call that Abigail had just come down with the Norovirus, this vomiting bug, and at that point, she was in a cab going over to our producer’s house so that our producer could look after her. We were like, “What the hell are we going to do?” Everyone was just like, “It’s fine, we’ll do it.” The next day Abby had just about gotten over it, but between most takes, in one of the sexiest scenes in the film, poor old Cian was very gingerly having to take her in his arms and kiss her passionately knowing that any second she’s going to be sick again. Somehow, throughout all of that, we got everything that we needed, and it’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole film. It was one of those baptism by fire moments. After that, we were like, “We’re going to be fine.”
“Nina Forever” will open in limited release on February 12th. It will also be available on iTunes and VOD.