There are many things you wouldn’t want to spoil about “The Ritual,” but it’s worth mentioning that while plenty of the shocks to the system it offers up are psychological in nature, the film boasts director David Bruckner’s unique skill at depicting body horror, displaying the entrails of a deer as if it were a bursted piñata.
“It was an interesting thing with this to go, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to go there. That’s the kind of cinematic adventure this is going to be,” Bruckner said recently with a bit of an impish grin. “I love gore, [but] I’m very sensitive to how it’s employed, and I’m not afraid to use it, but it always feels a little bit inappropriate to me in the wrong way if it’s not kind of an expression of a disgusting human behavior or a way to amplify panic. I have to know what it’s doing to feel okay with using it because to simply shock with it, I feel like I come up short with that.”
In fact, the remains of the deceased deer could just as easily be interpreted as an extension of the fraying nerves of those looking at it, rather than a symbol of danger to come in “The Ritual,” as a quartet of amateur hikers make their way through the mountainous King’s Trail in Sweden. The trek was intended to be an opportunity for the men to blow off some steam, but becomes a funereal march in the wake of losing one of their own in Robert (Paul Reid) during a vicious liquor store robbery just after they hatched plans for the trip at a local pub and while Phil (Arsher Ali), Hutch (Robert James Collier) and Dom (Sam Troughton) trudge along with the weight of the memory of their friend on their shoulders, Luke (Rafe Spall), who was inside the store with Robert when it happened, can barely put one foot in front of the other pondering whether he could’ve prevented the attack.
An adaptation of Adam Nevill’s novel of the same name, “The Ritual” envisions the group’s wade into the woods as a pathway towards the depths of their souls, with nights spent on the trail blurring their vision between the real, physical threats of rocky terrain and adversarial wildlife and painful private recollections where the mind can go when stuck in isolation. The gradual fusion of the two is handled brilliantly by screenwriter Joe Barton and Bruckner, who is making his full-length feature debut after continually earning the title of MVP on a number of horror anthology films from “The Signal” to “Southbound.” For a film with plenty of jagged edges, both literally given what the men encounter and in the knockabout humor they share in each other’s company before things go awry, the director brings a sleek sophistication that seems to ease the knife in even deeper when the group’s worst fears so tangibly become your own.
As “The Ritual” arrives on Netflix following a debut last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, Bruckner reflected on finally directing a feature of his own and being an American on a British production (shot in Romania), as well as how he was able to achieve such an immersive experience technically.
What attracted you to this?
I read the script first and it was in a state of development at the time. Joe Barton’s a wonderful writer and I loved his take on the characters. There were [these] really poignant relationships between them out in the woods and it felt very familiar to me in all the best ways. I immediately read the book and [Adam] Nevill’s book, of course, was bigger than the whole movie and explored lots of different ideas, so together myself, Joe Barton and Will Tennant, who was representing Imaginarium, the production company, and then Richard Holmes, our producer, all came together to conceptualize a kind of fourth draft. They had made many wonderful discoveries in how to adapt it, and we had a tiny window of time to take it one step further, so that’s what ended up onscreen.
You’d never know it from the film, which has that great knockabout British camaraderie between the guys, but were you intimidated at all as an American making a film that was culturally authentic?
It was an interesting question for me because you don’t really know how much you influence something or how much of you is really showing up and like where you end and an actor begins, in a sense. You’re all collaborating on a set of ideas, so there was a certain uncertainty at the beginning of am I going to get the Britishness of this right, or is it going to be a bizarre, weird hybrid of influences and is it going to feel different for that reason?
Sometimes it comes down to a very specific thing where I maybe have an idea that my actors or my producer will say, “No, man, you can’t do that. That’s silly from a British perspective” or I’ll come to the table and be like, “Yeah, from an American perspective, that’s going to be awkward if you want to explore that idea right now.” But most of the time, it lives in an abstract territory and it just becomes an act of faith.You [think] we’re going to end up where we end up and let’s approach the conflicts in a very universal way and see where it takes us.
You also deal with a villain that spends most of the film in the ether – is it all on the actors to look as shaken as they do or are there things you can do to create that atmosphere?
We had a really supremely talented cast and I was very fortunate that these guys were down to go there and you just really unpack what the stakes are in any given situation. It helps that [in the story] they’re lost and they’re warring against one another and to some degree, what the actors are pulling from out there in the woods is their business. Sometimes they make it my business and [when] we talk, I certainly am offering a lot of my own fears and apprehensions on set. But there’s also technical stuff you have to tackle in that regard. Sometimes you are staring at a tennis ball on a stick and that’s just part of the VFX universe.
You also do quite a bit sonically to create a presence that you can’t quite put your finger on. How did you figure that out?
[We had] a really incredible sound designer Ben Meechan, who lost his mind with this. [laughs] I was terrified because I was so focused on other stuff in post and we had talked very abstractly about sound, so you never really know how someone’s going to interpret that. When [the sound team] first demonstrated to me what they were working on, I knew we were in really good hands and once they have a really wonderful sound that gels with what I’m doing, the collaboration becomes about how you employ it beat to beat. What is the appropriate amount of sound here? What does it tell us? What impression do we get from it? And you can apply story to every single decision and you probably should, so it was a great collaboration. Their entire team did a fantastic job and there’s a lot of really incredible Foley in the movie as well.
Were you able to get these actors together before shooting to create the camaraderie?
Very little. I met with Rafe, who was our first choice, [when] he was shooting a TV show in Venice and he really responded to the material and the idea of this masculine crisis that this character was going through. I think we spoke a common language and once he was on board, I was really given license to explore a lot of different possibilities for the other parts. We had a great casting director in London – Julie Harkin – and she introduced me to many, many very, very talented actors, so I got to read them in groups together and asked several of them to come back several times and try out different formations. That becomes an exploration [on its own] and we had one day before the shoot – a rehearsal/reading day where we got to talk out some of the conflicts. The rest of it unfolded in the woods.
One of my favorite things you do is what I feel is a reworking of a traditional jump scare into something unique where the characters experience nightmares, but whereas in most films you’ll get the relief of seeing them wake up in a cold sweat, you play around with how their psychological fears begin physically manifesting themselves in their real life. Was it interesting to figure out how to blend those visually?
Yeah, totally. We started with the book [where] they’re having these horrible nightmares and situations that are more or less impressions of the malevolence that’s pursuing them in a sense and Joe’s draft had articulated that more around their past problems. That was a wonderful discovery that he and the Imaginarium had come across, so that was something that carried forth in a much more specific way in our final draft, but it was [something we were conscious of] in the storyboards and in the shot construction, trying to sometimes obfuscate the line where the dream ends and when you’re back in reality and then how bizarre is the reality that you think you’re standing in anyway. Do you have any firm footing there to begin with? As the movie progresses, that should become more and more murky, and I think horror films are nightmares – that’s very much how I approach it – so the more permission I can get from the audience to explore nightmare language, that’s just really fun for me.
We really wanted it to be immersive, [which to me] means you’re structuring events within a frame and the camera has momentum and movement in the way it’s discovering things as opposed to setting up five cameras and hose this down in five different directions and then decide how it all falls together in the edit room. When you have a single-camera approach to it as we did for a lot of the movie, a lot of what’s unfolding is unfolding within the frame.
The shot construction is so meticulous, and I was so engrossed in the film that I only thought afterwards what a challenge it must’ve been to actually shoot inside a forest where the trees must block your path at every turn. Was that something you could embrace?
The production services company in Romania and our production designer Adrian Curelea were great about bringing me and Andrew [Shulkind] into different spots in this wonderful forest we were exploring, so the location scouting part of it was a very exciting part of the prep process. It would’ve been financially impossible to shoot in Sweden [where the film is set] or in Norway, for that matter, but we were fortunate to find this incredible forest. It’s the Plateau, which sits at about 7000 feet in the Southern Carpathians, and the vegetation up there has a kind of Northern European feel to it because it’s so high up. You could really lose yourself in [scouting] because around every corner, there’s an amazing opportunity.
There were logistical problems like can we get the crew into here, how much of your day is it going to eat up if there’s a 45-minute trek to where we’re going to shoot because you can only park the truck on the road and [how] we have to carve a path for camera carts and whatnot to get out there, so you’re always weighing those challenges against one another. But it was beautiful in every direction and you just find a way to take advantage of the forest setting in a way that’s a reflection of what the guys are dealing with [in the story]. We did all kinds of things. A lot of it was finding density in the woods [where] if there’s one little patch of light in the woods that gives way to a field, then it feels like safety, so finding those stretches where it’s density [that turns] into oblivion – and your brain knows when it’s looking at an image and there’s no way out of the forest – [was a matter of] some pretty complex logistical feats in terms of just getting the camera around to do various things in the woods.
Andrew Shulkind has said that he was rigging construction cranes with balloon lights on top…
Yeah, [for scenes] towards the end [of the film], they brought in some really amazing crane trucks that would balloon-light out the environment. Andrew’s a particular aficionado of working in low light, so he’s able to take a very, very dim overall impression of light and illuminate stuff without there being the feeling of illumination. We were trying to avoid that constant, off-camera fake moonlight feel that you oftentimes see in movies.
There’s many scenes where it seems like the only source of light is coming from the flashlight an actor is holding. For those scenes when there’s scenes of actors with flashlights, are you working with them to get the right shot composition?
Yeah, that was a big part of how Andrew wanted to do it and I was excited by that because a lot of times you see a movie where someone has a flashlight, but the flashlight doesn’t really illuminate things [because] the environment around them is [already] lit, and we wanted it to really feel dark, so the flashlight to be massively influential in what you are and aren’t seeing. So it’s really about blocking and part of the [actor’s] job, in addition to performing the scene is to hit a certain beat or if they’re throwing a flashlight off-screen or something, it might hit a bounce card and give us a little kickback in that moment, so that’s all part of the chemistry of it.
Since I imagine this was mostly night shoots, do you regroup during the day and have time to recalibrate ideas?
A little bit, but you’re usually sleeping. Or trying to, at least. [laughs] I think we did four straight weeks of nights, then two weeks of splits and one week of days. And productivity goes down when everybody’s working nights. It’s inevitable. Everybody’s body clock is off. They get disoriented. There’s something very challenging psychologically I find about shooting nights for long periods of time and this was the longest that I’d gone. Usually, you sleep and you wake up and you have a couple of hours of delirium to stare at the plan and hope it makes sense. Then you’ve got to reorganize it with the AD around what you can and can’t do in that day and then you’re back on set.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Anything I could get into just about would be spoiler territory, but my AD Liam Lock was wonderful and really got us in and out of the woods in a lot of ways. You’re also accruing so much life experience every second that’s you’re on set. Every minute is an incredible adventure and there’s 200 decisions you have to make. So by week four, I feel like we’ve lived lifetimes, and I think it was week four that I was reflecting with him, just saying “What’s been the hardest week so far?” And he says, “Next week, mate.” [laughs] And he was right. Week five was a monster. You put together the combination of the elements – night shoots, a lot of physicality for the actors, particularly for Rafe, and lots of technical elements, both practical and VFX, and a lot of SFX stuff that there’s really no road map for – like no one, to my knowledge, had done exactly what we were doing – in a limited amount of time and put a hail storm on top of it and it’s like we had some challenging predicaments. But it was also a complete blast.
The music plays such a big role in the film and you and composer Ben Lovett go back to “The Signal.” Does he come into the process early?
I tried to get him in there early. If you ask him, I didn’t get him in there nearly early enough. [laughs] Ben and I actually haven’t had a chance to work together since “The Signal,” but he’s one of my best buds. We went to college together and he always wants to be part of the team from the very second we conceptualize what we’re working on. I really trust Ben as a storyteller, not just as a composer of music, so if I’m working on something, I’m sending him cuts and getting his ideas in terms of story from the get-go. Having him there as a comprehensive collaborator to help us find our way through this is essential. But he has a lot of ideas about the movie and what beats land, what beats don’t and how the music can amplify that, and sometimes as the composer, he’ll be the first to go, “You don’t want my music here. Just let this breathe.”
What was premiering this in Toronto like for you?
We wanted Toronto – that was always the goal. [TIFF Midnight Madness programmer] Peter Kuplowsky thankfully responded to the movie and gave us a shot at it and it was great. That audience is rabid and they teach you about movies. When you hear a Toronto Midnight audience respond to your work, they are knowing in terms of the genre and they want more from you at all times, so it makes sense to me that a lot of filmmakers walk away from that experience going, “I’m making movies for that audience.” We were fortunate enough to premiere “Southbound” there, so I felt like I had a sense of it, but it was a great opportunity.