Fantasia Fest 2023 Interview: Teresa Sutherland on Going Further with “Lovely, Dark, and Deep”

No one ever tells Lennon (Georgina Campbell) that the camp site she’s stationed at in Avores National Park as a new forest ranger was freed up when its previous tenant went missing, though it isn’t as if she’s stepping lightly into the situation in “Lovely, Dark, and Deep.” Well aware that the mountains she’s traversing is notorious for disappearances — conveniently too remote for cell phone towers to make sense — she’s taken on the responsibility of patrolling the woods to make up for nature’s failings, both of the human and organic kind, even listening to true crime podcasts on her hikes to keep her energy up.

Writer/director Teresa Sutherland only gradually teases out the deeper reasons for why Lennon is so determined to make the terrain safe during her first Backcountry Offseason Roundup, sent out along with fellow ranger Jackson (Nick Blood) by a superior (Wai Ching Ho) with the missive, “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories and fill nothing but time,” but while there always seems something scary lurking around the edges of the trail the newbie is assigned, a transcendent space is created on screen as Sutherland finds her way so fluidly into Lennon’s train of thought, revisiting a place she once knew as a child and has had nightmares about ever since. Each step that Lennon takes in “Lovely, Dark and Deep” becomes about conquering her own fear, and Sutherland brilliantly shows how for better or worse, the environment takes the shape of how Lennon sees it, with hills feeling as if they’re bending into the bear traps one might see on the ground and the small light of her tent enough to illuminate the night sky.

It’s an auspicious feature directorial debut for Sutherland, who previously turned heads with the tale of frontier women in Oklahoma driven to madness by having only the echo of their own voice to keep them company in her script for Emma Tammi’s “The Wind,” and at the helm, she delivers a truly sensational experience of venturing into the unknown as Lennon does, making use of drone cameras and gimbals in inspired ways with “Zama” and “Tabu” cinematographer Rui Pocas and giving a lay of the land that is alternatingly enchanting and foreboding. With the film making its premiere this week at Fantasia Fest in Montreal, Sutherland graciously took the time to talk about how the experience of “The Wind” emboldened her to get into the director’s chair herself, finding the right location in Portugal and getting crafty to achieve highly imaginative special effects on a limited budget.

Had you been wanting to direct for a while or was it this particular script that made you take the plunge?

I actually started this weird journey, wanting to be a director and I went to school to be a theater director. That’s where my heart lies, and with “The Wind,” I wanted [to direct] but it just didn’t work out and I got to be a part of finding Emma [Tammi], which was incredible and Emma has been such a huge support to me and such a generous director in general. Having that experience with her gave me a lot of confidence in myself and I was just like, “The next one is mine” and this was the next one.

How did this come about?

Ten years ago, I just fell down a YouTube rabbit hole about missing people in U.S. National Parks [where there were] all these creepy stories about how some people were there one minute and gone the next minute. I could feel myself getting creeped out, and usually when that happens, I know that I have to pursue that story because horror is my genre and I [think] if I’m creeping myself out with this, I’m going to go explore and see what’s what what comes of it. This came of it and it’s been wild just from there to here getting to direct it, and now getting to show other people.

It’s confident from the very first few frames and I’ve never seen some of the camera moves that there are in this, particularly some of the drone shots which are quite inventive. What was it like coming up with that shooting style?

Rui Pocas is our cinematographer and he’s phenomenal. He’s just an amazing listener, which is huge [especially] being a woman in filmmaking. Sometimes you don’t get good listeners, but he is and the shot when we flipped the camera upside down and come out with her [on the trail], that was a shot I knew had to happen from the very beginning. Then some of the strange movement, moving through the trees would be just Rui and I playing or talking about it and being like, “What would that look like?” And our camera operator Leandro would sometimes just be feeling stuff out, and so you would do something and be like, “That feels so beautiful,” and that’s what I love about what we do. It’s so collaborative, and yes, I’m the director, but this movie is ours as a team who put it together because everybody’s in there and we were just so lucky to get the visual team that we had.

Had you written with a specific location in mind? I understand this is in Portugal.

I did not, I had some pictures from location scouts before getting on the ground and then we went and saw them ourselves and when problems would come up, we’d adjust in this very, very indie running on the ground way of filmmaking. Josh Waller was our producer on the ground there and he was just fantastic at finding solutions and just getting us into beautiful places. We were all over Portugal. We had three weeks and I wish I had a count for how many locations we had because it was a lot. [laughs]

Were you in pretty remote locations where you were braving the elements yourself, as far as being without power or having to haul equipment?

We were not in the middle of nowhere, and some of it was cheated. Her tent cabin was on a walking path because we liked that the pine needles were on the ground, but we shot in their national park in Gerês and then there were places that were in the middle of nowhere [where] we would spend a day there, next to a waterfall or on top of this mountain that normal guests of the national park [wouldn’t access]. It’s chained off, you can’t go up there, but people would drive us up in a Jeep — and trucks got stuck. You do feel the remoteness in that situation and there was one day I don’t think I used the bathroom all day because it was just a lot to go through. I was just like, “I’m good, it’s fine. Let’s go.”

I imagine you need a cast that shares your sense of adventure for this. What sold you on them?

Georgina was his first pick and it’s just incredible that she just went for it. She’s such a professional, and she brings so much to every project she does, and I don’t know if it was incidental, but everyone seemed to have a sense of adventure. We were shooting near a really gorgeous lake and Georgina and I were talking a few shots that we were going to do down by it, and as we’re going back up, I hear somebody yell from the middle of the lake like, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I look over and it’s Nick Blood, who plays Jackson, swimming in the lake and it’s not his call time. So I don’t know what he’s doing, but he comes up and has lunch with us and we talk about [the scene] and he’s like, “I love this,” and everybody was just in it. I never once felt like they didn’t want to be there and it was really special.

Did anything happen that might’ve been unexpected but you could embrace?

Just figuring out these things that wouldn’t even be thought about on a larger budget movie, but for an independent film to be able to pull off this stuff practically, which we did a lot of was fun. One of our technical challenges was how are we going to put water in this scene? And I had watched some [making-of] documentary about “Home Alone” and how they shot that in a swimming pool, so I thought, “Well, all we really need is like a little swimming pool” and we just built a little swimming pool and put a set in it. It’s a puzzle to put together — filming it, editing it, it’s all just figuring it out in the process and it’s never done until it’s done.

The editing is quite seamless in fusing together reality and the fantasies that Georgina’s character occasionally has, and the sound design is also evocative in that way. What was it like being able to shape this in post-production?

Alexandra Amick is the editor and I love working with her. She edited “The Wind” as well and she gets my brain, [which is] a special thing to find when somebody’s like, “Hey, I see that you’re a weirdo. I can figure that out.” [laughs] And then she does and it’s so much more than just putting the shots together. She’s a fantastic storyteller and I just loved having her there, and [from] the first cut of this movie, [it was like] we still have stuff to do, but here it is and she’s fantastic. Juan Campos [our sound designer] also did “The Wind,” and I knew that he very much knew how to be quiet in the quiet moments and how to put those sounds in so that it’s not an overwhelming amount, like pounding you with like scary sounds. It [felt more like] we’re in the woods and there’s a creepiness, but [just a general sensation] of how are you feeling. His whole team is so good at that a real pleasure to work with.

It sounds like you literally had “The Wind” at your back on this.

I did, 100%. And I have a lot of work to do in the confidence area, but something I’m really looking forward to is sitting in a theater in Montreal and watching it with a group of people and I feel like something in my back or in my neck is just going to relax after we see it [with an audience] and I’ll just be like, “It’s done. People have seen it. It’s out of your hands now. It’s released into the world and they will make what they want of it.”

I just find it hilarious because if it’s a relief for you, you’re going to be the only relaxed person in the theater. It’s nervewracking for everyone else.

I’ll take a little nap and they can wake me up and I’ll be like, “I’m so happy. You guys are scared.” But I feel like all of my senses will be reaching out to feel other people’s like, “Oh, did they tense up?” There’s a part in the movie that every time my husband sees it, he gags. And I’m so excited to watch that with people and see how they react.

“Lovely, Dark and Deep” will screen at Fantasia Fest on July 25th at 4:15 pm at Salle J.A. de Seve.

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