Never take the shortcut, guys. If there’s one thing horror movies have taught us well, it’s that you never, ever take the shortcut. The latest scary movie to carry on that tradition is David Bruckner‘s The Ritual, an immersive psychological horror movie that follows a group of old friends into the Norse woods, where they end up with a terrifying mythological creature hot on their heels. Rooted in psychological trauma, loneliness, and as Bruckner describes it, “masculinity in crisis,” The Ritual transforms the universal experience of outgrowing your friends into a nightmarish, effed-up fairy tale for adults.
With the film now streaming on Netflix, I recently hopped on the phone for an interview with Bruckner to chat about The Ritual and the journey to his first feature. The V/H/S and Southbound standout talked about how quickly The Ritual came together the years spent finding the right feature, working with Andy Serkis‘ production company Imaginarium Studios, the technical challenges of setting a film in the woods, and the creative freedom in creating a sense of nightmarish dread. We also dug into the film’s ending, including the creature’s design and what to make of those final frames.
I’ve been a big fan of your work since The Signal, and as I’m sure you’re acutely aware of, it’s been a wait for you to get your first feature. I know that there have been projects like the Friday the 13th movie that fell apart along the way, so what was that journey like to your first film, and how did that come together for you?
BRUCKNER: Sure, well yeah, it’s been quite an amount of time getting attached to projects and ushering them along, and as is the way. They don’t always go to production necessarily, and so I think with this, I was, there was a sense of momentum present in the entire team from the moment that I jumped on, and I read the script that Joe Barton had written originally. That was my first entry into the project, and it inspired me to read Adam Nevill’s book. I fell in love with the whole thing, and, and convinced them to bring me on board, and it moved very quickly. Yeah, that was May of 2016 and we were in prep by early August.
That must have been a nice change of pace.
BRUCKNER: It was great! I mean, the Imaginarium Studios is Jonathan Cavendish and Andy Serkis’ company. They were a really great place, and had the financing set. A lot of things went right. Our first choice was Rafe Spall to lead the movie, and we’re very fortunate to have him come on board. Then we had just a lot of things go right for us.
So when you first read that script, what was it jumped off of the page for you?
BRUCKNER: I related to the idea of men in their mid-thirties who had been friends under different circumstances when they were younger, and that there was tension among the group. There was a difficulty in kind of maintaining those friendships, and just a general sense of masculinity in crisis that I actually think had not been explored in a horror film that I can remember. You’re always looking for some preexisting anxiety, some sort of contemporary unease that you can build the nightmares on upon, you know?
I’m curious, what was sort of the biggest challenge and the biggest payoff for you, moving from short films to feature length?
BRUCKNER: I think in short form, you can take risks that you may be afraid to take in long form. Simply because you get in and out quick in a sense and you can kind of try out crazy ideas. So, one of the biggest challenges, I think, moving to a feature was to not let the internal editor take over, and sort of appraise the fact that you would still want to really go for it, and not be afraid to try out some crazy ideas by the end of the movie, and not let the kind of weight of working a feature film on a little bit of a budget sort of scare you away from some of the notions.
Challenges? I would say, it’s a lot more movie. There’s a lot more responsibility to it, you know? There’s, in particular with this, it was an endurance film. We were out in the wilderness; there was some physicality to it that could really wear on you at times, but I think that all that kind of adds to the experience, and it was very rewarding. I mean, it was making the film itself was something of an adventure.
You talk about filming on location in the woods, which is its own set of challenges. But then also, creating a sense of geography and direction in the film itself for audiences. How did you approach that when you’re filming in this vast woods?
BRUCKNER: Well had somebody said when we were going into it, “Beware because a wood is a wood and once you start shooting a movie,” and what they meant was that you can go explore these fantastic places. You’ve heard filmmakers talk about the jungle in this way. Which is like, it may be very impressive to stand in it, but it doesn’t photograph very well. It’s just a mesh, kind of an eternal mesh behind the actors. And so, it ends up becoming more like you’re photographing people almost like on stage in the black. There are sort of no geographic parameters that you can fasten your mind onto.
So, we deliberately set out trying to conquer that, in a way. And so, we spent a lot of time location scouting trying to find portions of the woods that had different looks that were both a reflection of where the movie was going, but also that you felt sort of a passage of space throughout the film, kind of a road movie, the constant moving through this forest. At times, you’d come upon paths in the forest that resembled areas they were lost in before, and you know, that was fair to imply that they were going in circles, that they weren’t making progress.
And then you pay attention to screen direction, you look at something like Snowpiercer, and it’s in very rigid screen direction throughout the film, but they’re always traveling in a very linear fashion. That’s kind of how the metaphor looks, so with this, we just wanted to mix it up as though there’s a sense of screen direction for a while, and then at an opportune time, you’re going in the opposite direction, and you don’t even realize it. Hopefully, you’re feeling it, and not thinking about it, but, but all of those things are in mind, for sure.
You mentioned that you’re looking for the chance to create a nightmare, which I think you did really well the sort of oppressive sense of dread in this. Can you talk about the filmmaking tricks you use to approach conjuring that nightmarishness?
BRUCKNER: Yeah, I mean, there’s kind of the literal nightmares in the movie, and I think it’s almost like, well if that’s on the table, if we brought that up, then we maybe can suggest that there are different reads on the movie as a whole. At the beginning of the movie it’s like, somebody’s either waking up from a remembered nightmare, or they’re waking up into the nightmare, the bad dream that you have the night you have after the night something traumatic has taken place. You know, I think both are fun reads on the movie to kind of think about.
But, yeah, I think that the way the malevolent force in the woods kind of operates by getting inside these guys’ heads, bringing their fears to the surface, gave us the ability to see a reflection of who they were back in the world or maybe mistakes they made kind of appear in the woods, and I, the hope is that if the movie continues, that we obscure the lines between those things more and more and more until, what’s understood to be real and what’s understood to be surreal are sort of blended together; it’s never really clear.
[Be aware, we dig into spoilers from here on.]
So, you know at the end, we’re sort of seeing what you were talking about a little bit of the blurring of both, we’re seeing the culmination of Luke’s interior drama of what we’re also seeing this big climactic showdown with the fully revealed creature. And I was curious about how you approached staging that moment to combine those two elements.
BRUCKNER: It’s almost you’ve come upon some imagery that you feel like, I mean you got a guy running around basically in his pajamas in the forest with a Norse battle ax confronting this thing, [laughs] and it’s just, it’s just a little bit loony. I get attached to certain images along those lines, and, in particular, he’s running through the convenience store but he’s surrounded by trees, this thing is in pursuit and I like to think when you’re in a dream state sometimes, geography blends in a way that you sort of accept. Michel Gondry’s movies work in those things really, really well. Where you may be in one space, but you open up the door and you’re in another and you just kind of take it, and accept it, and move on. Accept the dream.
So, I think we wanted to get a sense of that, and so it allows, it sort of forced us to get very specific about some very surreal notions — because when you’re on set, you get into very particular geography questions, like wait a minute? Wasn’t the convenience store over here? If we move the camera over there, would you see it actually back there, what is the screen direction? And so, you end up intentionally obfuscating some of those things, and allowing yourself to bend it just a little bit. But all of that goes into the storyboarding and planning and where you orient Luke relative to the beast, so on and so forth.