From director Anthony Byrne, who co-wrote the film with his partner Natalie Dormer, the dramatic thriller In Darkness follows Sofia (played by Dormer), a blind pianist who overhears a struggle in the apartment above hers that leads to the death of her neighbor, Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski). As a result, Sofia finds herself in the presence of Veronique’s father, suspected war criminal Milos Radic (Jan Bijvoet), and she’s drawn into a dangerous world of corruption where everyone is keeping secrets.
At the film’s L.A. press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat 1-on-1 with Anthony Byrne and Natalie Dormer about the challenges of pulling off a thriller, focusing the story around a blind character, not being able to make direct eye contact with your co-stars, shooting everything on location, and their approach to the sex scene. Dormer also talked about her newfound respect for writers, and her desire to try writing something again.
Collider: I loved this! I loved how it was shot and I loved that I had no idea where it was going.
ANTHONY BYRNE: Good! We spent a long fucking time trying to make that so. We watch a lot of thrillers together. What you have to do is double down, at a certain point, so that you’re not going, “I bet this is what’s going on,” and then you have to swerve it and compound it to make people think that they’re wrong. There are the people who watch thrillers and unpick them while they’re watching them, and then there are the people who watch them and want to be taken on a journey, so it has to really work for both. And then, should you want to watch it a second time, it has to also work in a way where you go, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense. They did do that.”
NATALIE DORMER: Anthony was very clever in his camera positioning, which lends itself to a second watch. We talked about where to have the camera perched and about how it would follow [Sofia].
BYRNE: You want to put the audience in the characters’ head spaces and that psychology. We spent a long time watching thrillers and deconstructing them, and then putting them back together, especially when we were writing it and breaking the structure. You can over complicate things somewhat, and we were always trying to streamline. We had it all mapped out on the wall in our apartment, and then followed through the beats of her journey. It was about establishing a visual grammar that you’re presenting to audiences, so that they understand what they’re watching. You do that with sound, and you do it with the shot choices and how you build her world and establish her routine.
DORMER: In order to tear it down.
BYRNE: Yeah, it’s in order ultimately to break it, which is really important. It was hard to do that, but that was the challenge of the film. I wanted to remove the one thing, in a visual medium, that your protagonist is going to require, which is sight. Through the limitations of that, it was about how to tell the story. It was interesting because we’d find ourselves, when we were writing it together and I’d go, “Yeah, but you’re blind.” And Nat would go, “Oh, shit, yeah! What am I thinking?!” I would write a scene and send it to Nat, and Nat would be like, “Yeah, but she can’t do that because she’s blind,” and I’d go, “Oh, fuck!” Then, you do it on the set. Whether it was the DP or the designer, you’d be like, “We can’t do that!”
Natalie, what was it like to not be able to make direct eye contact with your co-stars? Was that a big challenge?
DORMER: It was such an interesting experience, not being able to make eye contact with my co-stars. As an actor, you realize how deeply you depend on locking eyes. If you ever feel that you’re losing the truth of the moment, that’s what you come back to. So, to not be able to have that connection, we had to do some rehearsals with some of the pivotal scenes. Ed Skrein said that he found that weird at the beginning, as well, not being able to make eye contact, but that it was then weirdly liberating because it allowed him to study my face. There’s a voyeuristic element to it that is very thriller. I relied heavily on Anthony for where my eye line should be, and what was communicating with the camera and what wasn’t. It was a technical minefield, in that regard.
BYRNE: Yeah, but it was very satisfying, creatively. That was a lot of fun.
Did you ever catch yourself looking in the wrong place, or did you get pretty good at judging that?
BYRNE: I was always policing that and going, “That doesn’t look right. Bring your eye line up an inch and over to the right a bit.” Sometimes you’d have an eyeline where you’d go, “That doesn’t look right.” It also became about editing because when you’re cutting any scene, it’s all based on the connection between the characters, so if the eyeline is too wide when you cut back, it won’t match and it will look incorrect. You had to calibrate that, and that was very tricky while we were shooting because you’ve gotta do it really quickly.
DORMER: We shot this in 25 days. It was 25 mad days.
BYRNE: It was insane!
DORMER: With lots of exterior stuff and real people, walking around during their day to day lives.
It seems like you guys shot outside a lot.
BYRNE: It was all on location. There was no weather cover and there was no sets, which was even harder, especially in a big, busy city like London.
DORMER: The van sequence was our first day of shooting. I was being beaten up in the van and going through the Camden market. Anthony was like, “We’ll start with something strong that sets the tone with the crew.” We wanted everyone to be on their A-game for these 25 days, so we wanted to start with something really tough that let everyone know this is the level that we would all be operating at. And we did that about nine times. The thrill of flying by the seat of your pants independent filmmaking is a real adrenaline rush.
BYRNE: It’s so concentrated when you’re in that space and working at that level. You’re maintaining the highest standards and making sure everybody else is maintaining that standard.
DORMER: And we’ve got such a great cast. We really lucked out with our cast. They were all doing it for the love of the project. We felt like we were a tight little family, for those 25 days.
Natalie, you hadn’t written anything before, and this took awhile to get into production. Do you have the urge to do it again, right away?
DORMER: Yeah, 100%. I’ve got a couple of things in development. With the actual writing of it, I feel like I learned so much. It was my virgin experience. Anthony had written and directed his own stuff before, but I learned so much, on a very steep learning curve. I got the bug. I’d love to give it another go, truly.
This was a pretty great result for the first try.
DORMER: We didn’t let each other get away with anything. We were hard on each other.
BYRNE: We wanted to make sure that we weren’t letting each other get away with stuff. If you’re on your own, it’s so easy to go, “That’s pretty good. It’s fine. I’ll just go onto the next thing.” We do it in our lives, constantly. But, you can’t do that. You’ve gotta make sure you go, “That’s not good enough.”
DORMER: It gave me a newfound respect. I respect writers, anyway. Of course, I do. But I’m an actor, so I’m nothing without my text. It gave me an even higher heightened level of respect for writers because you truly understand the sometimes painful process of digging deep and putting your thoughts on paper, and exposing yourself to criticism. It can be constructive criticism, but it’s still criticism. The notes process can be quite brutal, in places. It also emboldened me. I went to do [Picnic at Hanging Rock] with a much more collaborative mind-set. I wasn’t so scared of turning around to Beatrix Christian and saying, “Can I change this line? Can we flip the beats of this scene round?” Sometimes the greatest thing an actor can do is go, “I think I can make this more real for you, if we did this and this.” We’d be so grateful if the actors wanted to change, flip, drop, or add lines. It’s a team sport. The collective collaboration experience of the set, I love. I get a warm fuzzy glow off of it.
Did having a hand in writing and creating your sex scene change how you wanted to approach doing a sex scene?
DORMER: Yes. With the sex scene, we knew when we got there that the sex scene would be interesting. Anthony and I had different interpretations of the love making scene. Defending Sofia, because I come from a very biased place of co-writing her and playing her, I really felt the love that she felt for Marc. There was a spiritual identification with another lost soul, who was also isolated, a survivor, and someone carrying a profound amount of pain. Yes, there is an element of manipulation to that sex scene, but it is a moment of catharsis and release for her. To me, it’s a genuine love scene. It’s her letting herself go. It’s a manipulation, so that she can have a moment of freedom. There is a female gaze to what we did with the sex scene.