Director Jason Zada on the True Terrors Behind “THE FOREST,” Part OneFearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Shawn Macomber
Though a darkness gathered at the edge of Japan’s infamous Aokigahara forest, the guide who had led Jason Zada through a lush maze of imposing beauty to its disquieting heart of darkness had one final request before he would bring the American film director fully back into the world: “I need you to rub salt on my back. And then I will rub some on yours as well.”
The evil spirits inhabiting a place such as this, the guide explained, would often cling to the backs of the living, piggybacking all the way home to wreak havoc on those who dared traipse into their abode. Apparently, a good salting makes corporeal beings considerably less appetizing to the undead.
It was not Zada’s first brush with superstition during the research trip for his supernatural thriller THE FOREST, opening this Friday, January 8 from Gramercy Pictures. It’s a surreal, harrowing deep dive into the mythology surrounding the purportedly yurei-infested “Sea of Trees,” amidst which upwards of 100 people commit suicide every year. The first guide Zada hired cancelled after his mother had a dream she believed to be a harbinger of doom, while a second backed out after he similarly interpreted some unspecified personal misfortune. The third guide showed…but came packing a satellite phone and a no-foolin’ contingency plan: Should he fail to make any of his prearranged hourly check-ins to a friend, an emergency call would be made to the authorities.
And then there were Zada’s own experiences while in Aokigahara’s unholy embrace. “It’s this protected national park, and at first I was hiking around, taking all this natural beauty in, thinking, ‘How can people believe this place is full of demonic presences?’ ” Zada recalls. “Everything changed, though, once I stepped over the chain into the forbidden area where people actually go to commit suicide. I’ll tell you, the energy out there is absolutely terrifying. You can feel this ominous heaviness in the air. It’s pretty clear you’re in a place where very unpleasant, sad, tragic things have occurred.”
Whereas most others of sound mind facing similar bad juju would likely have retreated, Zada pushed on as far as the guide would allow. Why? Could it be that as a Bay Area resident who often drives across one of the most popular (final) destinations in the world for suicide—the Golden Gate Bridge—Zada finds such ripples of baleful energy old hat? Or was it a more innate cat-killing curiosity?
“To be honest, the normal part of me standing in that forest screamed, ‘Get out!’ ” Zada admits. “My darker side, on the other hand, wanted to see more, to know more. I was totally unsettled, yet simultaneously felt completely sure I’d done exactly the right thing—not only in visiting the forest, but also in deciding to make the movie in the first place. I became a little obsessed.”
Developed over a two-year period from an idea courtesy of David S. (BLADE) Goyer by Zada and a trio of screenwriters (Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca), THE FOREST tells the story of a young American woman named Sara (Natalie Dormer from GAME OF THRONES and THE HUNGER GAMES) who travels to the Aokigahara in search of her missing twin sister. Once there, she realizes the truth lies on the other side of a gauntlet of malevolent spirits determined to drive her insane if they can’t entice her to join their ranks.
“We definitely took our time,” Zada says, noting that each successive script draft from each writer imprinted a new, idiosyncratic dimension onto the evolving tale. “At the end of the day, we wanted to be certain we were creating something unique for today’s genre marketplace. I’m a huge fan of psychological horror films from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and that’s how I wanted to approach this—as a performance-driven film that is all the scarier because these supernatural forces are attacking characters you actually care about.”
It’s not surprising, given how imperiously a haunted patch of alluring land looms over THE FOREST, that Zada cites as inspiration ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE SHINING—two films that also feature specific settings as de facto characters in the forms of the Dakota and Overlook Hotels, respectively. “The Aokigahara, and what it does and shows to people, is, essentially, our bad guy,” Zada confirms. “The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series has Freddy, HALLOWEEN has Michael Myers, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS has Hannibal Lecter and we have the Aokigahara. This would absolutely not be the same film set anywhere else. The forest has a sinister role to play in this film, and plays it very well.”
Alas, Zada doesn’t have the actual Aokigahara any more than THE SHINING’s Stanley Kubrick had the Stanley Hotel, which so spooked Stephen King that he modeled the fictional Overlook after it for his foundational novel. Zada made inquiries, certainly, but was politely rebuffed by Japanese authorities unenthusiastic about any further pop-culture hyping of what was already effectively a crowd-sourced suicide hot spot.
“In hindsight, it was probably for the best,” Zada says. “We needed to have the freedom to do what we wanted to do artistically, and I’m sure a green light to shoot there would have come with a list of restrictive rules a mile long. When I was in the Aokigahara, I took thousands of pictures and video, and then it became a matter of [production designer] Kevin Phipps and I searching around the world for a place that had the same type of vegetation, the same mossy rocks, the same tree roots, the same…feel.” The pair finally found a workable match in Serbia, where Zada could painstakingly recreate the details and ambiance of the Aokigahara, thereby wedding his artistic autonomy to the sort of authenticity he felt was necessary to “show respect to both Japanese culture and the people who have died in the forest.”
TO BE CONTINUED