A trip into the woods to deal with personal demons leads to confrontations with real horror in Dark Nature, the feature debut of director Berkley Brady. Scripted by Brady and Tim Cairo, the film sees limited theatrical release May 19 and a VOD debut May 23 in the U.S. from Epic Pictures' Dread label, and hits Canadian theaters on the 19th via Filmoption International. This follows festival play, including a world premiere at last year's Fantasia International Film Festival, where FANGORIA spoke with Brady.
Dark Nature stars Hannah Emily Anderson as Joy, who has been going through an abusive relationship, and Madison Walsh as her best friend, Carmen. They join other members of a self-help group on a therapeutic trip into the Canadian Rockies, where each of them continues to deal with her traumatic past—and they are also confronted by a literally monstrous threat stalking them through the trees. A slow-burning dark personal drama that evolves inexorably into survival horror, Dark Nature establishes Brady as a filmmaker capable of meshing personal concerns with genre elements to compelling ends.
Have you had any experience with self-help groups or similar situations that inspired this storyline?
I've never been in a self-help or support group, but I think they do a lot of good. My dad was in AA, and when I was younger, I would sometimes go to meetings with him. It was really powerful to see these people come together and not have any ego, not be there to prove anything, but just talk honestly. So that was influential, and then, I was in an abusive relationship in my twenties that I was fortunate to survive and get out of, and I definitely incorporated that into this story.
How did that coalesce into a horror film as opposed to a straight drama?
That happened for a couple of reasons. One is the idea of domestic abuse—and you don't even have to live with someone, it could be in a friendship—there is a sort of horror to that. And then obviously I love The Descent, it's one of my favorite movies, and you leave that film with one person who's really traumatized, and there are a number of horror movies that end on that note with the survivors, and it's like, how are they going to live with this? So I thought, what if this story is about people who have gone through something really horrific, and this is later down the line for them, so it's not their first time at the horror rodeo?
The movie takes a bit of a risk in the sense that the horror element doesn't really make itself known until past the halfway point. Were you ever concerned about how genre audiences would respond to that?
Definitely. That was my main worry. But that's also why I put the abuse scene at the beginning, to say that this is going to get uncomfortable and go to ugly places. It's like, here's a little appetizer, maybe the waiter's going to take a little while, but hopefully you'll enjoy your drinks with your friends while you're waiting [laughs]!
How did you work with your cast to prepare them for their roles?
When all the actors came to town, I had them meet with a psychologist. We had about a six-hour session with her. It was on Zoom because she was traveling and because of COVID protocols; they were still strict when we were shooting in 2021. That was great because I had talked with each actor one-on-one about character ideas. They each brought their own experiences; one had actually gone through PTSD from being bullied by other women. Everyone had a sort of backstory, and they're all so talented and came very prepared for their roles, and then we did that session with the psychologist, with them in character. That was a couple of days before we went to shoot, and I wish we had actually done that earlier because I would love to have been able to incorporate the things they brought into the script.
Was there any physical preparation to go out in the woods for what looks like a pretty arduous shoot?
They were all aware of what that was going to be, and I think they were especially worried about being in the water. So I went out to that location, and I got video of myself in that water, and it was really freezing; it was so cold [laughs]! But I could show that to the actors and say, "Look, I'm here in the water, this is where we're going to go." I know Madison Walsh was amping up her fitness routine before she came out. We had safety meetings to be prepared, and I have a lot of experience being out in the wilderness, so I know how to keep people safe as best I can. We had a stunt coordinator and safety coordinator who did all that as well.
And a bear came to lunch at one of our locations! We were down on a road, it was high on a cliff above us, and it started coming down this little pathway toward us. It was coming closer, coming closer, and bears can really smell food; like, if we had a donut, the bear would be able to smell it from a kilometer away. So we were there with our catering, and because of fires and other stuff that had been going on there, a lot of the animals were a little more hungry. And this was a grizzly, it wasn't a black bear; a small grizzly, but a grizzly nonetheless. We were honking our car horns, and we had those air horns that you blast, and the bears normally run away, but this one just didn't. It seemed very gentle, but it would not go away. In moments like that, it gets scary because you're like, where's the location person who's watching the set while we're at lunch? They're by themselves, so how do we get to them safely? So we had protocols like everyone staying together and traveling in groups. We also tried to be respectful of being in the animals' home; we were invading, really, with smells they couldn't ignore.
You shot on some spectacular locations, which I believe have never been on film before. How did you find them and determine which ones were accessible to shoot?
My producer, Michael Peterson, and I did a lot of walking. We know the area well, so even when I was writing the script, I was doing it with that forest in mind. And the father of one of my dance teachers at a studio I dance at is an avid, avid hiker. I told him what I was looking for and that I wanted it to feel like a canyon with tight walls, very imposing, and he put out a call to his hiking friends. He took me out there at one point; it was about an hour's drive and a twenty-minute hike to that spot, and that's also where the cave exterior is, so he was able to show me that as well.
We came in there just on the heels of Prey, and they actually shot at the same spot in the water; it's the water scene they have in their trailer. When we did one of our location scouts, they were setting up, and they had a huge safety team, they had porta-potties, they had a hot tub for the actors to get warm in, and I was like, "Oh my God, how did you get the porta-potties here?" And they said, "Oh, the helicopter dropped them off!" I was like, "Right, the helicopter!" We did not have a helicopter dropping off porta-potties. We had a little tent. So yeah, it was a really grueling shoot for us, and a lot of our cast and crew said it was the most difficult thing they'd done.
Can you talk about the creation of the cave and shooting there?
That was the brainchild of Myron Hyrak, our production designer. I had no idea how he was going to do it; it's not that I didn't think he could do it, but I was like, "How will you do this on our budget?" And he just used tarps, crushing them up and painting them, getting them to hold this really warped form, and putting them up on these supports. There were pieces of the cave on wheels, so we could use them for one part and then unlock the wheels and move them to do another part. And then Kyra Macpherson, who led the makeup team, dressed it with the blood. That was probably the most fun for me; they would put the blood on, and I would say, "More blood! More!" and it started dripping, and I'd be like, "Yes! Let's shoot this!"
What were the inspirations behind the creature?
I wanted it to feel like no matter who you are, if you go to its territory, it's going to find your fear and target you. And that would be the absolute worst thing for this group in particular since it feeds off fear and it has been sort of starved, so it's almost a reflection of our relationship to that place. If people went there and understood the sensitivities of its soul and did things that were actually healing… If you went there at a time when other people weren't destroying the planet, it could actually give you power. I love how the actor who played the monster performed it, and I actually feel for it. It's out there alone, no one's been helping it, and instead of being this powerful thing, it's this hurt being, and now it's hurting more. I have a whole backstory for the creature in my mind—how long it's been there, how it got there—and I love this idea that it's very much cultivated to its environment.
Its skin even looks like rock and bark and things like that, and there's a sense that it can camouflage itself and change its appearance to match its environment.
Yeah, exactly. I love how Kyra designed the creature; it starts looking very natural, like bark and rock, and as it's hunting them, it gets ripped open and covered in blood. How it looks at the very end is my favorite. And there's a little bit of time-flipping and compression in the film, so when one character has a dream and sees the monster, it's how it appears at the end, so time is kind of warped in that place.
Is it exciting to be part of the new breed of women filmmakers in horror?
Yeah, though I feel like I have so much to prove in that realm; like, the giants are up here, and I still aspire and respect so many of those people, regardless of their gender. I do remember when I was growing up in the '90s and early aughts, I never thought I could be a director, though at the same time, I felt like I could do anything I wanted. I didn't feel conscious of being excluded. But I do feel like in the past twenty years, there's been such a difference. It's not just, "Oh, there's space for you"—the space has been made, which is very important—but also, it seems like people are more open to talk about a lot of things that previously, maybe women felt ashamed of. I think in my early twenties, I would have been embarrassed to say, "Oh, I'm going through therapy," and now it's like, "I was fortunate enough that, through my student health care, I was able to have a therapist," and it helped so much. I just feel there's more openness in general, and maybe for women especially. We can talk about these things that, before, we were told were unimportant or didn't matter but can be major sources of horror.
In particular, there's pushback now about what it means to be a victim. Whereas before, it was like, "Well, she says she was raped, or she says she was attacked, but…she was drinking. Or in the past, she's been a party girl." There was this thing of, "Maybe we shouldn't believe her." I do think there should be due process; I don't think it's OK to just make accusations and ruin someone's life. But it should be taken seriously, and especially with Joy, it was very important to me that she wasn't this "perfect victim," that she hits back, that you don't understand why the hell she's with this guy; why is she staying with him? But she does, and I believe women can be very nurturing, and people can abuse that. It's sort of love as a dangerous thing, but also a powerful thing, because it's the love between the friends that could allow them to save each other.