By RACHEL REEVES
Berkley Brady is a talented Métis writer, director, and producer from Canada. She is also an incredibly effervescent personality, with inspiring energy and passion for creativity made evident through her every word. That said, it’s no surprise that her directorial debut film DARK NATURE easily made both fans and friends at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, where it recently made its World Premiere.
Filmed on location in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, DARK NATURE follows a group of women as they venture into the wilderness for a therapy retreat. Starring Madison Walsh (The Expanse) and Hannah Emily Anderson (Jigsaw) as best friends Carmen and Joy, the outing is Carmen’s last-ditch effort to help Joy and save their friendship. With each of the women recovering and dealing with their own particular brand of trauma, tents and pre-packaged food items aren’t the only baggage they’re carrying. However, the women soon find that it is more than their dark, complicated pasts that are lurking in the shadows.
Part survival horror, part creature feature, DARK NATURE is a compelling and beautiful exploration of friendship, trauma, and the darkness that resides within us all. To learn a bit more about the film, Rue Morgue recently sat down with Brady for a chat. Along the way, we discuss her love for horror, the challenges of shooting outdoors, the art of creature design, and much more. You can also check out our Fantasia review of the film here.
So, DARK NATURE is your feature directorial debut. Congrats! Why was this an important story for you to tell, and why horror for your first film?
Berkley Brady: Well, I think that it is very hard to get your first one off the ground. So I think for me, I’m a huge fan of horror. And I love that there’s also an audience. It allows one to have hope that people will actually see the movie. So I think it just excited me! It excited me to be able to take a bunch of ladies into the woods and terrorize them. [Laughs] Just kidding! Not really obviously, but you know.
The premise I thought was really freeing. It was about a group of women, but I was hoping to show a side of that interaction that felt truthful to me and that I haven’t always seen on screen. One where not everyone is nice to each other all the time. There are a lot of dynamics within the group and a lot of complexity between the best friends. So that, plus the idea of just going out into the woods. I know the woods around here really, really well. I know what scares me when I’m out there. So, I felt like I could translate some of that atmosphere which is so important. And that it’s so beautiful.
I used to live in New York and in Brooklyn, and I felt like, “Ok. If I’m making films here, I don’t look good in flannel shirts and baseball caps. So, how can I be a Brooklyn director?” [Laughs] Just kidding/not really. I just felt like there was kind of a uniform and also like, “What can I offer there?” To me, I could tell a story better here. That’s why I moved to live where I do and make movies where I am now.
You mentioned Carmen and Joy and the importance of their relationship. Tell us a little bit about the casting process for these two women and how you helped foster that best friend dynamic on set.
With casting, I’ve worked with Madison Walsh before, who plays Carmen. I worked with her on an episode of The Secret History of: The Wild West that I directed, where she played Marguerite Riel. I thought, “Okay. Wow. She’s amazing.” She just made a big impression on me. Then, as we were casting, I saw some of Hannah Emily Anderson’s work in horror.
I initially had some reluctance in casting someone as beautiful as her, to be honest. She looks like a movie star, and I didn’t really want that. But when I saw her reel and the movies she’s in, I realized, “Don’t judge her. Don’t discriminate.” She’s able to let herself go to some places. I think she has a massive range which really impressed me.
And then, they’re both working in Toronto right now. They’re both living there too. So when they got together, they had so much in common. And actually, when I told Hannah that Carmen was being played by Madison, she was like, “Oh, I saw her in a play!” That play is called Killer Joe, and Madison famously has a scene where she goes without pants in the play. So Hannah was like, “I saw that as a young actor when I first moved there and she blew me away!” She was already so excited to work with Madison.
Then when they got to set, they just had such incredible chemistry. I know it was a really hard shoot for them, and I’m sure they’ll be talking about that themselves, but they were always laughing. In my memory, they were just making jokes and doing whatever they had to do to get through the day. They really supported each other, and I think they’re still close now. I just tried to foster that. Let them have time together and putting them together. Just little subtle things. I supported them, but they are also really, really smart. They understand story. They understand acting. They were able to click into what they needed to do right away.
Nature itself plays a significant role in the film and is presented in some exciting ways. How did you approach nature itself as a character and the part that it plays in this story?
I was definitely looking at nature as something that is both inside of us and outside of us. That idea that we are sort of famously out of the food chain, yet we are still in nature. Even if you live in a concrete bunker in the biggest city, you’re still in nature technically. I think there is a natural order to non-human nature that is so incredibly intelligent and beautiful. And also without any malintent. It just is, right?
I was also thinking a lot about the nature between Joy and Derek. How each of them has a dark nature to their own personality. And then I just really tried to show and not ell. I think that’s big with this material too. I think it could really be easily put into “Ooooh, female empowerment stalking story” or something like that. I’m not telling anyone how to think, and I’m not making any victims. I’m just showing what each of those stories is. Each of the traumas that the women have are stories that I’ve heard directly from other people or a combination. This is all real. Take from it what you will, but the fact that I’m showing it is as much of the telling that I wanted to do.
You were obviously shooting outdoors for a good chunk of this movie. Talk a little bit about that experience.
It was as hard as you can imagine. Like, it really was hard. It really tested everyone to the full extent of their physical capabilities. And just the exposure. Sometimes, even if it was an easy day, you’re still outside all day. You have to drink a lot of water, but there aren’t really any comfortable toilets. So when we went in to do the studio days in the city, it felt so luxurious to be in a bathroom with running water. [Laughs] Or like, we didn’t have a budget for big trailers for everyone to eat lunch in. So one of the bathrooms is in the trailer where people eat lunch. That’s really fun.
And then there are safety issues. Like, we had a bear who came to set and would not leave. So we had to have safety meetings. We also had a safety director who had a whole system for getting up to the cave location. It was just a lot of planning. Then, the wear and tear of it was hard, but I think we all understood what the goal was and why were doing it. And I think it does come across. It was very important to me that it didn’t look like this was shot on the side of a road. That it really felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere. And, I think for the performances, for them to kind of feel that was important.
I want to ask you about the creature and its design evolution. Since you’re also a co-writer on this, did it change at all from the idea in your head, to the script, to what we actually see in the film? And, what was it like actually bringing this terrifying creature that you imagined to life, physically in front of you?
It’s actually a very dramatic story, and I’m sure my producer will be mad if I talk honestly about it, but I’m gonna tell the truth. So, we had a really great creature designer. We talked a lot with him and spent a lot of time and a lot of money making that monster, but it was rushed in a way. There were major crew shortages last summer because we had Prey, Joe Pickett, all these things shooting in Alberta. There was just not enough crew or equipment.
So, we were really lucky to get this guy. He worked really hard, and he made an amazing monster suit, but it was not right for this movie. It was not what I imagined, and the actor could not move in it. As this was happening, I was like, “I should be going down to that studio and checking how that monster is coming.” But it was one of the things where I ignored that instinct because I was too busy and had a million other things to do. I was like, “I have to just trust him. It’s all being put in latex. It’s a mold, I have to wait till the end.” So I didn’t see the finished suit until the actor came out on set, which I thought was a bad idea. I totally knew that. And when he came out, I was like, “Oh, no. That is not good. That is not what I want.”
But most importantly, as I was directing him, I had a walkie talkie and there was a guy behind the monster out of frame. He had the walkie and then would communicate what I wanted the actor to do. I’d be like, “Hey, can you duck down?” And he’d just be standing there. And I was like, “Okay, walk creepy. Don’t just walk, but stalk.”
I was looking at the predators of the region, and I was trying to imitate those movements. Like, what is a cougar like when it is stalking? It’s terrifying! It’s so calm. They just don’t care. It’s like they know they’re tough and will win in the fight. And then he came down and said, “I cannot move. This helmet is so heavy. I can’t move.” I’m like, “Ok. We have water scenes. He has to be crawling through a cave. It doesn’t look like what I wanted it to look like. We’re screwed. I guess my movie’s done.” Meltdown.
So I called my friend David Bond who was a big part of the creative side of this film, and was like, “What do I do?” He was like, “Ok. This is what you do. Look at these films. Look at Backcountry and what they did in the tent. Look at the camera moves.” So, we basically scrapped that suit, and then our makeup designer Kyra Macpherson and our costume designer Jennifer Crighton stepped in and said, “We’ll make it.”
After their shifts or at night, they started making the new suit. And honestly, they just listened a lot better. I don’t know how this other guy went the direction he did after all the talk we had, but they were just checking in. That was the difference. The other guy didn’t check in. He was like, “I got you. Ok, let me do it.” Whereas they were like, “Is this the skin? Is this it? Is this?”
So then I could say, “The skin should look like the trees or the rocks. He should be emerging from this place as if he was grown out of this cave and this place. Then, as the story goes, getting bloodier and bloodier as he is making kills and feeding.” Those two completely saved the movie. It could have gone either way. If they weren’t there and if they weren’t willing to work that hard like, I would be dead. [Laughs] It would be bad. I really owe them. I owe them a lot.
I mean, that’s how it was for Predator, too, right? When they originally had Jean-Claude Van Damme playing the creature but then scrapped it all for a new design. But at the end of the day, it’s your movie with your name on it. That said, it still must be tough to make that call.
Yeah. And at the end of the day, if the actor can’t move, it’s literally not practical. So, we actually lost the actor who was going to be playing that part. We then got a guy named Luke Moore who specializes in acting for creatures. It was really exciting to see his commitment to the creature. I notice that often when the performances are mentioned, he’s not mentioned. And it’s sort of a bias, but playing a creature is a whole type of acting. He’s got a crazy physical routine — how he can hop, how he can dislocate things, suck his stomach in and push stuff out.
When we hired him, he was just training, training, training. Then there are the 6-8 hours it takes to get in the costume and get done. Then come up for like half an hour of shooting. He is in that suit all day, getting ready, the goop, that discomfort. So it’s very, I think, meditative. But I love what he did with the creature. And especially at the end. Obviously, I don’t want to spoil it, but there are parts where I actually feel compassion for him. When people are nice to him, he wants love. Now, is he predictable? It’s sort of like having a pet grizzly bear. Like, maybe you shouldn’t. But there is that lovable side.
I thought the score for this was really incredible and a great asset to the overall vibe. What was it like working with Ghostkeeper and developing the musical identity for the film?
It was really incredible and also a bit of a risk because they hadn’t done a feature film score before. But I really respect them as artists. I went to their house and talked a lot about the film and what I wanted. I thought their questions were incredible and they’re also both Métis. That was really important to me to have as many indigenous people as possible as part of the project. Especially with the idea of spirits on the land and the certain feeling that they could bring, instruments that they use and things like that. Things only they could bring to the table.
I really left it in their hands. We did have some back and forth in notes, but they also have two kids and they’re very busy. So it wasn’t one of those things where I could be like, “Hey, I want this.” They’d be like, “You kind of get a few tweaks.” They were very protective as well of what they wanted and what they were doing. So I really just tried to respect that.
It was like the opposite of the creature, whereas here, I was pleasantly surprised. It was really cool to see what they did. They’re such talented people. And there will be an LP! I guess just like with everything, there are shortages right now so we didn’t get it printed in time, but there will be an LP release of the soundtrack.
The final thing I want to ask you about is the sound design, as it is so crucial to this story. And also, really well done here. What was the process like for developing that?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that it always felt like a major magic tool in my belt and the sound design is very, very clearly described in the script. In my idea, the monster targets them. It’s like it looks at you, and it triggers the fear. But as it does, the first thing you notice is that something’s different. Then all of a sudden, you notice, “Why are things quiet?” And then you start hearing things that aren’t there. This then escalates the closer they get to the cave. At first it’s just auditory, and each person is experiencing it differently. But that intensity is increasing, increasing the closer they get to the cave. Which, to me, is where it charges up.
So when we got into sound design, it was at Propeller Studios here in Canada. They’re incredible and worked very, very hard. I think they had fun with it too. We talked a lot about how, when you’re in the forest, the scariest thing can be one twig breaking. And then you’re like, “Oh my god. The cougar is there. I know the cougar’s there.” Even though they’re not there to hurt us and it always turns out to be a squirrel. [Laughs] Or a leaf that fell. But, just how heightened our senses are when we’re out there. We talked a lot about that and how bringing those natural sounds is really important. And just the development of what it feels like to be targeted when the creature is targeting you mentally.
It leaves some ambiguity, too, as far as what the creature actually is, which I thought was cool.
I feel like it’s also a creature feature. Which is funny because some people I notice are like, “…and then it becomes this creature feature.” But that’s not a bad thing. That’s what I like about genre — you do kind of know what to expect. Then, you can do these other metaphors and layers on top of it.
It’s funny to see some radically different ratings and to see the things some people are finding, and some people are not. It’s really interesting to go through that process as a first-time director. I’m definitely like, “Oh, I could have done this. Now I see. I could fix it this way or do this.” And we did have more scenes of the therapy sessions and things like that. So I think I’m seeing too how influential our sales agents and producers were going through the post process. There are so many voices.
And I’m seeing now how, in my ideal world, for my process, I would love be basically at a finished state, show it, and then get to go back and reshoot or make changes. That’s the hard thing. You have to do everything before you actually see it. I’m someone who is very much inspired in the moment. I like to learn, and I get really creative from mistakes and how to fix them. I find that when you’re fixing a mistake, that’s almost when the most original thing happens.
I love your perspective on that. Not everyone handles that situation so well.
Well, I think I did a lot of visual art just for fun, and I used to do a lot of illustration and worked with different bands and artists to do their album covers and things like that. So, I’d do a lot of collage, and there were times I’d ruin things. Like, I’d been working on something for 10 hours and just ruin it. But then it’s like, go into what you don’t like, and you’ll turn it back into what you do like. It’s this idea that you don’t have the same expectations when you go into doing something that you don’t like or that’s against your taste, you kind of detach from it in a way. And then you can start twisting it towards what you do like. You then make something you wouldn’t have before. It’s a scary way to work, but I do like it.
DARK NATURE recently made its World Premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival.