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Interview: Director David Bruckner and Screenwriter Joe Barton on Adapting 'The Ritual'

February 12, 2018Ben MK

How did the films of Steven Spielberg, Neil Marshall and Ben Wheatley inspire The Ritual? Based on the novel by Adam Nevill, the movie tells the story of four friends (Rafe Spall, Robert James-Collier, Arsher Ali and Sam Troughton) who find themselves at the mercy of a malevolent entity, and I caught up with director David Bruckner and screenwriter Joe Barton to discuss the making of Netflix's new horror movie.

What made you want to adapt Adam Nevill's novel?

Barton: It was just very scary. I think if you're being sent a horror novel, you're looking for what will work in a film. It's in a very different medium, but ultimately you wanna be scared by it. And I got halfway through it and knew I wanted to do it; I was properly getting scared by it. [laughs] And it just has a very cinematic premise, I think. It's kind of a classic location for a horror movie, but [Adam] was doing really interesting stuff with the characters and the mythology, and it was a really interesting mix of monster movie and psychological horror.

Bruckner: I actually read Joe's script first, which then led me to the novel. And although there were differences between the two — because the prose doesn't work, you can't just adapt it into a movie — there were so many discoveries and choices that Joe had made that made a lot of sense to me in the adaptation. What came through in both of them was just the draw of the characters, and this troubled male camaraderie and a failure of masculinity on some levels.

I think in horror, I'm always looking for some sort of contemporary anxiety that is familiar to me. I think you go to the movies to see all of your nightmares kind of come to life, but if that's primed by a more familiar set of anxieties, then that's where we build a common space with the audience, in a lot of senses. And I think the idea of men in their thirties becoming aware of their own personal limitations — and dealing with that as a group of old friends, and maybe growing apart as well — felt really, really fresh to me. And actually unexplored.

The movie adds the event at the beginning, which isn't in the book, that sets up the theme of guilt that flows through the rest of the film. How much did you end up drawing from the source material, and what other changes did you make?

Barton: There were big changes in the third act. So without wanting to go into details, the book does a kind of a pivot halfway through, and we worked quite hard on what was the best cinematic interpretation of that. It's not a twist, it just becomes something slightly different. And I think our version is quite different from the book's version, as we wanted to tie in the mythology that we were trying to build into the creature, and that tied into the beginning that we'd added.

We wanted to explore themes of guilt, and the book is very internalized when it comes to the fracturing of this group of friends, and we wanted to give them something that was more external that we could talk about — that we could address.

Bruckner: The things I loved about the way Joe's draft attempted to tackle this was that the experience of the book is that you're reading this very grounded tale of these guys sinking deeper and deeper into this lost forest situation. But you're with [Rafe Spall's character,] Luke, and you're with Luke's mind, and he's constantly bouncing back to their modern lives and memories that he has of their friendship. So the experience of reading the book is that there's this collision between the world that they lived in — this modern world — and this ancient, very rustic forest.

And to literalize that in the movie would be to crosscut with all this visual backstory that would make it a whole different kind of movie. It would venture into art film meditation at that point, and it really just wouldn't pop as a good night at the movies. So by creating this event at the beginning and using the nightmares as a way to go back and kind of explore the residual anxieties of the things Luke did or didn't do, it boiled down a lot of that stuff in a way that was manageable.

The creature itself is very unique, even just from a visual perspective. How did the look of it come about?

Bruckner: It's a little more abstract in the book. Because of the nature of the medium, it can be that way. Because Adam Nevill, the author, is constantly describing something and you're getting different impressions of it. But with this, I think we always wanted to play it as a pretty powerful reveal. At some point, we put our chips forward and say this is the nature of the nightmare. But we talked quite a bit about how to realize that vision, both in the screenwriting process and then with Keith Thompson, our concept designer that came aboard.

He had a lot of different visual interpretations of what we'd been dealing with, and he has an uncanniness with presenting body shapes and forms in ways you haven't seen, and I have a particular affinity with the human form reinterpreted. And it was just something about the wrongness of that that Keith's work often explores, and when the image of this came across our desks... that inspired us.

Barton: There was a whole wall full of these really creepy monster designs in your office. It was this sort of rogues gallery. [laughs]

Can you tell me a bit about the other creatures designs?

Bruckner: The antagonist — this malevolent force — raises the question of how literally to take it throughout the film. And a lot of the designs were inspired in that regard. It wasn't necessarily a material being; there were other things on the table in some of the other designs. Also, I think you approach an antagonist like that — a supernatural antagonist — from a metaphorical place. It's like, "What does it mean to our characters? What does the feeling of this pursue?"

And then later down the road we started to articulate that in terms of a specific myth, which would also inform how it feels. But the archetype was worth preserving, [which] is something that came from the book, [and that] was the idea of something tyrranical that even had an ego. There were direct passages in the back half of the book that inspired that.

Were there other films that you drew from in trying to land the right tone for the movie?

Barton: I watched The Grey. I don't know what the tone is, but then Liam Neeson being chased by wolves and stuff...

Bruckner: I definitely went back to Deliverance. Definitely went back to The Descent. War of the Worlds, the Spielberg movie, for a lot of reasons, particularly the shot constructions. Spielberg sequences are so incredible; it's kind of hard to achieve on a budget in the woods. And some Ben Wheatley, actually; really, the end of Kill List was pretty inspiring. And I went back and watched The Wicker Man for the first time.

I always end up watching [Paul] Greengrass before a movie too; I always think of United 93, which is this really powerful film, but the style of the performances are so crisp and real. It's good inspiration, I think, as far as how to manage extreme situations. Just on a purely cinematic level it feels so incredibly real that that's good inspiration when you get into territory that is particularly tropey.

How did you balance keeping things feeling real, particularly the dialogue, with the need for exposition?

Bruckner: A huge challenge is how do you deliver exposition in a way that doesn't feel trite. Because you have to have it for a horror film; we need to know some of the rules. One of the things Joe and I worked on quite a bit was making sure the exposition wasn't presented in an extremely reliable way, so you don't hear the filmmakers coming through and saying, "Here are the rules." What it is is a character pontificating about something to which they're out of their element, in a sense.

The audience needs some grounding, in terms of the tropes, but we don't ever legitimize these things. We don't really know what we're dealing with and we wanted to maintain that sense all the way to the end. You could take every fact about their situation that's given to us and bring it into question by the end of the movie. As is the case with most things in life.

Speaking of tropes, horror films are usually known for their twist endings. Was that something that you actively tried to avoid with this movie?

Bruckner: I think there's common ground that we found often to just sort of present things in a matter-of-fact way and try to have the confidence to say, "This is the story," and not always bedazzle with twists and turns. And I think that also goes with the management of the scare beats and shock beats and stuff, is to be somewhat reserved in that regard. To let the situation bring the tension instead of trying to boo-shock the audience at every opportunity.

The Ritual is now streaming on Netflix.

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