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Interview: Rafe Spall and Robert James-Collier on the Making of 'The Ritual'

February 7, 2018Ben MK

Rafe Spall and Robert James-Collier are two actors with a combined body of work that includes such movies as The BFG and Life of Pi and such TV shows as Coronation Street and Downton Abbey. That said, their latest film, The Ritual, is like none of those things.

A horror movie that blends the supernatural suspense of The Witch with the intensity of Predator, The Ritual (read our review here) had its North American premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. And that's where I caught up with the pair to talk about the film and their experience making it.

Did either of you read the novel before signing on to do The Ritual? What drew you to this movie?

James-Collier: Arsher [Ali] read the novel, I didn't. I think he was the only one. He plays Phil, and he said it was completely different, so don't bother reading the novel. So I didn't bother reading it. I don't think you need to with a film. A film's a film, isn't it? You just need to read it and understand it and make your decision how you're gonna play it. So for me, what drew me to it was the dialogue was very colloquial... the banter between the lads, I believed it was truthful, it sounded like me and my mates from uni when we'd go off, we'd have a wild weekend or whatever. And it was that kind of interplay between the lads that attracted me to it. And then, when I met David Bruckner, the director, his enthusiasm for it, [I] was like, "Wow, I won't mind working with him."

Spall: But people are great fans of the book; it's quite different, there's elements in the book that are not in the script [and] vice-versa, and it's definitely a standalone thing. But hopefully there'll be enough for fans of the book to enjoy the movie.

Neither of you have made many horror movies in general. Rafe, you were in Prometheus, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, which all had horror elements. But how would you compare the horror genre to other genres? And what do you or don't you enjoy about horror?

James-Collier: This is my first one. I mean, I've made some movies that were horrors, but of the genre. They were terrible! [laughs]

Spall: I don't generally enjoy horror films. I don't enjoy jump scare movies, I don't enjoy going to the cinema to be made to feel like that. I understand that people do; it's a form of escapism, the same way that laughing is. It takes you out of yourself, but that's not necessarily my bag. But to me, genre films, scary films, horror films, whatever, should be able to exist without the scary elements. And I think this film is interesting unto itself, [being] about a group of guys who have gone away to get over the death of their friend. That's an interesting subject to me, ultimately. And then the Equine Nordic Beast is the cherry on top.

James-Collier: It could just stand as a rite of passage, it could carry on without the beast. Four lads just get lost. But it's that dealing with the death of their friend and the guilt that they're feeling and stuff like that. It flips, it does a From Dusk Till Dawn, doesn't it? And then like turns into something else. But Rafe's right about the genre, it's good to have the suspense, like Alien; in the first movie, you barely see it; and Jaws, the scariest parts are before you see the shark, and then when you see the shark, you're like, "What the fuck is that?" [laughs] So the suspense element is massive in this film.

Your characters in this movie are put through the wringer, basically. So shooting the film must have been pretty intense. How did you get in the right mindset for filming?

James-Collier: Shooting was really easy for me. [laughs] I had two weeks on, two and a half weeks off, and then a week at the end. It was this guy [looks at Spall] you want to ask about that. [laughs]

Spall: Yeah, it was really intense. As Rob said, he left for a little while, but I was there for the whole time. We were in the Carpathian mountains in the middle of Transylvania, which was doubling for Northern Sweden.

James-Collier: Northern Sweden was booked. Who'd have thought it?

Spall: Someone had booked it for a massive stag boot. [James-Collier laughs] So we were there, you know, it was cold, it was mostly night shoots, there were bears in the forest, literally. Wolves. There was an earthquake when we were there. It was intense, man. And I decided you can either approach that in one of two ways, which is getting drunk every night, which is fine... [but] I exercised a lot and read a lot of Russian books and ate really healthily, and, you know, approached it that way.

James-Collier: Seeing Rafe go through that ritual (see what I'd done there?) made me realize how lazy I am as an actor.

Spall: But we worked out together. We would spend a lot of time doing some sweet reps on the bench together.

James-Collier: Rafe gave me tennis elbow. [laughs] I was renovating a house at the time, and then I did this crazy kettlebell workout, so now I've got chronic tennis elbow.

What was the most challenging scene to film?

Spall: The fight with the beast at the end was just me and the beast for a week, which was like pulling teeth. Because it was so finickity, because we had budgetary constraints, which meant that it had to be shot in a very specific, piecemeal way, which was tricky. As I say, a lot of it was night shoots, and we were out doing fives till fives in the middle of the forest, and it was pretty bleak... but really rewarding. And I look back on it, and it was an amazing experience. And after, I felt amazing. It's very rare as an actor that you feel like you're working for your money, do you know what I mean? Really working, really crafting. And this felt like that.

And that was towards the end of the shoot?

Spall: Yeah, that was near the end. The last thing we shot was what Rob came back for, was the beginning of the movie, when the guys are in the pub. That was the last thing we shot, and by the time we did that we were in Bucharest, and that was like a dream. We all felt at ease with each other.

James-Collier: Which is good, because that all comes across straight way then, in the film.

It sounds like there might have been a fair bit of improvisation throughout the movie. Was that the case?

James-Collier: Yeah. [laughs] Which was a nightmare for me, cuz I was there to give all the factual guides, and had to wait for them to finish to then give them the really boring bit of dialogue in the middle. [laughs] Expositional Rob, they call me. [laughs]

Now Rafe, you're in the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Can you tell me something about the movie and your role?

Spall: There's dinosaurs in it. Fallen Kingdom, that's what it's called. That's a new title that I didn't know about when we shot it. The working title was Ancient Futures. No, I've signed all sorts of forms, man. I can't really talk about it. But it's directed by J.A. Bayona, who's a wonderful genre director of those cool Spanish horror movies and The Impossible. He was really great to work with, as was Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. Yeah, it was ace. I was confronted with lots of dinosaurs.

James-Collier: Were they inflatable? [laughs] That would be the twist for me, is if they were actually inflatable dinosaurs.

And Rob, any update on the status of the Downton Abbey movie?

James-Collier: I think it's happening next year. They brought a script out, but then they decided to change it. So they've asked me to be part of it, so yeah, I'll just wait and see. But it's important to do, cuz I've got a mortgage to pay. [laughs] I think we need a movie after six series. [laughs]

The Ritual begins streaming February 9th on Netflix.

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