Dark Nature film movie Berkley Brady

With her feature debut, Dark Nature, Berkley Brady goes back to the woods

The director talks about shooting in the forest, working with actors and the challenges of depicting an abusive relationship on screen.

The cold open of director Berkley Brady’s Dark Nature begins in a small, comfortable-looking suburban home. Joy (Hannah Anderson) is on the phone with a friend, her adorable white dog following her around the kitchen as she makes dinner. A casual conversation quickly turns to something more ominous, a hint that something isn’t right. “Wait, who’s home?” the person on the line asks as Derek (Daniel Arnold) enters the gold-tinted space. Joy says she’ll call back as she greets her boyfriend. He seems tense, and she looks destabilized, trying to stay calm and collected as she treads on eggshells. The scene soon devolves into a stark and horrifying act of domestic violence. 

Set a few months later, much of the film takes place after the horrific events of the opening sequence. Joy’s friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) has invited Joy on a healing retreat in the woods. Joined by a group of women and a teacher, the women venture into the wilderness, where their traumas become increasingly real and even monstrous.

With her debut film, Berkley Brady looks at the ramifications of violence and trauma on a person’s soul and relationships. Anchored by female friendship and intense vulnerability, Brady’s film takes a fresh approach by using the forest as a backdrop for horror and transformation.

Speaking on the phone with Cult MTL, Brady talked about discovering horror as a pre-teen. “There’s a sort of rite of passage,” she explains, “when you’re watching movies that have topics of sexuality, violence and blood — things that, as a child, you’re not supposed to see.” Only after film school did she embrace the genre. “I just found the horror community and the horror world to be really supportive and cool.”

Most of the film unfolds in the woods, which taps into a primal fear. “I think (what’s scary) about them,” she laughs, “is that you’re back in the food chain. There’s so much beauty, too, though.” Brady emphasizes this push and pull between the more therapeutic aspect of being in the woods, “that feeling like your body will just get in synch with the natural rhythms around you,” and this idea that something bad can happen. “You could run out of food; you could run out of water; a predator can get you; you could slip and fall. It triggers parts of our brains that keeps you on your toes.”

Dark Nature

Shooting in the woods also presented a lot of logistical issues. Since the movie wasn’t a huge-budget American production, they couldn’t set up huge base tents. “There isn’t cell service, and sometimes you’re just out of walkie-talkie range,” she explains. “It starts to eat up a lot of time.” The same constraints also impacted the ability to do rehearsals, as most of the main cast were based in Toronto. A couple of days before the shoot, though, they were able to do a group therapy session as a cast to allow Kyra Harper (who plays Dr. Dunnley) to observe how she works and help pinpoint a “dynamic within the group.” 

Brady also established a strong relationship between Hannah Anderson and Madison Walsh, who plays her best friend Carmen. “(In Toronto) Hannah had seen Madison perform in Killer Joe. Madison famously didn’t wear pants for a scene, like nude bottom scene and Hannah really admired that,” says Brady. They put the two actors in the same hotel and encouraged them to talk to each other. As the director Brady ensured the conditions were right for them to quickly get in the right headspace, “they really put in the work.”

The central horror of the film, as it ties to Joy, is her experiences within an abusive relationship. In Brady’s approach to the material, she subverts many cinematic clichés and works carefully with the actors. “I pulled from my own experience, and I pulled from friends’ experiences as they described it to me. What interested me most was the dynamic of this relationship and what it feels like from the inside,” she explains. Abusive relationships “are very complex. Each person has an aspect they’re bringing, that enmeshment that keeps that unhealthy dynamic happening.” Brady’s goal is to be truthful — “that’s my number one responsibility.”

Dealing with such a sensitive topic also means being attentive and careful with the actors. “Hannah had a bad experience in an acting class of strangulation,” she says. So, in shooting those scenes, they worked closely together to avoid recreating or triggering a traumatic incident from her past. They worked closely with stunt coordinators and even re-imagined the scenes. This close work elicited more exciting results, blurring the line between the real and imagined, emphasizing the long-term impact of violence. 

The ramifications of this abusive relationship outpour into other dynamics in the film. As the characters become increasingly isolated, the violence and nightmares within them become externalized. More than just a tense thriller, Brady embraces the visceral horror of the environment and even the monsters that might be lurking around the shadows. Echoing a film like The Descent, the movie uses the unique features of the environment to amplify the horror and create something fresh and original.

For Brady, this is only the beginning. Just under a year since the film premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival, Dark Nature is finally reaching a wider audience. Brady, who is Métis, has also begun work adapting the book Half-Breed by Maria Campbell. “She’s my hero,” says Brady. “We’re really hoping it can be a six or seven-part limited series.” ■

Dark Nature (directed by Berkley Brady)

Dark Nature opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 19.

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