The fear of getting lost in the middle of nowhere has been somewhat alleviated thanks to the advent of GPS, but it's still possible now and then to find oneself off the grid in a strange place. This is when doubt and anxiety creep in. "Was it two lefts and a right, or one right and two lefts? Did I just do a circle? Is that enormous pick-up truck with the fully-stocked gun rack following me?"
Jeremy Lovering's IN FEAR is a slow-burn exploitation of this frightening scenario. Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert star as a young couple making their uncertain way to a music festival somewhere in the Irish countryside. The two plan to stay overnight at a rural hotel, but as they head off into the wooded backroads, they find themselves following a series of mysteriously unreliable signs. Is someone having fun with them (perhaps the locals from the pub they popped into earlier), or are they simply giving into their aimless frustrations? It's a streamlined psychological thriller that twists and turns like the tree-lined roads they can't seem to escape. Drawing inspiration from classics like DUEL, KNIFE IN THE WATER and THE VANISHING, Lovering gradually guides his wayward duo into a waking nightmare that grows more sinister as night falls.
Working with three different digital cameras - the Alexa, the Canon 5D and a GoPro - Lovering constructed his story on the fly. Though he knew how and where he wanted the narrative to conclude, he wanted his performers to react as naturally as possible to the unnerving events which unfold as the evening wears on. Since the actors and the audience are confined to a car for a large portion of the film, Lovering also had to figure out ways to keep things visually arresting. And then there was postproduction, where Lovering and his editor Jon Amos had to make sense of this partially improvised thriller.
The jagged style of IN FEAR amplifies the panic of its characters; the film nervously anticipates the worst, and delivers on its anxiety-ridden promise. It's a departure of sorts for Lovering, who's honed his craft in British television over the last decade. To see a completely different side of Lovering, you should check out his SHERLOCK episode "The Empty Hearse", which finds the director subtly broadening the stylistic parameters established by Mark Gatiss and Stevan Moffat. It might not be possible to pin down exactly what kind of filmmaker Lovering will be going forward, but it's clear that he's someone worth watching.
When I chatted with Lovering the other day, we discussed his unique approach to the filming of IN FEAR, the films that inspired him and his plans for the future, which include a remake of Peter Medak's classic THE CHANGELING.
Q: Given the improvisatory approach to the production, did you find you were discovering the story as you went along?
Jeremy Lovering: I think that's very true. I basically had a very tight idea of the story I wanted to do at the beginning, pre-casting or anything. I'd only had archetypes in mind, and [the actors] brought flesh to the characters. I put them in given scenarios during that audition process which weren't in the film; we went out shopping or went to dinner or whatever. And how they behaved in those scenarios showed me how the characters were going to perform, and the kinds of things they were going to say. So I was able to write a new scenario, which we were then going to try out in the forest. Obviously, when we came to shoot it, they would behave in a slightly different way again, and I would realign my thinking with how they were emotionally and try to progress from there.
(Laughs) Without sounding like a complete twat, it's kind of an examination of predestiny as well. I knew where I wanted them to end up, but I only had a marginal idea of how they were going to get there. Unlike BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, I didn't abandon them; I was able to jump in there and, after an event happened and they had their knee-jerk reaction, I would go in and talk to them, pose questions and direct them. "What if your character did this instead of this?" I kind of gave misdirects to each of them so I kept them in conflict..., and then they'd improvise that. But it was always the emotional level I was letting them play and create the story.
Q: It's interesting that you would give them misdirects. Trust is such an important thing for a director to establish with actors. How do you gain enough trust to then be able to fuck with your actors a little?
Lovering: To be honest, they're really cool people. That helps. They're not neurotic. They're the kind of people you'd like to hang out with in general. Because of that they have a confidence and they're quite centered. They got the idea, and they knew the films I talked about. They loved the idea of what we were doing, so I think they trusted the overall notion of it. And then on the day they knew not to trust me. It was slightly frustrating at first, but I think they realized they just had to listen to me and realize I might be messing with them or not messing with them. But either way, they could trust that I had the overall film in mind. But there were a couple of moments where they felt quite lonely. As you say, you get the actors' trust; as a director, you're many things, but one of them is that constant sounding board or comfort zone. Here, they had no safety blanket; the director is the one who's being devious, and they couldn't trust each other either. And the crew were brilliant because they were in on the whole joke as well. I think they played the game as much as they felt they could as well.
Q: What about your influences? THE VANISHING is the one that immediately stood out to me. What films were you referencing, and how did you depart from them?
Lovering: I didn't go back and look at films. This was a very quick process. It was four months from me saying to [producer] Nira Park "What do you think of this?" to finishing filming, so I relied on things I'd taken from them before. I also went back and watched DUEL to see how, for instance, Spielberg would introduce a new angle just to make it feel fresh. Or BURIED. I thought [director Rodrigo Cortes] blew it on one single moment: we crane up from the coffin and you see the size of the Earth, and I remember as an audience member becoming disengaged. But THE VANISHING was definitely up there as a film I loved. I really enjoyed watching it because I felt the tension rising; it was done in the '80s, and I'm sure it's quite dated now, but it was incremental. It was a slow build. When the guy's given a choice to find out how the girl died, people left the cinema because they couldn't bear the process of finding out. The tension was so great that they'd rather go home and ask a friend or read about it or just never know. I thought that was really interesting, and that inspired me in terms of old school, slow-burn suspense - trusting that you can take your time. And I guess REPULSION and KNIFE IN THE WATER were very impactful and remain so. Thematically, I'd probably say STRAW DOGS, and FUNNY GAMES on some sort of intellectual level. And DELIVERANCE and SOUTHERN COMFORT. And to a certain extent ILS; as a contemporary horror, that probably landed. And THE STRANGERS - and whether you think that was a nod to ILS or not is up for some debate. And even things like RACE WITH THE DEVIL. And obviously THE HITCHER.
Your question is where did I depart, and I think the hardest thing to do is to create a sociopath or a psychopath. I knew that from the beginning, and it was always going to be a problem. Psychopaths have been used so many times and in so many forms that it's like, "What can you add?" In the titles of my film, you see everything. You see the guy putting up the cabin in the woods, which is his deliberately hokey idea. You see him painting the signs, you see him killing the animals. I wanted to frame it that everything we're about to see is a setup, and it's a setup by a sociopath who's done his research - which is what people really do. But with THE HITCHER, I've stolen the idea of "Why are you doing this?" "Because I want you to stop me."
Q: You mentioned DUEL as inspiration for the way it keeps things interesting visually. For yourself, being stuck in a car a lot of the time, how did you keep it fresh?
Lovering: I think it was three things. One was choosing as the film progresses to use different lenses so the frame size changed, but you keep the same proximity to the characters. You feel the world closing in as their world does close in. The other way was that we were really strict, me and [cinematographer] David Katznelson. We gave ourselves a certain discipline in using a kind of camera at a certain time of day or in certain environments, and not trying to mix the media. So dusk was shot on one type of camera, the interiors and daytime were shot on another type of camera, and so on. What that discipline did was help us focus on the storytelling with each scene, and the style we wanted to commit to. And the technology forced us into that situation. So we had to very much analyze how we used the camera to tell that story. And then doing the Spielberg thing. For example, the rearview mirror shot, which is the most commonly-used car shot, I didn't use it until halfway through the film, just before the man gets in the back. I wanted to have that moment to feel like we were the ones in the back, so, therefore, when the man gets in the back, where do we go?
I never wanted to find a gratuitous camera angle just for the sake of it, so it was working out the storytelling quality of every camera angle before, and then holding back on them until it became absolutely pertinent to what I wanted the audience to feel. For example, the first scene outside the pub, when they're sitting in the car, is the most ordinarily shot scene I've ever done. The camera is on the tripod and we used the same lens size for all of the shots and just shifted the tripod forward or back accordingly. There's no negative space. Every time I look at it, I go "Christ, that looks bad!" But it was very deliberate. I wanted it to feel very ordinary when there is no threat. That was always the challenge. At the time, the Alexa M was still in prototype. Jonathan Glazer was doing UNDER THE SKIN, so the camera that he rebuilt wasn't available. I think on PROMETHEUS they were using the prototype. So I couldn't access the small Alexa, which would've graded perfectly. We had to then use the Canon more than I was going to use it and in different ways - and rely on the colorist, who's kind of brilliant.
There's one time I sent them off on their own, and I really wanted to do more of that. It was amazing. They had two Canons, and... it looked like splitscreen almost. The problem is that I forgot to mention to them to come back after twenty minutes, because that's all the card would take. So they came back two hours later thinking they had all of this amazing footage, but it was never filmed. It was all good fun exploring it. I was amazed that I didn't once feel "Oh, my god, I'm stuck in this car" unless I was intentionally going for that. That's all credit to David as well.
Q: Did you always have the final shot in mind?
Lovering: I absolutely did. That was totally where I wanted to go, but... you make a pact with the devil when you make a film in this way; you have to accept the choices that are forced on you because you're improvising it. But I always wanted to try to engage the audience in a way where they made the choice about what happened in the end. It's a very literary concept, but it's not really a cinematic concept. Loads of people have done it. RASHOMON is a good example, where they're not going to show you what happened; you're going to have to make your mind up. Haneke kind of plays with it, but then he'll give you a flashback to get you on your way. What I wanted was to try to get to the point where the girl wants to kill the bad man, and the bad man wants to be killed by the girl. But if she kills him, she becomes no more than a fallen angel or no more than a normal human being - whatever your belief system is. I wanted to say to the audience, "You'll have to make your mind up." But the truth is I found that the audience is too emotionally invested, and that everything I just said was too academic. Therefore, I did see the end in that way, but I didn't see the emotional response in that way. I think it became more black-and-white inevitably. I think that meant that I committed to an ending that maybe the engineering wasn't as satisfying. I remember one review saying "It's either exploitative or very '70s." What did you think?
Q: I lean towards the '70s anyway. I wish there was more ambiguity in movies. I wish we'd let the audience figure it out for themselves once in a while. Maybe there's no definitive outcome, and maybe that's what's interesting about it. It forces you to wrestle with your own thoughts as to which outcome you might prefer.
Lovering: It's good to hear you say that. I remember seeing a film when I was in college. It was BETTY BLUE or something. It's an intense experience, but you enjoy watching it. And then you go out with a bunch of friends, and you get stoned or drunk, and there's a girl that you try to impress with your intellectual criticism of the movie, and then maybe you get a snog or laid at the end of it. (Laughs) That's why I wanted to make a film that has that process in it - rather than you finish watching it and you go and talk about something else. I don't know, but judging from other people's reactions... we had a screening where we were aiming for eighteen-to-twenty-three-year-olds to see what they felt. I happened to go past them afterwards, and... there was a boy and a girl reenacting the scene where he's pulling her hair, and I thought, "This is good. Maybe he's going to get laid tonight."
Q: Contrast this with your work on SHERLOCK, where there's a preexisting template and a certain expectation of visual storytelling.
Lovering: I loved SHERLOCK anyway. Mark [Gatiss] came to see the film, and he asked if I wanted to do the first episode [of Series 3]. Benedict and Martin were amazing. The visual thing is interesting. There are certain things you inherit: the graphics, the Sherlock vision and so on. It suggested the right way to being filmed. I tried to push it further, and I think Mark and Steven [Moffat]... I really respected them because they felt the characters were so well branded and the story was, too, so they gave me total freedom to shoot it as I saw fit. I put in something like 2,300 edit points, and normally they have 1,100 edit points. I kind of ramped it up and changed quite a lot. I'm not trying to deny that there's a visual style, but I actually felt quite free in how I did it visually. I think a lot of the crew were like, "We haven't done it like this before," you know, in a grumpy way. But I didn't ever feel constrained visually. I did feel a bit constrained in the graphics; I feel they could've gone a bit further. But it's a style of filmmaking I quite like; I like doing a craft with tracking and everything that IN FEAR didn't have. I probably need to go back and look at it. A lot of people have complained that it looked very different.
Q: Is the horror genre something you want to return to?
Lovering: The things I'm looking at right now, one of them is a psychological thriller in the vein of JACOB'S LADDER. I like the script, and it's financed; it's a studio film. It needs a bit of disentangling, but it's not horror. There's no horror element, but there is psychology and suspense and tension. Then there's one that's a pure horror; it's got a twist or an angle that I really like. I do like that genre. I like psychological horror and psychological thriller. I've also just written a treatment for a remake of THE CHANGELING.
Q: God, I love that movie.
Lovering: I love that movie, too. Am I a fool for even fiddling with it? It's the same producers as the original film, which makes it really interesting. They've got all their reasons for liking or not liking their own film, but it's hard when you've got a film that's so iconic. From THE CONJURING to THE OTHERS to THE ORPHANAGE, everyone's publicly acknowledged that they love THE CHANGELING. It's a tough one, but I do love the film.
Q: It's a film that's known by horror fans, but not so well outside of that. With remakes, I think anything is fair game as long as you've got a new and genuinely interesting spin on the material. That's why THE THING and THE FLY are such great remakes.
Lovering: Absolutely. And then there's THE VANISHING. You get the same director to make the film with the ending that he was quite right to have jettisoned in the beginning.
IN FEAR opens theatrically on March 7th. It will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand on March 11th. For more details, visit the film's official Facebook page.