Wilderness survival stories are commonplace in the horror space but few bother to develop any sort of meaningful characters or relationships. That’s certainly not the case with Dark Nature. Writer/director Berkley Brady’s debut feature introduces a group of women who make their way into the Rocky Mountains in what is being sold as a journey of healing and self-discovery. For the most part, the small group is happy to be there but Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) is there reluctantly, dragged along by her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh). Other than some clashing of personalities, the group, led by Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper), make good progress in their journey but the beautiful and serene outdoors quickly devolves into a nightmare when the women find themselves hunted by an entity.
Part survival story, part friendship story, and part folk tale, Dark Nature delivers an effective bit of terror alongside well-developed concepts of survival, abuse and friendship. We recently had the chance to speak with Berkley about the project, from original concept through the shooting process.
The transcript below is truncated for space but you can watch the interview here:
Marina Antunes: I wanted to start by asking you a little bit of what your career leading up to Dark Nature because you have been working in film for quite some time and while this is your feature film debut, you’ve also done some short films and worked in television. When did your passion for filmmaking begin?
Berkley Brady: When I was a kid, I always loved photography. I definitely was that kid when they still had dark room classes and junior high… I was the one who was like, I want to be there all day and all night. Can I come on the weekends? I just love photography.
We had some little video cameras around the house that my friends and I made some really funny little movies on. I wish I could find those but I don’t know where they are. But then it really was through the UVIC writing program, which I absolutely really did not like – I had a really bad experience, it gave me such reader’s block. That wasn’t the right school for me. Then I started working for documentary company after I got out. Because I’d worked for the school newspaper as the photo editor one year and I had writing and photography. So this job opportunity came through and I started to see that I could be a storyteller in this in this form but it wasn’t until about five years after that that I decided to go to film school.
I went to New York. With so much money and time invested to get my masters in the States, coming out of there, it was a lot about just trying to launch feature and just get out there and convince people that I could actually direct.
MA: Where did the concept for the film come from?
BB: Well, actually came to me as a first draft as a script from my producer, Michael Peterson, and another producer that he was working with. They had written this script. It was very anti-therapy about these women and this trip and I thought it had a really great structure, but I was like, this is not how we talk and the abusive relationship, I felt, was very cliche. The Joy character was just very like meek in the face of her abuser and he was just kind of one dimensional and in my own experience and my friends’ experiences – we’re all very smart women if we’ve ever had abusive partners, they’re not like that. They’re like the most charming. Gentle feminists like these guys are so tricky, they’re not dumb. You can’t trick a smart person to abusing them without being a master manipulator. So, I really took that kind of experience that I knew from reality. And I just started to rewrite the script and then after a year of rewriting, Mike was like “I think you’ve got to direct this because it’s in your voice now.” I was so happy because I really wanted to direct it.
MA: You shot the film on location in the Rocky Mountains. Can you walk us through a little bit of the process of even before you started shooting. Was shooting on location always the idea? How did you find these locations? It all seems very remote in the middle of nowhere Alberta. And the weather can sometimes be unpredictable…
BB: It was really important to me and also my producer that we shoot here. We did do some location scouting in Edmonton because the city has a film grant you can apply for I think it’s about $200,000 which is great because all of those funds, of course, get matched because tax credits so every bit is more than itself, which is great. So we did look at shooting there and I think that if they had a given us the money we would have shot there.
It’s actually better this way. I wrote the script to shoot around here because I know the area really well. We went on a couple locations scouts together. Then my husband took me to the place where I ended up doing the water scenes. I had a friend who is this huge outdoors guy and I described the canyon that I was looking for and he reached out to his outdoors group and they suggested the creek.
Then we have to go out there with the safety coordinator to get his plan and make sure it’s actually safe, and we can shoot there. Then once those locations were kind of set, I could adjust the script somewhat to do my shot listing. It is a lot of driving.
MA: Was a difficult to find a crew. That would be one able to and willing to shoot in such difficult condition.
BB: Not here. This is what they’re used to. I think most people In other countries would be incredibly surprised by what the crews do on a daily basis. And they don’t complain, they just do it. They’re really, really tough.
MA: Shooting outdoors in the elements is difficult that the best of times. I’m curious about your work with your cinematographer Jaryl Lim and creating the look of the film
BB: I can’t speak highly enough of Jaryl, he’s just so talented. We talked about creating different looks for one. For Joy’s flashback, we wanted that to have a very, like Hollywood big movie, kind of feel like the false security and false comfort of that relationship. Then for the outdoors it was a lot about the colors. Time of day was very important because there’s a very short period where there’s available light. And with the color, he understood how to work with the colorist after.
MA: For the creature, and I had a couple of questions about that because you decided to go pretty much all practical effects from the film. Why?
BB: I just like them better. I think it’s cooler and it’s more fun to work with and I think on a smaller budget, I’m not sure what you can get with your CGI. Even good budget CGI sometimes doesn’t work and takes me out of the story.
MA: And how did creature design develop? Did it develop from any traditional stories?
BB: For the creature I really wanted to avoid actually using any traditional stories. I really wanted it to be a creature based out of my imagination, and I have a really big backstory for it. I think I could do a men’s group for the next one. I also talked a lot about the creature with Kyra Macpherson. She was ahead makeup artist and she’s just so passionate about monsters and horror. We talked tons and Jennifer Crighton, our head of wardrobe, also helped a lot.
The idea really was to make it very much of this place so I wanted the skin to look like bark. I wanted it to be able to camouflage like it’s totally evolved in this specific place and it can’t venture too far away from its cave. So once they go through the canyon they’re in its territory but it doesn’t really go too far out of it.
The score and sound design are really impressive. The mixing of sound and score and how they blend into each other… How did you find Ghostkeeper and can you talk a little bit about working with them and your sound designer to build the soundscape for the film?
Ghostkeeper was a recommendation from my producer. I met with them and talked a lot about what I was going for and really talking about pairing it back like voices, whispers drums and then really let them do their thing. They actually did a lot more without a lot of feedback. I was a bit nervous about that because I was like oh you guys have gone to this next level, where I want to talk about that with you but they’re kind of like “Just leave us alone. Let us just do it.” I was like OK, I’ll take the leap.
They record with one microphone on every instrument every vocal so all of those things are their own tracks. In the sound design, you can like bring things up or take them away. Like the final scene when I won’t say who but some of the characters survive and they climb up and there’s just like a voice singing. Originally, I think we had a lot of guitar in that scene too but I wanted it to just breathe a little more and we were able to just take it away and just focus on his vocals. It was a really nice mix between the sound and the composing. And I think that was my favorite part of the process, working with the sound designers, because you’re inside, and you’re sitting down, and it’s just so creative.
MA: What was the most difficult part of the shooting process and was there a scene that was particularly difficult to capture?
BB: I think probably there’s a lot of things that were difficult. I think it really was hard because where we were, there wasn’t wi-fi or cell service and then we were having so many production issues because of equipment shortages and the producer needing to talk to the actors’ agents for hours a day. That really took him out of the production, so we didn’t really have our producer onset at all and that was really hard. So all the little fires that you put out if someone’s there to tend to them, they just grow bigger and that was really stressful.
MA: Did you shoot during COVID?
BB: Yeah. It was 2021. You know, we were a couple years into COVID by that time so productions had really figured out their workarounds. Of course, insurance costs more and that took away from our production budget. Plus you have to wear the masks. One nice part and a reason why we also felt confident about it was that we were outside so much which is better for COVID.
MA: And you premiered the film at Fantasia. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? You’re a very first feature film and you’re premiering it at one of the largest genre festivals in the world.
BB: It is really cool and Carolyn Morissette really championed the film and she was supposed to do a Q&A but she got COVID so I was so sad that she couldn’t do the code Q&A because people have come up and told me like she really was behind this film.
MA: Now the film is out there and people are seeing it and it’s being really well received. What, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?
BB: There are some cool things in the pipeline. I think about four projects. One is adapting the book Halfbreed by Maria Campbell. That’s an incredible book. She’s a hero of mine and I’m working on that with Banger Films in Toronto.
I’m also adapting the book The Summer of Bitter and Sweet by Jen Ferguson which won the Governor General’s medal this year. It’s like a love story sort of dealing with crazy colonial past. And then just two other features I’m looking on with that developing with other writers. One is a kind of ghost story and one’s a sci-fi.
MA: Is telling women’s stories pretty key to your storytelling?
BB: Definitely. I was really lucky to come out of film school at this time when people are actually interested and there’s a market for these stories.
MA: You mentioned you’re working on other projects but I did want to ask about a continuation of this story because the film does end with a not a cliffhanger but an opening that you could tell more stories…
BB: I mean, I think that the creature itself was really hard and took a long time to come up with his backstory and understand what he was and how he worked. I think that maybe it’s just a little piece of IP I’ll hold on to but I’m excited for the next thing.