Andrew Shulkind and Ben Lovett, cinematographer & composer of ‘The Ritual’

Filmmakers discuss the challenges of horror and working under an intense deadline

Sep 29, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


David Bruckner’s debut feature, The Ritual, follows a group of friends commemorating the loss of one of their brethren by journeying to a remote, mountainous area in Sweden. Following an effort to take a shortcut through a large, wooded area, they spend the night in a creepy, abandoned cabin. Then things go weird.

Cinematographer Andrew Shulkind and composer Ben Lovett worked with Bruckner to deliver an atmospheric, psychological thriller that builds to a fever pitch of a finale. Focusing on mood and feel is what brought out their excitement for the project, especially since Shulkind doesn’t consider himself much of a horror aficionado, though he does appreciate the aesthetics inherent to the genre.

“The cool thing about horror is that you can light it, and you use light in a really dramatic way,” Shulkind said. “Horror sort of gets a bad rap. A lot of horror you can get away with in a schlocky way…(but) that’s what’s amazing about David, besides the fact that he’s super-versed in horror, it’s the kind of horror I get excited about. It’s more the psychological, the Kubrick version of horror. It blurs the line between horror and drama.”

Shulkind worked with Bruckner on The Accident, a segment in the 2016 horror anthology film Southbound, but this proved to be a much more ambitious production. They shot the film in Romania in just under 40 days that required plenty of scouting and problem solving to ensure their locations were perfect, while also providing a disorienting visual sense. They used several static shots of long rows of trees that almost provide a look into infinity, or something akin to a funhouse mirror, as one of the film’s motifs.

“We were doing a long shot. And we looked and looked and looked, and we scouted an insane amount in these forests. We had forests that looked this way, and forests that were more sparse, and forests that were more lush, and spiny – we had like every word for how forests are defined. There was a specific moment where we picked out where if we shot super long and found a way where all the trees kind of lined up, and you could have people winnowing between trees. It looked like the kind of static shot that you’re expecting, but it’s the guys.”

One of these “guys,” Luke (Rafe Spall), is the central driving force of the film. He’s present when the friend who inspires the trip is killed during a botched stick-up at the start of the story, and many of the scenes feature extreme close-ups of his face, reacting to the terrors that befall him and his remaining friends in the forest, while also reflecting on the mistakes of his past. Shulkind compares this to the way Randy the Ram is shot in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler who was portrayed often from behind, especially on his way to the ring.

“You’re almost seeing things through his eyes even though you can’t see what’s in front of him. The same idea, you almost feel like you’re in his head and forced to confront what he’s going through even though you’re looking at him and not what he’s looking at.”

Prior to The Ritual’s world premiere at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, Shulkind had not seen the finished product with the score attached.

“It so heightens these moments we were talking about, these pregnant moments and the internal moments with Luke – and the music kind of drives that,” he said.

Lovett credits the score’s simpatico connection to the visuals, at least partially, to his own hectic schedule of building the musical compositions from the ground up. He flew to London, found an AirBnB, rented a studio, and spent most of his waking hours through completion working on the film’s music.

“I landed with the clock ticking,” Lovett said. “There’s a finite amount of time and it’s never enough. It was a really intense experience. And I would never compare what I went through in post – and the rest of the post team, everyone got killed by that schedule – we had our version of hiking up impossible trails.

“I had a fewer number of calendar days than there were individual instances of music that needed to be written, recorded, mixed, edited, delivered. It was probably the most intense experience of my career.”

Despite that overall intensity, Lovett’s and longtime friend Bruckner’s idea was to let the music gradually build and grow with the rising tone of the narrative. Lovett, who also served as the film’s music editor, wanted to avoid the horror cliché of “sitting on a piano” for jump scares, and looked to be more subtle with the compositions.

“There’s a lot of obscurity to the music early on as they’re on the edge of the woods and as they approach the woods,” he said. “It’s just kind of this formless mood. This thing that starts to take shape and starts to get a little more complex and you’re more aware…because you’re hearing more than you might think of the score.

“I like to live right on that line, that way I can sneak in and get in your head early before you really even know I’m there.”

Lovett had the London Contemporary Orchestra as a collaborating team. The LCO has worked on scores for films like The Master, Slow West, Alien: Covenant, among others.

Together, they produced a score that uses sparse synthesizer in its bookending pieces while allowing acoustic instrumentation to accompany the story largely set in the barren wilderness.

“Ninety-nine percent of the shots in this movie are exterior shots, so it seemed natural that this needs to be acoustic instrumentation for this movie, obviously,” he said. “There was nothing about this that said ‘retro’ or throwback or vintage. It just didn’t seem like that kind of a movie. It would have juxtaposed in the wrong way. It would have objectified the images and made you too aware, forcing you to look through the binoculars of ‘you know, horror movie!’”

And much of it was set in the middle of the night, shrouded in darkness. Shulkind said there are two things in life that truly scare him. The first is being in a lit tent in the middle of the woods where any potential predator can see his location, and the second is looking out a darkened doorway and seeing nothing but darkness. Both feature prominently in The Ritual, and evoking this sense of darkness-infused dread was a challenge as they used everything from balloon lights to flashlights and fast-moving lenses to accurately capture how night looks and feels.

“We’re to the point where we can shoot with such a high level sensitivity with cameras, and lenses that are so insanely fast, that suddenly you can make night look real,” Shulkind said. “The idea was, how can we really make it feel like night and also work in the nuances of that shadow? With haze and contrast. That was a very deliberate motif. Let’s show besides the fact that the forest is scary, let’s really put people in that place without the artifice of feeling like it’s lit.”



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