Interview: Natalie Dormer & Director Anthony Byrne on ‘In Darkness’ | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Natalie Dormer & Director Anthony Byrne on ‘In Darkness’

New thriller follows blind pianist tangled up in an international murder mystery

May 25, 2018 Photography by Nick Wall Web Exclusive
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A blind pianist, Sofia (Natalie Dormer), lives alone in her London apartment. When the woman who lives above her – the daughter of an accused war criminal – is found dead in an apparent suicide, Sofia’s the only person who might be able to unveil the truth behind what happened. As she becomes entangled in a dangerous mystery that spans decades and crosses international borders, we gradually learn that Sofia may not be as innocent as she appears. Opening in theaters today, In Darkness also stars Ed Skrein, Emily Ratajkowski, and Joely Richardson.

In Darkness was co-written by Dormer and director Anthony Byrne. The pair met while Dormer was appearing in The Tudors, and have been a longtime couple off-set. In the years since they started writing this film, Dormer’s profile has grown from projects such as Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. (She also stars in Amazon’s new, six-part Picnic at Hanging Rock, debuting this week.) Byrne kept very busy, as well, particularly as a television director on shows such as Ripper Street, The Last Kingdom, and Mr. Selfridge.

We spoke to Dormer and Byrne about the collaborative process that went into In Darkness.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You co-wrote this film together, which makes it a project I imagine you both feel very close to. Can you tell me how long ago the idea came to you, and what inspired it?

Anthony Byrne: I was editing another movie in London, and I was living in this apartment at the time and realized after a couple months that I hadn’t seen or heard anyone else in the building. There was a woman living above mine, and she would come in at midnight or 1 a.m. and that was the sort of germ of the movie: I’d wonder about who this woman was and what was going on up there. And so it just spilled out from there. I started having these conversations with Nat about writing this script. She was at a space in her career where she was being offered a lot of similar roles and wasn’t really being challenged. So, it was about taking control of our own destiny: myself as a filmmaker, and for Nat as an actress.

Natalie Dormer: And it was the films we watched together as a couple [that helped inspire it] – it was Hitchcock, De Palma, and Coppola. We were like, nobody’s making contemporary psychological thrillers, certainly not set in our home city. We set out to make a movie that we would want to watch.

Anthony: Just like Natalie said, we love watching thrillers. And so we thought, let’s make a movie that we would love to watch.

From what I understand, this has been in the works for eight or nine years. Is that correct?

Natalie: That’s correct. We started writing it in 20 –

Anthony: Don’t say it like that, Austin. [Laughs]

Natalie: It’s just the reality of independent filmmaking. We started writing it in 2009, which was pre-Black Swan, pre-Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This sort of anti-heroine maybe we’re more used to seeing in the last decade, which is wonderful. It was borne out of our frustration and other people had similar ideas, going “This isn’t being done.” We thought, the French do it all the time, like Guillaume Canet and Fred Cavayé, Tell No One and Anything for Her or Point Blank. We were like, the psychological thriller is part of English, Irish heritage – why is no one making it? We both got distracted with other projects, but in those years we re-drafted the script and it got tighter. We found, lost, and then re-found producers. Getting the right cast and all of the stars to align –

Anthony: We would get so close to making it.

Natalie: Of course, in that time my profile was raised by Game of Thrones and Hunger Games. We’d never thought I would necessarily be able to play Sofia. I wasn’t really bankable enough. We thought I would play [her neighbor] Veronique, and I was going to have to hand Sofia over. It was a beautiful moment when we realized that because of these other projects I’d been involved in, I would be able to play Sofia. I had sufficient profile.

Once that clicked and you knew you’d be able to play her yourself, were there things you did to shape Sofia into a character that best suited you as an actor, or made her more exciting for you to play?

Natalie: I just wanted to do something that no one had seen me do before. I felt very safe with Anthony. I admired him. We’ve both been on each other’s sets for years and watching each other work. I knew he had a skill for challenging and pulling the best out of his actors. Sofia is a very still character; she has to be. She is a very meticulous and instilled character, and just to feel safe within the frame in very tight close-ups – Anthony can talk more about lenses, and everything – but the way he uses the camera and sound design, specifically, to get inside Sofia’s head, I felt like the camera was doing a lot of work which allowed me to sort of be. I felt safe in that.

On that note, Anthony, the sound design does a fantastic job of conveying her world, specifically her blindness, to the audience. It’s a very intense sound design.

Anthony: I’ve been very interested in sound design for a long time. We have a brilliant sound designer in Berlin, where we posted the film, Sebastian Morsch. We took a very long time going through [the film’s sound design] and figuring it out. We wanted to create an experience for the viewer, and make sure whether it was in a theater or at home that it wasn’t lost. I had a lot of fun playing around with it, and building that world and creating that experience. It’s very sensory, and right from the opening of the film that design begins. There were elements of merging the music with the sound design.

Natalie: Music is such an important element of Sofia’s character. We were lucky to see these amazing pianists, the Chávez sisters – blind, Argentinean sisters – do a concert in London. Music is very important to her in the film. David O. Russell says, “Know what your character’s currency is.” Sofia’s currency is music.

Anthony: Her emotional currency.

Natalie: It keeps her connected to her past and her family. It’s her trigger. It’s a gift as well as a burden.

The sound design matches the visuals very well. There are some very striking sequences, like the opening shot that you mention, and a great scene in which we only see the characters’ shadows. I’ve spoken to writer-directors who do it both ways, but when it comes to these eye-grabbing sequences, do you have the shot idea in your mind first and write a scene that uses it, or do you write the scenes first and then hash out the most interesting way to visualize them?

Anthony: It goes both ways. With the particular scene you mention, I’m always open to chance. That’s part of good directing, I think: you have to plan for everything, but you also want to be open so that when really great things are presented to you, you can deviate from the plan in order to grasp those. You also need to have a Plan B, C, D, E for when something doesn’t work out on the day.

With that, I was on a location [scout] well into pre-production. A security light came on when we went under the underpass, and it projected my shadow and the director of photography’s onto the wall. I turned around and saw it and went, “I want to do the whole scene in shadow.” That was where that was discovered. It wasn’t written in the script. The only thing that was written in the script was that we never see the fight. When Ed [Skrein] came on board, he’d done lots of action movies, and he asked, “Are you really going to do that? Not show the fight? Only hear it?”

Natalie: He wanted that!

Anthony: He was like, “This is amazing. Promise me you’re going to stick with that when we shoot it.” I had no interest in shooting [a big fight scene], either. Also, you just don’t have the time. It’s in having limitations that you get creative and you figure these sort of things out. You have to be present to recognize those opportunities.

Natalie: It was a joy to shoot at the speed we shot at. There’s an adrenaline rush. I’m used to these sort of big productions. I knew that Anthony was fast. We’d shot the Hozier music video, “Someone New,” in one day and into the night.

There’s a shorthand that Anthony has with his DPs. He’s fast. I think Ed and I, the other acts, we got a kick out of that sort of guerilla style of shooting. Shooting amongst real people in the street.

Anthony: You have to commit to ideas really quickly in order to execute them. It moves quick, and it makes it very visceral when you get to that state.

Natalie: You can harness that energy.

Natalie mentions the shorthand that you, Anthony, have with your DPs. Obviously, the two of you know each other on a personal level, beyond your professional one. Does that lend itself to any shorthand between the two of you when you’re on-set?

Anthony: Yeah, one hundred percent. We’ve been in a relationship for a long time. I’ve been on sets with Nat, I’ve seen her work and I’ve seen her on stage. We have very similar tastes in movies, and so it makes it very easy when you have those conversations on set. And having spent all those years together working on the script, it makes the conversations very easy. If we had a disagreement, we’d have it in front of the crew. And so oftentimes we’d end up having a disagreement, and it was almost like having a domestic argument in front of the crew.

Natalie: [Laughs]

Anthony: You’d look around and people would be looking at each other, or looking at the ground. But then we’d be over it and having a laugh.

Natalie: They worked out very quickly that we challenge each other, and there’s nothing in it. It’s just riffing and jamming.

Anthony: Just riffing. [Laughs] You’ve got to put it out there, get to it quickly, and then you’re on to the next thing. The shots continue.


In Darkness is now playing in select cities.


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