Winter is coming. At least it should be once Montreal stops getting assuaged by insufferable heat waves (not a fan). During Fantasia, I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Douglas Schulze and lead actor Lauren Mae Shafer of The Dark Below, which held its international premiere during the fest.
Set on the icy Michigan Great Lakes, The Dark Below is an experimental thriller which takes bold risks by throwing cinematic conventions to the wind and explores terrifying subject matter lurking beneath the surface of ‘normal’ life.
In the opening sequence of The Dark Below, a woman (Lauren Mae Shafer) struggles against a man who renders her unconscious and abducts her. What he does next is clearly calculated; he takes her to a frozen lake, dresses her in a scuba suit and plunges her beneath the ice into the icy waters. The Dark Below is about her struggle to survive the torture of a killer intent on seeing his plan through to the bitter end. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, the events leading up to this torture are revealed as are the stakes for her to survive the ordeal.
The tension is unyielding, which the editing and score ensure, providing no ‘safe’ moments of escape for its audience. Veronica Cartwright’s appearance in the film is an unexpected bonus and her character is pretty badass.
“This project in particular is a bit of a diversion from our last film which was straight up horror called Mimesis,” explains Schulze as the three of us seek shelter from the sun, “When I was really young, we moved from the city to a rural area and we lived on a lake. I wandered out unto the ice in the middle of winter and fell through. I literally lost the hole when I fell under and it was completely dark. I managed to turn myself around saw the light and swam up to it and pulled myself up. You know, the rest sort of stayed with me for years growing up. I’d have nightmares and so forth. So, the idea of entrapment beneath the ice, always terrified me, and I thought ‘boy would it be interesting to make this into a film one day’. That was sort of the very early genesis of the project.”
Schulze and Shafer had worked together previously on Mimesis. When Schulze spoke to her about this new project, he warned her that this would be the most physical movie she would do in her career.
“At the time, I was like yeah, I’ll do the movie, I love movies, this is what I am born to do. I love challenges,” recounts Shafer. The crew went through scuba diving certification and trained with a marine. Safety precautions and measures were taken at every turn both Schulze and Shafer reassure me.
The production essentially included two very challenging shooting settings: the first taking place on the ice and the second below the ice. “I think we were filming around negative 20 degrees and the only outfit I have on is the scuba suit, which we called the Banana. It was a phenomenal experience. Just that outside portion in the snow was insane,” Shafer recounts. When the crew would break, Shafer’s scuba suit would be tossed in the dryer for the next take but often wouldn’t be totally dry:“I would have to sit there in front of the mirror, in this bathroom in this restaurant where we had our little station, and I would have to give myself a power talk.” Scenes when body heat can be seen emanating from Shafer or when she shakes uncontrollably are her body’s real reactions to the cold conditions of the shoot.
Another challenge Shafer faced during the shoot was when she had to remove her diving mask: “You are taking away your eyesight, you are taking away every sense that is possible, you can’t even feel your weight.”
In terms of direction for the underwater scenes which make up a solid portion of the film, Schulze did everything from above the water.
“We had a monitor which was below the water and attached to the camera which was in a sort of little diving bell. We used a special under water camera housing. I would talk extensively with the camera operator before they submerged and I would explain the action to [Shafer]. It’s one thing to tell an actor this is what dramatic moment it is, you need to perform this, but then when things begin to happen organically under water you just kind of go with it.”
For many, one of the most strange aspect of the film is that it boasts only one line of dialogue:
“I am a firm believer that a film is written first and foremost and dialogue is meant to enhance a story. This story thematically deals with entrapment and a relationship. The opening quote speaks to the silence between the two characters. It is a bit of a violent ballet they perform. It seemed natural, it seemed the thing to do for the story.”
Schulze explains that the film is “in a quiet way” an hommage to the films of Stanley Kubrick. The striking colour contrast between the two main characters and single point perspective were a sort of inspired emulation.
I ask Schulze if he was mostly drawn to making genre films. In many ways, The Dark Below dives into subject matter that is equally as horrific, if not more so, than creature features such as violence against women and the dark truths we may choose not to believe. Schulze replies:
“I’m not sure if I would classify The Dark Below as a horror film. Actually, I was wondering how some of the festivals were going to take to it. You can’t really screen it next to a zombie film, you know what I mean? There’s no blood and guts in this film but there is non stop terror. And yet, there was something very attractive about that, there’s very little, if no blood, spilt in this film, it’s all terror on the ice.”
Schulze pauses and then adds poignantly:
“I almost think it’s the obligation of the independent filmmaker to push boundaries and there were so many zombie films and so many of gore films and this was an opportunity to push some boundaries and that’s what this was all about.”