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.”

The Dark Below from Festival Fantasia on Vimeo.

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.”001

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.”

10271174_454067671397528_3754671409548683380_o“There’s always been a link for me, maybe not exclusively, but something that I’m drawn to about water and female power. The way in which when women come together can almost have a supernatural force. More so than when they are alone,” explains director Sarah Adina Smith, ‘When I say that now, it sounds like the movie is about witchcraft or something like that which it’s not really. Not at all. It’s about connections.”

I simply can’t get Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim out of my head. This mesmerizing film had its world premiere at Fantasia this past July yet continues to cyclically ripple across my thoughts.

The Midnight Swim is an inspired, meditative, and compelling narrative of relationships, sisterhood, and grief told through transfixing and poetic cinematography. Amidst the chaos that was July, I had the pleasure of sitting down for tea with Adina Smith to speak candidly about writing verus directing, liminality and the road to directing her first feature.

The road to making The Midnight Swim was nothing short of a winding mountain road. Adina Smith who studied philosophy, is an painter, and spent some time acting, knew after college that she wanted to make films. Along this winding road, Adina Smith began writing for the big screen almost out of necessity: “I liked the idea of being a director and started reading scripts and couldn’t find anything that I liked enough.”

“Really,” she added, “it’s only in the past couple of years that I started finding my voice as a writer and realizing that I like that too actually. I feel like screenwriting is my way of getting to think philosophically. The life of the writer is a lot like the life of the mind: it is asking questions and doing it through storytelling in character. So, that’s been actually really wonderful and it’s also really torturous.”

For several years she ran through the motions of having projects almost off the ground, even running a successful kickstarter campaign for seed money, and still having last minute financial backing fall through. During this cycle of ups and downs, Adina Smith shot some shorts as well as cowrote and produced a feature entitled Goodbye World.

Writing a feature, she remarked, is a very different affair than directing one. Comparing writing a script to being akin to a sperm donor, Adina Smith elucidates the differences she has experienced, “in a way, it can’t be my baby. The director of the film is going to be the person to raise it from start to finish. I am very proud of Goodbye World. I feel like there was a lot of my DNA in it that I still see and recognize.”

Adina Smith remarks that she uses different parts of her herself and her mind when writing for films she also directs. For the material she directs, inspiration comes from a darker and stranger part of herself such as The Midnight Swim. Still on the winding road towards making this novel feature, Adina Smith looked back at the kickstarter seed fund and knew it was shoot or die so to speak.

With a twenty five page treatment in hand, Adina Smith approached actors whom she was thankful responded and joined her in taking a risk on a low budget film with a two week shooting schedule. The circumstances required Adina Smith to take a completely different approach to what she was used to, forcing her to think spontaneously:

“I was still discovering the story as we were shooting. What was great was there was only so much planning I could do in advance. I really had to stay on the pulse of the story. Actors talk a lot about being in the moment but I feel that as a director I had to be completely in the moment: just listen as much as I could and just feel our where the story wanted to go. This process changed me.”

In terms of inspiration for The Midnight Swim,  Adina Smith pointed towards in between spaces, liminal spaces, as being a focus of her interest. In the film, Adina Smith points to this by making the sisters explicitly half sisters, and leaving their mother’s body unfound, creating breaks in connection. Moreover, she speaks of her love of lakes and their surfaces, mirror-like but filled in their depths: “That to me is the thing I keep coming back to in my work. There’s a feeling of magic there in these liminal spaces.”

One of the strengths of the film is the performance of the cast who at times are breathtaking. In terms of directing them, Adina Smith cites this part of the process as being most natural to her and the highlight of directing.1470267_366133533524276_308633280_n

“A lot of the actors that I work with or cast are people who also think from the inside out. We almost develop an language that no one else would understand.”

“I like to tap in and tell the story with them from the inside out,” she reflected, “I feel like the director’s job is to create the working environment where everyone can try and do their best work: make it a really safe environment for them to take risks in. When I’m on set my relationship with my actors is just my first priority and my most important job.”

The major highlight of the film is the stunning visuals which make the most of the rich locations: both the lake and lakehouse. A central dimension to the visuals is that they are diegetic. Whether one tries to classify this as neo-found footage or contemporary epistolary, the camera is a character in the film, a technological extension of the youngest sister who is a documentary filmmaker.

The visual beauty of The Midnight Swim, Adina Smith explains, was the result of deliberate artistic choices and the collaboration of herself and director of photography, Shaheen Seth, who she finds a “very sensitive cinematographer and intuitive  camera operator.”