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.”

As a long-standing veteran of the video retail industry, I’m firm in my position that Netflix can jump eyeball first onto a rusty fence post. The selection sucks, the image quality tends to be garbage and the interface is about as intuitive as an Android App designed by a dyslexic 4 year old. But the bastards keep throwing free month trials at me with the kind of manic desperation that isn’t at all surprising given reports of their financial standing, and when I run out of things I rented from my convenient and friendly local video store, I usually troll their selection with the detached lack of enthusiasm I use to pick breakfast cereals.

But lo and behold for once I actually found something I’ve been meaning to watch, Headhunters, a Norwegian thriller starring that smoldery guy from Game of Thrones and what looks lie Steve Buscemi’s nervous brother. I guess miracles do happen.

Headhunters Perth Flyers A5.inddSteve Buscemi guy (actually named Aksel Hennie) plays Roger Brown, a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief, stealing high-priced paintings to pay for his extravagant lifestyle and imposing blonde wife. Of course, things take the inevitable turn when Roger crosses paths with Clas Greve (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-special forces mantracker turned corporate ladder-climber and exactly the wrong kind of person you want to fuck with, especially since he looks like he could set someone on fire with a single intense stare. Pretty soon Roger finds himself caught in an increasingly clustery cluster-fuck, with bodies hitting the ground, corporate schemes, and indications that his wife is fooling around with his new nemesis.

Headhunters starts out very strong with a pretty well-paced first act that does a good job establishing the characters, especially Roger himself. This is important because especially when shit starts hitting the fan, and it does so rather spectacularly, you really do feel for the poor bastard when his carefully constructed life comes crashing down and he finds himself repeatedly heaped with indignities. If you’ve seen the movie you can have a little chuckle and maybe send me a nice email congratulating me when I say he really gets into some shit.

Where things start to get problematic is around the second act when the movie starts to get a little tone-deaf, and what was more or less a straight crime thriller suddenly becomes a black comedy. At one point Roger gets in a chase down a deserted road, coated in dried shit and driving a tractor with a dead dog impaled on the front, and after I stopped laughing I went “wait, how did we get here?”. Or then there’s the scene where he survives a hundred foot or so car crash by being sandwiched between two fat guys in the back seat. But then without warning the movie will switch gears back again and we seem to be expected to take it all seriously, forgetting the dead dog car chase or the fat guy air-bags.

The climax is similarly a bit muddled, attempting to explain the events of the film as being part of some ludicrously overcomplicated corporate headhuntersscheme, a plot twist so hard to swallow that when Roger shouts “Are you people insane?!?” I’m pretty sure he was talking to the writers. Similarly, the ending somehow manages to wrap everything up, and by everything I at least 4 or 5 deaths, in an absurdly neat package, basically pulling a happy ending right out of its ass. I mean there’s contrivance and there’s asking us to swallow a pill the size of one of those world’s biggest pumpkins you see at county fairs while your parents are off admiring someone else’s baked goods.

And I don’t really have anything funny to say about this, but I’m pretty sure they blatantly ripped off some of Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight.

Those problems aside, the movie does definitely have its strong points, mostly in the area of characterization. As I mentioned before, Roger does make for a sympathetic lead, especially once his cool thief mojo drops away and he spends most of the film running around with this panicked, wounded look on his face, like a rabbit being pursued by a very handsome wolf. Synnove Macody Lund also turns out to be pretty effective as the wife, especially later on when more details about her character come to light and her relationship with Roger turns out to be deeper than we thought it was.

Even two years after its release, Headhunters is still building a reputation as an underrated, fun little thriller, and not for good reason. The film has a few problems, mostly those jarring tonal shifts, but it more or less makes up for those with solid characterizations and a plot that never lets you get bored, even if it doesn’t make much sense if you think too much about it.