Through The Woods, Darkly

A few years ago, Jason Zada got the idea to make Facebook scary. Take This Lollipop, a short-form interactive experience that won Zada an Emmy®, used Facebook pictures and messages of existing users to integrate them into a horror story all their own making. It was viewed by over 100 million people globally and garnered 13 million Facebook Likes, making it the fastest-growing FB app of all time. Thus, it goes without saying that Zada enjoys immersing his viewers in the story.

As a commercial director, Zada has worked with high-profile advertising agencies like Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Saatchi & Saatchi. It was his love of nontraditional storytelling that brought him to The Forest, his first narrative feature film, and his love of branching out beyond his own style that brought him to cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup, DFF.

Set in Aokigahara at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, known as the Suicide Forest, The Forest follows Sara (played by Natalie Dormer of The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones fame) as she searches for her twin sister (also played by Dormer) after she has been reported missing. In real life, The Forest is part of Japanese folklore, said to have demonic powers, with hundreds of suicides occurring there over the years. (Unable to shoot in Aokigahara, the filmmakers chose a forest in Serbia.)

“I was looking for the unicorn amongst the scripts that I was reading,” says Zada, a native of Hawaii, “and it didn’t seem to exist. Then I got this fantastic pitch from David S. Goyer about this idea, this place and this story [Goyer has written and produced the Christopher Nolan Batman films]. I was infatuated with it, and we spent two years developing it.”

HDVideoPro had the opportunity to catch up with Zada and Troelstrup via Skype from two opposite ends of the world to talk about making horror without CGI, shooting in unpredictable forests and working with the seriously impressive Dormer.

HDVP: You two had to come together fairly quickly before filming this project, and no one actually predicted that you’d end up as the lead pair on it. Why was that?

Jason Zada: I had been given a long list of recommended cinematographers, and when I came upon Mattias’ work, there was something that really stuck with me. I liked how he captured people with just some natural light and not much else; how he was able to be up close and personal with the actors, which in turn makes the audience really feel a part of what’s going on. Mattias understood the approach I wanted—the very cinematic and almost fantastical world that I wanted to create—and we instantly clicked because of that.

Mattias Troelstrup: I think Jason wanted somebody that was different from him, and he was really clear about that from the beginning. He told me that a reason he picked me was because I was outside of his comfort zone. And, vice versa, that I could push him out of his comfort zone, too.

HDVP: Jason, this is your first feature film, and Mattias, it’s your first horror. Tell me about readying yourselves for it all.

Troelstrup: I’m a big fan of horror movies, but not gore horror movies, the more psychological ones with more elements to them. This script had that. There are a lot of thriller moments in it, and it’s more about a person falling apart, even though, of course, there are things that still make it a horror film.

Zada: It is a scary movie, but there’s a story and there are characters. With Sara, I wanted the audience to experience what she’s going through so as to not lead it to just some gratuitous scare. As for sticking with horror, when you do something that’s very specifically a part of a genre that people notice, those types of scripts tend to keep coming your way, so I was reading lots of genre scripts. As a kid, I had been fascinated with movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining and The Exorcist—movies that were a bit on the slower burn in the beginning that would get you hooked on the characters, atmosphere and story. That’s the type of movie I wanted to make, and so we crafted The Forest to be like that.

Troelstrup: I had never done horror before as a DP, but I really liked this script, and I liked how Sara shifts from A to B, from beginning to end. More than the gore parts of it, I was interested in this process of her looking for her sister, and all that happens to her on that trip.

HDVP: What were the visual goals for this film?

Troelstrup: We didn’t want to go too high contrast, but not necessarily as flat as Scandinavia can be. We wanted color and vibrancy in the scenes that were set in Japan, a part of the world Sara has never seen before. We didn’t want to shoot a movie that looked completely flat, but wanted to keep it very naturalistic in its tone because it is, again, a thriller with psychological journey elements to it. There are only a few characters in the film, and I wanted to make something where Natalie’s face looked great, but where you could still see if she was feeling sad, anxious or scared. That’s where the naturalistic lighting helps. It was easier for us to see that she was any of those emotions with having dark shadows on her eyes.

I spent a lot of time listening to Jason about how his trip to Japan was, which was very interesting to me because I’ve never been to the actual forest where people commit suicide. The more I listened to him and found out this was actually a really creepy place, I started gathering the images in my mind of how we would approach this movie.

HDVP: And what cameras, lenses and techniques did you use to achieve these goals?

Starring Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney, the horror feature The Forest follows an American woman’s search for her missing twin sister in Japan’s Aokigahara, the Suicide Forest, at the base of Mount Fuji. The film is Jason Zada’s narrative feature directorial debut, following the success of his Take This Lollipop interactive short form. Zada and cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup, DFF, shot with the ARRI ALEXA XT and Cooke S4s. For the paranormal aspects of the film, it was essential to Zada to light practically, to great effect.

Troelstrup: I wanted a camera that could show Natalie’s skin and show her feelings, but that could also handle the night shoots. We had a lot of night shooting.

Zada: I have a hard time with the way a lot of night scenes, in every genre, are lit—this giant moonlight source-y thing coming up from the corner of the screen with lots of smoke. So one of our early conversations was about how we light night in this forest without making it look like it’s lit. How do we give this forest a mood? The Forest is a character in the movie, so it had to be dealt with visually in a certain way. And my production designer Kevin Phipps was just a genius in that department, too. [Phipps’ credits include The Fifth Element, Troy and Eyes Wide Shut.]

Troelstrup: The camera that could do all that was the ALEXA XT. It stays looking pretty cinematic, but doesn’t have a stylized feel to it, if you don’t give it that. Instead of filtration, we chose Cooke S4 lenses, which have a much softer look to them and are beautiful for showing a character more than that stylized look.

Zada: A lot of the look that I had Mattias go for was a sense of hyper-realness, because the story is told from our lead character’s perspective as she sees everything unfolding through her eyes. There has to be some sort of hyperrealism or surrealism that’s there for that purpose. All three of us—me, Mattias and Kevin—had to work really closely with how we achieved that look while still maintaining the naturalism in Sara’s face.

HDVP: For the paranormal aspects of the story, were those done in-camera or CGI or special effects?

Zada: I grew up with a lot of practical effects, like in The Exorcist. Scenes I thought were the scariest ones were done practically, so it was important to me that our sets were built practically and that all the creatures were done practically. Having things that are real, that actors can react to, it’s just so much more interesting—and behind-the-scenes, too, we got to work with this really talented team at Millennium FX.

Troelstrup: Jason has this incredible way of working, where he has every single thing storyboarded and it’s all happening in a very controlled environment. That’s not to say he locks us in—there was still freedom to make changes and suggestions—but he made sure we had a plan. And part of that plan was to use a split diopter on the lens, which is an old film trick where you focus both on the background and foreground at the same time. It’s in a lot of old movies where they needed it because the depth of field was so shallow due to the film stocks at that time. So we used it to have Sara in the foreground and something happening in the background and have both in focus at the same time. It’s weird because it looks off, which totally helps us in visually showing her fall apart.

We shot a lot of handheld when she hits The Forest. We stayed with her face and stayed with her when she gets scared. I was right up there in her face, so that the audience can feel scared with her. And she had the flashlight on her iPhone that she used to reveal things. It would be me holding the flashlight behind the lens as I was shooting her POV. We stuck to really simple stuff like that.

HDVP: That seems very The Blair Witch Project of you.

Troelstrup: In a sense, but not as messy. I like to operate in a controlled manner and have the camera as still as possible when I’m doing handheld.

HDVP: What was it like working with Natalie Dormer, someone who has some serious acting chops and has been part of such big franchises?

Zada: You really need someone who has a lot of depth in order to play a character that unravels psychologically on screen. Natalie was at the top of my list, and she was at the top of the studio’s list—which doesn’t always happen. She got the character, she got the motivation, and she was excited to play twins, but mostly, I loved how she really wanted to explore what was going on beneath the pages in order to bring the character to life. She’s one of the smartest, most engaged actors, I think. She understands lighting and camera movement, and is always asking why something is where it is or why the camera is at a certain position because she wants to be a part of the total process.

Troelstrup: I agree. From the first moment I met Natalie, she came right up to me and said, “Hey, we’re going to be good friends.” I’d never had that before. Instead of just being this big star who couldn’t talk to anyone, Natalie wanted me to help her and wanted to help me in return. “Anything you need,” she said. She was very clever to become friends with me from the get-go, because then we had a solid collaboration really early on. That meant I could be right in her face with the camera without overstepping boundaries, and she could also tell me if something was too much, or for me to back off. We had a great connection, and that was such a big deal for me. You feel like you have a team player onboard.

Distributed by Focus Features, The Forest releases on January 8, 2016 in the United States.