David Bruckner’s new film The Ritual, premiering this Friday on Netflix, follows a group of men who find themselves lost in the woods being hunted by… something.
Bruckner spoke to us about bringing The Ritual from a novel to the screen, as well as about horror filmmaking in general and the work that went into casting the film’s star, Rafe Spall.
The Ritual was originally based on a novel written by Adam Nevill in 2011, so what brought you to the material? Did you find the book first or the script?
David Bruckner: I found the script first, that they had been developing at Imaginarium Studios for quite some time, and I really fell in love with it, then I read the book and fell in love with it even more. I was fortunate enough to convince them to let me come on board.
The Knockturnal: What changed from the book to the script? How much did we not see in the film?
Bruckner: There’s some substantial differences, although it will be interesting to see what fans of the book take from the movie. I know some fans of the book thought it was a pretty faithful adaptation. But I know there’s some challenges in adapting the book to the screen in the sense that the book just works a bit differently, there certain things that you can’t literally put up in the movie without it having a different effect if you were to translate it directly. Namely, the fact that the book, by the nature of the prose, is able to really go inside the protagonist Luke’s mind. So the experience of reading the book sort of oscillates between their predicament lost in this nightmare in the woods and Luke remembering who they were as younger men, and there is an inherent contradictions in who they used to be and the situation they are in now, and the fact that they are being tested later in life.
To translate that directly in the movie would be to cut to a lot of backstory flashback. And there was some concern that that would be too overtly arthouse, or it would really slow down the momentum of the movie. And movies just work differently, you need a different kind of momentum. So we created a galvanizing event at the top of the movie that would create some very similar tensions within the group that maybe wasn’t a thing that had grown over time but could, in a more immediate sense, capture the conflicts.
The Knockturnal: That early scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie itself, and that’s before the movie gets into the scary and dark woods. But I think that what makes the movie very interesting is the character of Luke, especially Rafe Spall’s performance, particularly how his character is forced to relive this horrific event. How did Spall get attached to the role?
Bruckner: He was our first choice. I’m based in LA and he was out here shooting a TV show so I met him in Venice. He’d seen my earlier stuff and I was a big fan and we just hit it off, and we spoke a common language. So he took a huge leap of faith on this, and the script changed quite a bit from that initial meeting to the time he showed up on set. And I think he saw a thread in it, and as Rafe stated to me he is interested in his character’s flaws, their weaknesses. I think he saw a lot of potential in a character who had a certain alpha sensibility that would lose the confidence and respect of his friends, and how he would behave under that kind of judgment was just fascinating to us.
The Knockturnal: All of you work before The Ritual has been in either short films or segments in anthology films. What was it like making a feature-length film?
Bruckner: It was harder. It’s just more movie, it’s just a lot more to carry forth. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and had not been able to get a solo feature done. But I love anthology work, and it gives you the opportunity to work with a lot of really fascinating filmmakers, and you can take a risk in short form that you can’t take in longer stuff. So I felt prepared and I had a lot of time to plan out how I wanted to do something like this, which of course goes out the window when you’re on set and just trying to navigate a production. But it was a worthy challenge and I remained hooked.
The Knockturnal: This film is beautiful, and cinematographer Andrew Shulkind captures everything amazingly well. How much of the film was made on location in the woods as opposed to on a set?
Bruckner: It was all on location. So all the structures they find, we built. And they’re actually in those houses. There’s no stage work in the movie, all of it is real.
The Knockturnal: You’ve worked almost entirely in horror up to this point between this, V/H/S and Southbound. Do you want to keep in horror for the foreseeable future, or do you want to branch out into other genres at some point?
Bruckner: I would love to do thrillers or science-fiction, maybe some true crime or something. Lots of different genres fascinate me, but always dark stuff for some reason. I don’t know why I’m compelled in that direction, but I am. I think it’s still a reason to watch movies. And I would never shy away from horror at all, I think it’s infinitely fascinating, and it’s one of the most symbolic genres of film. It’s one of the last genres of film where the audience can go in willingly to read the movie both as a literal event the characters are surviving, but also a reflection of their own psychology. I like the idea of getting inside someone’s mind a bit more and bringing those nightmares to life. So I think I will remain interested in horror for quite some time.
The Knockturnal: Who are some of your horror filmmaking influences that made you decide “oh, I want to do that” when you were younger?
Bruckner: Going all the way to the beginning, I think two movies that traumatized me as a kid and never got out of my head were Poltergeist and [David Cronenberg’s] The Fly. I mean, I couldn’t watch Jeff Goldblum movies for a year after that. I was an anxious kid, and I found those movies incredibly challenging to watch, but they stuck with me and there’s a temptation once you’ve been scared at the cinema to go back and to conquer that in some way. And that’s the appeal of these movies, and I developed an appreciation that never really went away.