‘The Ritual’: DP Andrew Shulkind and Composer Ben Lovett on Netflix’s Intriguing New Horror Tale

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David Bruckner, known for his directorial contributions on horror films like V/H/S (2012) and The Signal (2007), presented his latest film The Ritual at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It’s his first film as the sole director. The Ritual — coming to Netflix on February 9th, follows a group of friends who go on a hiking trip in northern Sweden six months after the death of their mutual friend. They soon discover that the woods aren’t as peaceful as they appear. In fact, the group is being stalked by a supernatural entity.

Cinematography

Award-winning director of photography Andrew Shulkind, who worked with director Bruckner on Southbound (2015), was intrigued by the filming challenges he anticipated on The Ritual, in particular, shooting in near-darkness and developing battery-powered lighting solutions that would read as realistic on screen. Here, Shulkind talks about shooting off the beaten track in the wilds of Romania, how they designed their lighting kits with limited power, and how he managed to get clean, low-light shots for the film.

S&P: How would you describe the look of this film?                                                                 

Andrew Shulkind (AS):  It’s a movie that we approached as a drama as opposed to a horror film. It’s scary and there are all of these classic horror elements, but the idea wasn’t to approach it as a schlocky B-movie. The idea was to make it a subtle character drama. With most horror movies, there is some plot or subtext, but it’s not the main element. This film is different. It’s really about a group of friends confronting how their relationship has changed as they became adults and what happens to the classic ideas of manhood once you’re faced with a challenge.

To serve director Bruckner’s vision and the humanity in his movies — which are all done with this level of detail and richness, we wanted a nuanced look and subtle tones for The Ritual. For me, it was about working in the shadow area of the sensor and being able to tell as nuanced a story visually as the director was telling thematically.

S&P: How were you able to draw audiences into the experience of The Ritual?

AS:  The idea for the first two-thirds of the movie is that you don’t see this creature. The movie becomes different five minutes in, and it becomes even more different 45 minutes in. The idea was to cue up those themes suggestively — this idea that they are being watched kind of puts you in the seat of this creature that is hunting them. They don’t realize until the end of the movie that they are being hunted by a smarter creature. We wanted to tip that off early so that on repeat viewing you can see that it’s actually a POV.


S&P: What cameras and lenses did you choose? Why?

AS:  We made a very deliberate choice on this movie. I am very lucky to have early access to new camera and lighting products.  I have worked quite a bit with Canon and their color science. I did a lot of low-light testing on a previous movie with their C300 Mark II, which we looked at next to Alexa and RED. We found that we were able to get an extra stop, or twice as much light, out of the C300 Mark II with no loss in quality or additional noise.

I used the C300 Mark II for my last movie and had no complaints. It was really seamless. So it was a natural choice when it came to this film, knowing that we were going to be shooting in very dark environments.

Many times you hear about how sensitive sensors are, it’s meant to get you out of a jam when you don’t have enough light or you’re shooting a night exterior and you can’t light the whole skyline and still expose all the twinkling lights in the background. Far from an accident, I wanted to use that advantage as a deliberate choice to service the story in those subtle ways that I was describing before.

We did also use the Alexa because we were shooting in Romania in extreme conditions. There is no panacea, and in some cases, we needed the robustness of the Alexa in really freezing environments. Also, much of the camera support that we had — Mini Libras, jibs, and a bunch of stabilizing equipment that we needed for some of the shots, we needed the weight of the Alexa Mini.

We also had access to the new Canon C700, which we needed for shooting high-speed stuff. That camera has all of the advantages of the C300 Mark II but allows you to shoot 120 frames per second at 4K. It was a prototype and was not commercially available at the time and we had some much-needed insider access to it.

Years ago, Canon did a test to prove what happens on their new sensor at night. The supposition was, “What if you’re trying to catch a sunset shot but you get there too late. Can you still get the shot?” They did a demonstration of this camera which can shoot at 105,000 ISO. How much of that can you use without any noise reduction? They were able to shoot up to 10,000 ASA without any appreciable noise, which was amazing.

In some of these night cases on The Ritual, we needed that. We were planning on using that creatively. But there was one shot where we needed to get light but we didn’t have it. It was a really cool scene where Luke [Rafe Spall] and Hutch [Robert James-Collier] are on this mountaintop and it’s dusk. I’ve always been excited about the twilight, when the sun is gone but there’s a glow in the sky, and there’s this blue ambience. I wanted to capture that and we needed coverage. We had six or seven things we needed to cover in that time and only an hour and a half to do it. The Canon totally saved us. We got beautiful images and you can see one of the characters smoking a cigarette and the lit end of the cigarette is lighting his face for a moment as he inhales.

The lenses were a very specific choice too. My friends at Vantage — a company in Germany that makes Hawk Anamorphics, has these amazing T1 lenses. They are extremely fast. Basically, they are the fastest commercially available lens. You can shoot at T1 (equivalent to around f0.95), which is extraordinary. To shoot at f1 on a lens and 3,200 ISO gave us the ability to shoot in near darkness. Not that we weren’t lighting it, but suddenly we could get all the softness from a balloon light into bounce cards into what material we had on the ground and start working with this softness that we all associate with night.

So often when you have ‘night’ in the movies, it feels like you can see the lights.  You can see the artificial fixtures.

S&P: What was the most challenging scene that you had to shoot on The Ritual?

AS:  This was a hard movie, no doubt about it. We shot on a mountain at 8,000-feet elevation, and it was freezing and raining. There were scenes where we had a surprise, freak snowstorm and so we had to broom snow off the trees so that it didn’t ruin shots — and they were wide shots.

One of the challenges that got me excited about this movie in the first place was in the original script two characters are imprisoned in a place called the ‘Black House,’ — a dark, lightless room. I was excited about that challenge. How do you shoot two guys in the dark?

We came up with some solutions, which sometimes involved lantern light and sometimes it involved spill coming through cracks in the wall. In one of the scenes, a character begins to dig a hole in the mortar and we really played that to dramatic effect with the beam of light that comes through from the outside.  Between access to super-fast sensors, super-fast lenses, and dimmable LED lights, it was possible to shoot at super low-light levels and get that nuance.

S&P: What was the most complex scene to shoot in terms of movement?

AS:  The whole second act of this movie takes place on the side of a mountain. We didn’t want to go handheld. We wanted to have a stabilized version of what a handheld would look like. I wanted to shoot with a Freefly MōVI with remote handwheels. I had done that successfully before. Having come up as an operator, I am really comfortable with wheels and I like the idea of being able to control movement that surgically while still being able to have someone carry the camera around and move it in dynamic ways. But they had only just come out and we were shooting in Europe and they were really hard to access outside of the US. So we ended up bringing in a Mini Libra, one of the best stabilized remote heads on the market. This was a piece of gear that I knew in its bigger form and it was easily accessible from South Africa. So we rigged that in a variety of different ways.

We were trying to find solutions to be able to frame in a stable way on the side of a mountain. We had an outstanding Steadicam operator, Bogdan Stanciu, but at a certain point we were at a 30° pitch and it’s pelting down hail and he’s doing the seventh take going uphill for a long four-minute walk-and-talk. The challenge was finding ways of keeping the camera stable and covering scenes reliably at a steep incline, whether that meant Steadicam or another more advanced piece of gear.


S&P: In terms of lighting, what was your most challenging scene?

AS:  Just before Luke and Dom [Sam Troughton] find the village, they have lost their flashlights and they are in the darkest part of the forest at night. We were hundreds of yards from level ground for a generator. Looking at the page, I was excited by those challenges. That is what drew me to this film and was one of the best challenges.

I relished figuring out how to make night not look artificial. It’s difficult, especially when you’re up against a moonless night. At one point, we discussed using the latitude of the location as a way to motivate a low sun, like it never gets dark. But then that makes it challenging to communicate the passage of time. I remember watching Insomnia (2002), the Christopher Nolan movie set in Alaska, and you never really knew where you were time-wise. It worked for that movie but would have been confusing for ours because it never would’ve been dark enough to hide the creature. With that option out, we lit it practically, which involved balloon lights and a lot of softness, a lot of blacking things out, and a lot of smoke.

I spent time strategizing with my gaffer on how to light up so much of the forest because this particular location was deep, dense woods. It was hard to access and an impractical cable run. We were in the forest and not next to a road. We were a 30-minute hike into the woods. So part of our solution was using balloon lights on generators and other smaller sources. In the case where we weren’t able to use the flashlight, I brought some Litegear light ribbon and had my electrics staple it to yardsticks. We used a lantern battery to power each yardstick locally and we positioned these off in the woods so that we wouldn’t have to run cables. We had about ten of them. We could position them where we liked them and hit the dimmers to dim them down. We found that we needed so little exposure that we could just dim them down to 10% — just before they started to flicker, and we’d have enough exposure, with added smoke, to feel the dramatic depth of the forest.

S&P: The practical side of shooting a half-hour hike into the woods must have been challenging. Did you drag a generator along with you?

AS:  We did some scouting and David [Bruckner] is a very ambitious director. He doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned and so we were all over the forest. We would find these extraordinary locations that were really special. You’d think that walking around the forest everything would look the same, but we would find these amazing little groves even if it was a hike to get there. So when we did our tech scout, I’m thinking my gaffer Florin Ion is going to hate this. And sure enough, we’d all show up and Florin says, “I hate this.”

So in some cases, we had to realize that yeah, that spot is just too far. Or, maybe we could access it from another road. Or, we can try to use battery-powered sources. In some cases, we had a balloon on a 100’ construction crane and we were able to arm it over to reach inaccessible areas.  We could get it to where we needed it distance-wise, and with the glancing angle and with some rain, it felt like it was where we needed.

S&P: Can you tell me about your lighting plan for the village?

AS:  The group stumbles onto this weird forest cult in an old logging village. We built the entire village. The production designer Adrian Curelea brought these amazing beams from somewhere north in Romania and Hungary and constructed this detailed village over a few weeks. It’s like five or six buildings made from these huge hewn logs. Given that we were fabricating the whole thing, we could strategize how to use the construction to find opportunities, lighting and composition-wise.

In the ‘Black House,’ you have two guys shackled to the wall and David had a very clear sense of how he wanted to block it before we even built the building. So we built it to those specifications and we taped off the floor and used a lens on a viewfinder to estimate how we thought we’d frame it. We talked about having cracks in between the timbers because they are these huge hewn logs, but we had used that trick already earlier in the movie. We had built another abandoned building that the guys approach earlier in the film, and the idea in that house was to see through to the exterior in an eerie way. It’s always scary to me being in a lit place looking out into the darkness because you can’t see who’s looking in. And so we had built these extra wide gaps in the planks for that house to see lightning flashes outside that would light up the whole place.

We didn’t want to replicate that technique for the ‘Black House.’ So we decided to have Luke dig out the mortar, which is this sandy clay that isn’t hardened, so he can get a vantage point. He digs out a little hole so he can see. Also, there is a window in the house because the room wasn’t meant to be a prison. It’s just this logging village. The characters are chained to the floor and they’re never able to quite reach the window. But we positioned the window in a way that would allow this beautiful soft bounced light to come in and it spills around the beams of these hand-hewn logs. I used that as our main light source. It allowed the versatility to shoot day for day, day for night, and night for day.  So there’s a source of light coming from the mortar hole and the light that comes through the window, and you get a minimal exposure and we were able to really work some detail into the shadow toe of the curve.

S&P: What scene or sequence are you most proud of in The Ritual and why? What went into that scene?

AS:  I’d have to say that scene in the ‘Black House.’ That scene was a great challenge. It was exciting to read and to figure out how we were going to shoot two guys imprisoned in the dark. There were construction choices, like how far are the planks, how big is the hole, how near is the window, how big is the window, and, by the way, all these measurements had to be in meters. All those challenges were there. We cued the fire — which Luke would use to burn the house down in the end, in some cases with flame bars and other times an electrical lighting effect. I was happy with how much range that left us in the grade.


Film Score

The Ritual may be a horror film on the outside, but it’s really a film about tested friendship and changing relationships. Just as that concept is woven into the fabric of the story, that theme is also threaded musically throughout composer Ben Lovett’s score. In the film, a group of friends reunites for a hiking trip following the death of their friend Robert, which was witnessed by a member of their group. Guilt and suspicion challenge their emotional ties while a supernatural force threatens their lives.

Lovett, an award-winning composer who worked with Bruckner on The Signal, says Robert’s theme is fundamentally different from the orchestral-based direction of the rest of the score. Its synthetic quality stands in contrast to the acoustic instrumentation that’s representative of the film’s natural setting.  Lovett’s approach to the score wasn’t merely based on what’s presented on screen. It was also influenced by the setting in which he wrote the score. Here, he shares details about his approach and how the events of his life influenced the creation of The Ritual’s soundtrack.

S&P: How did you get involved in The Ritual?

Ben Lovett (BL):  The director [David Bruckner] and I go back a long way. He and I met in college and we came up together, cutting our teeth doing experimental indie films. It had been a decade since we worked together. We last collaborated on The Signal, which debuted at Sundance in 2007. David was one of three directors on that film. He and I had been looking for another opportunity to work together on a feature ever since then. Timing and circumstances aligned on The Ritual and created a great opportunity for us to do that.

However, the catch was this entire production was based in another country and David didn’t have the authority to really hire anyone, so he presented the idea to Andy Serkis and the other producers at The Imaginarium. I got a call a few months later when I happened to be passing through London on my way to the World Soundtrack Awards, where I was nominated for my score to Synchronicity.  Timing is always such a crucial ingredient in how these things go.  Once we sat down and talked about the movie I had already read the script and had been thinking about it for a couple months, so I pitched some ideas about what we could accomplish with the score. After a couple more phone interviews I got the call to pack my bags and head to England.

S&P: What were some initial ideas you presented for the score?

BL:  I actually talked more about the score’s relationship to the characters and the story more than anything musically specific.  There’s a tragedy that occurs in the first few minutes of the movie which sets up the hiking trip they take, and even though Robert [Paul Reid] is only on screen for a short amount of time his relevance to the overall story is very important. I felt like the score had a role to play in keeping Robert with the group in the forest, to keep him present and relevant in an emotional sense. That became the foundation of a musical theme exploring the group’s fractured relationship and how that loss relates to the arc of our main character Luke [Rafe Spall].

The horror movie structure is just a container to tell a story about a guy losing friends and investigates the ways our relationships with our peers change as we get older.  Ultimately what they encounter in the woods is, on one hand, a classic horror movie trope to have fun with, and on the other hand, it’s the physical embodiment of Luke’s grief and fear about his moment of weakness, his failed masculinity.  From a metaphorical point of view, it’s the haunting question he doesn’t want to face that is stalking him. Essentially, what responsibility might he have had in the event of his friend’s death?

S&P: What does the character Robert sound like? How is he represented in the score?

BL:  That theme, the Robert theme and the relationship theme, is one of the only instances where we hear a synthesizer or anything not acoustic in nature. There are two threads in the film that have a more soundscape/synthesis feel. Robert’s theme is one, and the nightmare sequences that relate back to Robert’s death, because those dreams are all tied to that event.

Everything else in the movie is acoustic and orchestral, which was directly inspired by what’s on screen. The visuals are very informative for me.  The guys are surrounded by woods in almost every shot, so it seemed natural to approach that with acoustic instruments. The landscape plays a big role in the story, and Bruckner is really good at getting more on camera than just what’s in front of it.

The images really have a specific feeling. He and [DP] Andrew Shulkind captured the forest in a way that evoked certain emotions, and I was just trying to draw that out. There are many times when you might not even realize that you are hearing score. The music track is full of elements that are more like musical sound design, like experimenting with the bow against the string, creating a tonal atmosphere with the orchestra to bring the woods to life. That all seemed like an effective way to separate those two different threads — one set of emotions generating internally, and one generating externally.

S&P: Can you talk about your instrumentation choices?

BL:  It’s mostly orchestral. There’s a lot of percussion and me banging on stuff. I recorded with the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO), who do all the Jonny Greenwood stuff, played on the last Radiohead record, and do regular live score performances of films like Under the Skin [2013] and There Will Be Blood [20017]. They are very selective about the projects they get involved with and I was very excited to have them perform the score for The Ritual because they bring more to the music than just playing the notes. They have a unique voice as an orchestra and I felt like they really understood where I wanted to take it.

S&P: What’s your process for writing a score? How do you like to get started and how did that progress into working with the London Contemporary Orchestra?

BL:  The most significant influence on the process for scoring The Ritual was that I did it entirely in London, and I don’t live in London. When I arrived, I had no network to rely on for musicians, arrangers, studios, etc. I had to figure out the logistics of creating the score at the same time that I was unwrapping it creatively, and the clock was ticking from the minute my boots hit the ground over there.

I wound up renting this little studio in a complex called Tileyard, where they turned an old tile factory into what is apparently now a central hub of the London music industry. It’s a big diverse musical community and I lucked out and wound up right in the middle of it, which was how I ultimately wound up tracking down the LCO.

99% of the time it was just me sitting in this little studio writing and recording myself working up ideas. David [Bruckner] was hopping all over London managing the final stages of everything from visual effects to color correction to sound design, and of course, the score. Neither of us really slept for about eight weeks.  He encouraged me to run with my instincts and because we have such a shorthand and a common language for storytelling, he trusted me to know what he would want and what would help, musically, in the scenes.

Once we had our ideas down for the different scenes and sequences we went into British Grove Studios in London with the LCO and powered through a single marathon session where we threw as much at the wall as possible.  I took all that material and fleshed out the individual cues from there because, by default, I was also the music editor. I added additional percussion, guitar, and the synth elements as I was editing and mixing.  It was a brutally insane amount of work to do in the time I had, but you know, that’s the job.  It was nuts but there was also this feeling that I was simply caught in a current of circumstances that was providing an opportunity to make something uniquely different.

S&P: What parts did you play on the score?

BL:  Percussion, mostly. I used whatever I could get my hands on. Anything you hear that isn’t strings or horns is me playing. There are only two sounds in the score not recorded in London. The first is a hundred-year-old reed organ I have at home that you pump air through with your feet; it’s very spooky and primitive sounding. The other is actually the sound of me banging on my bathtub with a hammer, which I recorded on my phone the night before I flew out.  Something about it sounded terrifying, it was the first idea recorded for the score and it made it in there.

S&P: Did you have a favorite track on the score?

BL:  I appreciated the opportunity to dive into the humanity of the score, into the areas where the emotional content wasn’t necessarily about tension and suspense. Although, if this movie was a drama with a few suspense scenes, I’d probably say the exact opposite.  It was just because I was living in a state of constant panic over there to get it done, and spending my days trying to distill that into music, so whenever there were moments to land a more elegant, emotional beat it was really satisfying. Contextually, those moments are huge in the film.

There’s one moment like that, about two-thirds into the film, when the guys finally have a moment of hope after enduring some terrible experiences. It’s a well-placed moment in the film where we get to lean into the emotional stakes of the story, the way it feels when you’re in the middle of a nightmare and the walls are closing in on you but suddenly there’s this tiny little beacon of hope. The cue is called, “I Can See the End,” and when the orchestra played it everyone had a moment in the room; it really came to life.  Weirdly, for David and I, it was life imitating art because at that moment we were both so indescribably exhausted and worn down, then suddenly struck by the feeling this was all going to work, and we might actually survive the process of making this movie.

S&P: Any final thoughts you’d like to share about the score on The Ritual?

BL:  It was one of the most challenging scoring jobs I’ve ever had because of all of those conditions that I mentioned — working outside of your comfort zone. The reality of creating a score is a balance between the logistics and the creative and how you manage that relationship. I think because I was in such a constant state of stress and tension it all got channeled into the work. It’s very likely that the score was informed as much by my actual experience of trying to get it done as it was from my artistic interpretation of what the characters were going through. It was basically the sound of sleep-deprived, schedule-induced anxiety. It was always going to be part of the experience, though, and that’s what made it special for me. This film was the appropriate vehicle for that level of torture and it resulted in a score I couldn’t have made any other way.

-S&P-

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