A Night In The Woods – Richard Parry interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
RICHARD Parry talks exclusively to us about making A Night In The Woods, how it was based on his own experiences of camping alone in Wistman’s Woods, on Dartmoor, and why comparisons with The Blair Witch Project are inevitable.
He also talks about his time as a documentary filmmaker and war correspondent and why it’s now more dangerous than ever before to be a journalist or aid worker on the frontline.
Q. I gather the genesis of the idea for A Night In The Woods came from your own personal experience in Dartmoor’s Wistman’s Wood?
Richard Parry: It was. I’d camped in the woods more than 20 years ago and it was an odd night. I’d heard the wood was haunted and heard it was an ancient wood and so decided to go and camp and see what it was like for myself. I came across from the north side of the moor and it’s quite a long hike. I left about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and got there as the sun was going down and so put my tent right next to the wood, literally right next to where we filmed. I then sat on the boulders and took a look around. It’s an amazing sight… this gnarly, old wood with dwarf oaks. You get snakes and lizards and all kinds of things living in the rocks and it does have an extraordinary atmosphere.
Anyway, as the sun went down, I went to sleep and woke in the early hours and could feel these fingers on my throat and pressure being applied. When I looked up I could see the shadow of a person pinning me down. I remember he said to me: “What are you doing?” And I remember saying: “Sleeping.” And then I almost passed out. When I came to, he’d gone and I just thought that it had been a weird, vivid dream. I wasn’t thinking anything more about it, really, although I was feeling a bit freaked out by it. But I spent a couple more nights there. It was only after I got back home that I saw a friend who lived on the moor and asked them if there were any stories about the moor. And they said the famous one is the hands one… people feeling hands on their throat and a squeezing sensation [laughs].
Q. That must have seriously freaked you out?
Richard Parry: I think it freaked me out… more so from retrospectively finding that out. But that was partly the inspiration for the film.
Q. The film inevitably draws comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. Was that a consideration going in?
Richard Parry: Well, I suppose it’s the oldest story in the book – people getting lost in the woods. It is one of the oldest stories going and it became very prominent to The Blair Witch. Ironically, we weren’t going to film it as found footage originally. Initially, it was more about the friction and sexual tension between these three characters but it was the producer, Allan Niblo, who suggested that we make it a found footage film because it was being made at a time when he realised found footage films were scoring much higher than films with a traditional narrative. There was a sense that audiences wanted something a bit more real. But it didn’t start out being a faux Blair Witch… it was more a traditional horror with this heartbeat of the tension between the three characters. At one point, I was saying: “Isn’t this too close to Blair Witch?” But he said it was fine and that there was space in the market for it. I don’t know if that’s turned out to be good or not.
Q. But you are a fan of the horror genre, having started to make films on your Super 8 camera at the age of 14?
Richard Parry: I used to be a big fan of horror. That’s what got me into movies in the first place. I was growing up at the time of John Carpenter in the late ‘70s and Freddy Krueger in the early ‘80s. But that’s sort of when the slasher movies started coming out. But I don’t really like horror any more. I don’t like all the slasher films. Maybe that’s why we were trying to do something a bit more psychological with this one.
Q. I’d imagine that assembling a cast was something that required care given how much you’re asking of them?
Richard Parry: The casting was interesting because the film is improvised, so there’s no script. So, literally the casting process for an improvised film is completely different to a more traditional one. Normally, you sit the actor down and they read a line from the script. But there were no pages… there was a story and the actors who came in had read that story. But there were no lines. So, in some cases I would sit down and improvise with them. For instance, when we were casting the female role, I’d sit down and read as the Brody character. It’s almost like the building blocks of the story-telling come from the performances, which means that a huge amount goes back to the actors because through the improvisation process you’re also finding out a little bit more about the characters and the story that’s on the page. So, at the end of the day you need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and who are prepared to work in any conditions. We had bad weather, long nights, a lack of amenities… but all three of them were really up for it.
But I’d say Scoot [McNairy], the guy from Monsters, almost more so. The other two [Anna Skellern and Andrew Hawley] had no problems but Scoot loved it. The first day we went up to the filming site, there were literally no facilities. We had some runners we sent ahead to try and get some hot drinks sorted out, but there was virtually nothing but a skeleton crew, Scoot and the two other actors and myself. The weather was also chucking it down. But he just rolled up his sleeves and got on with it. I think he liked the chaos of it. And that inspired me.
Q. Was this after he’d done Monsters? Would he have been prepared for the Moor after spending time in the jungle for that?
Richard Parry: He’d done Monsters on an even more skeleton crew than we had. That film was literally the director, camera-man and a cast of two for most of the time. So, he’d done that on an even more skeletal basis than this. But I think he likes it rough and ready. He is an incredibly talented guy… so driven by character and performance and discovering what the reality of it is. And he always gave you something different…. unlike a scripted scene, where you may do it 4, 5 or even 10 times, he’d never do the same scene twice. So, you’d film the first scene and think it was interesting, but then he’d do it differently the next time around. It keeps the other actors on their toes.
Q. Did that create any problems in the editing room, in terms of choosing which take was best?
Richard Parry: I liked that. I’m a documentary filmmaker primarily, so with documentaries it’s all about reality. And with real people, you don’t get take twos… so, it gives you huge scope in the edit for trying things that were not conceived of before. The edit was creative but chaotic and I enjoyed that a lot.
Q. How much did you learn as a filmmaker from making A Night In The Woods?
Richard Parry: I learned a lot. The film is almost a hybrid between a documentary and a feature. So, you learn that in order to put together a found footage film you can’ behave in a contrived way. You can’t make it look like a feature film… you’ve got to make it look believable. And for a found footage film to be believable, you have to have things missing. So, sometimes things go on outside the frame, where you can’t quite see them. And there may be things going on around the performers that they can’t see. So, you almost have to put holes in it. When we were shooting, for instance, some scenes looked too composed, so we played around them.
The big argument that takes place between Kerry and Leo after Brody has left them, for instance, was shot on two or three different cameras and, traditionally, you’d cut to wide close-ups. But that looked too composed, so we went back and used just the one shot where you can barely see anything. You can see a foot coming in and out of shot. But I think it lends it a more [cinema] vérité [style] and a believability to it. So, when you’re in the edit, you’re putting the film together and shooting in a way that’s opposite to normal.
Q. Are you done with the found footage format now? Or will you revisit it?
Richard Parry: I think we’re going to do another of those types of films for Vertigo. But this one’s a thriller. That said, I think found footage is becoming a slightly tired format right now because there are so many found footage films on the market. So, it’s harder to get them distributed and to find a place in the market, so you have to be more distinct and you have to be better. But I think with A Night In The Woods, the performances are so strong and there’s more of a psychological element to it that hopefully makes it stand out a little more.
Q. The performances are great. If anything, though, it’s hard to find a character to root for. Was that deliberate?
Richard Parry: Well, I haven’t done a horror since I was a kid but it seemed to me that the more psychological horrors and the more interesting examples of the genre come out of not knowing where you stand. So, if you’re talking about the characters in this, and Scoot McNairy’s Brody in particular, we gradually erode that character until he becomes more dark and harder to like. In that way, the fear in the audience comes from the instability. We take all the characters and pull them apart bit by bit by bit, otherwise as an audience, where does the fear come from? When I grew up it was things jumping out in front of you but audiences are so much more sophisticated now… you need to do something with the characters.
So, as you learn more about them, the story gets more and more edgy. And from that, there develops this question of whether there is this dark force out there, or whether the dark force comes from within the three characters. It seems like a more potent force if it comes from within. In some places during the edit it was a more visible and obvious force from the outside but we pulled it back until by the end of the film you’re not sure who has done the damage – but it seems likely that it could have come from one of them.
Q. Did anything weird happen while filming?
Richard Parry: Yeah, weird things always seem to happen on films sets [laughs]! I did find it tough, though, because it was largely a night shoot and that was pretty gruelling. I think there was also more stress on me as the director because we were doing this without a script. Usually, the script acts as a blueprint. But with this, you were eternally trying to put this jigsaw together. So, I was always doing mental athletics and trying to understand what was happening. You’re also always concerned that you’re going to get to the edit and it’s not going to make sense. So, mentally, that makes it more stressful on everyone – the performers and the director.
Also, given the nature of where we were shooting, it was a 35 minute walk in and out, so I started thinking that someone should stay rather than going back and forth and started camping out in the tent we’d set up. Everyone else left because they wanted to go back and sleep in a bed, which I can’t blame them for. But I ended up staying in the camp along and on the second night the wind was ripping through the tent for the whole night. I couldn’t sleep and my mind was turning over all kinds of stuff. I had also spent the night trying to hold the tent up…. and maybe there was also some memory of what it had been like to stay there all those years ago too. People do say the wood has a force to it. I don’t know if it’s malevolent or evil but it does have an energy and it does affect you. So, basically, I had another night of no sleep and in the morning I was in no fit state to work. I had to walk up the hill to call the producer and tell everyone to stand down for the day!
Q. Are you done with the wood now?
Richard Parry: Ultimately, I love that moor. And I like being out in nature in general. I mountain walks and I camp a lot. I like being in and around nature. So, I would go back. But I don’t know if I’d camp there alone again.
Q. You mentioned your background as a documentary filmmaker but you started out with the acclaimed South West Nine. Why did it take 10 years to get back to features?
Richard Parry: Well, the market is tough. South West 9 did well on some counts. It didn’t make a lot of money but it got me a BAFTA nomination and awards but it still wasn’t easy to make my next film, so I really went back to documentaries in the interim. But I do love documentaries. I love them because it’s a passport to a whole new world and people you’ve never seen before and to places I’ve never been. I’ve worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Middle East.
Q. A lot of that must have been harrowing, being a war correspondent….
Richard Parry: It is… but I started from that. I started with an agency called Frontline News, which specialised in wars. In 1991 I went to Yugoslavia and filmed during that crisis for several years. And then I covered the events in Chechnya and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Eight out of the 16 people at our agency doed. It was a dangerous profession. We were trying to get footage that the networks didn’t get and taking more risks than other people. So, it was a tough time but it was also very fruitful and very interesting. In war, you don’t just see the worst of humanity but also the best of it. People are more generous spirited and people appreciate life for what it is. I made some amazing friends during my time in Yugoslavia and I’ve been through some tough times with a lot of good people.
So, I’ve also got lots of good memories. And I do still do that. I went to Pakistan two years ago, to the border of Afghanistan where many people thought that Osama Bin Laden had been hiding. In fact, we went to the town where he was shot [Abbottobad] on the way up… and that was an active frontline between Taliban and Pakistani forces. So, I still do it. It’s been two or three years [since I last went] but I find it interesting. And another of my friends, Robert King, who I made a film about [Blood Trail] is currently in Syria.
Q. The world seems to be getting more and more dangerous, in spite of good things happening such as the Arab Spring. Is that something you’ve found?
Richard Parry: It’s now more dangerous for journalists than it ever was. I remember back in ’94, when I was in Yugoslavia, there was an incident where fighters entered a Red Cross compound and took two or three workers out and shot them. And I recall thinking even then that this was a turning tide… that they were now targeting aid workers and journalists. They became currency and they were kidnap-able and exchangeable for money. So, it suddenly became a much more dangerous place for journalists. I was also in Iraq in 2007/8 and that was really bloody.
Marie Colvin was killed in February this year. A friend of mine was with her and he’s been in recovery ever since because he had a hole blown in his leg. So, I’d also be cautious about going back. I wouldn’t jump back in. That said, there’s always a way of doing things and taking less risk. In fact, the one producer I work with, I work with her because there are no egos. At every juncture, we decide whether to take things any further and if it looks too hairy, we’d sit it out. We can always do things another day and find another way.
Q. Would some of those experiences form the basis for a feature film from you?
Richard Parry: I do have a script. It’s set in Afghanistan and it’s about a journalist. It’s being optioned, so we’ll see if they raise the money. I made Blood Trail, the documentary about Robert King, as a feature length documentary, which was also about my experiences. I first met Robert in 1993 in Yugoslavia. He was an American, he’d never been to war, and he was very naive but very charming. He spoke with this Southern accent. But he didn’t look like he was going to make it because he was a bit ill-prepared. But he and I became friends and we spent a long time covering the Yugoslavian crisis. He’s since become a seasoned war journalist and I filmed him in Iraq in 2005/6.
So, I filmed him over the course of 15 years and that film catalogues the change he went through during those 15 years as well as the changes in covering war over that period. Robert was also candid enough to give a sense of his own dysfunctions and what drove him to go to war in the first place. But that film is a lot about my experiences too. It’s the film I’m most proud of. It touches on a vein. The other good thing about documentaries is that you get to see people change. You see physically and psychologically how they change in one film because those changes are so much more pronounced with someone when they do something as dramatic as going to war.
Q. Are you interested in seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt for Bin Laden?
Richard Parry: Oh definitely. I loved The Hurt Locker. I think it was one of the more interesting films about Iraq. But like I said, I was in that town where he was shot literally six months before it happened. And two of my friends had met Osama Bin Laden in ‘97. And they’d warned way back then that the guy was going to become a big issue. It’s a fascinating story. In fact, a lot of people don’t believe he’s dead. There’s a wave of conspiracy theories since 9/11…
Q. Would it be a good time to get your film made perhaps as well now?
Richard Parry: Things do go in waves. War movies weren’t really being successful until The Hurt Locker. And while it didn’t make a lot at the box office, it was successful in terms of the awards it won and the attention it received. I’d written my film but it wasn’t the right time. But The Hurt Locker’s success seems to have turned the tide, so maybe there’s more of an appetite for war films now. We’ll see….
A Night In The Woods is released in cinemas on Friday, September 7, 2012, and is available to own on DVD from Monday, September 10.