The seemingly most serene and beautiful places in the world can actually surprisingly be the epitome of the idea that looks can be deceiving. Rising with terrifying grandeur at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan, the legendary real-life Aokigahara Forest is the suspense-filled setting of the upcoming drama, ‘The Forest.’ The film is what producer David S. Goyer has described as being an elevated supernatural thriller that features characters who viewers will come to care about over the course of the story. But they ultimately become steeped in a creeping dread in a real location that initially appears be a tranquil place, but is actually associated with hauntings and darkness.
‘The Forest,’ which will be released in theaters nationwide on January 8, 2016 by Gramercy Pictures, marks the feature film directorial debut of Jason Zada. The story follows a young American woman, Sara (Natalie Dormer), who journeys to the Aokigahara Forest in search of her twin sister, Jess (also played by Dormer), who has mysteriously disappeared. Once again frustrated at the irresponsible behavior of her twin, who took on a teaching job in Tokyo, Sara makes the 6,000-mile trip to Japan to try to find her, much to the concern of her husband, Rob (Eoin Macken).
After visiting the school where Jess teaches, Sara determinedly sets out to search the title forest, where her sister was last seen. Before embarking on her search, Sara meets a charismatic and expatriate journalist, Aiden (Taylor Kinney), at her hotel. She agrees to let him accompany her on her journey, and agrees he can write about their journey in an article he’s working on about the Aokigahara Forest. The two are aided by forest guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). He searches the area every few days for bodies, as the forest is historically associated with demons in Japanese mythology, and is a notoriously common suicide site. While their guide tries to persuade Sara to not stay in the forest overnight, she’s determined to continue her search for Jess, particularly after finding her tent and belongings.
Aiden agrees to stay with Sara throughout the night, during which time her sense of reality becomes increasingly distorted by the forest’s malevolent spirits, who are making her question reality. Still determined to discover Jess’ fate, she is forced to face the angry and tormented souls of the dead that prey on anyone who dares to approach them. Sara even begins questioning her guide’s motives, as a result of the influence of the spirits that are waiting for her at every turn. Her persistent drive to find her twin plunges her into a frightening darkness from which she must fight to save herself.
Goyer generously took the time to talk about producing ‘The Forest’ recently during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he became interested in making a supernatural thriller about the Aokigahara Forest after he initially read about it’s mythology and lore, and wrote a mini outline with his idea for the movie, which then went into production at Lava Bear Films. He also mentioned how he was subsequently involved in finding Zada to direct, and casting Dormer and Kinney to lead the cast in, the thriller, and collaborating with them all on the story and characters’ developments.
ShockYa (SY): You served as one of the producers on the upcoming horror film, ‘The Forest.’ What was the genesis of, and what was your interest in making, the film?
David S. Goyer (DSG): I was working on another project I was writing, and somehow went down the rabbit hole. I read a Wikipedia entry about the forest, and had never heard of it before, which surprised me. I’m an aficionado of horror and supernatural thrillers, and have read a lot of books about the genres. I was even more surprised that with all of the J-Horror films that were coming out about 10 years ago, no one had ever made a film about the subject matter. So it seemed like a really great area to set a film in.
So I wrote out a two or three-page mini outline with my idea for the film. At the time, I was talking to Lava Bear Films, which David Linde had formed. I was discussing the possibility of doing a project with him, and I mentioned my idea for this film. Everyone liked the idea, so we started looking for writers. We found an initial writer, which led to a different writer. Eventually, we were able to get the script to a place that we liked, and then brought on Jason as the director.
SY: You’re one of the creative partners in Lava Bear Films, which produced the supernatural movie. What was the process of developing and shooting the thriller as one of the producers through the production company? Were you really hands-on throughout the entire process?
DSG: I was very hands-on. I had been producing some of the things that I have written and directed for over a decade. Over the past few years, I’ve also done a lot of work for television, particularly being a showrunner. When you’re a showrunner, you’re a real producer. You’re responsible for such things as the budget and hiring the crew. The showrunner, even more so than the director, has the say on the final cut. The showrunner is higher on the crew than the director on television. You’re also responsible for getting all of the episodes together, including the editing and working with all of the writers.
So producing is something I had already done a lot of throughout my career. I know how to read a budget and a one-line (shooting schedule). So producing ‘The Forest’ wasn’t a particularly new experience for me. The only thing that was new was that I had never produced a feature (film) that I hadn’t also written and/or directed. I have produced television projects that I haven’t also written and/or directed, however.
But the experience of producing ‘The Forest’ was great. I love the team at Lava Bear, including David and Tory (Metzger, the company’s president and partner). We really see eye-to-eye on everything. So it wasn’t just the script that I was involved in; I was also involved in finding the director and the cast, and I also took part in the marketing meetings. We went over what the ad campaign would look like, including the posters.
I was also on set a lot. Also, in post-production, I was there every step of the way. I was in a color timing suite (last month) with the director of photography (Mattias Troelstrup), and we were taking looks at individual shots. So I was very involved in the making of the film overall.
SY: ‘The Forest’ was written by Ben Ketai, Sarah Cornwell and Nick Antosca. What was the process of collaborating on the movie’s script with them, and crafting the story’s overall structure?
DSG: Well, every project’s different. For this film, I originated the idea, and had a specific idea that I wanted to execute. There are other movies that I’m producing now; there are four films that are going before the camera now.
For example, I’m an executive producer on a film called ‘The Birth of a Nation’ that’s going to be at Sundance, and was written and directed by Nate Parker. He already had the script developed when I joined the project at the eleventh hour. So sometimes people bring me things that are already, or almost, fully developed. But other times, I have the idea for the script, and it needs to be written.
‘The Forest’ is one film for which I happened to have the idea for the story. I was just looking for people who could help flush out my vision for it. So we were hiring writers who we thought would have an interesting point of view, and could bring their own voices to the script. As a fellow writer, I always encourage people to speak up and creatively fight with us. So it was an interesting process.
Sarah Cornwell, who was the immediate writer on the project, had been a novelist. She actually hadn’t written a screenplay before. She had written a really great book before she became attached to the film, so we thought it would be an interesting idea to bring her onto the project.
Then Nick Antosca, who was the final writer, came on board. He was someone I had known from television. He had worked (as a writer and producer) on ‘Hannibal,’ but hadn’t had as much experience working on features.
One of the things I bring to the table is that I know a lot of emerging writers, particularly talented people who work on television, but haven’t broken into features yet. So in terms of future projects, I’m doing a lot of that.
SY: Jason Zada made his feature film directorial debut with ‘The Forest.’ What was the process of hiring and subsequently collaborating with him on the horror movie, particularly since he is a first-time helmer?
DSG: We really liked Jason’s short film, ‘Take This Lollipop,’ which is an interactive piece that’s super creepy. We also really bonded over his love of ’70s horror films and supernatural thrillers.
One of the things that’s exciting about working with emerging filmmakers is that you get to hear new, fresh voices. I also enjoy helping to mentor people. But it was also challenging, because he hadn’t made a feature before. So you try to surround these emerging filmmakers with a lot of talented people.
So we brought in our talented director of photography and editor (Jim Flynn). I also brought in Bear McCreary to do the score. I had previously worked with him on ‘Da Vinci’s Demons.’ He has also worked on ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ So Bear and I had already had a shorthand.
That’s what you try to do-you set a first-time feature film director up for success. You surround them with as many talented people as possible. We had a really great team on this movie.
SY: Did you work with Jason and the movie’s casting director, Elaine Grainger, to find the actors who would star in the thriller, particularly Natalie Dormer, who plays Sara, and Taylor Kinney, who portrays her tour guide, Aiden?
DSG: The other producers and I were intimately involved in the process. We knew it was practically a one woman show. The character of Sara is in the movie 95 percent of the time. We drew up our shortlist of actors we wanted to work with on the film. So we came up with the top five or six actresses who we wanted to go for to play Sara.
It doesn’t always go this way, but Natalie was my, as well as David and Tory’s, first choice. So we went after her and got her. It was actually an incredibly quick process.
In the case of Aiden, we originally had someone else who was cast in the role, but he fell out about three weeks before shooting began. So Taylor Kinney came in at the eleventh hour. It turned out to be a blessing, because he’s phenomenal; I love him in the movie. I wasn’t as familiar with his work before we began filming, but I think he’s going to be a major movie star. I think he’s magnetic in the film, and he really held his own with Natalie.
SY: Gramercy Pictures will be releasing the horror film in theaters nationwide on January 8. Why did you decide to partner with the film distributor to release the thriller theatrically?
DSG: Well, we financed the film independently, through a variety of different investors. The upside of developing a film independently is that hopefully, you have less interference, as opposed to when you work with a mainstream studio. So the process can be a bit more unique and interesting. But the downside is that if you don’t have a domestic release date secured, it can be harder to get the film made.
Fortunately, in the case of ‘The Forest,’ Gramercy and Focus Features (which revived Gramercy as its label for action, horror and sci-fi genre films this past spring) came on board before we began shooting the project. So we had the confidence of knowing before we began our production that we were going to have a major release, as well as a certain amount of money to use towards the marketing campaign. I personally love the design of the poster, which I think is really unusual.
I’m actually making another film with them next year. They’re really classy, and their marketing team has been really amazing.
SY: You have worked in the supernatural genre before, specifically writing and directing the 2009 film, ‘The Unborn.’ What is it about the genre that you find so appealing to work in as a filmmaker?
DSG: Well, I call this film a supernatural thriller, more so than a horror film. It’s not that I don’t like horror films, but supernatural thrillers tend to be a bit more cerebral. I like movies that explore identity and madness.
I like the fact that this set in a really unique environment that, at least for a lot of Westerners, feels fresh, different and scary. I also like that we don’t really know what the rules of the forest and the Yurei (spirits in Japanese folklore that are similar to ghosts in Western culture) are, which I think makes the story scarier.
Written by: Karen Benardello