A person who’s struggling to support a relative who they have always felt was in need of nurturing, particularly if they sense that the tense circumstances of their surroundings have negatively impacted their mental and emotional psyche, can often times find themselves in their own distressing situation. But when the unresolved issues of the seemingly confident person in the family, who appears to be fully in charge of their life, start to pull back their stable and controlled facade, the loved one they’re trying to save unexpectedly becomes the more practical voice of reason. That intriguing exploration into the unraveling of a seemingly stronger sister as she determinedly sets out to protect her purportedly troubled twin is grippingly presented in the upcoming atmospheric psychological supernatural thriller, ‘The Forest.’
The horror movie, which was produced by screenwriter and helmer David S. Goyer, marks the feature film directorial debut of Jason Zada. ‘The Forest,’ which will be distributed in theaters nationwide on Friday by Gramercy Pictures, was written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai. The director expertly adapted the trio’s script to create a chilling story that showcases how just entering a location that’s reportedly filled with sadness and fear will manipulate the emotional struggles of close relatives, particularly siblings, who have been so dramatically impacted by their past.
‘The Forest,’ which will be released in theaters nationwide on Friday 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.
Zada generously took the time recently to talk about directing ‘The Forest’ during an exclusive interview at New York City’s Essex House Hotel. Among other things, the first-time feature film helmer discussed how he was drawn to direct the psychological thriller as soon as Goyer and the film’s production company, Lava Bear Films, pitched him the idea, as he found the fact that people really do visit the Aokigahara Forest to harm themselves to be a powerful idea to explore on screen. The director also explained that he was instantly interested in casting Dormer and Kinney, as he knew the lead actress could powerfully showcase the distinct emotional and physical aspects of the twin sisters, while he also believes the actor also has a wide range of ability, which will make viewers constantly question Aiden’s motives.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film directorial debut with the upcoming horror film, ‘The Forest.’ What was it about the story and screenplay that convinced you to helm the movie, and how did you become involved in the project?
Jason Zada (JZ): I was first pitched the idea by David Goyer and Lava Bear. They loosely told me the story, and explained that it follows a woman who goes to the forest to find her missing twin sister. It was the forest in Japan that stuck in my head, and I thought it was the craziest thing. The fact that the story about the forest in the film is real, and hundreds of people go there every year to commit suicide, was the most fascinating thing for me. So I instantly wanted to be involved. The story and location just stuck with me.
SY: Like you mentioned, the story about the forest in the supernatural thriller is based on a true legend in Japan. Besides reading the movie’s script, what kind of additional research did you do before you began filming?
JZ: Well, after I was pitched the idea, I became obsessed with the forest. So I began reading about it, and did do additional research into it. I started to do as much online research as I could. I also watched a documentary that Vice made about the forest that I thought was really interesting. I also started reading a book about it.
About three months before pre-prodction began, I thought, before I make this film, I have to go there. There’s no way I felt that I could make a movie about a real place, and not go visit it. So I went to Tokyo, and then ended up also going to Aokigahara and actually went into the forest. Once I went into the forest, however, I found it to be a very frightening place. It was not a place where I wanted to spend the night.
SY: Speaking of visiting during pre-production, and ultimately shooting part of ‘The Forest’ in Aokigahara, what was the experience of shooting the thriller in the actual location? Why did you also decide to film several interior scenes in a former warehouse in Serbia?
JZ: We first shot four days in Japan, which was helpful. Natalie’s first shooting day was when Sara first arrived in Japan. So it was good that Natalie was really jet-lagged and tired. Everything felt real as we were filming those scenes.
Then we went to Serbia and shot on stage for awhile. We then went back to the forest. I think I built about 20 or so sets, which was really great. Every time there’s an interior scene, we built a set. We built the ranger station that Sara and Aiden find in the middle of the woods. We also built all of the ice caves on a stage. So it was a lot of fun mixing our stage work with the real locations.
Shooting in an actual forest in Serbia was crazy, because it’s the polar opposite of filming on a stage. Anything could happen; we had weather days. All of a sudden, it would start raining, and there would also be thunder and lightening. On the days that it rained, we were hoping that the next day would be nice. We also hoped that the forest would dry up enough to look like it did the last time we filmed there. So anything could happen when you’re shooting in an actual forest. It was challenging, but fun.
SY: Speaking of Natalie, she plays two roles in the film-Sara and her twin sister, Jess. Since the story so heavily relies on the lead actress’s portrayal of the two drastically different sisters, what was the casting process like to find who you wanted to play both characters?
JZ: Well, Natalie was an actress who was at the top of everybody’s lists. She was on the producers’ lists and the studio’s list, as well as on my list. So I had a meeting with her, and she just understood the character. I had discussed the character for a long time with other people who I had spoken to about the film, and I explained things. But Natalie just immediately got it.
I actually tried to scare her off of the role, to be honest. I said, “It’s going to be physically demanding. You’re going to be on screen all the time, so you’re not going to have any breaks. We’re going to be shooting fast and furious.” But she said, “I’m game.”
I had seen her work on ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘(The Hunger Games:) Mockingjay.’ So I just thought she was one of those actresses who’s going to become a become a big movie star, and I would love for this film to be her first leading role. I think she did a really great job.
SY: What was the process of also casting Taylor Kinney, who portrays Sara’s tour guide, Aiden? What was the experience of also collaborating with him to show that his character initially seems like he truly wants to help Sara find her sister, but once they arrive in the forest, she begins to question his motives?
JZ: Well, Taylor’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. When I first met him, I spent over an hour with him, just talking about the role and life. He was just so easy to talk to, and I thought, Aiden’s the same type of guy. He’s this guy who you meet at a bar, and he’s really nice and welcoming.
But there’s also another side to Taylor. He has this depth and range to be a little scarier. That’s what we needed this character to do-we needed him to make the viewers very uncertain of his motives. We need the viewers to question if Aiden’s good or bad, and whether or not he wants to help Sara. We also want viewers to question if certain things really happen. I hope that people will walk away from the movie, thinking they know what’s going on, but also have doubts in the back of their heads.
I’ve heard people be divided on his motives, after they saw the movie during a test screening. Some people said they thought he was good, while other people thought he was bad. They also debated what was real. I like films that make you think.
SY: Once Natalie and Taylor were cast, did you have to rehearse with them, in order to develop their characters’ relationship? Or did you prefer to have Sara and Aiden’s connection mainly form on-screen, since they first meet each other in Japan, right before they enter the Aokigahara Forest together?
JZ: It’s not in my personal style to over rehearse anything. So I spoke to Natalie and Taylor, and asked if they were both comfortable with doing a read-through of the script, but not over-think anything. Natalie and I discussed, at length, who we thought Sara and Jess were, as we set out to create two completely different characters.
I think Taylor was so engaged in wanting to create a performance that could change at any minute. We did a lot of different things while we were developing the character as we were filming. We wanted to craft this character who someone you weren’t sure about the entire time you’re watching the film.
So a lot of our collaboration was done before we got to the set. But lot of it was also done in the moment, as we were filming, as a result of discussions that we had as we were blocking.
SY: The supernatural thriller features intriguing stunts, particularly once Sara and Aiden enter Aokigahara to look for her twin sister. What was your collaboration process like with the horror film’s stunt coordinator, Slavisa Ivanovic, to create the action sequences and the characters’ physicality?
JZ: Well, Natalie had just finished filming ‘The Hunger Games’ for eight months, and she did a lot of her own stunts for that series. Taylor’s a strong guy, so he also wanted to do his own stunts. He did end up doing all of his own stunts in the film.
We did have stunt doubles on the set so that they could also do some sequences. But they were mainly there to give Natalie a break. After you ask someone to run through a forest for 15 takes, they get tired. So we’d have a double to stand in for her feet. But she did a lot of the stunts herself, which was great.
SY: The longer Sara and Aiden stay in Aokigahara as they search for her twin, the dirtier they begin to look. What was the collaboration process like with ‘The Forest’s makeup and wardrobe departments on how you wanted the two main characters’ looks to change, specifically to match their heightening emotions?
JZ: It’s tough when you make a film where the characters have to be in the same wardrobe for almost the entirety of the story. (laughs) You really have to like the wardrobe the characters are in. But what we did with both Natalie and Taylor was that we layered them.
Natalie started off wearing a hoodie when she first entered the forest. She also had a backpack and a lot of stuff in the beginning of their journey, but then she starts to lose a lot of her things. She also gets beat up in the film-she falls down and hurts her hand, which also helped change her look.
I wanted to shoot the movie as chronologically as I could, and we did film that way for the majority of the shoot. So when Natalie got hurt and dirty, that stayed throughout the rest of the film. As you watch a character like Sara unravel, it was important to me to keep her sanity as much as possible. So shooting the movie as chronologically as we could was definitely helpful in doing that.
SY: Besides the visual effects, one of the most important elements of providing scares in a horror film is through the score. What was the process of working with the sound department on ‘The Forest,’ both during filming and post-production, to emphasize the terror Sarah experiences while she’s searching for her sister?
JZ: If you ever watch a genre movie as it’s filming on set, it’s usually not that scary. A lot of the movie comes together in the edit, particularly with the help of the sound design and the music. A lot of the sound design was created during the editing process.
I think the score Bear (McCreary) created is so fun. It creates an ethnic vibe, as he recorded a Japanese school choir for the soundtrack. He also recorded a lot of Japanese instrumentalists, and the soundtrack also has a lot of solos on it.
I love being surrounded by sound, so we played a lot with sounds that were happening around us. People who see the film should sit in the middle of the theater, because there’s a lot of sounds that are infused into the film.
SY: David S. Goyer, who you mentioned earlier, is one of the horror film’s producers. What was your experience working with David on the supernatural thriller?
JZ: I’m a huge fan of everything David has done throughout his career. So when I heard that this was his project, I really wanted to work with him on it. The process has been really exciting, as he has a lot of filmmaking experience.
He wrote ‘Batman Begins,’ and that was the first time there was a superhero film that was really dark and character-driven. Not that I don’t love Tim Burton’s ‘Batman,’ but there was a whole new side of superheroes that we saw in David’s script.
I have always liked his sensibility, so working with him on ‘The Forest’ has been really fun. He understood the film that I wanted to make from the beginning. He understood when I said I wanted to infuse the film with elements from classic movies from the 1970s and ’80s. I wanted to start with good performances and characters, as well as great cinematography, as well as make the film as scary as we could. He got that from the beginning, and he was very supportive.
SY: ‘The Forest’ is an intriguing film, as Sarah’s such a strong and determined protagonist, while the motives of Aiden, who initially seems to be an honorable man, come under suspicion the longer the two spend together. Why do you feel having such a strong-willed female lead in the psychological supernatural genre is also beneficial, while also calling into question the intentions of a supposedly respectable male character?
JZ: I always think the scariest things are the psychological scares. I made a project called ‘Take This Lollipop’ before this film, and it wasn’t scary if you just watch its trailer. But if you connect your Facebook page to it, it’s the scariest thing you’ll see.
So the psychological aspects of films has always been important. But I’ve also always been attracted to the darker side of life, as it isn’t always perfect. There are so many stories to be told, and there’s a part of our humanity that isn’t all warm and fuzzy all the time.
I like showing characters who have flaws. The entire film is shown through Sara’s perspective, so you get to see that in her mind, some things aren’t as perfect as she thinks they are.
SY: How did you determine how much of the psychological and physical scares you wanted to show, particularly when Sara and Aiden were in the forest, and how much you wanted to leave open to interpretation?
JZ: Well, the original script had more elements that happened before Sara and Aiden went into the forest. But as we started to edit the film, and it started to create its own voice, we began cutting out some of the beginning scenes. It became about getting Sara to the forest as fast as possible, because the forest is really the bad guy in the movie.
Hopefully there’s a tonality that goes from the beginning to the end, and it leaves people a little uneasy and unsure of the story and characters. During the edit, we decided to cut scenes that I had liked, but we had ultimately decided had just gotten in the way of that feeling of uneasiness.
Written by: Karen Benardello