Premiering at Sundance to rave reviews earlier this year, In a Violent Nature instantly set itself apart from the glut of recent independent horror films via its very deliberate vision. Anyone cynical about the genre’s ubiquity will be undeniably impressed by its formal rigor: a lack of music, a square aspect ratio, and a deceptively slow pace. Through all of this, it still finds time to birth a new slasher icon in Johnny.

Ahead of the film’s theatrical release beginning this Friday from IFC Films, The Film Stage caught up with writer-director Chris Nash over Zoom to discuss the making and influences of his indie horror sensation. 

The Film Stage: My first question is about your cinephile journey, because it seems like the sort of mission statement of this film was to combine two sets of interests: the horror films of your youth and maybe the art films of your adult years. Can you talk about that?

Chris Nash: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. I grew up watching horror films. I’m of that age where it’s what you would do with your friends when you’re having sleepovers. I’ve always just had a connection to them and it’s what I wanted to do. When I continued my journey into making film and became a student, and moving from Northern Ontario to Toronto in the early 2000s and going to the film festival, and just having my eyes open to different films that I might not have had the easiest to access to earlier, because this is also pre-streaming. 

So that was about the time when Gus Van Sant released Gerry. I think that was the first year I was in Toronto. I was just riveted by that film and all of his films after that. I always appreciated him as a director, but that series of Gerry and Elephant and Last Days, the casual nature of them really stuck with me, because the whole time I’m thinking I shouldn’t be this riveted to what was happening. But I just was, and I was thinking, “How can I join that with genre cinema? Is there a genre of film that can be applied to this aesthetic?” I realized that’s probably the slasher film. Especially a slasher in the woods would be the most appropriate because it’s the most compelling environment. The big thing was just trying not to overthink it. Just: we’re following a slasher through the woods on a workday, basically. Just don’t try to throw in too many ornaments.

Can you talk about how the environment of rural Ontario bled into the film? It reminded me of a lot of those early ’80s slashers, like the first couple Friday the 13ths or The Burning or The Prowler, where they’re all shot in New Jersey or upstate New York and there’s this interesting East Coast atmosphere. Can you talk about how the environment benefited the film?

Everything was shot very close to where I was raised. I wrote the film with the idea that we’d be shooting it in my hometown. I was raised outside of Sault Ste. Marie, in a rural area, and just growing up there, you have a sense of freedom. So when you’re out in the woods and there’s something about the pine trees and how you can just get lost in an open space, that was always super-compelling to me. And for me, I always thought: that’s the scary part. The scary part of the movie really only happens at the end, when our final girl is running through the woods. That’s where I’m like: this is where it’s a horror movie. Everything else before that has been using horror tropes to almost make a nature documentary. But this is where it becomes a horror movie to me and where it’s like: somebody’s just in the woods. So the winds are very, very important, especially in the Northern Ontario landscape where we are on the shield with the boreal forest. There’s just so much to look at that I wanted to take advantage of both, and also that you can use as a calling card to that area of northern Ontario too. 

The press kit mentions that you shot it in the Academy aspect ratio partly because you grew up watching films on VHS and wanted to replicate that square look. Was working in that aspect ratio difficult in ways, or was it liberating?

It really depended on the day. There were some shots that we’d set up where I’d be like, “This would look amazing if it was wide,” but we were locked into the Academy ratio. You know, we’re going to lose something in Academy, but how do we make it look as good as we can? I think in the end it was a benefit, for sure. Because if we had it wide, even just 16:9, I feel like Johnny would have gotten lost within the environment. Whereas shooting it Academy, he almost blended in more. And it just felt there was more of a balance there between the visual space he was taking up and the environment around him. So there’s a lot of happy accidents with making that decision early on.

I mean, sort of ironically, it almost makes the film feel like it’s more suited for theaters––when you see the Academy ratio in a movie theater, the vertical look towers over you more than even widescreen.

Yeah, I can’t put my finger on that either. And also, being inspired by Gus Van Sant too, I’m pretty sure Elephant was in the Academy ratio too, so there’s some synchronicity there. But I do enjoy this wave of Academy ratio films coming out. Something about it just feels nice. 

Something also mentioned in the press kit was that your collaborators on the film, be it your cinematographer or AD, really kind of pushed you creatively. Can you elaborate on that statement?

I would say everybody did. I think if you were to watch it, you would feel like there was a single vision behind it. And to some extent there is, but it was also just an open field for anybody to have suggestions on anything. For instance: the final kill in the film was kind of based around a reverse jump scare almost, where the killer is being scared by one of the survivors and then gets murdered. But that was an idea that came about from our camera-effects artist. We were just like, “This would be kind of funny.” We’re like, “Yeah, it would be, Mike. Let’s throw that in.” The whole movie was scripted, but we did allow for any voice or opinion to come in. I quickly realized that, as long as everybody understood the material, that any suggestion was welcomed. And everybody that we had on the team really seemed to understand the experiment that we were going for. It’s almost like it’s not an experimental film, but making the film is an experiment, just because we hadn’t really seen it and didn’t know how successful it was going to be.

Is there any kind of emotional difficulty that comes in shooting a murder scene?

I’m pretty removed from all that stuff emotionally. I work in prosthetics, so when I look at any kind of death or anything like that I’m taking it apart in my head. The more troubling thing is when I start to look at my actors as if they’re not real––like when I’m applying prosthetics just because we do a cast to their face, for instance, and I’m painting their face or building all that, and I forget there’s someone under there. And it’s just: I’m so used to man-handling this piece of silicone or prosthetic that I’m so used to any of the effects for that. It has no effect on me.

How important was the final car scene in the film to you? Just in terms of signaling what the intent of the film was, because it’s an interesting note to end the film on where I wouldn’t quite say it deflates, but it’s definitely withholding in a way many horror films aren’t.

It is like a post-coitus scene. [Laughs] With the movie, there’s a lot going on, and then all of a sudden we’re just gonna end with a monologue. Yeah, it was super-important to us the whole time, that scene specifically. So far it’s been very divisive, as far as some people saying that the movie completely deflates at that point, or whether it’s successful or not. It is very much like, “Oh, that’s the point of the movie.” So whether or not it takes away from an audience’s idea of what they’re going to be seeing––like a movie that they think they’re going to be seeing before it starts or not––I feel like it’s the most important thing in the film.

And finally, as a fan, what’s your series ranking for Friday the 13th?

Number-one, by far, is part five. I know that’s a lot of people’s worst one. But the whole thing to me feels like a Robert Altman Jason movie and I kind of love that. Worst? Maybe part three. I know it’s the first hockey-mask Jason, but something about just going for the 3D gags really takes the wind out it for me. Honestly, even Jason X is really high in my ranking. As ridiculous as it is, I just feel like everybody knew the assignment making that movie.

In a Violent Nature opens on May 31.

No more articles