In cinema fathers tend to cast rather long shadows over their offspring. Be they venerable figures of perceived greatest who are impossible to live up to, abusive wastrels crushing the joy out of family life, or simply absent, leaving behind them a void waiting to be filled by feelings of anger, confusion and rejection. It is this latter form of paternal influence that informs the fractious relationship between brothers Darren and Travis in Markus Schroder’s latest short The Ritual. A film which sees the estranged brothers head into the desert to perform a rite which will connect the two with their long disappeared father. DN asked Markus to share how The Ritual developed from an idea on the London to Tube to a stateside shoot which had to navigate offroading enthusiasts and the stench of milk spoiling in the blistering desert heat.
At the time, I really wanted to shoot something in the desert. One night, on the walk home from the Tube in London, I came up with the concept for The Ritual and wrote a first draft that same evening. It did change quite a bit after that, but the general idea was all there: the older brother – a bit of a nutcase – takes his younger, estranged brother to the desert to perform a ritual to find their long disappeared father. I was about to go to help a friend produce a music video in LA, so I was able to add a bit of time at the back of that for the film.
I usually cast extensively and have often had to add casting sessions or even days, when I haven’t been happy with who we had so far. However with this film, it came more naturally. Wilke is a very good friend of mine and after a while it became quite apparent that he really suited the role of the younger brother. I think I might have already thought about him in the role when writing the script. He then continuously tried to plug his friends for the role of the older brother, which didn’t really work for me and I decided to do a casting session. But then he brought Geoff along on a night out, and while getting more and more drunk, the two of them couldn’t stop arguing and making fun of each other, to the point where we got thrown out of a bar because they started a fight with each other. Although I’m pretty aware that they might have planned to do all that all along, I got convinced! After that, we did quite a few ‘rehearsals’ and the two had a lot of input into the behaviour of the two brothers and some of the dialogue, which I appreciated as I wanted the film to feel quite ‘American’.
Once in LA, it was pretty tough getting it all together as the budget was super tight, but I think we did a good job at that and achieved a few things I thought wouldn’t be possible. We took a very small crew into the desert, a place near Lucerne Valley around 2-3 hours from LA, and shot two days in the blistering sun and part of the pitch black night. Alasdair Mitchell, my producer who I’ve worked with before and also since, did his very best to make it all work on the budget. We still ran into a lot of problems during the shoot, but the crew and cast were fantastic, and everyone worked together to get through it all!
For example, Alasdair’s SUV from Rent-A-Wreck broke down just before arriving at location, and we had to push it around in the desert heat. We also weren’t supposed to leave town with the car, so the rental guys weren’t too happy to come out there with a new car. He then decided to go offroading with the replacement SUV, but he forgot about the gallon of milk in the back, which got squeezed and exploded. Not a good idea in 110F. The smell was incredible. I’m pretty sure he won’t get a car there again.
After location scouting quite extensively and finally deciding on this very specific spot, it was a bit of a bummer to suddenly find a single trailer standing in the middle of it all on the day of the shoot. We tried to get the guy, an old Air Force pilot named Fred, to move the trailer a little so we wouldn’t have him in the middle of our shots, but he wasn’t keen. So we had to shoot around him, while he and his wife were offroading in little sand buggies, drinking one gin and tonic after another. Ultimately, we made friends though and he was the source of some nice anecdotes. He was also extremely drunk by the end of the night. After all we were actually quite lucky. They were there early for a big reunion of some offroading community, and around 20 more trailers and vans would have arrived the day after our shoot!
We shot on a Red Epic with vintage, anamorphic Kowa lenses. For the night stuff, Benjamin Kitchens (Cinematographer) and I decided to go quite bold and use only real fire as light sources – the actual bonfire seen in the shots and a ‘fire bar’ built by Ben himself… luckily no one was there to control health and safety. Working with Ben and his crew was a really nice experience for me, and he added a lot of ideas to the film. Another nice little touch we developed together was to start very static, and gradually get more handheld and shaky throughout the film, until the climax when we go back to an either static or floating camera.
Back in London for the post, we recorded the music with my friend Dan White, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of for sure. I really like the title song on the end credits, and the band that wrote and played the music – Passion Bel Canon – still play it at their gigs. It’s the first time I managed to create a completely original soundtrack for one of my films, and I have to say, it’s really worth it. Dan then also did a great soundtrack for my short documentary Adrift that I made in Iceland.
I’m going to continue making commercials and music videos, but am very excited about developing a feature length documentary I want to shoot in Mexico City. I should be able to spend some time there again soon to really push the preparations.