Reminiscent of recent Netflix juggernaut Bird Box, Spanish Director Álvaro de la Hoz dispatches a lone blindfolded woman into the forest for a mysterious confrontation with an unseen monster which may well bring her life to an end in his Super 8 fantasy horror short Frightening Woods. Very much taken with this allegorical tale, DN invited Álvaro to discuss the attraction of dialogue-free storytelling coupled with considered sound design, playing video clip Tetris across film cartridges and the dangers of working with a blindfolded actor.
I really love when a story is told without dialogue, just with visuals. For me, that’s the secret weapon of cinema. It’s like speaking directly to the audience’s emotion in its native language: imagination. And when it works, nothing compares to that. I also love open stories. I love when I’ve got the feeling that I only caught a glimpse of the world in which the film takes place, that there’s so much unknown off-screen. I love when there’s room to interpret and think about the film and thus the story keeps living and growing in my mind long after I’ve finished watching.
Those were my intentions when I shot Frightening Woods. At its core, it’s a story about mystery and I didn’t want words to get in the way of mystery, I’d rather have the audience experience it directly. I also felt that the story worked better if I didn’t explain too much. So there’s no backstory nor unnecessary explanations about what you are watching. You’re told just the things you need in order to follow and enjoy the story but you’re free to figure everything else out.
Mystery is shy. Ghosts never show themselves in broad daylight or among crowds. They wander in dark and abandoned places. UFO footage is never sharp and detailed but blurry and shaky. Legendary creatures such as the Bigfoot or the Kraken avoid human contact and hide themselves deep in the woods or the ocean. One could say that mystery only shows up when nobody’s watching.
Tinkering with this idea, I thought: what if there was this supernatural creature that only shows itself if you agree not to look? Like some kind of pact. Or ritual. That idea went around in my head for some time. It was very suggestive but I didn’t see a way to turn it into a story. And then I realized: what if this creature is dangerous? So, by agreeing not to look, you’re putting yourself in a very risky situation. You’re risking your life just to know if the mystery is real.
As soon as I figured that out, the pieces of the story came very quickly: the woman, the clearing in the woods, the blindfold, the monster… The only caveat was that, yes, it all sounded too much like a scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village! Shyamalan is one of my favorite filmmakers, definitely a master in creating suggestive and captivating films. I watched The Village again to check the monster scene in the woods and confirmed, to my relief, that it was very different in execution and intent to what I had in mind for Frightening Woods.
I didn’t want words to get in the way of mystery, I’d rather have the audience experience it directly.
I was looking forward to shooting a project on Super 8 and Frightening Woods was a perfect fit. I couldn’t imagine filming it on sharp 4K, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Not that I have any problem with that, but I felt the script demanded a dream-like look, something that, as an audience, would put you in a special mood. Something that tells you that you’re not going to see a regular short film.
I always went for a 4:3 aspect ratio. When I watch a 4:3 shot I feel like I’m seeing the world through a peephole, there are things both sides of the frame that I can’t see but I know they are there. In the case of Frightening Woods I think it makes you feel closer to the main character, as you rely on her reactions to imagine the world that surrounds her. It makes the film more subjective.
I bought a Nikon R10 Super 8, a high-end consumer Super 8 camera, and I started doing some tests with my DOP Laura Hojas. We tried Vision3 50D Kodak film and were amazed by the results. The texture and color were great. The greens and reds looked gorgeous and that decided that the main character would dress in red (in the original script the woman wore a white dress that ends up covered in blood).
Location scouting was harder than we thought. I live in Northern Spain and there are plenty of forests here: oak-trees, beeches, pines… None of which would serve as I was looking for a pretty specific scenery. I wanted a forest so thick that you almost couldn’t see beyond the clearing limits. In other words, the clearing needed to be like a cave made of vegetation. You don’t get that thickness with big trees, you need thin trees with thin crowns that grow very close to one another and let other vegetation thrive in the gaps. That’s something I learned scouting for Frightening Woods! We finally found this forest, Monte Buciero, with lush and thick vegetation, it looks like a jungle. And we found our clearing there.
The forest was so thick and the light inside the clearing so scarce for analog film (it was winter) that we had to drop the 50D film and opt for the more light-sensitive 500T film instead. That gave the short film a grainier look than I had intended but in the end, I think it served it well.
For the lead, I needed someone who could play the vulnerable girl at the beginning but also that relentless strong woman at the end, otherwise the story wouldn’t work. I cast Olivia Matas because she was so believable in both sides of that range and because she has a powerful gaze. In a story in which we spend most of the time not seeing the main characters’ eyes, that final shot in which she takes off the blindfold and finally reveals her eyes again was very important to me. You get to see how much the character has changed since the beginning. I’d like to think that you start watching Frightening Woods to see the monster but you keep watching to see Olivia’s face again.
The monster has very little screen time nevertheless, I also wanted an experienced actor to perform it. I needed a ‘real’ monster for Olivia to react to and not have her just responding to my cues. I chose an old friend of mine, Alfonso Señas, who is a stage actor and very committed to the physicality of his characters. He designed a unique way in which the monster walks, breathes, growls… You almost can’t see it in the final film but it’s reflected in Olivia’s performance. That speaks of the generosity of Alfonso and I’m very grateful for his collaboration.
We had a lot of rehearsals to test the pace and actions. I storyboarded the film along with the rehearsals, modifying, creating or deleting shots as we developed the performances. Originally, the action between Olivia and the Monster was longer but we ended up cutting most of it. We could only afford six film cartridges for this project (that’s about 15 minutes of footage), so I had to be conservative regarding the amount of shots and their length. The camera had its own limitations too (for example, it has a five feet minimum focus distance except for macro shots) so I had to keep everything as simple as possible.
Most of the rehearsals were indoors but we did a rehearsal day on location to test the movements with the real terrain (the ground, the rocks, the fallen tree) and to see how we could use it to our advantage. It proved to be incredibly helpful once we started shooting for real. I wish I could do that in every project I film!
We shot over 3 days in December 2016. It may seem like a lot of time for a seven-minute one-location short film but we really had very few hours of usable light each day. We parked our vehicles outside the forest and we spent one hour each day walking through the woods to reach the set and back. In spite of the walks and the cold, the shooting went smoothly. It was one of my calmer filmings in years! All the preproduction work paid off. However, there were some challenges.
For example, having an actor performing with a blindfold on has some issues I didn’t realize enough during rehearsals. Not seeing for a prolonged period of time is quite disorienting, so we tried to keep Olivia’s blindfold off whenever it was possible. Hitting camera marks is a little bit more difficult, especially if you have to finish oriented to the camera in a certain way (front, profile, etc…). Olivia had to calculate how many steps would take her to hit the marks and rehearse the turns without the blindfold on to make sure she was doing it right. Alfonso’s performance as the monster was crucial in helping her to get the movements properly, too. Having Olivia walking or falling backwards in a place full of branches, rocks and other spiky things was also a security concern for the crew.
Having an actor performing with a blindfold on has some issues I didn’t realize enough during rehearsals.
Super 8 shaped the workflow and the rhythm of the filming. Every time the camera rolled there was a special energy among the cast and the crew. A special kind of tension, a feeling of “this is it, I have to do my best” that’s electrifying. As a director, Super 8 meant I didn’t have an external monitor to watch the shot or review it afterwards. There’s no safety net. You have to know every shot through and through: what is important about the shot and what you want to accomplish with it. You have to be so clear about that! There’s little room to guess when you only have a couple of takes per shot and you can’t review them. You learn a lot working this way and I’d definitely recommend any filmmaker to try it at least once.
The most feared shot during filming was the 360-degree pan. It wasn’t that difficult to pull off (it was all about getting the pace right, hitting a couple of marks and… the pace, it really was all about the pace) but it was long. In rehearsals we estimated 1 and a half minutes for this shot. That meant we needed a fresh film cartridge (which lasts 2 and a half minutes) for every take, and the remaining cartridge footage would be kept for shorter shots. In the end, we were lucky and pulled it off in the first take but it’s a good example of our workflow. We were constantly comparing the remaining footage on every cartridge and our shot duration estimations in order to cram every take within the space we had left. Very much like playing Tetris with film!
The 360-degree pan was feared but also loved. It’s probably my favorite shot in the film but I always regret that I didn’t place the monster later in the pan in order to play a little bit more with the suspense.
We all know how this works. You finish shooting and the next day you’re reviewing the footage, seeing what worked, what didn’t… even editing it already if you’re also the editor. In this case I had to wait for a couple of months. First, we had to send the cartridges for developing (and it’s funny but I can’t stress enough how nervous I was about them getting lost, damaged, badly developed…) and then we had to get the negative scanned. We scanned it at a facility in Madrid called Ocho y Pico (Eight and a little more) which is quite famous among Spanish Super 8 and 16mm filmmakers. They scanned every frame and generated a QuickTime uncompressed file.
I was the editor myself and worked with Adobe Premiere Pro. Compared to my previous films, the editing process was quick. I had a rough cut in one day and then it was a matter of polishing it for a couple of weeks. As I mentioned earlier, we had like twenty minutes of footage and the final cut is seven minutes long. I changed or cut some minor bits but most of the polishing went into getting the pace right: when should I hold the shot longer, when should I cut it faster. It always plays a big part in my editing process but it really made a world of difference in this film.
Ironically, when you tell a story just with visuals, sound becomes even more important than in dialogue films. Sound is what drives you through the story and gives you the clues you need to interpret the visuals. From the moment I wrote the script, I had in my mind a very specific approach to the sound.
In Frightening Woods, the soundtrack tells us when we are in plain reality and when we are in supernatural territory, so to speak. The film starts with an eerie sound effect, a strange whistle of unknown origin that hints at the mysterious side of the story. But quickly, the soundscape grounds us in reality: we hear a real forest ambience with birds, wind, leaves, footsteps in the dirt… The visuals may be a little stylized because of the Super 8 but the soundtrack is not.
When you tell a story just with visuals, sound becomes even more important than in dialogue films.
When Olivia puts the blindfold on the soundtrack becomes very subjective. Everything gets louder because she pays more attention to hearing her surroundings. And then, reality flees. The birds go away, the insects go away, the natural ambience of the forest goes away and we enter a different soundscape as the monster approaches. There’s little ambience, every tiny sound is amplified, Olivia’s breath becomes more present and the music takes the lead. At the end of the film it’s the monster who flees, and, as a result, the naturalistic soundscape comes back to fill the void in the soundtrack. We’re back to normal as if nothing happened.
This all sounds very nice but it turns out that we didn’t have any production sound when we finished filming. The camera was just too noisy to record sound while shooting. Sound Designer Diego González had to create the soundtrack from scratch. We returned to the location with a sound team to record ambiences, footsteps, all kind of hits, snaps, drops… Diego assembled all these pieces together (along with some of his own sound effects produced in studio) to tell this journey from reality to mystery and back.
All the breath sounds, screams and gasps from Olivia had to be recorded in post too. These sounds were key to convey the character’s emotions and to reinforce the pace of the film. So we paid big attention to the evolution of her breathing across the film, the pauses in it, the nuances of every gasp and the intents of the screams. Some of them should communicate pure fright, others mean desperation, others strength… We did a lot of takes until we got these sounds right and Olivia was patient enough to put up with my obsession with all of these sounds.
One of my favorite parts of the soundtrack is the moment when the monster has cornered Olivia. We hear Olivia’s heavy breathing along with the monster breathing and in the sound design we had this idea of synchronizing the tempo of both breathings. It suddenly created this weird intimate moment between the two of them.
The music was supposed to be the voice of the woods. The woods are the source of the mystery, the monster belongs to the woods but the woman doesn’t, she’s an intruder there. I wanted the music to tell that. Not the easiest thing to tell! I reached out to Pablo Gregor, a composer well trained in experimental and electronic music. For some months, he went through several iterations of the score looking for this ‘voice’ of the forest: strange wind instruments, electric sounds that reminded of storms and thunders… Everything sort of clicked when he found this wooden percussion which blended so well with the sound effects but also had a musicality to it. It’s like someone making music by hitting on tree trunks. It made sense to us in terms of representing the woods but it also had a primal flavor that didn’t feel connected to a particular culture. We didn’t want the music to anchor the story to a certain time or place.
One could say that mystery only shows up when nobody’s watching.
My intention was to tell a mysterious and straightforward story at the same time, so people would feel encouraged to think and fill the gaps. Not everyone likes that, that’s clear, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Frightening Woods is how differently the audience takes it and the multiple interpretations that come up regarding both what really happens in the story and what the story is supposed to mean. Who is the woman? Where does she come from? Is she doing this voluntarily? Is it a human sacrifice? Is the ending an unexpected turn of events or was it all supposed to go that way? I’ve got my own answers for all of that, but they’re probably less interesting than the audience’s answers.
One of my biggest influences in making Frightening Woods was Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin. I love how that film presents you with a very simple and linear story (one could say it’s merely a succession of events) and leaves so much room for you to think and theorize about it.
Some people have told me that what we are seeing in Frightening Woods is a marriage ritual between human and beast. For others, it’s a story about how the relationship between humankind and nature has evolved. Others have pointed out that it speaks about feminism and the fight of women against patriarchy. I really love that last one because it matches all the elements neatly (the blindfold, the submission to the monster, the final rebellion…) and it comes very close to my own interpretation.
For me, it’s a story about fear. About how fear operates in our individual lives and in our society as a whole. How it blinds us, how it corners us, how it dictates our behaviour and how, if you find the courage to face it, it’s always weaker than us. I think that’s an experience everyone can relate to.