Unfolding in the remote landscape of rural Australia, New York Film Academy graduate Robert Linsley’s psychological thriller Ritual sparks off a dangerous game of cat and mouse when a local cop attempts to investigate the disappearance of a devoutly religious family’s eldest daughter. A film inspired by a deep affinity for the New South Wales town of Manilla, DN invited Linsley to share how collaboration and meticulous planning underpinned this unsettling portrayal of the corrosive effects of religion, violence and patriarchy.

My main motivation for making Ritual was that I wanted an excuse to shoot in the small Australian town of Manilla in rural New South Wales. My Aunty Jenny and Uncle Cam own a beautiful federation property there that served as the inspiration for me writing the story. The land in this part of Australia is incredibly vast, beautiful, isolated and brutal, which is why I was motivated to write a story about a fanatically religious family living in the middle of nowhere.

When it came to other points of reference for the film’s world and the progression of the narrative I was influenced by more gritty films that showcase the brutal and brooding nature of rural Australia. Films such as Mystery Road, Goldstone, The Proposition and Snowtown buttressed this look for the film. As for the more Cultish and Gothic vision for the film, I took my creative cues from The Wicker Man (the 1973 original), Robert Eggers’ The Witch and the first season of True Detective.

As far as pre-production was concerned, The wheels really started turning when I was living in New York City as a student at the New York Film Academy from 2010 until 2013. Through a friend of a friend, I met the cinematographer for our film, Joel Froome ACS (a fellow Australian). We made a pact that he would fly out to Australia to shoot my short film as soon as I had the necessary resources ready to go. I moved back to Sydney in 2013 to pursue my career in my homeland and spent the better part of four years raising the funds for Ritual. Our Producer Andrew Brinsmead was also a big help in terms of handling transport, accommodation, paperwork and logistics, all of which were of paramount importance since our shoot was located six hours from Sydney by car.

To say our shoot was challenging is an understatement. We had to relocate a large cast and crew to the middle of rural Australia with the aim of shooting a 14 page screenplay in only four days. Our last day of shooting also had the added stress of pyrotechnical work since we were burning down a house for the finale of the film. A big shout out must be extended to production design team headed by Elle Steiner who transformed our location in less than a week to make sure the mise en scene of the film was appropriate to the story. The same has to be said for our Costume Designer Greta Thompson-Weiner who gave a brilliant old world vibe with her wardrobe.

I am a big believer in hiring people that know their job better than you, and that is what we did with spectacular results. The cast nailed their performances with the least amount of takes, the crew executed their jobs to perfection, and our mammoth production hummed its way to the finish line. Added to that our Director of Photography Joel Froome delivered a stunning cinematic vision with his eye and with the help of the Arri Alexa XT.

The processes and precautions for the fire scene were very extensive and intense. We made sure that we only worked with the best professionals with regards to stunt work and safety. First, we had to remove all the hazardous materials from the house we were going to burn down. This required us to strip the site of all traces of lead paint and asbestos to the liking of the local EPA. Then we were lucky to be able to enlist the services of John Van Der Pool, one of the best pyrotechnicians in the world who worked on Ritual after wrapping on The Last Jedi! Finally, we had the whole burn done under the supervision of the local Rural Fire Service, with over a dozen firefighters on standby. In short, nothing was left to chance.

I am a big believer in hiring people that know their job better than you.

We could only prioritise and isolate a few shots for this scene since we were advised that the set would only stay intact for about an hour. Luckily we were able to get everything we needed before the house was razed at the 45 minute mark! The craziest thing about this part of the shoot was we were only able to do wide shots because the heat coming from the fire kept everyone at a decent distance.

Post Production started with the inspired work of our brilliant Editor Danielle Boesenberg. The process itself was quite painless in the sense that Joel and the actors gave us a wealth of coverage in terms of shots and performances. I remember Danielle commenting on how much of a luxury it was to choose the best performances from a selection of great performances. In this respect, we were spoiled by being able to work with some of the best talent Australia has to offer with the services of acting greats such as Gary Sweet and Alison Whyte. Added to that we were also very lucky to be able to work with one of Australia’s best young talents, Rory Potter, as well as being thoroughly captivated by a thrilling performance from Sam O’Dell.

After a month of editing, we sent our final cut to be graded by the great Andrew Francis who masterfully gave our film the cold color palette that had been decided upon by Joel and myself. The sound design was then crafted by the expert hands of Angus Robertson at Spectrum Films and was complemented by a haunting score that was perfectly produced by our Composer John Towey.

The final version of Ritual is wholly different from the initial draft. Sometimes this was because of the story and other times it was because of the schedule. This was not necessarily a bad thing either in that some of the changes came about because of the collaborative nature of the process, especially during rehearsals with the actors. The changes to the story also involved a lot of back and forth with Andrew so that we could make the film into a more lively paced psychological thriller.

Our latest project on the cards is a short film that we did in rural Louisiana called Nowhere Arkansas. It is a civil war drama that we shot in May of 2019 with the film making the top 20 for its premiere at the 2019 Louisiana Film Prize. We are excited to see what direction it will take on its oncoming festival run.

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