Interview: Filmmaker Chris Nash Leans on Practical Effects Experience and Horror Tropes Turned Upside Down in In a Violent Nature

Before making his feature debut with In a Violent Nature, writer/director Chris Nash worked as a practical effect artist (he still does, actually), and it’s not difficult to see his love of the craft in his skillfully made new film, which takes the familiar ’80s slasher genre and reverse engineers the tropes by shifting the perspective from those getting killed to the actual killer. The result answers many questions about what masked murderers wandering around in the woods do between their kills, while teenagers, campers, and other worthy targets are drinking, doing drugs and having sex, not realizing that these are their final moments alive.

Nash somehow manages to make his silent masked killer, Johnny (Ry Barrett), both a vengeful machine, intent on reclaiming what is rightfully his, as well as something that is strangely more human than most famed slasher characters. While the film is filled with moments in which we simply follow Johnny through the woods in quiet contemplation, In a Violent Nature also contains some of the most creative and blood-spurting kills in recent memory (one in particular that is sparking rounds of applause at nearly every screening).

I recently spoke with Nash about the lengths he went to not only to complete his film, but also the reasons he reshot huge portions of it to make sure he captured the tone he wanted for this familiar yet utterly unique work of textured violence set deep in the woods. The film is now playing in theaters around Chicago. Please enjoy our conversation…

My teen years were entirely in the 1980s, so slasher films were my gateway drug to, not just horror, but films in general. I was one of those kids who wondered where the killers went in between the kills, and how they always seemed to end up right where they needed to be, when they needed to be there to kill the next people. And you have answered that question for me. How did you come up with the idea to reverse engineer the classic, guy-in-the-woods, wearing-a-mask slasher story?

I couldn’t even say that I feel like I reverse engineered it. I feel like I just moved the camera. We wanted very much to make this unmistakably an ‘80s slasher. This is literally taking the camera away from the campers to the slasher, and that’s it, and everything plays out the exact same way. I know there has been a lot of press saying that this is a reinvention, and I don’t think it is; we’re not reinventing the wheel, it’s just a different wheel.

The main influence was Gus Van Sant’s trilogy that includes Gerry, and Elephant.

I can see Elephant so much in your film.

Yeah, and then from there, we watched Alan Clarke’s Elephant, and that was so striking to watch as well and was an influence on Gus Van Zant. Somewhere along there, I was also exposed to Gerald Kargl’s Angst, and we owe such a debt to that film. But that was it. It was mainly watching those Gus Van Zant movies and us wondering how it translates to genre. I grew up watching horror movies and loved them, and I was an outcast who had all the Fangoria posters in my locker and liked all the wrong music, and I wondered how this played out in genre.

I have noticed that a lot of the reviews out of Sundance compared the film to art house directors like Malick. Were there other other non-horror directors that you looked to to capture that contemplative vibe? And by the way, moving the camera and not having a score, those are big-deal moves in a slasher film.

The other directors we looked at were, yes, Malick. I mean, Badlands alone, that’s such a beautiful movie, but it’s also a homicidal Bonnie and Clyde-like pair going through the woods. That’s not how you would picture a movie like that, if that was a B-movie. I mean, it is a B-movie, but with Malick behind the camera, it becomes so much more. Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, that’s a heist movie, but under his eye, it’s just so beautiful. The way he composes shots in that movie, the landscape just sucks you in. Things like that always appeal to me. Any director is using their environment and isn’t afraid the have the actors take up a little less room in the frame and let the environment hold their characters, I think that’s part of filmmaking that is lost for the most part these days, and I was guilty of it. 

We reshot almost the entire film. We’d shot like 75-80 percent of it, and then we were looking at the footage, and I was really rusty as a director and didn’t trust myself to acknowledge that we were doing it wrong. But looking at the footage, I realized we were way too close to Johnny in so much of it, and we had to pull the camera back and have him take up less space in the frame and feel the world; so much of the movie is about the world. Movies should be about the world, whether it’s something like Linklater making Tape in a hotel room. That movie is so much about characters in a hotel room as it is characters having a conversation. So art-house directors who embrace the environments that they’re shooting films in is a very big inspiration for me.

What information about Johnny did you think was still worth holding back, in spite of the fact that by following him the entire time, you reveal so much about him?

I want to give him as little humanity as possible, and there’s a certain point in the film where I think maybe I did give him too much humanity, with one certain moment. But I don’t want to know anything about Johnny, because the more you know about him, the more you know about his motivations, the less interesting he is to me. I think that the coda of the ending monologue ties a lot of that up; he’s not something to be reasoned with, he’s just out there doing his thing.

I feel like you do give him a motivation at the very beginning—he just wants his shit back. We can all identify with that.

Yeah, these punk kids stole my stuff. There always has to be motivation, but balancing motivation with a peak inside revealing emotional motivation is different. I would prefer that he was intrinsically tied to this MacGuffin. It’s just him after a MacGuffin. It means a little something to him, but in my mind, he doesn’t really know why it means anything to him. We do have that little flashback, but all of his memories are just are at a distance to him. He doesn’t understand them, in my mind anyways.

Like many masked killers, you make us think we’re never going to see his face, and then we do see it when I was least expecting to. At that moment, I almost felt something empathetic toward him. “Aw man, he’s just a messed-up dude.” What was the thinking on the moment you reveal that and the timing of it?

Yeah yeah. Okay, I don’t know whether this is going to be satisfactory. I feel like when you’re technically trying to work out issues, the technical solution to an issue also provides a creative and satisfying story solution too. When something is engineered well, it feels like that was always the case. For that moment, what it really was is that he’s walking toward the characters. I wanted him to be at this point in time, like a locomotive, like he is just moving and not stopping. For as much as I don’t want there to be exposition dumps, those characters are having an exposition dump, and I was like “I can’t have him walking forever during this, so I need to get him to stop somehow.” And that was the moment when I realized there was this situation where I just need him to stop, take a moment for himself, and that’s how I wrote that. It was really there to provide more time for exposition, but it did create this whole other moment that was something too. It worked beautifully, and it comes at the perfect time in the film too. It’s not like a shocking reveal; it gently lets itself unfold.

Practicality is a perfectly good reason. What is that mask exactly? It looks like some sort of ancient fire-protection covering.

It is a fire-fighting mask, a Vajen-Bader fire-fighting helmet. And it was essentially a firefighter's diving belt, where it was like a self-contained breathing apparatus, an oxygen tank that hung off the back. When you look at the actual mask when we’re following him from behind, there’s plenty of time to see this, there’s this little buckle and that held an oxygen mask that went into it and a circulatory breathing thing for firefighters to operate in smokey areas. And the little thing hanging down from the front of the mask was actually a whistle that they used to communicate with each other or try to signal people that there were firefighters around. Help is on the way.

Let’s talk about that scene that has had many a festival audience bursting into applause. It shows us that Johnny must have had some sort of mechanical engineering degree when he was alive. How did you devise that. I know you work have worked in effects for many years, and that scene clearly illustrates that.

For any of the deaths, I wanted to show stuff that either the effect is something we hadn’t seen before or the way that we’re shooting it is something we haven’t seen before, for practical stuff especially. For that one, I wanted to do something with his hooks—because he’s got these big-old meaty hooks—that is specific to using the hooks, that couldn’t be re-created with another weapon. Then, at a certain point, it’s all just free jazz: “What happens next?” I knew I wanted the hooks to be used, and how do you use hooks? You pull on something with them. One of things you do try to do, where you would normally find the ending of an effect is asking yourself how much further can you go with this? And that’s where I went with that one.

Is it meant to be so funny?

Oh yeah. It’s all slapstick; it’s a banana peel gag. She’s out there doing yoga, and then that’s what happens to her. For me, it’s funny but it’s gruesome.

Does the fact that Johnny knows how to use all of these very specific tools inform us about what his life was before he died?

I don’t know . It’s definitely stuff he’s been around. But the movie itself was meant to be the third or fourth sequel in a series. That’s how we were treating it. So he matures and understands things.

Do you think that whatever you do next, and maybe you know what that is, will you take a similar approach, even if it isn’t in horror, of dissecting the tropes of whatever genre you choose and then maybe move the camera somewhere else? What are your thoughts about what you do next?

Maybe. This movie was such an outlier for me. Whenever I’m writing, it’s generally very intense, character-motivated character studies. There’s dialogue and so much else. This was something else. It’s very much an exploitation film, but in our brains, we were thinking this would be easy. We’re just following around a character with a camera through the woods. This will be the easiest thing in the world to shoot. And that why we did it this way. I like tropes. Some filmmakers who I envy the most, fellow Canadian filmmakers the Astron-6 collective, I’ve always loved how they take tropes, and they’re not necessarily making fun of the tropes but they are using them to build entirely different stories. They’re definitely more comedic in their take on it, but they’re unique movies within themselves. They aren’t just, like, a zombie-comedy; they’re making something completely new out of something that already exists, and I think that’s how we should be using tropes, not just falling on them as a crutch but using them as building blocks to make something new.

Inevitably, I probably will do something similar, use tropes for something, whether it’s in a different sub-genre or something a little more transgressive. More than anything, I like blending genres that are unexpected.

I can’t wait. Best of luck with this. I’m glad we got a chance to talk about it.

Thank you so much, Steve. I really appreciate the questions.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.