Now available on Shudder, The Bunker Game mixes live action role playing with the supernatural and was filmed inside of a real underground bunker! During a recent Q&A, Robert Zazzara talked about his newfound love of LARP, filming in an actual bunker, and more!
The story is really fascinating, especially for people who take part in LARP and/or immersive experiences. What's your experience with LARPing and/or immersive experiences?
I got interested in the LARP world a few years ago when a friend of mine told me he was going to play one for a weekend. I was struggling to understand the game's meaning, but when he returned, he showed me a vintage photograph printed on a plate, as was done at the beginning of the 20th century. In that photo, he appeared with other people perfectly dressed in period costumes in a wonderfully reconstructed environment. They rebuilt a society of another era in which everyone had a role, and for a few days, they lived like this, breathing and sleeping in their characters. Seeing that photo was enlightenment. I realized that LARP was the simplest and most direct way to experience a film in the first person. From that moment on, I couldn't wait to get started too.
Now I have become a great fan of the world of LARP, and although my commitments are often not compatible, I always try to do at least a couple of them a year. I usually enjoy playing fully immersive LARP, which gives me adventures in faraway and exotic places. For one of these games, about three or four years ago, I found myself inside the Soratte Bunker, which would later become the location of my film. At the time, I was looking for an idea to be able to use the world of LARP as the environment of a cinematic story. In particular, I had always been fascinated by the idea of starting a film with characters who play characters in a story that we then discover is not the real story of the film. I believe that the immersive experiences that LARP offers are very representative of our contemporaneity in which we tend to live parallel lives, often very different from each other, divided between the real world and the virtual ones.
What inspired you to tie together LARPing with a supernatural tale?
First, the bunker itself suggested to me and Davide Orsini, the first screenwriter of the film, that the incredible environment in which we would have set the film could not be just an abstract background. A bit like Greg's character in the movie, exploring the bunker from the first time, I had the feeling that it was a place that had its own identity, that somehow was alive, that breathed, and that some horrible events hid around every corner. In that place, frozen in time, you have the feeling that from one moment to the next, you could meet the ghost of someone who lost his life there in another era.
As I said before, the first experiences I had in the bunker were related to a LARP I played called Bunker 101, organized by Chaos League. I remember that, despite the game having a completely different setting and nothing to do with the real story of the bunker, as soon as I left the play area to take a walk in the dark corridors, I had the sensation of being observed, and hearing some lively noises.
But if this was the instinctive motivation that pushed me to mix the world of LARP with a supernatural story, from the point of view of writing, we wanted that until the end of the film. There was this ambiguity about Laura's character and her visions. The bunker had to be a place where ghosts from the past emerge, and at a certain point, you don't even realize if they're real or not. This influences the other characters' decisions too.
The locations you used for filming are fantastic. Can you talk about where you filmed and what it took to transform these areas to match what you had in mind?
Although the location was pre-existing and already partially furnished, our intervention was very important to achieve what I had in mind. In particular, I wanted the bunker to be a truly labyrinthine place where it is difficult to understand where you are and in which direction to walk. Although there is a claustrophobic element, in reality, my inspiration for the film comes mainly from science fiction cinema, in particular from those films where the protagonists land on an unknown and hostile planet, or movies like Alien, where a huge spaceship becomes a cage from which it is impossible to escape. In short, the intention was to enclose the characters in a huge place where the sense of time and infinity was altered. To create this atmosphere, we worked a lot, especially from a photographic point of view, to illuminate the tunnels as if they were infinitely long. In the same way, we always tried to frame them on the long side to perceive a sense of loneliness and constant threat.
What was the most fun and the biggest challenge with filming in an actual bunker? Do you have a favorite on-set moment?
We have also done some reconstructions, including the bathroom and the wooden house, which are central to the story. I am thrilled with how these two reconstructions turned out, thanks also to the creative genius of the set designer Marcello Di Carlo. In particular, the wooden house that we see both in the contemporary narrative line and the flashbacks was a considerable challenge: during my research in the writing phase, I found photos dating back to the period of the Nazi occupation of the bunker. I was very impressed with a specific image of a wooden house used as a dining room for officers. It was a photo that conveyed a lot of anxiety. You see these important Nazi soldiers sitting at the table as if nothing had happened, with curtains at the windows, but outside the windows, you could see the bunker's darkness. I thought it was essential to reconstruct that place, and we worked on it for weeks, using the same architectural style of the house seen in the photo. At the end of the shooting, we left the wooden house in the tunnel where we had built it, and today it can be visited and is presented as a faithful reconstruction of the time. This makes me particularly proud; in art as ephemeral as cinema, we left a trace.
Can you talk about working with the cast on this film? With filming in a bunker, did any of them naturally get scared or have any paranormal encounters of their own?
For all of us, working in the bunker was very suggestive but, at the same time, very disturbing. Moving from one point of the bunker to another where the various sets or offices were not always a relaxing experience, especially if it happened to you to do it alone. For example, in the bunker, it often rained, in the sense that drops of water were created on the walls, which continually fell to the ground and whose sound echoed in the tunnels creating a terrifying atmosphere. From this point of view, the film's actors were exceptional because they were good at absorbing the restlessness that naturally that place knew how to convey without ever being overwhelmed by claustrophobia or other anxieties. They were also exceptional because the shooting conditions were not easy; it was January, and it was freezing, and often their costumes were anything but designed for Winter. In particular, the protagonist Gaia Weiss who plays Laura had to spend weeks in an evening dress, running into that hostile place with high heels and bare shoulders. Her sacrifice and that of all the other actors will remain forever in my heart.
Occasionally, someone would come to me saying they had seen someone at the end of the tunnels, but I always tried to diminish the tension with a few jokes because I can assure you that the place was already quite disturbing, and certainly, there was no lack of fear.
With The Bunker Game coming to Shudder, what project is next for you?
As with The Bunker Game, my future projects are top secret because they involve innovative themes and locations. What I can tell you is that I’m working on several projects as a director and screenwriter, and I continue developing disturbing stories in unexplored and surprising places. I am also devoting myself to developing epic stories set in spectacular landscapes with adventurous and western veins.
However, I don’t want to abandon my career as a director of photography for Indian Cinema, which has given me great satisfaction and unique life experiences in recent years.