Dark Sky Films is set to release Dennis Bartok’s directorial debut, Nails, today on VOD, which features The Descent’s Shauna Macdonald doing battle with an evil entity that is stalking her in the hospital after she’s been laid up following a horrific accident that leaves her trapped in her own bed, unable to communicate with the outside world. Daily Dead recently spoke to Bartok about the project, and he discussed how his own experiences inspired the story of Nails, what it was like to collaborate with Macdonald, and more.
Great to speak with you, Dennis. Nails almost feels like a fairy tale meets an X-Files episode, particularly this character of Donnie Pfaster, who was this guy who collected fingernails. I just thought it was kind of interesting the way that you rounded out the mythology of the character of Nails with that, and then it all played so well with the other components of this story, too.
Dennis Bartok: That's really fascinating. I had not seen those episodes of The X-Files. I'd watched a few, but I think one or two other people mentioned that it reminded them of a character from The X-Files, and it's an amazing show, so I'm glad that we're being compared to that.
Shauna, when she came on board, it was really interesting. She said, "I have a couple notes about the script." They were minor, but they weren't actually about her character. It was about the backstory for Nails, and she wanted to see it fleshed out a little bit more and it was really interesting to me that she was concerned about that character and making sure that we really understood the trauma that had led Eric Nilsson to commit these horrific acts, and to me that was the most interesting thing about talking with her initially, which usually a performer will say, "Hey, I want more lines for my character," but that wasn't Shauna at all. She was like, "I think you should look at humanizing Nails a little bit more," and at the end of the day, it really helped make him both more tragic and a more horrific character, too.
You mentioned fleshing out that backstory, so what was the process for you and Tom [Abrams], then, when you were working on this script and coming up with this idea? You have some hospital horror stuff in here, and how isolating that can be, and then you infused it with this interesting supernatural story, and there’s also some body horror in here as well. Was it a challenge to get them to all come together in Nails?
Dennis Bartok: I come from a medical family. My father was a doctor, he was a radiologist, and then my mother very early on was a nurse, and then later became a conceptual artist and an avant-garde filmmaker, so I've always had fear of hospitals growing up, so they were very powerful and sinister places in my imagination.
Some of my earliest memories are connected to hospitals because I would go there to visit my father. I was also a very clumsy kid, so I was always being rushed to the hospital, too, whether I've broken my wrist, split my head open, etc. So that definitely played into it. I don't think it's any coincidence that the first film that I directed was about medicine and hospitals. But the actual kernel that led to the script for Nails was a story that Tom and I found about a British man who had been the victim of a hit and run accident. He had been left paralyzed, and hooked to a ventilator and he became very concerned that someone was going to accidentally turn off his ventilator, one of his nurses, actually. He had a video camera installed in his hospital room, and what he was most anxious about actually happened, and it was captured on video.
And this notion that being trapped inside your own body I thought was really fascinating as far as a concept for a horror film goes, because most horror films are based on flight. You are usually running away from some supernatural being that's pursuing you, where something is coming towards you and you are trying to get away. And I thought, "What if you have a new twist on that where the lead character can't even get up to go to the bathroom?"
So, the movies that I thought of a lot weren't necessarily horror films, although they're concerned about the body in more of a way, but it's like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; the Spanish film, A Sea Inside; Hitchcock's Rear Window, in which the protagonists of all of those films are physically trapped and in our film, Nails, being this body is something separate from her mind. Her mind is almost trapped inside this prison that her body has become, and because she used to be an athlete and a track coach, it's even worse because she was so dependent upon her physical form for her livelihood, and if you're an extreme athlete, that becomes such an extension of your sense of self. To have that taken away, I think is even more excruciating.
So that true to life story was the initial kernel of inspiration, and we decided to switch the gender and a dear friend of mine, who sadly was killed by her deranged husband, was a track coach. She was alive at the time I wrote the initial draft of the script with Tom, and then she was tragically murdered after that, but I had based the fact that Dana was a track coach on my friend Gretchen, and I actually told her at the time, so in some ways it's a tribute to her as well.
What’s so interesting about Shauna's performance in this is that so little of it is actually her vocalizing anything. It's a very limited vocal performance, and yet she does so much with this character just from her facial expressions and limited body movements. Can you discuss working with her and her approach to this character in Nails?
Dennis Bartok: I think that's the reason why Shauna accepted the role, because she told me she's been approached to do all sorts of horror films since she did The Descent films, and she's turned down almost all of them. And I think the reason she said "yes" to us is because this was not your typical horror film role for her. It was an extremely challenging role, both physically and emotionally. She's in bed for three quarters of the film. When we were shooting, she decided not to get out of bed between takes or setups because it was too disruptive for her. So she would spend long hours in bed, on top of the one to two hours every day that she had to spend in makeup to recreate the horrible facial injuries and the injuries on her legs that her character had undergone.
She does give a measure of a vocal performance through the computer, where it's actually her voice coming out of the computer. I thought it would be really fascinating to have it be kind of her alter ego in the film, so we had it altered and processed and at the end of the day we used Shauna's own voice coming out of the computer, although the audience shouldn't really be aware of that, at least not consciously. But because of the demands of shooting on such a tight schedule and such a tight budget, we didn't even have time to coordinate a playback of that on set, so she had to keep all of those lines in her head as she was performing. So both Shauna and the other actors had to know what she was saying on the computer without actually hearing it, and that was just one part of it.
Before she came to Dublin for the shooting, when she was still in Scotland where she lives, she had talked to several experts who deal with severe injuries and teaching people to talk again, especially if you've had a tracheostomy tube put in your throat, and so for her, she had to track how much Dana, her character, would be able to vocalize going from a guttural, almost drunken attempt to speak in the first few days, to getting more confident in speaking towards the end of this script. And of course, because we're shooting everything out of sequence, like most movies, you could have one day where you're shooting scenes in the middle of the movie and she's able to somewhat speak, and then the next scene could be very early and for her it wasn't so much the physical injury as it was the brain injury that she suffered.
So these were all the things she had to keep in mind for every scene that we were doing, and when I see the movie now, and I see how cohesive her performance is, I'm really stunned how she was able to, in the midst of all the chaos of shooting a very intense low-budget horror film, create that mental space. To me, that is one of the most astonishing things about her performance, but I knew when I was going in that I needed to do two things with this film. One, I wanted to make it scary and two, I needed someone who would give a really tremendous performance in the lead role, that the audience can really identify with, because we experience the movie completely through Dana's perspective. The initial title of the film was actually POV, and it was meant to be Dana's POV. We don't shoot it first person, but we experience it through her character Dana the whole time. We're kind of trapped in that bed with her, in that little circle of light, and in the shadows just beyond are the terrible things that are coming at her and at us.
So I'm so glad I had Shauna on board. She was really my most valuable player out of the entire cast and crew, who were all terrific, but Shauna really stood out. She also challenged all of the other actors on set to come up to her level, and a couple of them came to me and they said, "She's so good, she scares us a bit and we're really having to up our game, so that we don't get blown away by her," and I know exactly what they meant. Everyone on set would look at some of those scenes with Shauna, and jaws would hit the floor with how good she was.
Yeah, she's really fantastic, and I was also really excited to see Ross [Noble] in this because he's in this movie that I really enjoyed from a few years ago that so many people don't really talk about, called Stitches. It was great to see him taking on such an unusual role for him in this as well.
Dennis Bartok: Well, Stitches was produced by the same team in Ireland, Fantastic Films. Brendan McCarthy and John McDonald produced Nails, so they had a relationship with Ross. He's a huge star in the UK and Ireland, so he's extremely well-known. He'll sell out 10,000-seat arenas for his comedy routine, and a lot of what he does is improvisational. He won't have a scripted routine. He'll come in, he'll start talking to people in the audience, and he will riff on that for two hours.
He loves horror, so he's a huge fan himself, but he's like, "I want to give a dramatic performance. I hope you're not coming to me because you want me to be funny, because if that's the case, I'm not really interested," and so he was really relieved that we were interested in him giving a constrained performance in this one. And its amazing how many people have watched the film and are like, "That guy is great, who is he?" And I tell them he's a comedian, which always surprises them. So he really enjoyed being with us, but because his schedule was so tight, I think he was only on set for maybe four or five days, so we grouped all the scenes that he shot together. But I was glad we had him be a part of this.