Part of Grimmfest’s May Madness, The Nest is a chilling tale of familial relationships, and the fear of something malicious stealing a child from right under a parent’s nose.
Vampire Squid writer Thom Bee caught up with director James Suttles and writer Jennifer Trudrung to find out more about the film.
Thom: Can you describe The Nest for anyone who hasn’t seen it?
Jennifer: The Nest is the story of a family under a lot of stress because the mother is very worried about her daughter suffering from separation anxiety. The mother begins to suspect that there’s something otherworldly going on with her daughter’s anxiety, all centred around a teddy bear. She quickly spirals and descends into chaos, trying to find out what is happening to her and her family, and what it means.
James: I think it’s a family drama about the disillusion of family, and the creatures represent that disillusion.
Thom: The family drama elements are perfectly balanced with the horror elements. How did you go about finding this balance?
James: When Jennifer gave me the script, I was really attracted to the mixing of those genres, which Jennifer is particularly good at. The one thing that I wanted to make sure we did was to tell a story where, if you were to completely take out the bug horror, and all the creature stuff, there would still be a strong character study about this family and what’s happening to the mother and daughter. I think we succeeded. But, by injecting the bug horror into it, we’ve also created something that fits the genre and is a fun ride.
Jennifer: I’d written some shorts before, but this was the first feature screenplay. I kind of just threw everything into it; there were two different timelines, and flashbacks. James said that we should just put it in the present day with the family, as well as helping me develop Beth’s backstory. I didn’t have a lot there, and he really helped me firm her down, because I feel like I had a rather good grasp on her relationship with Meg, but her story needed to be brought forward. James really helped me get to where we needed to be.
James: To attach myself to any type of film, it’s always about the characters and their interactions, and if I can believe them then I’m happy. That’s why I’m proud of this movie, because I think we created a family that feels real. It feels like we’re on that journey with them as this happens to them. Then you add this otherworldly aspect to it, and suddenly you buy it. That, to me, is served by that backstory of Beth and the mother-daughter relationship. That’s the backbone of the entire thing.
Thom: You mentioned that this was your first feature screenplay, Jennifer. What was it about The Nest that made you want to have it as your first?
Jennifer: I was inspired by my daughter going through severe separation anxiety, and I’d written and produced around eight films, so it felt like it was time to try and write a feature. I took a screenplay-writing class and just knocked it out, and I have an office in James’s studio. He was asking if I had any feature screenplays because he knew I wrote horror, and I did, and James wanted to make it. I then got to revise the screenplay for six months.
Thom: What was that revision process like? How did The Nest change from its conception to its execution?
Jennifer: As I said, it was two different timelines. It was more about Beth as a young girl and Beth as a mother, and she’s thrown into these situations because of her family history. It’s something that is passed to her and then passed to her daughter. When we made it all present-day, it became about who exactly Beth was. Sarah (Navratil) did such a good job at portraying her, and it became more centred on the mother-daughter relationship, the societal pressures on mothers, and the pressures that mothers put on their daughters. James helped me put all those pieces together, so we ended up with this concrete family going through some hard times with really nasty creatures messing with them.
Thom: They were nasty – that teddy bear is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen. I think it’s his eyes.
James: For me, it’s the reflection in the eyes. John Lauterbach, our special effects artist, brought the bear in and had added the giant eyes. Immediately I saw that reflection and knew that we had to play off it. It’s the feeling that the bear is watching you. What’s inside the stomach is one thing, but the fact that it’s always there and always watching is even more terrifying.
Thom: You obviously don’t use a lot of effects in this film so that you can focus on the family drama, but when you do, they’re super effective. What creative decisions were you making to achieve this?
James: When we first started talking about making this, one of the challenges was that we were wanting to work with creatures and bugs. Working on a limited budget, and working in the indie film scene, one of my big fears was that we were biting off more than we could chew. So, we researched around and found the vinegarroon scorpion, which is what we used for the base creature. We then brought on John Lauterbach, who’s worked on the last four films that I’ve done. He’s part of that film family that works with us all the time.
I’m a big practical guy, so anything that we could do practically was much preferred. There are moments in the digital work where I don’t know if people will be able to tell if it’s practical or visual effects because we tried to blend them. That process is twofold though; it’s budget limitations and it’s then going back to the old idea that the less you see, the more the audience can imagine, and sometimes the audience’s imagination is more terrifying than what we put on screen.
Thom: Jennifer, how did it feel seeing your mind’s bug creations in the flesh?
Jennifer: It was exciting! When they were working on the creature and looking at all the different bugs, it was disgusting but really cool to see come to life.
Thom: Since this film came about because you were explicitly looking for horror scripts, what is it about this one that drew you in?
Jennifer: It goes back to the family drama. I’m a parent, I have four kids, so I think that Jennifer and I are dealing with the same issues at the same time. I think it was the right time for me to want to do something that used that family dynamic, and that dissolution of the family. Always dealing with conflicts is part of being in a relationship, and part of being a parent. It’s an over-used term in a lot of ways, but this script just spoke to me, especially for where I am personally.
On top of that, as a filmmaker, I would love to do drama, but it’s hard to make money doing drama and hard to raise money doing drama. So, I saw the potential of telling a story that was a beautiful blend of the two, whilst still having fun making nasty-looking imagery.
Thom: You’ve mentioned members of your “film family” already. Do you continually work with the same people on your projects?
James: Trade-wise, I’m a cinematographer, and I got into the business wanting to tell my own stories and produce my own content. I got tired of making other people’s stuff. So, about five years ago, I put my head down, wanting to make about one film a year, looking towards doing two a year. Here in Asheville, North Carolina, we’re a small town, but we have a lot of creatives here and we all work together. The people that worked on The Evils Inside Her also worked on The Good Things Devils Do. For the most part, I would say that 90% of the crew worked on all the other films that we’ve made in the past five or six years.
Then when I’m working on other projects out of town, a lot of the time I’ll still bring the same guys with me. As Jennifer said, I have a studio here, so a lot of us are all working in the same space, just trying to create an environment where we can have fun doing what we love.
Thom: Do you think that improves the overall product?
James: Yeah. Everyone’s invested. Take Shane Meador, who’s our production designer. Even though we have lower budgets than what he’s usually working on, and he’s getting paid less, his investment is more because he cares.
One of the things I try to do is make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, and to make sure that all their creative input is there. I think the crew then takes ownership, and if they have ownership in what they’re doing, then the quality of their work increases triple-fold. There still has to be the director, and there still has to be that common goal that the director pushes forward, but they have to make sure that everyone is valued and that everyone’s opinions and ideas are included.
Thom: Jennifer, are your short films also horror and like The Nest?
Jennifer: They’re all horror. I even had two of my short films at Grimmfest in 2019. I have one comedy, and I love horror-comedy, but I would say that most of my short films are maternal and familial horror. That seems to be my cup of tea.
Thom: What is it about the horror genre that keeps pulling you back?
Jennifer: The horror community is the most accepting community and is also boundless in terms of what you can do. I have always been a scaredy-cat. My dad used to scare my sister and I when we were little, until quite recently actually. Just things like standing in the corner quietly and jumping out unexpectedly. So that’s where the genesis started. There’s also the fact that I’ve always been a big reader. I was a big introvert and a bit of an outsider, so I just threw myself into horror books, then horror movies, and that’s just continued. It’s my safe place to be scared. I don’t drive motorcycles, I’m not a daredevil, but I am in a theatre and I am in a book. It’s so therapeutic.
Thom: Is horror something that you also often return to, James?
James: It is. It’s a genre that you can have a lot of fun making, and it opens itself up to experimentation in the way that a lot of other genres don’t. Doing gore effects is always fun. I really enjoy finding new ways to do nasty things.
It’s just an enjoyable genre to work in. Drama can get a little heavy, and sci-fi gets too labour-intensive. For some reason, I’ve done a lot of sports movies, and I’m not a sports guy so I get bored by them quickly, so I always come back to horror. There are just so many things you can do that you can’t do in any other genre.
Thom: How did you go about making sports films if you weren’t a sports guy?
James: It’s just one of those things where you’re in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. The first feature that I directed was a period film about the origins of NASCAR racing. I have never been into NASCAR racing. The period aspect of it attracted me though. The mistake that I probably made was making it more of a love story than a racing movie, which is probably why some people didn’t like it. So, maybe I wasn’t the right choice to do a NASCAR movie since I don’t even know how to drive left.
I don’t know how I did it. I did a couple of soccer movies, a couple of baseball movies… I’ve done a lot of sports movies.
Thom: Would you ever consider a sports horror?
James: That might be therapeutic for me.
Thom: As a filmmaker and a writer, what influences do you think are present in The Nest?
James: For me, it’s an overused word right now, but I think it goes back to nostalgia. I’m 40, so a big part of it for me was to throwback to the movies of the ’80s. That’s why I was excited when Dee Wallace’s name came up, because it tied into the vision of what this would be. It’s definitely a throwback to the cinema that I loved as a kid.
Thom: What was it about the films of the ’80s that you wanted to bring into your film?
James: There was a sense of realism to the films then, to the family dynamics that existed, and I don’t think that’s there anymore. The movies coming out now feel very glossy, and they feel too perfect. Even the comedies of the ’80s and ’90s, like the Steve Martin comedies, were real family dynamics. I just haven’t seen that now, and that became a big part of it. I think back to E.T, and the dynamic they have when they’re sitting around the table, eating pizza, throwing this dialogue back and forth. It felt like I was in the room with a real family. It’s just non-existent now. That’s why I’m really proud of the performances in The Nest. I think we succeeded in reaching that goal of getting back to realism.
Jennifer: As a writer, all the performances were great, but hearing Dee Wallace say my lines was a true goosebumps moment. It was thrilling, she’s such a powerhouse.
Two of my favourite films are The Babadook and Hereditary, and of course they’re very female-centric. So, my bigger influence when I was writing was the story of being a mother, the mother’s sacrifice, and a mother’s love. That was more my mindset. The bear was important as well; it is such a symbol of comfort because children get attached to objects and items all the time, and then it would turn into something so sinister. I really liked that idea and the nuances of who to trust and who to believe.
James: When we started talking about making this, we were dealing with my youngest daughter trying to sleep with us every night, we couldn’t get rid of her. There’s a scene in the movie where Beth rolls over and Meg is standing over her. That was completely influenced by late nights at my house where I’ve rolled over and there’s a shadowy figure standing over me. She’d just say “Daddy” and it was the most terrifying thing. I’m sure you can also identify, Jennifer, because I think it’s something that every parent goes through. It was the connection of something that we were dealing with that allowed me to totally identify with everything in this movie.
Jennifer: My daughter, who’s the one who was going through all this separation anxiety, got quite mad at me because some of the dialogue between Beth and Meg is verbatim what’s been said between her and me. Most of my films do this and will be responsible for years of therapy for my children.
Thom: Were you on set quite a lot?
Jennifer: I was. We’re all here in Asheville and it was a collaboration as well as a learning experience. I’ve been on sets as an actor and as a writer with short films, but to be on a feature film set as the writer, see the performances, and watch the video village, was cool.
Thom: What is the one thing that you would want audiences to take away with them after watching the film?
James: From that parental standpoint, I keep remembering that my kids are getting older and that soon they’ll be too old to snuggle through that childhood innocence period, and that’s what this is about. It’s about remembering to pay attention to your kids and take care of them.
Jennifer: My favourite types of horror movies, besides the crazy, fun ones, are the ones that you chew on when you leave, and you want to talk to other people about them. I would love people to leave this and want to talk about it and spark a conversation about what it meant to them as a viewer. That’s my goal.
We’d like to give a huge thank you to James Suttles and Jennifer Trudrung for catching up with us!
The Nest will be available in the UK and USA from July 20th on video-on-demand, DVD and Blu-ray.