Adam MacDonald’s 2014 film Backcountry did for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean. His tale of hikers facing down against an angry bear tapped into something primal; a very basic human terror of the jaws, claws and teeth that lurk just off the beaten track.
With his latest film, Pyewacket, MacDonald is returning to the woods, but this time with a supernatural twist. Pyewacket tells the tale of a troubled teen who retreats into twin obsessions with black metal and occult fantasy as respite from a tense relationship with her mother. Soon, a ritual in the woods awakens something ancient and angry.
We caught up with Adam to find out more.
Tom: You’ve previously stated that Pyewacket is the second in a planned trilogy of thematically-linked stories. Can you outline your vision for this trilogy?
Adam: I have this desire to create this trilogy of women surviving extreme circumstances. The first, Backcountry, was about nature, Pyewacket is supernatural and the third will be about domestic violence. The script for the third is called The Wolf at The Door and is already written, but unlike the previous two I did not write this one. Nature is a running theme in all three.
Tom: You shot the film in some very distinctive and atmospheric woodland locations. How does this setting inform the film’s tone and story?
Adam: I have a hard time imagining a witch horror movie without the backdrop of a forest. I think it may be because the fairy tales that have been passed down for generations always took place in and around the woods, reflecting the time when these tales where written and or spoken.
There is something so dramatic about the woods, they can be beautiful and alluring but also terribly frightening. The unknown is around every corner and you are literally surrounded by life and death. Plus, I spent a lot of time in the North surrounded by nature, I find so much inspiration from it. Also, Black Metal was a big inspiration to the film and anyone who knows about Black Metal knows how synonymous an eerie forest is to it.
Tom: Pyewacket is part of a rich tradition of monster-as-metaphor for familial tension and personal strife. Why do you think the supernatural is such a great tool for interrogating the real world?
Adam: Because is most cases you can set your own rules with the supernatural to help get your point across. And maybe you need an exterior force, good or evil to inject changes to the family dynamic. We all have monsters in the closet, sometimes we let them out.
Tom: Rituals and occult practices are portrayed in the film with a great deal of authenticity. Can you describe the research that went into creating this effect?
Adam: It was so important to me to have the Black Magic in the film be as authentic as possible. I read a number of books and researched it for about a year. Some scary stuff… for sure.
A lot of left hand path – Aleister Crowley. I was a little nervous getting to close to it. Because the film was shot in a very natural style (Derek Cianfrance is a big influence on me in that regard) I wanted the supernatural elements to reflect that. What would it look like if it was “real“, how would it unfold for this teenage girl and her mother? Peel it back raw.
Tom: Unlike your previous film which focussed on a more immediate, visceral threat, Pyewacket emphasises ambiguity and uncertainty. How important are these factors and was the transition at all challenging?
Adam: I feel the films are pretty similar. The bear showed up nearly an hour into Backcountry. You were never sure when it was going to happen but you had a terrible feeling an attack will happen. It’s a little more subtle in Pyewacket.
Tom: There seem to be links between Pyewacket and the tradition of Folk Horror, which is enjoying a cinematic revival at the moment. Do you think that there is a reason that creators are increasingly drawing on the natural world and folklore to inspire horror?
Adam: Going back to basics maybe? The folklore is so rich in its history, there is so much to draw from. And with folklore you always feel there might a tinge of truth to it which of course makes it even more scary. Also, maybe it reminds us of our childhood, something we always seem to be exploring. What’s also interesting is for most of us what scared you when you were just a kid can still be just as terrifying today!
Lead actress Nicole Muñoz (left), director Adam MacDonald (right)
Tom: It’s clear that music is central to the film, in terms of score but also as a source of identity for several of the characters. Can you describe the significance of music in the film?
Adam: I feel music along with sound design to be one of if not the most important ingredient to a horror film’s success. Music can really get under your skin – just think of The Shining! My God!! Evil Dead – just brilliant. I worked with Lee Malia on this film. It was his first film and I thought he did an incredible job, very talented.
I feel personally a lot of recent horror films have just too much music, wall to wall – we forget how powerful silence can be. So when the music does come in you feel it all the more.
Tom: Do you have any upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
Adam: I have a few in development. One should be cracking the surface soon.