The Cursed Story Behind ‘In a Violent Nature,’ the Goriest Slasher of the Year

Sometimes movies get a reputation for being “cursed.” Some are followed around by tragedy for decades after their release. Others emanate vibes so rancid, just watching them feels wrong. Then there are the movies whose productions are so fraught with disaster, it’s a miracle they were finished at all. In A Violent Nature, which hit theaters Friday after an arduous multi-year production, is in the last category. Hearing the cast and crew of this Canadian slasher tell stories from the set, the existence of curses suddenly seems reasonable.

From the first day of shooting in northeast Ontario in September 2021, everything that could go badly, did. Equipment failures, lost locations, torrential rainfall, multiple emergency-room trips, apocalyptic swarms of black flies, mud, blood, and an animal actor who just wouldn’t perform—all of these and more plagued the small production.

“Every inch of nature tried to kill us,” producer Shannon Hanmer says, adding that the woods seemed to have it out for writer-director Chris Nash specifically. He doesn’t disagree. “Nature hates the unprepared, let’s say that,” he says, blaming their bad luck on his hubris for wanting to make a movie in the first place.

Nash isn’t the only crew member to talk about the production in Herzogian terms. Pierce Derks, who started out as a behind-the-scenes videographer before being promoted to director of photography, describes a scenario out of Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s 1982 documentary about the similarly cursed making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. “When everything that could possibly go wrong started to go wrong, it became clear to me: ‘this is now a documentary, and I have to roll on everything,’” he says. “It was horrible to watch all this stuff happen to my friends, but at the same time, it was very interesting.”

So much went wrong the first time around that Nash and his producers made the gut-wrenching decision to start over with a new cast, a skeleton crew, and significantly less money. Only one shot from the original shoot made it into the final film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

In its ultimate form, In A Violent Nature takes an elemental horror narrative—undead killer Johnny (Ry Barrett) awakens after a group of shithead teenagers does something they shouldn’t, and they all die painfully one by one—and filters it through an unusual art-film lens. (Reviewers have compared Nash’s style to such disparate auteurs as Terrence Malick, Tsai

Ming-Liang, and Gus Van Sant.) The story is told from Johnny’s perspective, and much of the film is made up of scenes where the camera follows the killer walking through the woods on the way to his next murder.

Nash, Hanmer, Derks, and Barrett (who joined the production late, and was spared much hardship as a result) recounted their experiences shooting In A Violent Nature with The Daily Beast, unearthing traumatic memories as they went.

“Whether we [were] bleeding or crying, we [were] there”

Nash pitched In A Violent Nature to Hanmer and co-producer Peter Kuplowsky after the trio worked together on the sci-fi comedy Psycho Goreman, directed by their mutual friend Steven Kostanski. (That movie was cursed, too: It was originally scheduled to premiere at SXSW 2020, the first major film festival shut down by COVID-19.)

Nash had directed some short films and music videos, but that was years ago. More recently, he’d been concentrating on his work as a special effects artist. (He ended up making and applying many of the prosthetic makeups in Violent Nature himself.) This was his most ambitious project to date, and it would be his feature debut as a director. Looking back, he describes his attitude going into the first shoot as more than a little naive.

Chris Nash: I hadn’t directed anything in years at that point. I was feeling like, “Do I even know what I’m doing?” And at that point in time, especially day one, I can now say with certainty that no, I didn’t.

There’s a thing with working out where, if you were shredded at a certain point in time, you think, “that’s just two weeks away,” no matter how long of a break you take. That’s the attitude I had going into this: “It’s like riding a bike. I’ll just jump back on, it’s fine.” But no, it turns out I needed to shoot almost an entire movie before I learned how to shoot a movie again.

Shannon Hanmer: Every single day was something that would’ve been the worst thing that happened on any other shoot. We’ll be reminiscing, like, “Remember when we had to shoot at six in the morning, and you were in the middle of nowhere, and your tire blew at 3 a.m.?”

That’s not a story we think to tell anybody, because it pales in comparison to the drama that we were dealing with that week. I don’t think that was the worst thing that happened that day. But we always [made] it to the shoot. Whether we [were] bleeding or crying, we [were] there.

Nash: Even something as simple as following Johnny walking across a field [on the first day of shooting]—the camera car got stuck in the mud. It was supposed to be so simple: just a nice open field with a cloudy sky, and our monster man walking. A peaceful, soothing shot. And now we’re climbing through shrubs and thistles to try to avoid a camera car in the middle of our serene location.

Hanmer: When we filmed Ehren’s [one of the doomed campers, played by Sam Roulston] death—it was a torrential downpour that entire scene. We were losing [the actor]. We had to shoot. So we just set up some tarps and we shot it. We were soaking wet. Nature was so relentless during this filming that we had to learn to push through.

Safety’s huge for me, so the second lightning hits, we’re out. We’re gone. We’re not shooting anything. But if there’s no lightning and we can safely do it, then we’re going to do it.

A production still from In a Violent Nature.

A production still from In a Violent Nature.

Courtesy of Pierce Derks

“Where it was once a trail was now a stream”

One of the key scenes of In A Violent Nature is an intricate gore sequence that takes place on top of a cliff. The original location Nash chose for the scene was difficult to access under normal circumstances, and the heavy rain didn’t help.

Hanmer: “Unprecedented torrential downpour” is a phrase I’ve heard too many times.

Pierce Derks: We were originally going to shoot the cliff sequence of the film [at a location] a half-hour hike up this very treacherous hiking trail. But it was completely rained out. Where it was once a trail was now a stream.

Hanmer: We hired a team of locals who were mountain climbers and knew the property really well, and they had ATVs. We’re like, “Okay, they’re going to lug our gear, and we’re going to hike up.” And then they went missing.

Nash: Everybody’s phone was on one or zero bars. So the ATVs were stuck on the other side of this mountain, and we couldn’t reach them. We just knew that they were supposed to be on top of this cliff, and they had all of our equipment.

Hanmer: A torrential downpour had wiped away the route they were going to take. So they went to go another way, but they got stuck and their walkies were out of range. So for about two hours, we’re just sitting on that hill. I was like, “I don’t even know what to do.”

Derks: We had this massive camera package and all these prosthetics, and it was so washed out that we couldn’t bring half the stuff up there. And when we did get up there, the wind was so crazy that it would’ve knocked everything over.

Hanmer: I think we got B-roll at the bottom of the cliff, because [I figured], there’s 30 people here, let’s just shoot something. It was really terrible.

“I felt like this was all a joke at some point”

The next big disaster happened after Nash ignored another piece of conventional movie-set wisdom: Never work with animals.

Nash: The trapper, who is the first person that we see die [in the film]—originally, while he was dying, his dog was supposed to be barking behind him.

Derks: The gag of that was going to be that when Johnny encounters the body again, the dog would be eating the abusive trapper.

Hanmer: I’d just been working on Umbrella Academy, and I got to know the dog trainer. She was doing me a big favor. She had this dog training for three months with the specific three things we needed this dog to do. But for some reason, once the dog got on set, I don’t know if she was overstimulated or what—

Nash: Dogs don’t like monsters. They just don’t. That’s the thing with filmmaking: You always think it’s going to be so much easier than it is. There’s footage of the entire crew sitting quietly looking at the ground for almost an hour, listening to this animal trainer yell out the dog’s name over and over again.

Derks: And to make it more ridiculous, the dog’s name was Kinky. It’s forever burned into my brain. “Kinky! Kinky! Kinky, come!” That was a good 45 minutes, while this poor dog could not make up her mind what she wanted to do.

Nash: Your brain starts to melt.

Hanmer: The dog never gave us anything. There was not a single take. Nothing worked.

Nash: I felt like this was all a joke at some point. And maybe I was the one pulling a prank on everybody.

“It was the worst day of my life, professionally”

Another big scene in Nash’s original script would have taken viewers underwater, following Johnny as he walks across the bottom of a lake in pursuit of two young women. But another series of cascading mishaps led not only to Nash not being able to get his underwater sequence, but also the actor originally cast as Johnny leaving the production early. This left the crew scrambling to find someone who could convincingly fill the suit—which, like everything else, turned out to be more difficult than they thought.

Derks: The lake is the only location that we ended up reusing in the second version of the film.

Nash: The lake scene in particular was supposed to be much more complicated than it ended up being. I wanted to have Johnny walk up, hear the girls from across the lake, and as he’s walking in the water, the camera goes under the water with him. We watch him walking along the bottom of the lake, arriving at a spot, looking up, and seeing our victim’s legs treading water. He grabs one, throws a hook through her ankle, pulling her down into this big underwater fight.

At a certain point, [my producers] asked, “how viable is this?” And I’m like, “I need everybody on my team because I have a vision and I’m an artist.” Then I thought about it and said, “Okay, what if the camera follows him, but the camera stays above the water?” That was the compromise.

Derks: Nash tried this little boat rig that immediately sank. That was the first hint that this was not going to work. At some point, we settled on something that was supposed to be for safety. But as we started to roll on this dialogue scene, here comes a fucking party boat.

It started out faintly, and then it kept getting louder, and everyone was looking at each other like, “What the hell is that?” It’s these dudes, having a blast on a Tuesday afternoon while we’re scrambling to try to get a scene after another day has fallen apart.

Nash: So then we tried to shoot it again. And the day that we rescheduled that shot and rented everything again is when our lead actor fell ill and had to leave the production.

Hanmer: We’d shot well over 50 percent of the film with our original Johnny, and then he had to go to the hospital and was forbidden to come back to set. So it’s 11 a.m., and I lost my lead actor. I had a huge safety team waiting. We had a scuba team ready to shoot underwater. We had our most expensive rental for the camera. It was the most expensive day of the whole shoot, and our actor’s missing.

Nash: I was dressed up in the monster costume. I was like, “I’m just going to do it. I’m going to go to work.” Me and my filmmaking friend Nate Wilson, or Steve Kostanski—we always end up getting in suits and getting soaked in blood and whatever. It’s par for the course.

But the guy who we had playing Johnny at the time, he’s a tall, strapping, milk-drinking boy. A very muscular man. I ain’t chopped liver by any means, but I am not that. An adequate five-ten can’t compete with six-three when it comes down to shoulder size and confidence. So I just was walking around looking like Johnny’s little brother with clothes that are just slightly too big for me being like, “I’m a monster! I’m a monster!”

Hanmer: It was the worst day of my life, professionally. But it’s funny, because it plateaued my stress. It changed me physically. It was the most stress I’d ever felt, and I don’t feel that anymore unless someone’s in danger.

Derks: By the end of that week, we had put maybe five people in Johnny’s suit, but it looked crazy on anyone else. A local filled in one day, a grip filled in another. Then we had our original Johnny’s bodybuilder fill in for the rest of the shoot, which was confusing.

Hanmer: It was like Bring Your Kid to Work Day.

Derks: There was one point when the electrics and the gaffer decided to dress themselves in tree bark as forest armor. That’s the point of delirium that the crew had gotten to. The gaffer declared that he had become a tree man, and he stayed like that for the rest of the day. That was halfway into week three.

“It was the first time I actually thought Johnny was scary”

After the disastrous lake shoot in October, the crew reviewed their footage and were forced to call it. In spring 2022, they regrouped and started over in a new, even more remote location in northern Ontario, near Nash’s hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. They also brought in a new Johnny: Ry Barrett, who joined the production for the reshoots.

Barrett: Some of the masks had cut-out sections so I could see better, and others had goggles. So when we had to do a closeup shot, you couldn’t see a lot. In those sequences, I would have to time out my movements and count my steps, or I’d use a root or something to judge when I hit my mark.

I had black paint [on my face] to black out my facial features. And in the heat, the bug repellent and the black paint mixed together. It would drip down into my eyes, and it got so bad they had to not do as much around my eyes, because they were getting so red and raw.

You can’t really do much when you’re in the suit and your hands are in the gloves and you’re covered in blood, so when they say “cut,” you have to just chill out. There’s tons to look at and beautiful scenery, so it wasn’t a bad thing. I’d be in the middle of the woods in a folding chair, hanging out.

Hanmer: Ry’s footsteps are the heartbeat of the whole movie. [Seeing him in action] was the first time I actually thought Johnny was scary. He made him intimidating, the way an animal can be slow and beautiful until it’s about to kill.

““There’s tons to look at and beautiful scenery, so it wasn’t a bad thing. I’d be in the middle of the woods in a folding chair, hanging out.””

Derks: We wanted to approach Johnny from a neutral standpoint. So much of the photography was trying to find ways of having Johnny and the forest have a symmetry to them, and have them be equals in the space.

Barrett: Me and Pierce were attached to each other. There was a dance that we had to do, making sure we were moving at the same pace. We found that pace in the beginning, and then I memorized that click track in my head. That was Johnny Pace. I didn’t realize how much that would actually come into play with the edits, where he’s walking and then there’s a cut and he’s walking at the same pace, but in a different setting.

Derks: We had a very small crew when we picked up [for the second shoot]. It was just myself and a camera assistant. So I was the one operating [the camera] on all the tracking shots and following Johnny through the woods. We weren’t quite sure just how much Nash wanted to push slow cinema, so a lot of those were two-minute long takes.

We did a safety pass to make sure there weren’t any giant holes or rocks or anything, but for the most part, we were not walking on clear trails. A lot of the time it was about trying not to fall on your ass while getting the shot at the same time.

Barrett: I didn’t injure myself, but there were definitely a couple of times where I tripped and fell. And there’s probably a take or two where you see the camera suddenly point at the sky—that would be Pierce going down.

Derks: I did fall one time. It was later on in the film, chasing Kris [the film’s final girl, played by Andrea Pavlovic] through the forest at night. With the DIY steadicam system that I built, you’re very top heavy, and it’s easy to fall over. It’s why on bigger shows, the steadicam operator is on very controlled ground. They have grips with flags surrounding them to stop even the slightest amount of wind from interfering with their stability. We didn’t have any of that.

It was just me, praying that I wouldn’t destroy the shot or my ankles getting some of these takes.

Thankfully, everything was okay, aside from a bruised knee.

“Black fly season can make you feel insane”

The second block of shooting began in May, which is black fly season in Ontario. The flies swarmed the set, driving everyone to the brink of madness. Again. Mosquitoes are also abundant in northern Ontario in the summer; unlike the flies, the mosquitoes hung around until the end of reshoots in August.

Barrett: There’s a certain time up north when the black flies and mosquitoes come out really strong. They’ll bite you everywhere and they’ll swarm you, and it’s almost unbearable. There were some days we were all hiding in a van between shots because there were literally visual clouds [of bugs] surrounding the van.

Nash: There were two primary blocks when we were doing the reshoots: one in May, and one in August. May is all black flies up in Algoma [Country, in Northern Ontario], and August is prime mosquito season. So you’re getting the best of both worlds.

Barrett: I’d be looking around at Chris, covered in mosquitoes while he was working on a special effect. It seemed like it didn’t faze him, but some people were losing their minds.

Nash: I was fine with it. I am pretty okay with the bugs up north anyways, but there was a definite shortsightedness on my part about how everybody else was going to react to them.

Hanmer: A lot of our crew was from Toronto, and not to make fun, but their idea of nature is gentle camping an hour outside of the city. The chillest guys, the nicest dudes, would have tears in their eyes.

Ry Barrett.

Derks: Traditionally, the camera department wears black, because they don’t want to interfere with the lighting. But the downside to that is the heat that comes off you. The bugs are attracted to that. And I was carrying a camera, which was emitting more heat. So I had a little cloud of bugs following me everywhere I went.

Barrett: I was the most protected because there was an underlayer [of my costume], a bodysuit with chunks of latex that looked like rotting skin. Even if the bugs got under my clothes, they couldn’t really get through that. Some days the heat was getting to me, but when the bugs were really bad, I was glad I had those layers on.

Hanmer: Black fly season can make you feel insane. I don’t know what their goal is. I think it’s just to get into your brain. They buzz in your ears, your eyes, and they bite you in sensitive spots behind your ears. The psychological effect is almost worse than the bites.

Barrett: The mosquitoes were not great, but the black flies, they take little chunks out of you and they hurt. I wore a net underneath the mask, but they’d find a way inside. It would always be at the worst times.

Hanmer: Ry’s leather helmet met his mosquito net along his forehead, and when he took it off, I thought, “why is he wearing a headband?” It looked like a blistery headband, all of these bites.

Barrett: I had a couple of times where I had the mask on, I was in the middle of a shot, and they’d literally be gnawing at my eyelids. I had to close my eyes and keep walking and hope that I didn’t fall over.

Derks: One morning, I counted all the bites, and it was 200-something bites. That was with bug spray and bug nets and all that stuff. That’s how relentless they were. The black flies did not care one bit. I remember having to hold a take and feeling them crawl over my face and my eyes. There was no hope for me at that point. I just accepted my fate.

Hanmer: I’m allergic to everything, but mosquitoes don’t bite me. It’s my one superpower. So I’m standing beside the camera waving a fan, because the bugs and mosquitos were getting into the lenses and into the gears. I got maybe three bites, but I think on average, people were getting dozens, hundreds of bites. It was brutal.

Derks: I was fine for the most part with them chewing on me, but it was frustrating when they would land on the camera in the middle of a shot. There are some shots where there’s no point denying that they’re there.

Nash: In the end, it turned out to be a nice little motif. Our sound team was amazing—I love the sound design in this film. The mosquitoes in the frame were blurry and unfocused, but you can’t deny that something was there. So they added fly sound effects [to those shots], and whenever you hear the flies, that’s when death is approaching.

Hanmer: I wouldn’t say it ruined anything, but anytime it poured rain, we were like, “At least we’re not getting bitten.”

“Someone ended up in the hospital at least once in all the blocks”

The heavy rains that had caused so many problems during the first shoot followed the crew into the second. Exacerbated by the heat and the bugs, the stress was making people sick.

Derks: Someone ended up in the hospital at least once in all the blocks. In the original block, it was our original Johnny. In the second, it was me.

Hanmer: I’ve been on so many sets where people are really afraid to say anything. They don’t want to halt production. So I try to establish early on [that I’m there to help]. Sometimes it takes a couple of gigs for them to know that I mean it.

Derks: I was moving some sandbags and felt ill. I was wearing a bug net, but I didn’t have enough time to take it off. I remember vomiting through this bug net.

Hanmer: Pierce said to me, “Shannon, I don’t feel so good.” I’m like, “Are you going to puke?” And he’s like, “Yep.”

Derks: I told her, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” I went to the hospital and was so delirious I was about to pass out. Peter, our producer, was with me. And, bless her, but the lady at the acceptance counter was more interested in the fact that we were shooting a movie than my symptoms. She was like, “oh, I didn’t know they shot movies up here. What is it? Is anyone in it?” And I’m sitting there in a wheelchair.

After I got an IV, I was fine. You get into a mindset where you buckle down and try not to think about everything that’s around you and focus on the frame. But then your body pushes back.

“The whole thing was more of an annoyance”

After getting enough footage in the spring to continue the project, the crew reconvened in August for one last block of reshoots. By this point, things were running smoothly, but the woods weren’t done with Chris Nash.

Hanmer: This was so funny to me. We were shooting pickups—this is block three. Chris left his phone on the bumper of a car, and the car took off.

Nash: It was a splinter unit, so we didn’t have the entire crew there. At some point, I lost my phone—we were out in the middle of nowhere and had no service. I have no idea why I was checking it so much. Maybe I was checking the time? Or I felt like the answers to how to get this thing done were on my phone somewhere? I don’t know.

Hanmer: We drove for two miles [looking for it], and he said, “I’m going to walk this path to see if it fell out of my pocket.”

Nash: Earlier I had taken a washroom break out in the middle of the woods by this pond. Deep down, I knew I left it on the tailgate of the camera truck, and it was somewhere down this dirt road getting run over. But I told myself, “No, don’t worry. It’s just in this grimy swamp.”

So I walked out to the swamp to try to find it. The sun was going down, so we were rushing to try to get everything done. I stepped carelessly, and this rusty nail went—it didn’t go through my foot, but it went far enough that it was gushing blood.

Hanmer: He managed to find the one rusty nail sticking up on a board and fully Home Alone stepped on it. It went through his shoe and all the way into his foot.

Nash: It didn’t really hurt. My mind was on other things. The whole thing was more of an annoyance.

Hanmer: We are hours away from civilization. There’s literally 12 people on set. One of them is a set medic, thank God. He bandaged him up, and I said, “You still need to go to the hospital.” But he was like, “I’m not leaving without my phone.”

Nash: So I hopped in the camera truck, and Shannon and the medic followed behind in the medic’s van as me and the assistant director had our eyes peeled on the ground. Then the walkie blares up, and it’s Shannon. She’s like, “we found your phone.” And I was like, “you found it? That’s great!” And then she says, “yeah, but you just ran over it.”

Hanmer: That reminds me: When Nash was preparing for that scene, he picked up a log and unearthed a hornet’s nest. He cut his hand pretty bad that day, too. Sorry, I don’t mean to be so joyous when I’m reciting this.

“Any time we get any kind of positive attention, we’re still in shock”

Reshoots officially wrapped in August 2022. But production informally continued through December of that year, when the scene where Johnny kills a park ranger with a log splitter was shot in what Hanmer describes as “my friend’s brother’s garage” during a snowstorm.

Last fall, the filmmakers got the good news that In A Violent Nature had been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered to great buzz and good reviews. That was a relief, but after so many setbacks, Nash and Hanmer are still wary of success. Was it worth it? Depends on who you ask.

Barrett: I love the outdoors, but I haven’t gotten to [go out there] much in recent years, just being in Toronto and not having the time. So it was an escape for me. I loved every minute of it—except for the mosquito/black fly portion.

Derks: Ultimately, having so many things go wrong with that first production was good, because we realized that wasn’t really the movie that we wanted to make. It just sucked because that’s so much time and budget, not to mention all the suffering.

Hanmer: The vibe came through once we cut out all the things that cost money. Taking out the dog, taking out certain stunts, taking out certain camera moves, and going back to the original pitch, which for me was, “can we make a nature documentary?”

Nash: Stepping back, being objective, and letting the thing breathe, I realized, “This is what it should have been the entire time.” At first, I was thinking, “I have to prove myself as a director, and that I can come up with interesting shots.” No more interesting shots for me.

Hanmer: This was my second feature as a producer, and I feel like I learned as much as I would learn making three or four features. I learned what I’m capable of. I learned what my boundaries are.

This is going to sound horrible, but when we heard Sundance was interested, we were like, “Well, that programmer could die.” We had so many things ripped away from us, we stopped having faith. We’re like, “The sun’s going to be out on Monday? Bullshit. We’re not falling for that again.” Any time we get any kind of positive attention, we’re still in shock.

Nash: It’s a tough call. Even with the movie getting the reception that it has, I still wonder, “If I were to do this again, would I do everything over? Or would I just settle for the footage that we had?” I still don’t know if it was the right thing to do, shooting everything again.

But it wouldn’t be the same film [if we hadn’t reshot it]. One thing we did after getting the news [about Sundance] was, a bunch of us got together and watched the assembly cut of the first block of footage. It was like we were watching Stab from a Scream movie. It was a bizarre experience. It felt like they were made by two different directors, which they kind of were.

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