The new psychological thriller “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” directed by Neil Burger (“Limitless”), hits theaters on November 3rd.
Moviefone recently had the pleasure of speaking with director Neil Burger about his work on The Marsh King’s Daughter, his initial reaction to the script, the themes he wanted to explore, and working with the unlikely ones, Daisy Ridley and Ben Mendelsohn their characters’ father-daughter relationships, creating tension and the challenges of filming in the wilderness.
Moviefone: What was your initial reaction to the script and what topics were interesting to you?
Neil Burger: Well, two things. Firstly, I was interested in making a film set in nature, where the wilderness and the natural world becomes a real character, and trying to represent that nature in a different way. Thematically, I’ve made all sorts of films that are set in the past, the future, or in space, but there’s something that connects them, which is stories about transformation. Can you change? Can you become the person you were meant to be? I’m interested in families and parenting and how your past shapes or shapes you in some way. Can you shake that off? Can you free yourself? In this case, for Helena’s character, can you free yourself from the trauma of your past and become the person you were meant to be? That’s what you want to be?
MF: Can you talk about Helena’s trauma, how she deals with it, and Daisy Ridley’s emotional performance?
A notice: I mean, look, Daisy is great. Daisy has a secret for her. You want to cast who the person is in a way that has the appropriate characteristics. Daisy actually has something mysterious about her, she has a reserve and subtlety about her that is in a way perfect for a character who has a secret that is hiding something that is her character. But even with Daisy, you can see in her eyes what’s going on emotionally, her vulnerability and her emotional history. So it was great to work with her on that. But we also worked on it, adjusted and changed some things. But she assumed she was in the right place and was the right person for the role.
MF: How would you describe Helena and Jacob’s father-daughter relationship?
A notice: I think the relationship starts with her completely giving herself to him. She loves him. She adores him. She is one with the universe. Through him she is in harmony with nature. They are this team and he is a tough taskmaster, but he is fair. So we, the audience, care about him just as much as they do. Then of course she learns more about him as she gets older, and then the question becomes: What if the person you loved most in the world turned out to be a monster? What do you do with it? So that’s traumatic. What she did with it was she put it in a box, buried it and never talked about it again or told anyone about it. So that’s an interesting character to work with because of course he’s going to show up at some point.
MF: How did you experience working with Ben Mendelssohn?
A notice: In the beginning, he again plays a character that we fall in love with or that he makes us fall in love with and want to like. Even if he comes back, it’s important for him to present a very reasonable facade, a reasonable argument as to why she should come with him, why she should be with him. It’s a very different kind of thriller, a different kind of character and in some ways a different kind of villain. He’s a very compelling character, Jacob, and Ben is a very compelling actor, so we didn’t want to go completely crazy, because it would have been like, “Well, he’s crazy.” “I don’t want anything to do with him.” He’s someone who seems perfectly reasonable. All the arguments that are brought against him make no sense has this caged tiger inside of him.
MF: Was it difficult to make the film exciting?
A notice: Well, I think it’s a challenge to build it. With a thriller you try to put all the pieces together in a way that builds tension, energy and intensity. Not just for reasons of intensity, but because it’s related to the emotional journey of the characters, for example, they are under more and more pressure. It starts with the script and then you shoot a film three times, which is the cliché, but it’s true. It starts with the script and then you do it again with the film, setting it all up and figuring it out. How we spin it. Will this close-up be more tense than something wider, or are we just left behind? That in itself is strange. Then there’s this different pace in editing, and you take something out and you’re like, “Oh, we don’t actually need that.” When you put the other scenes together properly around it, it creates a burst of energy that we weren’t expecting. So it’s important to design everything in such a way that this effect is created.
MF: Finally, what were the biggest challenges when photographing in the wilderness?
A notice: Well, I was looking for an untouched wilderness, something that hasn’t actually been touched by man. I felt like you could tell. We looked at a lot of different places and it felt like, “This was recorded,” or you feel the acid rain or something like that. I wanted to get a little further out and get to the original, mysterious character of the wilderness, in who they had lived. So we found it, and it was far away. So we had to do things like be in different places. One site was on a First Nations reserve. The First Nations group allowed us to film on their land, which was incredibly generous on their part. But to get there we had to go by boat for an hour and then continue hiking, bringing all the equipment with us. Some of the equipment had to be flown in by helicopter, but the helicopters were unable to land. There was no landing site. They had to throw it into a cargo net. So it was tiring and intense, but I think it kind of affected the performances as well. There was something about that intensity and that grueling quality of the actual film experience that made the whole thing worthwhile and really pays off in the film.
“Fear the past or face it.”
Show times and tickets
Helena, a woman who leads a seemingly ordinary life, hides a dark secret: her father is the infamous “Marsh King”, the man who held her and her mother captive… Read the plot
What is the plot of The Marsh King’s Daughter?
Helena (Daisy Ridley) must confront a buried past when her estranged father (Ben Mendelsohn) breaks out of prison. Two years before she was born, the Swamp King kidnapped her mother (Caren Pistorius) and she spent her childhood in captivity. Now convinced that he will try to take her daughter (Joey Carson), Helena sets out to outmaneuver the man who taught her everything she knows about wilderness survival.