”The script ultimately read as a study in madness. The forest can and will infect you with its darkness.”
The Forest is a supernatural thriller that takes its inspiration from the real-life Aokigahara Forest. Known as jukai, or the “Sea of Trees,” it is situated at the northwest base of Japan’s Mount Fuji. The Aokigahara’s peaceful beauty belies its history of violence and its reputation for paranormal activity.
For centuries, the Aokigahara’s associations with death and torment have kept it as a cultural marker for Japan’s strong belief in the paranormal world. Legend speaks of the phantom ubasute who inhabit its depths – sorrowful spectral figures of old women, abandoned to die by their families when they could no longer be cared for.
Over the past several decades, the Aokigahara has become known as a place where people go with the intention of taking their own lives; its tragic reputation has only grown, with reports of the spirits of those suicides, the yurei, swelling its ghostly ranks – luring the sad, the weak, and the unwary to their deaths under the Aokigahara’s serene green canopy in an area known as “the suicide forest.”
Rising with terrifying grandeur at the base of Mr. Fuji in Japan, the legendary real-life Aokigahara Forest is the suspense-filled setting of the supernatural thriller The Forest. An American woman, Sara (played by Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games), journeys to the forest in search of her twin sister Jess (also played by Ms. Dormer), who has mysteriously disappeared. Frustrated at Jess’ pattern of behavior, Sara’s husband Rob (Eoin Macken of The Night Shift) is unable to talk his wife out of making the 6,000-mile trip. After a visit to the school where Jess teaches, the resourceful Sara sets out for the forest itself. Accompanied by a charismatic new acquaintance, expatriate journalist Aiden (Taylor Kinney of Chicago Fire), she enters the forest having been well warned to “stay on the path.” Forest guide Michi (Japanese star Yukiyoshi Ozawa) keeps a protective eye on them both, but when night falls he cannot dissuade them from staying in the forest, and reluctantly leaves the duo to face the elements alone. Fear soon fragments Sara’s consciousness; she begins to question Aiden’s motives, including his claim that he has never seen Jess. Determined to discover the truth about her sister’s fate, Sara will have to face the angry and tormented souls of the dead that prey on anyone who dares come near them. These malevolent spirits lying in wait for Sara at every turn will plunge her into a frightening darkness from which she must fight to save herself.
Producer David S. Goyer came to hear of the Aokighara as “a very creepy place with some weird phenomena. Cell phones and compasses don’t work there because of iron deposits in the mountain; there is very little wildlife; and it is so dense and dark that someone can all too easily get lost – and we are all familiar with that fear of getting lost in the woods.
“Japanese culture has long had an element of ghosts. The yurei are the ‘hungry ghosts’ that don’t want visitors to leave. If someone comes into the forest and then commits suicide, then their soul is stuck there. One bit of mythology that we have added is, the only way a soul can get out is if it lures someone else in to take its place.”
“Yet the Aokighara is also pristinely beautiful and pastoral. Sadly, more people have committed suicide there than almost any other place on the planet; that rate has steadily gone up. There is a morgue at the forest and a kind of watch unit that periodically goes in to try and find bodies. There are signs saying, ‘Turn back’ or ‘Stay on the path’ or ‘Think of your loved ones.’
Goyer sensed that the Aokighara could be the perfect setting for what he conceived as “an elevated supernatural thriller with characters you care about, steeped in a creeping dread.” He hatched a plot idea and contacted Lava Bear Films.
Producer Tory Metzger of Lava Bear remembers, “I knew nothing about the Aokighara and so when David Goyer brought us this very cinematic idea set in a real place with a long history, my interest was piqued. When I began to read about it and came to understand its place for centuries of Japanese tradition, and also the hauntings and the darkness associated with the location, I realized that setting a story there would work – and that the Aokighara would be a character itself.
“David had zeroed in on what the story should be. Together, we identified writers who would be partial to this genre.”
Ben Ketai wrote the first screenplay draft, providing the underlying framework from which the script would evolve. When Ketai had to move on to other commitments, the producers engaged a first-time screenwriter, novelist Sarah Cornwell, to work on the script.
Metzger notes, “Crucially, Sarah developed the back story of the two sisters which so dramatically comes to impact on the present.” Cornwell also enhanced the character-driven conflict – and further developed the dark personality of the forest itself.
Metzger adds, “[Screenwriter] Nick Antosca then came in and did something enormously important: he expanded upon an idea that Sarah had introduced, that the forest actually shows you your sadness. He made sure that the story’s ending would respect the rules of the forest as well as those of the sisters’ lives. The Forest evolved as a psychological tale – and something quite different from the majority of scary screenplays today.
“The script ultimately read as a study in madness. The forest can and will infect you with its darkness. Character influences story – as opposed to the other way around. The Forest is driven by character evolution – or devolution, if you will.”
Goyer remarks, “We didn’t want this to be a film that relied on cheap scares; we wanted it to be a slow burn. For something to be truly scary, you have to invest time in, and care about, the characters.”
Producer David Linde offers, “The forest in our movie is an entity of malevolent, manipulative supernatural energy which has collected souls for centuries. It is a haven, but also a prison, for restless spirits.
“So The Forest has this momentum as a terrifying ride taking us through Sara’s psyche in a location filled with sadness and fear. The audience will be right in there with Sara, wondering if they – and she – can face what is taking shape.”
Development of the project, from initial concept to filming, took roughly three years; one year into the process, Jason Zada came on board to direct. Zada had captured the public’s imagination with his interactive viral piece Take This Lollipop; the distinctively unnerving web sensation had been experienced by tens of millions of people. Wanting to make his first feature, he had read hundreds of screenplays. Only when Lava Bear approached him with The Forest did he find what he was seeking.
Zada reflects, “Having created content that was shorter in form, I wanted to be part of telling a story where you follow a character at feature length – and at a crucial point in life.”
Metzger recalls, “We had all watched Take This Lollipop – and we were impressed. We had also seen commercials that Jason had directed, so we knew how well he shaped ideas to present visually. In meeting with him, he expressed to us his strong desire to make a psychological thriller. David Linde and I then introduced David Goyer to Jason, and they felt they were on the same page creatively.”
Goyer reflects, “Jason is deliberate and soulful and thoughtful; when he talked about the script, he examined its emotional aspects.”
Zada elaborates, “Fear is so primal for us all. I’ve watched frightening films since I was a kid. But I particularly love the ones made just before and during the 1970s: Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist, The Shining – these are genre classics, and also of filmmaking as a whole. So I set out to make an intelligent, visually powerful, and atmospheric psychological thriller that would take audiences on a deeply unsettling journey.”
Those audiences would experience The Forest through the perspective of a lead character, Sara, who is driving the story through the sensations she experiences. The part called for an actress able to portray a range of emotional highs and lows – as both Sara and Sara’s identical twin Jess. “Natalie Dormer was the first name on our list,” states Goyer.
A phone call between Zada and Dormer was arranged because the director “had seen her work and was impressed by her skill and versatility as an actor. When we spoke, she readily acknowledged that the portrayal would have to start at a high emotional plane and then just keep building.”
The Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games star was drawn to the script’s depths – and its emotive and physical demands. She opines, “The Forest is psychological, not slash-and-grab. The story is about someone unraveling, and it has a level of sophistication most thrillers don’t.
“I found it so tight, insofar as the story arc is a perfect heroine’s journey. Drama is created straight away: Sara drops herself into the middle of an alien world in a foreign country and has to go on foot. She’s in a physical scenario that she’s not used to, and far removed from anybody that would ordinarily be in her support network or that she would trust.”
Zada adds, “Sara is a complex character; on the surface she is a happily married, confident woman fully in charge of her life. She has always been supportive of her mentally troubled twin Jess, and they share a bond that extends into psychic territory. Sara appears to be the stronger, more stable and practical one – but her unresolved issues render Sara vulnerable in a frightening setting.”
“It’s also lovely to be playing the lead in a movie — #1 and #2 on the call sheet – and to act with three guys in support, each with a different rhythm about them.”
“We respond to ghost stories because of a shared fear of death, and because of the powerful idea that the spirit might live on,’’ says Goyer. ‘’We all hope that there is some kind of afterlife, so even scary ghosts are sort of comforting; they imply that an afterlife actually exists.
“More recent research into ghostly phenomena suggests that there are subsonic sounds, below the auditory spectrum. These have been deployed in tests to create fear, and can even cause human subjects to hallucinate. So that factored into our sound design for the final edit.”
Metzger comments, “Someone once told me, ‘Scary movies play a lot like a joke: there’s the set-up, the gag, and then the payoff.’ Often, the gag that an audience anticipates doesn’t happen and is replaced by something unexpected and maybe not scary. We have instances of this in The Forest even before Sara enters the forest, because she’s having these strange out-of-body experiences.
“In the real forest, you have tourists coming in daily to see the beauty of this significant place in Japanese history and culture. But you also have a number of people who are going in with the intention of taking their own lives. Because of this unavoidable dichotomy, there were always going to be darkly funny moments in our movie.”