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Friday, January 8, 2016

Local Director Jason Zada on The Forest's Pull

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge (L to R) Jason Zada directs actors Taylor Kinney and Natalie Dormer in The Forest. - JAMES DITTIGER / GRAMERCY PICTURES
  • James Dittiger / Gramercy Pictures
  • (L to R) Jason Zada directs actors Taylor Kinney and Natalie Dormer in The Forest.

In The Forest, Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones, Mockingjay) plays twins who are drawn to Japan's Aokigahara Forest, a popular suicide setting, for very different reasons. Aspiring feature film director and Bay Area local Jason Zada, known till now for digital advertising campaigns, commercials and viral videos like Take This Lollipop, felt a similar pull when he was approached to head this horror project, opening Jan. 8. 

"I was just intrigued, and the more research I did, the more I realized that it's just this incredible location that for hundreds and hundreds of years people have been drawn to," Zada told SF Weekly. "The more I learned about the location and its history and what people went there to do, the more obsessed I became with the story." The first-time director also chatted about scaring jaded audiences, horror star Lady Gaga's set visit and the Bay Area's continued hold over him.

Why did you decide to transition from advertising campaigns and music videos to film?

I've loved movies since I was a baby and wanted to make a movie my entire life. It was that point in my career, where I realized I never did a long form film, but wanted to wait for the right project. So The Forest, when I heard about the location, heard of the idea from David Goyer, I said I'd love for it to be my first film. What I love about creating a film is that hopefully, if you're sitting in a dark theater, you have someone's attention for 90 minutes. You need to be able to tell a story and get them engaged and get them to fall in love with the characters. That was so much fun along with working with really talented actors to craft a performance that is memorable and makes people think and gets under your skin.

What was so compelling to you about the Aokigahara Forest?

If you take away all the people that currently go there to potentially end their lives, there's still its history of hundreds and hundreds of years ago, when people took their elders there when they didn't have enough food and left them there to die, so it's a fairly tragic location on one end. On the other hand, it's a national park that's beautiful and families go there and walk around with their kids. It's that duality that I think is really interesting. 

Were you permitted to shoot anywhere near the Aokigahara Forest?

We weren't allowed to shoot in the actual forest, and it's pretty dangerous to shoot there. There are sinkholes all over the forest if you go off the path. So I looked at a variety of different locations around the world. In Serbia where we shot most of the film, we spent about two weeks on stage in Belgrade, and then we moved out to the forest in the Tara mountains. The reason that location worked well is because it had similar vegetation. The trees, the moss-covered rocks—it was almost identical in a lot of ways to the actual forest. The authenticity of the subject matter and look of the original forest were important, so Serbia was a fantastic place to shoot.

I've read that some Japanese people have criticized The Forest for its Caucasian leads and for sensationalizing the many suicides in the Aokigahara Forest.

I will say that there are a lot of Japanese actors in this film, and the third lead in the film is an incredibly talented Japanese actor. The film is very authentic to Japanese culture and to its subject matter. I think suicide is an issue that runs through the film, but hopefully, people will have fun during the movie and it's not a weighty drama. But I feel that we deal with suicide in a way that it's never trivialized, and I think hopefully people don't walk away feeling that we haven't done anything that doesn't treat it realistically. 

Knowing that horror filmmakers have already used every conceivable scare tactic over the past century, is scaring audiences in 2015 more challenging?

I think the challenge is making something that's fresh and original but also very scary. Where we started was coming up with a good story that's compelling and interesting characters that you really care about and getting people interested in those characters, so when bad and scary things happen, you care more. I would like to start in a psychological place, and the unraveling of Sara throughout this film is hopefully, because you get to know and like her, something that hits you a bit harder. I think there are different types of scares in the film that many people will respond well to. There are some of the jump scares that people normally are not huge fans of, but hopefully half way through, the rollercoaster ride kicks in, and it becomes a nonstop ride until the end. It's about keeping people engaged and on the edge of their seat. 

What was your experience working with Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney?

I was a huge fan of Natalie's from Game of Thrones and Mockingjay. When we first met, she just instantly understood the character and was up for the challenge. She's in 99 percent of the film and playing Sara and her twin, Jess, so it's a very ambitious role to take on, and she was fantastic to work with. 

As far as Taylor Kinney, I wasn't as familiar with his work originally, and it was an hour plus meeting that I had with him that I just walked away saying, 'He's Aiden; he's the character.' He was incredibly talented. The role that he had to play—that character is a very ambiguous character. You don't know his motives. You think he's a good guy and then think he might be a bad guy and then a good guy again. That was a challenging performance, as far as making the audience question and wonder the whole time. I think he did a fantastic job. 

Did his fiancée and now horror actress in her own right, Lady Gaga visit him on set?

She did come to Serbia for a couple days, when we were shooting out in the forest. They're so in love, so it was so much fun to watch. She really supports Taylor in everything he does. She's just a fantastic person.

You've lived in San Francisco on and off since you were 18 and currently live in Mill Valley. Now that you're directing major motion pictures, why not move to Hollywood?

San Francisco was my adopted home, so when people ask me if I'm from there, I say, 'Of course I'm from there, but wasn't born there.' I've thought about moving to LA, but every time I think about how I only have to walk a block with my daughter to school every morning. I have two children, and it's a really great place to raise children. I was pretty much in Serbia or Tokyo or Los Angeles in all of 2015, and every time I came home, every time I go across the Golden Gate Bridge, every time I drive around the city, it just feels like home. So it's really hard to leave. 

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Joshua Rotter


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