Nature Bites Back in Stephen Burke’s Dreamlike Forest Horror ‘The Path’

In Stephen Burke’s The Path, we’re introduced to a city dwelling man who seeks to escape into nature. He ventures into a thick woodland and and ends up naively tampering with the balance of the forest. What then unfolds is a strange, folk tale-inspired story which sees the man try to desperately escape and find his way back to civilisation. We caught up with Burke as The Path begins its festival run to talk locations, sound design and the influence of M.R. James.

What made you want to tell a story of the relationship a man has with nature?

As a city dweller, I’m slightly in awe of, and a little freaked out by, the vast, unknowable quality of nature. All that contrasting energy and stillness. I’m also saddened by its destruction by humans. With The Path, I was trying to show how regular individuals, myself included, can cause harm to the environment, often unwittingly, through ignorance or indifference. 

There was a news story that went viral recently about a German naturist who was photographed running naked after a wild boar that had stolen his laptop in a Berlin park. It was funny at the time, but I read afterwards that the park officials intended to kill the boar and her babies because they were deemed a nuisance to sunbathers. In The Path, Dean doesn’t see himself as a polluter or destroyer of nature, but his interference disturbs the delicate balance of an alien ecosystem, with terrible consequences for him. 

The forest is a great, mysterious location. What were you looking for when you were in preproduction? And what made you land on this particular forest?

An early draft of the script was set in Abney Park Cemetery in North London. We visited Abney Park and a number of other city parks, but none of them felt quite right. They were often too well tended or surrounded by buildings and noisy roads, and didn’t feel ancient and wild enough. 

My DoP Stephen Roach suggested Epping Forest, and along with my Producer Sean Lennon, we scouted it and instantly knew it was the right location. It was very large, very old and very still. It also looked fantastic in November, when we shot, when the rich autumn colours are just turning into bleak winter ones. 

From a narrative perspective, I was seeing elements of Blair Witch. Did you draw from any specific films or literature?

Blair Witch certainly looms large over the ‘trapped in a shape-shifting wood while being pursued by a malignant entity’ sub-genre, but my main points of reference were British and Irish folk-tales, 19th Century fiction and the works of Lovecraft and M.R. James. I wanted to explore the idea of the forest as being a place situated on the border between our world and another, which is a concept that comes up quite in a lot of weird fiction.

My Co-Writer Ellie Foden, and I were heavily influenced by James’ 1904 short story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, about a Cambridge professor who is tormented by a malevolent spirit after removing an ancient whistle from the grave of a Templar knight. It’s a fantastically atmospheric tale and the basis of a 1968 BBC adaptation which is a landmark in British horror. The creature design, conceived by my Production Designer Briony O Clarke and brought to life by VFX Artist Ross Smith was a little nod to Predator, among others things. 

The sound design for the creature is really unsettling, how did you develop that?

The creature warps the space and time around it and I wanted to reflect that in the sound design. I wanted it to have elements that were organic and inorganic, almost mechanical, in nature. I had a great sound team made up of location Sound Recordist David Brill and Sound Editor Guy Hanely. We experimented a lot with manipulating animal sounds, elongating them, slowing them down, distorting them and running them backwards. 

The score by Aimee Lockwood, was more influenced by ambient and drone music such as, Aphex Twin, Tim Hecker and Windy and Carl, than traditional film scores. I wanted the score to also have organic as well as industrial elements to compliment the sound design. 

Has the current global situation affected The Path’s journey, or your filmmaking, in any way?

Honestly, the restrictions brought in due to the pandemic have been somewhat of a mixed blessing. Production stalled on my next short, which was obviously disappointing, but the lockdown gave me time to reflect on my next move and I decided to do a Masters in Filmmaking at Kingston University. The MA has been fantastic so far, and is really giving me the time and space to develop my craft. 

As for the wider film world, it’s terribly sad and worrying that so many productions have come to a halt and cinemas are shutting their doors. I do hope that cinemas are able to survive this. I also have some hope that when we come out the other side, attitudes and priorities will have changed, cinema will move away from the studio model of churning out blockbusters, sequels and remakes, and there will be more space for talented indie filmmakers to emerge and smaller, independent theatres to flourish. 

What can we expect from you next?

Lots and lots. There’s the aforementioned short, which is an Arthur Machen-esque slice of weird fiction. I’m writing another short set in the art world about how ideas can consume us. I’ve competed a first draft of a feature, a 90s set techno-horror about a mysterious television signal. I’m also looking for writers to collaborate with. At some point I would love to tackle an adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest horror stories ever written. 

The Path was programmed by the Twelve Cabins team after being sent through our submissions route on FilmFreeway. If you’d like to see your film on our pages, submit here.

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