The film was shot in limited locations with a very small cast, which is an obvious way to save money on a film budget. But what else did Rasmussen do to give this film a polished, high-budget feel?
We spoke with Rasmussen via Zoom just after the film's debut on Shudder and asked her about this and other secrets of the film's production. Fall into this dreamy advice below.
Nightmare Starring Herman Tømmeraas | Official Trailer | SHUDDERwww.youtube.com
Editor's note: This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: To start with, I'd just love to know what inspired the story.
Kjersti Helen Rasmussen: Well, yeah, it kind of started with the word actually, nightmare. In Nordic countries, it is the same word, but in English, it's a nightmare. In Nordic mythology, it's called "the mare," which is the nightmare demon in our region.
I thought it was interesting that in "nightmare," that word still exists. So I think it must be an old demon that influenced ... even in English and in French, it's cauchemar, which is also the word there.
Then, I started researching nightmare demons around the world and I discovered that there is one in every culture in every part of the world with a different name, of course. It describes the same experience that we today call sleep paralysis, that when there's a dark silhouette standing in the door and you're paralyzed in bed, so you're somewhere between being, I mean your mind is awake, but your body is still sleeping, and this is a universal phenomenon and they describe the same experience.
I thought that was very interesting. I love old mythology and I love new science, experimental science, so I read a lot about that and I really like it when those two worlds meet. Then things happen, like old secrets from mythology and new discoveries in science. I like it. I do a lot of research on things. Film, especially horror, can be a place where you can explore and go a bit further than in just regular drama. You can go political or you can say something about the darkness and how that has affected us in different times and different understandings. It started with me discovering this sleep paralysis as a global phenomenon, and that fascinated me.
NFS: This being your first feature, one of your goals was to keep the budget pretty low, so I'm interested in how you did that.
Rasmussen: Yeah. It's a low-budget. It's about $2.3 million U.S., I think, something there. Well, when I wrote it, [it] all takes place in the apartment. Location-wise, it's a good idea to scale down and try to make something exciting in one location. Then, I had maybe eight characters total in the film. So focusing on a few, but good characters and costing is a very mysterious process, but also very important. I mean, I have Eili Harboe in my leading role and she's, I think, one of the best we have in Norway, maybe the best. So I was lucky.
There's a bit of luck there too, to get her to say yes to the project, but it's important to find qualities that you use and utilize the most. So don't do helicopter shots, find a good photographer, maybe a young one, which I did, and he's brilliant.
Yeah, be smart about it. I know as a director and a screenwriter, you're the creative force, but we can also be practical and limitations can sometimes be a good thing, actually. It makes me more creative. We built the entire apartment in a studio and I found the sleep clinic in the same location. It's an old television studio actually. So we kept everything in one location and that saves a lot of money.
NFS: I think it was after they went to the speaking engagement. I thought that exterior shot was really pretty. And it was at that moment where I was like, this is really beautiful, and ... it feels more expansive than probably what you were working with.
Rasmussen: Yeah, I had some really good people with me. You find talent in a crew that can help you solve those issues. We had maybe all in total, maybe five days on locations, different places outside of the studio. That was it.
NFS: You did mention casting being ... a mysterious process. I would love to know more about casting.
Rasmussen: It's really hard, but it is mysterious because it's like dating in a sense. Your casting agent books you up with different actors, and then you meet them and then you go and think. But what I did, was I found Herman Tømmeraas, the male lead, I had him quite early and then I used him and I was very sure about him.
Then, I used him with the other actresses, and when Eili came along it was ... But it is a process that takes time, and, sometimes, especially on a low budget, you might not have that much time, but it is very important to spend some time with the actors in the casting. If you have one that you really sure about, then you can use that actor to test the others and see if there's chemistry or see what happens and see how different it is.
But it's a process and yeah, it takes time, and time is money, and it's difficult.
NFS: I also wanted to ask about sound design because sound plays such an integral part in this story. So what was your approach there?
Rasmussen: Well, I had him on board from the start too, my sound designer [Yngve Leidulv Sætre], and he is a genius and I knew that about him. He hasn't actually done that much film, but he's a very respected music producer in Bergen and Norway. So I knew about his qualities and we had some discussions early on about the sound, like the idea of the fly sound that we used. We had a conversation about insects that we wanted to explore and I think he's extremely experienced, but he's also very playful and curious about the film world.
So yeah, again, finding and choosing people that align with you in your vision. And we did a lot of work and it was great fun.
I love sound. I think in horror especially, if you have a horror film that is okay or good, but the sound is bad, then the film is, yeah, it's lost. I think it's so important for genre films.
NFS: What feelings were you trying to evoke with those sounds?
Rasmussen: Well, I have a film where you are in and out of dreams, so I didn't want people to be sure if you were in [a] dream or not. So those transitions were difficult. Then we had a lot of discussions about finding the sound of the demon, but not using it too much so you would know immediately that, oh, it's the demon.
So it was exploring different sounds to help the storytelling, but not give away too much either. Finding that balance was our challenge all the time.
We also mixed it in Dolby Atmos, which was another great experience. I made it for the cinema, really. But I think those qualities can work even in streaming as well. I think it makes it a better experience there too. It works in both places, I think.
NFS: You've given a lot of really great advice, but I would love to know for a first-time horror director, what advice would you give them?
Rasmussen: Well, I started writing on this one for maybe 10 years ago, so the obvious advice is don't give up because we got a lot of no before we got yes. In Norway, there's a system where you apply for grant money and production grants and things like that, so that can take a lot of time. You have to apply several times.
But it's also about finding people to work with that can inspire you as well. Being a writer/director, you can quite often isolate yourself in the process because you're the creative mind of it. But I really enjoyed collaborating with other directors when I was a screenwriter, and you still need those collaborators.
The producer is very important, to find producers that understand and are willing to let you make your film because there are a lot of great producers out there that know what they want to do, and agreeing that you're making the same film is important.
I haven't experienced it myself, but I've seen others being involved in processes where they were very lucky and very excited, and then the process started and it turned out that the producers, didn't really want the same film, and then you have problems that is hard to solve. So finding good people really. I don't know where you find them, I mean, you network, you go on workshops, you put yourself out there, you go pitching, all that stuff, all that hard stuff.
NFS: Yeah, maybe perhaps not as fun for a lot of creative people.
Rasmussen: Yeah, I know. I used to struggle more bit with it before, but I'm probably an introvert and all that, but it's important to just keep doing it because it gets easier. And the more you speak with your own voice, the easier it is. Trying to be authentic. Don't hide what you like, don't hide what you really want to do, just go for it.
NFS: What did you shoot the film on?
Rasmussen: Mini ARRI.
NFS: Any special lenses that you used?
Rasmussen: It's called Vintage 1974 lenses. We got them all the way from Czechia, I think because it was cheaper.
But they're anamorphic lenses, so they're quite special, and I trusted my cinematographer. He has great instincts and he was right. It gave the look that we wanted.