Nails is a 2017 Irish horror film directed by Dennis Bartok, making his feature debut, from a screenplay co-written with Tom Abrams.
I spoke to actress Shauna Macdonald who plays Dana Milgrom, a woman who, after a horrific incident, finds herself trapped in her own body. She is looked after caregiver Trevor (Ross Noble) whilst being reeducated in a hospital plagued by a rather spooky history.
I have read your biography and it looks like you have featured in quite a few horror movies!
Yes, indeed: The Descent 1 and 2, The Hike… and I’ve just done another elevated genre movie, not so much horror…Yeah, I’ve done my time in the genre, that’s for sure!
They are hard work, and the ones that I usually get asked to do are some sort of psychological thrillers where my character is going through a kind of perceived insanity.
That being said, I also did a horror comedy and I absolutely loved it. It was a comedy short with Ross Noble which was done for Sky television, after we worked together on Nails. He wrote a part for me and that was really fun actually.
Sometimes when you showcase yourself as a certain character, other productions want you to dip into the quality that you’ve shown in the previous production. I’ve turned down a lot of opportunities to be in horror, so I’m actually choosing the scripts that I really like. But it turns out that I seem to be attracted to the ones that are quite mentally and physically demanding. That’s what I mean when I say I’ve done my time and every time I finish a horror movie, I think “oh my God, I’m exhausted, that’s the last one I’ll ever do!”
But then, I’m back on it again!
Let’s talk about the make up which was very convincing at depicting very graphic wounds.
Yes, Stephanie Smith was the make-up designer and she wasn’t shy of it looking real. It was meant to turn your stomach and be horrific. She went to Paul Hyatt who did all the creature effects on The Descent, and he now is a director. Werewolves was directed by him. He used to have this school in London and he teaches special effects and it’s really top class. So she was trained under him and was just brilliant.
That’s the great thing about horror films; there’s almost a sense of people being kids again, and they get to play with blood and gross people out, but they are really good at it. With the right lighting, the director of photography really knows how to create a creepy effect and to scare people.
It’s like this set of tricks that we all bring and have perfected and really enjoy doing, but the stakes are usually quite high and then there are things that always go wrong, like stunts or lots of blood and you have to redress. There’s always a tension on set, but that is why it feels exciting, being involved in horror movies.
So yes, the make up was good and it was very nice not to have to look good! Turn up, just go to bed, go to work, look even worse and then go back. Taking it off at the end of the day was a problem, as well as lying in bed, and actually this is harder than it sounds and the novelty wears off fairly quickly.
What is the longest time you spent in bed?
Well, we always break for lunch, but all day, you’re shooting from 8 a.m till 7p.m, get up at lunch time and go for a pee. So I did end up staying in bed for quite a long time and you get a bit sore and numb. You can’t go anywhere. Sets are really busy places, and everyone has got jobs to do. It can be really distracting and noisy. Everybody is buzzing around and you’ve got to do something quite emotional. So you have to purposefully shut off, then you end up becoming that patient in the bed that everybody ignores, which is useful in terms of getting into character. Sometimes I just wanted to get away, but I was hooked up to lots of things, to the tracheotomy machine and the needles in my arms meant that I needed somebody to get me out of the props. I thought it would be easier if I just closed my eyes and try and pretend that no one was there.
It looked like it was shot in a real hospital. Was that the case?
Yes, it’s mostly disused. It’s Bagott street hospital in Dublin, they do outpatients there. It’s waiting to be sold and is really grim. They did not need to do much to make it look that way. It’s one of those delapidated NHS buildings and they know they are going to be sold, so they’ve kind of let things go.
But there was a really kind of odd, eerie feeling to it as not everything is cleared out. They have not gutted it all, you go into some rooms and there is this random photograph that a patient had and it’s just been left. Very odd details like that make it a bit spooky.
Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene where you are thrown quite violently against the walls. How difficult was it to perform this particular stunt?
Actually, that is not me, it’s a stunt girl who is a professional wrestler. She was my stunt double and made me look really cool.
Did you go to a speech impediment specialist? (Dana has a tracheotomy which makes it challenging for her to speak)
Yes, I did quite a lot of research. I spoke to two speech therapists and a physic that works in intensive care and they talked to me about her recovery in her speech after the tracheotomy. So the producers wanted me to have a raspy breath, and I was saying if you have a tracheotomy and you still have your voice box, you can talk fine. It’s more about the weakness of your lungs but also the great thing that one of the speech therapists told me is that the swelling in your brain is almost like your tongue feels too big for your mouth. You slur a lot. So there was all this information I had.
This is the kind of things you do for genre movies. You do your homework and then you get in your space and they are like: ”no no no, we just want a raspy breath!” So there was a bit of compromise going on at this stage and then in the end, we did a little bit of touch ups. As we shot it all out of sequence, it’s quite hard technically to kind of mark a recovery that is such a big part of the movie. Her voice is a huge part of it. So we shot it, looked at it again and we decided that in the beginning, it’s better if it became even more breathy because it brings the audience into you, it makes Dana look really isolated, she has no power at all. I am the voice of the computer as well. So this whole voice thing, what to do with it and how to change and manipulate it was a massive part of the production. It was really interesting but it took a lot of tinkering to get right
How long did the shooting of the movie take ?
It took only 4 or 5 weeks as it was filmed in just one location, which helps. There are a few running scenes but it was mostly shot in one room so that saves a lot of time, you are not doing big unit moves. So you can actually film quite a lot in one day if you don’t need to go anywhere or keep relighting things.
The feeling of vulnerability that you manage to convey is rather convincing and when Trevor turns you over to give you a wash – I was not really sure of what was happening; if he was trying to hurt you or not.
I know, it’s meant to be ambiguous, often you don’t know yourself when you are in a situation like that, it’s only when you think back that you realise that it was a little bit odd.
But yes, it’s meant to be that way. Looking at the scene all cut together, I think Trevor is an honest chap but I guess that he did not quite appreciate how vulnerable and scared my character is. You can’t really run away and there is very little you can do in this situation, you are at the mercy of your caregivers. You know, there are a few stories that have leaked out about caregivers doing things to their patients just because they can and it’s easy.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just finished a movie called The Fright Chamber which is another elevated genre movie. It is set in a dystopian future. There is a civil war going on in the United Kingdom and a group of scientists has been employed by the government to concoct a drug to give to the military, but it is being tested on humans. It’s my next feature film and it should be released in 2018.