Actor Allen Leech and writer-director Jeremy Lovering from "In Fear." (Jay L. Clendenin )
PARK CITY, Utah -- We all know the feeling, that creeping tingle that something is not quite right, whether it’s someone standing too close to your car or bad directions that seem to be leading you closer and closer to trouble. Often, though, there is nothing the matter, and it is just our suspicions and paranoia getting the best of us. For “In Fear,” screening at the Sundance Film Festival, British writer-director Jeremy Lovering kept his actors in the dark just as they would be in life, not showing them a script and getting reactions of genuine shock, surprise and fright.
Playing as part of the festival's Midnight section, the film explores just how long it takes to realize that something is, indeed, wrong -- and what to do once things take a turn for the worse. As the story begins, a young couple, who have only known each other a few weeks, are on their way to meet friends at a music festival. Tom (Iain De Caestecker) tries to surprise Lucy (Alice Englert) with a romantic night at remote countryside inn. First, Tom has a weird run-in with some locals at a pub, then the couple can’t find the inn, lost on lonely country roads as night falls and it seems something more sinister may be afoot. Allen Leech plays Max, one of dubious locals.
The film is Lovering's feature debut as writer and director; he's a veteran director of documentaries and television dramas. The story’s origins were in a rather innocent prank when some locals switched some road signs while he was traveling, leading him to wind back up where he started. They bought him a drink and sent him on his way, but what if?
PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance
“The state of fear is a state of being,” Lovering said in a telephone interview before the festival. “I was interested in how you create these monsters yourself, and your bogeyman is whatever you want it to be. It comes from within.”
To more fully explore fear onscreen, Lovering decided on an ambitious strategy of not showing his actors a script and keeping them in the dark as much as possible regarding what was going to happen. Throughout the film, their reactions are genuine and in-the-moment.
“I did have a private script,” he said. “It was pretty well worked out in terms of what I wanted the genre beats to be. If I hit those beats, everyone knew they had a film that at least would satisfy that part of it. And then everything on top of that would just make it better.
“Being in a forest, being at night, it just became real,” he added. “And the more real it became, the more authentic became their performances. And they were genuinely scared. I love being in that environment, so I didn’t quite understand why they were freaking out.”
SUNDANCE: Portraits by The Times
Englert, daughter of filmmaker Jane Campion, will be seen in the upcoming “Beautiful Creatures” and “Ginger and Rosa,” though Lovering points out that her part in “In Fear” is, in fact, the first film role the up-and-coming young actress shot.
Though much of the film is simply the characters riding around in their car, peevishness bickering giving way to darker emotions, Lovering found ways to shoot them so that it continually feels fresh. He studied the early Steven Spielberg film “Duel,” about a showdown between a man in a car and a malevolent trucker, and realized that in each sequence Spielberg would introduce one new angle to the list of shot selections to revitalize viewers’ attention. He cribbed the idea for himself, even saving the obvious rearview-mirror shot until well into the movie.
But what really makes “In Fear” is the performances of Englert and De Caestecker. Lovering was surprised by just how much they took to his unusual storytelling method, and how sometimes it seemed the actors lost touch with the fact that it was only a movie.
“They really were on edge,” said Lovering, “and I was telling them nothing, even saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know what’s going to happen next,’ and they believed it, bizarrely.
“They actually suspended their own disbelief, so that when [scary spoiler redacted], Ian’s reaction, when he dives across the gearbox and tears his pants, was utterly real. And he went into shock, which is quite bizarre. And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I’ve now become Lars von Trier. I wanted to be Sam Raimi meets Polanski, and I’ve become Lars von Trier.’ ”
FULL COVERAGE: Sundance Film Festival 2013
'Primer's' Shane Carruth in total control with 'Upstream Color'
Sundance 2013: Michael Cera's double adventure in Chile
Sundance 2013: Andrew Bujalski and the absurd in 'Computer Chess'
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus
VIDEO: A video guide to Sundance 2013
PHOTOS: Dramas in competition
PHOTOS: Films for sale