By Calum Cooper
Tereza Nvotova‘s “Nightsiren” (2023) played at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. An eerie and atmospherically rich gothic horror, its visual flare is as compelling as its anti-patriarchal sentiments. During the festival, film critic Calum Cooper sat down with Nvotova, director and co-writer of “Nightsiren” to talk about the film and some of the components that went into the making of the feature.
Calum: So I have to confess, two minutes into your film I audibly gasped. First time that’s happened to me in a while. You’ll know the scene I’m talking about.
Tereza: Oh yes.
CC: I’m curious to know, was that the first image you had in mind when you came up with the film or was it something else?
TN: It actually wasn’t. I knew that scene was going to be a dramatic situation that the film revolved around, but it wasn’t supposed to be in the beginning. The script originally started with Otlya going to get bitten by the snake. We also considered a scene that my co-writer Barbora [Namerova] came up with, but the project was always changing as we developed it. She’s my best friend and we’ve worked together previously, so when we started working on this project she sent me pages of ideas that she had. She initially came up with the idea of two sisters being broken, which influenced the first scene you’re referencing. But that was supposed to be in the middle of the movie as a reveal of sorts. However when I got to the editing room I realised that if you don’t know what happened then you can’t connect with the character. Like she’s supposed to be mysterious to the villagers, but without knowing her backstory it would’ve been harder for audiences to identify. So I put that scene in the beginning of the film instead, which was unimaginable in my mind at first as it was supposed to be the secret twist, but it just made sense as a way to hook the audience. It doesn’t rob them of mystery, but it gives them something to get on board with right away. I think it might’ve even saved the movie to be honest. (laughs)
CC: Well it’s a fantastic hook that worked brilliantly on me (laughs). I felt it really informed Sarlota’s guilty conscience that’s plaguing her throughout the film. I was wondering if you could tell me a wee bit about the Pagan influences that appear to be in here. Is that something you’ve always been interested in or was that something your co-writer brought in?
TN: It’s interesting you ask that as if you’re from East Europe you don’t really think about Paganism as some sort of thing that’s outside of you. It’s connected with a lot of rituals that we do without thinking really about. It’s just our culture, and it only really becomes Paganism when people outside of that culture try to apply meaning and explore what it is that we do. My husband is American so seeing Eastern European culture from a Western or Western European viewpoint like his is very interesting as there’s a lot of differences. In America they have Halloween and that’s kind of it, whereas we have a lot more customs, some of which haven’t been seen in many films. For example we celebrate Easter in a very similar way to how the characters do in this film. Not to suggest that it’s as hardcore as what’s in the film, but those traditions are still very much alive today. As for influences, Barbora actually brought this book on anthropology when we started the film – specifically on how modern Slovak religions are still believing in witches. We’ve been aware of societal rituals throughout our lives, but we weren’t aware of just how deep rooted these ideas are within small communities around our country. But it’s not just Eastern Europe – there’s another anthropological book that talks about French religious groups that have similar issues. But we were also interested in how these beliefs, which are still really alive, influence relationships within these communities. You could argue that people who believe in these ideas are not that far off from conspiracy theorists. But I think the key difference is that these smaller communities believe the magical harm comes from your neighbour, who they view as some kind of other, whereas conspiracy theorists believe entire systems are rigged. They’re different but also quite similar.
CC: One of the big points of your film is the harm of superstition, particularly around women – like if a woman does something in this community that’s considered not the norm it’s enough to get them accused of witchcraft. Maybe those things haven’t persisted everywhere, but do you think the general superstitions towards women created by them have persisted?
TN: Yes. They definitely have. Maybe not so much in the cities, but you still meet loads of people who have some kind of superstition. There are people who believe in ghosts or that people can make your children or animals sick just by looking at them; something like that. In these religious villages those ideas are much stronger because the community is a lot more enclosed. To them the quote unquote traditional way of life is very much a monolithic idea created by these villages. There are very specific beliefs in what men and women should do in life that are almost prescribed to them. If a woman is not doing that then at best they’re seen as weird. But it can quickly grow from she’s weird to she’s a witch. When we showed the film to the village that we shot it in they loved it. There was a lot of singing and folklore customs. But there were also a lot of people who came up to us and said “I’ve had experiences with witches”, which goes to show how deep rooted these things are.
CC: What was it like filming in such a remote location? What were some of the toughest parts about shooting there?
TN: From the beginning I wanted the visuals of the big pine trees that we see in the film as I knew that was going to set the vibe from the get go. But to get those trees you have to go up into the mountains, so that’s what we had to do. That meant rough weather especially. We dealt with all sorts of weather. Even though we shot mostly in Summer, we did a few days in October as I wanted the scenes in the past to have a different vibe, and it started to snow then. Also when we were location scouting we had to deal with potential wildlife. There’s a lot of bears and wolves in that area and so whenever we would see footprints that would create unease. We’re not talking black bears, we’re talking huge brown bears that’ll kill you (laughs). Also, I have a cabin near the village we shot in, which my dad bought when he was in high school. Cabin had been there for a hundred years, and he bought it after the actual Otlya was living there. So that character was real in a way – she was the original “witch” that we based the character upon. Every time I spoke to the villagers about her, they didn’t really want to talk about her, which is a sign in itself. But when they did talk about her they would say that she was crazy. The intrigue I had surrounding this woman in this village that I used to go to since I was four was a big inspiration. Even though I grew up in the city, this was a place that was very dear to me.
CC: For a final question, I’d like to know what some of your cinematic influences were in the making of Nightsiren? Folklore has become quite popular in recent years with western movies like Midsommar and The Witch, but I’d like to know what some of your personal influences were? For example, there was one scene in particular where Sarlota is going through the forest. Maybe I’m just using association, but the use of colour reminded me a lot of Argento’s Suspiria.
TN: To be honest, I’ve never seen Suspiria (laughs). It is on my list but I’m actually quite scared of horror films so I have to watch it with someone.
CC: (laughs) That’s fair enough.
TN: But as for influences, there wasn’t any definitive film that served as the main inspiration, but there were definitely some. For example in that scene you mentioned where we used a lot of neon colours, I remembered the movie Monos and how they used similar colours on the cow in that film. Monos was definitely an inspiration; even though it’s a completely different film from the one we made, there were still some parallels such as the mostly natural setting. Other influences of course included The Witch, although our messages were inverted. So in The Witch you find out that there are witches and evil and supernatural forces whereas Nightsiren is saying that witches are normal women that maybe just see life differently. We also took influence from Border, the Ali Abbassi film, particularly in that unity between realism with something quite fantastical. I come from documentary filmmaking so going in I knew I didn’t want this film to be super stylised. I wanted to film it in an almost documentarian way, but also just be playful and go crazy. That sequence you brought up was an example of me going crazy. My producers initially wanted me to cut it, but I felt it was important as this is a film where you’re talking about witches and magic and superstition, but if you don’t show it then the audience will come out not feeling gripped. That’s why the scene was so vital to me, but also as it shows Sarlota’s inner world, her guilt and her journey of finding herself and her sexuality, as well as how these superstitions appear to characters like Helena and the rest of the villagers. That was important to convey and movies such as those definitely inspired our ideas on how to convey them.
CC: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. This has been fantastic.
TN: Thank you.
Read Calum’s review for “Nightsiren” here.