Playing the character of Rachel, actress Lauren Mae Shafer was put through Hell in the film THE DARK BELOW. Facing an extremely complex role as a mother, victim, survivor and truly empowered woman, Shafer puts in an extraordinary performance facing the extreme elements, the prospect of loss and her once trusted husband who shows no remorse, wanting to destroy her on every level. Taking some time away from her film and stage work, Lauren took time to speak with Jay Kay of Cinema Chords about the complexity of the role of Rachel, the physical change in her, being a survivor, the stages of THE DARK BELOW and more…
CC: Thank you Lauren for taking the time to talk with me and Cinema Chords about THE DARK BELOW. First of all, discuss the audition for the role of Rachel and the prospect of not only a winter shoot, but a performance testing you on every level?
Lauren Mae Shafer: First off, thank you for your interest in THE DARK BELOW.
CC: My pleasure, the film is captivating, powerful, and in its roots, connecting horror.
LMS: It was a rigorous process from the start. Doug contacted me about the film in its early stages. We had worked together once before on MIMESIS and he thought I would be a great fit for the role. He mentioned on the phone that it would be the most physically grueling role I would take on. I remember thinking, “You have no idea what I’ve done before!” … But he was right. It was the most physically demanding role for me to date. Going into it I had no idea how/where we were going to shoot or any idea that getting scuba certified was a requirement.
I was an actor who fell in love with a character and her story; I wasn’t going to let any challenges get in my way of telling it. We ended up filming the first portion in freezing temperatures in Michigan. We were shuttled to/from set on snow mobiles – that was a first. I remember one night shoot looking up at a light stand and seeing crazy amounts of frost covering it. We learned as we went. I remembered the first day June Shin (Production Assistant) running to me and wrapping me in a sleeping bag between shots.
The filming was broken into three segments. Under water, above the ice, and before and after (flashbacks/post struggle). That helped me, physically, to focus. I think if we had done them back to back, I would have required a spa week in my contract. I truly felt that I was tested on every level in this film.
CC: What was it like working with the team of Douglas Schulze and Robert Skates again?
LMS: I was honored to be back with the team. I am a very lucky actress. Skates was a pro, as usual. He was very respectful with space and time. When it came to the outdoor winter shoot, David and I would try to knock them out as soon as we could. It was one thing to feel cold ourselves but then to look up and see the whole crew freezing alongside us in full Ushanka hats & puffy winter coats … we knew everyone was sacrificing their comfort.
Doug was great with helping me with the use of storyboards/animatic videos for this film. Since there was no dialogue for my character, those tools were the best thing I could have asked for. This was especially true with the underwater shoot. I would discuss specifics with Doug and then jump in the water and go under for a bit. When I was underwater it would be for long spurts of time. I had no way of communicating with Doug once I went under. I would see him flash a flashlight and that was my cue to go. In a way, it helped me to get into character. I felt isolated, just like Rachel was.
When I was underwater it was just our expert safety coordinator, Eric Graham, and camera operator Sebastian Boada. Graham supervised and monitored me for any signs of distress. He was also our Scuba PADI instructor. All in all, I felt very safe alongside Schulze & Skates. It was nice to have a team that you trust when your filming with such crazy physical challenges.
CC: What was it like to work with a legend like Veronica Cartwright? What were the conversations and time spent like on set?
LMS: She was so down to earth and honest. It was refreshing to chat with her. I took so many mental notes. She was professional and approachable from the start. I cannot say enough good things. There is a reason she has such a successful career. We had a very natural chemistry as mother & daughter. We were able to joke on and off camera. I respect her so much. I hope to one day work again with her.
CC: We see the life of a family gone horribly wrong in THE DARK BELOW. You truly never know someone completely. It’s so scary. Talk with me about working again with David G.B. Brown and how you two built that relationship on and off screen between Ben and Rachel in the different stages of the film? What made Ben such a scary and dangerous figure?
LMS: I was so pumped when David was announced. We had one true scene together in MIMESIS and I remember wishing we had more. I knew he would be a perfect fit for Ben.
Coming into THE DARK BELOW we had already known each other. Our first scenes to shoot were the outdoor ones. Surprisingly, aside from the initial drag onto the ice and a few flashbacks, we were both shooting solo. We naturally have a great chemistry together; we have always been comfortable with each other. There was a lot of trust needed for this shoot. A lot of our work together was very rough physical stunt work.
I think what makes Ben so scary and dangerous is his unpredictability and intent. Rachel is blind-sided when she uncovers the truth about his nature. When you see him come after her, he has no hesitation at all, his mind is made up. His actions are pre-meditated, this is not a rash decision on his end. I think Rachel never saw it coming, that is the scariest thing of all.
I remember shooting one scene in particular and David truly had me freaked out. It was the scene when I snuck above the ice and he comes towards the ice cap with the gun and he’s looking for me and I’m hiding under a tarp. I was petrified. His face and body language freaked me out every time. I was legit scurrying for my life in that scene. He’s so good at being menacing.
CC: Through THE DARK BELOW, you spend most of your time underwater. Talk about training for that. What were the challenges acting with the scuba gear?
LMS: I consider myself a pretty good swimmer, but man, oh man! I didn’t think it would be that hard. Eric Graham, our safety supervisor, is an expert diver. I knew I would be in good hands. He certified Sebastian Boada (Camera Operator) and I. We had to do all the PADI safety certification and actually go thru all the open water dives for our certification. Honestly, without those two I think I would still be floating around in Michigan somewhere. The training itself helped so much with character research. At one point, we were training in Ohio at an underwater quarry and I remember being scared to death. The water was so murky I couldn’t see a thing. It was a lot like that when we filmed.
For all of our sakes, we had to know the scuba gear inside and out. There were some shots that I would have a respirator with a very long hose attached to my ankle so I could take breaths between takes without having to break to the surface. At the same time, I couldn’t see very well so I had to allow myself to feel for the hose, pull it in (it was very long), press on the respirator to release oxygen and then press again to take my breath. Or in further back shots I would have nothing and needed to signal Bruce to give me some air. I have never been on a film shoot where I relied so much on everyone else. Teamwork was key in making THE DARK BELOW.
In the scenes where I had the full-on tank and had to be in and out of the water constantly for multiple tanks, those were a bit rough. The tank wasn’t light. All in all, over the course of filming I lost 15 pounds from swimming and being in the water non-stop.
CC: Your range is shown throughout THE DARK BELOW with Rachel as a mother, daughter, wife, survivor, victim and more. Can you talk with me about some of the differences your brought with each role in Rachel’s life?
LMS: Rachel’s introduction is victim. She is taken by surprise and drugged. So, for her to slowly, piece-by-piece figure out what is happening to her and not be able to fight back is what sucked me in when I read it the first time. The pain of the realization, and having it done by your husband no less … ouch. I loved how it was slow motion in the final version because as we were shooting that was what was in my head. We were shooting in the blazing white snow. Snow everywhere. It was so beautiful but yet such horrible things happening.
Rachel, as a survivor, battles so much. I had to bring every little piece or her story together like a puzzle for that last bit of her will to push through and survive. The mother, the daughter, the victim … they all swelled together like a symphony. I think that was the key to success for that moment. The final push to survive.
Rachel as a daughter. Never has a character been so loved. Her mother was in every part of her life. Supportive and in the end her protector. She taught her to survive in this world. Rachel mirrors this with her daughter. That locket with her & her daughter’s pictures is what pushed her to make it through to the end.
Rachel as a mother. I was able to reflect on my experiences with my mother. She is an amazingly strong woman who I strive to be like. Rachel’s mother gives her all to protect her and Rachel learned from that. I can only think that someone with a mother’s drive would be able to survive this experience. It takes more than the physical and mental push but a separate drive in our will. That was a huge key point for discussion with Doug. The mother and daughter bond.
CC: Talk to me about the scenes under the ice as your character’s life flashed before her eyes? Was there any personal reflection on your own journey to draw influence from? Was the choreographing difficult?
LMS: It was difficult. I’ve never had any moments personally to draw from like that so it was a challenge. Rachel’s struggle to breathe on top of every other memory swirling in her head was overwhelming. Somehow, I found solace in the darkness. She learns very early on that the light is her undoing. That’s the only way Ben would know what was going on down there.
In particular, when she finds the pocket of air … That was one of the last scenes we shot. My brain kept flashing bits of every scene we had shot. That was a true struggle moment for the character. That scene was the hardest for me to snap out of. Her back and forth contemplation was very painful.
When it came to the choreography, I had the great Camera Operator, Sebastian Boada, to rely on. It was a bit complicated in some parts because I would float away. Depending on the shot, we had Eric Graham, safety supervisor, hold me by the foot in place. We tried slipping my foot under weights to hold it down, putting dive weights in my dive shoes … Different ideas worked for different shots. It was a lot of trial and error. It was very hard to ‘have a mark’ under the water.
The moments where she lets go and just floats along came very naturally because my body was so exhausted. The limp floating the in current like seaweed was eerily freeing.
CC: What was the more difficult aspect of Rachel to play? A victim or a survivor?
LMS: Survivor. It was more challenging to show the fight from within. My only fear with the victim aspect was coming across as emotionless because, for the most part, she was drugged. I wanted to make sure that the audience knew mentally I was pushing with all my might but I literally was handicapped. Once she is under the water it is all survivor.
CC: Was it difficult to create the character of Rachel with no dialogue? Did this enhance the emotion, drama and empowerment of the character?
LMS: Enhanced 100%. At first I thought it would be a lot more of a handicap. Not being able to speak physically stirred so much more from the inside. Also, the challenge with my face being hidden beneath the snorkel gear, the dive mask and scuba equipment. These were all additional challenges to work around.
CC: Talk with me about the frostbite scene and how impactful it was? Did you cringe when you finally watched it fully formed?
LMS: I did a lot of research. I wanted it to be realistic. I was freezing cold when we shot it, so that didn’t hurt with it coming off as realistic. The steam rising from my body was not added in post. That’s the real deal. When shooting the frostbite scene, I was having a lot of trouble getting the gloves off, period. Rachel wouldn’t have been able to bend her fingers at all, so after a few attempts, I just went for it with my teeth. I think in the long run it was an excellent choice. I was lucky that Doug just let me run on instincts for the majority of shooting.
I remember seeing it at Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal and being sucked right in. That’s when I knew we had something. Usually when I watch myself, I’m thinking, “Why did they use that angle?” or “God, I did that so much better in the second take…” When I watched that scene, I was watching Rachel. It was chilling to be sucked into a movie that I know inside out and still be on the edge of my seat.
CC: This was the first time I’ve seen one of the horror films that you have been a part of with THE CABINING, FRACTURED and MIMESIS all clearly offering range as a performer. What is it about horror that draws you in?
LMS: I remember doing MIMESIS and thinking how exhausting it was. That was my first horror film. Everything is so high stakes. It comes off as horribly fake if you don’t commit 100%, so you have to give it all you’ve got. I like that. I think what has drawn me into the horror genre are the stories. I have been blessed with unconventional horror scripts. They aren’t the average predictable storylines. That’s what pulls me in. I’ve been blessed with these complex characters and I love digging into them and uncovering what’s underneath. I love filming other genres, but horror is what I keep getting offers for, so I’ll take it!
CC: What is next for you and where can we find out more?
LMS: I’m currently on stage at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Intimate Apparel. Then I will be filming an indie feature, The Contract, in April.
CC: Thank you for taking the time!
LMS: Thank you! Hopefully you will be seeing a sequel!
(Images from Yahoo and Google)
Follow Jay Kay on Twitter @JayKayHorror