Talking Horror with Joe Barton (Netflix’s The Ritual)

Joe Barton has been a writer for the sci-fi show Humans and BBC’s Our World War. But, you might know him from his most recent film, the unpredictably original The Ritual, a new featured film on Netlflix. Barton wrote the screenplay for The Ritual and was cool enough to sit down and talk movies with us.

The Ritual is a 2017 British horror film directed by David Bruckner and written by Joe Barton. The film is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Adam Nevill.

PLOT: A group of four friends – Phil, Dom, Hutch, and Luke – embark on a hiking trip on King’s Trail in Sarek National Park, in northern Sweden to honor their friend Rob, who was killed six months earlier. After Dom falls and injures his knee, Hutch consults the group’s map and decides on an alternate route through the woods that will take them half the time. In the woods, the group begins to encounter unexplained phenomena.

Hey Joe! Thanks for joining No Jokes today and allowing me to take the time to pick your brain. A lot of people have seen your movie and so, I think it’s good timing!

1. Where are you from? Where do you currently reside?

I was born in London and grew up on the South coast in Brighton. I now spend half the week in London and half the week in Brighton because I’m basically incredibly indecisive.

2. The intro to The Ritual reminded me of 2005’s The Descent, where somebody close dies in the beginning, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. How did you approach writing this screenplay?

The intro wasn’t in the book which starts at the point of the guys finding the gutted elk in the tree and then flashbacks a little bit. In the book the issue with the four guys is quite internal – they’ve all grown apart and Rafe Spall’s character Luke feels distant from the others because they’ve all gotten on with their lives and he still lives a bit like he’s in his early 20s. Though I could personally relate to that on a worryingly fundamental level we did feel we needed something additional and a bit more visual and visceral to divide the group so we came up with the opening. Initially it was an office shooting that Luke survives but we changed that to the convenience store robbery when David came on board as director and was like “yeah there’s no fucking way we can start this movie with a mass shooting” and, you know what, he was right.

3. A lot of people are talking about the creature-feature in this movie, saying how “fresh” it is. What inspired the creature design? Was it your idea, or was it based off Adam Nevill’s story?

We went through a ton of different ideas for what the monster could be, mostly looking at old Norse legends and stuff. Thor supposedly had these two goats that pulled his chariot called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjostr (‘teeth bearer’ and ‘teeth grinder’ so for a while the monster was going to be one of those. Probably Tanngrisnir cos it’s easier to spell. But we ditched that idea. In the book the creature is called Moder (‘mother’) and there’s the idea that the people in the forest were her descendants so we had lots of discussions about who exactly might be shagging this bloody great Norse God monster. Anyway, we eventually came up with the idea of a God who demands worship and feeds on pain and can grant extra-long life (it fit in with the opening as well which was handy). The design was done by Keith Thompson. At one-point David was sat in an office covered in different monster designs all stuck up on the walls. I don’t think it was a particularly healthy working environment for him but he picked a good one so we’ve got no complaints.

4. The scene where the guys wake up all around the abandoned house is very creepy, especially that room with the weird stick and bone figure. Was the finished product how you imagined it when you wrote it?

Yeah it’s creepy as shit. That scene (or a variant of it) was in the book and reading that was the moment I knew I wanted to do the movie. You’re never entirely sure how anything’s going to turn out and it never completely looks like how you imagined it but I was really pleased with that one.

5. How did you get Netflix to release the movie? Was it a Big Sell?

I personally hold very little sway over Netflix’s acquisitions department despite my many years as a loyal subscriber to their service but as I understand it they bought it after viewing it at the Midnight Madness screening at Toronto which is where the below photo was taken. I look terrible in that photo. Why have I got my hands in my jacket pockets? Everyone else has got their hands in their trouser pockets and they all look way better. But they’re actors, they know about this sort of thing. You live and learn. I was also very drunk when it was taken. I believe we all were. The film was one of the biggest sellers out of Toronto that year, about $5 million I think. I’m still waiting for my cut…

(L-R) Joe Barton, Sam Troughton, Arsher Ali, David Bruckner, Rafe Spall, and Rob James-Collier attend “The Ritual” premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival at Ryerson Theatre on September 8, 2017 in Toronto, Canada. (Getty)

6. What was it like shooting The Ritual? What was the budget and how long did it take?

I didn’t go on set. They told me it was fucking freezing and in the middle of nowhere so I gave it a swerve. Actually I had another film shooting at the same time called MY DAYS OF MERCY so I went to that one instead. It was in the suburbs of Cincinnati. Just before the election. Trump banners anywhere. Would have been better off with the monster. I’m not entirely sure how long it took to film either. A month perhaps? Maybe six weeks. I could be wrong. It was filmed in Romania and apparently there were bears everywhere. I also don’t know the exact budget but it was pretty low.

7. Have you written any other horror or thriller movies?

Nothing that’s been made! I’ve got a horror TV script that I occasionally give to producers when I’ve run out of other things to pitch. And I’ve got two horror movie ideas in different stages of development which I’m excited about.

8. What are your favorite horror movies from the last 10 years?

I actually don’t watch that many horror movies, truth be told. I’m a bit of a coward. I tried to watch IT on a plane the other day and just thought ‘no, fuck this’ after about 5 minutes. I can’t be doing with child-eating clowns, man. I loved 28 Days Later which I’ve just googled and seen that it’s 16 years old so now I feel really old. The ageing process and the slow unstoppable march towards death – that’s the greatest horror of all. Also Bride of Chucky.

9. That’s funny you mention Bride of Chucky. I’m still working on my first two scripts, one being Chucky vs. Leprechaun. What can audiences expect from Joe Barton in the next few years?

I can’t imagine audiences are expecting anything to be honest but I’ve got my own Netflix series which starts filming this summer so that’s quite exciting. It’s a sort of crime thriller called Giri/Haji set between Tokyo and London. There’s a couple of films that I’m writing as well that have a chance of getting made and a few other TV shows which have a shot as well. MY DAYS OF MERCY is a romantic drama starring Ellen Page and Kate Mara which should come out later in the year and I’m also thinking about buying a dog at some point but that shouldn’t really affect anyone’s life too much.

10. Any advice for young screenwriters trying to get out there?

Write a lot. Finish what you write. Read good books, watch good TV and films. Write stories that excite you rather than things you think have a better chance of getting made – it’s all about developing your voice in the early days. When you think you’re ready, start making enquiries into getting an agent – find writers you like and who have a similar style to you and then contact their reps. Learn the very basics of three act structure if you have to but don’t live by it. Drink lots of water and would it kill you to ring your mother every now and again? She worries about you.

Joe, thank you so much for your time. We wish you nothing but good luck on your Netflix series and your movie, MY DAYS OF MERCY.



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