Shauna Macdonald is no stranger to the horror circuit, though best known for her part of Sarah in The Descent she has over the years starred in several films within the genre. Her latest venture into the the chilling category is Nails. Directed by Dennis Bartok, Macdonald plays Dana, a track coach who finds herself bedridden in hospital after a nasty car crash. When she awakens she discovers that, although she is alive, her injuries are exceptionally nasty – she can’t walk, and thanks to a tracheotomy, cannot speak for herself either. Her road to recovery will be a long one. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, Dana finds herself tormented by a malevolent being known simply as Nails. Desperate and unable to convince anyone that Nails is real, Dana has the fight of her life to escape his clutches.
Ahead of the release we caught up with Shauna via the magic medium of the telephone. During our long discussion we got all the details about her current venture, as well as taking a trip back down memory lane as we reminisce about both The Descent and Filth.
Your characters don’t seem to have much luck with cars…
(Laughs) No, that’s very well observed. That is true, so whenever you see me in a car, beware, some kind of shit is about to go down. (Laughs) Something’s going to happen. Yeah that’s true, poor Sarah in The Descent, although she was unscathed an Dana isn’t so lucky. The stunt for the Dana car was great fun actually. We did that on the second day. Obviously when I mount the car, it was a stunt-woman. They attached this bungee rope to me on a harness. I had this harness on and this bungee rope attached to my hip and two massive stunt guys set up this pulley system and put a crash mat down as said ‘don’t worry, what we’ll do is you just run and we’ll pull you and we’ll just yank you out of the way.’ I was like ‘okay’ (laughs) so we were doing it the first time and Dennis shouted cut. He said ‘the stunt was good Shauna, it was fine, but you had a pained expression on your face before you crossed the road.’ I said, ‘I know I was just waiting to be pulled back by these guys’. The trick is, and it’s why they get stunt people to do these things, the trick is to completely relax, but obviously fear makes you tense, but I got it in the end.
What was it about the role of Dana that stood out to you?
Well I loved the physical challenge of it, there’s the set-up at the start, but most of the film is her in bed really in a bad way. Not being able to talk is an exciting challenge as an actor, of course she gets round that through different ways and also playing… I read it on paper and thought, ‘oh God, this is too much, I’m never going to be able to pull this off’. Usually when I feel like that I think well I’ve got to do it! When there’s a role that’s so challenging or scary for reasons where you think you personally are not going to be able to get it, that’s when I think you should do it. You have to keep pushing yourself. It’s better to try and fail than just keep in your safe little box. It was a bit of a no brainer to be honest.
I was also lucky with an offer, I didn’t have to audition, that’s always nice. So it was really a decision of was I going to do it or not, rather than will I go for the audition or should I not. I spoke to Dennis before I accepted the part, we had a Skype call, and he was just so passionate about the story and his ideas just made me think it would be a really exciting project. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments on set that I was thinking ‘fuck’s sake, this is so hard’. Independent films are hard work. They’re really hard because you don’t have the fluff around. So you’re working really long hours and you don’t have… for instance they had to really watch their pennies, so simple things like – we didn’t have a script supervisor, so continuity, meaning that everyone is slightly on edge.
The script supervisor and continuity person would keep an eye on things like my physical development throughout the film, my recovery because you shoot out of sequence. But we didn’t have a script supervisor so I was trying to piece together this jigsaw inside my head. Trying to remember at what point my voice was at scene twelve that we’ve already shot,and now we’re about to shoot scene five. You’re jumping all over the place. So yeah it was hard work, but it was worth it in the end.
I guess that’s one of the many pitfalls, audiences won’t realise that it was shot out of sequence and the pressure that that creates.
Yeah absolutely. I’ve just done another independent film and I knew they were tight for budget as well and I said, ‘listen, the deal-breaker really is do you have a script supervisor on this one? Because I’ve just done a job and it was (laughs) just so hard to keep a track of things.’ They said yes we do so phew. I definitely think that is a corner that should never be cut because they kind of glue everything together.
Script Supervisors – the unsung heroes of the film world.
Absolutely! It’s a tough job.
You spend a lot of the film trapped in a hospital bed, what challenges did that pose to you as an actor?
It was challenging on a few levels. One level, just logistically I couldn’t get out of bed without asking someone to help me out, because I was tied into the tracheotomy or the brace on my arm. So in order to get out of the bed I would have to ask someone from the prop department to come and help me out of the bed and they’re always busy. By day two I just thought, do you know what, I’m just going to stay in the bed as long as I can,until I’m desperate for the toilet. But then, so I’ve decided I’m committed to being bed-bound, but sets are such a busy place, everybody has their specific role, and when the director shouts cut everybody erupts into their own jobs. Things they’ve noticed during the take and they go and fix it. So it’s really busy, and really noisy, quite distracting and they can be quite tense places, set people lose their temper when things aren’t going quite how they had hoped. So the challenge was to remain calm and to be able to shut off and be ready for the take.
I love to talk, to find the joy in people and chatting and telling stories, it goes back to why I started acting in the first place, you’re a kid and you love it and you make friends in youth theatre and it’s just fun, fun, fun. That sort of joy I always try to get every time. Its like taking your first drink of a night, you’re never going to get that buzz again, but then you keep drinking thinking you’re going to get that buzz (laughs), I try to find that joy I used to find and I do it by trying to connect with people, whether it’s the cast or the crew. I realised on this film that I couldn’t, I had to stay focused. I couldn’t go in and out of stories because the film… it is just my face and my emotional vulnerability and rawness that was going to get me through this character, this movie. Because I can’t move, and she can’t move and she can’t talk, so I have to be emotionally available and I can’t get involved. It became quite isolating. Of course you have lunch time where you don’t have to be isolated, but I guess that within the world of the film that’s maybe a positive.
I guess it helps as that’s how Dana herself is feeling.
Yeah, it just means it’s not a bundle of laughs on set if you’re playing a character like that, but it didn’t have to be for that role.
As a chatty person did you find it quite frustrating that most of Dana’s lines were via a computer?
Yeah. I mean that’s my voice in the computer. We recorded that as a guide track and ended up using it. So the challenge of that – I became very proficient with my right hand typing – so you type, and then the computer speaks, but of course on set there was no playback. So there’s either silence and then the other actor realises what’s happening, or the first AD shouts in the lines.
I know it’s all pretend anyway, but it’s all completely pretend here. The challenge was to stay in it and also in terms of the computer, a lot of it is Skype and she’s looking up things on the computer, the computer is completely blank. There’s just a light in you face. It’s that other world of make believe and pretend as well. So yes you’re silenced, you don’t have a voice, so you’re pretending that your computer is speaking for you, which it’s not, it’s either silent or a first AD and also there’s nothing on the computer screen. So there’s all these challenges, but that’s all it is really is, challenges. We’re not clinically insane actors, we get it, we get it that it’s pretend, but sometimes when you add in all these challenges it does get harder and harder to get into it. To allow yourself to believe. You’ve just got to commit. If you don’t commit you’re stuck in that egginess between non-committal and actually really going for it. That’s where you watch somebody’s performance and it’s a little bit uncomfortable to watch because they’re not quite committing, therefore they’re not quite believable. When you see those performances I just feel for that actor because they must have felt just a bit unsafe or unclear or silly. There’s nothing worse than feeling silly on set.
You’ve done a few horror films over your career, what is it about the genre that keeps bringing you back?
Well it’s not so much that it brings me back, I jump back into it, they keep asking me to come back. It’s hard to say no when somebody’s saying ‘please come and play with us and here’s another fantastic character to play.’ After The Descent I said to my agent ‘I don’t want to do anymore horror films, because I don’t want to be the horror girl,’ and she said ‘well Shauna that’s really stupid because you’re basically turning down work and it’s better to work then not,’ which I realised she was completely right about. But I do stagger it.
I don’t seek them out, they come to me, I’ve turned down a few horror films, I do the ones that I find are intelligent and I can do something with the character and the character really challenges me. Or I do them for, you know… I did Howl and that was great because that was part of an ensemble again, but Howl was my first – I’ve got three kids – that was my first role trying to get back into it after my third kid. It was like a safe… weirdly, horror is like a safe genre for me now because I know the world, I know a lot of the people actually involved now. Paul Hyett [director of Howl] did all the monsters in The Descent. It was stepping back into this world that I understand. If I suddenly stepped into a sitcom I would feel completely out of my depth, only because I’ve not done it before. I don’t have to sob, screaming and crying away from a monster, but it’s just that you feel at home with something that is familiar. There are certain horror films that I won’t do. I won’t do slasher films, I won’t do things where the females are being tortured by guys. I’m just not interested in stuff like that.
It’s been twelve years since the release of The Descent, but there haven’t been many horror films that can stand-up to it, what do you think it is about it that makes it so special?
Well at the time it was groundbreaking in a sense, because it had six female characters, who were all kiss-ass, and that hadn’t happened before. But also we didn’t fit into the stereotypical girls stick together nonsense. It kind of mirrored Neil Marshall’s original movie Dog Soldiers where they were a group of friends faced with a common foe and they all stuck together, whereas we all shattered and splintered and it became really ugly, and survival of the fittest at the end. I think everyone loved how refreshing that was. But then you also catered for audience members who loved the suspense and the psychological thriller aspect of it. But then you get the viewers who love monster movies, they were completely thrilled that they got really horrific humanoid subterranean horrible kind of goblins going on. So it ticked a lot of boxes for a lot of people.
It was a special time for Neil Marshall and Sam McCurdy, the DP and us girls in it, and the art designer. It was kind of the beginning of our careers, nobody had anything to lose and we had everything to gain. Everybody threw themselves into it. Just the prep that we did on that film…I’ve never experienced anything like it for that amount of money that they had, which wasn’t a huge amount. We shot it in Pinewood and we had training and bonding sessions (laughs) in terms of we went caving for real and we did off-road driving and white-water rafting and climbing and all that. We invested the time in the pre-production which you don’t really get often. Gosh, I just did a feature film and there’s no rehearsals. You turn up on set having not met your cast members before. You’re first take is the first time everybody’s said the words out loud together, it’s crazy! I don’t know maybe it was just a different attitude back then. We were lucky with the time of it and the talent involved. It was just this magic formula which all came together.
I still remember seeing it in the cinema, that bit with the video camera almost made me have a heart attack.
The reveal is great. I think we won an award that Total Film did for biggest scare for that reveal. That reveal’s brilliant! (laughs) I think it was last year my local pub wanted to show it and I thought it’d be fun so we did it really small scale, just for a friend. So I got to watch the audience watch the film again and there’s three moments – the car, the dream and the reveal – and I love watching the audience for those parts.
I’ve spoken to several horror film folks over the years and so many of them list The Descent as one of the best films of recent years, and that reveal is easily on a par with the Alien dinner scene.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s stood the test of time that film. It was released on the Friday or the day before the London bombings. So we were lined up to do interviews with television, but of course everything was dropped because of the London Bombings and don’t forget our film is about people being stuck underground. Horribly, ironically, the poster of The Descent was on the bus that blew up. So lot’s of promotional stuff was rightly shelved. So the success of the film, of course it went to the states and it was pushed quite well by Lionsgate in the States, but in the UK it was kind of this, no pun intended, underground movement of followers. It was the snowball effect. It was word of mouth. People just flocked to it. It was successful because friends told other friends to go and see it, and that was down to the effect it had on the audiences watching it.
Another film that you’re well known for is Filth do you have any fun anecdotes from your time on set?
So my first day on set was with David Soul in the car. David Soul as in Starsky and Hutch. He’s sort of a megastar – not for me because I’m slightly too young for it – but for everybody involved he was this megastar. One thing that I’m terrified of is singing. I’ve just got this fear that I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m a terrible – I am actually a terrible singer I don’t need to convince myself – but the thought of singing on a stage or even on a set, or even in a Birthday party situation, is just horrific. So I got the script through and I got the offer through and I knew I needed to sing fucking Silver Lady with David Soul himself in the car.
So we’re on set – we’re in the make-up truck – and David’s late, he’s really late, but we’re running late as well so it’s okay. There’s some sort of problem in the factory that the car is in, it’s not been blacked out properly. So it comes over the radio that David’s coming. ‘David Soul is walking to the make-up trailer’ and in my head I’m imagining this Adonis film star walking in, but there’s this sort of clink, clink, clink up the stairs and this old man comes in. He’s a bit overweight and he has a cane. He comes in and he sits down with his daughter China, whose lovely and is looking after him. So he gets made up, I get made up, it’s two hours in the trailer for me every morning because I’m supposed to look like this flawless movie star. So I go back to my little Winnebago hutch thing, he goes back to his and then hours and hours pass. They’re having real problems on set and it’s not good. We’re running super far behind and David is only there for the day and he’s got to get his train back. Everybody is really nervous.
Eventually we get the call to go into the factory. So they take us into the factory, they take us through a door and then up some steps into this freezing office, and David’s not a fit guy at that point. So he’s with his daughter China, we enter this factory, it’s fucking Baltic in Glasgow, freezing. We’re waiting in this factory and we start just chewing the cud, telling stories to each other. His daughter’s telling this story about how her boyfriend is a street performance artist and we kinda connected about Edinburgh and her boyfriend performs this amazing trick where he gets shot out of a cannon.
Honestly it was just a weird warped world. It was like I’d woken up in some fucking weird dream. And you’ve got McAvoy there as well who had just shot and you know the twist in the film, he doesn’t look like himself. I’ve known McAvoy since I was fifteen so everything was just a bit weird. There’s David Soul, there’s China telling me about her boyfriend being shot out a cannon and then there’s James who I’ve known since I was fifteen looking very much like me.
So then they finally call us to set and we go down these stairs, chink, chink, chink and David’s heavy breathing and we get to this car, this Cadillac car and the set it completely deathly silent. Everybody’s got their parkas and sealskin’s on because it’s free-zing, David’s shivering. I get into the car, the backing singers get into the car – the middle one is China – and he pulls the seat, pushes it back, hauls his body into the car, closes the door and he’s like (breathes heavily). I was just sat there thinking ‘oh my God, this poor guy! This is terrible, this is awful!’
Then the director comes over and by now we’re a good four hours late now in the working day. He’s like ‘so David it’s great, fantastic that you’re here. So what we’re going to do is we’re just going to do playback and we’ll just see what happens.’ The cameras on the end of the bonnet, and its shooting into the car through the windscreen and I’m like ‘Christ…Alright John, we’ll give it our best shot.’ So David just about recovers, there’s complete silence on set and then we have ‘action!’ then this intro to Silver Lady, which is fairly long starts, and time stops (laughs). Then it comes to David Soul’s part, it’s his turn to sing and he just transforms. It’s like we’re back in the seventies and he’s this Adonis guy with these girls just worshipping him. His voice is amazing and he just booms his voice, singing his song, winking to me, gesturing to the backing singers. Just like owning it, properly movie star owning it, and the director shouts cut and everybody, the whole crew, just erupt and applaud. He was just an absolute star and you could see it. In the make-up truck I could not understand it, walking up to the office I could not understand it, walking down to the car I did not get it, and then suddenly he’s like this Hollywood star and you go Boom! that’s why you are where you are.
Nails arrives in select UK and Irish cinemas on Friday 16th June 2017. Read our review now.