'Body at Brighton Rock': How a "Dopey" Bear Became a Movie Monster
Roxane Benjamin and Karina Fontes got an actual bear to appear on camera for a fight scene. Here's how they did it.
On the same weekend the Avengers defeated Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, a young woman got lost in the woods and fought a bear.
In Body at Brighton Rock, the latest thriller from Roxane Benjamin available now on Video on Demand, inexperienced park employee Wendy (Karina Fontes) gets lost in a sprawling Kentucky forest, kicking off a night of survival that culminates in (spoilers!) a confrontation with a live grizzly bear.
But unlike The Revenant, which used a mix of CGI and stunt actors to help Leonardo DiCaprio win an Oscar, Benjamin’s production threw a real live Kodiak bear at her lead actor. Thankfully, “Tag” — the bear’s real name — was just the cutest darn thing they’ve ever seen.
“He’s so cute and so dopey, a big part of our VFX was making him look scarier,” Benjamin tells Inverse. “Giving him a more pronounced brow, making his teeth and his claws longer, giving him this snarl. His sound design sells it a lot more.”
“It was actually the most organized shoot we did,” says lead star Karina Fontes. “We did three extra days of shooting, one full day with the bear. I wasn’t able to get so close because the trainers have safety regulations, so I couldn’t really touch him.” Fontes did get to feed Tag a few Oreos through his cage, however.
“We had to shoot it in a way where it was like a pan-zoom onto him and me reacting towards him coming at me. It was really interesting to see that work because his trainers are getting him on this mark. It was a reward way of training him so he’s being fed chickens and Oreos.”
Getting the bear in front of the cameras ate up most of the film’s small production budget. but for Benjamin, every penny was worth it. (It was also the easiest scene to shoot.)
“A big chunk of the budget was set aside for that,” explains Benjamin. “It is one of the most important aspects that I felt will set it apart from other low-budget genre films. We’re out in the elements, gaining production value and having something real and practical.”
“It was honestly the easiest part of the shoot,” Benjmain adds, “because it was so planned out and so methodical. You have to know exactly what you want to present to the trainers ahead of time. We had animatics, storyboards. The bear was trained to do specific actions for the fight.”
Benjamin laughs, “It was the most professional aspect throughout the whole thing. The rest is just us running around a mountain getting what we can get.”
Shot over nine days in Idyllwild, California (originally an 11-day shoot, two days were lost when the town lost power following a windstorm) Body at Brighton Rock was inspired by Benjamin’s youth. Her family were outdoorsy types — “Hunters and woodsmen,” she says — while Benjamin preferred to “sit with a crate of Stephen King novels under a tree.”
“We grew up in the Allegheny National Forrest in rural Pennsylvania,” the director says. “I was an indoor kid who was thrown outdoors. So I had a vivid imagination of all the horrible things that could happen in the woods. In genre, everything is a threat, you’re always in a state of fight or flight.”
Both Fontes and Benjamin also swear the cabin they rented for the shoot was haunted, which added an unexpected dimension of reality to the film.
“The surroundings and the mountains we were shooting on, it became so real to me,” says Fontes. “It’s a large house. When I got my room there were porcelain dolls everywhere. Doors closing when I would open them, noises I would hear when I was showering, banging on the windows. Hearing and scary things added to Wendy and helped me develop her. The surroundings had a huge impact on the way the movie was filmed.”
Adds Fontes, “It took me after a few weeks after shooting to shake it off.”
As for the “body” at Brighton Rock, that came from hanging with park rangers when Benjamin worked as a guide. “They find a lot more bodies in the park than you think,” she says. “Hikers get lost or fall. Falls are the number one cause of death. Just walking, everything is fine, and in a second you go from fine to FUBARD. That happens in life and that could easily happen in this situation. All it takes is 20 minutes going in the wrong direction.”
Fontes’ Wendy is also a subversion of women in horror movies. While Ripley from Alien and Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street are remembered for their competence and courage under pressure, Wendy in Brighton Rock is far less skilled. To Benjamin, that’s on purpose.
“The people who work this are part-time employees. Retirees, volunteers, people home from college for the summer. You’re not expected to do backwoods things,” she says. “I hate movies where after 30 minutes the hero is some crack wilderness expert and figures out how to do everything. You don’t. We would all die.”
“She is a bit absent-minded and naive,” says Fontes. “Towards the end she musters up the courage and realizes she has this inner strength and rises to the occasion fighting off this bear. She’s still who she is, a bit head in the clouds, but I think she does end up learning a lot about herself.”
“To me it’s not a horror movie,” says Benjamin “It’s a suspense thriller, a YA book you find in your aunt’s attic when you’re visiting over the summer. Where does your mind go when you’re alone? That’s what I wanted to explore. It’s a survival thriller without any real threat to your survival, until the end.”
Body at Brighton Rock is available now on Video on Demand.