'Nancy' searches out Internet's dark side

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If you think the dark side of the Internet is killers seeking victims, think again.

In darkest cyberspace victims are looking to be killed -- at least they are in Johan Renck's psycho-sexual thriller "Downloading Nancy," opening June 5 in New York and Los Angeles via Strand Releasing.

Here's how it works: Nancy (Maria Bello) deserts Albert, her dreary husband of 15 years (Rufus Sewell), leaving a note saying she's gone to see friends. Actually she's hooking up with Louis, a perverted loser (Jason Patric) she's met on the Internet. The twist: Nancy makes Louis promise to end her unhappy life by killing her after they act out their sexual fantasies. Renck handles this unusual material (written by Pamela Cuming & Lee Ross) so well that we accept it as being real rather than far-fetched.

"There was something about good and bad love that attracted me in the script, and that's why I pursued this project," Renck explained.

He wanted something dark for his first movie. After years of directing commercials and music videos -- everything from Mercedes to Madonna -- his goal was to do a feature and work with actors. After spending six months with the screenwriters polishing the script to make it "more nihilistic," he was ready to start casting.

First choice: Holly Hunter to play Nancy because he "liked her persona" and responded to what he felt was "a brooding darkness in her." She said yes. Then he got his friend Stellan Skarsgard to come on board. William Hurt completed the team. But like so many other indie films, things changed unexpectedly: "Holly Hunter got pregnant and had to jump ship. The whole thing crumbled. The financiers pulled out."

It was back to square one to find people with "some kind of inert darkness in their person" that registers on screen. A meeting in L.A. with Bello worked out. Then a friend suggested Patric, who signed on. "I really liked the darkness he could convey."

They were already shooting in Regina, Saskatchewan, when Renck saw Sewell in "The Illusionist" playing a very unsympathetic role and went after him. "All of a sudden I had a new cast," he said, "which was vastly different from the original cast, but equally if not more interesting."

The Internet is another character in the film, although originally it played a bigger part. "I didn't like that as a device. It felt gimmicky and uninteresting," Renck observed. So he toned down its importance in the movie. We don't, for instance, see Nancy hunched over her computer screen sending e-mails to her twisted cyber pal.

What Renck found interesting about the Internet is the anonymity people have there and how "niche interests can find their peers" because even the most marginal, and weird, interests are represented.

Like other filmmakers, Renck's own life impacted significantly on his work: "When I was doing this movie I was going through a divorce myself, so I guess a lot of issues surrounding my own divorce surfaced in getting the movie into place."

Why shoot in Regina? Local tax breaks there helped stretch "Nancy's" extremely low budget. Besides, it didn't really matter where they shot since 95% of the film was interiors. "We got the best deals we could ever get there."

On the other hand, they were "in the middle of bloody nowhere" and it was 30 or 40 degrees below zero in mid-winter. Despite being frozen to their inner core, "We found a lot of warmth and joy in this little remote village. The original plan was that we had 25 or 26 shooting days, but I was gone after 23."

His background filming commercials and music videos was a big help dealing with that tight shooting schedule. Even though it was his first feature, Renck already had many hundreds of shooting days behind him. "I've been in every conceivable situation you can imagine because of the projects I've been working on," he said. "So there was no type of shooting condition or situation that would have unsettled me in any way at all."

Unlike commercials and music videos, where he worked with amateurs, Renck now had a cast of professional actors: "When you're working with an amateur you have to use every skill you have to try and trick and manipulate this person into doing something the way you want it to be done. But all of a sudden you're there with enormously talented actors and to me that just made everything so much easier."

He rehearsed a few hours with his actors after each day's shooting. "I didn't want the actors to go to bed with everything they went through over the day because there was some quite heavy stuff. I'd rather have them go to bed with tomorrow's heavy stuff in their heads." With such dark material he really wanted to shoot "Nancy" in sequence, but that always costs more and wasn't possible.

Looking ahead, Renck is done with dark relationship dramas. He's working on several projects including a science-fiction movie that's his No. 1 priority.

Whatever happens, he wants to continue directing: "I never felt as at home as I did when we did this movie, and I really look forward to being in that situation again."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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