How ‘Night Swim’ Used Practical Effects to Create an Aquatic Nightmare Realm [Interview]

This week brings the arrival of Night Swim, a high concept horror feature from writer/director Bryce McGuire that centers around a haunted swimming pool with murky, supernatural depths. Night Swim arrives in theaters on January 5, 2024, and the film employed as many practical effects as possible to submerge viewers into its aquatic nightmare realm.

Based on the acclaimed 2014 short film by Rod Blackhurst and Bryce McGuire, the film stars Wyatt Russell (Overlord, “Monarch: Legacy of Monsters”) and Oscar® nominee Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin) as a couple looking for a fresh start in a new home in the wake of a newly diagnosed illness. For their family, the home and its large backyard swimming pool offer the chance for recovery and togetherness. If only the pool didn’t harbor a sinister secret.

McGuire recently shared with Bloody Disgusting how he wanted to approach Night Swim as practically as possible. That was reinforced by Blumhouse executive producer Ryan Turek (Five Nights at Freddy’sThe Black Phone, Halloween trilogy) during a chat with Bloody Disgusting, where he broke down the challenges of creating a haunted swimming pool.

Turek shared that McGuire’s feature was an easy sell based on the concept alone.

He explains, “Yeah, in this instance, it was definitely the concept. It was the idea of a haunted swimming pool. I mean, listen, I got my Amityville Horror box set, and I’ve watched all of them. I’ve seen the haunted lamps; I’ve seen the haunted dollhouses. And it’s like, look, everything has been done before. How do you spin it? Who’s the filmmaker that’s going to come up to the table with something that’s refreshing, that puts a different spin on things, and also just tells a really great drama at the same time? All our favorite horror movies, we can all list them, just tell great dramatic stories.

“So, when Bryce came to the table and said, ‘I’ve got this haunted swimming pool movie.’ I was like, ‘Well, we’ve never seen that.’ The pool inherently just lends itself to so many great movie moments. You’ve got that weird, creepy drain at the bottom of the pool that everybody messes with. There was a great book that I read about a guy who sat on one, and terrible things happened. There’s the kind of pool flap filter that people love to mess with; I always threw my GI Joes in there. But it’s an element. It’s a combination of all those things. And if you can tell an exciting, scary story and make us feel something, then I think we’ve all won. It’s just a fulfilling story to tell.”

Night Swim pool drain, practical effects

Gavin Warren as Elliot Waller in Night Swim, directed by Bryce McGuire.

Because the film’s central antagonist is the swimming pool itself, along with its ghostly inhabitants, it required shooting extensive aquatic sequences. The hands-on producer broke down for us just how challenging it was to film horror sequences underwater.

So many underwater sequences to figure out. This movie asks characters to swim to the deep end and then keep swimming. They’re going into the dark water. So, it was a question of, ‘Okay, how do we execute that dark water? How do we do that handoff from the pool into the supernatural realm the pool presents?’ It wound up being a combination of a practical pool and a tank, and then having really deep conversations with our VFX team and stunts and our camera crew to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the transition point? How does Charlie Sarroff, who was our DP, how does he change the lighting?’ All of that.”

Turek continues, “With Justin Scott, who is also on set with me from the Atomic Monster team, we talked about dry for wet, much like DeepStar Six. I remember seeing DeepStar Six and remember people walking around and seeing all the particulates in the air, and then they were like, ‘No, they didn’t shoot that in the water.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ That was so convincing at the time. But we talked about that, and all of those elements and all those references come into play. But that was the biggest challenge because I can imagine, too, for talent, it’s not easy to dive into a body of water when they’re surrounded by five scuba divers, all with camera equipment and people making adjustments. Then we had someone with the air hose at the bottom. We did a day where it was just all VFX elements, and they would go in against a green screen that we put into the tank.

“Yeah, it was crazy. Bryce couldn’t help himself. He dove into the water with his pants and clothes on and was just hanging out, directing from the water. I think that was the one time he did that. But we stayed dry. It was super fun. Also, the other thing is Fractured FX did our makeup effects on all the ghosts that you see in the film, and it was a conversation about what techniques they use so the head-to-toe ghosts can stay submerged. We would wind up kind of anchoring them sometimes. I remember our bloated man had to slip his foot underneath a ladder that was at the bottom of the pool, anchored to the bottom of the pool so he could just stay down, or otherwise, he’d just float up. It would be hilarious to just see him kind of floating around in kiddie floats in between takes.”

night swim ghost

Turek further clarifies the safety precautions required when filming these extensive underwater sequences.

It was a matter of making sure that there were people in scuba gear on standby right next to them, just outside the frame, to bring them back up or to give them an air hose. They were all stunt performers, so they were super, super troopers about it. Some of them just stayed at the bottom, were like, ‘Give me the air hose.’ And you would just see the air hose go into this giant bloated man’s face, which was amusing. But yeah, it was just making sure that we maintained safety throughout.”

Of course, with the swimming pool integral to the film’s narrative and horror, finding the right one was vital. Turek gave a peak behind the curtain, highlighting both Night Swim’s director and its cinematographer for adding visual interest to the film’s antagonist.

“It was great because it wasn’t just the pool,” he explains. “Bryce was very specific about the geography in relation to the back of the house, its geography in the backyard, and how much of the backyard you can see. When you look at the film, you’ll see a wooden fence; we built that. The yard kept going, and so we were like, ‘That’s too big.’ But he loved the trees that were on the property, so he said, ‘I want to see the trees.’ It was all very atmospheric. He had a very intentional vision for what was around that pool that helped support its character. And obviously the pool obviously did its own thing.

“When you look at the movie too, Charlie Sarroff, who also shot Smile, had a lot of intent with the kind of light ripples you see on the back of the house and stuff like that. You would think, watching the movie, that it just came from the pool light source, but that wasn’t the case; it was movie magic. He had all these trays of water all around the backyard with lights shining on that were casting ripples on the house.”

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