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Night Swim Star Wyatt Russell and Director Bryce McGuire on Their Water-Based Horror Film

As has often been the case, a new year kicks off with some new horror in the form of Night Swim, the latest collaboration between Jason Blum’s Blumhouse and James Wan’s Atomic Monster production banners, who kicked off 2023 with their hit M3GAN.

Night Swim stars Wyatt Russell as baseball player Ray Waller, who has been stricken by MS (Multiple Sclerosis), a diagnosis that threatens to sideline his career. When Ray, his wife (Kerry Condon from Banshees of Inisherin), and their two kids (Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren) move into a new suburban home, Ray learns that the house’s swimming pool offers surprising healing properties. The Waller family soon learns that the pool also has a much darker and more malevolent presence that wants payment for the good things it provides.

Night Swim is co-written and directed by Bryce McGuire, who previously co-directed a short film with the same title that was much simpler, just involving a woman swimming in the pool with none of the character-development aspects that make Night Swim work so much better as a feature.

Above the Line got on Zoom with McGuire and Russell to talk about Night Swim, which included some extended discussion of working with the two kids in the family.

Bryce McGuire on set (Universal/Anne Marie Fox)

Above the Line: I didn’t watch the short before seeing this, but if I had, I might not think it could be turned into a feature. Was that always the plan when you made the short, or did the idea to expand it come afterwards?

Bryce McGuire: No, I had no idea. I thought what you thought, which is how could this be a full movie based on the short? We just knew we wanted a swimming pool as an environment and atmosphere, make it spooky. I didn’t really have an interest in doing the feature until I knew this man’s story and the family story and what the pool had to give and take from them and the history of the pool and all that. But that definitely came later, but it wasn’t going to happen until those answers were there.

ATL:  Did you have the ideas for a feature before coming to Jason Blum and James Wan?

McGuire: Absolutely. It was about three years after the short that this full idea came together, and then we took out the short and a 15-page prose document and a verbal pitch. We took that to everyone in town. A few different people were interested, but when I met with James, and I knew he liked it – and he liked the short, it scared him – it was a no-brainer for me, because he’s the master. I loved his work, stuff he’s done as a producer, stuff he’s done as a director and wanted to work with him for so long. It was a match made in water hell.

ATL: I have to say that it’s really strange being in New York City where it was 30 degrees and walking into a movie theater, and suddenly, it’s summer, and there’s sun and people (mostly) frolicking in a swimming pool. Maybe it’s pool weather all year in California, but here, it was kinda strange.

McGuire: How was that? Do you think that’s gonna kill the vibe for people, or was that like, “Cool?” Do you feel like you’re going into another wanted world from the cold?

ATL: I think it’ll be good, actually. I think by January, people in cold places will be like, “Oh, yeah, remember how nice and warm it was in the summer? It’s nice to not be cold for a while.”

McGuire: That’s what I’m hoping, that it feels like escapism from the brutal Midwest winter.

ATL: Wyatt, what interested you in this? I mean, you haven’t done that much horror that I know of…

Wyatt Russell: I kind of started in it. Jim Nichols and We Are What We Are, and a movie called Cold in July, which is a horror film. Overlord I guess was considered a horror movie? Black Mirror. I’ve actually ONLY done horror.

ATL: [laughs] So when you heard about this, you thought, “Oh, great. Another horror movie!”?

Russell: I hadn’t done it in a while. I think Black Mirror was the last thing I did. Oh, no, Overlord was last thing I did. That was like 2018. So it’s been a few years. It’s something that I do love, I like going back to in ways, when the story and the conceit are unique. When they’re new, they’re smart. I don’t like horror, when it’s by-rote storylines that you don’t get invested into whatever it is that the story is talking about. This has almost like a science fiction element to it, where it’s less of a slasher grotesque horror film and more of a science, psychological thriller. The point of it is that 16-year-olds to 95-year-olds want to go swimming. If they see this movie, there’s going to be some piece at the back of their brain that goes, “Yeah, it’s possible that a hand is going to come and grab me from the pipe down there.”

I love that aspect of it, and James Wan, Jason Blum, their track record speaks for [itself], but it’s really the filmmaker’s movie. When I talked to Bryce, I asked him a million questions, and we talked a long time. You want to know that the person who wrote the movie knows the movie that they’re going to then go make, because there are a lot of instances that are the filmmakers writes the movie, it’s really good. You like it, and then you talk to them, and you’re like, “Dude, you don’t understand even the movie that you wrote” or “You don’t know how you want to make that come to life.” Bryce had an idea and a vision that felt very cohesive to how he wrote the movie, so that was really important to me. He did an incredible job, and there were so many challenges that he had to face. First time directing is a gnarly, crazy thing, and he did an unbelievable job. You can find such great filmmakers through horror. You get so much room and any great filmmaker you know, you can pretty much trace back to a horror route, even if it’s a psychological thriller like take Chris Nolan — he’s big now — and Memento and this short film Bug that he did about a guy squashing a bug. That’s genre. Steven Spielberg, who did Duel and Poltergeist, Stanley Kubrick. All these guys, they’ve done them, so I don’t shy away from it when I know that the person behind the movie is a good director.

A scene from Night Swim (Universal)

ATL: While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of Jaws and even Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, some for reasons that might be spoiler-y. But more importantly, I was struck by the fact that your character was diagnosed MS, since I have friends who have gone through it and seen that they have ups and downs. It’s a really tough, so what kind of research did you do to know how to play that?

Russell: Bryce can speak to it, because he had a friend who’s been through certain aspects of it, so he was a resource. We didn’t want to go too hard, or too much. We didn’t want to hit that over the head, and all of a sudden, it becomes the MS story. It was about how to add that in as underscores of it. He’s not insufferably horrible yet, so there’s an element of hope that, “Oh, maybe he actually could,” where if you went too far down that alley, then there’s no coming back, if you commit to it too much. There was a balance that needed to be found.

McGuire: I just have to say that I think we always thought of the illness in terms of how it affected Ray’s dream and his occupation of being a baseball player. That’s almost the biggest thing that’s at stake here. That’s a part of his life that he doesn’t quite know how to let go of. The degenerative illness is something that’s forcing him to let go of that, and yet, he doesn’t know if he can. The second he has a chance to have that back again, that’s super seductive and enticing. We don’t want it to be a medical drama, but we also did want to treat that seriously. Otter, my friend, who kind of inspired that, he worked on the movie as well. He’s assistant editor on the movie, so important to get right, but also not to belabor it too much.

ATL: Having a family is such a key part of why I enjoyed it, like the movies I mentioned earlier.  How did you go about casting around Wyatt and Kerry in terms of their two kids?

McGuire: Once we had Wyatt and Kerry in place, I feel like the bar was set so high, like “Fuck, we better cast good kids to flesh out this family,” because they’re both supremely talented. Not just talented actors, but also just felt really, really right for their roles respectively. We just knew that we had a lot of pressure on ourselves to continue fleshing out the family in a way that’s just as good. Like, Ellie, that was a search, because we knew that the kids they kept giving me were so… for lack of a better word, they seemed so Hollywood or self-confident. I knew this kid [to play the son] needed to be kind of sensitive and kind of fragile and seem like [he could] not live up to the jock dad’s standard. I just wanted a kid that felt different than Wyatt’s character in the movie in some way.

So that was a hunt. We were down to the very, very end, looking at just a bunch of kids.  When I first met Gavin, I could just feel it. I just knew he could get it done. He was right for that. You were the first one in. Just from that first conversation, Wyatt’s background at hockey and the psychology, and also just something I was saying earlier. Wyatt really thinks like a producer, and you think about the whole film, not just your character. You want to know the film is going to work, not that you’re going to look good in it, or it’s going to succeed beyond just that character, but as a film for everyone to enjoy.

[To Wyatt] I don’t know, what else about the family?

Gavin Warren in Night Swim (Universal)

Russell: It was really well cast. They were older than they played, so that made it easier to communicate. They were really right there. They were always professional. There wasn’t too much goofing off. We had fun, but it felt good. It felt like a weird little family. Having a kid of my own and Bryce having kids definitely was very helpful on this, because even more than just being part of like a dramatic dysfunctional family. Oddly, this movie required something that was different, where it actually a very functional family. They have dysfunctions, but it wasn’t about their dysfunction. It was about really their support of each other. She’s very supportive of him and his illness, and he loves his kids. He doesn’t NOT like his kids. He has a good relationship there. It’s a little flawed. So he’s not the greatest baseball Dad in the world, but it wasn’t this massively flawed relationship. When you do those movies, that’s a whole different thing. I have a good relationship with my little guy. Bryce has a great relationship with his kids, so it was nice to be on set with someone who had that perspective, because that’s what this was. It wasn’t about this major dysfunction. Being a Dad myself, you can bring all of that to this in a very real way where you want to be a good dad. It’s not that you’re a terrible dad; it’s that you want to be a good dad, and that’s what’s driving you. That was nice.

McGuire: Especially where the film ends up going, you really gotta believe this guy does love his kids. When you say at the beginning of this movie, “I want that, too. I want this family.” You have to believe that at that moment, and it has to be true, because then that makes the ark away from that much more interesting and satisfying. And why it’s got to go to some pretty crazy places in the movie. And if that’s not grounded on some kind of love, he’s just a monster. There’s no redemption; there’s no story there. I think that was why as a dad, and as a good dad brought that layer to the character, but also, you were good to the kids on set.

Russell: Yeah, and that was fun.

McGuire: You’d goof off with them. You were cool with them. I remember that one night, that were really tough night with Amelie in the house.

Russell: That was gnarly.

McGuire: She really brought it, she got herself to a really intense place, and I have to say, I loved the way that you treated her that night, because you treated her with respect, as an adult. You were like, “Look, you’re gonna be okay, you’re doing great. This is tough. We need to go another take. Are you good?” And she’s like, “I’m good.” You didn’t… a parent knows that sometimes the right thing to do is not to coddle the kids, to respect the kid, believe that they can do more, but my feeling was by Wyatt believing in Amelie that she could hang in there for longer. It actually rose her to the occasion, and she did it. She’s fucking great in that scene, and it’s intense. And it worked. It’s a tough scene.

Russell: She’s older. She’s 18. With kids, they can be very, very coddled, and that by giving them the respect of being like, “You’re your own person. We’re working together here. You’re almost adult. You are an adult.” They’ll treat each other like that, and then respect comes from there, because I’m going to give you that respect. I’m not going to treat you like a kid. Because I never wanted to be treated like that. I hated that when parents would talk down to you; other people would talk down to you like you were seven. You’re not seven.

ATL: I want to quickly ask about the swimming pool, because it’s obviously a big part of it. Where do you find it? How did the actors deal with like all the underwater stuff while trying to keep everyone safe, obviously? Did you shoot on a set or in a tank at all? 

McGuire: We shot mainly, I’d say like 85% of it, in the practical backyard swimming pool, and I’d say like 15% of it was actually an Olympic-sized outdoor pool in Chatsworth that we flagged off and gridded off into basically a water tank. The stuff in the third act, we kind of go to this other realm, that was all done in that tank environment. You just have to plan. We have the best people in the world working with safety, but all the actors were really proficient in the water. They all had to go through some basic safety protocols. Frankly, Kerry Condon did the bulk of the swimming in the movie, and she had to do some really, really intense physical stuff, and hats off to her for just being a warrior. She was a warrior and those last tank day, those were really tough days.

I also think it’s part of the reason why she did this movie; she just wanted the physicality of that role. She wanted the challenge. She likes the water, she’s very skilled in the water, and the water’s dangerous, and it’s urgent, and you feel it in her performance, and you feel it in the filmmaking. That’s why I like the water, because it gives something to the film that’s not fake. Water is real, and everything was wet for wet.

Russell: Everything was wet for wet. [Publicist jokes, “We’ll end on that.]

Night Swim opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 5 with previews on Thursday night.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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