I know a few of you readers are familiar with the Pang Brothers’ work. The CHUD Message Boards have an Asian film thread longer than Tom Sizemore’s rap sheet to attest to the fact that Asian films (and their proponents) are making it huge here in the States. The Pangs are the creators of the successful Asian horror film (turned franchise) The Eye. If you aren’t familiar with these spook stories, they’re certainly worth checking out — I’d seen the first of these a while back, which sparked the following IM conversation between Nick and I:
NN: Hey, have you seen The Eye?
AS: Yeah, thought it was alright.
NN: Can you cover a set visit with the directors? It’s in Canada.
AS: Oh yeah, I can do that.
NN: Smilin’ Jack should be there. Has a writing credit for it.
AS: (after a pause) Oh…
NN: I’ll give you a fiver.
AS: (reluctantly) All right.
And just like that, I was going to Saskatchewan, the home of large flat spans. To get you acquainted with the material, here is the plot synopsis that I’ve pieced together after reading the press release and spending some time on set: Penelope Ann Miller and Dylan McDermott are in dire financial straits. They live in the big city and have fallen on hard times. As a last ditch effort to save the family finances, they pull up stakes and move to a rural community, purchasing a sunflower farm along the way. The purchase of the sunflower farm is what sets the town against them — not because the locals hate sunflowers, but there are whisperings and mutterings of the house being "cursed" or "just not right". But given that the family has placed all of their eggs in this one basket of flowers, they don’t have a lot of options but to farm, farm, farm. John Corbett enters the picture as a drifter who isn’t exactly what he seems, but is willing enough to help farm the land in exchange for room, board and a player to be named later (that’s sports humor, which has no place on a movie site). Not long after they move in, strange things begin to occur and more and more frequently as time passes. The Solomon family is nearly torn asunder… as payment on a very old debt.
I wouldn’t dream of cribbing from Master Nunziata, but I’m going to write a bit about the trip in travelogue form, because I want you to experience the whole trip (I had to endure, and so shall you).
I started out the day at around 6am, for me a feat akin to parting the Red Sea. Because my car is stricken with broken transmission plague, my wife and I are sharing a car and thus she must also rise and head to work early so I can meet our driver at her office, where I wait and I wait some more. Finally the car arrives, a scant 45 minutes late. It is now 7:20am, which will put me at the airport at around 8am — cutting it close for an international flight (especially in Atlanta), but it should still be okay. But Atlanta highways laugh and then kick me in the teeth. And for good measure, it eviscerates the driver. Two traffic snares later, I get to the airport at 8:50am, for a 9:20 flight to Canada. With optimism in my heart, I rush to the ticket counter, where I am promptly told to blow myself. Oh, and just in case I had any funny ideas about getting on another flight, I am reminded that I am going to Nowheresville, Canada, for which there are no other flights with seat availability, so while you’re blowing yourself, we’re going to kick you in the ass for good measure.
As soon as that’s over, I dive into the World Wide Web via my trusty Sidekick II, frantically trying to find the emergency number for the travel department. After spending some quality time with the Universal travel department, I realize that the number I’m calling comes from an old email. Right now, you’re asking yourself, "Andrew, didn’t you say that it was Columbia, and not Universal putting out The Messengers?" I did indeed. I didn’t realize that at that moment, sweating and breathing like a prank caller in the international terminal of Hartsfield International. My sincere apologies to Rose at Universal who was very patient with a complete moron such as myself while explaining that, if they aren’t making the film, they’re not going to help me with travel to that set. Once I am straightened out, I find the correct contact information for Columbia’s travel folks, who aren’t yet in the office. Bear in mind also that this is 9:00 EST (6:00 in the Pacific morning), so California has yet to arise from its slumber. After some wrangling I manage to get in touch with my future savior, one Grey Munford over at Columbia. He and I discuss options as I wander aimlessly through the airport. I let him look into options as I slump into an unused pay phone booth, appearing quite the distressed traveler. The lovely Suzanne from Sony Travel calls — it would seem the lords of fate had tired of toying with my stress levels and allowed Sony to (very graciously) book this hapless idiot on another flight, through Toronto, to the promised land of Regina (rhymes with a female body part), which is where this story has its formal beginning.
After a restful six hours of sleep and a hearty Canadian breakfast, I meet the other members of our party and off we are whisked to the set. We pull up to an industrial place in the middle of a field. If you’ve ever been to northern Indiana (though I don’t know why you would), you know what this place looks like: very cold and very unassuming. It is only when we get right next to it that I notice the things that tip off a movie set (trailers, meal tents, production assistants, etc.). The building that houses the set is an anachronism in and of itself. The place looks like a factory where they make boxes for nails. The interior is just what you’d expect from a box factory — no color to speak of, concrete floor, filthy windows that tilt out to allow ventilation. A place where dreams go to die. We enter through a plank metal door into a makeshift office, where production photos of an old shed line one wall on a piece of cork leaned up against a wall, along with photos of an old furnace that takes up an entire room, pipes going this way and that. We make small talk with a couple of crew members for a moment and then we are led into the body of the factory/film set.
The moment we walk onto the factory floor, I’m wide-eyed. We have entered to face a full basement, complete with a full-scale replica of the furnace we saw on the wall in the previous room. Every detail of this place is perfect, as it looks like they excavated the basement of an old farmhouse and moved it directly through the huge roll-up doors to our right. From the wooden support beams to the tiny and unseen details (castoff pieces of burlap sack, knickknacks on shelves, etc.), it always amazes me the level of thought and detail that is put into the smallest of scenes. Before we can look too long, we are escorted to the main set on the other side of the facility.
As an aside, on our way to the main set, we pass a guy with a shirt with the Best Buy logo on it. Upon closer inspection I realize this shirt reads "Best Boy", and not the popular electronics store. I regard this as particularly funny even as I’m sure it’s a joke that’s been around for ages).
We walk across the factory floor and walk around a hanging curtain (just for the sense of scope in here, the ceilings on this place are easily 40 or 50 feet up). As we come around the curtain, we’re greeted by a farmhouse. A nearly complete one, too. The house has a wraparound patio, plants and things hanging from the porch, and a complete bottom floor with stairs going up to a second floor (which doesn’t entirely exist). We are told that this farmhouse actually exists about an hour from where we are. It has been rebuilt in the set for better control, but the Pang Brothers picked this particular farmhouse out because it best represented the residence in their collective minds. Jason Shulman, one of The Messengers‘ producers, said that Pangs were incredibly specific about where the house and farm should go. Bear in mind that the farmhouse will eventually sit next to a field of 70,000 sunflowers, and the logistics of finding that house become a little tougher (no CGI here — that field of sunflowers existed). More than that, the producers and the Pang Brothers scouted the Regina locations in the dead of a Canadian winter. Shulman said that they visited the location when it was snowing like mad and they already saw exactly what they wanted. Six months or so later, the location was damn near note-perfect to their vision.
Being on any set is a bit off-putting in that this perfect reality is before you that begins and ends so dramatically. You can be looking at a 17th century grand ballroom that ends abruptly where a grip is hitting on a production assistant in a grubby Massive Attack t-shirt. So imagine an old farmhouse sitting in the middle of a factory, with people bustling about carrying large metal rods, paintings, and whatnot with an enormous sunflower field painting (a Trans-Mat for those in the know) behind you that can be seen from the windows of said house. Around the corner from the front door is a very powerful Mac with an enormous Cinema Display that is being used by the Stills Photographer, who we will discuss a bit later (as a taste, he not only had his Messengers work with him, but we also got to see some amazing images from the set of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain). About 12 feet from the still photo table is the video village, where the images from each camera are sent to monitors for the director and the team heads to watch during each shot. As our group makes its way to the village, we see Jason Shulman and … the two producers on The Messengers, a couple of department heads checking their images, and finally a familiar face around these parts, a gent you once knew and loved as Smilin’ Jack Ruby, one of the writers on this little picture. You may have heard of him.
Once the cast and crew finish the current setup, us cyber-journalists are brought onto the set to look around inside. Down to the slightest detail, this place feels like an operating farmhouse where Ma made a big greasy breakfast and Pa tended to the cows before everything went all Poltergeist and killed everyone inside. We wander through the side entrance to the house, which led into a pseudo-office/mudroom. Looking around us, we see dirty slatted, wooden floors with grubby coats hanging on the wall, stacks of mail on a nearby desk, and a dozen or so sweaty crewpeople, just like in a real farmhouse. Moving into the kitchen we discover Danny Pang and his crew at the internal video village, watching the scene they had just filmed. One of the interesting things I notice about this house is the fact that there is wallpaper on the ceiling — maybe this is something that was done a lot back in the day of old farmhouses, but it adds just enough of an eerie touch to the house, one more little detail contributing to the off-kilter feel. Something else I realize as we move into the dining/sewing room is how incredibly dark the house feels. Even with the few lighter colored and decorated rooms in the house, the thought of sunlight streaming through any of the windows doesn’t fit with how the house looks. Also adding to the "offness" is how much folk art is in the house — peacock feathers over the fireplace, painted tables, and even framed folk art populates much of the house. Folk art has always had a slightly sinister bent to me, so perhaps that comes from my own personal biases, but it’s still damned eerie. The last little thing I notice about the house is that (different from a lot of sets I’ve been on) all of the rooms in the house have a ceiling rather than a lighting grid above them. It will lend itself to the house looking authentic for the shots they get, but it has to be harder on the crew to have to shoot without these luxuries.
Now that I’ve described the set in trivial and minute detail, let’s get to the scenes we actually watched being shot (those of you who are skimming the article can pick it up here…). The gist of the stuff we see is that Jess (Kristen Stewart’s character) is downstairs when a loud crash comes from the floor above her. She is already slightly creeped from earlier happenings, so she cautiously goes to the foot of the stairs and yells up to her younger brother. As she investigates the noise further, the house reacts to her and things begin to "happen". The house is definitely a character unto itself — so much of this scene is Kristen acting opposite a series of practical effects. When we first entered, the crew was setting up for some basic shots and coverage of Kristen walking from the living room to the foot of the stairs, then ascending a couple of steps. They work through a number of takes, repositioning the camera teams slightly. It’s interesting to watch what each of the camera teams focus on, what portion of the action they are responsible for: one team is set up to capture Kristen from the living room into the foyer, another team is set up from ground level, watching as she enters the foyer, and another team is catching the transition from one to another. Once all are satisfied with the shots they’ve acquired, they switch to their next setup, which will begin to incorporate some of the practical effects mentioned earlier.
As the crew readies the next shot, which involves the SFX folks doing some prep work and rigging the stage, we adjourn upstairs for a series of interviews with the cast and crew. A few comments, if I may: first off, Kristen Stewart is going to be a star, mark my words. She comes across as very laid back, but also very focused about her craft. She realizes the position she’s in as an actress with such a pedigree already (She played Jodie Foster’s asthmatic daughter in Panic Room and is the older sister in Zathura).
John Corbett was next up and believe what you’ve heard, everyone: the man is tall. I’m a scant 5′ 8" so I may not be the best judge, but this guy is ten feet of great. He was technically not on the call sheet for our day on set, but came by just to chat with us. That said, he arrived on set while everyone was eating. He seemed to know everyone in the crew by name, was very warm and friendly to everyone, and just comes across as a gentle dude. While I’m on the subject of food, we ate with the cast and crew. These craft service people know their business, because we ate well.
Next up was Danny Pang (his brother Oxide was editing that day and wasn’t on set), who seems to exist in a weird limbo about his film. He knows how important this film is for him and his brother as their first foray into American cinema. But at the same time, he’s supremely relaxed about it because of their success in Asian films. Given the warnings we heard about the Pang’s ability to speak English, I was prepared for the worst, but Danny actually speaks English very well and used his translator only once in our twenty minute conversation. We had a minute to speak with the lovely Tatiana (whose last name eludes me at the moment), who plays a primary role on the not-living-any-more side of things, and who is very comfortable in her role despite a lot of pressure being on her to bring the menace.
Finally we spoke with producers William Sherak and Jason Shuman, who you may know from their work on Darkness Falls. These guys are quite sincere about bringing something new to the table in the horror genre, which is not to say they work in horror exclusively. We got a small opportunity to watch these guys work and they seem very capable of managing a film set. It’s funny to watch, though, because as Jason took a phone call, William would regale us with stories from the set of Dr. Dolittle and frog boys. Then he would get a call and James would pick up a story he started earlier about something else entirely. Keeping the stories straight was another matter, but it’s obvious that these guys aren’t just doing their jobs, they’re having a hell of a time while they’re at it.
As our day on set was drawing to a close, we got a chance to speak with VFX supervisor Bruce Jones, who showed us a ton of pre-visualizations on future scenes. In one scene Jess is in the basement, heading back upstairs when something startles her. She falls backward onto the dirt ground. In the pre-viz, we saw the footage of Kristen falling onto a mat, then being chased by several "practical" cockroaches and millipedes. (Practical = real, in this case, but they may have been very no-nonsense bugs, as well. Who knows?). The next version we saw was the same scene, but everything computer generated, with a LOT more creepers and crawlers inserted. The effect wasn’t completed yet, obviously, but it did allow us to see the evolution of a scene like this. Jones had several more scenes that allowed us to see more of that scene unfolding, cutting between filmed footage and CG material. He also spoke a bit about the crows in the movie, which are crucial to the plot of The Messengers. In fact, the title refers to something regarding the birds, but I’ll go no further into that little plot tidbit. I will spill a bit, however, on one of the FX-heavy sequences of the film: over the course of the day, we heard a couple of people mention something about the "tornado", and how you could train birds to do a lot but flying in a funnel was out of bounds as far as that was concerned. Someone asked Bruce about the tornado and he let us have a look at some pre-viz for the sequence. Basically, over the course of the film the number of birds multiplies to Hitchcockian nightmare levels. At one point, a good amount of Hell breaks loose, culminating in these birds forming a tornado to wreak some farmer-sized havoc. The pre-visualization on this sequence looks pretty fantastic, and if they pull it off could be worth seeing the film for that in itself.
To cap off the trip, we had a nice dinner at a small restaurant in Regina where we were entertained by tales of the "Taste of Regina" festival, held each year to celebrate unfortunate town nicknames and sample the food from various local kitchens. After parting company with the others, I had a decision to make: Do I make the most of my six hours before I need to be at the airport by getting some shuteye or do I head for the casino to find a poker room? Anyone who knows me already knows the answer (I made $15 Canadian and barely made it to my gate on time).