The Uninvited: The Set Visit

Posted by: Mark McLeod  //  January 26, 2009 @ 5:59am

Filed under: Features

One day a couple summers back, I was checking my e-mail as I do countless times per day, when I came across an interesting e-mail from one of my entertainment industry contacts. It was an invitation to visit the set of a major Hollywood motion picture shooting in Vancouver, then titled A Tale of Two Sisters. Now this is nothing new, as lots of movies shoot up here, and it wasn't even the first time I had been invited to be on a set. However, there was something special about this invitation. Immediately, I followed up and expressed interest, and a few days later, I found myself in the lobby of a downtown hotel awaiting the arrival of a major Hollywood producer who would give us an overview of the day.

The time and place was 8:00am in a nice conference room at the Sutton Place Hotel, and as the minutes advanced, more and more people filed in awaiting the free breakfast and the day's adventures on nearby Bowen Island. A little after 8, the unit publicist Leanne Muldoon came in and introduced Walter Parkes, who at one time was the president of production at DreamWorks, and is one half of the production team Parkes-MacDonald, a veritable force in the movie industry and the team behind American Beauty, Men in Black, Gladiators, Minority Report, and so many others. And with that, the day was off to its official start with a breif introduction from all the participants -- a who's who of both on and offline publications.

How did the project get started?

Walter Parkes: I got a phone call from an executive at DreamWorks named Mark Sourian. Now, Mark has been very important in our kind of life as producers because Mark was the one who said, I just saw the scariest movie I've ever seen. You need to see this. Well, it's called Ring or something. I said, we may have to, and it's coming up. It was in turnaround and there's gonna be a bidding war. And I said, you know what? I have to see it this weekend. And he said no, you have to see it now. So, he brought over the videotape and we popped it in. And I'll never forget we're watching it, mesmerized and our two quite young children at the time, nine and 12, looked in and saw what we're seeing and watched for about two minutes and like, got freaked out and left which was a good sign. We bought the rights to The Ring right there. So, it was probably three years after that, and we were on vacation and I got another phone call from Mark and I have now learned to take those phone calls rather seriously. He told me that the basic premise of the movie is this fairy tale about two girls and literally based on hearing the story, we said yes, go ahead. We'd buy this thing and it was a very, very costly purchase because this was now when the Asian horror cycle was at its peak in Hollywood. So, everyone was trying to scramble go get this. I think the movie, the Korean movie's kind of a work of genius, but I still don't understand it after repeated viewings. And I'm not so sure we would have joked that I haven't see it but there was something about the concept that was so appealing that we went ahead and acquired it.

Now one of the biggest things with these Asian remakes is toning down the gore and adjusting things for the American audiences. What can audiences expect from this film -- are you toning it down?

WP: A little bit. Not so much the horror, but the gore. I mean, the Korean poster is of these two girls, you know, in a family portrait, they're just covered in blood. The first audience for these movies are teenage girls, and it's really fantastic when you have one that worked. So, it's nice to be able to make a movie that doesn't have a rating that precludes the people you kind of make it for. Because the issues of this movie, again, you know, it's an entertainment, but you always try to tie it into, like, something, some meaning. So, these issues of, you know, seeing your parents for what they're really are, you're, the young, you know, the coming-of-age sexually, the breaking from family, all those things, the kind of emotional issues of the movie are very much that of teenagers. So, you don't want to keep teenagers out of the theater.

Let's talk a little bit about the casting. Emily Browning is your lead, who you worked with before on Lemony Snicket. What was that process like on this film?

WP: It sounds like one of those made-for-Hollywood stories, but we were sitting on the set of Lemony Snicket watching Emily, who possesses not only this kind of inexplicable acting instinct -- I don't even know where it comes from -- but she also has, and again it sounds kind of corny, a sense of an almost old soul. I mean, there's something about her that, like, drives you in and it's extraordinary, and Laurie and I said to ourselves and said to her, she was then 13 or 14, you know, you should do a thriller. And we really felt this was the girl that we just like operate, because there's, you know, so many great actresses and actors carry a certain mystery, and it's elusive. So, it was natural, and Emily hadn't been working much. She, kind of, stopped working and went back to high school. So, it was, you know, a little bit of fortuitous timing that she was available when we had this part.

David Strathiarn, well, that was, it was an amazing score. I mean, I think he liked the script. I know David. I wrote, co-wrote and co-produced the movie Sneakers, where David had a memorable role. Actually, (it) was one of his first, you know, mainstream Hollywood roles where he played a blind computer hacker, with the famous scene where he has to drive a truck blind. And, you know, he's just developed into what, one of the three or four pre-eminent American character actors. I think that, you know, you look at who could possibly elevate the movie. I mean, what we're trying to do with this is take a shot and you try to elevate it with the best possible directing, the best possible cast, and the best possible filmmakers. And certainly, David was, I'm trying to think, I don't think there was anyone above him.

Elizabeth Banks... Steven cast Elizabeth in Catch Me If You Can, in an adorable quick part. And she's done such great work in these big comedies that it was initially surprising to see the depth and the potential for lethality, and the toughness, and this kind of other thing, which she showed in her auditions. And yet, in a way, maybe, what's true about comedy writing and suspense is true about comedy acting and suspense. Hitchcock movies are, like, very funny. And some of the best Hitchcock actors, like Cary Grant, were actually great comedy actors, 'cause there's a certain, you know, agility that's necessary. Turns out that she went to drama school and did theater her whole life, and is an extremely accomplished actress. So, she's working great.

And then Arielle is, you know, the most perfect foil to Emily in the world. Arielle is about the most outgoing energy, positive attitude in the world. And that made for a wonderful kind of, I don't know, it's just a wonderful pairing. So, it's an interesting foursome.

Before long it was nearly 9am and the group of 20 piled into a rented hotel shuttle bus to navigate Vancouver morning traffic to meet up with our water taxis to the Bowen Island set. Shortly before 9:30, we boarded for the 15-minute water journey which was reminsicent of the fateful trip of the SS Minot. As the water taxi pulled into a secluded pier, on a beach surrounded by forest, the pack of journalists stormed by the beach as if we had landed on the beach from Lost. After a short walk through the forest, our bus reappeared to drive us the rest of the way to the oceanside house that serves as a central character in the film's story. It's here where Walter Parkes took us on a breif tour of the house and a nearby boathouse, the scene of one of the film's biggest moments.

WP: What's behind me -- a key part of the story is that Anna, the character that Emily plays, comes home after her mother, a year before, had died in a mysterious fire in a studio on top of the boathouse. The mother (had) been ill and had been moved out here with a caretaker. So, we looked far and wide for a property with a boathouse. We realized that wasn't gonna happen, so we built this boathouse and in a scene last week, we actually re-enact the explosion and the fire that took place here. So, what you're seeing is what happened after we did our pyrotechnics. But it was a great job of Andrew (Menzies, Production Designer) in terms of creating something that feels very much like it's part of the architecture of the place and had its own kind of romance to it. And it was a spectacular blaze.

As for the house, the owners have incredible taste, as you can see. And one of our jobs was kind of to not dotty it up, but to kind of almost take a little bit of a shine away from it. So, things like this linoleum floor, we put in. There was a big beautiful center island that any cook would want, that we took out in favor of something more rusty. We did some work here. I love, this is a great detail. Someone asked me what about Tom and Charlie (Guard, the directors)? There was a detail in our pre-production that kind of exemplified why we feel we made the right choice with the Guard brothers. We came here, we went to several other houses, the ones I looked at all had bad staircases. Tom and Charlie quickly said, one of the most fundamental aspects of the language of horror is a staircase. Getting up a staircase, coming down a staircase, looking down from a staircase, looking up from the bottom, that they're just, somehow, there's something about them going back to -- remember Claude Rains bringing Ingrid Bergman in Notorious? -- that they stick in our minds. So, we kind of have a great staircase, but originally, the banister had very thick pieces of wood with just little slats. Add to all of this the guys are also absolutely obsessed with wallpaper, being fine English lads. I can't tell you the discussions and arguments we had about this wallpaper.

Not long after, we learn Walter has to leave us to fly back to L.A., as he came in especially to speak to us.

After mulling around in and out of the house and of course hitting up craft services, we learn that the directors, Charles and Thomas Guard, will be the first to face the group and that they are nervous about having 20-odd industry journalists interrogate their ideas for this latest Asian horror remake. However, their fears were put to rest shortly when they realized that we weren't all that bad.

Since Asian audiences are a lot more patient, how are you guys approaching the terror for Western audiences?

Thomas Guard: We're very influenced by that Asian terror, but we kind of just see it through our end, kind of, our insensibilities. So, we don't feel that we're kind of moving away from it too much. I mean, it's very implied. And a lot of it is in the faces of the characters and the anticipation of things. I mean, we hope that there'll be a bridge actually, perhaps between a Western sensibility and an Asian one in this...

Charles Guard: Certainly. I mean, they're our kind of, our appreciation for Asian cinema is sort of, because of the fact that it is much freer and it's sort of narrative constraints than Western cinema, which is much more kind of structured and kind of pointed. So, we're harnessing the energy of the story as a way of kind of tuning in to some of the terror.

TG: I mean, rather than the scenes themselves. And I think that's, the script is a really good fusion of both because it's got very strong kind of Western style story scenes. But then it's got these gaps between, which are the kind of the terror and the horror. And those are the kind of the moments that we really enjoy because they're kind of, they're slightly looser and silent and really about how people see things or what they've seen or things like that.

You know, a lot of Asian movies, the narrative is very fractured. They jump around a lot, multiple story lines and flashbacks. Was it a little chaotic doing that for you and challenging, like keeping track of where everything was?

CG: Well, that's the whole thing with Asian cinema, is it really does, it conforms to very few rules. I mean, anything kind of goes. And that's one of the reasons why those films are so scary 'cause you really don't, as an audience, probably, don't know quite what to expect or what, you know, what to expect in terms of what's really gonna be possible. Whereas when you're watching Western film, you sort of know that even in your darkest fear, they're not gonna kind of, the filmmakers aren't gonna quite go there because it's sort of, it would just be too much, whereas Asian cinema seems kind of, like pushing those boundaries a little bit.

Can you talk a bit about how you're approaching the fact that the film is aiming for a PG-13 rating?

TG: We're drawn to the scarier material in a kind of psychological sense. So, we're not, and from the outside, no one's intention has been to go and make this a kind of a slasher-style horror. It's always been a kind of a classier end of the spectrum. It's sort of, it's more, yeah, it's taking different films really.

For you guys, what do you consider the hallmark of horror films?

TG: Probably Rosemary's Baby.

CG: Rosemary's Baby or The Others and The Sixth Sense. I mean, that kind of, they're horror films that are kind of, you know, psychological thrillers as well as horrors. They cross, I mean, that was the thing that attracted us to this project, is that it was certainly sort of a kind of genre-buster. It kind of, it blends boundaries between the genres, which is exciting.

It was then decided to break for lunch, as the cast/crew lunch wasn't scheduled till past 4pm and we were scheduled to head back into Vancouver before then, so we jumped on the shuttle bus and headed to 'base camp' where a lovely meal was prepared for us. Following some lunch chatter about other movies we had seen recently, we were told that David Strathairn was up next in the hot seat. Excitement spread amongst the group as Strathairn was coming off an Oscar win for Good Night and Good Luck and some much-buzzed-about character performances, as well as appearing in The Bourne Ultimatium, one of the summer's biggest blockbusters. Everyone was eager to learn what attracted him to a horror/thriller script like The Uninvited remake, which seemed to be on paper at least just another re-imagining of a cult favorite Korean horror movie.

You know, when you started your career, you were working with people like John Sayles who have real intimacy to sort of the stories, you know? And now that you're doing bigger movies, does it make any difference to you what sort of the scale of the movie or the story is?

David Strathairn: No. It doesn't make a difference to me, particularly. It probably makes a difference to the production. But in light of John Sayles' work, I'd say he's quite particular in the way he approaches the realization of his stories. He is the writer, director, editor, very often producer, very often storyboard artist, very often the guy who sits in the final mix. This one feels more like a collaborative effort with a lot of cooks in the kitchen. But John is, he's the chef.

This is from a genre we haven't seen you work in before. What interested you about the project?

DS: Yeah. I had never been involved in a sort of psychological thriller-slash-mystery type of script, so it's new to me. I haven't the seen Korean film, but in light of a John Sayles scenario, I felt this was an ensemble piece and the event affected everybody, so it sort of intrigued me as to how they were gonna, to navigate this psychological, thrilling, sort of mysterious... story. And, yeah, I was most curious about that.

It's very interesting that the script is quite an interior landscape because of Anna's journey and what each character is having to sort of navigate because of the event. It's an interesting contrast to have this extraordinary landscape around what is an interior journey of the characters. I think that'll probably add context for the audience, when they see that it is an isolated place. But as far as our work is concerned, it, like I said, it's so interior but very often the environment doesn't come into play.

After spending nearly 30 minutes with the group, the very patient and gracious David Strathairn, who at one point even paused mid-answer when someone's recorder clicked off, was called to set leaving us to await the arrival of Elizabeth Banks.

Now, I won't beat around the bush here -- one of the big things that attracted me to this was the fact Elizabeth Banks was going to be in the picture. A long time fan of her work, albeit in films I didn't otherwise enjoy, I was curious how the primarily comedic actress would do in a dramatic role.

How is it working with the two new directors. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Elizabeth Banks: They're brothers. They're great. They're very visual. You can tell that they're very concerned about, you know, every little detail of the composition of the shots, which I appreciate. I think they're really raising the bar in terms of how the movie looks. They talk a lot about making sort of a more classy thriller, a What Lies Beneath-type of movie versus just sort of a fast, you know, less-artistic horror flick -- more in line, frankly, with the original. I mean, the original is so visually arresting. And I think they're really trying to go for something that American audiences can relate to but that still has a great, sort of, sense of artistry about it.

Are you a fan of Asian horror, and prior to this, have you been into it?

EB: You know, I'm not. I do love to see a good Asian horror movie every once in a while. James Gunn (who directed Banks in Slither) introduced me to a lot of them. This is actually his favorite movie. So, when I told him I was doing the remake, he was horrified.

What interested you in the film?

EB: Great character. I get to play a villainess, which I never get to do. And I'm, as you said, a little more well-known nowadays for doing comedy, so just the idea of being able to play someone who's a little edgier, her sexuality is right out there. We talked a lot about Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Sharon Stone and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction -- they were just, like, the great female villains. I just love all of those, and their performances that I admire, and they're really fun to play. And I think the audience gets a good kick out of it, too. My whole take on Rachael is that she is very misunderstood by, she is clearly misunderstood -- I mean, by being in the movie, we know for a fact that she's misunderstood. But I, you know, they call me evil nurse on set, that's sort of my nickname. So -- and I keep saying misunderstood nurse -- Rachael, really, I think, is just a lot of light and a lot of energy for a family that was suffering for a long time, and whose daughter clearly has... some depression and a lot of issues. And Rachael is just very straightforward and out there and wants to be happy, and she's ambitious and fun-loving and... you know? I, as an actor, need to see all of those great sort of fun qualities that I can play and not just worry about her being frightening to this stepdaughter.

Did you watch the original film? Are you taking inspiration from that?

EB: I did and it's a very confusing movie, that original film. Our script is very different. It's really, I don't want to use the word Americanized, but it's certainly, it's more easily digestible... than the original, I would say.

Why do you think Asian horror seems to have translated to American audience in such a big way over the last couple of years?

EB: Well, I don't think they have in such a big way, otherwise we'd just be watching the original Asian horror movies. Why are we remaking them? That's the question. I think they're great storytellers. They deal with very sort of, they deal with those deep human emotions much like Greek tragedy does. They're not afraid to talk about suicide or family and ancestors, ghosts, you know?

What's the scariest movie you've ever seen?

EB: Poltergeist. The freaking clown doll under the bed blew my mind. As well as, like, the tree branch outside the window, you know? JoBeth Williams swimming around with a bunch of dead bodies. The whole thing killed me. And I was right at that age when I wasn't allowed to watch Poltergeist. I got it, we got HBO that year, I watched it from, like, behind my couch where no one, you know, so if my mom came to the room I could hide, so she would think that the TV had just been left on.

Elizabeth's interview was a lot different from the others, as to that point a lot of care was taken by the publicist to make sure certain elements about the movie weren't revealed by the cast or crew, like any plot twists or major differences in the translations, aka the moments you wouldn't want to know about going in. However, for Elizabeth's interview, the unit publicist left for a bit to secure transportation back to the mainland, which left her in the hands of two studio publicists who didn't quite catch on to what she was explaining. Since I hadn't seen the original, I didn't pick up on it right away, but it was all the chatter at the conclusion of the interview.

After this, it was back up to the main set to interview Arielle Kebbel and Emily Browning, who play the references of the movie's original title (A Tale of Two Sisters). Since most of the day's filming was supposed to involve them, it was a bit of a wait for them to find time to talk. They eventually showed up to do their interviews together. Arielle, no stranger to Vancouver-based film sets having shot John Tucker Must Die here, immediately recognizes some of the journalists in the crowd, and the discussion turned to her ever-changing hair color. But before long, things were back on track discussing the film at hand.

Did you guys watch the original film, and if so, what did you think of it? And I know that you're a fan of Asian horror movies.

Arielle Kebbel: Of course, naturally. You would hope so, at this point anyways.

Emily Browning: I watched it just after I read the original script ages ago, and I really liked it. I think it was, like, really beautifully shot and really cool, but so confusing. And I think that's, I mean, so I see why there's room for a remake. But, I mean... we're trying to do it without dumbing it down too much, do you know what I mean? Even though with the first one, I don't know who has seen the first one, it's like, I have to actually take breaks from it and sort of just collect myself and figure out what was going on, 'cause it's really confusing. So, I guess that's why the remake is happening.

Well, it's not linear. So, is this one told that way?

EB: No, there's flashback stuff and there's weird stuff, but it's not as sort of scattered as the other one.

AK: And also, I think we both agreed when we saw it that we, there was a lot of, like, touching between sisters and a certain, very cool intimacy that they had in their relationship. And it was really important to both of us that we kept that in this, you know, in just sort of telling our story and small things that we did. And, you know, like there's this bedroom scene in the original, not the bedroom scene. That sounds really kinky. There's this scene where, you know, they sleep together in the same bed, and that's something that sisters do... Anyways, go and see this film, it's X-rated! *laugh* There are certain things, you know, stroking her hair and just, there's a certain intimacy and exchange of relationship and trust that they have that we, both of us, thought was really important...

EB: Yeah. There's, like, kind of a few things that we had to take from the original movie and kind of do something similar. But at the same time, we didn't, we're not making the same film in an English version, do you know what I mean? Because the original film is awesome. It's really excellent. And I know it has, like, a huge fan base. So, we're not trying to make the same film again. We're just, we have taken a lot of elements from it, yeah.

Emily, you've been into Anna's state of mind, and she has some major issues going on. How did you...

AB: She's perfectly sane. *laugh*

EB: It was especially difficult for me because I only knew I was playing Anna really close to, I mean, I auditioned originally for Alex.

AB: And she got the part. Let's just make that clear.

EB: And then it just didn't, it kind of, really close to filming, it kind of worked out that they just thought they wanted me to play Anna instead, and they really wanted Arielle to do Alex. So, it was actually, I was, I mean, it was a rush sort of thing at the end.

AB: It was very bizarre.

EB: Trying to go from this character who's kind of, you know, kind of bad ass but a lot more, a lot kind of like happier in a way, to this character who sort of, still very much a child but really quite screwed up. So, there are a lot of scenes where it's just kind of, there's a lot of normal sisterly exchanges. And it's kind of, I don't need to be too deep about it, but then there's a lot of stuff where, I don't know, I just need to be left alone... 'cause it's pretty, I mean, she's pretty insane.

AK: And also, I think it's really interesting that what she wanted to do with the character, I think, is really important. The obvious thing is that, you know, Alex is supposed to be sort of the stronger one, and Anna is, you know, the weak one or whatever. But that's not really the case at all. I mean, that's how it's scripted. But I think the fun part about us both, what we've brought, is that it's very obvious for Alex because she's the sarcastic one. It would be obvious to make her like sort of the... insecure girl. And, in fact, they crossover quite a bit, you know, although Alex is sarcastic and frustrated with the household situation. She's really like hard-headed and she has a fun spirit and a zest for life about her. And Anna is really strong, I mean, that is what allows her to do, like, all of these things. And, you know, it was really important to Emily to not make her weak.

Do you guys hang out together off the set, 'cause I know you have a track record of hanging out with your co-stars in Vancouver?

AK: Yeah. *laugh* We actually hate each other.

EB: Yeah. She's a bitch! But we lived in the same place. So, we sort of...

AK: And both of our boyfriends have the last name of Turner. *laugh*

EB: We've gone away on the weekends with our boyfriends and stuff, so we're pretty, it's good having, being able to have someone else.

So, as representatives then of the target demo -- in regards to the question that I've asked other people over the day -- could you explain the popularity of the genre suddenly? As people that are consuming the genre, no one's been able to explain why the genre has become so popular?

EB: Well, I don't know if we can explain it, really.

AK: We have the answer.

EB: When you say genre, are you talking like, specifically, these remakes of the (Asian) horror films, or just horror in general, or thriller?

AK: I don't think that's what this is, which is why I was attracted to it. I mean, I definitely did the horror with The Grudge 2, but I think this is more of...

EB: I think this is different than a lot of the Asian remakes, definitely.

AK: Yeah, and this is more, like it reminded me when I read it, of sort of like, you know, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or What Lies Beneath, where you have those thrilling moments where, you know, it sort of takes your breath away.

And with that, they were called back to set to shoot the film, and the journalists stormed the beach in reverse and hopped in the water taxi to meet with downtown rush hour traffic (the 30 minute trip there became 90 going back), and once back at the hotel things split for a bit where a few of us went shopping at the local vintage t-shirt place before heading back for a closing dinner on the studio's dime.

The next day it was a return to normalcy, but for that one August day, it was a taste of Hollywood for a Showbiz Monkey like myself. Now, about a year and a half since the end of principal photography, the formerly titled A Tale of Two Sisters will hit North American screens under the new title, The Uninvited, and the results (and that magical house once rumored to be considered for purchase by Harrison Ford) will be up on the screen.

Special thanks to Paramount Pictures for a great day, and while an literal word-for-word transcription of all the day's events would run on for no fewer than 104 pages, I hope this gave you an insight into the making of the film.

Tags: The Uninvited, Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Banks

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Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.

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