Heading Fox Walden’s somewhat unconventional adaptation of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” is David L. Cunningham, whose last film was the TV movie “The Path to 9/11” about the days leading up to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and while it’s a bit odd to see him directing what’s essentially a kids adventure film, he told us why he wanted to do it and how he’s faced some of the challenges, like having a release date already set in the middle of filming the movie. (Be mindful that this interview was done a few months back during the production, and obviously, they were able to make the release date.)
ComingSoon.net: What was the impetus for you to doing one of these types of movies?
Cunningham: Initially it was brought to me by the producer Marc Platt. We did “The Path to 9/11” together and for me it was the challenge, it was something completely different and I like to keep people guessing. My own tastes and feelings and thoughts about certain things change from year to year and in terms of what’s important to me now. When this was presented I thought, “Wow, this could be interesting.” I’m also the father of three kids. A lot of the stuff that I’ve done they can’t watch frankly, and I thought that this would be a great challenge to flex some new muscles and hopefully use my strengths to interpret this story in a different kind of way. They had gotten to a place with the script that the studios wanted to go with it and that’s when I got the phone call. They said that they liked this and since I then got onboard we’ve done two or three more drafts–I worked with John and so on–but they got it to a place where they felt like they had a movie here. They gave me a call and said that they wanted to get this done in an interesting way and wanted to make the schedule. They said that they weren’t afraid of Romania and so on. They wanted to make this kind of movie with this sized budget in this amount of time, and all I had to do was say “yes.” So I was on the plane over and then it was just go, go, go. We had a three-month prep for a movie that really needed six to eight months. I have three or four months to shoot a movie that really needed seven or eight months. I’ve got a few months to edit a movie that really needs five or six months. So that’s my challenge as a filmmaker.
CS: Had you read the books before doing this?
Cunningham: I had not. This was my introduction to them.
CS: Looking at some of the obstacles that were going to present a problem for you, what were some of those that you knew were going to be facing right from the start?
Cunningham: Well, one was that I literally got a phone call from Marc Platt–I live in Hawaii and I was surfing when I got a phone call–I was sitting there dripping wet and he goes, “Romania in two days.” I was like, “Okay, here we go” so I was on the plane. We came here first and the first question was whether or not Romania could handle this size of a film. Knowing that was going to be a massive factor, what are the benefits of coming to a place like Romania and what are you going to get out of it? Our sets are going to be bigger. We’re going to get a lot more production value. The downside is that we’re going to stretch the infrastructure of this country beyond anything that they’ve done before.
CS: Plus you already had a release date set.
Cunningham: You’re given a release date and you’re told, “This is your window. This is your sweet spot. You’ve got to hit this.” It’s a competitive marketplace right now and so you know you have that window and so you go for it. Right now we’re that slot after summer, but before Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is a bit of a lull there and we feel that we can do well there.
CS: Is that also a reason why there is less CGI, because that takes more time?
Cunningham: That is one of the benefits of doing less of it. Perhaps a different filmmaker would’ve put more emphasis on that.
CS: Can you talk about hitting your release date especially in the face of not using CGI and doing things practically?
Cunningham: Well, we do have some CGI in this in all fairness, but I have three editors in Los Angeles and I have one here on the set working with me. We’re cutting around the corner. We’ve already shot over a million feet of film to date and on the last project that we did we had eight editors working around the clock. So I’ve had to go through this before and it’s a matter of working quickly. I’ll show you some footage, if you like, and show you what we’re doing. You’ll get a sense of the scope of it.
CS: Is it a challenge adapting a book that’s a lot of internal stuff and not a lot of action and set pieces?
Cunningham: That has been a challenge and Susan Cooper’s world is incredibly rich and really the mythology is the plot in her book and our goal has been to try and make this story more accessible to today’s audience and introduce a new generation to her work. What that means is that someone like John Hodge building on that incredible world and creating moments and some interpretations of her book for us to be able to run with it. From my standpoint in terms of being a director is to take all of that rich mythology and all of the rich ambiance and try to do something in a way that translates to film. What my attempt has been is trying to do it in a more modern way so that the film style is much more today versus maybe more classical in terms of how many fantasy films are shot. So we’re really trying to make this ride feel not like a fantasy film. We want it to be very today and it’s happening to someone you know and recognize and understand, and even in our casting with the boy and everything else has had that intention in mind versus the more dour kids who’s kind of dejected and strange things happen to him.
CS: You mean Harry Potter?
Cunningham: I didn’t say that! (laughs)
CS: Have you met with the author?
Cunningham: Susan? Yeah, we’ve been in touch and in fact she was going to come out, but I think that she had some plans change. So we have been talking and she goes way back with our producer Marc Platt, they’ve been friends for a while.
CS: What does she think about the changes?
Cunningham: I don’t want to speak on her behalf, but I think that she has mixed feelings. She’s thrilled that it’s being introduced to a new audience, but of course she would love it to be truer to the book and in many ways we would, but at the same time we needed to translate it. So she understands the difference between books and screenplays and then her words that there is violence done to the book to already get to that point. So she’s been supporting us and it’s got to be a tough position to be an author and say, “Okay, let’s make the movie version.”
CS: With the background you’ve talked about, do you consider this a stretch? It’s not the kind of film that you would even expect John Hodge to adapt or Ian [McShane] to act in either.
Cunningham: I think so. I think that younger audiences are underestimated. I think there is a sophistication that they are capable of and thrive on. So I think that having John and people like Ian in our cast, I think, will add some colors and some dimension and some life that perhaps some other movies have gone a little cardboard, a little two dimensional. I think that kids feel that. It’s not just all about a cool shot. There will be a lot of cool shots, but they get what’s new and they get what’s working versus fabrication or something that’s pastiche. “Hey, let’s rip off that and rip off that and put it there.” So we’re excited. We’ve got a great cast that is right for the roles. We’re not trying to somehow jump-start something that’s all marketing based and I think that ultimately the movie will present itself.
CS: It’s interesting that this isn’t a star vehicle, but there are really interesting choices of actors good character actors in the roles. What were you looking for in terms of some of the roles?
Cunningham: I think that there is always an agenda, hopefully a vision of some kind. Certainly when you’re dealing with two studios there’s a process where a lot of people have to sign off on. We were trying to serve this movie the best that we could and the characters in such a way that we felt was the right vision for this. That’s what drove our casting selection and then you’re dealing with logistical issues too and who’s available and who’s not and all of that.
CS: Can you talk about the casting a little bit more and what you were going for?
Cunningham: Well, with The Walker in particular, from the books The Walker was a young man who would’ve aged and you went back in time and so on, and so that was a matter of what our emphasis was going to be the tragedy of a young man or the history of an old man? We chose to focus on the previous and really make it about this guy who had this love for this girl and was completely screwed over and had to give his soul up for it. So when he comes back, which is what we’re shooting right now, he’s back to himself as a young man to try and get into his head and his experience. Again, it’s trying to reach out to the audience that we’re going after which is today’s younger audience.
CS: Can you talk about the characters being American?
Cunningham: Yeah, that was an adaptation that happened before I came along, but what’s been good about it from perspective is that it adds a whole other layer. The whole concept of culture clash, even though the English and the Americans are cousins there is still a different culture there. So that allows us to play with that and having these Americans living in an English village. So from my perspective it gives it another layer. I know from many readers perspectives, especially the English readers, that that’s probably a bit of a bummer, but it’s just one of those things where we’re in a no win situation in terms of the loyal readers. We’re doing the best we can to capture the spirit of the book and at the same time translate it for today’s audience. That is our goal.
CS: The challenge of a fantasy film like this coming after all the others is to not retread the same ground while appealing to an audience who likes these movies. How do you do that?
Cunningham: Exactly. Well, that’s what we’re working on. I come out of grittier subject matters, documentaries and independent films, and one of the things I like to think that I’m bringing to this is the realism. It’s a fantasy and realism movie with an emphasis on realism and I think the prism of this and the language of this, the style of this is unlike the other movies. We’re hoping that this will be very fresh and unique and appeals to that. So, for example, instead of heavy CGI, computer-generated imagery, we’re doing a lot of things for real. I brought in a thousand snakes from the Czech Republic and dumped them all over our actors. I used real water to wipe out the mansion. We used real rooks, trained rooks to fly at these kids. We built this stuff. You’ve seen the sets. The scale of them is there, and we’re not relying on computer-generated stuff to enhance them. They are what you see. Vikings. I brought in real Viking re-enactors that live this way year round.
CS: For real?
Cunningham: For real and they brought their Viking ship and we had a Viking war. It was amazing.
CS: Have you found it more difficult to do things practically?
Cunningham: Well, I think that I’m leaning in on my own strengths in that as a filmmaker what I’ve been growing in and getting better at and all of those things is the real stuff. Having traveled quite a bit and experienced quite a bit is that whole thing of how we capture life. Computer generation often, the tail starts wagging the dog sometimes and suddenly it gets very cartoonish and it’s all about something else. So when you’re filming it is more difficult in many ways, but there is also something that is organic about it and you can make more discoveries and the actors and the sets, everything starts interacting with one another versus it being planned to death and then feeling quite sterile. There are some phenomenal CGI movies out there, but in many ways it’s more difficult. However, for me, it’s more satisfying. A good example is, do you blow up a car and see what happens or do you blow up a car in the computer? When you blow up a car for real wild stuff happens. The blast goes this way and maybe a camera gets smashed and you get a cool shot and someone has to dive out of the way, and it’s like, “Whoa! I just captured a great moment.” So I’m leaning in on my strengths of being able to try and use the real thing.
CS: We’ve seen a few of the sets, so can you talk about the way you’re shooting this?
Cunningham: Well, we’re really trying to have the visuals carry the story and not necessarily dialogue, and we’re trying to make the world in which Susan Cooper originally created which is so much about atmosphere and so much about mood really the tone was the plot. So we’re trying to take as much inspiration as we can from that and shoot it with that in mind. This is all about the elements, the six signs. There’s fire and there’s water, etc., so I’m trying to incorporate that as well into the language of the film. You’ll see a lot of stuff that’s filmed through water and through fire and bringing all of those elements in. So that’s one specific example. I’ve worked with this DP before and we like to get in there and try stuff. Sometimes you’re limited with a set and you only have this much to be able to work with and you find yourself jammed up in a corner. The other thing is that we shoot with a lot of cameras from a practical standpoint. So I’m shooting with three and four, five, six cameras at a time and that allows us to be able to get this movie made faster, but also requires more set from a practical level.
CS: How is it knowing that you’re also going to be destroying the sets that they built, especially if you don’t have more than one of those sets?
Cunningham: Yeah, that’s a little scary, but at the same time I love blowing stuff up. It’s a real thrill doing that.
CS: What thoughts have you had, if any, on the other books and on the movie becoming a franchise?
Cunningham: Only just the larger scope of it all. You obviously want to focus your efforts on making the first one great and hopefully the world embraces it, so we have put a ton of time into it. Of course, there are high hopes and expectations and some thought to that, but right now it’s about focusing on making this great and not getting ahead of ourselves.
CS: Speaking of the other books, you’ve made some changes to make it a little more modern and more cinematic, and some of the Arthurian stuff has been taken out that’s more important later on in the series. Was that a specific decision that you were involved in?
Cunningham: Most of that happened before I was involved, frankly. The one thing that is a benefit of that is that it does separate us from a lot of the other fantasy films and ground this in people that’s maybe a quirky aunt that you know or a person across the street and they happen to be this or happen to be that. So that works for me, but much of that had been decided before I got involved.