Beastly : An Exclusive Set Visit

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Nearly two years ago, ComingSoon.net was invited to Quebec to watch a few scenes being shot for Daniel Barnz’s upcoming fantasy-thriller Beastly, starring Vanessa Hudgens, Alex Pettyfer, Mary-Kate Olsen and Neil Patrick Harris. The movie is based on the novel by Alex Flinn, her take on the classic “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale set in modern-day New York involving high school students.

Pettyfer, an up and comer who also appears in DreamWorks’ I Am Number Four next month, plays Kyle, a good-looking teenager who comes from money who reigns over his high school class. The gregarious young lad pulls a mean prank on the school’s misfit outcast Kendra, played by Mary-Kate Olsen, who happens to be a witch who vengefully casts a spell on Kyle that turns him into a hideous monster. After the transformation, Kyle’s wealthy father, played by Peter Krause of “Six Feet Under,” locks his son up in a brownstone in Brooklyn. He hires Will, a blind tutor played by Neil Patrick Harris and Zola, a maid played by Lisa Gay Hamilton. (The book is different in that regard as Kendra transforms herself into Zola to keep an eye on her handiwork.) While in hiding, Kyle goes under the name Hunter, but when he learns that a girl from his school named Lindy (Hudgens) has run into some problems due to her father’s dealings with a drugdealer, he ends up helping her and bringing her into his home as a safe haven.

Producers Susan Cartsonis and Roz Weisberg picked up the rights to the book the day it was released in 2007 right as the Writers Strike was commencing and it was the first film to be optioned by CBS Films with their Senior VP of Production Maria Faillace suggesting Daniel Barnz to write it. Barnz had previously directed an indie fantasy/fairy tale called Phoebe in Wonderland, starring Elle Fanning and Patricia Clarkson, that found a lot of fans when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008.

“[Daniel] saw in it what was immediately apparent to me, which is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ set in a high school is a perfect venue for it,” Cartsonis told us when we sat own with the producers early in our visit, “because there’s never a time in a person’s life that they feel more conscious of their looks than in high school, and the hierarchy of a school is so much based on that, too. It’s such a rich time of life to tell the story, and for me, that transcended even whether it was a ‘tween movie or a teen movie or an adult movie. It didn’t really matter. It was just such a perfect marriage of subject and story.”

“Daniel has an energy about him that makes you believe that he can do anything,” Weisberg agree, “and he pretty much can.”

Although Barnz’s second feature has significantly more money behind it, it was still a relatively quick shoot of 45 days and they were on day 19, a scene which involved Kyle helping Lindy escape from drugdealers that were after her father. Barnz had the luxury of getting cinematographer Mandy Walker to shoot the film, who had just come off Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. (Ironically, Walker would also end up being the DP on Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood, which comes out a week after Beastly, so she clearly has a good eye for fantasy and fairy tales.)

The reason why they chose Quebec to substitute for New York City was that it would allow the money to go further, and for the most part, they had been shooting the film as much as possible on practical locations in and around Montreal. This particular day, they were shooting in the heart of the city’s largest outdoor park, Parc Jean-Drapeau, which was doubling for Central Park and other outdoor locations, and we were greeted by our local host, unit publicist Cara Leibovitz. Even though they were starting the day’s shoot during the late afternoon, they somehow had found a relatively abandoned part of the park where to shoot, which probably was a good thing, considering Alex Pettyfer’s make-up job. Although it was a rather rainy day, they were still making the most of it, shooting whenever they could in between downpours.

When we arrived, Pettyfer was sitting on a bench quite far away for a scene in which he’s talking on his cell phone with his father. While he was clearly already in his beastly form, we couldn’t really see him very clearly from that distance; we could tell he was shaved bald and it looked like his face and neck were covered in tattoos. When he walked by us and we saw him up-close, we were shocked to see the long scars that covered his face and upper torso. Mind you, this was before the first pictures were released, and it was quite jarring, but apparently, others had gotten used to it as we saw Alex hanging with a bunch of kids–his relatives we were told–in between takes. In the scene on the bench, Kyle was talking on the phone and at the end, he jumped off the bench and ran off. After shooting that a few times, Pettyfer had to continue the scene by running behind a pick-up truck that had a camera trained on him, because whatever he was told in that call, it was pretty urgent.

While we were waiting for them to set up, we had a chance to look at some of the photos taken by unit photographer Takashi Seida from earlier in the production, including a number of Mary-Kate Olsen’s different looks and the high school they attend, which had a very modern, stylish design, not like any high school we’ve seen in movies.

After lunch, which was actually at night since they started so late, they moved the shoot to another area of the park where they had dressed up a 10-foot high wall with all sorts of trees and bushes, which we were told was meant to be the periphery of the Prospect Park Zoo. A large float hung over the wall to bathe it with fake moonlight.

Before they began to shoot in this location, we had a chance to speak with Vanessa for a few minutes. Having never seen “High School Musical,” we weren’t too familiar with her character, but she was quite adorable and rather bubbly even though we were both shivering in the surprisingly cold May night. (As we learned, her entire family was on-set that night as well.) Afterwards, we had a chance to talk with the director, who took some time from an incredibly busy day to speak with us. You can read both those interviews below:

Interview with Vanessa Hudgens

Interview with Director Daniel Barnz

Unfortunately, Alex Pettyfer was too busy working that night, and we were told he didn’t feel comfortable doing interviews while wearing all of that heavy make-up—honestly, who could blame him? But we had a chance to talk to him a few weeks later on the phone, an interview which you can read here.

After the location was all set, they spent the rest of the night shooting a scene later in the movie in which Kyle as Hunter helps Lindy escape from the drugdealers, which involved a stunt in which he had to clime up a wall with Lindy on his back, and they spent a bit of time trying to figure out the logistics of how he should do it. For the scene, Hudgens was dressed modestly in jean jacket and jeans while Pettyfer had donned an eerie black-hooded outfit that covered more of his face. We then watched as the two actors were trussed together with a harness and with the help of a wire, he scaled the wall with her on his back, which seemed quite awkward for the both of them. After each take, they’d slowly be lowered back own the wall on the wire and they would shoot the scene from a number of different angles, and at one point, we noticed that Takashi Seida was walking precariously on the wall above them to get a cool downwards shot.

We spent a few hours watching this before it got too late (and cold) for us and we headed back to our hotel to crash, not realizing that it would be many, many months before we’d have a chance to share the experience with you.

Beastly opens nationwide on March 4.