Part one of our chat with the cast, crew
Entering the Psych Ward
My journey into mystery began, conspicuously enough, on Friday the 13th of all days. We were driven to Riverview Hospital, a mental institution in the Lower Mainland city of Coquitlam, suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. As we entered the Eastlawn section of the campus, we passed a sign that read: “Transforming Mental Illness Into Mental Wellness.” Apparently Riverview is a storied institution, with a history of controversy and lawsuits regarding inhumane practices of electroshock therapy. It has become a hotbed for many film and television productions, including The X-Files, Along Came a Spider, Elf, and, a few years later, Watchmen.
The psych ward where filming took place was in shambles, with flaking paint, rust, and crumbled ceilings galore, now used exclusively by the entertainment industry. Part of the appeal for filmmakers, including those behind Case 39 (opening October 1), is the general state of disrepair, degradation, and decay that permeates Riverview, giving it a menacing lookâ¦ or, some might say, “haunted.”
This is day 27 of a 47-day-shoot which has so far been entirely location-based. After this week the company will move on to shooting interiors in a studio, deliberately scheduled to avoid the rainy season in Vancouver. While some of the cast and crew make rumblings about the creepy ambiance of the place, its director remained unaffected.
“I don’t believe in any of it,” stated a confident Christian Alvart. “It’s just another set. People tried to create this weird vibe but it’s not working.”
A Director With No Time To Lose
In Case 39, RenÃ©e Zellweger plays a social worker named Emily Jenkins who takes a personal interest in her latest case, a 10-year-old girl named Lillith whose own parents tried to murder her. In lieu of a foster family, Emily takes in the troubled girl herself, only to discover she, of course, got more than she bargained for. On face value this seems like little more than a new entry in the “creepy evil kid” genre, but everyone involved assured us that there are a few curveballs thrown into the Bad Seed formula this time.
The first scene shot involved a Foster Services Group meeting, with RenÃ©e storming in, grabbing Lillith by the arm, and yanking her angrily out of the room. After the first take, the star complains about her shoes: “I need to not be in these shoes because I’m going to kill myself in these shoes. There’s no traction.”
Jodelle Ferland, the child actress who plays Lillith, asks the director to, “Tell RenÃ©e to grab me that hard, too.”
After only two takes of the shot they move on to a different set-up. Speed has been a hallmark of Christian Alvart’s shooting style, averaging at least 36 set-ups a day, although according to producer Kevin Misher, Christian gets depressed if they don’t make 54 per-day.
“He’s impressive,” said Misher. “Very organized, knows exactly what he’s going to do, goes very quickly. Very pragmatic. Everything is very thought-through. Nothing is arbitrary. He storyboarded every scene in the movie. It’s very helpful for everyone on the set, including us, so we can see his interpretation of the film.”
Alvart started his career in Germany as a film journalist, interviewing some of his favorite luminaries including John Carpenter. His first major feature film to gain notice was the 2005 thriller AntikÃ¶rper (Antibodies), a very disturbing film in a Silence of the Lambs vein which he wrote and directed. Antibodies was a stylish suspense ride about a captured serial killer who uses a small-village police officer’s sense of righteousness against him during a protracted interrogation.
As Alvart sat down to be interrogated by us, his assistant brought him a plate of food. “I have to eat something otherwise I won’t make the day,” he explained. “I’m coming from a $2-million-Euro movie to a Hollywood feature and to me it’s the same problems, it’s never enough. You always try to get more. They give you what they think you need, you think you need more, so you try to come up with ideas of how to solve the problems. I think when James Cameron makes his next $200-million-dollar movie he’ll have the same problem because he’s getting more and more ambitious.”
After another angle of the scene is completed, a chocolate cake is wheeled in reading “BYE BYE RIVERVIEW!” to commemorate their last day of shooting in the facility. Once the candles are blown out and everyone has a nibble, a new section of the scene is shot in which Lillith talks to the angry group leader who follows them after they storm out.
“It’s okay, Diane,” intones Ferland, creepily. “Emily’s been under a lot of stress lately but she’s been really nice to me and I hope I can stay with her for a long time.”
“CUT!” yells Alvart, and they move on to a cutaway of the therapy group looking on in shock through a glass window.
“I feel very familiar with this genre, suspense and action,” says the director. “I didn’t want to go to something I’d never done before because doing a movie in Hollywood is already something I’ve never done before. There’s a lot of familiar elements but they’re twisted in a way that feels fresh.”
Said Misher, “We’d seen Antibodies, it was a very sophisticated horror film. Very resonant in terms of the character, it’s a father-son story, really. We thought it was interesting how smart it was and how he put the scares on screen.”
The Actress Isn’t Telling
In shot 119 D, the Asian actress playing the therapist Diane scolds Emily: “Who do you think you are barging in there like that? Don’t ever do that again.”
“Cut. Thank you,” Alvart says “thank you” after every take.
They then capture a close-up, with RenÃ©e looking exasperated, seemingly perplexed as if not entirely sure of her own actions. Once that is through RenÃ©e’s stand-in, a young blonde woman named Aura Pithart, changes places with the star as they quickly re-light the scene for a Steadicam shot. While this is happening, Miss. Zellweger enjoyed a quick cup of coffee and chatted with us during a rare spare moment.
“It’s kind of wonderful,” said the actress. “You don’t have time to ruminate. At the end of the day it’s really satisfying to look at your script and realize you got that whole scene done in a day.”
For Zellweger, who is best known for roles in the hit Bridget Jones movies, Chicago, Jerry Maguire and an Oscar-Winning turn in Cold Mountain, this is her first horror soirÃ©e since she and a pre-stardom Matthew McConaughey acted in 1994’s Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “It’s been a long time since I’ve read a script in this genre that was sophisticated and unpredictable, unconventional in some respects. It has a bit of class in its style, it’s not just grotesque and base. It’s intelligent, and walks a fine line between reality and the supernatural. You can’t really tell when the character’s experiencing something that might be outside the norm or if it’s just her experiencing psychological demise. I love that, LOVE IT, because sometimes we all experience something like that.”
During the shoot Zellweger has rarely been in her trailer, and enjoyed the invigorating work ethic of her German director.
“I trust him,” she said. “I watched his film, and there were none of the clichÃ©s that make my stomach turn. He doesn’t have the tendency to go for the obvious. His shots are interesting, and it draws me in. When we first met I said, ‘Here’s the deal: I’m going to show up and you’re going to tell me what to do. I trust you.’ The old fashioned way is where the director goes, ‘Maybe we’ll do it THIS way! And maybe we’ll do it THAT way! Maybe we’ll try THIS!’ [laughs] Yeah, the trial-and-error, that doesn’t happen on this set.”
This being my first ever visit to a big movie set, I wrangled up the courage to try to get her to spill some beans on the plot.
“So is your character the grounded center of the piece that all the crazy stuff revolves around?” I asked in my naÃ¯vetÃ©.
“Oh, I’m not telling,” she said, “but nice try though. Wasn’t that good? That was good. But this isn’t really an interview, I just came around to say ‘hi’!”
Alvart was much more forthcoming about his leading lady: “For me she was the most interesting choice because she grounds the supernatural elements into something real. I take the stuff in this movie seriously. It’s not like ‘Scream’ or those types of movies that just make fun of themselves and are self-referential. I try to portray a serious horror movie with a serious story and she’s taking it serious too, so that combines very nicely.”
Zellweger’s tiny co-star, Jodelle Ferland, is no stranger to horror, having starred in dozens of films and TV shows since she was a baby, including recent stints as the “creepy kid” in Kingdom Hospital, Silent Hill, and a startling turn in Terry Gilliam’s undeservedly maligned indie Tideland, where as the lead character she had to carry long portions of screen time completely by herself.
“Jodelle has a very important part in the movie,” said Alvart. “We had a huge casting, and she was just the best. I know she’s been in a lot of horror movies and it looks like it might have been a simple solution, but at the time I had seen nothing of what she had done. She was just on a little casting tape and I loved what she had done.”
When we got a chance to sit down with this showbiz “veteran”, the child was undaunted by the room filled with reporters pointing tape recorders at her, one of whom remarked: “You must feel like President Bush now.”
“She’s probably smarter than Bush,” another called out. Ferland just giggled. Not preternaturally adult-like as some other child actors, she gave very short, honest answers that were often unintentionally hilarious.
When asked about RenÃ©e…
“Great. She’s really nice. It’s great working with her.”
Are you learning a lot from her?
“Not really!” [laughs]
When asked about Christian…
“He’s different from other directors, but all directors are different from other directors. [laughs] But he’s pretty fast.”
On her character…
“I play an abused child, and then RenÃ©e’s character, she’s a social worker, she comes and saves me. And a whole bunch of weird things start happening and my parents are, like, really crazy. They’re beast parents. They’re mean.”
The mother, Valerie Ferland, is in the room watching the interview, and when asked if Jodelle understands some of the harsh content of the films she’s in, Valerie said: “She dissects the script. She knows the project inside-and-out, knows the character, and it’s not anything foreign to her or unfriendly.”
“I saw ‘Silent Hill’ three times,” laughed Jodelle. “Scary is easy.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of our set visit…
Source: Max Evry