Moriarty Visits London For A Dash Of STARDUST!! Part One Of Two!!
Published at: July 21, 2006, 8:37 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
It was easily the quickest turnaround ever from someone saying, “Hey, would you be willing to visit the set?” to me actually sitting on a plane, en route somewhere. In this case, I heard from Matthew Vaughn’s right hand man and associate producer Tarquin Pack on a Sunday night, and by late Monday afternoon, I was sitting onboard a Virgin Atlantic flight to Heathrow.
Thanks to the time change, I arrived in London midday Tuesday, and despite my best efforts, I didn’t get hold of the office for STARDUST until it was basically too late to head out to Pinewood. Damn. A good eight hours or so wasted on my part, and I didn’t even get to work out my jet lag in the process.
The next morning, I was up early, and there was a car waiting for me in front of the Park Inn Heathrow. It’s a featureless little industrial hotel right across from the airport. Being inside, it’s like you’re on a cruise ship. For some reason, I got booked into the flight crew part of the hotel, where every room seemed to be taken up by flight crews from around the world, in London for a layover. As I headed for the lobby, I was surrounded by 40 lovely flight attendants from Air China, some of whom were complaining about having to double and triple book rooms. Seems I showed up right at the height of Wimbledon, so there were no hotel rooms in London, basically. Resisting the urge to offer to double up in my room with the stewardesses, I made my way to where my driver was standing by his car. He introduced himself, and then we headed north, away from London proper. In fact, if you want to get technical, that headline is wrong, since I never made it to London at all. I stayed across from Heathrow, and I spent my days at Pinewood Studios, which is north a bit, out in what the driver described as “stockbroker belt”, in Buckinghamshire. Like most of the union drivers I meet on various film sets, each of the guys I met in the two days I was onset were friendly, loaded with stories, and made the drives to and from the studio a genuine pleasure each time. Drivers know everything, and if you ask them, they’re normally happy to share what they’ve seen with you.
About halfway out to the studio, it hit me, and for a moment, I completely lost track of what the driver was saying about Daniel Radcliffe. “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m going to Pinewood Studios.” Growing up, seeing these soundstages featured in specials about STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and Stanley Kubrick and so many other films that defined my first decade or so of film geekdom, these places had long since become holy ground to me. I’ve gotten totally spoiled, living in LA, because I spend so much time on studio lots that I sort of take that connection to film history for granted. But Pinewood Studios had always been this place that was a half a world away, a place I’d never go.
Turning off the main road, the gate didn’t even look like a gate. It was much less military-checkpoint than the entrances to Disney or Warner or Sony these days. No logos, no big announcement. We were waved through without even stopping, and the driver turned right, headed towards the largest building in sight, a giant white structure. As he made the next left, I saw the sign on the front of that enormous white stage, the familiar 007 icon. I remember when the 007 stage was undisputedly the largest soundstage in the world. When it was built for THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, it was first used for the giant supertanker headquarters of the film’s bad guy, and the set was so large that cinematographer Claude Renoir approached production designer Ken Adam for advice on how he was supposed to light something that big. Ken Adam called in his frequent collaborator and good friend Stanley Kubrick and asked him to look at the set. He did, and within a half-hour, he told Adam exactly what he had to do to light the set properly. Sure enough, the lighting set-up that Kubrick explained was the one that they finally used to be able to see the enormity of the set they built. That same soundstage was used to build The Well Of Souls for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and as they were shooting the sequence with all the snakes on that set, Kubrick was shooting THE SHINING one stage over. His daughter was so upset about what she saw as animal cruelty that she tried to get RAIDERS shut down. There are dozens of other stories I’ve heard over the years about things shooting on that stage, people who have passed through, and all of those stories came rushing back to me as we drove by and parked in front of a small brick building.
It seems fitting that the first two stories that popped to mind involved Kubrick. The STARDUST team has made their offices on the top floor of the Stanley Kubrick Building, and I walked up the staircase in the middle of the building, past the offices where THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM was already up and running, past the art department for STARDUST, where I saw photos of each of the major locations, and then finally, I walked into the main offices, which were already bustling with activity at what felt to me like a prohibitively early 9:00. One of the girls from the office walked over to ask if she could help me, and I explained that I was looking for Tarquin. She led me back, through the open center of the offices. All around, high on the walls, the entire cast was laid out in a series of head shots, one after another. Charlie Cox as Tristran. Claire Danes as Yvaine. Sienna Miller as Victoria. Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare. Michelle Pfeiffer as Lamia. Jason Flemyng as Primus. Mark Strong as Septimus. And it just went on and on. Sarah Alexander as Empusa. Rupert Everett as Secundus (who has one of the funniest scenes in the whole film). Dexter Fletcher as “Skinny Pirate.” Ricky Gervais as Ferdy the Fence. Peter O’Toole as the King of Stormhold. Mark Williams. David Walliams. Mark Heap. Julian Rhind-Tutt. It was strange... I had just watched several episodes of GREEN WING, the British comedy series, on the plane on the way over, and I saw at least three of the show’s actors in the STARDUST cast. And until I saw his headshot, I didn’t realize that Mark Heap, who seems absolutely deranged and degenerate on GREEN WING, is actually the same guy who played Brian on SPACED. Hats off. I never connected the two, the mark of a genuinely good performer.
The girl took me into Tarquin’s office, where I saw Tarquin sitting behind his desk. I’ve met him a few times in the past, and any time I’ve dealt with Matthew Vaughn at all, Tarquin’s the first person I talk to. Jane Goldman was also there, seated at the second desk in the room. Jane’s the co-screenwriter for the film, having adapted Neil Gaiman’s original STARDUST novel, co-writing the script with Matthew. I’d never met Jane before, but she’s evidently well-known in the English film scene, in part because she’s married to Jonathan Ross, presenter of THE FILM PROGRAMME, which has been running in the UK since ’72. Jane introduced herself warmly, and within a few moments, the three of us were chatting about how the film’s been going so far.
Jane seemed really pleased with the production, and Tarquin talked about how much more he’s been doing on this film than he did on LAYER CAKE, and how much he’s been busting ass to justify that associate producer credit. Babysitting me during my visit was evidently just one of about a bazillion things Tarquin had to do for the day, but he still took the time to walk me over to the stage where the first unit was shooting. This was the stage right next to the 007 stage, meaning this is where the Overlook Hotel once stood. Walking in, the first thing I see is the outside of what looks like a cozy country inn, with an unfinished front. Inside, it was completely finished, richly detailed, my first close-up look at the production design by Gavin (STAR WARS EPISODES I-III, KAFKA, xXx) Bouquet. This first set is Lamia’s Inn. It’s not a real inn, though. It’s more like a magical mousetrap, created using an elaborate spell right along the path that Yvaine (Danes) is traveling. See... Yvaine’s not a normal girl. She’s actually a fallen star in human film, and Lamia is part of a trio of witches who need to get hold of the star’s heart so that they can eat it and replenish their magical power. Lamia creates this inn and the people working in it from whatever she’s got on hand. The serving wench and the barkeep are both actually goats who have been changed, although they retain some goaty characteristics. And the building and all the furniture in it are both made from bones and antlers and whatever else Lamia could get hold of. It’s a really solid-feeling set. When you’re standing on it, you don’t see the seams. Vaughn seems to be a firm believer in building an environment as completely as possible. Matthew was nowhere to be seen, and Jane explained that they were running two units at the same time, and that Matthew was running back and forth between them. I watched them setting up the day’s first show, in which comedian Mark Williams (probably familiar to most mainstream audiences as Mr. Weasley from the HARRY POTTER films, but also well-known for his work on shows like THE FAST SHOW) hops up onto the bar, forgetting for a moment that he’s not a goat. As they rehearsed, Tarquin got a call from Simon Crane, the film’s second-unit director, asking if Jane was free to drive over to the next stage to join Matthew so they could check out what Crane was getting ready to shoot. I followed Tarquin and Jane out of the stage, and Tarquin hopped behind the wheel of a golf cart, hauling ass down Goldfinger Avenue to a larger stage where we started to walk in through the side door.
”Take him around to the front,” said Jane, and Tarquin steered me away, around the far end of the set.
”This is the Witches Lair,” Tarquin said, “probably our biggest set. You have to walk in through the front doors, though.” We reached two giant massive black doors, and then Tarquin pushed them open for me.
Sure enough, stepping through the doors for my first look at the set was enough to render me speechless. These are the moments I love when I visit a set, these moments where I almost step into this other reality. The primary inspiration for the Witches Lair was the Versaille Palace, but it’s almost like a photo negative, done completely in black and accented with a bit of gold here and there. The detailing around the set is fantastic, with ornate imagery built right into each panel of the wall. Some of the imagery is profane, like cherubs slitting open the belly of a pig so the entrails can fall to earth, and some of the items in the actual palace hall made me uncomfortable at first glance. These witches are near the end of their power, and they haven’t been using the whole palace as a living space. Instead, they’ve crowded into a small part of the hall, living off the animals they keep stacked in cages. Baboons, alligators, rabbits, dogs, and cats, all of them equally tasty to the witches. Most of the cages were empty when I walked in, but based on the stink, you could tell that the cages had all held real animals at some point.
As I walked around the set, looking at everything, I finally spotted Matthew Vaughn. I’ve known him on and off since right after he finished SNATCH, but I was curious to see him in his element, working as a director instead of a producer. He was deep in conversation with Simon Crane when I walked in. The sequence being staged in the lair that day come from the end of the film, when all the various story threads come together. The witches aren’t the only ones who want to get their hands on Yvaine. Septimus (played by Mark Strong, so memorable as the guy who tortured George Clooney in SYRIANA) is one of several brothers vying for the crown of Stormhold, and once he figures out exactly what Yvaine is, he realizes that she can make sure that he’ll never have to relinquish his crown if only he eats her heart. Her life for his.
And there’s one other interested party. Our hero. Tristran is played by Charlie Cox, who was good in CASANOVA last year, but it wasn’t the sort of performance that pops out and turns someone into a star. Right now, Cox is fairly unproven as a film presence, but the full weight of STARDUST is on him. He’s got to connect here. If he does, this is going to be an enormously charming film. If he doesn’t, then the whole thing stiffs. Personally, I think they’re in safe hands. After the second unit, we headed over to the Editing Department, where Jon Harris was hard at work putting together sequences. Vaughn cuts as he goes, so he’s got some idea of how things are working. I saw much of the same footage that audiences at ComicCon will see today in San Diego, and if nothing else did it the entire time I was in England, that rough footage I saw was enough to convince me that whatever Vaughn’s making, it’s not something we’ve seen before. It’s not just some cookie-cutter product being churned out.
The first scene I saw featured Mark Strong, who looks quite menacing as Septimus, dressed all in black like a gunslinger. He’s been led to a beach in his search for the star. The soothsayer he travels with nervously reads runes, only to say the wrong thing and end up dead. They shot the scene on a beach in Iceland. It’s all just black sand and small rocks and then these gigantic blocks of ice, fragments of glaciers that have crumbled and then washed up. It’s a stunning location, and as soon as the scnee played out, we started getting a look at the Scottish shoot, the stuff with Michelle Pfeiffer, and then at some scenes aboard the flying pirate ship with Robert De Niro turning in what looks like one of his most outrageous performances to date as Captain Shakespeare, leader of the sky pirates. I got to see a scene from very near the end of the picture once Tristran returns from his quest, only to find that what he once wanted and one he has are totally different things. Sienna Miller’s in the film as the girl who sends Tristran on a fool’s quest in the first place. When he shows up, she can see right away that he’s changed. When he tries to show her a piece of the star, it turns to dust in his hands, and he realizes it’s because he brought the piece across the Wall, the marker that separates our world from that of magic, and that it can’t survive on our side of the wall. He realizes that Yvaine is about to cross the Wall, and that doing so will kill her instantly.
As he went running to warn her, the music swelled, and I just had time to recognize “Starman” by David Bowie before the vocals kicked in. Honestly, that three and a half minutes was better than some films that are out now. The rough version of that footage made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I hope that’s some of what they show anyone who attends the STARDUST panel today. Once you guys see it, I think it’ll got a long way toward explaining the tone of this particular world. This isn’t PRINCESS BRIDE, where it’s all artificial and intentionally sort of over the top and silly. And it’s not completely humor-free, either. There are some very wry gags in the footage I saw, as well as a few laugh-out-loud bits like anything featuring Ricky Gervais. This is fantasy, but it doesn’t like it owes anything to LORD OF THE RINGS visually.
I’m going to have to break here, but I’ll be back later today with part two of this set visit, and with more details about what I saw on those Pinewood stages. Right now, I hope you guys are enjoying ComicCon, and by all means... you’re going to have Neil Gaiman, Jane Goldman, Charles Vess. This should be a great panel, and it’ll be your first look at the film. I’ll be back with my report on an afternoon with Michelle Pfeiffer and a soaking-wet-from-the-bathtub Claire Danes soon, and I’m hoping I’ll even have a new exclusive image to show you at that point. But for now...