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Moriarty Snorts Some More STARDUST!! Part Two Of Two!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

As I mentioned in my first article about my recent trip to England, I was thrilled to visit Pinewood because of all the great films that have been made there over the years. As it turns out, I was wrong about which films those were. And for the life of me, I’m stumped how I got it as wrong as I did. Elstree. Elstree Studios is where STAR WARS and RAIDERS were shot. Not Pinewood. Yet for some reason, Pinewood has always been the studio that I’ve associated with those films. Either all the pot-smoking finally tooks its toll on me, or I’ve literally just had it wrong all these years, but whatever the case, I got a call from Tarquin early this morning correcting me. So rather than be sneaky and go back in and try to reword that first article to make myself seem smarter than I am, I’m just going to man up, say I was massively wrong, and get back to the business of describing my time on the set of STARDUST.

I realize I didn’t really give much of a description of what the film is about yesterday. See, there’s a village called Wall, named for the wall that runs alongside the village. On our side of the wall is the world as we know it. Mundane. Grounded in science and reason. And on the other side of the wall is the world as we wish it could be. Magic. Filled with miracles and wonder. The people who live on our side of the wall never venture over, and the various beings that live on the other side of the wall never come this direction, either. Well... almost never. Someone crosses over, because at some point, there was a little bit of inter-species homina homina, and the result is a baby boy who is left in Wall to grow up.

Once he reaches maturity, Tristran (Charlie Cox) seems like a normal kid. He’s young, but he’s a good guy, and he’s desperate to win the love of the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller), who strings him along, using him basically to infuriate Humphrey (Henry Cavill), the man she’s actually interested in.

Tristran is determined, though. One night, he is talking to Victoria, trying to win her over, trying to impress her, and she’s fending off his interest as much as she can. Finally, he asks her what he’s going to have to do to win her love. As he asks, they watch a star fall. She tells him that if he could retrieve that star and bring it to her, then she would love him.

And just like that, Tristran goes after it.

It’s a bit of a crazy premise, but it’s a simple, uncomplicated fairy tale premise, with a fairly clear set of rules up front. There are two different groups of villains also chasing the fallen star, each for wildly different reasons. There are the witches, represented primarily by Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), and there are the princes of Stormhold and Septimus (Mark Strong) in particular. It’s Tristran who reaches the star first, and he’s shocked to realize that it’s not a rock or a gem or whatever he expected. It’s a person. A girl, in particular. Yvaine, played by Claire Danes, to be precise.

In a soundstage adjoining the one where Lamia’s inn had been built, an entire miniature forest had been contructed, and within that forest, they had designed the impact zone, the crater where Yvaine hit the ground. After I returned to the main soundstage with Matthew Vaughn, having just seen the 20 or 30 minutes of footage that I described yesterday, I was introduced to Holly Gaiman. Yep. That Gaiman. She’s Neil’s daughter, and she’s working in the production office on this one. The day I was onset was her 21st birthday, actually. Sweet girl, and talking to her about the film and how well it adapts her father’s work, she seemed justifiably proud and excited at seeing it all come together. She’s the one who walked me over to the crater stage. We walked around the entire outside of the forest, looking in at the painstakingly constructed forest floor. There’s evidently a full-size crater that was also built so that Yvaine and Tristran could play out their scenes inside, but it had already been taken down. The stage the forest was on had been used earlier for Captain Shakespeare’s flying pirate ship, where he and his crew bottle lightning for resale, but by the time I got there, the ship was long-gone. Still, the forest and the crater were eerily beautiful.

From that stage, we walked out past the soundstages to the backlot portion of the Pinewood layout, where several exterior sets had been erected. The first was the outside of the witches lair, and it’s basically just black rock walls framing an all-black exterior to a palace. Those massive doors I walked through on the soundstage had been reproduced to scale outside. I’m sure seeing it in broad daylight doesn’t really do the set justice, especially without the digital upper-half that will complete the building when we finally see it onscreen.

When we turned around from the witches lair, we ended up facing Lamia’s Inn, and it was impressive to see the skin that would slip over the skeletal outside of the set that I’d been on in the soundstage. This isn’t a building that was “built” by anyone’s hands in the context of the film. Lamia creates the inn by magic, and as a result, there’s not a regular angle in the whole thing. It stretches and bows in odd ways, and there’s a sign hanging out front with a picture of a small one-person chariot on it. I saw some footage of Michelle Pfeiffer riding in that carriage being pulled by a pair of goats in that 30 minutes that Vaughn showed me earlier in the day, so it made me smile to see that as the logo of her inn. It seems that Vaughn and Gavin Bouquet, his production designer, have had fun with every detail of this world. On one of the stages, I spotted a carriage that one of the Lords of Stormhold uses. It’s not your standard-issue carriage, though. Vaughn wanted it to look like a Hummer limosene, and he pulled it off. The thing’s long and low and has a back-end like an SUV, complete with giant pimped-out tires.

After we checked out the backlot and Holly interviewed me on-camera for a personal side project of hers, I headed back to the soundstage where the first unit was ready to shoot a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer’s character Lamia was preparing a hot bath for Yvaine. Pfeiffer plays Lamia as like Kaa from JUNGLE BOOK, insinuating and seductive. Watching her smother Yvaine with kindness, it’s like watching a snake toy with a mouse just before eating it. And Yvaine, who has very little practical experience with people, has no idea how wrong everything is with Lamia and her serving girl. All she knows is how tired she is and how nice they’re being to her. They talk to her in soothing, calm tones as they prepare her bath, and the whole time, Michelle Pfeiffer keeps this disturbingly sweet smile in place.

We watched them shoot the first part of the scene, as Lamia draws the bath, and then they started to set up for the next part of the scene, giving us a few minutes. By this point, Jason Flemyng was lurking about. I’ve seen Jason in various films over the years. Obviously, he was one of the guys who was in the early Guy Ritchie films that Matthew Vaughn produced. His Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of the things I did like in LXG. Some of his lesser-known films like BELOW and BRUISER are actually solid genre efforts, unfairly overlooked. Meeting Jason, he’s one of those guys who seems like an old friend five minutes after you start talking. There’s nothing jaded about him, and he seems to still get a kick out of the entire process of filmmaking. Over lunch, we talked about his father Gordon Flemyng, who directed DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS, and we talked about the live TV version of QUATERMASS that Jason starred in and we talked about Jason’s next role in David Fincher’s BENJAMIN BUTTON. More than anything, though, the subject of the day was Daniel Craig as James Bond. He’s known Daniel for a while, and he had some great stories about Daniel making the adjustment from working actor to British icon.

The 007 stage was under total lockdown, though. And despite knowing Daniel, Jason didn’t have any more access to the CASINO ROYALE set than I did. The more we talked about it, the more we wanted to find a way to run over and peek inside. So while they were setting up the next scene for Michelle and Claire to shoot, Jason and I stepped out and walked over to look at the 007 stage.

There were guards stationed at every door, so there was no chance for a frontal assault on the stage. As we walked along the side of it, though, we noticed a door at the very top of the stage, over a hundred feet up, at the top of a very narrow ladder. Even better, the door was open.

”That’s it,” Jason said. “I’m going in.”

Jason bolted for the side of the soundstage and started to climb the ladder quickly. I looked over at the security guards standing by the main doors. One of them saw Jason climbing, but didn’t seem terribly concerned by it. About halfway up, Jason stopped and turned back to face me where I was standing. He stretched his arms out triumphantly before he turned and continued to climb.

Later he told me that was the moment where he realized how high he was and how incredibly freaked out he was, but he didn’t want to puss out so he kept going. Sure enough, he reached the top of the ladder and climbed into the 007 stage. He was inside for all of about 45 seconds before he came sliding back out and basically hurled himself down the ladder. Security appeared at the top of the ladder where he’d just been. Jason couldn’t get off the ladder fast enough, and when he hit the ground, he came running back over, past me, and headed for the STARDUST stage.

Nice way to kill a few minutes between set-ups, eh?

Back inside the stage, they finally set up for the next shot. By now, Yvaine is in the large metal tub, enjoying the restorative powers of the bath. As she sits there, Lamia adds more water, talking to her the whole time. This was the first real scene I saw Claire performing. As much as the earlier scene was about Lamia and the way she was trying to win Yvaine’s trust, this scene was all about Yvaine opening up and starting to relax. By this point in the day, it had to be at least 95 degrees inside the soundstage. People were drinking 8 oz. bottles of water in quick gulps. I think I personally must have finished 15 off over the course of the day, but never once had to leave the stage to find a restroom. I was sweating it out as quickly as I could drink it. Even so, Claire stayed in the bath between takes, enjoying the heat. They had the water superheated for her, so she was practically having an ALTERED STATES moment. Later in the day, she called it “the most relaxing day of acting I think I’ve ever done.” I can see why Matthew cast her. There’s something about Claire when she smiles... she really isn’t like any other young star out there. She’s still very much the same actress who made such a strong impression from the very start of MY SO-CALLED LIFE, emotionally open and direct. At first, she and Michelle left the set after each scene, checking the playback first to make sure they were happy. But as the afternoon wore on, Michelle came over and sat next to where Jane Goldman, Tarquin, and I were all sitting, talking about our kids. Tarquin’s a brand-new daddy like me, and I’d seen his wall of pictures of his beautiful baby girl in the production office. Jane’s got older kids, and she talks about how they’re more like buddies to hang out with than kids by this point.

Michelle jumped into the conversation, asking about Tarquin’s baby, asking about my baby, and for the first time that day, she seemed to really engage with everyone. That’s not to say that she’s stand-offish or anything. She just seems to take every opportunity to slip away, and she seems focused on her character between scenes. I get the feeling she’s got a process that she doesn’t like interrupted. But as she sat and chatted, Claire finally threw on a towel over the body stocking she wore in the tub and walked over to join us. If Michelle came across as a really serene and witty soccer mom, then Claire struck me as younger than she is... like a very bright recent college grad still sort of figuring herself out. She’s in her late 20s, but there’s a really appealing youth about her. She asked tons of questions of everyone about their taste in movies, music, about London itself. She confessed that she hasn’t seen “enough” films, and that she asks people what their favorites are so that she can make lists of stuff to see later. Both Claire and Michelle seemed to get more and more animated and outgoing the longer we all spent talking. Michelle broke out her personal stash of organic blueberries, which finally lured Matthew back over so he could start stealing handfuls. Flemyng showed up again, with his hair and makeup now finished even though he was dressed in the same shorts and t-shirt from before.

At the same time, Charlie Cox was hard at work on the second-unit stage in the Witches Lair, in the middle of his big showdown with Lamia. The Lamia he was fighting was Michelle’s stand-in, though, wearing make-up that reveals the true nature of the witch. The more power she had to channel into the fight, the less she could spend on the illusion of her own appearance, and the greater the toll the battle took on her. She was hurling huge pieces of furniture and objets d’art at him, striking him, knocking him around. Charlie did his own stunts, taking his lumps like a kid playing make-believe with his buddies, and when I saw him the next day, he was laughing about the experience. Many of the clips I saw showed how good Charlie is as a performer, but the work he was doing while I was in town was largely physical, and Matthew was running back and forth all day. I’m not really sure how one was defined as “first unit” over the other, since you had the main stars of the film in both places at once.

“I’m trying to shoot two of the most elaborate set pieces in the film at the same time,” Matthew sighed at one point as he drove the cart from one stage to the other for the seventy-second time that day. “I wouldn’t really advise this for directors. It’s sort of a nightmare.” When Matthew says things like that, though, it’s funny because he never betrays any stress to anyone watching. He can be demanding and he can lose his patience, but so can every director I’ve ever watched work. Matthew had the ability to keep rolling film, keep getting shots in the can no matter what happened, which is one of the skills you absolutely have to develop as a director.

When Michelle wrapped for the day, for example, Matthew still had a full sequence to shoot involving her, Primus (Flemyng’s character), Claire, and a unicorn. He didn’t have Michelle anymore, though, and he didn’t have a unicorn. Flemyng seemed bummed because he wasn’t going to have Michelle to play off of in the scene. “Just my luck,” he groused at one point. “I finally get to do a scene with Michelle Pfeiffer, and she’s not in it. But just wait... when it’s time for her close-ups, I’ll be there to run the scene. Absolutely.” He and Claire had to run two parts of a four part scene, with Matthew or Jane or an assistant director running lines from off-camera or shouting out cues for them to react to. Matthew shot the scene from a few angles, worked through it as much as he thought he could, and then finally called wrap for the day.

The next morning, I was back at Pinewood for a few hours before I had to leave for the airport. I decided to spend most of my time on the second-unit stage, watching Mark Strong work. If you saw SYRIANA last year, then you know Mark Strong. He’s the guy who tortured George Clooney in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. He plays one of Flemyng’s many brothers, all of them competing to see who will end up ruling Stormhold upon the death of their father, played by Peter O’Toole. Rupert Everett plays another one of the brothers who all have an unfortunate habit of dying in terrible ways, usually at the hand of another brother. Primus, for example, is so paranoid that he won’t drink wine unless he corks it himself and he won’t eat any food he doesn’t prepare. Septimus manages to become the last of the living lords of Stormhold, and he’s determined to get hold of Yvaine, convinced that she will give him eternal life so that he never has to pass the crown on to anyone else.

As he tries to cross the long open floor of the Witches Lair, Lamia holds something up, and the shot Matthew had set up had her hand in the extreme foreground. In it, she held a simple featureless clay doll. As Septimus approaches, sword up, she twists the arm suddenly, and his sword goes flying. She then wrenches the leg violently, and Septimus shoots his own leg out to the side, then collapses, screaming at the broken bone. Mark’s stuntman was on-set, but like Charlie Cox the day before, it seemed that Mark was determined to do everything himself. Every take I watched them shoot, Mark gave it everything he had, and it looked genuinely painful. Between set-ups, I had a chance to chat with Mark, and he came across as a very serious actor, but also a guy with a real sense of perspective. He’s been a working actor for a long time in British film and TV, since the early ‘90s, but he’s starting to finally play the right roles in the right films, the sorts of roles that really cement an actor in the public’s mind. Septimus is a great villain on the page, especially because although he’s bad, he’s not the pinnacle of evil in the film, and by the end, you even sympathise with him.

I left him to his torment and headed back to the main stage for a little while. It seems that when Bernard the barman, played by comedian Mark Williams, sees that unicorn break into the inn, he leaps over the bar and charges it. Not really a well-thought-out plan, since his collision with it kills him instantly and sends him flying, reverting into goat form in the process. Matthew had rigged up a goat to fly backwards across the inn, slamming into the wall above the bar. Each time, the goat did something totally different. One time, it hit the wall and then dropped like a rock. Another time, it hit the wall and got impaled on the horns that decorated the wall. Oh... and relax, animal lovers. The goat was fake, a relatively lifelike stuffed animal.

I had to run before much else happened for the day so I could make my flight home. And even having written about all the things that happened, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. I’ve been on a lot of sets, but there was a really special vibe on this particular one. A sort of confidence in the material being shot. Everyone seemed to be tuned in to the same thing.

I think part of the reason Matthew is so focused and so able to adapt, no matter what happens on his set, is because he surrounds himself with the same people from film to film. The best example would be Simon “Purple” Hayes, the sound recordist on the film. Matthew talked at length about how amazing Hayes is at his job, how he managed to hold them to a total of only 4 minutes of ADR in all of LAYER CAKE. Talking to Hayes at length on the set at one point, I was struck by how seriously he takes his job, and how important he thinks it is to the actors. I’d agree with him, but I’ve seen so many sound guys who just sort of give up, especially on large-scale FX oriented films, assuming that ADR will clean everything up. Hayes workes to preserve the reality of the performances on-set, the moments that actually exist between the actors. It makes it feel fresher in the final film. And Matthew relies on him completely, making sure Hayes is happy with every take just as much as DP Ben Davis is, just as much as co-writer Jane Goldman is. Vaughn seems incredibly inclusive while working, willing to listen to any idea. At one point, I saw a second assistant director approach him to ask about the internal logic in a scene, making a suggestion for a quick fix. Without batting an eye, Matthew thanked him and turned around and set the quick fix in motion.

I made it to Heathrow just in time, got checked in, and barely made it to my plane. That airport just plain confounds me. I have to admit, though... my flights to and from London this time were the nicest flights I’ve had in recent memory. If you ever, ever, ever, ever, ever have the chance to fly Virgin Atlantic upper class, do it. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I got off a ten hour flight feeling like a human being, feeling as good as when I got on if not better. The entire way back, I kept thinking about the footage I’d seen, the work I’d seen the cast doing, and the script itself, and I have to say... I’m dying to know how it’s all going to work together. As I said in my LADY IN THE WATER review, whimsy is one of the hardest things for any director to pull off. It requires a feather touch, a deftness that is not something you can just manufacture. Vaughn’s taken on a pretty serious challenge for himself as a second film, but I get the feeling that’s exactly the way he likes it. He didn’t move from producing to directing because he wants to take it easy, and we’ll see how well he handles this material in March of 2007.

Now I’ve got to put a few more things up and start work on my DVD SHELF column for this week. I’m still in the middle of moving, so bear with me. My new office is going to be an amazing place to work, and I expect to be very productive by the end of the week, once I’ve settled in. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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