”Your father didn't tell me it was a ghost story.”
”It's not, actually. It's more a story with a ghost in it.”
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I always talk about the difference between a big group set visit and an exclusive day at the start of these things, usually as a way to bitch about the former or sing praises about the latter, but this report is a prime example of why being the only visiting reporter on a set is so much better.
For one thing, when a filmmaker or studio invites a big group of press to a set they usually assume most visiting press will get bored by the filmmaking process, so they try to get us off set (and out of the way) quickly. When they do have us watch the process they almost always want something spectacular to be on display, be it an explosive action scene, car chase, gun-fight, big monster or massive set build. I get it. The filmmaker wants to show off his or her toys and the studio wants us to be dazzled by what we see.
My favorite thing about this Crimson Peak set visit was that it wasn't on a day when there was some crazy ghost action, but rather two very intimate scenes with some very good actors actually crafting their performances. Another added benefit of having my own day on the set was I got to spend all of it sitting at Guillermo del Toro's side and got a real glimpse of his work as a director instead of sitting off in some other secluded room looking at a monitor.
The one down side of not getting to go with all my colleagues on the group day was they got to see the fully built three story Allerdale Hall set, which I heard was nothing less than jaw-dropping in person. You'll notice all the new images Universal released for the set report are pretty Allerdale Hall centric. Sorry I don't have any images from the more warm, bright pre-scary shit stuff I saw filming, but these pics are pretty nonetheless. Like this one!
The film was shooting inside famous Toronto landmark Casa Loma, which is Spanish for Hill House, appropriately enough. This early 20th Century gothic castle has been used for many film productions, including serving as Xavier's School for the Gifted in the first X-Men film and featured prominently in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (the Chris Evans fight happened there, if I'm not mistaken).
Like any smart filmmaker, Guillermo was using this single location for a few different places in the movie. First up was a beautiful office decked out in all the shiniest mahogany they could find as Mia Wasikowska's character Edith Cushing sits in beautiful morning light scribbling notes into a book. She's deep in thought and doesn't realize she has ink from her pen on her fingers that have left a smudge on her forehead.
By the time she realizes there's in on her fingers a proper older gentleman walks in and is surprised to find her there. “Ah, Miss Cushing. You're early.” This actor (forgive me for not knowing his full name. I just know Jonathan is his first name) plays it annoyed at this young woman in his space.
Guillermo called the actor over after the first take and asked for him to layer the performance a little more, that he wants a sense of the man's propriety as well as his dickishness. “'Miss Cushing' is the greeting, 'you're early' is the insult,” Guillermo tells him.
They ran the scene again a couple more times, but the actor handled the adjustments perfectly on the take after Guillermo gave him his new direction. It's a tiny change, but one that adds a level of complexity to a simple line.
While they were turning the camera around for a closer shot on Mia, Guillermo and I bullshitted about a few things. I started with Haunted Mansion because that's a particular obsession of mine. I asked him how the movie was coming along. Keep in mind this was last year, but he said at that time they'd just gotten in a draft of the script that was good, but not quite there yet and they weren't going to move ahead until it was perfect.
Guillermo is one of the few human beings on this planet who loves that Disneyland attraction even more than I do, so I understand how seriously he takes the property. “I'm nervous about the movie,” I told him. “Not that you're going to make a bad movie, but that you're going to make a movie so good they'll change the ride.” The Haunted Mansion is one of the most consistent attractions at Disneyland and I'd be heartbroken if it underwent a major overhaul. I'm flabbergasted they only do the Nightmare Before Christmas change-over seasonally.
It was around this time that I realized other than the title and cast list I knew nothing about Crimson Peak and asked him about it. He said that the film is a real Gothic Romance in the vein of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, which he was quick to point out was just as much playing to his personal fetishes as Pacific Rim except instead of manga it tickles his Victorian era gothic romance fancy.
He was quick to point out that even though both Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak play to his fetishes, tone and story wise this film is his first English language Spanish film, meaning it shares more DNA with films like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone than it does with Hellboy.
On Mia's close-up Guillermo would cue the timing of her accidentally inking her forehead by snapping his fingers. They also got her coverage of the older gentleman entering the room. Showing that I'd never be a great director, I thought Wasikowska did a great job in the first few takes, but Guillermo gave her some notes. He wanted her to be more surprised and a little like she was caught doing something when the man entered. “You're like, 'Oh Shit!'”
Next take Wasikowska went from being good enough for dummies like me to being flat out great. She acted surprised, but there was a twitch of a forced welcoming smile at the corner of her mouth as she stood to greet him. The moment suddenly had a spark of personality that I didn't notice was missing before.
I figured now was a good time to ask Guillermo about the context of the scene I was watching unfold. He said that Edith Cushing saw the ghost of her mother when she was a young girl and is now a writer trying to get published. Ah, so that's what she was annotating and it seems this posh guy is a publisher. The next part of the scene was the publisher looking over her novel as she sits patiently on the other side of his desk, but that required a major turn around, so that gave me some more time to pester Guillermo about the movie.
I brought up the gorgeous lighting... which was very warm. I assumed that was to make it a starker contrast to the creepy Allerdale Hall stuff later. Guillermo said that lighting is always important, but especially so in a movie like this, which has been a challenge because he was insistent on the R-rating of the film. That means he's working on a smaller budget than if he was doing this exact story as a PG-13, which in turn means fewer shooting days.
Because of the specificity of the lighting there are certain shots where they can't use two cameras because the lighting will be perfect from one angle, but look dreadful from another.
One of the things he did to save money was shoot all of the VFX scenes early in the shoot. The way he explained it is that the shorter time VFX houses have to turn over a digital shot the more they charge, so by delivering the shots they need to work on early the more bang they get for their VFX budget.
Of course that means having each of the VFX shots cut just as they will appear in the final film, so Guillermo literally edits every sequence he shoots as he shoots it. I saw him give notes to his editor after every gotten scene and they'd cut the scene they just shot as the crew was setting up the next angle. He said that the day after they wrap they'll pretty much have the movie edited. It wouldn't be as tight as the released film (he guessed 10-15 minutes would be cut from that version), but it'd be much closer to the final product than the standard assembly edit.
I asked Guillermo for some advice for a newbie to novelized gothic romance and he recommended two books: Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James. I'm ashamed to say I haven't read them yet, but I did procure digital copies of both and have them in the queue.
The next set up was up was a wide dolly shot that slowly pushed in on Mia and Mr. Jonathan as the publisher read over her handwritten manuscript.
”A ghost story. Your father didn't tell me it was a ghost story.”
”It's not, actually. It's more a story with a ghost in it. The ghost is a metaphor, you see.”
”A metaphor. Of course.”
”For... for the past.”
”Very nice handwriting. Very confident loops. So, Miss Cushing, how's your father doing? In good health, I hope.”
It's at this point that Edith realizes this publisher has no intent in taking her book seriously and is just doing a favor for her father. He's obviously just skimming pages at the beginning of the scene and stops doing even that much once he starts asking Edith about her father.
Once again, Mia nailed her reaction shot. You could read both crushing disappointment and quiet resignation on her face without it being super obvious that she's upset.
My only time talking with Mia was immediately after this scene as the crew was setting up for another shot. She came over to bullshit with Guillermo and got me as an added bonus. She was the first, but strangely enough not the last, person on set that day to ask if I was Guillermo's brother. I anticipate there being fewer cases of people thinking I look like Guillermo now that I have undergone LASIK and don't share similar-shaped glasses, but on that visit it was pretty funny how strangers kept assuming I was closely related to the dude.
We didn't really talk much about the movie, just more conversational stuff about our cities of choice. She lives in Sydney and I live in Austin, so we talked a little bit about each city before I was pulled away to do an official interview with Tom Hiddleston.
Now here's where I expect the legions of Tom Hiddleston fans out there (both male and female) to really start hating my guts. I've been lucky enough to have been on roundtables with Hiddleston on set visits for both The Avengers and Thor 2, but have never engaged with him one on one. I knew, however, that he had a particular talent for answering questions thoughtfully and with deep meaning without ever actually talking about specifics of the story, which is kind of what made his on-set interviews for the Marvel stuff so perfect.
I knew he would be a good conversationalist, but I didn't know just how interesting this 1:1 interview was going to be.
The publicist led me to his trailer, knocked and, half in costume, Tom Hiddleston opened the door. I shit you not, his lace shirt was hanging open and blowing in the rainy Toronto wind like a cheesy Harlequin romance cover.
With a warm smile he invited me into his trailer, which smelled strongly of the nicest incense to have ever assaulted my nose. At that moment I felt the weight of the jealousy of about 2 million women (and men, too... it is the year 2015) crushing down on me.
The cabinets in his trailer were plastered with reference photos of Victorian era people, mostly of the tall, dark and handsome variety, which is very much what his character is in the film. He pointed out one of these photos, obviously over 100 years old, and said it is the very first selfie ever taken. He then offered me a bottle of water and we sat down to discuss his role in the film.
Hiddleston was every bit as polite, engaging and whip-smart as I expected him to be in our 25 minute or so chat, which you can read separate from this set report by clicking here. It's well worth a read and he does a great job of boiling down the themes of Crimson Peak and the ambiguity of his character, Sir Thomas Sharpe, without actually ruining the plot of the movie.
After our chat was over, as I was walking towards the door, I brought up being there on the big group visit for Thor: The Dark World and how crazy different this set visit was. For that one, the studio flew a bunch of us to London just to sit in a tent off-site and wait for them parade the actors in for a quick press conference style Q&A. We saw virtually no footage shot with the principal characters.
He remembered that day and said it was awkward because they had made a big decision that had a huge impact on the film (and the continuing MCU installments) that very morning and were still grappling with this big course-correction when they had to talk to the press.
I had heard that Loki was going to die in Thor 2 (for real) and, while he didn't come right out and confirm that rumor, he did say that the fate of the character was decided that day and we got his new path thanks to that decision.
Then he left to go block out his afternoon scene and I went to grab lunch with the publicist before joining Guillermo in his trailer for our chat, which I published back in July of 2014 (click here to read that one!). It's a goofy, nerdy chat, but a fun one nonetheless.
Interviews done, I headed back to Casa Loma while the newly fed crew was returning to work to set up the new scene, which has Wasikowska walking down a bright hallway to a hotel room in which she expects to find Hiddleston's Sir Thomas Sharpe, but instead finds two maids cleaning up. They tell her that the Sharpes checked out that morning in time for the early train and she walks away, kind of destroyed. Disbelief on her face, a lost look in her eyes and the body language of someone who was just punched in the gut.
The hallway and bedroom look absolutely nothing like the room they shot the morning's material in. Both had similarly warm lighting, but that's about it. Looking at the monitors even I felt like I was suddenly in a very fancy, old hotel.
In this downtime I met composer Fernando Velazquez (The Impossible, Mama) who will be doing the score for the movie. He had just arrived from Spain (got off his plane and went right to set), but was still very energetic and fun to talk to. I brought up my displeasure at a lack of theme work in modern scores. He actually said that there have been studio mandates that composers not write melodies and themes in these big scores. God knows why, but he said the glut of forgettable scores of the last decade or so can be laid at the feet of the check cutters, not the artists.
Since Edith was running down the hall and needed to be out of breath Mia would pump herself up before shooting by doing jumping jacks, which I have to say was pretty adorable to watch because she was in full on Victorian-era puffy dress and heels, which would clack on the wood floor as she went.
It wasn't long before they got that section done with and moved on to seeing her reaction. Steadicam walks backwards in front of her as she warily walks down the hall, away from the vacated room. She takes her glasses off and rubs her eyes, crushed. Camera swings over a tad revealing an out of focus dark figure behind her. It's Hiddleston. She turns, sees him and he delivers a super romantic speech that ends in a big ol' smoocheroo.
This is the kind of stuff I don't get to see too often and I was curious to see how the inherent awkwardness of a big kissing scene done in front of a big crew was handled. Naturally it was Guillermo who broke the tension after the first take. “Cut! Very nice! Get a room!” Which caused both Hiddleston and Wasikowska to blush and laugh along with their spectators.
Guillermo's big note was that Hiddleston shouldn't just go right into the big kiss, but be more tentative. “Yes, of course. It is the first one, after all,” Hiddleston replied. Then added “Like Will Smith says in Hitch: Go 90% and let them come 10%.” Brilliant, reserved Shakespearean actor Tom Hiddleston quoting Hitch, ladies and gentlemen!
They didn't film this in small pieces, so every take it was Hiddleston appearing at the end of the hall, Wasikowska turning to him and hearing his big speech as he slowly approaches until they are right up in each other's faces. Then the kiss, which motivates the camera to circle around into a profile, which frames them against a bright window, backlighting them. This shot is in the international trailer, by the way. Check it out:
I didn't get all of the speech, but Hiddleston starts by saying “Lucille has gone, but I could not. Your father bribed me to leave, but I can't leave you, Edith.” The kicker line is in the trailer. When he approaches he says “I feel as if a link, a thread, exists between your heart and mine.” Continuing on he says “And should that link be broke by distance or by time my heart would cease to beat and I would die and you would soon forget about me.”
Completely under his spell, Edith whispers, “I would never forget you,” and then the kiss. I could hear the music swelling already. Very cinematic, very intimate.
”Can I try one more?,” asked Hiddleston.
”Mia's like (baaaarrrrrffff),” replied Guillermo.
”It's for the speech, I swear,” Hiddleston said.
Things got a little wacky... The day was winding down and there had been a lot of kissing. Before they went for the next take Hiddleston started narrating the story of Crimson Peak as Ali G. I really wish I could have recorded it for you guys. It had the crew, and a random visiting movie geek, in hysterics.
And that was it. I also did a lengthy interview with producer Callum Greene whilst imposing on these poor people, but I'll likely run that separately in the coming weeks.
Hope you guys enjoyed the set report and maybe learned a little something about the process along the way. The flick looks crazy good from where I'm standing. What do you guys think?