Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Earlier this year I was in Wellington, New Zealand on vacation. That's rare for me. I've humble-bragged all over this site about my time spent in New Zealand, but I very rarely get to go out there just to relax and hang out with friends. This trip was supposed to be that. I was crashing with a good buddy of mine in Wellington, hitting up all my favorite food spots (I highly recommend Planet Spice in Newtown or Lambanjo in Seatoun if you're ever in the area) and soaking up the beautiful Fall (in March) weather.
But when I found out I'd be there when Michael Dougherty was filming his Trick 'R Treat follow-up I had to enquire about dropping by to visit. Weirdly enough I ended up doing two set visits while on vacation (the next one should hit sometime in 2016 and involves an orphan kid and his dragon, hint-hint, wink-wink), that's just how I roll, I guess.
I loved Trick 'R Treat when I first saw it and it has become a regular Halloween-time spin in my house. Dougherty's genre tastes are pretty close to my own, so when I heard he was doing a Christmas horror flick I was onboard immediately.
Dougherty and crew had taken over Peter Jackson's Stone Street Studios in Miramar, which was just over the hill from where I was staying. In my time writing about movies I've been lucky enough to visit all the world's famous studios. Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree, Warner Bros, Sony, Universal... all the biggies, but the place I feel the most at home is Stone Street.
It also happens to be the place I've spent the most time watching films come together. Starting way back on Lord of the Rings I've watched the place evolve from a series of non-soundproofed tin shacks to a real-deal giant state of the art studio. Within those walls I've witnessed Sam carry Frodo up the side of Mount Doom, Ann Darrow dance for a giant ape and Bilbo hide from a gold-hungry dragon.
So it was a little like coming home when I crossed through security and headed for the soundstage Krampus was filming on.
Going in I knew very little about the movie other than the basic knowledge any self-respecting genre fan would have about the Krampus legend itself. Thankfully my very first stop was lunch with Legendary producer Alex Garcia and he filled me in on the tone of the flick.
Basically he told me to expect the first 30 minutes to be Christmas Vacation and the other 60 to be Gremlins. I expressed a little hesitance when he said they were shooting for a PG-13, but he quickly assured me that wasn't something to be nervous about. The movie is still filled with fucked up creatures and goes to some really dark places.
The rundown is that the movie's about a dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas. Adam Scott and Toni Collette are the normal middle class parents and Fargo's Allison Tolman and David Koechner are the poorer relations. Think of them as the Cousin Eddie side of the family. A little more rustic, loud and with a whole litter of asshole kids.
Young Emjay Anthony is Scott and Collette's kid, Max and he's the true believer in the bunch. He loves Christmas, but as the years go by and he grows older he lets the bigger kids talk him about of his faith in Santa Claus.
You've seen the trailer, so you know he gets to the point where he tears apart his letter to Santa Claus and that last bit of lost faith is what brings Krampus and his minions.
Yes, minions. That was a huge surprise to me back then. It's known now thanks to the trailer, but back then the assumption was that it was just to be big bad Krampus and that's it. Not so much. Every thing that Santa has, Krampus has a dark version of. Count on dark elves, evil snowmen, bad toys and even a messed up Gingerbread Man.
The first place I visited while the crew was still eating was K Stage, Stone Street's biggest soundstage built for King Kong. They built a whole suburban neighborhood in there for exterior scenes. I'll never get tired of the feeling of the world turning upside down when walking into a set like this. It's kind of like being in one of those spinning light tunnels at carnivals. One second you're outside in a world of concrete and blocky buildings and the next you're on a dark, snowy suburban street.
In order to save on building costs, the crew constructed this elaborate set in a slight forced perspective format. From the street everything looks right, but the houses are all painted backdrops done at about 2/3 scale. From the street they look right, but when you walk up past the snow-covered mail boxes and hedges the illusion shatters. Pretty incredible craftsmanship that will be invisible in the film itself thanks to fog and falling snow putting atmosphere between the camera lens and set.
A rather important scene happens out here, involving Max's big sister who is outside, sneaking off to see her boyfriend, when Krampus and his minions arrive.
That day they were shooting a scene that takes place inside the main house, which was fully built on another soundstage. The action was all in the living room, so they had monitors set up in the kitchen. I was sat behind Michael Dougherty and his script supervisor, so I got to watch him take in the footage as it happened and make notes with his script super on what takes were good on what cameras, etc.
The scene started with Adam Scott carrying an injured David Koechner into the living room. This comes soon after the supernatural shit is revealed. They apparently went out to find Scott's oldest daughter (the one I mentioned who skipped out to find her sweet baboo) and were attacked by some kind of creature on the snow. I didn't get any more detail than that, but Koechner's leg was torn up.
The scene was short, Scott rushing Koechner into the full living room and telling his mother (Krista Stadler) to take the kids into the other room while the grown-ups talk about their predicament. Stalder is the old German grandmother who is the first to suspect Krampus has come and knows all the folklore. She agrees to take the kids out of the living room, but tells Scott not to let the fire go out in the chimney. I found out later this was the only thing keeping Krampus from entering the house.
They got this in a few takes and that brought a little downtime as the crew was setting up for the big powwow scene they'd be filming next, which meant it was my time to reacquaint myself with Mr. Dougherty, whom I'd met a few times back in the Superman Returns/Trick R Treat days and meet some of the cast.
The first one was young Emjay Anthony. Melissa, the publicist who worked on all Peter Jackson's movies, introduced us and I'll never forget this meeting. Emjay very politely approached me and shook my hand. I told him I had visited Favreau on Chef when they came through Austin, but never met him. We were talking about the greatness of Franklin BBQ when, like James Bond, he slowly retrieved a gun from his pocket. Not breaking eye contact with me and still talking about BBQ he slowly raised the gun and pointed it at Michael Dougherty's assistant who was studying something on a laptop, oblivious to the bright yellow and orange weapon pointed in his direction.
At the end of that smooth motion, again without ever looking away from me, Emjay pulled the trigger and sent a Nerf bullet flying into the chest of Dougherty's assistant. That aggression would not stand and in a flash the grown man pulled his own Nerf gun and that's when I got caught in the middle.
That's right, I was used as a human shield as Emjay ducked behind me. Smart kid. Good protection getting behind a big guy like me.
Almost all the kids in the movie were sat behind me in a row and I got to chat with them all. This trip was right after I really started bonding with my 4 and 8 year old nephews, so it was actually really nice to be around these kids.
We talked a bit about having tonsils removed, what kind of candy is better (sour candy for the win) and why Halloween is the best holiday of the year. In particular I got along really well with Lolo Owen, who plays one of Tolman and Koechner's kids, a tomboy character in camo jacket and hat. We both showed shocked dismay when Emjay volunteered that he'd never seen ET, so I knew she was one of the cool ones.
I was also introduced to Krista Stadler, the Austrian actress who is playing the knowledgeable German grandmother in the movie. Turns out she's been teaching the kids 5 words of German a day and when she sat them down to teach them their five for today Emjay let out one of the most disgusting farts I've ever smelled. Naturally, one of the words learned that day was “Stink” but with that lovely Germanic twist, which sounded like “Schtink.”
The kids all had to leave for some school stuff (I think), leaving just me and David Koechner, who was getting some bloody make-up done on his injured leg. We had met once before when he came to Austin's own Fantastic Fest with Cheap Thrills and he reflected back on that experience... mostly remembering how fucked up on shots he got at the screening.
The dude was super engaging and friendly. We talked a bit about how great Wellington was and I told him how some friends down here were crazy starstruck seeing him around town. These people work with movie stars all the time, but there's something about spotting Koechner at the local New World grocery store that just sent them over the top for some reason.
When the kids came back it was just about time for the next shot to go up. Before action was called Emjay came up to me and, I shit you not, said “You write about movies, right?” “Yeah, that's right.” “I'll give $300 to write a positive review of Krampus.” I laughed, he laughed and then he left to shoot the scene. To this day I'm not sure how serious he was, but I have to say I kinda love that an 11 year old tried to bribe me for a good review. (Joke's on him, my policy is not to write reviews of movies whose sets I have visited).
The big scene was all the grown ups talking about what was going on outside, arguing about the best course of action... barricade themselves in the house or go out and look for help. Koechner has a shotgun, but for the most part they're unarmed.
While it might not seem exciting, this was one of my favorite parts of the visit because I got witness Dougherty working through the scene up close and in person. Usually when directors are blocking action I'm happily out of the way, tucked behind a monitor somewhere, but Dougherty invited me to be in the living room when he blocked out the scene with his entire cast.
The actors ran through their dialogue, going naturally wherever they'd go in the living room while Dougherty hung back and looked for camera placement opportunities. It was interesting watching him move around the edges of the room, looking for the best place to capture coverage for the scene and tell his DP where he wanted A camera and B camera.
A camera was the wide master shot and B camera was more fluid (handheld) catching good moments.
When it was time to roll I was back at the monitors in the kitchen and watched the scene come together. You can tell that a director knows what they are doing when you can see a scene evolve take by take. Koechner was throwing out improvs as here and there, which works because he's the loud sarcastic character. “It could be terrorists...” “Yeah, they traded in their suicide vests for rabid snow dogs.”
While Koechner cranked up the snark take by take, Collette cranked up the emotion as her character realizes that the power being out isn't the only thing going on and that her daughter is out there somewhere.
Three or four takes into the scene and everything clicked into place. I could tell Dougherty thought so, too, as he was enthusiastically pointing at different monitors with a thumbs up, letting his script supervisor know what to mark as good in each take for editing purposes. Essentially, “That moment with Koechner is good, that reaction shot on Toni Collette is good,” etc.
After they got that shot it was about time for me leave them. Dougherty invited me back a few days later. I had heard Weta was coming in soon to do “the attic scene” which was to feature a bunch of crazy practical effects monsters and I dropped a lot of hints that I'd love to see that. “We'll see” was the answer. I did get to come back, but it wasn't for the attic scene, sadly.
The next visit was about a week later and once again I arrived at lunchtime. The first person to greet me was Emjay Anthony, who rode up to me on a Razor Scooter, and said, “Oh, hi! Are you the one interviewing me today?”
That was the first I'd heard of it, so I said, “I don't know, but I guess I'd talk to you... as long as you don't blast ass.” He smiled and took off, shouting, “No promises!” over his shoulder.
Turned out his interview was with the on-set EPK team (EPK = electronic press kit. They do interviews with actors and director that are then used as footage that goes out to TV and broadcast to be run as publicity), so I have no idea if he let one rip on camera or not.
Back to the kitchen-based monitors and the scene was once again in the living room. This time both families are asleep. Koechner is on the couch, cuddled up with his always-hungry son Howie Jr (played by a kid named Maverick Flack... really!) and Emjay is with his dad. They have no idea the fireplace fire has been reduced to embers.
A chain slowly drops down the chimney. On the bottom hook is a Gingerbread Man. Young Howie Jr stirs and sees the delicious morsel and goes over to it. He grabs it and the Gingerbread Man comes alive. As you could probably guess, the Gingerbread Man will be CG, but the storyboards I saw showed a pretty evil looking guy.
Chains wrap around Howie Jr and try to pull him up the chimney, his screaming awakening everybody. Collette is closest and grabs his legs before he's pulled up the chimney. Thus begins a chaotic game of tug-o-war with Collette also being pulled up the chimney, kicking wildly. These wild kicks send glowing embers flying and the Christmas tree next to the fireplace ends up catching fire.
They did another set of takes with an orange-ish light on the actors. Grandma is holding Emjay back as he's screaming for his mom. Grandma tries to comfort him in both German and English.
When the fire breaks out Emjay is sent to grab the fire extinguisher as the rest of the adults try to keep Collette from being pulled up the chimney along with Howie Jr. On the monitor I saw Emjay running down a hallway and out of view just as he comes running into the kitchen, not more than 3 feet from me. Movies!
So the fire stuff will be shot separately and of course Collette wasn't actually pulling on a child's legs. Brett Beattie, who was Gimli's stunt double on Lord of the Rings, stood in for Howie Jr.'s legs and for the wide shot a stunt woman was used for Collette as well. And they needed it because she is violently pulled into the fireplace and could easily be pulled head-first into the mantle.
It took three or four takes to get the timing right, but they finally got a perfect wide angle of Collette's stunt double getting to Brett's kicking legs just in time and being pulled up herself. Adam, Allison and Koechner get to her just in time to keep her from being pulled up as well.
The final take was perfectly chaotic. It didn't look like a well-choreographed stunt moment, but a real holy shit what's going on?!? bit of craziness.
There was a big break after this moment as Collette herself was getting in the harness so we could actually see her in the middle of this crazy tug-o-war. I took the opportunity to wander around the living room and take in the little details of the set decoration.
First thing I noticed was a series of cheesy holiday family photos on the wall. I don't know how close we get to them in the actual movie, but they tell a story themselves, a progression of the family. Emjay's Max is a happy toddler with a not-very-convincing Santa Claus in the first picture, then a grinning tyke in the next and then a still happy, but not fully committed smile on his face in the next picture and the last one he looks downright miserable, wearing a Christmas Story-esque reindeer outfit. In one series of family pictures it shows how Max has become slowly less invested in the mythology surrounding Christmas.
The living room itself has changed a bit since the last visit. The windows are boarded up, pillows and makeshift beds are arranged on the floor, candy wrappers litter the ground.
Back at the monitors Koechner was hanging out with Dougherty. Shortly after I returned Mike and I were talking about Trick R Treat and that spurned Koechner into asking what working with Dylan Baker was like. Dougherty responded that he loved him as a person and performer and would love to work with him again. Koechner dramatically took that to mean that he was the second choice for the role of Howie Sr and only got it because Dylan Baker turned Mike down.
Dougherty was quick to correct him, even if he knew Koechner was joking. Apparently the storyboard artist actually drew Koechner well before he was cast. Dougherty said he was watching Anchorman when they started the project and thought Koechner was the perfect actor for the role. Koechner demanded to see those storyboards and Mike said “I'll have to get him to draw you naked in my bed.” Koechner responds “Dreams do come true!” then turns to me and says, “But they end in gonorrhea” and winks, then leaves the kitchen.
That's the kind of set visit this was.
I asked Dougherty how the attic scene went. He smiled and said, “Want to see some of it?” The answer of course was yes-please-now-thanks.
It only took a minute before Mike had footage from the attic scene on the monitors. It wasn't long before a group gathered around, including all of the actors, because most of them hadn't seen any of this footage yet. I've had this happen a few times on various set visits and it never ceases to make me smile.
I got my first look at some of Krampus' evil gifts. You've seen one of them in the trailers... a kind of evil Jack-In-The-Box clown with lamprey-like teeth, but you don't see what it does... The scale of it is pretty massive, with an almost Alien Queen-esque sack that connects the body to the Box.
Lest you think the PG-13 rating means a neutered movie I can say the very first Weta practical effects shot I saw was this evil clown Jack-In-The-Box thing swallowing a child. I don't know which kid, but someone gets eaten and it was kind of like the shot where you see Rex eat the goat in Jurassic Park. The puppet's jaws work as legs and sneakers disappear down its throat.
There was another close up shot of its face as it wipes its mouth, eyes blinking.
Also saw the reverse shot showing Adam Scott, Toni Collette and Allison Tolman creeping through the dark attic, their flashlight beams cutting through the blackness. This shot also featured the trio's reaction to seeing this monster and Collette's in particular was a priceless WTF look.
Another shot showed an evil teddy bear with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth and it was gnawing on somebody's arm and I mean really going to town, blood everywhere.
Collette was still getting in her stunt harness, but she moved that process into the kitchen so she could watch the effects footage, too. She was there for much of it, of course, but a whole lot of the footage shot didn't need the actors in the frame, so a lot of it was new to her, too.
Especially the Cherub.
This flying monstrosity was mega creepy... a dark twist on a fat baby angel. Porcelain white skin and a messed up little mouth with a gross, thin tongue that lashes out. Apparently this thing attacks Collette and it was her first time really seeing it. Her response: “Jesus Christ! What kind of movie ar you making?!?”
Dougherty's response? A smile and a remark that he might want to go back into that set and get a reverse shot of her face getting slimed up by that gross tongue.
So, that's the kind of movie you're in for.
Before I wrap this up, I want to mention a visit to Dougherty's production office where I got to see some great art, including a look at Krampus himself. I don't know what his final look will be, but I ddi see a piece of art that had this huge hunched over figure with massive horns in a dirty robe... we've seen this silhouette in the marketing, but this version of him I saw also had an old man visage... Think of it as a kind of meat mask, sagging flesh of a Santa-like visage with something bulky and awful hiding beneath it.
Could have been a concept piece or a stage of the creature that we see in the movie. I don't know, but it did make an impression on me.
So, there you have it. My first set visit in which one of the stars farted on me, tried to bribe me and pulled a gun on me. First time for everything.