This was my first time ever on a movie set, so I was excited at the prospect. The unit publicist took us through the soundproof doors onto the set, which is an amazingly realistic recreation of a small town grocery store. The first word we heard as we approached was "Expiation," uttered by Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, Mystic River). As soon as we stepped through the door, we were looking out the front of the store, through the big glass windows, into the mist-filled parking lot. It was an impressive sight. The cars parked out in this staged lot were barely visible at times.
Before we got to meet Frank Darabont, Rich noticed author David J. Schow sitting behind the director. Schow has known Darabont for a long time and was visiting the set at the director's invitation. I've never met him before, but I'm familiar with his work, especially the fine rock-horror novel Kill Riff. He's also one of the authors in A Dark and Deadly Valley that has my story "Sturm Und Drang."
Also at the set that morning was Chris Hewitt from Empire Magazine in England. Chris and I were the representatives of the press—I was doing a gig for Rue Morgue magazine, as well as gathering material for my next Cemetery Dance column.
Rich and Johnathan could only stay one day, but I was there until late on Friday afternoon. This is an intense shoot—something on the order of 40 days (Green Mile was 107 days, for comparison). They're working six day weeks and from 7:30 am to after 9:00 pm most days.
Except for a couple of out-of-sequence shots done early in the schedule so they could give Café FX some material to work on for the special effects, the film has been shot almost chronologically. The days I was there, they were working on Mrs. Carmody's increasing grip on one faction of the patrons stuck in the grocery store, culminating with an assault on a young military private and an angry confrontation between the two factions.
Darabont is running with two cameras on most shots, capturing slightly different angles. There's also a Steadicam for some shots, and they brought in the TechnoCrane for some high angle shots at the end of my second day there.
Schow took us upstairs to KNB EFX's headquarters on Thursday so we could see some of the creatures and special effects they're working on. The final decision hasn't yet been made about how much live-action puppetry and how much CGI will be used, but the animated creatures shot against the green screen look awesome. We were amused to see boxes labeled "pus and bladders" and "spare eyes." There was a stack of bodies in one corner of the room that looked like the aftermath of a mass murder. The foam rubber monsters and animatronic tentacles are amazing. The KNB folks, especially Greg Nicotero, gave us the full works tour. (A naked mannequin modeled after Mr. Nicotero would serve as a body double while they blocked out the crane shots the next afternoon.
Because we were legit press, we were afforded the opportunity to formally interview some of the cast members. Chris and I got about fifteen minutes each with Marcia Gay Harden and Toby Jones (Capote in Infamous) and over half an hour with Thomas Jane (Dreamcatcher, The Punisher). The time we spent in his trailer while he smoked a bazooka-sized cigar and meandered through such topics as his work on the movie, his graphic novels, a script he wants to direct and his want-list for a Punisher sequel ranks right up there with the memorable moments in recent years. I told Chris as billows of smoke followed us out the door that if his magazine can't print the F-word then he's out of luck for direct quotes! (By the way, the "f-word" has a different meaning on this set. Anyone who says the f-word—the FOG—has to put money into a penalty jar.)
Some of the groceries in the fully stocked market were starting to show their wear. Bread isn't meant to stay on the shelf for a month, and the stuff at the bottom has a decidedly green hue to it and could probably cure several exotic diseases. The pharmacy was dressed using the entire innards of a drug store in East Texas that was shut down some time ago. Quite a while ago, I'd say, based on some of the items on the shelves—including flash cubes and flash bars, neither of which I've seen in a store for many moons.
We got to visit with Laurie Holden (Silent Hill, The Majestic), Frances Sternhagen (Golden Years, Misery), Bill Sadler and Jeffrey De Munn (both in almost everything Darabont has ever filmed) between takes and at lunch in the cafeteria. I overheard many comments that the caterer for this shoot was among the best they'd ever experienced. For lunch one day, one option was a canoe filled with crawfish, crab legs, shrimp and all the related fixins—and that was just one choice of several. I never expected to be dined by the production company, but I guess that's one of the perks of being press. We were given copies of the script—with the last ten or twenty scenes missing. Even most of the cast doesn't know how the movie ends. Thomas Jane was the only one who admitted to having a script with the ending.
I wasn't allowed to take any pictures on the set, but the unit publicist will be sending me some pre-approved photos for my articles. I was amazed by the level of activity on the set between takes. As soon as Darabont yelled "Cut," people went into motion, corralling the extras, running cables, hanging lights, moving props, etc. Darabont is using some of the crew from his gig directing an episode of The Shield—he's using their expertise in quick filming and fast setups to get this movie done fast, fast, fast. The set videographer, Constantine Nasr, is constantly on the move, shooting footage for the DVD documentaries, capturing the discussions between cast and crew and occasionally interviewing Darabont directly.
Based on what I saw, this has the possibility of being a very good, taut and tense thriller. The monsters are a big part of it, but most of the tension comes from the interplay between the polarized groups, the one led by Thomas Jane's David Drayton and the one led by Harden's Mrs. Carmody. Even sitting halfway across the grocery store from the live action, I could feel the energy of Mrs. Carmody's religious rants and the adrenaline of the more physical conflicts. We missed the filming of the guy set on fire and the girl stung by the beastie, but at least I got to see a stabbing, a fist fight and a ritual sacrifice. Cool stuff.
By the way, there are lots of easter eggs to be discovered, from the paperback rack of Stephen King books, to the Castle Rock sign on the wall to the Dark Tower movie poster that Drayton is working on in his studio—and more.
I left the set at about 7:30 on Friday. They were still working out the logistics of a crane shot that followed a group of people through the aisles of the store to the main entrance, and I could tell it was going to be a long and arduous process. After all, I had a four-hour drive ahead of me to get back home.
Look for more detailed reports in future issues of Rue Morgue and in Cemetery Dance #59. It was an adventure I won't soon forget.