The director and the director of photography discuss making movies for today's audiences, special effects and how The Covenant is a different kind of horror movie
Having directed A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master and Exorcist: The Beginning, Renny Harlin is a director who knows something about horror. On the set of his most recent film, we spoke with him and his Director of Photography Pierre Gill about their newest offering, The Covenant.
Based on the graphic novel by Aron Coleite and Tone Rodriguez, The Covenant is the power passed down from generation to generation, but when four boys accidentally unleash an evil force in the process of receiving the powers from their fathers, they must join together to stop it.
We caught up with Harlin and Co. as they were shooting a scene of the main characters in the story descending down on a party by the sea.
Can you talk about the current shots you're shooting now?
Renny Harlin: It's a very big shot. It's a big Hollywood shot we call it because it's a huge, big, blue screen, very technical and it's very difficult because there's no more places for me to light from. That's my biggest problem. There's blue everywhere... and we shoot a more than 180 degree move so it's 240 degrees that we see. It's a very wide lens so we see everything everywhere. It's quite a challenge.
Pierre Gill: It's a big special effect scene.
Renny Harlin: In the movie everything is digital effects. Above the guys, the sky will be a stormy sky, under them will be a 200 foot drop to these cliffs and crashing waves. He has to be able to light the blue screen so that it works technically and at the same time so that it doesn't spill on to the actors. The actors are lit as if it was nighttime on a cliff so it's pretty tough.
What are the challenges for a director working with special effects?
Renny Harlin: It's fun for me. I've done it for so many years, in so many movies. What's great about it is I can imagine anything and then if we have the money and time to do it, we can actually do it. Like this shot that we are doing, it was brought in in early July, when I was sitting around having a drink and I was thinking about this scene, because I was like "Wouldn't it be cool if the camera went like this and this... that would be amazing."
Then I made it into storyboards and I have to pinch myself sometimes. I think it's funny that not only people let me do this, they pay me to do it. Sometimes I catch myself looking at this thing and I'm like, "I didn't really mean to do this. I guess it's too late to back out." I wouldn't mind at all doing a strictly dramatic movie or comedy, we're such idiots together we dream about doing a comedy someday, because we're goofing all the time.
Like yesterday, we were doing this scene in this big mansion, which was all about just actors and this beautiful mansion. It's great. It's beautiful to do those scenes and really figure out how the camera and lighting participate in a scene. Instead of just letting actors do their thing and kind of recording it on film. You can't really separate special effects and stunts from normal dramatic situations, because it's all about the camera participating in what's going on.
What were you looking for when you cast the five male leads?
Renny Harlin: I was looking for 5 guys who would be believable as these grand, grand, grandchildren of these New England settlers. From this wealthy, blue blood community so they have this aura about themselves, yet they are different from each other. One is the silent type, one is the wild and crazy type, one is something else... we spent a lot of time going East Coast to West Coast and looked at every actor. We didn't want to have somebody famous because that would ruin the surprise of who is what, and how they are going to effect the story and it's outcome.
Yet, I needed to get good actors because no matter how good looking your actors are, if they're not believable you're in huge trouble. We found some of them in LA, some of them in New York, some of them in Canada. The chemistry is important and it's also important just to have guys who look different from each other. You're quickly introducing the audience to five new characters. There's no Tom Cruise, there's no Brad Pitt so they have to hang on to something.
Can you talk about the look of this movie?
Renny Harlin: We talked about this a lot before we started. It's really our collaboration and his genius in terms of lighting and framing, that's creating this look for this movie. Which is really unique, I must say. I really, truly believe it's by far the most beautiful movie I've ever made. It's dark. It's very brooding and there's no color in this movie, but it's not blue like The Matrix or Underworld look. We wanted to direct the audience into our journey and our path. Instead of just recording the events, we are forcing the audience to take a certain point of view.
Pierre Gill: The darkness is more, we're trying to make something that's not black. Like you don't see anything and you just have this crack of light and there's this face coming out. We working into something much more refined and elegant. For that suits this luscious life and all that. You see where you are and you feel the room and the room becomes a part of the action. What I see with the dailies and with some of the edits that we have right now, it works great. We're trying to make paintings out of this as much as possible. So this is where the spookiness or whatever... because it's scary but it's not like a horror movie.
Renny Harlin: Nowadays you see a lot of movies that are really fast cuts. You force the audience into being excited or something, because it's just cutting so fast that you don't know what's going on. We're doing kind of the opposite which is, we still have a lot of angles and all that, but it's more deliberate angles and not relying on tons of coverage and quick cuts.
Is it more of a challenge making movies now than it was 20 years ago?
Renny Harlin: Absolutely, because we have a couple of generations of moviegoers who have grown up with MTV, commercials, music videos and video games. Their visual sensibilities are so much more sophisticated. Literally, if you look at Hitchcock movies or Westerns of the 1940s or 1950s, a movie would probably have... maybe 350 cuts in the whole movie. Now? You have 3000 cuts. It's a totally different language. To impress the audience now? Whether it's normal visuals, or action, or the stunts... you have to do so much more because they've seen everything.
It's a fun challenge. It's not like I sit up at night wondering, "Oh my God, how do I make this really hip so that the music video fans like it?"
What about comparisons with this film to Harry Potter?
Renny Harlin: I often say that this movie is like Harry Potter grown up. It's the same kind of wish fulfillment, the characters are seventeen or eighteen, their use of magic is a little more mature, a little darker. I would definitely say that is a movie for those kids who grew up with Harry Potter, and feel that it's a little too... kids stuff.
What about The Covenant made you want to direct this movie?
Renny Harlin: Just that it dealt with young people. We have these people on the verge of adulthood, but still having fun and being able to be silly and kind of getting ready for life. They have this incredible power, whether they use them for good or bad is their choice. It's an interesting, different kind of world. The classrooms don't look like the classrooms in any of the high schools normal people go to. Their homes don't look the same. You get to look into this secret world and I felt that that would be a fun challenge.
Are there any specific films you looked at for influences?
Renny Harlin: Of course we look at a lot of things. Not to copy things but see what's being done. We looked at Kubrick movies just for style of framing and composition. We looked at some of the teen movies to make sure we stay away from anything that they do. All respect to teen movies but we don't want this to ever feel like a normal teen movie. In terms of typical teen situations and typical dilemmas... somebody chasing you with a knife and all that. These guys are warlocks and they don't deal with normal teenager stuff like that.
What about The Lost Boys?
Renny Harlin: Yeah, that's a good reference. That was 20 years ago but it was a very hip, cool movie in those days. Of course, we have hip, cool, young guys and girls. They live in a seaside town and instead of vampires we have warlocks. We're going to have a lot of cool music. It's definitely a good reference but I would say our movie is more serious and darker. It doesn't have that comic side that The Lost Boys had.
The Covenant comes to theaters nationwide on September 8 through Screen Gems.