Brothers Thomas and Charles Guard have directed an American adaptation of Kim Ji-Woon's Korean ghost thriller A Tale of Two Sisters entitled The Uninvited. This time out, the story revolves around institutionalized sister Anna (Emily Browning) as she returns home following the tragic and untimely death of her mother. Her emotional recovery is stunted when she learns that her father (David Strathairn) has fallen for her mother's former caretaker (Elizabeth Banks). After a visit from the mother's ghost, Anna and her sister (Arielle Kebbel) attempt to convince their dad that the night nurse is up to no good. What should be a happy family reunion between a father and his two daughters soon turns into a lethal battle of the wills between an abusive stepmother and her adoptive children.
The story is actually based on an old Joseon Dynasty folktale, and has been adapted to film many times in the past. The Guard Brothers began principle photography on their personalized version of this tale July 21st, 2007. Midway through shooting, we were invited out to Bowen Island for a close-up look at the production. Heading out of Thunderbird Marina on a water taxi, we were promised a sneak peek at a couple of exciting scenes being shot that particular day. They were to include a steamy look at Elizabeth Banks in the shower and a peek at Emily Browning in her swimsuit. This sounded almost too good to be true. Alas, when we arrived at the shooting location, we were informed of a change of plans. Both the bathroom shower and the lakeside-swimming hole were now closed sets. Instead, we were offered an exclusive tour of the film's retrofitted house. That's right.
Wood and furniture is not nearly as exciting as two scantily clad up-and-coming actresses, but I was okay with the switch. Location housing is quite fascinating to me. We were given a private walkthrough of the Victorian-style home on Bowen Island that was being used as the centerpiece of The Uninvited. It had been retrofitted by 3:10 to Yuma production designer Andrew Menzies. And was rumored to have once been the intended Vancouver stomping grounds of Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. The outside of the building was made of beautiful oak, and the dense foliage of British Columbia surrounded it's artful hedges of freshly tendered lawn. Inhaling the clean air, it wouldn't be hard to choke on the freshness of these surroundings. The Uninvited's lush backdrop was greener than the whole of An Inconvenient Truth.
Producer Walter Parks had greeted us outside the very large, three-section house earlier that morning. Before giving us a tour through its insides, he filled us in on the film and his participation in it. (FYI: Parks is also responsible for DreamWorks' American adaptation of The Ring, Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.) As he explains it, "I got a phone call from Mark Sourian, and he told me the basic premise of the movie. That it was a fairytale about two girls. The best movies have simple, organic myths underneath them. And this is the case and point. It is a stepmother story. It also has a connection to Hamlet. It's about a dead parent coming back and saying, 'Avenge my death!' The bones of the story were fascinating to us. Just based on the story, we said, 'Yes. Let's buy this thing.' It turned out to be a very costly purchase. This was when the Asian horror cycle was at its peak in Hollywood. Everyone was trying to scramble to get these. I think the Korean movie is a work of genius, but I still don't understand it after repeated viewings. I'm not so sure we would have jumped at it had we seen it first. But there was something about the concept that was so appealing. We went ahead and acquired it, and we worked for a very long time on the screenplay. It is a very, very difficult screenplay, because there are multiple stories going on that the audience isn't necessarily aware of."
It's interesting that Parks purchased the rights to the film without having seen it first. Why would he do such a thing? As he tells it, "I was literally in Europe when I heard the rights were being optioned. There was not an opportunity for me to see the film. I had to make a decision right away. I trust Mark. I've worked with him for many years, and he is a very smart guy. He explained the basic storyline. I understood that it could potentially make a good film. So, it wasn't necessary for me to see the original at that time."
Talk soon turned to the most important subject as far as us horror fans are concerned. The gore. Parks was asked if he felt he had to tone down the horror elements for an American audience. He responded with, "A little bit. Not so much the horror, but the graphically depicted gore. The Korean poster is of these two girls in a family portrait and they're just covered in blood. The audience for these movies is teenage girls. It's really fantastic when you have one that works, and the teenage girls like it. You see groups of them going together. It becomes a social event. The girls go in and watch the film with one big coat over their heads. They are kind of huddled together and gasping at the same things. If it is good, they will go back over and over again. It's nice to make a movie that doesn't have a rating that precludes the people you are making it for. It's an entertainment, but you always try to tie it into some sort of meaning. It will be PG-13, because I don't want to keep teenagers out of the theater."
The house in the original Korean film almost becomes a character in and of itself. Parks explains that this concept is equally true of the American version as well, "It couldn't be more important. I would say that seventy-five percent of the story takes place at the house. Usually, it's the cast. In a way, finding this house was the most difficult. We went all over America. We went all over Canada. The newer, bigger houses are not right for the story. We even scouted in New Zealand. We sent scouts to look all over the world. We did find a few places in Shreveport, Louisiana. But it just didn't look right. My entire career, I've never looked into a location like this. I've never found a place that is so perfect for a movie as the house you see behind you. It is so evocative. It suggests the family is both welcoming and kind of forbidding."
Parks continued, saying, "It sits on this promontory, and it looks like we are in Scotland. I simply can't over hype it. I can't wait for you guys to see the inside of it. It is such a fantastic way to go to work. I love getting on the water taxi to get here. When you arrive, it's like you are storming some beach. It's just extraordinary." At this point, Parks took us through the gorgeous house and showed off an old oak wood staircase where one of the most climactic scenes in the film takes place. Standing on the edge of this ominous piece of handcrafted artwork, Walter discussed his decision to hire the Guard brothers, "It's an interesting genre. It shares something with comedy. You learn that from Hitchcock. Just by using the language of film, you can get people to scream. People get up on the edge of their seat. We wanted to find someone very adept in the language of film. We had such a great experience with Gore Verbinski and his particular background as a visualist. We saw a similar talent in Tom and Charlie. There's an energy that comes from them that is fantastic. Really, if you ask why we hired Tom and Charlie, it's because in their very first meeting, the first thing they brought up was a case study of Sigmund Freud's that they had read. They talked about the film as storytellers, as filmmakers. And they had this great take on the psychodynamic underneath the whole thing. I felt that as a writer and a producer, we shared a language."
With that, Parks took us back out of the house and onto the lawn to chat with both Charlie and Tom. The curly haired pair seemed rather shy and reserved. Though, they might have just been mind-deep in the upcoming shower scene they were preparing to shoot. The first thing everyone wanted to know was how influential the original Kim Ji-Woon film had been on their upcoming project. Thomas took a moment to consider this before responding, "That's good question. We're very influenced by that Asian terror. But we kind of just see it through our own insensibilities. We don't feel that we're moving away from it too much. It's very implied. A lot of it is in the faces of the characters and the anticipation of the things that will happen to them. We're really into that. We're hoping there's a bridge between our Western sensibility and an Asian sensibility." Charlie continued, saying, "Our appreciation for Asian cinema is much more structured and pointed. We're harnessing the energy of the story as a way of tuning into some of that terror."
Where do they feel the terror in their film comes from? Tom thinks it comes from the space between the scenes rather than the scenes themselves. And that is why the film has earned a PG-13 rating. "We're drawn to scarier material in a psychological sense. No one's intention has been to make this a slasher-style horror. It's always been at the classier end of the spectrum.." But Charlie seems to think an R rated or Unrated version may becoming with the arrival of the DVD, "We're not sure. Probably. That would be decided later down the line. But we might do that." Next, the duo turned to the aspect of their amazing cast. Thomas stated, "They're fantastic David Strathairn has a lovely understated stature about him. Which was really important for the role. He really embodies the ideas of a writer." Charles was quick to add his two cents about Emily Browning, saying, "We'd seen Emily Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. We were really knocked out by her in that. She caught our eye then. We'd really wanted to work with her for a while. She's been fantastic. It's quite a complicated narrative, and to tell it simply is a real challenge. It's been incredibly helpful having such intelligent, brilliant actors because they've really helped us get under the skin of these characters. They've helped us explore the narrative as fully as we can."
Will there be multiple endings? Both directors were pretty adamant when they firmly stated, "No!"
After talking with producer Walter Parks and the two Guard brothers, we headed over to a production tent to chat with two of the principle actors in the cast. First, David Strathairn described his father figure, "He was one of the most affected by the mother's demise. Obviously, the daughter was also affected. But it all happened under his roof. He is the most adult out of the bunch. He has the most at stake in terms of a longer life. He's got more lines on the water. And it felt like a challenge to express what falls on his shoulders. It is not necessarily explored in the depth that the girl's journey is. That was exciting to me. That remains the challenge." David didn't choose the film lightly, "I haven't seen the Korean version. I just felt this was an ensemble piece and the event affected everybody. It sort of intrigued me as to how they were going to navigate this psychologically and make it thrilling. I like that it is sort of a mysterious story. I was most curious about that." The fact that the Guard brothers had never made a feature length film before didn't frighten Strathairn in the least bit, "It didn't worry me at all. They're brothers. I felt they were very much on the same page together. And it's come to pass that they are. And are very supportive of each other. In many cases two is less than one. But here, they augment each other very well."
Elizabeth Banks, who plays Strathairn's love interest in the movie, had to agree, "They're brothers. They're great. They're very visual. You can tell that they're very concern about every little detail of the composition of the shots. Which I appreciate. I think they're really raising the bar in terms of how the movie looks. They talk a lot about making a classier thriller. Versus a fast, less artistic horror flick. It is more in line with the original. The original is so visually arresting. I think they're really trying to go for something that American audiences can relate to but that still has a great sense of artistry about it."
The two actors then discussed their roles in detail. Is there a dark side to David's onscreen persona? "I think Steven is a man whose one priority has sort of occluded what he realizes should have been his real priority. In other words, his daughters and his family. His life as a writer has kept him busy. He is more involved with his career than with his daughters. Because of that, he's realizing, "Oh, I've missed out on all the wonderful years of having a relationship with her." Now I'm trying to catch up. Not only as a dad, but also as a friend, as a confidant, as somebody who can support her and somebody who understands her. It's a bit sad. You could say he's culpable in some unconscious way." Banks approached her character differently, "I get to play a villainess, which I never get to do. I'm a little better known nowadays for doing comedy. Just the idea of being able to play someone who's a little edgier was awesome. Her sexuality is right out there. We talked a lot about Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Sharon Stone and Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. They were the great female villains. I just love all of those and their performances are ones that I admire. The villian is really fun to play. I think the audience will get a good kick out of it, too."
After chatting with David and Elizabeth, we were greeted by the two young stars of the film Arielle Kebbel and Emily Browning. Both were eager to express their love for the original project. Emily told us, "I watched it just after I read the original script ages ago. I really liked it. It was beautifully shot and really cool. But so confusing. I see why there's room for a remake. We're trying to do it without dumbing it down too much."
Arielle added, "We both agreed that there was a lot of touching between the two sisters. There was a very cool intimacy had in their relationship. It was really important to both of us that we kept that in there. There is a bedroom scene in the original. They sleep together in the same bed. That's something that sisters do. There are certain things. Stroking her hair. There's a certain intimacy and exchange of relationship and trust that they have that we thought was really important."
About finding their teenage audience, as Walter Parks mentioned earlier, Browning said, "We rehearsed quite a lot. More intensely than anything I've rehearsed for before. This is the first film I've done being 18. And I have to ask myself, "Why do teenagers enjoy this? Why do they enjoy roller coasters?" I think it's definitely an adrenaline thing. What's cool about this film is that people who like cleverly written screenplays will enjoy it. But it also has this sort of fear element that is that same kind of thrill-seeking thing that teenagers really enjoy."
After speaking with the two actresses, we were whisked off Bowen Island and back to reality. Now, after nearly a year of waiting, The Uninvited is ready to be released in North America. This thrilling ghost story will find its way into theaters on January 30th, 2009. Make sure you bring a coat to throw over your head. It's going to be that scary.