Romania, the city of Bucharest. May 15, 2007. Media Pro Studios
Piles of black Styrofoam are stacked to the very top of a four-story ceiling. Each piece has been cut into its own individual brick-sized rectangle. Then spray-painted and aged to medieval perfection. Together, they have been puzzled into a massive pillar. There are a number of these towering piles, each simulating the support structure of an underground alcove. The place is serviced by its own self-contained water system.
The concrete floor has been overlaid with sheets of granite, caulked and covered in an aged layer of dirt. There are hand-built walkways made of stone, and a set of steps that lead to a sarcophagus. Above it all is a huge Celtic stone window frame, fractals etched into its face. Sections of the concrete signage have been chiseled out, allowing for any number of man-made light sources to shine through it.
A huge reflector has been propped up in front of the steps, blocking any view of the actors who are quietly rehearsing there lines together there. The white sheet is ready and waiting to catch white heat and bounce it back onto the crew. The scene has been handcuffed to a natural presence. One that doesn't allow for CGI'd walls and fires.
This is the Great Hall. A set created and built by the art department of The Dark is Rising. It will soon see the climatic battle sequence that ends the film. Crewmembers mill about, creating a working energy that radiates with efficiency. They will be bringing in some horses soon.
The four horses wait outside the studio, eating hay. They are pure white. Celtic symbols have been inked black and run down the side of their necks in a form of branding. The main horse belongs to The Rider, who will be played by Christopher Eccleston. He is not currently on set, but we will be meeting with him at the Sheraton around 6:00 p.m.
Based on Susan Cooper's celebrated series of books, The Dark is Rising is a big screen adaptation of the second novel. There are elements of the other four novels mixed in. The story revolves around thirteen year old Will Stanton, played by newcomer Alexander Ludwig. The boy discovers that he is the last warrior in a group of fighters sworn to protect the world from the forces of the Dark. While traveling back and forth through time, Will must collect different elemental signs that will eventually allow him to beat this unimaginable power. The fate of the world rests in the hands of our unwitting teenager.
The film's writer John Hodge, with whom we would speak to more extensively later on, had explained all of this to us in a brief outline of the film. As words like "quiet" and "rolling" were shouted through the immense studio barn, our team of journalists was cattle-herded outside. We came to rest under a small blue tent. On one table rested a cardboard model of a house. Next to it on another table were two forty-inch Samsung plasma screens. The scene being shot inside the studio was pumped out to us, live on tape, via these monitors.
An iconic topography of heroism filled the screen. Our protagonists were preparing for battle. The Old Ones, warriors hell-bent on protecting the Earth from the forces of the Dark, sidled up next to each other. Each brandishing a weapon of their choice. Ian McShane appeared in the foreground. He is probably best known for his role as Al Swearengen, the foul-mouthed brothel owner on HBO's Deadwood. His classic scowl seeped into the camera, a morning star super wielded to his left hand. The weapon is a spiked ball attached to a chain on a stick handle. As he moved forward, the small turquoise stones on his wool coat caught flecks of light, bouncing them back into the lens of the camera with an odd flare.
McShane nodded to the other actors. He was heading into the climactic end fight sequence. An unearthly glow started to hum through the Celtic frame high above their heads. The heavenly light enveloped our leaders as they moved forward. We sat, watching them charge at their destiny headfirst. Then, "Cut!"
The shot was complete, maybe lasting only a few minutes. It was then passed along to an AVID editor who sat off to the side of the set. He madly slapped a few different angles together, looking for something that worked. His presence here amongst the action is to help insure that the project meets its October 5th deadline. Which is only a mere five months away.
This same editor takes us aside and shows us a two-minute clip reel from the film. It has been compiled by the director as a means to keep his crew's spirits alive. The weaved-together pieces are set to the main theme from Edward Scissorhands. They give off a great sense of accomplishment. The film is incredibly detailed and alive with realism. It looks old fashioned, more buried in the strength of the story then in showy effects. There are no green screen holes that need to be filled in.
One lasting image sees a superball dispenser falling over in the snow, the balls bouncing and rolling down the street. We see The Rider atop his horse. A man in an interrogation room morphs into a Raven. We see Will time trip through an old church. It's an impressive reel. It gives off a good sense of what the film will become. A realistic adventure with an overture of Sci-Fi goodness sewn throughout its bones.
Back outside, under the tent, we see the sliding side studio door open. Ian McShane walks out and over to our table. It's as if he transposed himself into the yellow glowing light, only to come out here, on the other side, in front of us. It's like watching a character step right off the screen of your TV set and into your backyard bar-b-que. The voice recorders turned out to be his final destination. Not a very good ending for a film, but it works in this moment.
He takes his chair, straddling it backwards. He has a classic character actor's face, full of age lines and a unique history that we shall never know. Someone working on set will later tell me that he always looks angry. The man seems a little on edge. The energy of his Merriman Lyon character is still lingering around his upper torso. We watch him shake off the new on-screen persona he's created. Looking down at the recorders with what might be called disdain, he begins answering our question...
Ian McShane as Merriman Lyon
Thank you for talking with us.
Ian McShane: Okay.
For people not familiar with the book, can you talk a little bit about your character? He plays a pretty pivotal role. Can you explain that role?
Ian McShane: I don't think they've been very faithful to the book. I don't know how many of you've read the book. I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn't read it very well. It's really dense. It's from the 70s, you know? This guy is a shooter. He's the mentor to the boy, Will Stanton.
How did you make him different from Dumbledore? Is he less like a wizard?
Ian McShane: Hodge has made him a butler. He's sort of this strange, old guy that lives in the house on the hill. I have never done a science fiction movie, or anything of this ilk before. I've never worked with kids. Or special effects. The whole process is incredibly laborious. It's like doing a musical on the stage. There's less concentration on the acting, and more on the special effects. There's more emphasis on the "in and out." It's a little distracting, but that's how it goes. The kid is great. Alex (Ludwig) has really worked his ass off. It's very rare that you get the kids in nearly every shot of the movie. It really is. In real life and in acting, we're backing it up. He's the one that's got the message, he just doesn't know it. We have to guide him through the various processes. He's the last of the Old Ones to be born. There's me, and there's Frances Conroy, and there's James Cosmo, and Jim Piddock. And they survive through the ages. And the kid comes in, and he is the last one to be born. He doesn't even know it. Of course he's got the twin who has been imprisoned by the Dark for all these years.
Where you familiar with the books before signing on to this?
Ian McShane: No, I never heard of them. I did try to read the book, but they were a little...I think...I don't know how...There's four of them apparently. Or five. Oh, god. That means I might have to do a sequel.
When you found out about this project, what was it about the character that made you want to do it?
Ian McShane: Well, in the book he's about seven foot three, if I remember correctly. I just decided to play it. Alex and I have a great relationship. I told him, when we go on the set, whatever is happening we'll get on with it. It's true. You just have to get on with it. You play it where you don't talk down to him, and he doesn't talk up to me. We play it like two people who just met, and that's really what we do in the movie.
What was it about this project that specifically interested you, though?
Ian McShane: The check. As it always is. Basically. It certainly wasn't Romania. No, it's been an interesting experience. Maybe a little too long. Twelve weeks is a little long to shoot. But you need all that time.
What is your personal opinion about fantasy? Is it something you don't like to watch?
Ian McShane: No. It's not that I don't want to watch it. I'm just more of a detective guy. I like the thriller. You know, reality. But I understand science fiction. I want to do this because it's about time I did something my kids, or rather my grandkids, could watch. You know? They can't watch Deadwood, or something like that. This will be good.
What are you trying to bring to this role?
Ian McShane: You bring reality to it, I suppose. The special effects take care of themselves. You do it and play it for real, then you let the other stuff take care of itself. I think the sets are enough. The sets are great.
Can you tell us about the scene you shot with the snakes?
Ian McShane: Oh, yeah, there were about twelve hundred of them.
How did they prepare you for that?
Ian McShane: They didn't. I told them, "Put three thousand of them on me and get me out of here a week early." So I was happy when they said they would. But they lied to me. I grew fond of the snakes. I've never worked with them before. They were nice, you know?
Were they crawling all over you?
Ian McShane: Yeah. Yeah. I was especially fond of this big python. He was this thirty footer, you know? But they are very heavy. I had these two that just kept looking at me...But he's very good, the snake handler. You just have to sit and relax. As it were, you know?
Was it difficult working with snakes all over you?
Ian McShane: No, I was supposed to be tied down anyway. It was very easy. None of them were poisonous. They only bite if they get in a highly nervous situation. They didn't bite. We were okay.
How long did that take?
Ian McShane: I laid down for about twenty minutes. It's a long time, twenty minutes, if you think about it. But, no, they were cool. My handlers were great. Then James did it, then Frances did it...Jim Piddock was a little more nervous than anybody. But again, he was fine.
When you look at a script like this, do you sit down with the director and say, "There are a few things I would like to bring to this myself"?
Ian McShane: No, I think the one thing I wanted to bring to this was reality. It was written in Old English. I wanted to make it as natural as we could, without altering it. They weren't characters out of some restoration comic book. They weren't shouting Shakespearean dialogue. I just wanted to make it a little more real. They sound more natural, even though they look wacko. People in England do tend to look a little like this.
How much action is involved with your character?
Ian McShane: Well, in the script you have the sequences...We're helping the kid. That's the main thing. The battle between light and dark, which they've been fighting for years before this kid showed up. I just like that with the kid, they get a little exasperated with him. I have to say to him, "Deal with it. This is what you are." So, it's kind of playing around with the kid thing. I really tried to inject a little humor into it. That wasn't always there in the script. The humor thing always helps. I think the family, which they shot first, was very good. With John (Hickey) and Wendy (Crewson). They were great. I must say; this has been a great cast of people. That's what's been really nice.
Have you really been out here for twelve weeks?
Ian McShane: No, I've gone back every weekend. And if I want two days off, I can get it.
Where do they put you up?
Ian McShane: While I'm here? Here in Romania? Well, they got me in the Hilton. But its like being in a Hilton anywhere in the world. The sad thing is, its not the most inspiring place to walk around. The people are very nice here, and you can walk around, but its not exactly got...You know, whatever...
There are a lot of feral dogs.
Ian McShane: Actually, they're not feral. They're very sweet. They turned a lot of the property into apartment houses, and you can't keep a dog in an apartment, so people just left them on the street. Frances will tell you about that, because I think she is taking most of them home with her. She never stops feeding them.
In the scene we saw being shot, you were wielding a mace?
Ian McShane: That's my weapon. That's Merriman's special weapon.
Did you do any training with it?
Ian McShane: No, that just comes naturally. Absolutely. There have been no accidents with it so far. But there are still a couple of days to go.
The writer says that your character is the exposition machine.
Ian McShane: Oh, God, yeah...Thank God he's done that very well. It's not every time. A little bit, he does have to give the information away. Doing the film, you find a lot of ways to explore that. With a subtle line, or whatever.
You're not doing any of those big, cumbersome dialogue scenes where you tell everything that is going on in the movie?
Ian McShane: No, no, no...I think he catches the audience up with where the story is going next, but there hasn't been any long dialogue passages. No, there hasn't been any of that.
Did you ever get to be social with the rest of the cast on your off time, or did you just go about doing your own thing?
Ian McShane: No, I go to my room and cry. Or I go on the Internet a lot. (Looks directly at me) Why are you giving me such a heavy look? You look bored with me and the conversation.
I'm just sitting here. This is just my face.
Ian McShane: I thought maybe you were mad at me and I didn't know.
Did they come to you for this part? Ian McShane isn't something we thing of in terms of a kid's film.
Ian McShane: Why not?
Because of Deadwood, mostly.
Ian McShane: I don't know. Maybe they wanted something different. I've just done a big movie with Andy Samberg. A crazy comedy that will be out in the summer. This is just something different to do again. You should ask the director why he wanted me. He probably hates me now. I haven't stopped moaning about being in Romania. As long as you go on the set and do your thing. Thank God I was professional on the set.
It seems like you could bring the edge that is sorely missing from this type of genre.
Ian McShane: I think it is a bit of that, yeah. As I said, the reaction with the kid...He's a good kid, but its tough. He's in nearly every scene. He has an allergy today. Thank God he's all right. His eyes are a little blurry. But we just get in there and have a good time.
Can you describe what kind of director David Cunningham is?
Ian McShane: You know, I think he has the toughest job. On this, he's always thinking about something else. So he tends to gloss over the acting. He has to trust the acting. To do what they do with that dialogue stuff? He's constantly walking around with, at the very least, three cameras at all times. Which can get very annoying. It sometimes gets in the way, I think. These are very big sets. It's very rare that we are in an intimate situation. It's hard when you find yourself in a one-on-one, and you don't know where he has the camera. I think he knew that the more natural it was, the better it was. Easier. More fluid.
And that was our last question.
Ian thanked us for coming. He got back up and ran for the giant, sliding stage door. A few minutes later, we could again see him on the monitor. They were continuing with the battle sequence.
That's when someone wheeled a rack of clothing up next to us. They then set down two fully dressed costumed mannequin stands. One piece belonged to the character of The Rider. The other belonged to Miss Greythorne. We were told that Vin Burnham would soon be greeting us, and explaining the work she had done on the film as its Costume Designer. Stay tuned for a detailed report on that, as well as interviews with writer John Hodge and director David L. Cunningham when I return in a little while with part two of my The Dark is Rising set visit in Romania.
The Dark is Rising opens October 5th, 2007.