Writer John Hodge and Costumer Designer Vin Burnham show off their wares
Romania, the city of Bucharest. May 15, 2007. Media Pro Studios.
CLICK HERE to read Part 1 of the Set Visit.
Movie PictureI stood outside an enormous studio barn, home to the end battle sequence of The Dark is Rising. A thuggish looking woman in jeans wheeled a rack of costume changes up next to me. She then tapped my arm and smiled. "Give me a hand?" I gladly obliged, helping her set two fully dressed dummies up next to a rack of handpicked clothing.
The first costume belonged to the bad guy in the film. The full-bodied armor of the The Rider, a character played by Christopher Eccleston. The chest plate was a pattern of aged leather, weaved and overlapped into an overtly Celtic design. Attached to it were well-worn leather pants. At the bottom, a pair of brown leather boots that could have just as easily belonged to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Shrouded over the ensemble piece was a black cloak. Raven feathers sewn into it so that they would hang and flow in the wind. Around the neck rested a green scarf. The costume was both very masculine, and yet vaguely feminine at the same time. It looked like something that belonged to a Value Village Jedi and thrift store enthusiast.
While staring at this subtle, yet ominous collection of leather and cloth, Vin Burnham walked over to us and started to explain her inspiration for the costume. Vin is probably best known for her work on Terry Gilliam's films. She has been a costume designer on Time Bandits, Brazil, and Monty Python's the Meaning of Life. She also put the nipples on Michael Keaton's Batman outfit, and designed the clothing for The Fifth Element.
She picked through The Rider's costume piece by piece, describing everything as she went along.
Vinilla Burnham: The Rider was great fun to make. This is one of four costumes for him. We have different versions doing different things. We have the textured version. We have a riding cloak, which is big because it covers the horse as well as the man. Then we have a walking version, which means the horse doesn't tread on it. Then we have a speed version, which flies. So they are all slightly different. Basically, right at the beginning, we were kind of talking about armor. But we didn't want to do the typical Knight in armor. And we didn't want to have anything that was too hard. Or too obvious. It was always my aim to make something that you couldn't quite make out what it was. Especially with the texture on the cloak. When you stand next to it, you can tell exactly what it is. But when it's moving, and you're not right up close to it, I hope that people will look at it and not be too sure of what it is. One of the inspirations was a dream catcher. With the feathers. I wanted to get movement to it. When he's moving, the feathers fly back and they have a life of their own. So its like something is hovering around it. It's great, because you can't quite figure it out. You can see that they're feathers. But they're not nailed down. It was also a challenge to make it look masculine. Because, basically, its made kind of like a skirt. That's exactly what it looks like. I didn't want to make it look like a super hero.
Vin then moved on to the costume standing next to The Rider's. This was Miss Greythorne's battle fatigues. Only, they looked like something a very cosmopolitan woman would wear out shopping in the 40s. It was a knee length tan skirt and jacket combo, squirrel fur stitched around the edges. There were Celtic patches sewn on the back and sides. Hooked throughout the entire piece were tiny little glass beads, amber in color. The hat topped it all off. A very eccentric, burnt orange trilby, it had a large turquoise feather sticking out the side of it.
Vinilla Burnham: There were several ways she could have gone, but what I liked was that there was license for her to be eccentric. There is a very fine line between being believable and being absurd. It was very important that she had dignity. And as an actress, she can carry off and wear things with dignity. She can carry this stuff off. It was important that you couldn't identify what period her clothes were from. They are twentieth century. But, for instance, this hat is something I bought. I didn't make it. It's a contemporary hat from a shop that specializes in shooting clothes. Usually eccentric English people would wear it. And it really reminds me of one of Ginger Rodger's hats. It has a bit of a 40s feel to it. Frances can carry it off. There are certain qualities to her that are like Hitler, too. Which was great. The reason for doing the beads was for going back in time. It was just to add something really subtle that wasn't a sudden jump into something else. Her costumes are the same throughout time, but there are subtle changes. Partly fur, partly crystal so that everything glints a bit. The embroidery is a fictitious symbol, but its based on Celtic designs. I got a lot of references from all kinds of things. This I got from the etchings on a manhole cover in Ireland. A beautiful manhole cover with Celtic patterns on it. The costume is made out of wool and cashmere. The best feature about this is that it moves when she's in the battle sequence in the church. The coat kind of fans out behind her. It's just great, because it looks swashbuckling. Its great for an action movie.
Vin turned her attentions to the rack of clothing. Hung from the wheel-based metal pole were various single pieces. Mostly shirts. There was a black leather jacket shanked with holes so that the lamb's wool was trilling out of it. There was a plaid flannel draped over a black skull T-shirt that read "Shut Up and Ride!" The pieces looked pulled from a middle aged Englishman's closet. Maybe a farmer who daydreams about riding his Harley in the city while feeding the pigs.
Vinilla Burnham: One of the things I wanted for the Old Ones was for them to be more organic. More textured. The Stanton family is modern, with high tech fabric. I wanted the Old Ones to be much more earthly. More from the country, I suppose. This is just a selection of those different outfits. This is Merriman's coat...
Vin pulled out a long, dark green coat with more Celtic designs sewn into it. It almost looked like a woman's coat, but had a certain roguish charm about it. Again, as with Miss Greythorne's outfit, there were tiny beads hooked throughout the fabric. They were aquamarine to match the color of the jacket.
Vinilla Burnham: He has the crystals and the fur, and everything. He's somewhere between a farmer and a gamekeeper. He defiantly has this English, Scottish eccentricity. It is just made out of rough wool. It's a nice contrast to Will's clothing. The intention of putting the crystals into the costume is just to get a little bit of atmosphere in there. Its not intended to look decorated or as if they are show costumes. They are actually crystals. They are not sequins and they are not rhinestones. So, the quality of them is sharp. You get these sharp glints of light. It doesn't look glitzy, but it moves and you can see it flash. There are not too many of them on there. It just adds a slightly different atmosphere that is not real.
Vin was called back to set. One of the main characters needed a wardrobe change before filming of the end battle scene could continue. Away with her went the costumes that she had been sharing. We remained under the blue tent for a spell. Then John Hodge popped around the corner.
A funny little man with a baldhead and a pleasant smile, I never would have guessed he'd written the film Trainspotting. He'd flown all the way out to Romania just to talk to us. And he seemed rather pleased to be doing so. The entire conversation, I never saw that cocksure little smirk leave his face.
John Hodge: Hello, I'm John Hodge, the screenwriter. If you feel I'm not speaking loud enough, just interject.
There are things here that I don't recognize from the book. I'm guessing there's stuff you added to spice it up a little bit.
John Hodge: Yes. When I looked at the book, I thought it would be tricky to adapt. The book is very lyrical, and there are flights of fancy that are only taking place inside Will Stanton's head. So, as with any adaptation, you are looking for ways to dramatize what may be more internal in a novel. Obviously, some novels are more prosaic and you can just spit out what is on the page. But this one called for some rethinking. There is an allusion to Vikings in the novel, and one of the signs that Will has to find is found on an old Viking boat. So stuff was inspired by that. But no Viking sequence appears in the book.
You've made the boy thirteen instead of eleven. Is there a romance in the movie that wasn't found in the book?
John Hodge: There isn't a romance. There is a thirteen-year-old girl that he has a crush on. From a distance. And she does have a part to play in the story. But we don't explore the relationship until later on. But her part is very important to the story. He is thirteen rather than eleven because its something I felt, and the producers agreed, that he is more plausibly capable given those extra number of years. And it's a greater time of inner turmoil for a young person. At eleven, you're still a child. Thirteen is a more transitional age. To me, it made him more interesting.
Is the film set in a contemporary time period?
John Hodge: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There is some time travel, but the boy is in the here and now. As it happens, he's from an American family that has relocated to England.
Why make the characters American?
John Hodge: Good point. There are obvious reasons, mostly commercial. But when I was reading the book, and had reservations about trying to adapt the screenplay, one of the things that I thought, was that he should be culturally alien to the setting. When one is an outsider, it feels more appropriate.
How did you come onto this movie?
John Hodge: It's strange. A different producer sent me the book about ten years ago. And I looked at it then. I was busy doing other things and didn't really think it was for me. This time as well. I didn't really think it was for me. But when I started talking to the producer, and we decided to make the boy older, and having the possibility of making him American and an outsider, and being fairly free with the adaptation...That's how I got into it really.
Were there any restrictions opposed upon you?
John Hodge: I don't think so. Nothing I can think of.
Did you meet the author, Susan Cooper?
John Hodge: No, I haven't met Susan. I know the producer has had a lot of dealings with her. As far as I was concerned, she told me to do what I needed to do. She's worked on some screen adaptations herself. Also, this has been around for a long time. I know there are a lot of people that were going to make it, then it fell short. Perhaps she was quite keen to get it done, whatever it took. When you are adapting a novel, you obviously want to respect the writer. But at the same time, perhaps its different with something like Harry Potter where every child has read it, but looking at a book from quite a long time a go that not a lot of people have read...Your duty is to the film, and not the author.
Can you talk about what you've added to the film to make it more of movie as opposed to a literary experience?
John Hodge: Right. Well, I think the most obvious addition is a sequence that doesn't take place in the book. Will goes to do some Christmas shopping for his family. It's a couple of days before Christmas, and he lives in a small village, so he gets on the bus and goes to town. To go to the mall. As he is headed to the mall, he notices birds, rooks, gathered in the trees. And they become a recurring theme in the movie. They are the foot soldiers of the Dark. And these rooks are gathering. It's a bit ominous, like The Birds, or something. There's a bit of tension, but they don't attack. The bus comes, and he leaves. Then he goes to the mall. He buys a gift for his sister. Then two security guards approach him. And they suggest that he has taken something from a shop without paying for it. They ask him to come to their office. This office is sort of backstage at the mall, behind the breeze walk, and all of that. And they take him in and start questioning. They get very aggressive and it's very intense, I think. Then, as the interview is progressing, they demand that he give them one of the signs. But at this point in the story, Will doesn't even know what the signs are. So he is really perplexed. The men basically change into rooks. He breaks out of this office and is being chased down this corridor. He is being chased by these men that have been changed into birds. They are like giant scarecrows. They are made up of rooks. And they break apart into the constituent. And the birds pursue him aggressively along. That's a moment in the script that represents a lot of action and tension. There's another scene that is closer to the book. One of the signs is found in a church. In the novel, there's an atmosphere of threat. He sees light shinning out through the wall, and he finds the sign. That's fine, but that doesn't provide quite enough action for this type of film. And so we basically increase the scale of the battle quite a bit.
You've increased the scale of action in the church scene? What happens?
John Hodge: Well, they are attacked by a large number of snakes. And then Will gets dropped down into a crypt, where he has to open up a tomb. I think you get the idea.
What were some of the big changes you had to make early on?
John Hodge: Well, there are obviously a lot of things that you can keep or chuck out, but I had to figure out what works best for the story. I had to ask myself, "Why am I doing this? What do I like about this?" Obviously, there was that thing that I liked about it. Here's this boy in the real world, fighting with his family, and fancying a girl. But at the same time he is sort of dragged into having to save the world. You know? That, for me, was different then, say Harry Potter, which I do think is great. Here's a boy, and you never have a sense of his real family or his life. Harry's family is sort of comic. What I most wanted to retain was his family life. The perimeter of the story is the six signs of light that will feed the Dark. That's the framework upon which you have to rebuild the story. The signs were defiantly itemized in the book as being made of different elements. So I may have felt more like sticking to that. They are made of stone, iron, wood, and fire. Those were all Susan Cooper's choices, and they were all sort of rational within the book. So we felt it would have been wrong to mess with that. If you change that, then why bother at all. Why even make the book?
How did you beef up the family elements of the story?
John Hodge: In the book, it's more of a happy family. So, following the adage that conflict is drama, I added a bit more conflict to the family. At the beginning of the film, Will doesn't really get along with his twin older brothers who have been prosecuting him on the bus. And as he arrives home, there's another brother who has just arrived home from college. And he's kind of the bohemian of the family. There is a lot of tension there. We discover that the returning bohemian has taken Will's room. And there's nothing he can do about it. He goes and tries to share this with his other brothers, and its like King Lear, or something. Every door he goes to , he gets offered less and less every time. I put in stuff like that to give it a fresh bit of conflict.
What did they tell you about keeping it open-ended so that they could make another film?
John Hodge: That's there in the book as well. So that almost went without saying. It was always going to have a happy ending. In that sense, it could stand alone. It's not like Lord of the Rings. That feels very open ended. It was never going to be like that. Because the Lord of the Rings feels more like one piece. These are individual books that sort of stand on their own.
Is there anything that you brought from the other five Dark books that you put into this?
John Hodge: No. I haven't jumped into the other books at all. I have just focuses on this book itself.
How do you keep it fresh with all the Harry Potter movies, and Lord of the Rings movies that have come out?
John Hodge: I think those are all good. This one is different in that we are in the here and now with a high school boy who is on his way home, on the bus. And it ends with the boy in the real world, and his family as well. So, I hope that is distinguishing. And he is American as well.
Does the Dark rising have any illusions to what is happening in the world at this current time in history?
John Hodge: If you want, but I mean, these books were written in the 1970s, so...Maybe there was an oil shortage threatening us as well. It looks like nothing has changed since then. You could read all of that into it, but I think that would weigh too much on the film. I would hope there was something more than that in it.
This story is obviously a metaphor for coming of age and finding your own power as an adolescent growing up. Is there anything else in this that you see as a metaphor? Or is it just what it is?
John Hodge: I think it would be closer to saying it is what it is. I hope its there about the boy finding his place. But without kind of having it stomped on your head.
Can you talk about the time travel aspect?
John Hodge: It's more like it should be. The Viking episode is the only one where you're going to feel like you're actually traveling outside of this realm. It's like, here is the Viking. It's meant to be more like that show with Dean Stockwell. Quantum Leap. The story is not about traveling to the Stone Age. In finding one of the signs, he goes to a pub. And he finds himself caught between the current day pub and the ancient tavern. When you are in the old tavern it is full of Hogarthian, 18th century peasants knocking back the beer. There are pigs running around. But we're not saying, "Here's King George!" Or something. None of that. It's more about the flavor of the time travel. One of the things I've found out is that one of the worst places to show time travel is an Old English village. One of the reasons people like them is because they haven't changed. It wouldn't have been a good idea to hinge the film on time travel. I mean, they are in the church, and the interior looks the same now as it did in the eighteenth century. So, the time travel is a way of leaving the people that are there in the present. They go into the church, and the main thing about that is the congregation isn't there anymore. He's in the same place, but a different time. The Romans don't turn up.
Was there any character in the book that really spoke to you?
John Hodge: The boy. I now I keep coming back to that. But I had to think abut what it would be like to be that age. That you are growing up, and the people around you aren't necessarily with you. I don't know if everyone can related to that.
When you do a movie like this, how hard is it to establish the rules of the universe?
John Hodge: In Susan Cooper's book, the powers are a bit esoteric, a bit fluid. I think, perhaps, she was writing of that time. Nowadays, authors are thinking about the film rights. They set it up where the rules are explained. So, that was kind of devolved to the scriptwriter. So, yes, we have a whole lot of exposition about how you can do this and you can do that. But I don't think the book is really all that much about his powers. It's more about his experiences. Wherever possible, I had Will solving his problems with his own knowledge. There are instances where he does, of course, use his powers. But he uses his mortal powers more than his super natural ones.
How did you make Will more proactive as opposed to in the book?
John Hodge: In the book he is quite passive, in that people end up just giving him the signs. In changing his age, we felt it was reasonable to ask him to do more. He just had to tackle the problem head on. You just make him do things. When he goes into the church, and he is on his own, he has to go into the tomb alone. He has to work out how to open the crypt himself. And he has to get in there himself to save the very old skeleton. He has to be a bit brave, and he has to do things. In the scene in the tavern, he has to taken on his older brother physically. I had to tackle it head on.
Do you usually stay on set to handle rewrites, and things like that?
John Hodge: This is actually the first time I have been on set. I have met the director a couple of times. Maybe not as often as I would have liked. I think all the rewriting happened with the producers before David (Cunningham) came in. When he got the script, I think he did have some concerns about it. Mainly, he wanted us to put stuff back in from the first draft that we had taken out. I did a little bit of rewriting while they were shooting just for production reasons. Stuff that wasn't feasible.
This is very different from your previous work.
John Hodge: It is, but its not like I never wanted to do a children's book. I thought I could make something like the Harry Potter films, but a little more intense, a little more grown up. We'll see.
John shrugged, stepping away from the table. His smile was still locked in place. He seems okay with having flown all the way out to Romania just to talk with us for a few minutes.
We were then told that we would be getting a tour of the set very soon, led by the film's Production Designer David Lee. And then, David L. Cunningham would come out and talk to us about his film. All of that will be told in the next day or two, so stay tuned.
The Dark is Rising will be released on October 5th, 2007.