Director David Cunningham talks about recreating Susan Cooper's classic novel while taking us on a tour of the sets

Romania, the city of Bucharest. May 15, 2007. Media Pro Studios.

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It was his pants that first caught my attention; blue jeans from a bygone era. They had seen better days. Huge holes had been worn through the decade old pair of Levis. Chaffed swatches of leather had been sewn into the missing denim. This wild mountain man rode shirtless through the streets connecting the various studio barns. He weaved his damaged bicycle between us, in no real hurry to get to where he was going. He looked like a character out of some movie. Maybe this movie. But he wasn't. He was just one of the local Romanian artists who had managed to come aboard as a set designer.

We were being led to the main production offices, which were housed on the studio lot. As we walked along, we saw ridiculously real looking peasant children misplaced from a hundred years ago. A dirty man lay with his peasant shirt pulled up over his face. His tubby tummy was getting a sun rub down. It was like stepping back in time. Were these Romanian homeless people that had taken refuge on the set? Or were they extras? It was hard to tell.

Every five steps or so, a stray dog would run by. The country is overrun with them. According to Ian McShane, when they turned a lot of the old homes into apartment buildings, the dogs were not allowed to stay there. So they were let loose on the streets of the city. One of them, a cute little black tramp with a bad case of the mange, nuzzled up behind my calf and started licking it. I didn't want to catch a disease, so I eased away as gently as I could without getting bit.

The production building was awash in a fresh coat of white paint. It smelled like the first day of school. David Lee, The Dark is Rising's Art Director, met us in one of the main hallways. The place was decorated with construction board collages. Each giant poster had been glued with photos of the old countryside. Added in were modern day items to remind us that we were in the "here and now." An ancient English cottage would be thumb tacked with cutouts of Ipods and video game consoles. There was a picture of an ancient brick building that had been turned into a Blockbuster Video. There was also a full photo layout of the local shopping mall.

The tables lining the hallway were covered with various models from the set. Made out of heavy white cardboard, full-scale dioramas of a church, an observatory, and a rectory sat in full view. Viking weapons littered the floor. A sword, an ax, a shield.

We moved out into an adjoining hallway. This main corridor was decorated with old Romanian film cells and framed stills. There was one photo that looked like the Bucharest version of Growing Pains. Another depicted a beautiful woman being accosted on the street by a mime. We continued our tour, going into director David Cunningham's office.

Not a single inch of wall space was sparred. Near the door was a photo morph of actor Christopher Eccleston turning into a rook. Another long set of panels gave away every shot from the "snakes in the church" scene that we'd heard so much about: A man stands with his mouth open. A reptile wiggles out. He then bursts into a thousand snakes. They overtake the church and everyone in it. It looks pretty cool in comic book form. Other spoilers are apparent throughout the room. It seems as though I may be looking at the entire film all in one quick spin.

From there, we are led outside to the church. In the courtyard was an abandoned space capsule from some 80s Romanian television show. It seemed particularly out of place. The side was paint-printed with the words "Freedom 7". I didn't recognize it from anything I'd ever seen.

We walked into the church set. It was simply amazing. It looked like an authentic English chapel. It seemed as if they upturned one, and placed it here, on this back lot in Romania. The back wall was made up of real stained glass. The picture held within the glass was important to Will's character in the film. Or so we were told.

There were real, hard wood pulpits. A huge fractal image was tiled on the floor. There were chandeliers from the 1920s hanging above our heads. This is where the big black snake fight had happened. Apparently, we were standing right above a secret crypt. The art director explained that the authentic set was cheaper than doing CGI at this point. And much more believable. The place was a bit musty too, it felt as though I was standing in an actual house of God. There even seemed to be creepy demons crouched about in the darkness.

As we walked out of the church, I spied another stray dog. This one not only had a bad case of the mange, but it also held a big, black rubber snake in its mouth. Something he'd obviously snagged off the set.

After perusing the church for a bit, we were led over to the same blue interview tent where we'd spent most of the morning. Our water supply had been replenished. David Cunningham, the director of The Dark is Rising, was waiting for us.

Here is our conversation:

Has it been a challenge to bring this character from the page to the screen?

David Cunningham: That has been a challenge. Susan Cooper's book is rich. The mythology is the plot. Our goal has been to introduce a new generation to her work. What that means is, someone like John Hodge has to build upon that world, and interpret the book and run for it. My standpoint as a direct is to take all of that rich mythology, and all that rich anthology, and try and do something in such a way that it translates through film. So, I've been trying to do that in a more modern way. The style is much more today, versus how many fantasy films are shot. We're trying to make this ride feel not like a fantasy. I want it to feel like its happening today. To someone you would know and recognize. Our casting with the boy and everything else has kept that in mind. We're dealing with a kid who is dejected. It has to be relatable.

You've made Jonathan Jackson's character much younger than he is in the book.

David Cunningham: With the Walker, in particular, even in the books, he was a young man. He had aged, but he then went back in time. So, it was a matter of what our emphasis was going to be. The tragedy of a young man or the history of an old man. So we decided to focus on the previous, and make it about his love for this girl. He was completely screwed over, and had to give his soul up for her. He comes back himself as a young man. That's actually what we are shooting right now. We have to get into his head, and his experience. It's about reaching out to the audience that we are after, which is today's younger audience.

What about turning the main character into an American?

David Cunningham: That was a change that was made before I came onto the adaptation. But, what's been good about it from my perspective is that it adds a whole other layer. It's about a culture clash. Even though England and America are cousins, it still allows us to be able to play with that. We have this American kid living in an English village. From my perspective, it gives a whole other layer. I know the English readers think that's a bit of a no-no. But I think we are doing the best we can to capture the spirit of the book while, at the same time, translating it for today's audience.

How challenging is it to make something new in the sci-fi genre that doesn't emulate the Harry Potters or the Rings movies?

David Cunningham: That's what we're working on. I come out of grittier subject matter. I have worked on Documentaries, and adult themed movies. One of the things I would like to think I am bringing to this is the realism. I think the prism of this, and the language of this, and the style of this is different from those other films. We're hoping that this is something that is fresh, and appealing. Instead of heavy CGI, we are doing the very real. We brought in over a thousand live snakes from the Cheq Republic and dumped them all over our actors. I used real water to wipe out the mansion. We used real rooks to fly at these kids. You've seen the sets, and the scale of them. We are not relying on computer-generated images to enhance them. Vikings! We brought in real Viking re-enactors who live this way year round. And they brought their Viking ship, and we had a real Viking war. It was amazing.

Is it more difficult doing things practically?

David Cunningham: I think it makes me rely on my strengths. The real stuff makes me better. Seriously, how do we capture life? With computer animation, the tail starts wagging the dog sometimes. It gets very cartoonish, and it becomes about something else. While you're filming, it does become more difficult. But there's something that is organic about it. It allows for more discoveries. The sets, and the character, and everything else starts interacting with each other. As opposed to it becoming quite sterile. There are a lot of phenomenal CGI movies out there, don't get me wrong. But for me, it's more satisfying. For example, do you blow up a car and see what happens? Or do you just blow up the car in the computer. When you blow up a car for real, a lot of things can happen. The glass can fly this way. The camera can get smashed. It can be a really cool shot, and someone has to dive out of the way. You've just captured a great moment. So, I am just trying to lean in on my strengths.

Does your experience making grittier pictures stretch down into the making of this?

David Cunningham: I think so. I think the younger audiences are underestimated. I think they have smart sensibilities, and something like this can thrive on it. I think having people like Ian McShane adds a great amount of color, and detail. As opposed to other movies, that may become a little two-dimensional. I think kids sense that. They get what's real. Versus something that is pastiche. Let's rip off this and lets rip off that. We're excited. We've got a great cast that is right for the roles. We're not trying to somehow jumpstart something that is all marketing based. I think that's how the movie will present itself.

This cast is interesting. It's not a star vehicle, but you have some really interesting choices for these characters. What were you specifically looking for?

David Cunningham: Well, I think there is always an agenda. There certainly is a process, where a lot of people sign off and sign in. But we were trying to serve this movie as best we could. And you're also dealing with logistical questions, too. Who's available and who's not.

Your release date is October 5th. How do you make it under that deadline, especially with no CGI?

David Cunningham: Well, we do have some CGI. But I also have three editors in L.A. I also have one on set with me. And they are working around the clock. We have already shot a million feet of film to date. Our last project, we had eight editors working around the clock. I've had to go through this before. It's just a matter of working quickly.

What are you concentrating on most when editing a rough cut?

David Cunningham: I'm always looking at the larger scope of things. You always want to focus your efforts on making the first one great. Hopefully, that will be the base of it. We have to put a lot of time into it; there is a lot of hope and expectations. Right now, it's about focusing on making this great.

What sort of choices have you made in terms of how you want to shoot this?

David Cunningham: Well, we're really trying to have the visuals carry the story. Not the dialogue. The world Susan Cooper originally created is so much about mood, and so much about atmosphere. The tone was the plot. So we have tried to take inspiration from that, and then shoot it through this lens of mine. There are six signs. I'm trying to incorporate that as well into the language. So we should stuff through water, and we shoot stuff through fire. We get all of those elements in. We just like to get in there and try stuff. Sometimes you are limited with a set. You only have so much to work with, and you'll find yourself jammed up. We shoot with a lot of cameras. That's practical. Sometimes I'm shooting with five, six, sometimes eight cameras at a time. That allows us to make the movie faster, but we also have to have more sets.

Had you read the books before coming on?

David Cunningham: No, I had not.

What were some of the challenges you knew you'd be working with right from the start?

David Cunningham: One, I got a phone call while I was surfing. I live in Hawai'i, and I was told that I had to be in Romania in two days. So, we came here first. And the question was, can Romania handle this size of film. I knew that would be a massive factor. You know, what are the benefits of coming to a place like Romania? The sets are going to be bigger. There would be better production value. The downside, we are going to stretch the infrastructure of this country. This is bigger than anything they had done before.

How far along was the film before you came to it?

David Cunningham: Well, they had gotten the script to a place where they wanted it to go. That's when I got the phone call. Since I got on board, we've worked on two or three more drafts. I did work with John. But they got the script to where they said, "I think we got a movie here. Who can we call to get this done in an interesting way, make our schedule? Someone who is not afraid of Romania..." I was the idiot that said yes. I got on the plane and got over here. Ever since then, it's been go, go, go, go! We had six months to prep a movie that should have taken eight months. I had three or for months to shoot a movie that should have taken eight or nine months. I got a few months to edit a movie that should have taken five or six months. Those are my challenges as a filmmaker. Making any type of movie is a faith trip. You have to jump off that cliff, and you have to make it work. It's a very fluid process. And you just go for it. That's what we did.

Have you talked to the Author?

David Cunningham: Susan? Yes, we have been in touch. We've been talking. She goes way back on the production of the film. I don't want to speak on her behalf, but I think she has mixed feelings about the movie. She's thrilled that it is being introduced to a new audience. But she would have liked it if we remained pure to the book. At the same time, we need to translate it. She has also adapted screenplays, so she understands the difference between books and screenplays. And she understands that there is violence done to the book to get to that point. She has been supporting us. It's got to be a tough position for her.

The Dark is Rising opens October 5th, 2007.

B. Alan Orange