Arriving on DVD October 19th from Fox Home Entertainment is Mirrors II, the Victor Garcia directed sequel to Alex Aja’s bloody remake from 2008 that hires star Nick Stahl as the next security guard who becomes haunted by a woman in the store’s mirrors. Beyond the break you can take a trip down to Baton Rouge with Bloody Disgusting’s Chris Eggertsen who takes you to set set of this year’s highly anticipated violent sequel.
I wasn’t sure what to expect to find on the set of Mirrors 2, the upcoming sequel being helmed by Return to House on Haunted Hill director Victor Garcia and starring Nick Stahl (aka “John Connor” in Terminator 3). Given the lackluster performance of the first film, I even began to wonder why it had been green-lit in the first place. 2008’s Mirrors, directed by French horror auteur Alexandre Aja, suffered from dismal reviews and a lackluster $30mil domestic gross. So why the sequel? Well, to find the answer you’d need to look beyond our shores. The movie’s total worldwide box-office came in at a relatively decent $77mil. With a rumored production budget of $35mil (a figure that doesn’t include advertising), the film likely managed to break even after its theatrical run was complete. Couple that with healthy DVD sales/rental figures, and it begins to make more sense why 20th Century Fox would decide to bankroll a low-budget follow up.
The rain continued to fall as our cab driver raced along the slick streets of the city to deposit us at our hotel, all the while jabbering away in a thick Southern accent about problems with his past fare (drunk, belligerent and flanked by cops on the pavement outside the airport doors as we exited) and his lady-friend back home. That is, until my traveling companion and I mentioned we were there to visit the set of a movie. “Oh really?” he lilted, his voice immediately softening. He was an actor, you see; he’d been in films before. To prove his point, he sent us off with a business card with the name of his business on one side (I believe he dealt in bumper stickers) and the casual scrawl of his phone number on the back. Above it, a single word, prominently displayed: “Actor“. Even in Baton Rouge, you’re never far from the glow of Hollywood dreams.
By the time we wandered, slightly dazed, into the lobby of the hotel after a long day of traveling, the hour was late and the rain was making me sleepy. At that point I would have been content, in all honesty, to crawl under the stiff, impersonal covers of my hotel room bed and drift off into a blissful sleep. But time was a-wastin’: we had a set to visit (not to mention ample amounts of coffee to drink).
The set, as it were, was a three-story building by the name of Boudreaux & Thibodeaux in the downtown area of the city, which is basically a mixed-use bar/apartment complex (I think – to be honest I never quite figured that one out) being rented out by the production. The scene currently filming, we were told, was a particularly grisly one involving (no surprise if you’ve seen the first film) an evil mirrored doppelganger slicing and dicing an unfortunate victim. I had a chance to check out some of the filming – taking place upstairs in a loft-style apartment on the third floor (which, given the small space and a bevy of scalding lights, approximated the feel of a sweltering August day in New York) – on two separate occasions, and as promised there was indeed quite a bit of the red stuff on display. Here was actor Jon Michael Davis, pulling himself across the floor with a trail of “blood” (generously provided by makeup f/x man Kevin Wasner) behind him, his sliced Achilles tendons the dual parties responsible for the crimson streaks of gore.
In a back room serving as the temporary office for Wasner and his makeup f/x compatriot Alex Diaz (both employees of the famed KNB Efx Group started by Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger, and Robert Kurtzman), I spied a variety of grisly props, most interesting of which was a stunningly realistic reproduction of Davis’ bare leg, complete with tiny embedded hairs and tubes jutting from the top. Later on I had the opportunity to speak with the duo, and I asked them how it had been created.
“It’s silicone, actually“, Wasner told me nonchalantly. “We have hair people that punch in the [leg] hairs one by one…that gag is an Achilles tendon being cut, so it’s got a tube that runs through it. It’s really simple, it’s just moving the thing forward and opening up the wound, and blood running out. We just drop some blood in it and let it do its thing.”
For the record, Wasner and Diaz have both been working in makeup f/x for years, with Diaz something like the elder statesman (16 years with KNB alone) and Wasner the deferential protégé. Both men gave off an extremely laid-back vibe, a vibe matched only by their apparent joy in describing what they do. I asked them what other gags we could expect from the film.
“It’s pretty violent“, said Wasner. “This gag we’re hopefully gonna do tonight, there’s a guy who gets his belly cut open. They wanted to do it as makeup, but how do you do it as makeup? You can’t show guts growing out of someone. There’s no way you can do that without making it look completely cheese-ball. So we toned it down…you split it, and [the belly] opens up, and you just see a little bit of guts. So what we did was make inflatable intestines. So they blow up, and there you go.”
Ah yes, the old intestine gag. My favorite of the effects described to me, though, has to be one particularly nasty bit imparted by Diaz. “We did a guy that was chewing glass, and as he’s chewing the glass, in the reflection you see cuts appearing on his face, and blood coming out of the sides of his cheeks and neck and stuff as the glass is basically being swallowed“, he told me. “That was the first day we came in. [It] worked out really well.”
Given KNB’s track record as one of the top makeup f/x studios in Hollywood, you can expect the gore in Mirrors 2 to be top-notch. Over twenty-plus years, the outfit has worked on some of the highest-profile gore projects in the business, including films like Army of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness, From Dusk Till Dawn, Scream, i>Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2, Sin City, Hostel, Grindhouse and The Mist. In other words: severed limbs and bloody entrails are their business, and business is good.
Diaz and Wasner were also quick to point out that director Garcia himself came from a makeup f/x background before getting into the directing business. “He’s really easy to work with“, Diaz remarked. “Sometimes when you work with directors that don’t know anything about effects, they don’t understand how it’s gonna look on film. There’s a big difference when you show something that’s not lit completely, or that’s not dressed with whatever has to be dressed. Victor is really good at knowing that it’s gonna look good and how it’s gonna work.”
The duo also had nothing but kind works to offer about visual f/x man Sean Findley, who’s responsible for all the non-practical effects in the film. Findley (himself a director whose first movie, a horror film called Dark Passenger, recently played a couple of smaller film festivals) owns a company called Post Mango VFX, which he founded with partner James Dodson in 2007. He spoke in a quiet, thoughtful voice when I asked him about the visual effects required for this project, and what he’d learned from watching the first Mirrors when figuring out how to make the “ghost in the mirror” shots work.
“As a visual f/x supervisor, oftentimes if I were to look at a visual f/x shot in another movie, I can come up with an idea of how they did it“, he told me. “With the first Mirrors film, it was pretty obvious. Because a lot of it was basically split-screen shots…in the first film they would lock off the camera [keep the camera static] to do split-screen work. So do a take with the reflection, a take with the actor, and then you basically composite the reflection into the mirror. But that’s pretty easy when it’s locked off.”
Findley went on to explain that one of his mandates for this sequel was to allow Garcia and director of photography Lorenzo Senatore more creative freedom during the shoot. “We want the director and the cinematographer to shoot something the way they want to shoot it without being limited to locking off the cameras. When the cameras are locked off it makes our jobs ten times easier to composite it, to put a ghost in the mirror. So what we wanted to do from the beginning was figure out clever ways to do some interesting camera moves and composite the ghost into the mirror while the camera’s moving.” Like Diaz and Wasner, Findley also had nothing but high praise for Garcia. “It’s been great working with him. And also, we’re sort of a similar age range, so we both love Cronenberg films and…the same genre films from the `80s and the early `90s.”
“You know, Victor is a very visionary guy“, said bespectacled producer Todd Williams when I sat down to chat with him at a nearby café. “He loves the genre, but he also understands in his head pacing, and scares, and what’s important in a horror movie…he went for a look that was very upscale, and very much not about the budget level that the movie’s being made at. So I think hopefully when people see the movie they’ll feel like it’s a much bigger film than the budget.” Of course, by Williams’ own admission this is a significantly scaled-back follow-up to the first installment, with a much smaller budget that has necessitated a closer adherence to the more low-key feel of the original Korean film, 2003’s Into the Mirror. “The first Mirrors was a much bigger Hollywood production, so it had to have the things that much bigger Hollywood productions have. Explosions, fire, floods, movie stars“, he told me. “The first movie was based upon this terrific [Korean] movie, which they completely got away from because it needed to be bigger. So Victor was like, `Let’s just take it back, and let’s look at the original Korean movie.’…it’s so well done, and it’s so smart, that [we can’t help but] use it as a pretty good template.”
I caught up with the fresh-faced director (he looks about ten years younger than his 35 years), who possesses a unique combination of youthful energy and world-weariness, during a break from filming on the outside balcony of Boudreaux & Thibodeaux. He explained to me that he started his career working for DDT (the Spain-based special effects makeup studio that won an Oscar for their work on Pan’s Labyrinth), but that after seven years with the studio, and after undergoing a difficult period in his personal life, he decided to strike out on his own and shoot a short film. The result was El Ciclo (The Cycle), which won the Best Horror Short at ScreamFest 2004 in Los Angeles and succeeded in landing Garcia an L.A.-based manager. “That was the moment at which everything kind of started“, he told me. “That was at the end of 2004. I started flying back and forth to Barcelona and the States. And I had meetings, and signing with agents, and I started having meetings with producers and reading scripts, until I got Return to House on Haunted Hill.”
The pressure was on for Garcia when taking on the direct-to-DVD Haunted Hill sequel, his first feature directing gig that had the added dimension/challenge of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” feature on the DVD (in which viewers have the option of selecting from two different paths and effectively determining the outcome of the story). “The difficult thing about Haunted Hill was that it had everything you can have in a movie. And you have to achieve that with a low budget“, he told me. “It was like, `Hey, let’s make this happen. I have no idea how, but I’m gonna make it happen.’” Fortunately for Garcia, the gig was a success and helped get him a meeting for the job on Mirrors 2. “Fox had seen Return to House on Haunted Hill, and they felt like he did something different in that movie than you normally get in a horror movie“, said Williams. “And so knowing what he’d done on that movie, they thought he was the perfect guy for this [one].”
Both men also made a point of distancing themselves from the Alexandre Aja version, out of necessity perhaps (that teensy budget), or maybe out of a recognition that the first film didn’t exactly win over many genre fans. Of course, the more character-driven approach the production seems to be aiming for here could also be due to Garcia’s own sensibilities – the director was very open about his preference for slightly off-kilter, “un-commercial” horror fare; the types of projects that tend to run counter to Hollywood’s typical desire for shallow, effects-driven product. “I love David Cronenberg,” he told me. “I love a lot of directors and projects that basically are not commercial. And it’s not a good time to try to make something [un-commercial]. It’s a risk, and people are not really taking any risks now. And I know that I would feel comfortable doing some dark story. But just dark, no need for a lot of gore or visual effects, or anything like that. Just about characters being really fucked up. That’s what I like. When characters are really fucked up, I love that.”
Garcia also pointed out that the look of this installment will boast a rather unassuming, more contemporary feel. “Because the previous movie was shot in Romania, they had that kind of gray architecture, gothic, dark environment. That was really interesting for that story, and I really loved that. But I knew that we just couldn’t go the same way [in the sequel]“, he told me. “So we decided to establish the whole thing in New Orleans. Have like a nice, big building…it’s not a barren and decrepit place anymore…it’s kind of a new and shiny place, you know? The architecture is awesome, it’s really modern. It’s a museum, basically…we’ve been dressing it up like a kind of fashionable boutique.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt the project that Nick Stahl, the critically-acclaimed young actor who has received rave notices for his work in independent films like Bully and In the Bedroom, agreed to take on the lead role (an ex-drug addict who is hired as a security guard at his father’s department store) in this installment. Garcia still couldn’t help but mask his surprise and excitement that he was able to snag such an accomplished and well-known actor for the role. “He looks great on camera, but he’s so intense“, the director told me enthusiastically. “It took only like 48 hours [for him] to get back to us with a yes. And I was like, `Really? That’s awesome!’ You need an intense actor [in this role]. He’s really intense without being over the top – I really love his acting. He’s really good.”
Unfortunately Stahl wasn’t on set during my visit (although the promise did continue to linger in the air until the last second), but we did get a tour of another location used for filming – an abandoned school for blind children that was shut down several months ago after being plagued by allegations of molestation (eesh). A room in the school had earlier been set aside for a scene in which one of the female characters faces off with her evil doppelganger in a bathroom mirror (invoking the infamous Amy Smart bathtub setup in the first movie) and now was being used as a sort of storage space.
The bathroom set constructed in one portion of the room had since been torn down, but several props that were utilized in the scene remained, including several artificial doubles of the actress in question (the upper half of her anyway), their faces twisted in eerily sentient expressions of shock and agony. These remarkable creations (courtesy of our friends over at KNB) were by far the most skin-crawling of the gory sights I encountered on my visit, like department store mannequins come briefly to terror-stricken life. Along with the history of the school itself and its rather Silent Hill-esque vibe, I couldn’t help but get a slight case of the heebie-jeebies on my tour of the place. Truth be told, I was happy when it ended.
Back at Boudreaux & Thibodeaux, my companions and I roosted in the bar area (sadly free of any liquid refreshment), and, alone for a moment, I meditated on the sight of the unending rain falling outside the window. A moment of contemplation, punctuated here and there by the violent screams of Jon Michael Davis crawling desperately along the floorboards above, fingers curling and grasping, those aisles of red trailing out behind him like winding scarlet avenues.
Note: While Williams indicated they are hoping for a theatrical release sometime around Labor Day, you can otherwise find Mirrors 2 on a video-store shelf near you in October or November of this year.