Park Chan-wook’s (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengenace, Lady Vengeance, Thirst) English-language debut, Stoker, hits theaters March 1st from Fox Searchlight. Penned by Wentworth Miller, it’s an amazingly fun, intense and beautiful film that really sneaks up on you. It’s a film that I very much enjoyed watching, only to discover that I sort of loved it a few days later.
“After India’s (Wasikowska’s) father dies in an auto accident, her Uncle Charlie (Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother (Kidman). Soon after his arrival, she comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives, but instead of feeling outrage or horror, this friendless girl becomes increasingly infatuated with him.” Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Lucas Till, Alden Ehrenreich, Phyllis Somerville and Dermot Mulroney all star.
I spent some time on the film’s set back in 2011 and figured an account of my visit would be a good introduction to the interviews I’m prepping to share with you next week. It was a quiet, reflective experience that revealed more about itself as it went along. Not unlike the film actually…
Monday, October 17th 2011
Before the trailers and stills. Before that great DJ Shadow UK spot. Before I’d seen the movie. Before I had actually been on a set visit and knew what to expect (my initial travel sojourn to Puerto Rico for BD was in the service of a junket, not a film in progress) – I was on a plane from Los Angeles to Nashville to see what was happening on the ground in regard to Park Chan-wook’s latest, Stoker.
The director of Oldboy, Thirst, Lady Vengeance and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was finally making his English language debut. Interestingly enough, for an American movie with American characters shot in the very American Nashville, Tennessee – none of the three leads were American and. Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska are Australian and Matthew Goode is British. Not to mention the fact that Mr. Park is Korean and speaks very little English. I pondered the effect this might have on the film (as it turns out, the film is amazing so whatever effect this coincidence engendered was a good one). I had read the first half of the script by Ted Foulke (aka Wentworth Miller of “Prison Break” fame) and had found it pleasantly dry and patient, but spare enough to keep me in the dark as to what any potential outcome may be. Of course, I would have known more had I chosen to finish it, but even us journalists want to refrain from being spoiled if we can help it.
So when I step onto the set the next day I am genuinely surprised by what I find. The Stoker House and its attendant grounds are stately, but not overtly menacing. In a subsequent interview with Park he described the setting as “tactile” and “musty”, two adjectives that are highly applicable. I also found it to be precise, perhaps a step more grounded than precious. Which is to say that, in many ways, the world I found there resembled something Wes Anderson might create if his heightened whimsy was taken down a notch and infused with a foreboding, creeping horror.
Myself and my fellow journalists are given a tour of the house. If anything, its interior evokes a highly color coordinated southern gothic aesthetic – more New Orleans than Nashville. And while the story might take place in the modern day, the house itself is timeless. At least it’s before our time. None of the appliances are modern. There are no computers, no TV’s. Instead it’s a compartmentalized mini-universe, with each room reflecting its inhabiting character’s personality. The study of Dermot Mulroney’s Richard Stoker is a masculine, brown space. A desk weighted by almost regal office supplies. Oh, and lots and lots of animals of the taxidermic variety. The bedroom of Nicole Kidman’s Evelyn Stoker is painted such a deep red it’s almost absurd – at turns sensual and deeply violent. The bedroom of Mia Wasikowska’s India Stoker is neutral, mainly whites and soft blues. Like her character, it’s a blank slate waiting to become something more.
The house is also littered with clues that only really take root with me once I see the film over a year later. There’s the blood stain on an already blood red wall. There’s a freezer in the basement that we’re explicitly shown, but not allowed to look inside. The boxes of shoes in India’s room… The garden shears on the passenger seat of the Jaguar in the garage…
After stepping back outside we are introduced to Mia Wasikoswka. It’s a quick introduction, no time for anyone to whip out their tape recorders. She’s very polite and exceedingly soft-spoken, but she’s also in a hurry between takes. She shows us a spot on her toe that had been occupied by a large fake blister. And now that the blister has been popped, on camera, it’s off to another set-up.
In fact, the schedule is so tight that we don’t get formal recorded interviews with any of the talent or Park Chan-wook (not to worry, I got plenty of stuff with them subsequently that I’m sharing later this week). We are introduced to Park much in the same way we are introduced to Wasikowska, a brief, friendly and informal introduction (via translator) before he’s called back to work.
But we do see a few sequences being filmed, the first of which involves three key set-ups and the child incarnations of Richard and Charlie Stoker (portrayed by Tyler von Tagen and Thomas A. Covert, respectively). In the first set-up, young Charlie Stoker is playing on a home-made playground on the grounds of the estate. It’s all innocent enough, the construct of the playground is fittingly old-school (all wood, no plastic etc…) and there’s a sandbox.
The second set-up is a crane shot, and it’s slightly more disturbing when you see it in the context of the film (or fill in the gaps of what I’m talking about here). Charlie is still on the playground, but this time the camera cranes upward and rotates as he repeatedly raises and lowers his arms and outstretches his legs in the same syncopated manner – like making a snow angel in the sand. Not coincidentally, we see India making this exact same movement on her bed in the film.
The third set-up of this sequence seems deceptively more simple, but it’s here that we see Park Chan-wook’s exacting command of his camera (and his DP Chung-hoon Chung) on display. Richard Stoker (still played by young Tagen) is dutifully mowing the lawn. While the shot isn’t as ornately orchestrated as some of the others in the film, it’s not exactly static either. The camera moves smoothly across the lawn as Richard operates the mower until something catches his eye. He abandons the device – which continues to move along on its own – and runs, panicked, to the playground. I’ve seen directors move on from shots like this after one or two takes. After all, it’s not a showy moment that brands their style, and any inconsistencies can be fixed in post, right? Not Director Park. Every shot matters to him, as it should. It’s not an easy shot to reset, either. So it’s a testament to his artistry that it was almost two dozen takes (and several hours) later that he was satisfied enough with his options he needed for the sequence.
I thought the second scene we saw being filmed was utterly inconsequential – until I saw the film. It’s a quick series of shots in which India tosses some belongings over of a pair of garden shears on the passenger seat of the family Jaguar. She gets in the car, backs it out of the estate’s driveway and takes off. It all happens in such a plain, matter of fact fashion that I was wondering why the filmmakers had chosen to show it to us. Then, a year and a half later, I saw the movie. And it wasn’t small or inconsequential at all.