Back in August I visited the set of Screen Gems’ new remake of Stephen King’s Carrie, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry, Stop Loss). And it was actually an astoundingly cool visit. Many times on these things you just see some random shot being filmed. Not here! We got THE shot! Not to mention a ton of great interviews and a tour of the White residence.
In theaters October 18, “A reimagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother (Julianne Moore), who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.”
I am standing in Carrie White’s bedroom. It’s relentlessly plain, as you’d expect it to be with a mother like Margaret White. The room screams oppression. While there’s admittedly something refreshing about seeing a teenager’s room stripped of the cultural, technological and consumer excess that typically marks the territory of a pubescent student – there’s also a sadness in seeing something that corrects that too much. If a child is like a flower, I suppose you don’t want to give them too much sun – but you don’t want them to wilt either.
In another room we find the closet Margaret so often stashes Carrie in when she misbehaves. The whole house is very, very much the kind of house you’d expect the Whites to live in if you’ve read the Stephen King novella or seen the 1976 Brian De Palma film of the same name. Except we’re not in a house, really. It’s a soundstage in Toronto. And while we don’t see any actual footage being shot in the White residence (don’t worry – we observe filming of the money shot later on) – being able to explore it provides a key piece of context when it comes to fully understanding director Kimberly Peirce’s upcoming remake. It’s very much the Carrie you know… which could be a good thing.
For instance, not an hour later, I find myself standing in a locker room shower littered with tampons that seem to have been thrown from the locker area towards a very specific target near the faucets. You can almost hear the teasing screams (“Plug it up! Plug it up!“) echoing off the walls. So it’s clear all of the key elements are here, but there are some new surprises as well.
Just how is Peirce planning on surprising people? Especially fans of the De Palma film? “ When the idea first came up I thought ‘I love Brian. I love Brian’s movie. I don’t know why I would do that.’ [But] I had the book and I actually read it cover to cover three times. And I had read it when I was younger, but to read it being older it’s like ‘Wow!’ That thing is a page turner. It’s pure pop. It’s totally fun and exciting so I think the first thing was, just in rereading the book, it just completely grabbed me and it was exciting. So then I was like ‘Oh, now I understand why they thought of me for this.’ Because at first it wasn’t so clear. ”
And, ultimately, her approach was to cultivate the book’s page-turning pop sensibilities and filter them though her own personal lens. “With all due respect to De Palma, ’cause he’s brilliant, I love him, what I did see was an opportunity to do something different. Not better, not worse, just different. I feel like in some ways, the book has a more expanded canvas so a lot of the characters are more fleshed out in the middle and a lot of that movie, it rises and it falls.”
One of the many questions Carrie fans have is in regard to the casting of Chloe Moretz. Sissy Spacek embodies the vulnerable, wallflower aspects of Carrie White so thoroughly, whereas what we’ve seen from Moretz thus far in her career is relatively poised. An argument could be made that she’s more conventionally attractive, therefore less open to being singled out and derided by her peers. This is an issue Peirce is well aware of, “that was a huge challenge. That’s what I said to her when I first met her, I said ‘We’ve got to beat that little confident person out of you.’ Because I said ‘Look, the truth is that you’re walking the red carpet, you’re working with Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, the world loves you, your family loves you- that’s great for you as an individual and you’ve got to hold on to that. But for this movie, we have to take all that confidence and security and personality and we have to put it over here. We have to take a hammer and we have to crack that, and then we have to make you sheltered, scared, a misfit, unusual, you’ve been beaten by your mother.’”
“So I feel like it’s okay to share this, but I had her go to homeless shelters. And had her really go deep inside the characterization to experience the fear, the humility, to really go on the journey. We did that, I don’t know, for two and a half months. She did it in LA, she did it here and we always were trying to make sure we showed respect to the people that were helping us. But for her to really see the other side of life, because I felt like that was essential to the character. That lack of confidence, it’s everything. If you have a little alpha there, you’ve lost it.”
Peirce goes onto say that, despite a perception that she’s softening the material, in many ways she’s toughening it up. For instance, the tumultuous and unhealthy sexual relationship between conspiring bullies Billy (played here by Alex Russell from Chronicle) and Chris (Portia Doubleday of Youth In Revolt) takes more of a center stage than it did in the De Palma film. Ultimately it’s key to a deeper understanding of the torment they direct towards Carrie.
Another element that’s in place from the book and previous film is the character of Miss Desjardin, the benevolent gym teacher played by Judy Greer (The Descendents, “Arrested Development”) in this new incarnation. Greer discusses how technology has only made bullying worse over the years, and the impact just watching that has on her. “ I’ve seen the bathroom stuff and what I’ve seen of it has made me cry. I think because bullying has really become such a problem right now, I think it’s maybe going to be more impactful right now, just because of where that is in society and how much more we’re hearing about it. At least 35 years ago, you didn’t have the internet telling you every single thing that happened in every school and college around the world, but this seems to me – and maybe it’s because I know Chloe and I didn’t know Sissy Spacek – but seeing the stuff happen to Chloe really breaks my heart and makes me feel really sad and it makes me feel sad to think of kids going through that. Just watching her performance in the shower scene is really heartbreaking.”
In a brief break between filming scenes, Chloe Moretz sits down at the table with us. Seemingly able to snap out of the Carrie slouch and into her normally poised self with the slightest of ease, she speaks deliberately and clearly on the topic of her unconventional casting. “It was interesting because I live a very privileged life, obviously. I’m an accomplished young actor, I have a very solid normal family, tons of siblings, and a mother that loves me. Aunts, uncles, I have everyone around me to tell me they love me, and Carrie doesn’t really have anyone. Margaret loves her daughter but almost loves her too much and restrains her from what she wants to do, whereas my mom loves me more than anything but she allows me to make my own choices in life. So it was definitely an interesting thing to break that down and strip away who I am, this young girl who is kind of like a go-getter and really competitive and everything to Carrie who is this wounded animal.”
She’s also been careful to avoid aping the Spacek performance too closely, or at all for that matter. “Well, what I definitely wanted to not do is steal what she did, because I think what she did was amazing and iconic and everyone knows the typical hands-out, eyes-open look. There were so many times when someone [would suggest that]. People wouldn’t even think about it but I was doing one of the photo shoots and someone was like, ‘Just stick your hands out like this!’ and I was like, ‘No! I can’t do that,’ because the minute I do that I’ll be stealing someone else’s character. My main thing about this film was building my own Carrie, and she’s not what Sissy did, she’s not what De Palma made Carrie to be, it’s what Kim and I have constructed to be this being, what we have made into this living, breathing human.”
An interesting thing about the new film is that, while Chloe Moretz is exactly age appropriate for the role, the ensemble at her high school are all in their 20’s. Typically would just be another example of Hollywood ignoring the realism of the teenage experience, but here it seems rather deliberate. They’re bigger than her. More powerful and confident. Aware of the world. Portia Doubleday talks about playing Chris, a formidable villain to Carrie. “ It’s really fun. Yes, it’s really fun… I get to run wild and evil ploys which is always fun. But at the end of the day it is very similar to other parts in that this is a human being. And I think I was intimidated when I first got it because it’s easy to slip into a conventionalism of being mean instead of kind of what brings me in that position. So I think I wasn’t thinking of her as necessarily the villain that is, you know – more so as like a plotter or playing chess. Very meticulous. And that was very, very fun.”
Similarly, Alex Russell relishes playing Billy as a much more malevolent force than the laid back and goofy character Travolta portrayed back in 1976. “I think the key with Billy is that you sort of smell trouble from the start. He seems like bad news from the beginning, so that was a challenge. Because you want that the audience to want him to perish at the end, but you want them to cherish his badness while he’s onscreen. Kind of like Heath Ledger’s Joker, he does nothing but bad things but you love him.”
One huge difference between this new film and the De Palma version is the carnage at the end. Stephen King’s novella depicted widespread annihilation, an entire town destroyed after everything goes wrong at the prom. I’m not sure if De Palma didn’t have the means to include this, or simply chose not to utilize it for artistic reasons – but the town’s destruction is very much a part of Peirce’s take on things. Not only are there explosions and car crashes, but there’s a rain of stones upon the White residence that is apparently epic. Peirce applauds the digital technology that allows her to do this, “the other thing too is the house destruction. We’re able to do things… this is actually something I celebrate every day. I go home and I’m like ‘Oh my god, two years ago I couldn’t have gotten that shot.’ The reality of technology is such that, on the budget that I have, I have access to essentially a mini techno crane. I have it living on set every day. A couple years ago it would have been like ‘When are we going to rent the crane?’ ‘Well, we get it for three days.’ ‘How long will it take to build?’ ‘Well, it’ll take 4 hours.’”
On the other end of the spectrum, that kind of work takes a lot of man hours. VFX supervisor Dennis Beradi says he’s been working on it for months. Also a challenge? Depicting Carrie’s telekinetic powers. “She uses this TK force and we’ve kind of come up with a scale of what the force is. We did this early on where Kim, we went through the script and she said, this is a one, this is a two , this is a three. That’s a ten where it’s her full force and she stops that car that’s bearing down on her and it’s like this invisible wall that completely demolishes the car.”
Soon, we’re off to the prom. Myself and my fellow journalists are ushered into a colorful recreation of a high school dance. On many set visits, what we see on any given day can be sort of random. Sometimes you win, sometimes you come up short. Here? We won the lottery. It’s not like we’re seeing the beginning of the dance, we’re seeing the finale. The moment we all know and love from both the book and the original film. I’m referring, of course, to the dousing in pig’s blood.
It’s a tricky shot, because the blood is so viscous, red and sticky it would require a lengthy re-set of Moretz’s hair, makeup and wardrobe if it went even the slightest bit wrong. There are many tests. First, a camera test of the blood being poured to see how it looks on film. Then, a test where the bucket, attached to a system of levers, is slowly overturned to spill its contents on the head of a stand-in. It’s a suspenseful moment, if the blood hits directly on the top of the stand-in’s head it goes flying in all directions but will leave her face relatively clean. There’s also a chance that it simply pours a few inches too far in the back or the front. When it does hit the stand-in, it sort of works but some mild adjustments are needed. If Peirce is stressed, she doesn’t show it – joking around with the cast while maintaining a firm grip on what needs to happen.
Then, it’s finally Chloe Moretz’s turn to be drizzled in blood. As I watch her onstage with her date, Tommy (played by Ansel Elgort), it’s hard not to feel a little nervous, even though I know exactly what’s coming. They just look so happy together and I don’t want that moment to end for them (even though the fact that they’re acting is underscored by the fact that I’m standing in the same). But, finally, that fateful moment happens. And it’s frought with such anticipation that even in the room, before my very eyes, it feels like it’s happening in slow motion.
And there she is, Carrie as we know her best. Covered in blood, her face full of anguish… and ready to kill.