Here’s What We Learned on the Set of ‘The Nun,’ an Adventure-Horror Film Set in the 1950s
I’m inside a sound stage about an hour outside Bucharest, Romania. Before me are two massive sets. One, a cylindrical water tank that looks like it belongs outside, fixed to the wall of the building. The other is a church-shaped structure of plywood with bright, red light seeping through the cracks in its walls.
I’m on the set of the latest addition to the ever-expanding universe of The Conjuring. The film is called The Nun and it’s being helmed by Corin Hardy, the monster-obsessed director who only has one, admittedly great, feature film under his belt – 2015’s The Hallow.
The film stars Taissa Farmiga, the 22-year-old actress who’s arguably just as successful as her sister; who her character, Sister Irene, exists in the same universe as. Alongside her is Demián Bichir, the Mexican actor who had a supporting role in last year’s Alien: Covenant. He plays Father Burke, a man called upon by the church to investigate a mysterious death in a forgotten abbey deep in Romania a la The Name of the Rose.
We arrived on the 34th day of filming out of a total of 38. I would’ve guessed that the production was just beginning though as everyone on the set seemed almost giddy.
The first set we were taken into was the giant water tank, though once inside I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the elaborate spiraling dungeon staircase before me and the real thing. It had a damp, mildewy smell and there was even a chill running through the air as we stepped in. Water was dripping down the walls and pooling in the center of the floor. Farmiga was more than happy to explain the scene to us.
“We’ve been shooting – it’s been almost eight weeks now – and honestly, it was about four nights ago that I let my guard down,” Farmiga says. “I had a very terrible night’s sleep and had a hard time just even letting myself relax. It was right after we shot on this set behind us, this beautiful set you can’t see, it was filled with water, a stunt scene, an emotional and demonic scene.”
In fact, nearly everyone we talked to that day had something to mention about the water tank. Luckily, the film’s set designer, Jennifer Spence, who has touched countless horror films from Insidious: Chapter 2, to Annabelle: Creation and Lights Out and the vast majority of the Paranormal Activity series, was willing to tell us all about it.
“We had to have a pool deep enough so she [The Nun] could go right under the water and also build something structurally sound for a lot of stunts and stunt work so it went from being this enormous place to this rather contained undercroft. In the early drawings of Corin’s sketches, which he does a lot of when we’re first prepping… he’s really good at drawing so we got a tremendous vision of what he’s imagined in his head. It really all came down to this funnel, so the undercroft feels like under the castle. Somewhere there’s this area where all the evil comes out of, so that’s how it got to be the shape it is.”
After checking out the Undercroft within the water tank, we were quietly ushered over to chairs draped with headsets to watch a scene being filmed in the massive church. Bichir and Farmiga approached a gate and called out into the abbey announcing that they had been told to return after arriving the night prior. It looked as though they would have to split up, and there was a strong sense of tension in Bichir’s voice as he recited his line. After the first angle was wrapped, Bichir excitedly came over to speak with us about the scene.
“This scene right here, when we arrived to the actual cloister, we had contacted the Abbott and told her what we need and why we are here. She had asked us to come back the morning after if we wanted to talk to the Sister and the rest of the nuns so we can find out what happened and inquire about the recent death of the nun,” Bichir said. “So we come in this morning but after a really crazy night, we have just spent the whole night under really strange circumstances – and I don’t want to spoil anything, but we did not expect that. I knew that I would encounter some strange situations, but not as heavy as we experienced last night. So the only way in to this cloister is through a woman and it has to be a nun, and that’s why we recruited Sister Irene, the wonderful Taissa [Farmiga], so she’s going in and that’s almost like saying goodbye to your kid the first day of school. It’s really, you just worry about her and you don’t really know what’s going to happen, so that’s what’s happening now.”
While Bichir remained tight-lipped about what happened the night before, I couldn’t help but notice just how excited he was to be telling us about Father Burke and his experiences. It was very clear that this character meant a lot to him, a fact only backed up when he told us about what made him take on the role.
“It’s always about the script and the story you’re telling, it’s about how that’s written and the names involved, whether that’s comedy, musical, horror or science fiction,” Bichir recounts. “So I’m always looking for the films and those characters that can be memorable and then I really don’t think about the genre, I only think about playing it truthfully and organically as much as we can and if you’re lucky enough to have guidance such as Corin’s, that is what matters. You don’t shoot a horror film thinking it’s a horror film. You just go and get immersed in the story and the issues of the characters and hope for the best.”
While Bichir’s character didn’t have much screen time in Alien: Covenant, he was definitely memorable for his devotion to his partner in the film. Keeping this in mind, I didn’t find any reason to be skeptical of what he was telling us. It was equally awesome to hear from Bichir just how much respect he had for Hardy. At the slightest mention of the director, he started gushing about how incredible he had been to work with over the previous month of shooting.
“He [Hardy] is probably relatively new to the industry in general, to this world of cinema, and it’s really incredible and amazing how, with only three credits,” Bichir exclaimed. “He’s one of those directors who seems like they’ve been around for decades, it seems like he’s done a million films, he is so savvy and experienced, without having that experience, and it comes down to one simple factor and that’s preparation. He’s a true artist and a very unique artist, he reminds me a lot of Guillermo del Toro, or Ridley Scott, those guys are great painters and drawers. They draw their own worlds and create their own fiction and characters. [Corin] takes his mind and his imagination seriously, so we will hear great things about this guy.”
While Bichir’s profile of Hardy might seem a bit inflated, our time talking with Hardy, later on, backed up what he had to say so well that it couldn’t have been planned if they tried. He ran overdressed in a Misfits t-shirt, jeans and a pair of bedazzled Converse All-Stars with a rhinestone inverted cross up the tongues of each shoe. If someone could look like a horror director, Hardy fit the bill. One of the journalists asked how he felt about working on the film.
“I was intrigued and, when I read it, I was really just so excited because it opens up the world of The Conjuring universe in a way that we haven’t seen yet,” Hardy said. “There’s perhaps more of a sense of adventure about it, whereas a lot of the movies so far have involved an evil coming to a house and the people having to cope with that. This one involves the protagonist going off on an adventure to stop the evil.
“It kind of reminded me of three of my favorite kinds of movies: more of an adventure, like an Indiana Jones film, crossed with The Exorcist and The Evil Dead, stir them all in a melting pot.”
The Conjuring films, and now Annabelle: Creation are my favorite series of modern horror films. At the time I hadn’t seen Annabelle: Creation, so I didn’t have much to latch onto in terms of quality spin-offs in The Conjuring’s universe. To a degree, I was excited for The Nun either way as Valak seemed to have more depth as a character than Annabelle, but I was still nervous… until I heard Corin speak about his inspirations for the film. If you’re talking about a road-trip movie set in 1950’s Romania, mentioning Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Exorcist and Evil Dead all in the same sentence is a perfect way to get me on board all while letting my reservations fall to the wayside. As Hardy continued to talk about the film, Bichir’s comments about his keen sense of preparation became clear.
“The time period was also very appealing because it’s set in the fifties.
“I look for films and stories that are complete, set in a world that I can get my teeth into and really create a world within that movie and because it’s set in Romania in the fifties, it involves people being taken out of their comfort zones, fishes out of water sent on a journey into the unknown, into the darkness to try and battle and evil and save the world,” Hardy explained. “It immediately had a look and feel when I read the script, Gary [Dauberman]’s script, and he writes brilliantly, with a very clear, distinct sense visually and pacing of what you can expect. I always start sketching when I get excited, so once I started reading the script, I did drawings…ideas, little looks of characters and things. Some of this hasn’t made it through. When I read about the castle…it felt like elements of Dracula and The Exorcist.”
After talking to Hardy, Farmiga and Bichir, we were allowed to enter the plywood abbey with Jennifer Spence. As soon as I stepped inside my jaw dropped as I took in everything around me. It really did feel like I was in the back of a medieval castle.
The sprawling stone walls, floors and ceilings felt ancient, and the blood-red light pouring in through the stained glass windows gave the room a creepy vibe. Hundreds of books lined the walls, and there were massive stone caskets on one end of the cathedral. I could tell that the room we were in would be situated deep underground in the forgotten abbey thanks to the steep staircase in the back of the room, and despite existing in the 1950’s it was clear that neglect was starting to take its toll. They were preparing to shoot a scene later in the day involving a possessed man. As we started to talk to Spence, the recurring theme of preparation came up almost immediately.
“I think matching the sheer scale with… why this room is so big is because I’m matching it to a castle that totally exists in Transylvania.
“There are two reasons for building this, one is the Romanians will not allow us to film in any real church, which is totally understandable, and two, there wasn’t a big enough room to do this scene safely, to do all the stunt work with a young man,” said Spence. “I mean, I couldn’t attach anything to the castle ceilings or the walls because it’s a historical building so it just made sense to do it this way. I think the challenge is coming up with an interesting way to design two rooms within one and the differences in like, designing an apartment, is just making something feel big enough, especially when you’re spending a great deal of time in one location, a home, a castle, whatever, it’s creating interesting things for the characters to move through and making it feel real enough.”
New Line and Warner Brothers seem to have finally figured out how to make the universe that James Wan created work. Annabelle: Creation and now The Nun have been helmed by respected directors that are breathing new life into the genre without cutting corners. Much like the movies’ core theme of love and faith, when people who genuinely love the genre are at the helm, it’s hard not to feel the buzz of excitement and the evaporation of doubt. Hardy left us with a statement about Sister Catherine and Father Burke that stuck with me in the months following my visit.
“[The movie is about] a team coming together… a team that doesn’t know each other… getting hired to go on a journey and getting accustomed to one another and becoming a unit that we hopefully fall in love with along the way.”
The Nun releases September 7, 2018.