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Fans of Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Thirst) living in Nashville, Tennessee were probably shocked to see the famed Korean director strolling down the streets of their town in late 2011, but rest assured he wasn’t just checking out the sights… he was actually making a movie.
Stoker, featuring Academy Award-winning actress (and Nashville resident) Nicole Kidman, finally makes its way into theaters this Friday, March 1st, from Fox Searchlight and thankfully, Director Park’s first English-language effort does not disappoint.
Working from a meticulously crafted and widely heralded script by Wentworth Miller, Park and cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung were able to develop a hyper-stylized, highly detailed world set within the confines of a seemingly idyllic family estate. A quiet war is already brewing between Evelyn Stoker (Kidman) and her joyfully disenfranchised teenage daughter, India (Wasikowska), when the mysterious and dapper Uncle Charlie (Goode) comes to stay after the sudden death of India’s father – a visit that becomes a catalyst for India to uncover her true nature as the family’s dark history is slowly revealed.
When myself and three other journalists visited the set of Stoker way back in October 2011, it turned out that the first scene we saw filmed potentially exposed one of the biggest secrets in Stoker family history, which of course meant that what we were seeing might be spoiling a significant moment in the film. Without saying too much, the sequence featured Tyler von Tagen and Thomas A. Convert as the younger versions of Richard and Charlie Stoker playing innocently on a weathered playscape towards the back of the estate grounds. The next setup showed Charlie alone in the playground’s sandbox, gleefully kicking up and fanning out his legs and arms in the shape of an angel. Now, having seen the film, this moment is mirrored by India years later as she lays in her bed, although she has no knowledge of Charlie when he was younger or what actually happened that day. Director Park and his DP quietly talk amongst themselves as the crane arm of the camera hovers above young Charlie, only stopping to give specific instruction to the actor and make minute adjustments with the camera. The director’s incredible attention to detail is already on display within the first few minutes of filming we observe. Finally seeing the scene in the finished film gave it even greater impact after seeing where it was placed in the edit and how significant the incident is in the family’s history.
Being on set in the final days of principal photography proved hectic, with multiple takes of seemingly innocuous scenes eating into any time we would have had to interview Director Park and Mia Wasikowska (cast and crew interviews coming later this week), although the events of the day (or lack thereof) provided a very relaxed, almost hypnotic quality to the next couple of setups we saw. In the longest scene of the day, another flashback scene shows Richard Stoker (Tagen) mowing the great lawn out in front of the family estate when, suddenly, a wave of shock washes over him as he runs panicked towards the playground where his younger brothers had been playing. The camera focuses on the erratic dance of the now unmanned antique lawn mower, with Director Park obviously more interested in the composition and timing of the shot then just simply getting from point A to point B in the scene. Seeing the patience and the discipline on display, it’s no small feat that principal photography operated on an accelerated pace with filming completed in only 480 hours. The intense storyboarding in pre-production was evident during that shot and, as a result of all that planning, it was of no concern how long it was going to take to get it exactly right.
The last setup of the day takes place towards the end of the film (it turns out), as India Stoker slinks into an exquisite Jaguar convertible and drives off down the driveway, an overnight bag and a pair of garden shears in the passenger seat next to her. This scene was shot a handful of times, taking nowhere near as long as the lawn mower setups earlier in the day.
Studios always prefer to have journalists come out to visit a set on a particularly active day when important scenes are being hashed out. That’s why it seemed a little peculiar that these scenes were selected for us to view. But after seeing the film in its entirety, they were either a setup or a payoff during substantial moments in the film so their inclusion was essential.
Or, maybe it didn’t really matter what scenes were shot that day. After all, a tour of the Stoker Estate in all of its intricate wonder unveiled more about the characters and the look of Stoker than any one scene probably could have. The winding staircase serves as the spot where a monumental confrontation in the film takes place; the hunting trophies on display in the study suggest a history of violence; India’s bedroom shows yellow-walled innocence while Evelyn’s bedroom looks like an overgrown jungle in need of attention.
Then, there’s the basement. A small stone staircase leads down to a dank and dingy room below. We’re told that a horrible act took place and that we were not allowed to look in the large meat freezer in the corner. Then, we journeyed back up to the unsettling, green-tinged walls of the foyer and back into the outside world.
Luckily, Mia Wasikowska came over and said hello in between pick-up’s. One such set up involving her character showed an extreme closeup of India popping a blister on her toe which was just as unsettling as it sounds. After speaking with her for a minute or so it was apparent that she was wearing contacts that, at least off camera, turned her eyes a sharp blue with a blood-red iris in the center. We all noticed it and spoke of it afterwards, and it does appear that all three actors in the Stoker family display the same, piercing blue eyes. It’s used to great effect when the family interacts with each other, showing the similarities between the characters and how they’re sizing each other up in any given moment.
Director Park also came over briefly and was gracious enough to shake our hands and introduce himself. Luckily, Dread will be doing an interview with Park Chan-wook this Thursday so be sure to check back. Observing Director Park employ his visual mastery over the medium firsthand reminded me that little dialogue, if any, is needed to speak the language of cinema. Even though the story is contained and strikingly intimate, the circumstances feel bigger and the characters seem larger once you realize that everything in Stoker probably means something.
Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Jacki Weaver, Lucas Till, Dermot Mulroney, Phyllis Somerville, and Alden Ehrenreich star in the film directed by Park Chan-wook. Look for Stoker in theatres on March 1st, 2013.
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