Two crawlers lounge idly on a sofa wrapped in matching dressing gowns. One glances at a newspaper while the other sits lost in thought. Fear not readers, Mike Leigh is not here directing The Descent 2 as some kind of kitchen sink drama centred around a family of crawlers, I’ve merely stumbled across the crawler workshop where the pair are waiting to be called onto set – but it’s a surreal sight nonetheless.
I’ve been invited to spend a day at Ealing Studios where filming on the sequel to Neil Marshall’s acclaimed British horror has entered its penultimate week. For those of you that haven’t seen the original (and where have you been hiding?), The Descent followed a group of six female adrenaline-junkies who go spelunking – that’s caving to you and me – and end up in a whole world of trouble when they fall foul of a bunch of naked ghouls, the aforementioned crawlers, after losing their way. With its original approach and nerve-shredding suspense the film was a huge hit with genre fans worldwide, Dread Central memorably describing it as, “A thrill-a-minute gore-soaked shriek-fest.”
Joining Shauna Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza down in the caves for this second installment are Gavan O’Herlihy, Krysten Cummings, Douglas Hodge, Joshua Dallas and Anna Skellern, with director Jon Harris replacing Marshall at the helm. The fact that we’re here at all is a surprise to many as the ending of the original film – or at least the European cut – gave the strong indication that no-one was getting out alive. “I was surprised,” says Macdonald who returns as Sarah, “I said you couldn’t do a sequel, it’s a self-contained piece.” But having been convinced by the producers she’s happy to be back. “It was explained to me that it would be just taking their stories further and I thought that’s going to be quite nice.”
The Descent 2 picks up Sarah’s story immediately after the events of the first film. “We start off with her back in the caves and she gets out – I don’t want to tell you how she gets out – and then we find her roaming the roads and she’s taken to hospital, so her journey starts with her coming round in hospital with amnesia,” says Macdonald. I’m quick to point out that the last thing I’d want to do in her situation is return to the caves but Macdonald explains that her character isn’t fully aware of what’s going on, her role is simply to help the rescue team. “We’ve got to find these girls soon and I just think we’ve been involved in some caving accident so I want to help find them and it’s not until we’re well and truly down there that I really remember what’s gone on.”
“The brief was always – and I think it was the right one – to take the movie from that point,” explains writer James Watkins when I sit down with him for a chat later on. “I think there’s a really clean logic to it,” he continues, “You’ve got these girls who’ve disappeared and people will miss them, and so you go to the rescue team and obviously we’ve got anticipation, we know what they’re going into, whereas they don’t.” Watkins is keen to retain that strong feeling of elemental horror from the first film. “You’ve got this rip-roaring monster movie but at the same time you’ve got these people in this hostile environment that plays on your worst primal fears, and that for me is what really sustains it and makes it much richer than just another genre movie.”
After some location shooting in Bourne Woods the crew have taken over all three stages at the historic Ealing Studios in West London for the remainder of the shoot. I’m welcomed by co-producer Paul Ritchie and production designer Simon Bowles who give me the grand tour, beginning with the Art Department. It’s Simon who’s responsible for designing and creating the miniatures of each set and then supervising the team who have to translate his models into full-scale sets here on site. They’re using the same lightweight material to construct the rocks and caverns as before and with a bit of brushing and lighting they look highly realistic, and having clambered onto one of the sets I can also attest to the narrowness of the tunnels that the actors are required to pass through. Typically each cave location is being used for one day’s filming and then rebuilt and redecorated for another scene whilst filming moves to an adjacent stage.
Arriving on the main set where today’s scenes are being filmed I’m introduced to Jon Harris. Harris edited the first film and has stepped up to make The Descent 2 his directorial debut. “It’s brilliant,” enthuses Macdonald, “He’s got more of an understanding of the first film because he cut it, he made the film. He’s so calm and clear but also really open to the actors coming in and working through the text and finding the beats in the scene, he’s a real actors’ director.”
Harris is dealing with a long twelve-hour day of filming so is reluctant to be distracted by visiting journalists, however with a glint in his eye he quickly leads me over to a monitor to show me some footage that he’s been cutting together. It turns out that in addition to directing the film he’s also been editing everyday at Ealing and expects to have a rough cut of the assembled footage ready for viewing a few weeks after shooting wraps. Suddenly animated and alive with enthusiasm for the scene which is unfolding on screen it’s obvious that he’s loving his new role. “Do you want to see some gore?” he tempts. On the monitor Sarah and Rios (newcomer Krysten Cummings) are fighting a crawler in what appears to be the crawlers’ toilet. The encounter ends very bloodily for one of them. “You’re not filming this are you?”
Reassured by what I’ve just witnessed it’s time for Harris to get back behind the camera and focus on the current scene which involves the characters of Sarah, Rios, Juno (Mendoza) and Vaines (O’Herlihy) making their way across what’s described on the call sheet as a ‘false floor cave’. “Without giving too much away?” says Cummings cryptically in between takes, “Well, there’s bound to be death in this film…”
“Basically it’s off the back of Sarah and I coming across each other in the caves for the first time,” adds Mendoza, expanding on her co-star’s remark and explaining her part in the scene. “She’s completely feral, that’s the best way to describe her. It’s almost like she’s become encased in this armour of primal, vicious energy because that’s what she’s had to do to survive. In true Juno style she takes point, so I’m leading everybody through some dangerous parts of cave and across this very unstable bridge made of rock that could fall apart at any moment – and of course it does!”
If the sight of Shauna Macdonald reprising her role of Sarah comes as some surprise, then it’s even more of a shock seeing Natalie Mendoza, fully costumed and bloodied as Juno, the group member who betrayed Sarah, accidently killed their friend Beth and was then left for dead, surrounded by crawlers. “I knew it was in the realms of possibility, contrary to what a lot of people would think,” explains Mendoza, reminding me that we never actually see Juno die, “So I wasn’t that surprised, but I was pleased.”
And what of the rumours circulating that suggest that the entire cast of the first film will be returning for the sequel? “We actually had the old cast back in one day just to shoot some old video footage,” confirms Mendoza, revealing that Neil Marshall himself came back to shoot their scenes. “Everyone wanted to come back, everyone just loved making the first film. That was actually my first day of filming and it was such a nice way to ease into it.”
Spending any length of time on a movie set you soon realise that a lot of the time is spent waiting around while the crew methodically prepare for each shot, the actual filming part only makes up a very small fraction of the activity. Harris sits watching the monitors whilst principal cinematographer – and regular Neil Marshall collaborator – Sam McCurdy positions the cameras and first AD Jack Ravenscroft barks out instructions to the cast. After working through a few rehearsals of the scene they shoot three takes and then run through the scene again getting some close ups of Mendoza, and then finish with a crane shot which overlooks all of the action taking place in the cavern.
As we break for lunch – and the caterers certainly embrace the importance of keeping everyone well fed – I’m struck by just how positive everybody is, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie amongst the cast and crew, many of whom worked on the first film. “I was a little cagey about getting involved at first,” says Macdonald as we discuss how the experience has been, “But it was explained that it would be a lot of the same people, a lot of the same crew, so it’s the same sort of feeling.” Mendoza is similarly relishing reprising her role as Juno. “She’s brilliant to play, she’s so different to who I am which is why it was so seductive to come back, I was just so excited. This time she’s obviously quite seriously injured so as much as she’s a badass she’s got this obstacle which is fun to play as well, so it’s not just Juno being all gung-ho in the caves, there’s a more internal struggle going on as well.”
However nobody is more excited to be here than Krysten Cummings who positively exudes delight at having been offered the role of Rios, a city cop specializing in counseling who’s recently moved to the countryside. “I love horror films in a really sick scary way,” she confides as we share a break outside, “I saw the first one and I was a huge fan, it scared the shit out of me!” The original film was renowned for having been a very physical shoot so I’m keen to find out how she’s coping amongst her experienced co-stars. “It was really nerve-wracking, especially when Natalie arrived. It’s a lot to live up to,” Cummings admits, “They’re both super-fit anyway in real life, but I only had like three days, well maybe five, before I knew I was doing this film.”
I tell her that I’ve already seen her in action in the ‘pit of shit’ earlier today. “Oh my God, help me please!” she exclaims. “It was quite warm and fun for about half an hour,” she confesses, “Then after that it starts to get to you a little bit. I mean we were pretty well kitted out but it still got everywhere you could possibly imagine, and it was three days of it almost…”
We’re called back to set where the crew are readying the next scene which involves one of the characters dangling over the side of a rock face suspended only by a pair of handcuffs which are fastened to one of the other characters. The rest of the cast members jump in to try and frantically help pull them up. It’s quite an intricate shot and Harris is actively taking responsibility for the set up, climbing up onto the stage and working out the logistics of exactly where the chain should be placed so that it looks taut at all times.
After watching a couple of takes I’m encouraged to wander next door to the adjoining stage where James Watkins is busy supervising the 2nd unit. Having already filmed some insert shots this morning of some dripping stalactites, his team are now hard at work prepping a shot of a pick axe slicing through an unfortunate crawler’s mouth in a spray of blood. Watkins is quick to win me over as he talks about what he refers to as the ‘proper craft’ of filmmaking. I’m encouraged to hear that there’s to be no CGI creatures in this film, they’re doing everything in camera where possible and using the minimum of visual effects to enhance scenes.
Watkins and Harris have history together as they recently collaborated on Eden Lake which Watkins wrote and directed. “We were very lucky to get Jon because he’s edited all these huge films, and then to do my little film…” he explains, “I think Christian Colson the producer had a sense that we’d get on and so having developed that relationship with Jon on Eden Lake, and Jon was attached to direct The Descent 2, it seemed like the logical step to bring me on board, and it was a pleasure because I know how good he is and it’s nice working with people who you like and trust.”
And it must be helpful having the writer on set one assumes? “You know, it’s funny, they always say you should keep the writer away,” chuckles Watkins, “But I suppose it’s good in that I have some directing experience which is helpful. Jon is fundamentally shooting the drama as you can see and I’m shooting little bits and pick ups, but occasionally if there are any dramatic elements then I can have a conversation on a level which is respectful to the actors and that’s important, so I think that’s partly why I’m here.”
Leaving Watkins to play with his crawler head I return to the main set where the cast are now rehearsing their next scene. The drama has certainly intensified in the time that I’ve been away; one of the characters is now sporting an amazingly lifelike prosthetic arm and is calling for more blood. Around them a team of make-up artists and assorted crew are hard at work trying to sell the scene – it’s a truly collaborative process between all involved. Eventually after a couple of trial runs Harris decides that the prosthetic limb just isn’t convincing enough and so a different false hand is called for – a prop used earlier in the shoot for another character – and thus satisfied, shooting resumes. With the camera now rolling our injured character frantically shouts, “Pull me up, they’re coming!” which can mean only one thing – the crawlers are about to make an appearance.
Celador producer Ivana MacKinnon asks me if I’ve met the crawlers yet and offers to show me the crawler workshop where they’re getting made up. I’ll be honest with you here, I walk into the corridor and I nearly jump out of my skin – no, there’s no crawler waiting to leap out at me, just a life-size corpse propped up against the wall! Recovering my composure as we enter the workshop, the crawlers pose a far less scary threat, attired as they are in matching gowns. But as their big moment approaches they disrobe and walk onto set where their sinewy bodies get coated with slime until their transformation is complete. Okay, so they don’t look so friendly now! With a stunt-double in position the pair of them go in for the kill…
As the crawlers set about their prey it’s unfortunately time for my visit to come to an end. I leave the final word to Cummings. “I’m telling you man, I nearly shit myself,” she shudders as she recalls her first encounter with the crawlers. “It’s just horrible, I mean they’re amazingly fit men but they’re not men, not like that.” She pauses, then smiles, “Yeah, they’re pretty cool … it’s amazing what they can do.” We’ll all get to see what the crawlers can do second time around when The Descent 2 hits our screens in Spring 2009.
Keep it on Dread for the full interviews with the cast and crew from The Descent 2, which we’ll be posting once a week for the next month!
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