We’re in Victoria, BC. It’s a beautiful city, the smell of water and nature hovering in the chilly, early March air. The day before we head to what we’ll learn is an abandoned Canadian Tire acting as the soundstage for Brahms: The Boy II, we few, we happy few, we band of journalists* find ourselves in a restaurant that’s spitting distance from our hotel. It’s the kind of establishment where sports dominate HD TVs lining the walls and classic rock tunes pump out Tom Petty, Pearl Jam, and AC/DC. The volume is intrusive enough that our on-site publicity liaison, Ryan Fons, the film’s director William Brent Bell, and producer Gary Lucchesi make the executive decision to move us from the wide open seating area, where dozens of tables are surrounded by dozens more chairs, into the private party room. Two tables are pushed together, drinks and cocktails are ordered (I ask for a penicillin, which lands very firmly in ‘meh’ territory), and a collection of phones and audio recorders materialize in front of William and Gary.
This isn’t so much an interview as it is a conversation punctuated every so often by “professional” questions. To put into context just how atypical this is, a very brief explanation of what a standard set visit is like is in order: we arrive in the city where shooting is taking place, get to our hotel, usually have a group dinner, go to set the next day, and do a whole lot of “hurry-up-and-wait”ing. Usually, this means sitting in a conference room – or something similar – and waiting for whatever talent gets 10-15 minutes free so that we writers can pummel them with questions before they’re whisked away back to set. That’s why it’s so strange yet wonderful to have the director and producer join us in some restaurant that probably has a 3.4 star rating on Yelp. To quote Louis Armstrong, “We have all the time in the world.” And boy (no pun intended) did we use it.
While the full set visit report is incoming (check back here on January 9th for the full report), I’ve been given the freedom to tell you about something rather interesting that we learned from William during that hushed backroom discussion. However, to disclose it in the right context, let’s venture back a little into a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. Let’s venture back to…2016.
In 2016, The Boy was released, going on to earn over $64 million worldwide against its $10 million budget. Not too shabby, eh? While it didn’t earn the respect of critics, there are those who enjoyed the film, appreciating the twists and turns that this seemingly possessed doll movie took.
The film starts with Greta’s (Lauren Cohan) arrival at the Heelshire Estate and the strange duty thrust upon her: watch a porcelain doll that’s the likeness of the Heelshire’s deceased son Brahms while the owners head off on holiday. Things, at first, seem to be going just fine. She shirks her duties, enjoys the fruits of the imposing yet regal estate, and makes nice with the local delivery guy, Malcolm. But when strange things start occurring around the house, Greta begins to take her responsibilities a little more seriously. Stranger yet is that the odd occurrences don’t stop. Rather, they make themselves more apparent, even going so far as to happen in the presence of Malcolm, our stalwart cinematic beau.
Cut forward a bit, skip past some blah blah blah, and the twist reveals itself: Brahms, the Heelshire’s son, isn’t actually dead! He makes a rather explosive – literally – entrance where it becomes clear that he’s been in the walls the whole time, sneaking out to manipulate the Brahms doll when Greta wasn’t looking. And upon his face? Why, the porcelain visage of Brahms himself! Er…itself? Whatever. It’s a suitably creepy look and one that is undoubtedly effective.
But there’s an interesting secret that is only just now allowed to come to the light of day: that porcelain mask that has such strength and visual power through the 3rd act? It isn’t actually real.
Yes, you read that right. Brahms’ porcelain mask is 100% CGI.
Watch the scene for yourself to see why this is so impressive and why we journalists sat in stunned disbelief upon this revelation:
It was during the first round of test screenings that the seed of this idea even came about. After one such screening, Bell addressed the audience and presented a simple question: “So the third act, the twist that happens, were you scared by the guy coming out of the walls? And they were like, ‘Yeah but not that scared.’” So Bell and his producers huddled together to try and figure out how to make something really memorable, something that would stick in minds well after the credits finished rolling.
The idea of creating a mask in post-production came from prolific Hollywood producer Roy Lee, who worked on the first The Boy and is producer on the upcoming sequel. The idea was done before in The Strangers, so they knew it was a tried and true method. And while it came with a rather hefty price tag – $150,000, per Lucchesi – they were all in agreement that it was the right thing to do, with Bell stating, “That’s gonna make the movie better if we do that.”
“We were so focused on creating the doll that, like, we never even thought about [putting a mask on him]. So, if you watch the movie, there was never a mask on him,” Bell explained. “It’s totally digital.”
To prove it, here’s an image of various masks that they tested on Brahms to see which would have the greatest impact:
As we excitedly spoke over each other, each of us proclaiming our astonishment at this bit of heretofore trivia, Bell made one thing clear: “Money well spent!”
And you damn well better believe it was. Regardless of your thoughts on the first The Boy, it’s solid proof that CGI, when done effectively, can be nearly invisible unless you know what you’re looking for.
We also have an exclusive still from Brahms: The Boy 2:
The official synopsis: “Unaware of the terrifying history of Heelshire Mansion, a young family moves into a guest house on the estate where their young son soon makes an unsettling new friend, an eerily life-like doll he calls Brahms.”
Brahms: The Boy II comes out February 21, 2020. Written by Stacey Meaner and directed by William Brent Bell, it stars Katie Holmes, Owain Yeoman, Christopher Convery, and Ralph Ineson. The film was produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi, Richard Wright, Eric Reid, Jim Wedaa, Roy Lee, and Matt Berenson.
*with apologies to William Shakespeare.