“New York is very much a character in Perfect Stranger, and it lends itself perfectly to the voyeuristic themes of the movie,” says Goldsmith-Thomas. “The film is about what we see and what we oversee – and what better place to do that than a city where you live on top of each other. In many instances, people’s lives become your view.”
Goldsmith-Thomas continues, “Harrison Hill’s ad agency, H2A, is above it all – it looks down on the city and wants everyone to look up at it. Ro’s apartment is in the middle of the world – as she looks out, others look in. Miles’s apartment is underground – it’s the place you bury your secrets.”
According to co-producer Daniel A. Thomas, “We came to a place of such energy and that energy comes through in the film. New York is a place where anything goes, where almost anything is believable. The city has its own eroticism that’s palpable in its look, its feel, its light.”
Director James Foley found filming in New York to be “blissful. I was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island, and twenty years ago I thought I’d be going to NYU Film School but instead I went to U.S.C. and I stayed in California. But the whole time I was growing up in Staten Island, although I didn’t know I was going to be a filmmaker, I knew I would leave the island, and that I’d move into the city to do something. It was unexpectedly thrilling to spend a year in New York shooting and editing this movie. I felt more ‘me’ as a director than I ever have because I was born there and my siblings were there; they’d come to the set and see me filming, not some guy who’d grown up in California.”
Foley even enjoyed the crowds of paparazzi who flocked to the set for outdoor scenes. During a sequence taking place in front of the venerable Ansonia Hotel apartments, where Halle Berry’s character lives, he exited the building and saw a swarm of paparazzi. Wondering what celebrity was in the immediate vicinity, he suddenly realized—it was the star of his movie they had shown up for.
Hill’s spare, cutting-edge offices are mirrored in the chic restaurants where he and Ro meet, which include the stylish Manhattan watering holes Asia de Cuba and Sapa. Ro’s sphere is an earthier one, as seen in her older, rambling Upper West Side apartment, the cluttered newspaper office where she works, and the neighborhood bars and cafés where she hangs out with Miles and her editor. Meanwhile, Miles occupies another world entirely: a seedy, cramped West Village apartment in chaotic disarray.
Production designer Bill Groom wanted to depict Miles’s surroundings as seen through Ro’s eyes when she visits him. “You start with the script,” says Groom. “For me, it’s really sort of imagining the journey that Ro makes from the top of the stairs into the common hallway, into Miles’s apartment – all the way to the back. I tried to divide that look into three looks: first, the sort of landlord look, the area that the landlord decorated and painted, or didn’t paint, as the case may be; then the area that Miles creates where he might have friends over, and then the more private areas where he works on his computer and keeps to himself. So each area has a different look and reveals itself as Ro walks through the apartment.”
The most striking location of all was surely the newly-completed 7 World Trade Center, the company’s home base for three weeks as the site of Harrison Hill’s offices. Designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill and developed and owned by Silverstein Properties, it is the first of the new buildings on the former World Trade Center site to have been be completed. In fact, it was only barely finished by the time the Perfect Stranger production moved in to take over its 25th floor.
The site’s wraparound views of Lower Manhattan, the Hudson River, and New Jersey, all of which are visible in the finished film, were stunning. In addition, Groom created an opulent, angular, highly contemporary look for the offices and their furnishings.
“This beautiful new building, with its highly refined character, seemed to us to be just right for Harrison Hill,” says the production designer. “The original décor on that floor was kind of slick, white, with almost futuristic detailing to it. We added contrasting textures which I would certainly describe as industrial chic – found objects, old factory objects, very raw and natural material like steel and concrete.
And, in fact, we exposed some of the existing surfaces in the building, surfaces that will eventually be covered over once more. We had visited a lot of advertising agencies, and we took elements from all of those ideas that we found in all of those places. We tried to create something that was very much an open office plan, something that would encourage free-flowing creative ideas. And you see that in a lot of the ad agencies today.”
Ro’s own apartment, filmed on a huge sound stage at Hollywood East studios in Brooklyn, was another matter entirely. Spacious and grand, it was nonetheless dark and many-layered, typifying the kind of elegant, 1900’s-era living spaces within the landmark Ansonia Hotel that served as its exterior. “Ro’s apartment stands in stark contrast to Harrison Hill’s offices,” says Groom, “which is something James Foley wanted to emphasize right from the start.”
Among the many New York City locations used in Perfect Stranger were the ornate Cipriani catering space on 42nd St. across from Grand Central Station (originally a huge 1920s bank), the Hotel Gansevoort in the trendy Meatpacking District, the historic bar Chumley’s in Greenwich Village; Riverside Park, Queens Supreme Civil Court, Coler-Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island, and the massive meeting rooms and corridors of such downtown municipal buildings as One Centre Street and the original U.S. Customs House (now the Museum of the American Indian). For Ro’s newspaper offices, an entire floor of New York’s Spanish-language daily El Diario was utilized.
For Halle Berry, one key contributor was costume designer Renée Kalfus, who had the challenge of creating looks for the three facets of Ro’s character: her public persona, her private self, and the invented facade of Katherine, the temp assistant she claims to be when working in Harrison Hill’s agency. “We chose her clothes to reflect those different layers of character,” says Kalfus. “We wanted to illuminate those heightened levels of reality, but we also wanted Halle to look good—we want people to look at this film decades from now and still think she looks great in her costumes, the way you feel when you see Audrey Hepburn in Charade or Eva Marie Saint in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.”
“The clothes that Renée came up with really were the staples,” says Halle Berry. “They helped me keep it clear in my mind who I was at what point in the story, and if ever I got confused, all I had to do was just look down and see what I had on and that would tell me. Clothes are such an important tool for me, always. I don’t feel like my character until I arrive on the set in the morning and put the clothes on.”
In addition to the city of New York, of course, there is another world that provides a setting for Perfect Stranger – the online world of chat rooms in which everyone can be anyone. “Perfect Stranger is about what I think is becoming a near-crisis of how human beings interact with each other,” says Foley. “Essentially, we’ve become strangers to each other. Families have broken up; they don’t talk to each other; members move away to other parts of the country.
So people don’t have much of a support group around them. The internet has become a potential connecting thread for strangers to meet each other. It’s very attractive in that way; it’s much easier to meet someone by typing on a computer than to do it face to face. That need to connect is what really fuels Perfect Stranger’s story all the way through. The inherent danger and drama of it all is that these are real strangers. You don’t know who anybody really is on the Net, and they may turn out to be someone you didn’t suspect.”
According to Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, “The anonymity of the Internet is a very seductive narcotic. The rules are different online. Truth is different online. And ‘normal’ behavior is redefined. The more we interconnect the world, the more disconnected we become. And sometimes, when our real world intersects with our virtual world, the result can be dangerous.”
Perfect Stranger (2007)
Directed by: James Foley
Starring: Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Dourdan, Patti D’Arbanville, Clea Lewis, Nicki Aycox, Florencia Lozano, Daniella Van Graas, Kathleen Chalfant, Paula Miranda, Amara Zaragoza
Screenplay by: Todd Komarnicki
Production Design by: Bill Groom
Cinematography by: Anastas N. Michos
Film Editing by: Christopher Tellefsen
Costume Design by: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus
Set Decoration by: Susan Bode
Art Direction by: Charley Beal
Music by: Antonio Pinto
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, some disturbing violent images, language.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: April 13, 2007