With a screenplay and cast in place, preproduction on The Strangers began. Given that 90 percent of the film”s incidents take place in and around a house in the dead of night, design and construction needed to be finalized well in advance of shooting. The first-time director, logically, carefully storyboarded the scenes to be shot with production designer John D. Kretschmer.
Kretschmer, whose design work includes the suspense films The In Crowd and Deceiver, believed Bertino”s screenplay detailed “not a horror film, but a terror film. We all have these fears, and Bryan prods at them in a unique way.” He admits, “When reading, I was gripping the pages.”
To contribute to a “this could happen to you” feeling for the audience, no geographical location was specified in the script. That didn”t mean, however, that Bertino wouldn”t design a blueprint of the Hoyt family vacation home in his exacting script. Of this, Kretschmer commends, “Bryan cleverly and thoughtfully built the architecture of the movie into the screenplay. So, I could tell which way the hallway turned and where the kitchen and the bedrooms were. He conveyed a very visual sense, as well as succinct blocking. When I spoke with him, it was clear that we were on the same page regarding the style of the house.”
In fact, when Bertino met with Kretschmer and they compared floor plans, the production designer marveled at their complementary ideas. He laughs, “Mine was almost exactly the same one that he had drawn three years earlier and 3,000 miles away.” Kretschmer and Bertino”s design strategy pivoted on a central twist. “In your classic horror movie, there”s a house on a hill”this scary place that you”re standing back from and looking at,” says Kretschmer. “The Strangers reverses that; we”re on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around.”
The home set was built on a warehouse-turned-soundstage in Florence, South Carolina. The process of creating the set took eight weeks: two to design, two to draw up blueprints and four to build. The production designer and his team systematically built the interior of a roughly 2,000-square-foot home to allow for several weeks of filming. During the construction process, Kretschmer conferred extensively with Bertino and director of photography Peter Sova. Kretschmer notes, “We had to be able to allow Peter”s camera to go anywhere it needed to go, so that Bryan could get all his shots. He wanted the audience to be right there with the characters. The entire interior was flexible and functional; all of the walls were able to be moved as needed.”
Along with set decorator MISSY BERENT, Kretschmer”s team designed from the inside out to offer the feeling that the interior of the home is propelling the audience outward. As Kristen and James struggle to get out of the house of terror, the viewer wants to run out with them, even if uncertain of what lies beyond the front porch. Bertino”s admiration of 1970s films influenced not only his screenplay, but also the set decoration. For the Hoyt family vacation home, the mandate was to make the interior full of warm dark hues, comfort and familiarity. Kretschmer provides, “It”s the kind of house that Bryan and I, and a lot of people, grew up in”a cozy, safe place that”s full of strong memories. This makes the picture even more frightening, because you realize that terror can occur even in your most comfortable environments.”
For the house”s exterior, the director and the production designer again recalled their upbringings. “A ranch house built in the 1970s was something that Bryan and I were familiar with,” says Kretschmer. “I grew up in North Carolina and Bryan grew up in Texas, and we both knew these types of houses.”
Perfectly fitting the “casting call” and selected to portray the exterior of the Hoyt home was a family-built, “70s-era brick ranch house located in Timmonsville, South Carolina, about 10 miles southwest of Florence. Bertino recalls, “It looked the part” situated in a close-knit neighborhood, yet eerily isolated during the winter when James and Kristen are visiting.”
The house and property had the details called for in the script: a garage, driveway of a certain length, imposing trees in a large backyard and a metal barn that was the perfect distance from the road (and possible passersby who could aid Kristen and James). When Bertino, Kretschmer and location scout STEVE RHEA arrived at the house, they instantly knew it was their Hoyt home. Fortunately, they were able to integrate the agreed-upon interior design with the look of this Timmonsville property.
The only element that had to be built and added to the house”s exterior was the back porch specified in the script. Kretschmer and his team added sliding glass doors, classic examples of “70s-era architecture, that led to the porch.
Because of the damage that The Man in the Mask would inflict upon it in several scenes, multiple copies of the existing carved wooden front door on the Timmonsville house were created. The “stunt doors” were individually mounted onto parts of the entranceway, creating a small set within the existing location.
To add to the creepiness, Bertino designed some additional surprises for the cast. He says, “When we were shooting at that house, you really couldn”t hear nearby cars. But you could hear things in and around the house, so we had crew members generate unexplained noises during, or just before, takes. The actors felt like they were there, and they would get surprised and scared. We would too.”
For the film”s flashback scenes in which we see Kristen and James at the wedding, additional lensing took place in and around Florence at the Pee Dee Shrine Club, at the Hilton Garden Inn and on residential streets. South Carolina”s seventh largest city, located in the northeast part of the state, Florence has seen increased filming activity due to the South Carolina legislature”s June 2006 passage of large tax incentives for film productions in the state, as well as through the efforts of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership (FCEDP). The three-month shoot of The Strangers provided jobs for residents and funneled millions of dollars of business into the area”s economy.
For the most part, the production opted to shoot the film in chronological order. Mostly, it received unexpected atmospheric benefits from the weather. However, rain, wind, fog and unseasonably cold weather all impacted the shoot at various times. Bertino admits: “We had to make some changes because of the rain. But while it forced our hand [sometimes resulting in reshoots because of the swampy mess], we”d often find out that the revisions looked the way we should have gone all along.”
Adds Kip Weeks, “The elements became part of the story and part of our performances. It made the shoot more natural; we really were running through mud, so we didn”t have to pretend.”
Physical Demands Of the Shoot
As called for in Bertino”s story, the lead actors were put through the wringer far more than the trio of Strangers. “This role was emotionally, and especially physically, draining,” says Tyler, who was additionally stricken with tonsillitis during the shoot. “Usually, on a movie, there are a couple of scenes that you know will be tough to do, and you think, “I”ll just have to get through that particular day.” This was two months of that. We worked long hours. It was by far the hardest film shoot I”ve ever been a part of.”
In addition to sustaining actual cuts, bruises and sores, in addition to the throat trouble, the actress was obliged to be made up with fake blood and have black paint brushed under her fingernails and over her hands. “In The Lord of the Rings, I only had to do one sequence on a horse,” Tyler says. “On this shoot, I would come in each morning, clean and showered, then get disgusting. It was an amazing challenge every day, and I didn”t know I had it in me. But by the end of the shoot, my body was gone.”
To help realize Bertino”s desired sustained pitch of heart-pounding, breathholding fear, both Tyler and Speedman often ran sprints on and around the set, returning to their marks just seconds before the writer / director called, “Action!” Tyler estimates, “I probably ran a mile a day. Scott and I would be all out of breath and sweaty.”
Bertino notes, “Liv definitely connected to what Kristen was going through. We talked a lot about the physical demands beforehand, and she worked incredibly hard. Also, she”s barefoot for basically the entire movie. There were times during the shoot when I would look down at her bruised feet and feel horrible that I hadn”t written, “Kristen is wearing tennis shoes.””
Despite the actors” endless days of running, crawling and hiding, stunt coordinator CAL JOHNSON provides, “The Strangers isn”t a stunt-heavy movie. But even with the little stuff, we still needed to take the time to figure it out and protect our actors and stunt people.” Johnson himself stepped in to double for an actor in one of the film”s most shocking moments.
Given that The Strangers is her maiden effort in the genre, Tyler also developed a “screen scream.” The performer provides, “I was really worried at first, because I had no idea what it would sound or look like. All of a sudden, this huge scream came out; I think I terrified everybody.”
Bertino agrees: “Liv is an amazing screamer. She and I talked about not doing “practice screams,” because I wanted to capture the horror moments as they happen for Kristen. On the first take of the first time she had to scream, I had my fingers crossed, and she really let loose. It shook us up. Beyond that, there are violent scenes that get played out in this movie, and some of them were upsetting to people on set to watch. Everyone became attached to Kristen and James, and to Liv and Scott.”
Speedman adds, “For the heaviest emotional scenes Liv and I had to play, Bryan kept two cameras going so we wouldn”t have to shoot all day. With those heightened moments between characters, you don”t want to repeat things over and over. Bryan was also comfortable with our doing things that had not been in his script. He wasn”t overprotective of it.”
Similarly, the actors playing The Strangers were free to explore their characters” shared dynamics, since, as Bertino says, “We give no outside information. Kristen and James don”t have any, which is a perspective”or lack of it”that adds to the horror.”
Weeks says, “Being in a world where we are so desensitized by the Internet, TV, war, video games, YouTube, I felt we had lost what should be a basic human response to violence and, more specifically, to death itself. In some demented way, we were trying to reestablish those feelings of guilt and sorrow by experiencing the violence firsthand.” Ward adds that what helped her with motivation was to believe that “these people don”t have a lot to say. They want to dominate something for the first time in their lives, controlling the situation.”
Margolis concurs: “I think my character has the nerve to do what she does largely because she”s wearing a mask. In her regular life, she doesn”t have any power or control. But when she puts on this mask, she controls everything.”
Behind the Masks
The design of the masks for The Strangers was as important to the film as the design of the Hoyt house. Bertino states, “I wanted the masks to feel basic and accessible, and to represent imagery we can all recognize and respond to. When we walk into a room, we look at people”s features, at their eyes. We wonder, “Is this person friendly”” With that taken away, Kristen and James are even more vulnerable.”
After several drafts of designs, the masks for Pin-Up Girl and Dollface were created in vacuform plastic; The Man in the Mask”s was made out of cotton. Weeks offers, “The fact that these are the kind of masks anyone could buy anywhere, or put together, just makes the whole scenario that much realistic.”
For all their simplicity and on-set familiarity, the masks still cast a chill. Liv Tyler reveals, “I have always found masks of all kinds creepy, because you don”t know what”s behind them. At first, I couldn”t bear to be near them at all.”
Scott Speedman agrees: “It was hard to look at these. There was a deadness in the eyes, like a shark”s. Pin-Up Girl”s mask was really quite scary. Laura turned into a whole different person when she put it on.”
Margolis surmises how unsettling it was to play a woman who delighted in capturing and torturing her prey: “What I found so terrifying was that there was no humanity in her. It doesn”t seem like there”s a person who feels and hurts, and that”s part of why my character does what she does. To play her, I did have to tap into things in myself that I don”t want to believe are there.”
Surprisingly, the trio of actors warmed to the process of wearing their masks while performing. “There weren”t many difficulties and I was not uncomfortable,” says Weeks. “You can convey a character through so many things other than your face”your movement, your posture, the way you breathe. The mask became another part of me, and I could convey every emotion with it.”
Ward muses, “It was freeing, in a way. Because of my regular job as a model, I had a very strong reaction to wearing the mask. I was not as self-conscious. I could get in there and be as scary and menacing as I wanted to be”and feed off of the reaction from having a mask on. There was a power to it.”
Margolis also found the experience to be “kind of liberating.” She adds, “If anything, it was more challenging for Liv and Scott, who didn”t get to see any emotion on our faces.”
Speedman confirms, “I didn”t ask the three of them what their thought process for their characters was. But it worked!”
As shooting ended, the cast and crew looked back on their experience and on their thoughts on the thriller they made. “It”s a love story, a drama and a horror movie,” says Tyler. “The film has different elements and levels to it. Oftentimes, scary movies are about the scares. This film is so different. To be truly afraid”and showing it”is shocking not only to other people, but also to yourself.”
“What happens in this movie could happen and does happen,” reflects Speedman. “What”s scary is how real it is. Hopefully, we let the audience in a bit with this, and that”s different than most horror movies. You get to sit with these people for awhile and get to know them.”
Of his hopes for the project he started on those late nights several years ago, writer/director Bertino concludes, “So often now, people go to the movies and are distanced from what”s happening on screen because it could never happen to them. We strip that away with The Strangers.”
The Strangers )2008)
Directed by: Bryan Bentino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Glenn Howerton, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Gemma Ward, Glenn Howerton, Peter Clayton-Luce, Jordan Del Spina
Screenplay by: Bryan Bentino
Production Design by: John D. Kretschmer
Cinematography by: Peter Sova
Film Editing by: Kevin Greutert
Costume Design by: Susan Kaufmann
Set Decoration by: Missy Berent
Art Direction by: Linwood Taylor
Music by: Tomandandy
MPAA Rating: R for violence / terror and language.
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release Date: May 30, 2008