Like any good gothic thriller, the first five minutes of “The Raven” open with a woman’s unhinged scream, copious quantities of blood and dark carriages thundering down a wet, cobblestone street. And while 33-year-old Gábor Tóth assumes no responsibility for the first two items on the list, he’s the first person ever to serve as a carriage coordinator in his native country of Hungary, where much of the film was shot.
In theaters April 27, “The Raven” stars John Cusack as author Edgar Allan Poe, who dons a detective cap when his grisly fiction becomes the inspiration for a serial killer. Carriages play such a big role that the production decided they needed to be under the supervision of a separate coordinator, who didn’t have the additional responsibility of set dressing and props.
Enter Tóth, who found himself with an unusual set of responsibilities: supervising the repair and transformation of a dozen carriages, coordinating the schedules of drivers and their horses, organizing the transport of the entire fleet between locations and ensuring safety on slick, cobblestone streets.
Luckily, Tóth had plenty of experience. When he was 11, he started visiting movie sets to help out his father, a set decorator. In the years since, Tóth has worked in set decoration and props on films including 2006’s “Day of Wrath” and television series such as the BBC’s “Robin Hood.” “The Raven” introduced him to a new aspect of the movie industry.
“It was nice to be so close during the shooting,” he said. “When I work in set decoration, I’m never present during the shooting. On ‘The Raven,’ I had the radio, and I was giving the sign for the carriages to start and stop. So it was quite interesting to be close to the fire.”
Improve your carriage: After property master Ray McNeill located about a dozen carriages and shipped them to the film’s location in Budapest, Hungary, Tóth’s work began. “The carriages were replicas [of models from the mid-1800s], so they were not real antiques,” said Tóth. “So we had the chance to transform them slightly as we needed. We were storing the carriages in a film studio, where there are local workshops, so there was some damage to the outside paint, and we had to repair them. We changed some of the covers of the seats inside. And we had to make it safe to stand at the back for stunts, so we made some metal bars to stand on, and we put some roof racks on the top to grab. Later on, we had to cover what the stunt people were standing on with rubber, so it wasn’t too slippery.”
The long lens of the law: The interior of a carriage isn’t the most spacious filming location, but Tóth did his best to make it easy for the camera department. “There were three quite similar dark carriages, and we had to paint them black and put a police logo on them,” he said. “And one of these was the hero one [used by the main characters], which was almost like the other two, but the carpenters had to make some windows openable for different camera angles from outside. We had to make the front window open and close, so they could place the camera on the driver’s seat looking back into the carriage.”
In the driver’s seat: These days, finding a good carriage driver is even harder than finding someone who knows how to drive stick shift. But Tóth knew exactly who to ask. “Horseback riding is quite a big part of Hungarian history,” he said. “I can’t ride a horse, but I know many people who work with horses. So there were two big runs when stunt people were driving the carriages, but other than that, the owners don’t really like to leave the horses to someone else. You need to know the horses and work with them a lot to see every sign of a problem or something. I just had to make sure everyone — horses, carriage drivers and carriages — got there on time, and the drivers [who were the owners] went through dressing and makeup and hair before they turned up on set.”
Rubber sole: A combination of rain, snow and cobblestones provided the perfect atmosphere for a film inspired by Poe’s work, but it was less than ideal for Tóth’s four-legged fleet. “The carriages have suspension, so when you’re sitting in the back, you don’t even really feel the cobblestones,” he said. “But it was quite bad for the horses. We had to put some special rubber horseshoes on, because on the wet cobblestones, the metal horseshoes were slipping too much. So this helped make sure none of the horses or the stunt people got hurt.”
Photo: Carriages on Baltimore streets set the atmosphere for the gothic thriller "The Raven." Credit: Larry Horricks / Amontillado Productions