Scene Stealer is a recurring Calendar feature looking at the tricks
and techniques used by Hollywood's behind-the-scenes armies of makeup
people, visual-effects folks, costumers, cinematographers and stunt
coordinators. This week's installment takes a look behind the very stormy scenes of Martin Scorsese's box-office hit "Shutter Island." The film's federal marshals, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, had to contend with a hurricane while conducting their investigation at the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, but the crew had its own hurricane problems.
Inclement weather is nothing new in the movies, but the raging hurricane needed for "Shutter Island" proved to be a challenge for special effects coordinator R. Bruce Steinheimer. "Shutter" cinematographer Robert Richardson "is known for his wide crane shots," Steinheimer said. But the wide crane shots in and around the film's location in Medfield, Mass., meant that Steinheimer couldn't rely on the usual rain bars -- there weren't any big enough. He had to bring in a 140-foot-wide light truss, like the kind used in rock concerts, and rig it with water hoses to douse the actors with more than half a million gallons of water. Nine-foot-high wind machines had to be trucked in from California. "These were the biggest in the States," Steinheimer said. One set got so drenched that crew members sank up to their calves in mud and the place began to smell. As Steinheimer puts it: "I imagine this was what World War I trench warfare was like."
The big reveal has been a staple of the Hollywood film pretty much since Charlton Heston found out, to his great shock, that the apes lived on his own planet.
When the maneuver is handled well, the surprise finale can provide more viewing pleasure than almost any other device. But it's also trickier to pull off than the Double McTwist 1260. Offer too many clues along the way and it's hardly a surprise; point the arrows too far in the other direction and the audience will feel cheated.
M. Night Shyamalan executed the reveal to perfection in "The Sixth Sense" -- in which the conclusion was both an utter surprise and impeccably logical -- before botching it with the left-field contrivances of "Unbreakable." Alejandro Amenabar offered a similar, and similarly pleasurable, twist to "Sixth Sense" in "The Others" (a particular feat since it came just two years after the M. Night film came out, when the audience was primed for a maybe-they're-dead-the-whole time surprise). And the list continues: "The Usual Suspects," "No Way Out," "The Crying Game" (and, as horror fans may remember, the gender-bending twist of kitsch-horror classic "Sleepaway Camp" -- see our poll below to weigh in with your favorite).
Martin Scorsese tries a version of the trick in his just-released "Shutter Island" (warning: major spoiler alert ahead -- skip to the next paragraph if you've yet to see the film). In the Paramount release, Leonardo DiCaprio, having spent hour after furious hour as a detective investigating a crime at an insane asylum, is revealed (probably) to be a patient suffering delusions who's simply engaging in a role-playing game initiated by his doctors. While that twist has the effect of making too many of the scenes that preceded it feel irrelevant, it certainly packs a wallop. And it's likely to make you both talk about the ending and revisit many of the earlier scenes, as all good whoppers aim to do.
The question is how much a reveal can help or hurt a film after word begins to spread. On the one hand, a twist ending can turn a movie into a conversation piece since it is, quite literally, the last thing seen before leaving the theater. And because it often makes us go back and reinterpret the entire film, it can keep the movie both in our individual and public consciousness long after the credits end. In other words, it becomes water-cooler conversation. And in box-office terms, it gives a movie legs.
Paramount executives believe that that's pretty much what will happen here. "There's nothing that keeps box office going like people's desire not to hear how a movie ends before they see it," says Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "That sense of 'Don't tell me; I haven't seen it' has historically added more interest."
Fair enough -- if you can avoid finding out. But there's undoubtedly a risk for a movie that relies on a surprise ending these days.
As recently as a few years ago you could get away with much of the moviegoing population not hearing about a surprise ending for a long time. Several months after "The Crying Game" came out, Harvey Weinstein was still begging journalists not to give away the ending. It's hard to see him making that request today, or hoping that it would have any effect. Twitter, fan sites and every other medium known to man are a minefield of information; avoiding a big reveal can feel like Tivo-ing a sports game and trying not to finding out the result until days later. And once you know how a film ends, do you still want to see it?
"Shutter Island" had a big opening last weekend. Now that everyone's talking about the ending, we'll see if audiences continue to flock to it -- or feel like they already know too much.
Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo in "Shutter Island." Credit: Paramount Pictures
The Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio psychological thriller "Shutter Island," which opens this weekend, may have the look and budget of a splashy Hollywood production.
But the Paramount release, written by frequent James Cameron collaborator Laeta Kalogridis, began life as part of an initiative from production company Phoenix Pictures in which prominent writers are paid a comparatively low fee (the Writers Guild minimum, actually) to work on their passion projects.
It's a program that testifies both to Phoenix's risk-taking and the mindset of big-name writers willing to take less money to work on something they like -- and that they can develop without pesky studio intervention (at least until the studio buys it). "It's a very smart way of giving the writer a certain amount of artistic creative license, because you are in essence writing on spec with only the input of the producers," Kalogridis says. (If the film gets made, the writer gets his or her standard quote plus a bonus.)
After enlisting the writer and developing the script, Phoenix hires the director and draws up a budget and only then approaches a studio with the option to make the film. "We say, ‘Tell us whether you want to make it,' " says Medavoy. "As opposed to getting into an endless process with 20 opinions and getting endless notes. That's what we're trying to minimize."
Perhaps the best that can be said of the movie spots during the Super Bowl last night is that no one's talking about them. Amid a mind-numbing and often-banal parade of the Dorito-loving and the pant-less, the spots for films like "The Prince of Persia" and "Alice in Wonderland" generally escaped scorn, if also good mention of any kind.
The "Shutter Island" ad was probably the most compelling of the bunch, and it had been shown before. "The Wolfman," which took just 15 seconds to make its Gothic, shape-shifting points instead of the trailer's minute-and-a-half, was a fine if unremarkable reminder of the Del Toro-fest set to premiere this Friday. "Alice in Wonderland" was intriguing but cryptic and overly "Where the Wilds Things Are"; it may simply be too hard to showcase the weird brilliance of Tim Burton in 30 seconds (at least we hope that's the reason). "The Prince of Persia" ad was entirely forgettable.
It's a curious crossroads for the film business and its Super Bowl involvement, which was already on the wane this year. Many movies will doubtless see little direct effect from their budget-chomping spots. (It's telling that, in contrast to a few years ago, most of the movies advertised are opening in the coming weeks, not this spring or summer; it's certainly not the platform for a big unveiling that it once was). And if "Iron Man 2" and other franchises sitting on the sidelines open to big business despite their big-game absence, it will further raise questions about the wisdom of spending so big for pieces of marketing that, creatively and commercially, do so little.
Film culture did find its way into the spots, some of it in the better ads. "National Lampoon's Vacation" made a (sort of) subtle appearance in a Homeaway ad reference to the '80s comedy classic. Bridgestone nodded to a modern comedy classic with its "Hangover"-inspired use of a killer whale. And memories of "This Is Spinal Tap" came flooding back with Christopher Guest's commercial for the Census Bureau." In the future, the best way Super Bowl commercials could be about the movies is not to be about the movies.