NOTE: This piece was originally posted on 04/15/2009, being that the film is coming out soon we're bumping it up for those who missed it!
It's necessary to begin this set visit article with an understatement: Sometimes, Mother Nature can be a real bitch. Like, a f*ck up my day, bitch. You can never see it truly coming; just when you have a good thing going and your day gets off to a promising start, she turns on the waterworks and all you can do is sit with your head in your hands and wait for it to end.
On the day I was to take a trip to Georgia to hang out with some new friends, she was in a mood. You know the ones. As a result, I could only spend the entire afternoon letting her vent. In no uncertain terms, I spent eight hours in Laguardia airport. Eight hours. Every time I thought it was over and I'd be able to get a move on, she started up again. My day was shot. For the most part.
Eventually the drama came to a halt and I went on my way to the set of Breck Eisner's THE CRAZIES. Ultimately I'd spend about two hours there, although it should have been around six. This is a shame, because I have a vested interest in the film. I have beat the drum regularly on ARROW IN THE HEAD for George A. Romero's original version, which I think is his most unappreciated effort. The caustic tale of a town poisoned by a government foul-up and the ensuing madness that follows as the army attempts to quarantine a town full of hysterical people is a powerful, disturbing experience. It feels dated in spots, yes, but the punch it packs is still potent; it's certainly one of Romero's most energetic films, made in a time when the director's work was filled with genuine wisdom and ferocity. Naturally, I was - and still am - curious whether or not the remake's heart beats with the same palpable sense of chaotic dread.
I just had to get to the goddamned set to find out.
When I finally arrived in Georgia, it was still a two hour drive to the shooting location: Peach County High School, which can be found in a small town called Fort Valley. The production had obviously discovered a place way off the beaten path (and I was obviously not done sitting on my ass), as the closer we got to Fort Valley, the more desolate and eerie our surroundings became. Arriving at our destination, some things were impossible not to notice: The whole area was awash in an almost blinding white light, courtesy of spotlights mounted everywhere. Helicopters were settled in the middle of the school's ballfield, while huge fences cordoned off sections of the field: make-shift cages. Army vans, police cars, livestock trucks were parked everywhere (suspiciously, no livestock was in sight). Sterile-looking tents lined up in rows. Chilly sights to behold, although that was partly due to Mother Nature acting up again (big shock), resulting in a numbingly cold night air. I guess I had the wrong idea about Georgia, because I was expecting the South to be, you know, warm.
Peach County High
I joined the rest of my fellow journalists, who were already enjoying the last leg of their visit, in one of make-up designer Rob Hall's trailers. Immediately I was brought face-to-face with a few ghastly characters (aside from the ones I was already familiar with): a man hung on the wall, his intestines having been pulled out of him and sitting frozen in his shredded stomach. Lounging on the floor was a great big bloated fellow, who was unfortunately missing the entire bottom half of his face, his tongue just dangling where his jaw used to be (it sat on a nearby shelf). A few unfortunate souls laying on a slab had obviously been burned beyond recognition, their mouths open in silent screams. Whatever was going down at the picturesque small-town high school, it wasn't pretty.
Rob Hall, it must be said, is a straight-up awesome guy. Even though he'd been through all this before with the other press, Hall sat down for a quick chat with me and another writer who was similarly stranded in NY all day. He told us what we can expect from the titular characters who, at this point in the shoot, are just getting ready to run amuck.
"The original film has got great charm, but there's not really much of a threat when the guys go crazy, other than just being in a mental, scary state. There's no real physical transformation that makes them cool or interesting or scary. With this, there was a push to do something that wasn't zombies or what I did in QUARANTINE. It was very important to Breck that these Crazies have their own signature look. I think iconic is a strong word, but definitely identifiable."
"Basically, the approach is to take it the opposite of death. The thinking was 'what's the opposite of death'? Well, too full of life. Which really fit in with all the characteristics of the diseases we're trying to mimic, which is tetanus, jaundice, a little bit of rabies. So your face, your body, your extremities, are sort of blistered, and veins are starting to pop, because you have too much blood in you, too much serum, too much everything..."
Hall went on to explain that there are stages to the disease, so we'll ultimately be seeing a variety of "crazies". Most interestingly, one of the specific qualities of being infected is that you don't lose what you were after the virus has taken hold of you. So while you are indeed going crazy, you're not a mindless zombie. You're now just an insane, bloodthirsty version of your former self, a nice change from what we associate with this kind of film, where the infection basically cancels out your personality. (Example: if you were a hunter before the infection, you're a hunter after the infection. Only now, you're hunting different game.) Crazies can even talk, although, as Hall explained, only in a rudimentary fashion.
And make-up purists needn't worry: Hall told me that the effects in the film are almost all practical, so when we're seeing exploding veins, they're really exploding...
Timothy Olyphant as Sheriff David Dutton.
After my chat with Hall, I was shepherded to a tent where a scene was being prepped. (Journalists on sets are always herded around like sheep by a helpful unit publicist.) From what I could tell, it was an elaborate stedicam shot that began outside amidst the chaos of the army handling the townspeople, and ended up inside the tent, where Timothy Olyphant (as the town sheriff), Radha Mitchell (as his wife, a doctor), and Joe Anderson (as a deputy) were being somewhat pushed around by army men in intimidating hazmat suits. Anderson's deputy flips out a bit, cursing at one of the men ordering him around. While this is going on, I'm crammed into a corner with about eight other journalists right behind Breck Eisner who watches the scene play out on a video feed. He fidgets and motions at the screen to no one in particular, making mental notes before calling "cut" - everyone is to begin again...
Yet not immediately, because as luck would have it, it's lunchtime! (On night shoots, "lunch" is called around midnight.) I'm not surprised by this - only by the fact that destiny has allowed me to see anything being shot on this massively FUBAR'd day. Actually, not even shot, but rehearsed...
Myself and my journalist compatriot were given a quick look around the field while everyone else was chowing down. We peek at the helicopters up close, learn (with envy) that we missed watching them fly overhead and touch down in the ballfield, which was apparently pretty freaky - in a good way - for everyone involved. Apparently the copters are the genuine articles, used during Vietnam and even now piloted by real Army guys. (That's their technical name, right?) The livestock trucks are eerie when they're abandoned, and some of them have piles of clothes and blankets within them. In the quiet that enveloped us, the entire scene - a large-scale set that had not another soul on it - was a tinged with a curious and creepy vibe...
Lastly, thanks to the immense coolness of the publicity folks there, I was able to talk with Radha Mitchell and Joe Anderson for about five minutes each. Hungry and tired as they were, the two actors were gracious enough to take my questions, which they'd most likely already answered ad nauseam that day. And although neither Tim Olyphant or Breck Eisner were available at the time, I've spoken to both on the phone since then. You'll be able to read all of these interviews in separate articles later this week. (where much more about the nature of the film's story will be revealed)...
And that's pretty much it. After that, we were taken off in a van to our hotel. Actually, that's not quite it - one more thing. We got lost. Yes, an unfortunate detour sent us into a bizarre nowheresville straight out of THE TWILIGHT ZONE for a brief period. Again, I wasn't too surprised. Besides, it was 2:30 in the morning, and I had been up for twenty hours - at that point, I was feeling a bit crazy myself, and could only laugh... A strange, ominous laugh...
(THE CRAZIES opens in theaters on February 26 2010.)