In the third part of my report on Summit Entertainment's upcoming sci-fi action thriller THE DARKEST HOUR (you may read Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE), I'll be focusing on the tour of Moscow myself and a handful of international journalists were given to help familiarize us with the film's many exciting set-pieces. It's one thing to know what Red Square is and what it superficially looks like, it's another to be plunked down in the middle of it in order to soak it up.
As any tourist in the city will tell you, there are just certain places in Moscow that one must visit: The Kremlin/Red Square, The Lenin Library, The Academy of Sciences, the immaculate subway stations, The GUM (a giant mall near Red Square). THE DARKEST HOUR, a story about tourists scrambling across the city in an effort to flee from the electrified extraterrestrials invading the world, makes sure to stop off at all these spots, too. It would be easy to criticize the picture for essentially moving from one landmark to another in order to give each its due screentime – until you see the locations for yourself and are able to marvel at their towering exquisiteness.
Chris Gorak, the director of the film, acknowledges that the film cheats a little to fit all these historical sites in. “We've mapped out a journey that hopefully feels realistic in the time span of the film, but I never had a full concept of Moscow and how it's laid out; all I know is, it's a huge city - I do now - but we are cheating some elements to capture the great areas and architecture of Moscow, so it's not a straight line across the city, we do bounce around and cheat those elements to tell the story in the most exciting way.”
Emile Hirsch in Red Square
The first stop on our tour is Red Square, home to the Kremlin, Saint Basil's Cathedral, The GUM, Lenin's Mausoleum and The Kazan Cathedral. The middle of the square offers a haunting locale for a tense sequence in which encounter an abandoned police car... and eventually the hostile invaders. In broad daylight, two of our protagonists, Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), squeeze themselves under a police car in order not to be seen by the invisible aliens, whose presence can only be marked by the flickering of nearby lights – or in this case, the police car's siren.
To shoot the sequence (which was already in the can at this point in time), Red Square had to be shut down for about five days, a very big deal in this country, as it's one of the central hubs of the capitol. (Think shutting down Times Square in New York for five days.) As producer Timur Bekmambetov tells us, ”It’s like a hundred thousand people during the weekend. And you have to shut it down and you have to control it, and it’s not easy to do.”
However, Tom Jacobson fills in, despite the unusual arrangement, the local government was more than happy to have the business, as well as the positive press that comes with a big Hollywood production filming in the city. ”They love the fact that we came here. This is actually the first time that an American movie has shot here in its entirety with a Moscow-based crew.”
Inside the GUM
The Red Square GUM is a massive trapezoidal building that functions as one of the largest department stores in the country. Well over a hundred years old (although, naturally, its original purpose wasn't to house The Gap and the like), the GUM brings us a scene of visceral horror in THE DARKEST HOUR, as the lead characters discover an airplane has crashed into it (after losing power mid-air during the invasion). Visual effects magic will be responsible for giving the audience the impression that the massive structure has been nearly completely destroyed.
After Red Square we take a ride in the Moscow subway system, which brings you to some of the most amazing stations in the world. A 3rd act sequence in THE DARKEST HOUR is set in one of the stations, as our heroes again run in to their indiscernible foes while using lightbulbs as alarms of sorts. (The protagonists wear lightbulbs around their necks; when they begin to flicker, they know they're not alone.) I must admit, as a man familiar with the grungy subways of New York City, these stations are borderline surreal, with artwork so beautiful adorning the ceilings that you'd be forgiven if you thought for a split second that you're in a museum.
One of the many beautiful Russian subway stations
Another spot we hit is the Russian State Library (also more commonly known as the Lenin Library after Soviet Union founder V.I. Lenin), another massive building that is one of the most fully-stocked libraries in the world. In the film, the library, with its fortress-like interior, is where a small contingent of Russian soldiers are encamped. Not unlike the days when the production was in Red Square, this was a special moment for the Russians who witnessed the shutting down of the monumental location.
The statue of Dostoevsky in front of the Lenin Library
”It’s this beautiful state library,” producer Tom Jacobson tells us. “It’s very highly regulated with a huge plaza with the statue of Dostoevsky in the front of it. And we wanted to shoot a scene there with our Russian characters. They’re Russian soldiers and that is their encampment. That's their base. And they told us, 'there is one Sunday a month. The last Sunday of every month.' The library is closed on Sunday and the last Sunday of every month. Monday it’s closed also because they use it for repair. So they said, 'You can shoot the last Sunday.' We only had so many Sundays on our schedule, so we had to plan really far in advance. And when we shot there, we had to go in at midnight the night before and dress it to make it look like an army camp. And for the Russian cast - this is a scene with the combined Russian and American cast - the scene has a hush to it because the Russians, as we were shooting it, they couldn’t believe we were in there. It was sort of an amazing day on the set because they were sort of in awe of the beauty of it.”
The last stop on our tour, and our most important, is the Russian Academy of Sciences headquarters; which will act as a safe haven for our characters (what's left of them), despite its peculiar, imposing industrial-meets-Lego structure. It's at this incredible place where we're actually privy to the cameras (big, chunky 3D cameras) rolling on action: Our characters, having just barely escaped being shredded by the evil extraterrestrials in a nearby apartment building, are running for their lives when they happen upon the Academy of Sciences. They find the place is not abandoned. To their surprise (and mine, when I first wander on set), they're greeted by a Russian man on horseback. The horse has been outfitted with dangling chainmail – a makeshift suit of armor. The horse-riding Russian is soon joined by three of his countrymen; not unlike the horse, the men are fitted with chains and metal spare parts, which act as homemade deterrents to the aliens' electricity-based offensive.
The safety found with the men is short-lived: After the Russian on horseback tells the youngsters to run and hide, the lights that surround the facility begin to flicker; that soon gives way to bursting bulbs – sparks literally fly as the bulbs pop. The horse does not seem comfortable at all with this, and neither does the group's leader. He issues an order and the men spread out and get their weapons ready: A machine gun, a rocket launcher, a blowtorch. This seems to be leading to a cataclysmic showdown... but “cut” is called and the scene ends; I'll have to wait along with everybody else to see how this plays out. (I can say this much: that blowtorch does get fired, and its roaring flames won't be courtesy of computer effects. We're witness to a few demonstrations of the weapon's mighty display, and there's no overstating how much of an admittedly-childish kick I get from seeing it go off.)
Concept art of "Matvei" and his horse
After watching various takes of this scene, I'm taken into a tent where I can watch some of the scene's playback – in 3D. Because the scene takes so long to set up each shot – each take - I don't see a whole lot of “action”, but luckily I peep a few blowtorch moments, and that you can't argue with. The 3D looked quite good, but honestly it's impossible to adequately deduce what the quality will ultimately be when you're watching it on a flatscreen TV. That said, the fact that they're shooting THE DARKEST HOUR in 3D is cause for some optimism; from what I can surmise the format is perfect for the movie's many wild action sequences.
Hopefully I've given you a slight taste of what my experience in the Russian capitol was like; certainly, a place as unique and mysterious as Moscow is almost indescribable, but I can assure you of one thing: it's a great location for a movie.
THE DARKEST HOUR comes out on DECEMBER 25th; check out the terrific new TV spot below.