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INT: David Cunningham

06.27.2007

Upon reading up on the production of THE DARK IS RISING, I found myself filling with questions. One said question was that of 'Who is David Cunningham?' After digging a bit I found a whole catalogue of features; except they were mostly documentaries and independent projects. Nowhere could I find any sort of evidence pointing into the direction of a fantasy film interest. Here's a guy who thrives on the grittiness that only film can convey, and he's behind the lens for a movie that may just spark the next HARRY POTTER type franchise. So it was quite interesting when this surfer from Hawaii sat down with us to discuss his latest project, a little fantasy adventure that he assures us will be grounded into 'the real world'.

David Cunningham

Adapting a book that has a lot of internal stuff and not a lot of action must be difficult. Can you tell me about that?

That has been a challenge. Susan Cooper's world is incredibly rich, and really the mythology is the plot in her book and our goal has been to try and make this story more accessible to today's audience and introduce a new generation to her work. What this entails is someone like John Hodge building on that incredible world and creating moments and some interpretations of her book for us to be able to run with it. So from my standpoint as a director, I take all of that rich mythology and all of the rich ambiance and try to do something in such a way that translates to film.

What my attempt has been is trying to do it through a more modern lens, so that the film style is much more today versus maybe more classical in terms of the way many fantasy films are shot. So we're really trying to make this ride feel not like a fantasy film. It feels like its very today and it's happening to someone you would know and recognize and understand, and even in our casting with the boy and everything else, we’ve had that intention in mind versus the more dour kids who's kind of dejected and strange things happen to him.

You mean Harry Potter?


I didn't say that [Laughs].

Can you talk about the casting a little bit more and what you were going for?

Well, with The Walker in particular, even in the books The Walker was a young man who had aged and you’d gone back in time and so on, and so that was a matter of ‘What our emphasis was going to be?’ – the tragedy of a young man or the history of an old man. We chose to focus on the previous and really make it about this guy who had this love for this girl and was completely screwed over and had to give his soul up for it. So when he comes back, which is what we're shooting right now, he's back to himself as a young man to try and get into his head and his experience. Again, it's trying to reach out to the audience that we're going after, which is today's younger audience.

Can you talk about the characters being American? (SIDE NOTE: In Susan Cooper’s original work the Stanton family is British. One of the big changes made in the script was having the Stanton family being an American family living in Britain)

Yeah, that was an adaptation that happened before I came along, but what's been good about it from my perspective is that it adds a whole other layer. The whole concept of culture clash, even though the English and the Americans are cousins, there is still a different culture there. So that allows us to play with that and having these Americans living in an English village. So from my perspective it gives it another layer. I know from many readers perspectives, especially the English readers, that that's probably a bit of a bummer, but it's just one of those things where we're in a no win situation in terms of the loyal readers. We're doing the best we can to capture the spirit of the book and at the same time translate it for today's audience.

The challenge of a fantasy film like this coming after LOTR, Harry Potter, Eragon and all the others is to not retread the same ground while appealing to an audience who likes these movies. How do you do that?

Well, that's what we're working on. I come out of grittier subject matters, documentaries and independent films, and one of the things I like to think that I'm bringing to this is the realism. It's a fantasy and realism movie with an emphasis on realism and I think the prism of this and the language of this, the style of this is unlike the movies you just mentioned. We're hoping that this will be very fresh, unique and appeals to all that. So, for example, instead of heavy CGI, computer generated imagery, we're doing a lot of it for real. I brought in a thousand snakes from the Czech Republic and dumped them all over our actors. I used real water to wipe out the mansion. We used real rooks, trained rooks, to fly at these kids. You've seen the sets. The scale of them is there and we're not relying on computer generated stuff to enhance them. They are what you see. Vikings! I brought in real Viking re-enactors that live this way year round.

For real?

For real! They brought their Viking ship and we had a Viking war. It was amazing.

Generally stuff like CGI is created to help make filming scenes like this easier. Have you found it more difficult to do things practically, or has it been more satisfying?

Well, I think that I'm leaning in on my own strengths. In that, as a filmmaker, what I've been growing in and getting better at and all of those things is the real stuff. Having traveled quite a bit and experienced quite a bit is that whole thing of how we capture life. With computer generation often the tail starts wagging the dog, and suddenly it gets very cartoon-ish and it's all about something else. So when you're filming it is more difficult in many ways, but there is also something that is organic about it and you can make more discoveries and the actors and the sets, everything starts interacting with one another versus it being planned to death and then feeling quite sterile.

There are some phenomenal CGI movies out there, don’t get me wrong, but in many ways it's more difficult but for me, it's more satisfying. A good example is, do you blow up a car and see what happens or do you blow up a car in the computer? When you blow up a car for real, wild stuff happens. The blast goes this way and maybe a camera gets smashed and you get a cool shot and someone has to dive out of the way, and it's like, 'Whoa! I just captured a great moment.' So I'm leaning in on my strengths of being able to try and use the real thing.

Now, your background in realism that you've talked about. Is something like this a stretch? It's not the kind of film that you would even expect John [Hodge] to adapt or Ian [McShane] to act in. Does that stretch down into all those levels?

I think so. I think that younger audiences are underestimated. I think there is a sophistication that they are capable of and thrive on. So I think that having John and people like Ian in our cast, I think, will add some colors and some dimension and some life that perhaps some other movies have gone a little cardboard, a little two dimensional. I think kids feel that. It's not just all about a cool shot. There will be a lot of cool shots, but they get what's new and they get what's working, versus fabricated or something that's pastiche. 'Hey, let’s rip off that and rip off that and put it there.' So we're excited. We've got a great cast that is right for the roles. We're not trying to somehow jump-start something that's all marketing based and I think that ultimately the movie will present itself.

Could you talk a little more about the cast? It's interesting that this isn't a star vehicle, but there are really interesting choices of actors – you’ve got good character actors in these roles. What were you looking for in terms of some of these roles; or was there no agenda at all?

I think that there is always an agenda, hopefully a vision of some kind. Certainly when you're dealing with two studios there's a process where a lot of people have to sign off on and weigh in. We were trying to serve this movie the best that we could and the characters in such a way that we felt was the right vision for this. That's what drove our casting selection. Then you're dealing with logistical issues too and who's available and who's not and all of that.

Can you talk a little about post-production? You’ve got a release date for October, it’s like 5 months away, and while you don’t have a lot of CGI to deal with you do have a lot of editing and such.

Well, we do have some CGI in all fairness. But we have three editors in Los Angeles and I have one here on the set working with me, and we're cutting around the clock. We've already shot over a million feet of film to date and on the last project that we did we had eight editors working around the clock. So I've had to go through this before and it's a matter of working quickly. I'll show you some footage, if you like, and show you what we're doing. You'll get a sense of the scope of it.

What thoughts have you had, if any, of the other books and possible of a franchise?

Only just the larger scope of it all. You obviously want to focus your efforts on making the first one great and hopefully the world embraces it. So we have put a ton of time into it. Of course there are high hopes and expectations and some thought, but right now let’s focus on making this great and not getting ahead of ourselves.

Speaking of the other books you've made some changes to make it a little more modern and more cinematic. John [Hodge] said that some of the Arthurian stuff has been taken out. That becomes much more important later on in the series. Was that a specific decision that you were involved in?

Most of that happened before I was involved, frankly. The one thing that is a benefit of that is that it does separate us from a lot of the other fantasy films and ground this in people that's maybe a quirky aunt that you know or a person across the street and than ‘Wow, they happen to be this or happen to be that.’ So it works for me, but much of that had been decided before I got involved.

Can you talk about the way you're shooting this? The production designer showed us a few sets, and mentioned that they had to be constructed a certain way because shooting would take place at 360 degrees. What sort of choices have you made in the way you want to shoot this?

Well, we're really trying to have the visuals carry the story and not necessarily dialogue. We're trying to make the world in which Susan Cooper originally created, which is so much about mood and so much about atmosphere, and really the tone was the plot. So we're trying to take as much inspiration as we can from that and shoot it through that lens with that in mind. This is all about the elements, the six signs. There's fire and there's water and there's bronze, so I'm trying to incorporate that as well into the language of the film. You'll see a lot of stuff that's filmed through water and through fire and bringing all of those elements in.

So that's one specific example. I've worked with this DP before and we like to get in there and try stuff. Sometimes you're limited with a set and you only have this much to be able to work with and you find yourself jammed up in a corner. (Note: At this point a tractor drives right next to us without a muffler and it sounds like a million jet fighters taking off in my ear. It was by far the most unreal mechanical noise I had ever heard and the interview pauses because David is laughing at the noise) The other thing is that we shoot with a lot of cameras from a practical standpoint. So I'm shooting with three and four, five, six cameras at a time and that allows us to be able to get this movie made faster, but also requires more set from a practical level.

The stuff that you’ve done before is very different. What was the impetus for you to doing one of these kinds of movies? Are you a fan of the books?

Initially it was brought to me by the producer Marc Platt. We did “The Path to 9/11” together and for me it was the challenge. It was something completely different and I like to keep people guessing. My own tastes and feelings and thoughts about certain things change from year to year and in terms of what's important to me now. When this was presented I thought, 'Wow, this could be interesting.' I'm also the father of three kids. A lot of the stuff that I've done they can't watch, frankly, and I thought that this would be a great challenge to flex some new muscles and hopefully use my strengths to interpret this story in a different kind of way.

Had you read the books before doing this?

I had not. This was my introduction to them.

Looking at the script and some of the obstacles that were going to have to be overcome, as a director, what were some of those that you knew were going to be facing right from the start?

Well, one was that I literally got a phone call from Marc Platt – I live in Hawaii and I was surfing and I got a phone call, and I was sitting there dripping wet and he goes, 'Romania in two days.' I was like, 'Okay, here we go.' So I was on the plane. We came here first, and the first question was ‘Can Romania handle this size of a film’. Knowing that was going to be a massive factor, what are the benefits of coming to a place like Romania, what are you going to get out of it? Our sets are going to be bigger. We're going to get a lot more production value. The downside is that we're going to stretch the infrastructure of this country beyond anything that they've done before.

Did you come to this project late?

I mean, yeah, I came to it – they had gotten the script to a place that the studios wanted to go with it and that's when I got the phone call. They said that they liked this, and since I then got onboard we've done two or three drafts where I worked with John [Hodge] and so on, but they got it to a place and said ‘Hey we think we’ve got a movie here. Who can we call and get this done in an interesting way, in our schedule, not afraid of Romania’, and so on. I was the idiot that said yes! (Laughs) So I was on the plane over and then it was just go, go, go. We had three months to prep a movie that really needed six to eight months. I have three or four months to shoot a movie that really needed seven or eight months. I've got a few months to edit a movie that really needs five or six months. So that's my challenge as a filmmaker.

Any reason to the speed at which you need to get these things done?

You're given a release date and you're told, 'This is your window. This is your sweet spot. You've got to hit it.' It's a competitive marketplace right now and so you know you’ve got that window and so you go for it. Right now we're that slot after summer, but before Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is a bit of a lull there and we feel that we can do well there.

Is that also a reason why there is less CGI, because that takes more time?

That is one of the benefits of doing less of it. Perhaps a different filmmaker would've put more emphasis on that.

When did you decide you were going to build everything? (i.e.. The massive sets)


Well making any kind of movie is a faith trip. You just jump off a cliff and somehow have to make it work. You can plan it to death but it’s really about this very fluid process. You go for it, and that’s what we did. We had to make decisions quickly, and David Lee and his team were fantastic.

You also have these scenes where you’re literally destroying these enormous sets as you film, and knowing you basically have one shot to get this.

Yeah, that's a little scary, but at the same time I love blowing stuff up. It's a real thrill doing that.

Have you met with the author?

Susan? Yeah, we've been in touch and in fact she was going to come out, but I think that she had some plans change. So we have been talking and she goes way back with our producer Marc Platt, they've been friends for a while.

What does she think about the changes?

I think that she's – I don't want to speak on her behalf, but I think it’s mixed feelings. She's thrilled that it's being introduced to a new audience, but of course she would love it to be truer to the book and in many ways we would, but at the same time we needed to translate it. She’s also done screenplays so she understands the difference between books and screenplays and in her words there is violence done to the book to get to that point. So she's been supporting us and it's got to be a tough position to be an author and say, 'Okay, let's make the movie version.' Yikes I wouldn’t want to have to do that.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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