Set Visit: Sorority Row
You know how these things start: "I was asked if I wanted to visit the set of blah blah blah and I jumped at the chance like a chubby kid jumps at a fallen cheeto." It's the standard opening, and it shall be no different here, because when given the opportunity to check out the set of a flick about six stunning young ladies being stalked and slashed by a mysterious villain, I jumped so hard I made a mess all over myself - er, because I spilled something in my lap. I think it was coffee. The memory is hazy, but it hardly ever happens to me, I swear...
Yes, I was going to hang out in Pittsburgh for a few days (make that nights) where the horror/mystery/dark comedy SORORITY ROW was only about a week into shooting. Being on a horror movie set is fun enough, because you're almost guaranteed to witness some of the red stuff being spilled, splattered, or at the very least - gently applied. But when it's a horror movie set with a cast like this, well, there are worse ways to spend a couple of weeknights.
SORORITY ROW is a remake of the 1983 slasher THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, directed by Mark Rosman (who incidentally went on to direct LIZZIE McGUIRE episodes for Disney!). In the original, a group of sorority sisters decide to play a prank on their housemother. Naturally, the joke goes wrong and she ends up dead, and the girls find themselves coping with their guilt and the cover-up of the crime... As well as the fact that they're soon getting offed, one by one, by a deranged, unseen, killer. It's a familiar storyline (I'm looking at you, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) but it's an effective one. The remake has tweaked it a bit, using some of the same ideas but changing the nature of the crime and the overall tone of the piece. Not to mention the finale...
The naughty girls in this film are sensible Cassidy (Briana Evigan), uber-bitch Jessica (Leah Pipes), mousy Ellie (Rumer Willis), drink-happy Chugs (Margo Harshman), follower Claire (Jamie Chung), and um, nice Megan (Audrina Partridge). The one being pranked is sleazy Garret (Matt O' Leary), who is made to believe that he's accidentally killed one of the girls (he's a prick, he deserves it). Well, of course, things go awry quickly, and someone actually does end up dead... Cue the arguing, the crying, the cover-up, and the "One Year Later" title card... However, the girls shouldn't get too comfortable, because I think we all know that sometimes the past just won't stay dead. And some mistakes can't be forgiven. (SORORITY ROW people: I just gave you a few taglines!)
I must end this highly "entertaining" intro with a warning. There are a few MAJOR SPOILERS within regarding the plot, especially the first 10 minutes of the film. You've been warned, buddy!
Pittsburgh gets cold at night, let's start right there. When I was told that my two days on the set were going to be night shoots, I was informed I had better dress very warmly. Like a obstinate child, I didn't quite listen, as I generally don't mind a chilly evening... Well, when I and my fellow journalists arrived on the set - a mining quarry next to a small lake - I cursed my foolish decision to only wear two layers. It was cold. See your breath cold. Everyone else is wearing parkas cold... But I couldn't complain too much - after all, at least I was dressed. When I spotted one actress laying on the freezing ground, I noted that she was wearing lingerie, and nothing else. That's dedication to your craft, right there. (And I'm damn dedicated to my craft for ogling her preparation and rehearsal.) Luckily for her, there were portable heaters surrounding her shivering frame, but that was probably only of little solace. (These heaters were sent from god, I must say. Assistants would carry them around to anyone who needed one, and at any given time you'd find four or five people huddled around the tank, getting their legs toasty.) The current low-angle shot is from a camera-phone's point of view (filmed with a digtial camera), which captures the hideous crime. The phone will become a major piece of the unfolding plot later in the movie...
We were informed by producer Mike Karz that this was about the 12th night of shooting in general, but only the second night at this location. The previous night went until about 5 in the morning, and they expected the same schedule for the next few nights. The temperature is - ahem - only 30 degrees, but I'm told that by the time things wrap at sun-up there will literally be frost everywhere.
The rest of the girls show up, and similar to their co-star on the ground, they're dressed in skimpy outfits that can only be called glorified underwear (actor Matt O'Leary is, thankfully, dressed a little more conservatively). The idea here is that they've just left a lingerie party at their sorority to play the joke on Garret, who has given his girlfriend a "roofie". (For the innocent ones out there - not many I'm sure - a roofie is a date-rape drug. Told you this guy was a prick.) The prank is: the girlfriend will act dead, Garret will freak out, and after some histrionics, the rug will get pulled out from under him and he'll have learned a very valuable lesson... What is not counted on is that Garret, ever the thinking man, plans on throwing the body into the lake - and to make the corpse sink to the bottom, he's going to puncture its lungs to allow air to escape... Things get messy.
What is hammered home to us more than once is that this film is self-aware. Not necessarily in the same on-the-nose way SCREAM is, but it's not completely taking itself seriously either. The producers are eager to mention that it isn't in the same category as HOSTEL or SAW at all (doesn't it seem like those two are lumped together more often than they are not?), and even bring up MEAN GIRLS and HEATHERS when comparing it to other movies. But despite the nudge-nudge nature of SORORITY ROW, we shouldn't expect it to skimp on the visceral horror. Director Stewart Hendler and company are shooting under the presumption that an R rating will ultimately be handed down, so they're not withholding the nasty. Implements, charred corpses, and a particularly brutal murder-by-wine bottle are in store, so don't think this is just a PROM NIGHT redux. (In the tradition of many slashers before it, each SORORITY ROW victim's death is ironically well-suited for them.)
Huge fans of the original looking for a spot-on remake will be disappointed, to say the least; aside from the (truncated) title and the prank-gone-wrong angle, there's little connecting the two films.
After talking with a few of the actresses (keep a lookout for separate articles containing the full interviews) we see that a new camera set-up has taken place, and a major scene is getting ready to roll. Garret punctures the supposedly dead girl's chest with a tire iron (!!), she flails and screams and coughs up blood. The other girls rush over as the victim chokes and Garret freaks out even more, completely in shock that his girlfriend was, in fact, still alive... The girls attempt to stop the bleeding but it quickly becomes apparent that the cause is lost and she's dead... Almost immediately, the scheming starts, and it's all "what about my future?" and "you're just as guilty as the rest of us!" (While played with straight-faces, there's no doubt that the screenplay knowingly edges toward camp.) Slowly but surely, each girl comes around to the thinking that they're better off dumping the body down a mineshaft than reporting the incident to the police. Cassidy, our heroine and moral compass, doesn't want anything to do with it, but is outnumbered. The scene ends with the girls hoisting up the body, ready to dump it...
All of this is impressively accomplished in one unbroken 7-8 minute long take, and after a couple more, the scene is wrapped. After the director calls "Cut" the girls squeal and beg for robes, heaters, anything. I'm standing there freezing, and thinking "how the f*ck can they even feel their own skin?" Most of the young actresses tell us that the cold doesn't bother them. On the contrary, it helps with the intensity of the scene. Well hell, I'd be crying and trembling too. (I actually was a little, on the inside, but that's a different article.)
With that, our first night was through, at a very reasonable 11 p.m. The cast and crew would stick around for another 6 hours or so, poor buggers. That thought didn't linger in my mind too long though, as a warm hotel bar called my name from miles away...
Our second trip to the set (after a tasty dinner at "Ditka's", known the world over for... being called "Ditka's") brought us to the "mine shaft", only a few yards away from where we were the first night. Stationed on a hill, the prop team had assembled a convincing replica of a broken down shaft: basically a ton of boards covering a giant hole, with scattered debris, ropes, and other bits of rubbish adding to the facsimile. This is where the guilty parties drop their former - now very dead - friend to her watery grave. (We are told that later in the film we will indeed see within this pit, but the actual interior will be produced on a soundstage some miles away.) Once again it's very cold, but not quite as frigid as the previous night, for which everyone involved is thankful. Especially me, since the actresses, troopers that they are, take a little more time bolting for the warm confines of a heavy coat.
Before the mine shaft stuff however, we get to see some juicy stuff: Close-ups of that tire-iron plunging into a prosthetic chest. Yes, this is what it's all about. There's a hole already subtly carved into the place where Matt O'Leary is supposed to jam the thing, and underneath said hole is, of course, a hose connected to a syringe filled with lots and lots of blood. They do a couple of takes which are good, but not exactly superb. Director Hendler calls for more blood, music to my ears. Take three delivers: blood spurts and puddles from the open wound as O'Leary pushes down hard - I can hear Hendler and a few others giggle from behind the monitor. Cut. I'm quite tempted to yell out "That was the one!" but Hendler doesn't need my help and says it for me. Trust me friends, on the big-screen this will be a nasty, nasty image.
As they work on the mine shaft set-up, we spend a few minutes with the costume designer, Mona May, who is used to tackling "girlier" projects like CLUELESS and ENCHANTED. But apparently she got a call informing her "We need some hot, hot, sexy babes to get killed," (her words) and that was enough to get her to board the film, in which she'll give each girl a distinctive style and wardrobe. She worked on getting me all jealous by talking about the girls' hot bodies and how dressing them has been super, but I acted professionally and didn't lash out with "I could be a costume designer if I wanted to!" as I'm known to do from time to time. I think it's when she mentioned that she's heavily involved with bloodying and aging the clothes that I calmed down. I like a woman who painstakingly applies fake blood to skimpy clothing, I must admit. (To be honest I figured a costume designer's job was just about done at the beginning of production, but not the case at all. Mona will travel with the company until shooting is completed.)
We were also joined by Josh Stolberg, the film's screenwriter. Yes, in this case, the screenwriter is actually allowed to hang out on the set, frequently speaking with Hendler and offering his ideas. Verboten on most Hollywood flicks. "Summit has been really kind to have me out here for a month," Stolberg tells us. "Stewart has been really open, open about input and ideas and stuff... A lot of it is about knowing your place and realizing that you're here to help and that it's a group effort and that it's Stewart's movie at the end of the day, but that if I can help in any way I will."
Don't think Stolberg isn't aware of the pitfalls of SORORITY ROW being a "remake", no matter how loose: I understand that there's the attitude that there's a dearth of original material in Hollywood and I agree. I totally agree I forget who it was, but it was a pretty famous dude who had a quote about you wanting to remake the bad movies because they can stand improving. I love THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW. I absolutely love it, but lets be serious in that it's a cult classic. I don't know if it'd be considered a classic. I felt like there was definitely a story there and I feel like our approach to the story was something fun.
Having been lucky enough to hang out with Stolberg and the rest of the cast and crew these two days, I couldn't agree more. This is a movie that's meant to be a lot of fun. Since being on the set was such a good time (albeit a cold one), I'm hoping the entertainment translates to the big screen.
That's all for now kids, but be sure to keep an eye out for more from my visit to the set of SORORITY ROW, including interviews with the principal cast and director Stewart Hendler!
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