INT: David Cunningham

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’.


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

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.

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

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

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.