Special report on The Mist filed by Bev Vincent
Editor’s Warning: This special report contains the fates of several characters and several key plot points. Read at your own risk!
Let’s spend a little time behind the scenes of the upcoming film The Mist. Rich Chizmar and I spent a couple of days on the set in late March.
Interior filming took place at Stageworks in Shreveport, Louisiana’s casino district. Grocery store exteriors were shot at Tom’s Market in Vivian, LA and the lake house scenes were filmed at nearby Cross Lake.
Inside the front door, we saw a sign pointing extras toward their staging area. I went upstairs to find the unit publicist, Tracey Zemitis, in the production offices. One wall featured an array of actor headshots with their character names underneath. Tracey gave me a working copy of the script-minus the last handful of pages. Apparently Thomas Jane was the only actor who had the whole thing, to prevent the ending from leaking out before the movie is released.
The publicist took us to the grocery store set on Stage A. The first crewman we encountered was the sound mixer, sitting behind the stage flats in front of a bank of mixing switches. We could see Thomas Jane (David Drayton) on the video monitors. Through the wall we first heard the word that would become a mantra during our visit: Mrs. Carmody shouting “Expiation!”
Once rehearsal was finished, we entered the set. Bags of pet food were stacked in front of the store windows. Through strategic gaps, we caught our first glimpse of the mist. A military jeep and a few cars were vaguely visible in the parking lot, as well as a kart korral like the one Dinky Earnshaw worked at. The mist was a vaguely cloying carbon dioxide-nitrogen mixture delivered on demand through large transparent plastic ducts. Some days the set needed to be cooled to get it to behave properly.
Tracey led us by the cash registers-we had to step carefully around the cables strewn along the floors like tentacles-and past a book rack that featured only King novels. Around the corner at the last aisle, next to the butcher counter, we found Frank Darabont, sitting in front of a pair of monitors that displayed the views from the two cameras. He wore a pale green Hawaiian shirt, tan cargo pants, and a baseball cap.
I was surprised by how far he was from the action. The actors were several aisles away, completely out of sight. To hear their dialog, Darabont and the script supervisor wore headsets while the cameras were rolling. Keeping “video village” around the corner meant it wouldn’t be accidentally captured during a shot. There were no false or missing walls, so the cameramen were free to shoot in any direction. The ceiling had built-in skylights to allow in ambient lighting from the outside world, a trick Darabont used in The Green Mile, which he said was “probably the only death row ever with a skylight.”
A sign painted on the wall at one end of the store said “Serving Castle Rock since 1967.” The “fresh meat” on display was obviously fake, but the groceries in the aisles were real, mostly product placement. An extra brought a box of Arrowhead Mills crackers to Darabont’s attention-Arrowhead was the name of the military project that caused the mist. They joked about product placement but the script supervisor said, “I don’t think we should tie the product into an environmental catastrophe.”
The attention to detail was amazing, down to “bad check” notices pinned to the cash registers. When Darabont asked someone to find dental floss after lunch one day, the assistant returned in seconds. “How did you get that so fast?” Darabont asked. “It was on aisle three,” the assistant answered. Darabont smacked his forehead. “Of course.”
This was the fifth week of shooting, so some of the products were past their expiration dates. Enough mold covered the bread to cure several diseases. There had been some pillaging of chips and snacks, too. Besides the crew looting, the grocery store had been put through the wringer-the aftermath of a simulated earthquake. Groceries lay strewn in the aisles. Tiles and fluorescent light fixtures dangled from the ceiling.
A few months earlier, Darabont spent a week directing an episode of The Shield as training for this fast-paced shoot, where he had only about half as long as he spent filming Shawshank Redemption and a third of The Green Mile shoot. He brought the cinematographer and cameramen from FX with him to The Mist. From directing the TV episode, Darabont learned to use the camera as a participant in the scenes, shooting sequences as long as five minutes in a single take. The experience also taught him to relinquish some of his rigid habits. For most takes, he had two cameras running simultaneously, one of them usually a handheld or Steadicam. Lighting was the most time-consuming part of the setup for each new shot-but even that was achieved more quickly than on a traditional shoot.
To keep on schedule, they filmed up to nine script pages per day, a demanding pace. “I’d love to find a happy medium between a Green Mile schedule and this one,” Darabont told me. Because the film is set mostly inside the grocery store, he was able to film in chronological order, which helped the actors as the story built in intensity. “I’ve got a hell of a cast, and at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”
Darabont said he’d get no reprieve after shooting finished because Dimension wants the film out on November 21. “I’ll be spending the summer in the editing room. It’s going to be a really intense year.” He continued, “Anything that’s not on the set is a vacation compared to this. It’s intense here.” He was aware of the toll filming was taking on him, though. “Don’t let me operate heavy machinery,” he said with a laugh.
Between shots, the set was a beehive of activity. Extras filed back to their starting marks for the next take. Crewmen repositioned cables, cameras and lights. “Free dental work, watch your head,” yelled a man carrying a heavy light through the aisles. Carpenters returned sets to original condition. Production assistants dashed back and forth. Completed rolls of film were brought to the script supervisor for documentation and then delivered off-site for processing. Actors came to the director for costume consultations or to check up on their performance and discuss motivation. Darabont consulted with his cinematographer or assistant director about the previous shot or the coverage required for a scene. Thanks to modern technology, he could request immediate playback on his monitors, compare the shots on the two cameras or review earlier takes or scenes.
There was little idle chatter. If the extras-especially a couple of teenagers-got a little rowdy, Darabont or the A.D. hushed them. During rehearsals, Darabont got into the mix to orchestrate the cast’s movements. Some of the mob scenes were especially complicated. When he returned to his monitors, he commented, “Directing is like squeezing an elephant through a keyhole.”
Videographer Constantine Nasr roamed the set capturing material for the documentary features on the DVD. He recorded rehearsals, discussions between the director and crew, and occasionally stopped to interview Darabont about his impressions of the day’s work. So far, Darabont has released two behind-the-scenes webisodes from Constantine’s work—see NewsFromTheDeadZone.com for links.
Darabont was clearly exhausted, working twelve-hour days with only Sundays off most weeks. His editor had spent the previous week on the set, cutting the film with Darabont during lunch breaks. Darabont occasionally escaped to the loading dock for brief glimpses of sunlight during setups. When the cameras were rolling, he smoked cigarillos and focused intently on the video monitors, nodding at things he liked or pointing out glares from lights or an out-of-place actor that required another take.
We weren’t the only visitors on the set. Author David J. Schow (Kill Riff) was hanging out in Shreveport at Darabont’s invitation. Chris Hewitt from the British magazine Empire was another media visitor.
Schow took us on a tour of the set on Stage B-King’s Sundries. Local artists were dressing the inside with gossamer-wrapped corpses. Unlike the grocery store, only a few items here were product placement. The rest came from a defunct pharmacy in East Texas. The property manager rented the entire contents of the store, down to the soda fountain, shelves and décor. Some items on the shelves revealed how long the place had been closed. When was the last time you saw flashcubes or flash bars?
Another set featured David Drayton’s loft, where he painted movie posters for a living. The work on display depicted a gunslinger, a rose and a tower, painted by movie poster artist Drew Struzan. Hmmm. Wonder what movie that was for.
Schow then took us upstairs to the local headquarters of KNB EFX Group, where foam rubber and latex articulated monsters were being created. Gregory Nicotero (the ‘N’ of KNB) gave us the grand tour. The first thing I saw was a life-sized model of Andre Braugher with his back ripped open. Nicotero said they had “ripping flesh and biting people down to a science.”
Everywhere we looked, there were long, articulated tentacles. They looked like octopus tentacles, except the undersides were designed to open up to reveal suckers that had teeth, surrounded by spiny quills. Cables extend from them so they could be made to writhe and curl.
Among their other creations were the flying bug creatures and the pterodactyls that attack the market, some designed by Bernie Wrightson. The fly-creature had six eyes and its back was lined with porcupine quills. It had sixteen legs, eight large outer ones and eight smaller ones tucked up inside. The body was reminiscent of a wasp, the legs of a spider. Fingerlike organs encircled its mouth. The designers wanted to keep human aspects to their “faces” but make them much more skull-like.
The pterodactyl had two sets of wings. It could flap the back ones or tuck them in and glide on the front wings. Nicotero showed us green-screen footage of the articulated bird being set on fire with the mop torch. Strands of human meat hung from its mouth. Six people operated the puppet, which was also hooked to a boom so it could leap or fly up and down. The green-screen shots may be used as is, or may be used as cues for CafeFX to do in CGI. The final product will likely be a blend of live action and CGI.
A loading dock scene featuring the demise of Norm the stock boy was shot early in production so CaféFX could start working on computer effects.
The movie features some interesting deaths, but not gallons of blood like many horror films. There’s a stabbing and a shooting, and a man is set on fire. The warehouse door amputates some limbs, and a number of people are swept away by the monsters in the mist. A few days before we arrived, actress Alexa Davalos was stung by one of the creatures. Her punctured neck swelled up rapidly, oozing pus.
Dead bodies were stacked carelessly on the floor in one corner of the room, along with the charred remains of the pterodactyl. An oven had a sign posted “Special Effects: Not to be used for cooking.” Cardboard boxes on shelves were hand-labeled “pus and bladders” and “spare eyes.”
Back on the set, I watched Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden (Mrs. Carmody) whip her followers into a frenzy time and time again. Darabont encouraged her to ad-lib so long as her rants included required information. After many of her scenes, she was rewarded with a round of applause. At one point she want off on a tangent, which the script supervisor brought to Darabont’s attention. “Gives me more to work with,” he responded.
On the second day, David and his friends decided to escape from the store. Thomas Jane wandered the aisles looking for Private Jessup to find out what he knew about the mist. A puff of cigarette smoke emerged from the aisle between two checkouts, revealing the private’s location. Ollie (Toby Jones) and Amanda (Laurie Holden) were searching other aisles, so coordinating the action to get the actors to arrive at one location at the same time required several takes.
Later, Mrs. Carmody’s followers accused Jessup of being responsible for the mist. Thomas Jane was knocked down by a punch delivered by Darabont regular William Sadler, followed by some delicate knife work. Jessup was then lifted over the shoulders of several extras and carried to the front of the store, where he was to be cast into the parking lot as a sacrifice.
Sadler came back to video village to review the scene. He was pumped up by the scene’s energy. “It’s moments like these when you’re fully engaged. There’s no acting involved. It can’t help but be genuine.” The punch was “the money shot” according to the cast and crew. The cameramen and Jane rushed to the monitors after each take to see how convincing it looked. The intensity was so high on one take that Francis Sternhagen (Misery, The Golden Years), who was sitting next to the director, retreated from the set. “I don’t want to watch any more,” she said.
“We’re fucking going to kick ass on this scene,” Darabont said after a few takes. “I love it when they lift Jessup up.” The shot was filmed from various angles. “Here’s the place where we don’t rush through it,” he said. “Even if we fall a day behind.” After the low-angle shots were complete, the crew moved shelves of groceries out of the way and brought in a boom crane for a camera that tracked the mob’s progress from above.
While they coordinated the actors’ movement through the aisles with the crane camera-which was computerized to “learn” its motions-they used a naked life-sized dummy of Greg Nicotero as a stand-in for Jessup. During one rehearsal, the boom crane collided with a light fixture, so time was spent removing others that might get in the way. When the mob reached the door, the dummy’s arms extend against the doorframe. “Even the dummy doesn’t want to be thrown out into the parking lot,” the script supervisor said. I didn’t get to stay long enough to see the shot with the real actor-choreographing action and cameras was a long and tedious process that took them well into the evening.
During an afternoon break in filming, the publicist took Chris Hewitt and me out to the “circus” where the actors’ trailers were set up so we could get some interviews. First, we encountered Marcia Gay Harden playing in the parking lot with her children. After that, Toby Jones (Ollie Weeks) invited us into his trailer for a chat. Finally, Thomas Jane appeared at his trailer for his daily cigar and invited us in out of the sun.
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Marcia Gay Harden
While they were planning the look for Mrs. Carmody, Harden presented five different looks to the hair and makeup crew. “There was the nun, the preacher’s daughter, Tammy Faye Baker, the town snoop and the hippie. [Darabont] preferred the nun with the thick eyebrows, but we picked the preacher’s daughter. The prop people gave me this scarf and I put it up on my head, and then props put white gloves in my purse so I’m wearing those. She came in lovely and perfect and very buttoned down and it seems like the character [degenerates]. The hair is down and she’s actually a much more sensual person in her power and in her preaching than she was at the beginning.”
About her dialog: “The language is religious, almost poetic, which makes it difficult to seem natural. Very declamatory. Dialog that typically one would turn off to. I wanted you to be able to listen to her and even wonder if she’s not right, because I think it is the end of the world. If someone said there are monsters and scorpions and man-eating bugs and a mist and everybody is fighting and no one is surviving, I would say it’s the end of the world. It’s apocalyptic. I don’t know how the movie ends-it’s not in our scripts . . . I did ask [Frank] if he would not really kill me off so I could come back [for a sequel]. I love working with Frank. He’s given me freedom-it was wonderful. He came up to me at the end [of a take] and said, ‘You’re fearless.’ I hope he meant fearless and not shameless.”
On ad-libbing: “There were moments when I would lose the thread and make up dialog based on what I know. I did buy a book that’s called The Idiot’s Guide to Revelations and I was reading that so that when he would let me go on I would know what to say and there is a lot of dialog about the Seventh Seal and the Whore of Babylon that’s quite interesting.”
On the mob mentality: “The thing that was interesting to me about it was The Lord of the Flies aspect. This is society in an extremely tough situation where it is a world unknown outside your door. Do you hold together? Do you pull apart? What part of people’s personalities pull apart? Where do people crack? It’s like all the stories about post-traumatic stress disorder. In [Mrs. Caromdy’s] case she certainly does crack, but part of what makes her crack is power.”
On her character: “She was written to be sort of a hefty, overweight woman, not an attractive woman in any way, but we felt that you’d walk in the door and you’d go: she’s bad. So you’re setting up a script that is a creature feature-and it does have good and evil, as is necessary in almost any drama-but so obvious. So we’ve given her these moments and episodes: Please God, let me speak through you, let me be your ambassador in prayer, let me be the voice for you. Fill me with the spirit. The personal is always what makes things, your destination or the personal journey, and that’s what we’ve been building. We’re the raw material, and [Darabont] will cook it. I hope some of that stays and doesn’t end up on the editing room floor, but you never know. The more responsibility I have for telling the story, the better. I [usually] don’t mind if they cut scenes I’m in, but there’s other times where I think, ‘Ah, you cut the people story to make it a plot.’”
On her throne: “Frank and I walked through the set and I said, ‘Where is my area?’ He said, ‘You’re probably going to be over here in the produce aisle.’ I said, ‘I want a chair unlike anybody else’s chair.’ And he said ‘We’ve got all these lawn chairs,’ and I was like, ‘anybody can have a lawn chair. I want a throne.’ They found this throne for me and built a little platform and equipped the thing. And I said, ‘I bet I have a shopping cart and scoop things into it, and I was the first one to get a rice bag for my pillow and the first one to get my sleeping bag and I have curtains for my privacy and no one else has curtains.’ So she went from being a fat ugly lady in a yellow pant suit to really being a diva.”
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British actor Toby Jones played Truman Capote in Infamous, so this wasn’t his first time doing an American accent. However, between takes he reverted to his normal speaking voice. “Playing Capote, it was impossible to not stay in his voice the whole time, because it was a totally different mouth shape. I’d take about an hour and a half to get my jaw in the right place to do it at the beginning of the day.” For The Mist, he said he didn’t want to wear the accent too heavily. Too often, he said, actors are overly proud of their accents. Like the best CGI, accents shouldn’t draw attention to themselves.
On how he was cast: I think [Darabont] saw The Painted Veil, and he really liked that. As an English actor you’re not quite sure how it did happen because of what happens in L.A. You actually hear about it quite late on. I was one of the last people to come on board, which created huge problems with the visa.
“I was very aware of Frank, obviously and The Shawshank Redemption. It’s in my top ten. Frank said I’m sending you a script, I hope you enjoy it. I can’t say that Stephen King is someone I’ve read-I am aware of his stuff on film. To me it’s a fantastic character to play. The unlikely hero.
“I’ve never done what you might call a genre picture before. It requires a special thing in a way because you’re operating in the area of action over character. Anything [the audience] learns about character happens because of the way you respond to extraordinary circumstances. The audience is constantly in the present. They’re not too worried about what happened ten, fifteen minutes ago. The momentum of the thing is moving forward, and as an actor you’re concerned with trying to create a certain consistency. You have to show up and do what the action requires you to do.”
On doing a special effects movie: “We are making a special effects movie in six or seven weeks. I was going, ‘This will be interesting to see how this is going to work.’ I’ve been involved in special effects movies before, but they normally luxuriate in months of prep. Here you’re working with puppeteers and CGI people who are able to do their stuff at such speed it doesn’t really ruin the momentum of the take.
“Often as an actor you just get bogged down in-and there must be doing some weird mental name for this-if I’m doing a play and we rehearse a scene, I’ll have done it once and I’ll be able to remember a whole complicated series of physical activity. Here, you’ll be studying ‘If you could just place it there . . . not there.’ [uses a TV remote to demonstrate two positions an inch apart] I’ll begin to get a kind of amnesia as to whether it was there or there. The minutia overwhelms the big picture.”
On his character’s fate: “I just get zapped, I think. He won’t tell me how I’ve died. I think I won’t find out until I’ve seen the picture. But I have an idea that I’ll play it kind of very, very optimistic-the moment where I make a break for the car [beams optimistically and beckons] ‘Come on, come on . . . ‘” [smile transforms into a look of abject horror]
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We spent a surreal forty-five minutes inhaling second-hand smoke as Jane discussed past films (re: Dreamcatcher: “Yeah, some people liked that.”), his graphic novels (a mockup of Bad Planet with a Bernie Wrightson cover is on the rack in the pharmacy when his character grabs comics to take to his son) and future works (re: a sequel to Punisher: “If we can get a fucking director and a script that makes half a fucking sense. The problem is that all the scripts come in like a bad fucking Steven Segal film. I want a fucking dirty, mean, bloody New York story. I want cops and robbers. Good guys and bad guys. I want Serpico. I want fucking Dog Day Afternoon. I want Taxi Driver. I don’t want Under Siege. ”)
On the schedule: “It’s pretty tight, so they’ve been working us really hard. In order to get everything we need, it’s just nonstop. We’ll go a few days over just because the schedule was way too ambitious to get everything we need. But the good news is, we’re not leaving anything behind. Most movies with tight schedules you’re always missing stuff and you don’t have time to do certain shots. Not so here. The way they’ve designed the shoot, we’re never waiting around more than ten minutes for them to flip the lights around.”
On how he became involved in The Mist: “Frank called me and said, ‘I want to send you a script. I’m not going to tell you anything about it. I want you to read it.’ He sent it over and it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. That happens maybe once or twice in a career. The part is fantastic and it happens to mix the two things I love the most, genre movies-the horror/sci-fi type stuff-with action. I feel like I was invited into something very special. So I really gave it my all. I’ve worked really fucking hard on this film. I had an offer to do another movie in between the one I just finished and I turned it down because I wanted to dedicate the time that I knew I would need to prepare for this one. Most of the time you can walk through a genre film. There’s not a lot of prep that you need. Scream. Look scared. This one really requires some acting.”
On working with Frank Darabont: “He has a great eye. It’s pace and it’s tone. He knows how to set a tone that’s believable. And he has great taste. He has an ear for the truth, he knows what’s real, and he also lets everybody do their job. He hires really good people, he lets them do their job. He doesn’t get in their way. He expects you to bring it, and everyone feels that and they do it. Some directors try to get too controlling and they try to micromanage everything and then everybody starts doubting themselves and the work falls apart. He listens, takes advice from everybody and anybody. He’s got a clear sense of the story that he wants to tell, so you can ask him a question and he’ll have a very clear answer. ‘No, and this is why’-or ‘that’s a good idea, and this is why.’ He knows the story that he wants to tell in each moment of the film. He makes it a joy to work for him. You feel that everybody wants to do their best.”
On the set: “The first week everybody’s getting to know each other. The second week everybody knows each other so they’re joking, and they’re having fun and they’re killing time and one morning [Darabont] came in and he goes ‘Chit chat’s over.’ You respect the guy. When he has something to say, he says it very firmly and that’s the way it’s going to be. He sets that tone on purpose. He focuses everyone, and then everyone sees the work that’s being done and that makes them want to be focused.”
On the story: “Shooting chronologically helps a lot for this movie. It’s a cumulative experience-the disaster that everyone’s going through. Another great thing about this movie is that you could replace the monsters with terrorists or poison gas or a burning building or an earthquake and you’d have very much the same kind of film. That makes it relatable in a human, very real way. I think the best horror movies allow us to believe in the horror. Human beings are reacting in a very truthful manner to the given circumstances. In this case it’s monsters from another dimension.”