Catatan Produksi Film Poltergeist (2015)
About the Production
A Family Under Siege
Both Poltergeist and the 1982 original give audiences a rollercoaster ride of thrills and fright with a story about the abduction of a family’s youngest child by supernatural and increasingly hostile forces. The rest of the clan then wages a gruelling battle to get her back safely.
But the new film updates the story’s perspective, place and characters.
Unlike the original “Poltergeist,” which was set in a comfortable economic time during the 1980s, this film is situated in the rapidly fading, disenfranchised American ideal we know as suburbia. A rundown, cookie-cutter community of three-bedroom homes, unkempt yards and chain link fences in an Illinois neighborhood sets the scene for the unsuspecting protagonists, the Bowen family. It reminds audiences that life in suburbia can sometimes be a long way from comfort and safety.
“In the early ’80s, there was no need to question a move to the suburbs, but contemporary suburban life serves as a perfect foil because its surface sheen and luster are gone,” says Kenan. “Our characters have tried to live the prototypical suburban life, but have missed the mark and are starting off on unstable footing. When you add the core drama of a supernatural haunting and child abduction to this environment, you’re primed for the unexpected.”
The script leaves open to interpretation the concept that the horrors facing this family – being haunted by multiple spirits and the eventual abduction of their child – may not be due solely to their new house resting atop a cemetery. It introduces the idea that our own disconnected nature and crumbling family units leave us that much more vulnerable to the desires of the supernatural.
Kenan’s roots in a suburban enclave in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley created a personal connection to the new story, which is enhanced by his unique filmmaking style that focuses on people defined by their surroundings.
“The challenge,” says Kenan, “was to get the audience familiar with the house, as well as with our family.” He accomplishes this by bringing us on a journey that begins with the first showing of what will soon be the Bowens’ new home. Kenan takes us through the house room by room, inspecting every closet and faucet.
It is the children who first notice that something is off about the house, even before the Bowens take ownership. Griffin, the middle child, catches his younger sister Maddy having a conversation with an unseen…something…in what will soon be her bedroom closet. By the time the family moves into their new home, the stage is set for the discovery of otherworldly forces.
It makes sense that Maddy and Griffin are the first to experience these forces, says Raimi, because children are usually “more open to new situations and using their imaginations. So our child characters were more likely to perceive these supernatural entities that invade their home. Adults don’t tune into new ‘frequencies’ as easily as kids do.”
Maddy, the youngest and most susceptible child, loves the house thanks to her new “imaginary” friends in the closet. Griffin is a shy, introverted and easily frightened kid who likes the idea of moving until he learns his room is in the creepy, secluded attic – and begins thinking that a nearby tree is threatening him.
Teenaged Kendra is the eldest sibling and, like her parents, is initially oblivious to the terrors awaiting the family. Instead, she’s angry about the move, which takes her away from her school and friends.
Played by Saxon Sharbino, Kendra is, says Rosemarie DeWitt, “representative of teenagers everywhere. Kendra is disconnected from her parents, resentful about being moved away from her friends, and is lost within the family.”
“Kendra is a role I really enjoyed playing,” says Saxon. “She is self-absorbed, spending all of her time on the phone with her friends, and really doesn’t like anything going on with the family. She is the last of the kids to notice weird things going on, and pays no attention to Griffin’s rumblings about weird forces in the house.”
Saxon’s character is already going through the perceived “horrors” of being a teen. “It is the terrifying aspect of understanding who Kendra is and why are her parents dragging her from my school, kicking and screaming to this suburban wasteland,” says the young actress.
Kennedi Clements plays Maddy, the poltergeist’s main target. “Finding Kennedi resulted from an exhaustive search of children from around the world because, says Kenan, “she has soulfulness, brightness, and sense of humor that’s easy to love. This is important because in the short time we spend with Maddy we need to fall in love with her, to experience the sense of loss and heartbreak that her family feels when she’s taken.
“Kennedi plays an absolutely fearless Maddy,” Kenan continues. “She’s the one who, when confronted with voices from the TV or the closet, answers back with wide eyes. Maddy doesn’t doubt and she’s not afraid, and that fearlessness makes her vulnerable.”
It is Maddy’s sense of wonder and magic that leads to her abduction when her favorite doll, Piggy-Corn, is dragged into the closet. Maddy goes into the room’s dark depths to rescue her doll and when she turns around she sees her bedroom fading quickly away down a dark alley. The poltergeist has trapped her in this dark world of “in-between.”
Griffin, played by Kyle Catlett, is the Bowens’ only son. “Like many children, Griffin has a vivid imagination,” says Rockwell. “He usually sees things that aren’t real, so when he claims that a willow tree is growling at him, his parents, of course, don’t believe him.”
“Griffin is the hardest character in the movie to play because he has anxiety issues, but ultimately he’s the one who has to confront the poltergeist threat head-on,” adds DeWitt.
Kenan calls Kyle “an incredibly intelligent young man with a sense of depth and character beyond his years. He portrays Griffin in a believable way. When Griffin starts to complain about being attacked by a squirrel in the attic or the tree branches scratching at the window, his parents start to wonder if he actually has a problem, instead of giving any credence to his stories.”
Kyle brought a high level of energy to the role, while always remaining sweet and sincere. He approached the stunts with particular excitement and curiosity. “My favorite scene was when I get dragged through the house by the poltergeist,” he recalls. “The stunt guys built a vertical set and I was dragged through the hallway, up the stairs and out of the attic window by the possessed willow tree. I loved doing the stunts and learning how to place you head and where to hold your hands, to always stay safe.”
A turning point in the story comes when Eric and Amy return home to find Griffin swinging from a tree, and Kendra in a terrified state, having just been attacked by an oozing substance reaching out for her from underneath the garage floor. Upon rushing into the house, Eric and Amy discover Maddy is missing and after a frantic search, they conclude that she has been taken by a paranormal force.
This startling turn of events impacts all family members, especially Eric and Amy. Their terror and emotions are brought to life by two of today’s most respected actors, Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt.
“You kind of expect a father is going to act a certain way in this situation,” says executive producer J.R. Young, “but Sam Rockwell’s unexpected choices in playing the role feel especially honest. He’s brilliant and plays this role with grit, emotion, and humor. We’re lucky to have him as the head of this family.”
Rockwell brings to light the difficult circumstances this young family faces. “Eric is having a really hard time and feels emasculated by losing his job, and that he’s no longer a good provider,” Rockwell explains. “He’s still clinging to a materialism, which is why he does things like buying the kids expensive toys he can’t afford. His wife Amy is much more in tune with the disconnection in their family, and how that affects the children.”
Neither Amy nor Eric knows what do to when Maddy is taken. They can’t even call the police because how can they explain the circumstances of her disappearance? Amy turns to a strange parapsychology unit at her alma mater, Illinois State University, for help.
The Battle Begins
Enter Dr. Powell (Jane Adams), the head of the parapsychology department, who steps up to the challenge Amy presents. She arrives to the house with her two assistants, Boyd (Nicholas Braun) and Sophie (Susan Heyward), along with some high-tech spirit-hunting equipment.
The team, especially Boyd, is skeptical about the family’s claims, and they’ve accepted the job more to debunk the supernatural abduction than to save the Bowens. As the poltergeist goes on the defense, Boyd has a terrifying encounter with the closet into which Maddy has disappeared. This puts the fear of death into the spirit-hunting team. Dr. Powell must admit that this unusually aggressive haunting can only be resolved with the help of the gifted medium Carrigan Burke, played by Jared Harris.
Burke is the star of a reality TV show called “House Cleaners,” which has given him ghost-hunting celebrity status. His arrival at the Bowen house is met with skepticism by all but the pop culture-loving teen Kendra.
“Burke knows what to do in every situation,” says Harris. “He doesn’t conduct a seance or cleansing, but he is the only other person aside from Maddy with the ability to contact the other world.” Burke ultimately leads the Bowens’ fight to get Maddy back, during which it is revealed he was once married to Dr. Powell. Their romantic history adds a layer of light to the darkness upon which they are all enmeshed.
The house itself embodies both light and darkness. Initially, it is the saving grace for this hard-luck family, but it quickly turns menacing.
In “casting” the house, the production searched a wide area until they located the perfect one in a suburb in Hamilton, Ontario, a demographically diverse area.
According to production designer Kalina Ivanov, not only did the house chosen by the filmmakers embrace the “blandness of modern architecture,” it also included a familiar suburban color scheme – “a symphony of beige,” as she calls it. Ivanov goes on to explain that the neighborhood had to have high-intensity power lines, which are integral to the film’s supernatural-themed plot. The story also required an empty lot next door to accommodate the ominous willow tree that terrorizes Griffin.
For research, Ivanov turned not to magazines or coffee table books but to actual pictures of family homes. “We collected images of real people’s lives to give the set authenticity,” she says. Sets like the living room and attic had to be built out bigger to accommodate the effects of the poltergeist force, such as the launching of a van through the living room bay window.
The attic had to be sinister and creepy but look real enough to be a young boy’s bedroom. The attic’s skylight is the avenue through which the haunted willow tree torments Griffin. Ivanov designed the attic so that it could be ripped apart, which allowed the walls to “fly” in and out, depending upon Kenan’s desired camera angles.
In the film, the family home is built on a cemetery that was supposed to have been moved before the house was built. But while the tombstones were relocated, the actual bodies were left underneath. This caused a group of wandering souls to be stuck in the “in-between” and fiercely determined to get through to their eternal destination. The spirits need Maddy and her innocent source of light to guide them to the afterlife, where they will be set free.
“The communication from the poltergeist starts in small, playful, and physical gestures, including voices heard through the wall, and the scraping of branches against a window,” says Kenan. “Once the spirits make contact with Maddy, they are able to lure her in, away from her family, and trap her in their world.”
With Maddy in their possession, the spirits are able to develop a heightened aggressiveness and a series of tactics designed to keep her there. “I was always conscious of the idea of a group of spirits who were so forgotten, abandoned and frustrated that they were able to channel that specific energy into this act of taking a child from its family,” Kenan notes. “I found myself becoming sympathetic to the trapped souls and I challenged myself to try to understand their collective instinct, feelings and emotions.”
Poltergeist is released in 3D, which heightens the terror and thrills. “The original ‘Poltergeist’ captured a rousing, magical, very stylized, almost theatrical take on the supernatural, but it’s not the way I’m telling this story,” says Kenan. “It was important for me to connect the material with a darker tool set that does away with the theatricality and finds something that is baser, darker and scarier.”
To that end, Kenan keeps the camera moving, capturing maximum jolts.
Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, a world-renowned cinematographer who has worked on “The Twilight Saga” and “The Others,” is familiar with the concept of capturing supernatural phenomena in a fantastic yet realistic way. “The look in this film is fantasy but set in a natural environment, which makes it that much scarier,” he says. “The only frame of reference to the original film is a scene where Maddy connects to the other-world through the TV. This was my favorite scene to shoot because technically it was very challenging. We wanted to avoid visual effects as much as possible and shoot practically.”
Costume designer Delphine White also embraced a natural look. “I was drawn to both the light and dark side of the film,” says White. “We wanted to convey a family that was struggling, and used pictures of ordinary people for inspiration. The most challenging costumes to design were that of the poltergeist. We did a lot of research into people who’d been buried and exhumed and what happened to their clothing during that process. We worked with silhouettes and an incredible textile artist to get the right tone.”
Kenan and the visual effects team provide the necessary digital magic to make the supernatural come to life. Alison O’Brien is the film’s visual effects producer. “When I’m breaking down the script for VFX planning, I look at anything that can’t be captured by the camera,” she explains. “This included our portal through to the other-side, which goes through Maddy’s closet and comes out in the living room ceiling. Aesthetically, we wanted it to look sophisticated, because it’s a very important story point and it needed to feel convincing.”
To help nail the specific look, O’Brien enlisted the help of BUF VFX, a small but well-known boutique VFX studio from Paris, which devised a new shooting technique using horizontal and vertical orientations. “It allowed us to get a little bit of movement without actually moving the camera, which gives us more control,” notes O’Brien.
What is possible now from a VFX point of view is much more sophisticated than it was 30 years ago, when the original was shot. In the 1982 film, the daughter was contacted solely through the TV, but now the poltergeists communicate through many of today’s signature personal devices, like smartphones and tablets.
Perhaps the film’s most interesting use of technology is the deployment of a toy drone that Eric purchases for Griffin early in the story. According to Kenan, the drone was part tool and part hero. “We used a small quadrocopter with two cameras on it, piloted though a smartphone or tablet,” says Kenan. “Not only did we incorporate the drone into the storyline, we used it behind-the-scenes to get shots no one has ever before captured. That freedom to put the camera anywhere you want is very exciting.”
The Poltergeist Curse
The Poltergeist filmmakers experienced various unexplained occurrences during the making of the movie.
Sam Raimi explains: “The big open field directly behind the house caused us some grief. Gil was drawn to this field because it was the only area untouched in the neighborhood, so it really stuck out. However, that open space seemed to interfere with our on-set radio microphones, personal cell phone transmissions, and the signals between the drone cameras and their operators. The drone would work perfectly everywhere else but would crash whenever it attempted to fly over this area. It was a disconcerting feeling at best.”
Then there were the on-set “poltergeists” that plagued the production. To deal with the unwanted visitors, the filmmakers called in Brenda Rose, a Cleveland-based seer who connects with the paranormal. Rose uses a number of techniques to detect and cleanse a place from unwanted spirits. “I help people navigate their lives in the most efficient way by insightful readings and that can look like a lot of things from numerology cards to personal energy,” she says. “How spirits make themselves known changes from spirit to spirit; sometimes there’s just something from the corner of your eye and other times it’s something actually trying to get your attention. When I’m in a session and open for spiritual business they can come from the left or right side. It ranges from organized chaos to just plain chaos, much like the family experiences in the movie.”
Tying directly to POLTERGEIST, Rose notes that, “usually when spirits get lost, they need a bit of guidance to find their way back to their destination.”
But POLTERGEIST’s other-world denizens are not your typical ghosts. As Jared Harris’ character Carrigan Burke notes, “This isn’t just a few pissed off spirits we’re dealing with…”