It’s a breezy fall day in Nashville, Tennessee. Leaves are falling over an expansive estate that’s as haunting as it is gorgeous, and South Korean director Park Chan-wook—the man behind Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Thirst, and many others—is directing his English-language feature film debut in the country music capital of the world.
In September of 2011, Collider was invited to the set of the horror drama Stoker, which stars Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver, and Dermot Mulroney. The production had opted to film most of the pic’s scenes in and around a rather gothic-looking estate in Nashville, so along with a small group of journalists, we were able to spend a day on set and to get a look at how Park Chan-wook was making his Hollywood debut. Hit the jump for my full set visit report.
As we’re walking up to the set, the first thought in my head is how strikingly beautiful the scenery is. Stoker is being filmed almost completely on this one estate on the west side of Nashville. The property has a number of houses, garages, and a grassy, tree-covered lawn that stretches as far as the eye can see. One house on the property has been chosen as the principal Stoker house for the film. Not a great amount of exterior set dressing was needed, as the white southern charm mixes perfectly with the dated and conspicuously unkempt nature of the white mansion.
The film’s production designer, Thérèse DePrez (Black Swan), informs us that the house was chosen after an exhaustive search that included over 80 properties in the Nashville area. They finally settled on the property in question because it not only fit what they were looking for on the inside, but the exterior of the property was perfect as well. As she takes us on a tour of the interior, the house’s draw to Park and the crew is instantly made clear. The house isn’t exactly a mansion, but it has a strong southern Gothic feel to it. In fact, Park’s initial vision for the Stoker house was a stone-heavy Gothic mansion, but the present house just has that “it” factor that simultaneously feels both welcoming and sinister.
DePrez and Park have chosen a number of motifs for the interior of the house that directly correlate to the themes explored in the film. For example, the dichotomy of the hunter vs. the hunted is prevalent in Stoker, and DePrez and Park have chosen to use the color green liberally throughout the house to invoke a sense of the outdoors and hunting. Birds and eggs also figure heavily in the film, so quite a few oval shapes and bird motifs are used in the house as well (India’s headboard resembles a giant bird’s nest). DePrez also chose to use a minimal amount of objects in the set dressings, ensuring that the visible objects were made all the more important. The office of Dermot Mulroney’s character, Richard Stoker, features stuffed birds and animals, though not too many as to overwhelm the onlooker. However, those that are on display are quite jarring, with Richard’s lamp made out of hooves being a standout.
In keeping with the bird motif, DePrez and Park wanted the audience to get a sense that the characters are trapped or caged in this house. To get the point across, DePrez makes expert use of linear details that resemble jail bars. When asked what time period they were going for, DePrez responded that their goal was to make the film feel timeless. Their ambition paid off in spades, as the exquisite sets are indeed stunning, but I honestly could not pinpoint a specific time period that would fit. The style is not necessarily contemporary, but it doesn’t distinguishably come from any other decade either.
DePrez took us up a spiral staircase to show us the bedrooms of the two leads. The room for Mia Wasikowska’s character, India, is dressed completely in yellow, and DePrez makes great use of symmetry. As previously mentioned, the cornerstone of the room is the bird’s nest headboard on the bed. As for the bedroom of Nicole Kidman’s character, Evie, it’s on the completely opposite end of the spectrum from India’s. Every single wall is covered in a darker tone of red, and asymmetry is the theme here. The room was almost overwhelming at first. I found myself muttering, “Now this is what a horror film looks like.”
When we first arrived onset, we were taken to the monitors directly beside Chan-wook as he was overseeing the filming of a flashback sequence. Apparently us journalists were originally supposed to come to set while a scene featuring one of the leads was being filmed, but scheduling shifts meant that we arrived while a crucial, highly spoilery sequence was on tap. I’m not going to describe the scene in question, as it’s one of the pivotal moments of the film, but it was fascinating watching Chan-wook work. He relied heavily on his translator and confidant. If he had notes after a take, he would discuss it briefly with his translator, who would then walk over to the actors and deliver the filmmaker’s notes. The only crew member with whom Park would communicate directly was his frequent director of photography, Chung-hoon Chun.
Just because Park didn’t speak the same language as his crew, it didn’t mean his presence wasn’t felt on camera. The first scene we saw filmed featured an elaborate and technically tricky signature Park shot. DePrez told us that Park storyboards every single scene that they film, so he knows exactly what he wants each day. In addition, one of the publicists told me that he likes to shoot the same scene from a number of different angles on the fly, so the actors have to be prepared to shoot one scene a few different ways.
In addition to the aforementioned flashback sequence, we also watched the crew film a couple of dialogue-less scenes with star Mia Wasikowska. One featured the actress entering a car from a garage (with a couple of intriguing items in tow), while another was an insert shot of India popping a blister on her foot. The crew had crafted a specially-made blister that was cued up to ooze once Wasikowska penetrated it with a needle, but on the first go-around it didn’t exactly ooze naturally; the actress proceeded to tear the prosthetic apart as the clear liquid slowly made its way out. The second time around, though, the fake blister worked like a charm, as a tiny bubble of blister ooze started to surface from the small incision Wasikowska had made with the needle. We were told that this close-up would be one of the opening shots of the film.
Though we didn’t get to see any dialogue scenes filmed between the principal cast members, we did briefly speak to Wasikowska. The Australian actress had nothing but nice things to say about working with Chan-wook and told us that Nicole Kidman—a Nashville resident—had been taking her out to some of the city’s famous establishments in their downtime, like the Grand Ole Opry.
As we’ve seen from the subsequent trailers, featurettes, and clips, Stoker looks to be a wholly original effort from Park Chan-wook. My visit to the film’s set inspired confidence about the pic’s Gothic feel and signature tone, and those aspects only look to be amplified in the actual footage from the film. I look forward to seeing the pic when it hits theaters later this week, and you can read Matt’s review from Sundance right here.
Stoker opens in limited release on March 1st.