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Set Report: Shock Shacks Up With The Roommate

Minka Kelly, Leighton Meester star in the college thriller

There’s a sense of voyeurism, peering through an artificial dorm room window, watching the women inside and listening in on their conversation. Even knowing that it’s fake, face the right direction and you’d be sold that you’re standing in an average college hallway in Anytown, USA. Turn a corner, though, or look to the ceiling and the set reveals itself; a look-a-like dorm constructed on a soundstage at the Sony Pictures lot.

The ladies in question are Minka Kelly and Leighton Meester, best known for their starring television roles on Friday Night Lights and Gossip Girl, respectively. Their new film is The Roommate, a thriller that director Christian E. Christiansen promises will be chock full of Hitchcock-style suspense. In it, Kelly stars as a Sara, an art student attending a Los Angeles-based college. She’s randomly assigned a roommate in Meester’s Rebecca and, at first, the pair become fast friends. As the relationship develops, however, we learn of Rebecca’s mental instability, pushing her to a potentially deadly devotion to her new roommate.

Standing with a small group of fellow journalists in the soundstage shadows, we’re all creepers to a bedroom scene that has Sara coming home to find Rebecca disheveled and hysterical. She’s been attacked, Rebecca tells Sara, by a stranger on the street. He knocked her down and hit her and she barely got away. Concerned, Sara pleads with Rebecca to call the police, but Rebecca refuses. She just wants Sara to stay in tonight and to not leave her alone.

“It’s not a psychological disorder,” says Leighton, who found herself doing some extensive medical research before playing the part, “it’s a character disorder…It’s all neurological, but it can be helped I think. I talked to a couple of doctors about it and people who specialize in characters disorders like that. Nothing is set in stone so it’s really hard to say exactly what goes into being that kind of person. I was asking doctors, ‘Well, what happened to her do you think? Was she abused or something?’ And he’s like ‘no, not necessarily. Nobody had to have any kind of past or anything. Somebody from a terrible family could grow up great and vice-versa’. In her case, she does come from what seems like a pretty good family. She just has this issue. It could even be genetic, an imbalance in chemicals.”

“We know Leighton from ‘Gossip Girl’ where she is kind of the bad girl,” explains Christiansen. “We wanted to bring that in. We didn’t want to bring in Gossip Girl, but we wanted to bring some of those qualities. No doubt people are going to see something quite different from her.”

Kelly, then, is tasked with providing a counterbalance to Leighton’s subtle madness. The character of Sara grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and has never been to a big city before. Though The Roommate is set is Los Angeles, Christiansen is quick to point out that geographical specifics never play a big role. The fact that the setting is major change for Sara’s character is the important fact.

“She moves out here,” says Christiansen, “she’s into fashion. She wants to work in fashion and she has a friend that works in fashion. Rebecca [is] quite different. She’s a rich girl from Pasadena and also is very passionate about art, but she’s drawing and doing sculptures. Rebecca is a little obsessive about her new friend and things turn bad. It’s going to escalate and the development of the story is pretty scary. Sara gets a boyfriend and has other friends and that is definitely not a thing that Rebecca likes. So it turns bad.”

The boyfriend, Stephen, is played by Cam Gigandet who, even though he wasn’t shooting a scene that day, stopped by to chat with press. He plays a drummer in a band who meets Sara at a party. The two quickly begin dating, much to Rebecca’s chagrin.

“It wasn’t so much the character as it was just the story in general,” says Cam of what drew him to The Roommate. “I think it’s a story that’s relatable to a lot of people right now and, aside from that, it there’s the cast. I love these two girls and they’re kind of amazing. They just make it fun. I’ve worked with Minka a lot on this movie and she just brings an entirely different vibe to the set. As soon as steps on set it just changes everything.”

By coincidence, Minka and Leighton didn’t meet for the first time on-set, but have actually been friends since shooting a Clearsil commercial in South Africa seven years ago. Because part of the story involves Rebecca imitating Sara down to the point of making herself look like her, it was necessary for both actresses to have some physical similarities. Leighton was the one who ended up with the more exciting role, though, admits Minka.

“Of course, everyone always wants the juiciest role,” she Minka, “but it’s up to you to make whichever role you get the best you can so I was very pleased with the role I was given. [Leighton]‘s so much a pro and, just the depth she’s bringing to this character I couldn’t imagine anyone doing better. She’s fantastic.”

As the shooting moves on, we’re still inside the dorm room, but this time Rebecca’s alone, staring at herself in the mirror. In her hand she clutches a box cutter and, with painful determination, draws it across her stomach, screaming as the shot pans away.

“If you want something from someone,” Christiansen offers, “it might be a good idea if they feel badly for you. That’s what she’s working on, to make sure she feels bad for her. It’s not like she has a disorder where she wants to cut herself to get a physical pain that’s strong than the pain on the inside.”

Christiansen, a Danish director, is making his first American film with The Roommate. Though he’s shot a number of features in Denmark, he’s best known domestically for his short film, At Night, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007. Though At Night had a decidedly melodramatic tinge, Christiansen says he feels completely at home in the thriller genre.

“It was hip and sexy and fun and scary and creepy,” he explains, “I love that combination. That’s the kind of movie I want to see myself. It says in the thriller genre. It’s not slasher. It’s also PG-13, which limits how far I go with that, but the way I read the script the first time, I wouldn’t have gone that way anyway. It’s going to be more creepy than it’s going to be shock and surprise.”

Sharing the room with Rebecca and Sara is an unlikely third roommate: Cuddles the kitten. As soon as he was spotted on-set, there was a gasp from another journalist about what horrible end the cat might meet in the film.

“We’re not going to kill it!” laughs Christiansen. “At least, we’re not going to see it. I don’t know what happens with Cuddles at this point. Most of the time, the people that die in traditional genre movies are asking for it. The cat and the dog are just innocent creatures, so that’s why [they get to live]. If you kill the innocent, that’s pure evil. If you kill someone who is asking for it…like, in slasher movies. If you are having sex, you die. All the rules that they mention in Scream, that’s all true. Cats and dogs and even innocent people are just hard to watch. And it would be hard in this film as well.”

With the PG-13 rating, Christiansen hopes to rely on a number of visual cues to keep up the scare factor.

“First of all,” he says, “we’re trying to make it really bleak and moody. It’s very dark. Even the interiors, in daylight, is dark in this film. It’s a dark film. We gave the whole look of the film a high contrast. I think it looks beautiful. But part of the style is also using the camera as much as possible to get into the mood. When I talk about the film being creepy, a lot of the time we let the camera creep up on characters. We have shots in this movie that push in for four minutes. I’ve seen a lot of it cut together and it works really nice.”

The Roommate hits theaters on February 4th, 2011. Check out the recently-released trailer here.

Source: Silas Lesnick