Certain films hold such a weighty place in the lexicon of horror one would think no one would ever dare touch or remake them and that list is getting shorter and shorter as movies that may have been too precious to get the remake treatment a few years back are now being explored.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel Carrie may fall slightly behind ‘70s classics like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and Jaws, but it’s still a powerful film about a teenage girl dealing with abuse at home from her ultra-religious mother and torment at school who learns she has telekinetic powers that allow her to fight back. The movie was so powerful that both its lead actresses, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, received Oscar nominations in those great days when the Academy didn’t immediately shun a genre movie as being unworthy of their gold statues.
As it turns out, King’s novel was one of the properties owned by MGM that they decided to tackle with their most recent phoenix-like return from the dead. Just like when word started getting around there was going to be a remake of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead - which turned out quite well in our opinion – we may have been just as cynical or hesitant here at ShockTillYouDrop.com when we heard someone was going to re-explore King’s still-relevant ideas from the ‘70s and make another movie based on his book.
So, when we were invited up to the Toronto set of the movie last August, we went up there with as open a mind as we could have, having already gotten a ringing endorsement from Sissy Spacek herself for the project based on the movie’s casting alone.
We’re going to assume most people reading this have already seen the original movie and/or read the book, but if not, you may want to avoid certain sections, since there are some spoilers about the story and what happens in the movie based on what we saw on set. If you already know the book or the original movie, you’ll probably want to hear more about the pivotal scene we watched them shoot that day.
Clearly, a big coup for the production had to be the casting of one of the hottest young actresses of the past few years, Chloé Grace Moretz, as Carrie White, yet an even bigger triumph was convincing Julianne Moore to play her over-protective mother Margaret White. Moretz already played a vampire in the underrated horror flick Let Me In – another attempt to adapt a book that had already been adapted into a very popular Swedish film – as well as starring opposite Johnny Depp’s vampire in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Moore on the other hand, despite her long career full of experiences and well-deserved accolade, had done very little horror other than a little seen Swedish horror film just released earlier this year called 6 Souls.
Even before Moore’s casting, fans of the original movie may have been surprised when filmmaker Kimberly Peirce came on board to helm the remake from a screenplay written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Peirce hadn’t directed a movie since 2008’s wartime drama Stop-Loss and her only other movie was the drama Boys Don’t Cry, which helped Hilary Swank win her first Oscar. The latter made it fairly obvious Peirce could handle the drama involved in the story, but there was never anything that showed Peirce to be a fan of horror or even remotely interested in getting involved in the genre. Fortunately we got to talk to Peirce fairly early on in our visit as she came over during her lunch break to chat with us. Having never met her, we were surprised how much energy she had, a real firecracker, and you can read the full interview with her later in this piece.
Hours before we arrived on set, we had lunch with producer Kevin Misher who gave us a brief overview of the project, saying they were not only taking stuff from the Brian de Palma movie, but also had gone directly back to Stephen King’s novel, something we would learn later had a much bigger influence on the film. They always planned to make an R-rated movie due to the amount of blood and violence and sexuality, although they also wanted to be respectful to the fact that Moretz was substantially younger than Sissy Spacek when she starred in the original movie. Another difference he mentioned was that Julianne Moore’s Margaret White was nothing like the one played by Piper Laurie, although by the time we arrived in Toronto, Moore had already wrapped so we weren’t able to see this for ourselves. Later, we had a chance to talk more extensively with Misher about the project which you can read later in this piece.
Once on set, we were ushered over to a section of the soundstages set-up just for the visiting journalists, and we saw they had already started shooting on the gymnasium set only a few yards away. It had been decorated for the fateful prom sequence, and as we arrived, they were filming the announcement of Carrie and her date Tommy Ross as the prom queen and king with Chloe Moretz and actor Ansel Elgort standing on the stage as the cameras panned across the dozens of extras that had been dressed up for the prom. Anyone who knows the source material will realize that this is the set-up for one of the movie’s most memorable moments when some of Carrie’s classmates play another cruel and foul joke on her.
Confronting The Bullies
So much of why Carrie might work more as a movie today than in 1976 is that bullying at schools has become such a prominent hot topic issue on the news it feels like a movie that involves it as a central issue could possibly resonate with younger audiences.
Carrie’s problems start with two of her female classmates – Portia (Youth in Revolt) Doubleday’s Chris Hargensen, the real instigator of most of what happens later, and Sue Snell, played by Gabriella Wilde (The Three Musketeers), a relatively new blonde British actress. After a particularly nasty incident in the girls’ locker room, Sue ends up befriending Carrie and she even convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take her to the prom—the scene we mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, Chris is dating Billy Nolan, played by Alex Russell (“Chronicle”), and their hatred for Carrie leads them to play a despicable prank on her at prom that turns deadly when she uses her telekinetic powers to fight back.
We had a chance to speak with all four of these young actors, but one thing really obvious from talking to Elgort and Russell in particular was how different their incarnations of Tommy Ross and Billy Nolan would be from the originals, played by blonde Adonis William Katt – Elgort notably has dark hair – and a very young John Travolta, who was making his feature film debut after achieving acclaim on the sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter.” (And we’ll repeat ourselves that there may be a SPOILER or two in their responses.)
Ansel Elgort talked about playing Tommy, Carrie’s prom date. “Tommy is great because he is such a righteous person and throughout the film he sort of transforms from just the cool jockey guy–he does sort of have the typical high school jock life and he has the pretty girlfriend and stuff but he’s more complex than that, and Carrie brings it out in him because he or at least it makes it apparent to everyone else because he can find compassion, and sort of finds her interesting and realizes that she’s normal, and in fact special. And I think that’s the great thing about Tommy; there’s a whole arc to him. He’s not just the jock.”
“Kim always wanted to make sure that I didn’t come off as a sleezebag but a nice guy who sort of realized that this was an interesting girl in front of me and I should be nice to her just because. Why would I not be nice to her? And then I sort of actually do fall for her a little bit. And who knows, she could be bewitching me a little bit. She is sort of a witch, right?”
Elgort also mused about his own impending death, which would probably be shot shortly after the scene we’d be watching them film that day and before the chaos as Carrie starts her killing spree. “I haven’t thought about the movie at all about being a tragic story or of me dying because I guess it comes out of nowhere and that’s the beauty of the story is that it seems like it’s just a regular story and you start to fall in love with the characters and then this tragedy strikes. And (the metal bucket) strikes me right on the head and then I die – immediately – so I haven’t really thought about it and I won’t really have a chance to think about it. I’ll just see the blood and be confused and not know what’s going on and then all of a sudden I’ll be gone. That’ll be it.”
“I think the key with Billy is that you sort of smell trouble from the start,” Russell told us a bit later, admitting that he had never seen the original film or read the book before getting the script. “He seems like bad news from the beginning, so that was a challenge, because you want that the audience want him to perish at the end, but you want them to cherish his badness while he’s onscreen. Kind of like Heath Ledger’s Joker, he does nothing but bad things but you love him.”
Russell was also asked whether it was intimidating to take on the role made famous by a very young Travolta. “That’s a question that I’ve been asked a few times and at first it got stuck in my head. But then I thought, ‘Well when he was doing it, it was his first role so he was probably as intimidated as I am. So I can relax. I might be okay.’ Billy is a supporting character so there’s less pressure and I can do my own thing and put my own spin on it.”
The Australian actor was also asked if he could draw parallels between Carrie and his breakout movie Chronicle. “It’s really quite ironic because when I was doing ‘Chronicle’ (director) Josh Trank said that one of that movies and characters that most influenced the film was ‘Carrie.’ It was a huge influence for ‘Chronicle’ and I had actually never heard of it. I thought it was ridiculous that the next movie I’d been cast in was another telekinesis thing. It’s nice to be on the other side of that, to be antagonistic. I was also a bit jealous because now I’m in a move about telekinesis where I don’t have any powers. It’s not fair.”
Walking Around Set
After a few interviews, including Moretz herself, which again, you can read later in this piece—we had a chance to walk around the sets including the gym set which really transported us back to high school since it felt like every single element or detail you’d expect was right there—everything from the school’s trophy case to the stars hanging from the ceiling as decoration for the prom. It was far more impressive standing inside it without all the extras and crew because it was hard to tell how big it was even with some of the impressive panning shots across the throng of teens attending the prom by cinematographer Steve Yedlin.
Walking through the gym to the doors at the back, we were brought over to the girls’ locker room, which really gave away the age of the school since everything in there was made to look like the school was a good thirty or forty years old. We walked by the showers that play a large part in Carrie’s early torment by her female classmates—if you’ve read this far already, you may already know what they do, but without giving too much away, let’s just say it involves Carrie experiencing her first period.
The other major set they built was the interiors of the White house, which we were able to walk through and get some idea of what sort of environment led to Carrie’s eventual rampage. They had found an appropriate house for the exterior somewhere fairly close by and did a bit of redecorating on it, but the production designer, the set decorator and the crew had a field day putting together the home of the maniacally Christian Margaret White.
This set was pretty much a full house with kitchen and living room as well as stairs that led up to Carrie and her mom’s bedrooms—they really had left very little out. The whole thing felt very old fashioned and the first thing you notice right away is all the religious iconography all over the house, pictures of Jesus, crosses, etc, and the second thing you might notice is that there are absolutely no television sets at all in any of the rooms. There was an organ in the living room, presumably so that the Whites could sing hymns. We also noticed that were a lot of sewing materials since Margaret was a seamstress.
Probably the one thing that really stood out though was the closet under the stairs, which was not something you see in every house and that’s basically where Carrie gets locked up by her mother when she’s trying to protect her from the outside world and all its bad influences. Inside the tiny closet space was a creepy religious shrine that was not some place where anyone would want to be locked up for too long a time.