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On the Set of Friday the 13th

A full report from Crystal Lake

Hail, tornado warnings and other wicked weather have threatened the grounds of Old Settlers Park and the production crew residing here in Round Rock, Texas (about 15 minutes out from Austin) over the last few weeks. But no force of nature can quite match the wrath of Jason Voorhees, the hockey masked thug at the center of ten feature films – eleven if you want to count when he was a wee sprout leaping out of lake to exact watery justice on Adrienne King in the first Friday the 13th.

Upon arrival at Old Settlers, generally a family vacation spot, little time is wasted before ShockTillYouDrop.com is met with the all too familiar shrill of a woman’s scream slicing through the incessant buzzing of insects in the air. We follow the cries and trek past a few buildings that look like log cabins relocated from Disney’s Frontier Land – they’re permanent fixtures here and built long before the Hollywood production team moved in. The paved road we traverse turns to gravel, then dirt, then grass as we enter a field that breaks at an unknown acreage of woods.

Here is where the crew of Platinum Dunes’ Friday the 13th (opening February 13, 2009) is camped out witnessing Jason Voorhees menace stars Jared Padalecki (full interview here) and Amanda Righetti (Return to House on Haunted Hill). Lights direct our attention to an overturned bus lying on its side. Tendrils have crawled into its underbelly; its yellow exterior faded. At the head of this rusted old beast – that currently shows no signs of activity outside, but we can still hear the screaming – sits director Marcus Nispel, reuniting with Platinum Dunes after visiting another horror icon, Leatherface, for 2003′s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He prefers to stay to the orchestrated madness of the scene he’s currently shooting. Nearby, sitting amongst the cast and crew chairs are producers Brad Fuller and Andrew Form. On the monitors before them we finally get to see what’s happening inside the bus.

Here’s our screamer. Righetti. She crawls along the earth floor/bus wall. Then a figure cuts through the darkness of a hole behind her. It’s Jason. Unmistakable. Complimented by Daniel Pearl’s beautiful photography coated in moonlight and shadows. Jason’s never looked better.

“The way Jason moves is different,” Form tells us. “It’s not this slow, lumbering Jason for the entire film. There’s the classic POV in this movie, which is very Jason. A lot of watching. When he strikes he strikes hard in this movie. It’s not the type of movie where he’s behind somebody, they run for half a mile and he’s still walking but catches up to the them.” But to allay those purists who don’t want their Jason at full speed, Form assures us “he’s not sprinting around the whole movie.”

Jason’s actions and the methods in which he executes his victims is just one of the many delicate balances Platinum Dunes needs to keep in mind. Truth be told, Form, Fuller and co-producer Michael Bay took on a heavy load when they agreed to not remake Sean Cunningham’s 1980 slasher film but re-launch the entire franchise as they had done with the Leatherface. And the fans have already taken the trio to task e-mailing them with one mandate: “Don’t f**k it up,” says Fuller. “That’s the predominant message and it comes all the time. This is the biggest title and most iconic figure we’ve dealt with in our career. People obviously feel very passionate about Jason, rightfully so.”

So what prompted them to step to such a task? Following the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, New Line’s Toby Emmerich approached Platinum Dunes with the offer to ultimately capture lightning in a bottle twice (the new TCM had been a success) and put their stamp on the Voorhees legacy. Form, Fuller and Bay agreed to commit to the project, but they faced a rights entanglement that took, according to Fuller, nearly a year and a half to sort out amongst Paramount, New Line and Sean Cunningham’s Crystal Lake Entertainment. When all parties agreed on a similar vision of the next Jason romp, Platinum Dunes enlisted writers Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, the duo behind Freddy vs. Jason. What Form and Fuller were looking to achieve was a film that returned to the slasher film fun and pulled them out from the doom and gloom of their previous efforts.

“It hasn’t been done in a long time,” Form notes. “You look at all of the horror movies of the last five or six years, you really can’t count on your hands how many have been that fun, slasher-type horror film with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll with kids having the time of their life and paying the price for it.” Fuller continues, “And it’s exciting to us because we haven’t done that either. We want to have some fun with these movies. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in the basement dismembering people. It was exciting for us, as producers, to get out to a place where there’s sun, water and fun.”

Before we start to think he’s pitching us on a summer getaway, Fuller addresses the greater challenges of giving the series a facelift. “Any time you add something on or bring something that wasn’t there before, you’re certainly opening yourself to invoke a greater wrath than you are making this type of film. We all did our homework – and when I say ‘we’ I mean Platinum Dunes as well as the writers. We watched all of the movies and figured out: Did we want to stay within the confines of what had already been established for what he does predominantly in the first three or four films? So, I think if you’re looking for him to do something you haven’t seen before, you might not see that. But the way he does it is definitely different.”

You can also forget the notion of seeing a full-on origin story yet there will be nods to the early films. Oh yes, you’ll be able to piece Jason’s beginnings together. You’ll see him wearing a “sack” on his head – although when we get a glimpse of it, its less “sack” and more in line with the Scarecrow’s mask from Batman Begins, yet tighter fitting. Mother Voorhees (played by Deep Space Nine‘s Nana Visitor) shows up in a flashback in some form. And there’s a chance you’ll get a glimpse at little Jason too. Form says a “Ralph-like” doomsayer is also present and the actual day “Friday the 13th” factors into the story. Not only that, Friday the 13th is the last day principal photography wraps. Plot? Yeah, there’s one, but the details are being kept under wraps. We know the story Shannon and Swift hatched finds Padalecki’s character Clay hopping on his motorcycle and haulin’ ass to Crystal Lake to search for his missing sister (Righetti). Naturally, Jason rears his Mongoloid noggin’ and people wind up dead.

Early on, Jonathan Liebesman was in talks to direct the new Friday fresh off of TCM: The Beginning. Platinum Dunes, however, turned to Nispel. It took some convincing to lure the German director out of his home in Malibu after taking a box office punishing with Pathfinder. As Fuller explains, “He did not say yes immediately. I think this movie required the very visceral, fast-moving thing he does so well.” Nispel voiced his concern with doing another franchise, and “I had to grovel for a long time,” laughs Fuller. “There are some experiences where you make a movie with a filmmaker and you’re simpatico the whole way through and there are experiences where you’re battling because you both want it to be good. And that’s what we do. We battle and fight it out. The great thing is, we’ve done it before, so it’s never personal. He had very specific ideas about the script and that was a battle, too. But that’s how we work together.”

There are no signs of friction within the camp during our visit; unfortunately, we’re not offered to hear Nispel’s take on his relationship with the Dunes boys because he doesn’t make himself available for an interview. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to watch the on-set rapport. Fuller and Form play integral players in nearly every take tonight. If something seems off, one will join Nispel by the bus to discuss the scene. This film is obviously a valuable commodity and they want to see it done right.

Between set-ups, Form and makeup FX artist Scott Stoddard approach us with a grey, wide suitcase. It looks like the kind you might see in a James Bond movie and holds a fancy automatic handgun. This case contains another valuable: Jason’s hockey mask. It’s embedded in protective packing foam cut to match its shape. This writer succumbs to his fanboy urges. “Can I hold it?” I ask. Fuller hands it over.

“I like the masks from parts three and four,” Stoddard confesses. “Those were the iconic looks. Basically, I had gotten a copy of one of them, studied them and did a sculpture from them, re-doing the mask completely. Because I didn’t want to take something that already existed, there were things I thought were great, but there were things I wanted to change a bit. Make it custom, but keep all the fundamental designs. Especially the markings on the forehead and cheeks. Age them down a bit, break them up.” Six masks total were created for the production, all of them in varying degrees of wear. When Jason “acquires” it, it’s already pretty beaten up. “He just makes it worse. Jason gets hit in the head a lot.”

Stoddard has worked for Stan Winston, Steve Johnson, Patrick Tatopoulos, the Burmans and KNB EFX. He went solo in ’03 with TCM. As he returns the mask to its comfortable cradle and we bid it a weepy goodbye, he recounts an incident that occurred while attempting to usher his case through Los Angeles’ LAX airport.

In an effort to prevent it from being stolen, he opted to carry it on the plane with him, but, as he reveals, the mask could not avoid falling into the hands of Jason’s fans. As the case passed through the scanner, “[Security] just looked at me and said, Is that what I think it is? And I said, What do you think it is? I play hockey. They say, No, it’s not. It’s from the film. Okay, you’ve got to come with us. They took me in the back room and brought all of their friends over. I opened it up and they’re looking at it, touching it. I thought everyone would just let it go through, no one would really care.”

As if his ears were ringing, Jason himself strolls over. Actor Derek Mears (full interview here) is all grins in spite of carrying the weight of his prosthetic hump, neck and head piece. He wears black combat boots, a battered and torn t-shirt and what he calls his “Frankenstein jacket”. “It’s two jackets sewn together, kind of mismatched,” he explains for those out there planning their Jason Halloween costume for 2009. “It’s a three-quarter length jacket. When we were in wardrobe there was one jacket that I really dug with a textured collar, more like a Dickies hunting jacket. Then there was more of a military style jacket. They wanted the more military one so when you see the movements, it would flap. In the handheld camera it’d look freakier. So what they did is just cut the top off of the Dickies hunting type jacket and sewn it on [to the military one].”

A glance at his dirty hands shows us his fingernails have grown out. Mears’ wife wasn’t pleased with his decision to “go method” and grow them out for real, especially when his wedding day arrived. Now he’s paying the price. “I’ve been smashed in the face and kicked in my career, so many things. Now that I’ve got long fingernails, I’m like, Ow, I’m catching them on things! I’ve become a sissy pants,” he jokes.

He pushes aside a strand of brown unkempt hair that blows in his mouth from the warm Texas breeze and we get a good look at his face sans the mask. A prosthetic eye covers his own. It’s a rheumy and sickly orb set lower than his left eye. This is simply something for us to see through the mask when he’s wearing it.

Mears, who was brought to Platinum Dunes’ attention on Stoddard’s recommendation, cuts an imposing figure. He’s the most pleasant guy you’re bound to meet in Hollywood though; it’s such a contrast from his latest persona it had the producers worried. Mears tells us about his first encounter with Fuller and Form: “They were like, You’re really nice…are you going to be able to switch over, right? I was like, I cage fight and I’ve got a lot of dad issues. So yeah.”

“I get thrown off all of the time by Derek,” Righetti tells us later. “Jason is very creepy and once they put him through the makeup process, it helps a lot. Because as creepy as he looks, he’s such the opposite. He’s such a sweet guy. It’s this weird paradox.”

Co-star Danielle Pannabaker, who plays Jenna in the film, agrees, “I love hanging out with him off set, but then you see him get into it, especially with the mask on, and it’s terrifying. He’s scary. He’s an incredible actor with the way he uses his body to communicate it’s fascinating. It’s a complete transformation.”

Stoddard and Mears executed this metamorphosis through a 3 1/2-hour makeup process for a full appliance session – torso and head. They’ll cut that time down to 1 1/2 hours depending on what’s needed for a shot. For the overall look of Jason, Stoddard says he was going for a mesh between Carl Fullerton’s work in Friday the 13th Part 2 and Tom Savini’s take in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. “Again, he’s a human being, so I didn’t want to make it too out there and make him a monster,” explains Stoddard. “He’s a deformed man so I wanted to keep it in that vein. He’s got hair falling out, skin rashes, some disease, but deformed as well. There’s definitely a human side to him.” The big question is, will we see him with his mask off? “We filmed it and we probably will. We’ve been pushing it, because we put a lot of time into designing it and giving him a specific look for his face. They’re on the fence about whether they want to show the face. They’ve done it in a lot of films in the past and it’s a pay-off, we want to see what he looks like, even if it’s for a split-second.”

In regards to the kills – that’s right, we gotta talk about the kills – Stoddard is pleased to report “they top Texas Chainsaw Massacre in a way. And that goes for the character too, TCM was great but with this…it’s like a character I used to watch more when I was younger.” He’s sharing FX duties with the CGI team “50/50, but we’ve started to do more practical and less digital. There might be little digital elements here and there, things we can’t get on the day. But we’ll go in and do insert shots. My whole take [on the kills] is what would happen in reality? And sometimes in reality it can be disturbing and we’ll do different versions of it and you tone it back from there. But show the real thing. There’s probably some stuff that won’t make it.”

Friday the 13th boasts 13 deaths and for the creative team, the film was an experiment in coming up with fresh ways to kill people. “We’re shooting for 40 days,” Fuller beams. “We’re killing someone almost every third day.”

“We’re going to bring a movie to the MPAA that they’re going to laugh at,” continues Form. “But, there is no torture – which they have big issues with. When you have these fast, hard kills – like a head getting chopped off – I think that’s easier to put through than putting someone on a meat hook and leaving him there with insert shots of the hook in his back. I’m sure the MPAA will look at this movie and [give it] a hard R.”

Fuller recalls one scene they’ve already got in the can that was a bit hairy: “Jason has to get through a tent, and the only way we could shoot it is having him use [a real] machete and actually slice through the back of the tent with the actress right there.”

The props master brings over said machete and places it in this writer’s hand. At around three feet in length, it’s got some weight to it. This weapon of choice will slide into a horse bridle Jason wears around his leg. Form picks up the story, describing the tent attack. “We couldn’t score the tent because you’d see it,” he says with some fervor. “[Jason] had to get through the fabric with the machete. [The one you're holding] is the one that went through. He split a tent with one swipe of that machete.”

“It’s amazing. That was a tough situation, but that was the only way to get the kill right away,” adds Fuller.

“[The actress] did not have to act, ’cause it was real,” says Form.

Mears found that scene a particular challenge because with one eye obscured his depth perception was handicapped. “There are little tricks of the trade where you can come through and space how you walk in,” Mears reveals. “Count the steps coming through. Like another scene where I had to go over to Amanda with a real machete, even though I couldn’t see her really well, I knew if I slid my foot against her as I was kneeling…you can feel where things are. It’s a plotted course. You plot it and you do it.”

No amount of safety or “tricks of the trade” on Mears’ part has saved Righetti from getting banged up, however. A new camera set up now has her back in the bus, tucked behind a chair. Jason rises out the aforementioned hole in the ground (a hint at the plot’s rumored “tunnel system” running all through Crystal Lake) and the actress kicks out her foot, connecting with the killer and driving him back underground, buying her time to run. But something’s off and the timing of this shot is key. Before another take rolls, Righetti, injured, limps back to “video village” where the producers sit.

An on-set medic greets her with a bag of ice. He looks at her shredded pants, “Which wounds are yours and which is makeup?” You’d think he was trying to bring levity to the palpable tension in the air (no one likes a hurt actress), but he’s serious. While Righetti is given a few moments to recuperate, we join Fuller, Form and Mears as they watch the scene in playback.

Jason pops up. Jason gets kicked. Jason goes down. “That’s a helluva kick,” someone says to Mears. “You better watch yourself.”

Righetti returns to the bus for more punishment. “Back to life, please,” Nispel shouts, his way of getting everyone back in the moment. A few more takes are fired off then it’s on to the next shot. The actress agrees to sit down with us for a brief chat until she’s called back to set.

“You okay?” this writer asks.

She nods. “There’s been a few cuts and bruises for everyone across the board,” she sniffs. The last time we caught up with one another was during an interview regarding Return to House on Haunted Hill, a sequel, she says, that in spite of the wounds she’s taking here, was more difficult to shoot. “This has been grueling physically, but on Return the circumstances of being in Bulgaria, being away from home, being sick – it was hard to keep my endurance up. But I think it comes with the territory of shooting a horror movie. You expect to get banged up a bit.”

Here, the actress plays Whitney, Padalecki’s sibling – an old soul breaking away from the stress of tending to her sick mother by camping with friends until “all hell breaks loose with Jason.” Righetti admits to never having read the script before she was offered the role. “It was initially a leap of faith and wanting to be part of the Friday the 13th franchise. When I first read the script, [I thought] there were so many twists and turns and surprises with it. I totally had an adrenaline rush, I was sold on the first read. I think it will surprise audiences.”

From the sounds of it, Whitney is the rather pure one of Friday. Drugs, sex, booze? Righetti won’t fill us in on her character’s vice. “I kind of fit the mold of the scream queen. I think I scream more than I talk in this movie. There’s a lot of screaming and some dialogue.” And plenty of action which, Righetti says, is clearly composed by Nispel and his storyboards. “He was on the right path showing us visually what he wants and what he’s looking for. That’s helpful. Especially when you’re trying to explain it to someone, when you see it on paper, you really see what your director’s looking for. Visually, this is his playground and he’s all about making it look great and he’s achieving that.”

Righetti would be down for a sequel (did she just drop us a spoiler?) if Platinum Dunes’ spearheaded one. But producers Fuller and Form seem rather unsure they’ll unleash another Jason-fueled massacre. This writer scoffs at the notion they didn’t enter this with “franchise” in mind. Fuller insists, “We’re not approaching this as a franchise. Drew, Michael and I…we’re just trying to make a really great movie.” Form adds, “We’re not ending the movie to set up another one. [We're just finding the] ending that fits the movie.” Again, we chuckle at this with pessimism.

“Let’s say we kill him, dismember him and mail his parts and that’s the right ending for this movie,” Fuller laughs. “If we were lucky enough to do another one, maybe we’d do an origin story. We would look at different directions like we did on TCM. We knew cutting off [Leatherface's] arm was going to limit his ability to make a sequel. We want to have a good ending, because if you don’t have a good ending, people are going to feel like you’re gypping them. We’d rather give them a good ending and maybe not do another one. If we’re lucky enough, we’ll figure it out.”

(For more, read our set visit preview.)

Source: Ryan Rotten