In February I was invited by Warner Bros. to visit the Montreal set of the upcoming Darren Aronofsky film, "The Fountain." We'd check out one of the final sets of the film and would talk with Aronofsky as well as a wide variety of production staff who're bringing this movie together. Having been a big fan of Aronofsky's two previous films, "Pi" and "Requiem for a Dream," I found it impossible to say no. And off I went.
This trip was going to be one of a number of firsts for me. For starters, it would be my first trip to Canada. I've traveled all over the world, but I've never quite made it up to the Great White North. Of course, I feared all my Canada jokes levied at my Canadian friends would come back to haunt me on my trip, but I synched up my belt and dealt with it.
The first thing I did was check to see what the weather was like in Montreal. It was cold. And snowy. Having lived in Los Angeles my entire life, snow wasn't a thing I have much experience with or interest in. In fact, while I've seen snow -- I've gone skiing -- I've never seen it physically snow. So this was going to be an interesting treat.
Finally, this would be my first film set visit. I've visited a number of sitcom sets, but I knew they were be nothing like a film set. Sitcom's are generally filmed on a much smaller set, have room for a studio audience and generally do all their filming in one night after a weeks worth of rehearsals. Film sets, I figured, would be a very different beast and I was right. Everything about it was bigger - bigger sets, more people and much more complicated logistics.
So, on a beautiful Southern California day I left for the cold of Montreal. The trip itself was filled with firsts as well. I had a layover in Toronto, where it was snowing. I finally saw it actually snow. But I didn't have much time to take it in as I had a connecting flight to get to on the other side of the airport. I hussled, knowing I had little time to spare, but naturally the flight was delayed an hour due to the weather. When we finally did board, there were further delays as they had to deice the plane. Another first for me. There's something very reassuring and very unsettling about sitting on a plan while it's being deiced. And I know I wasn't the only one who felt this way. As they were deicing the plane, a woman a row behind me rather nervously started asking, "What's all that noise? What's wrong with the plane? We're not going to take off, are we?" The man sitting next to her tried to reassure her it was completely normal, but that wasn't enough to satisfy her. She needed to hear it from a flight attendant. Some people just aren't meant to fly.
I arrived in Montreal late that night, got in to my room around midnight and watched the snowfall from my bedroom window. I knew I was going to sleep just fine that night.
The next morning I woke up, had a nice breakfast and met Moriarty from Ain't It Cool News in the dining hall for the first time. Turns out he's a Los Angelino, too, and doesn't live far from CBR Global Headquarters. After that I went on a quick walk around Montreal, which is when I realized snow and myself don't get along at all well. A quick slip on my ass convinced me to stay within the confines of my hotel.
Around noon all the press and Warner Bros. publicists assembled in the lobby to make the trek over to the Mel's Cite Du Cinema, the location of the Montreal sets for "The Fountain." In addition to CBR and Ain't It Cool News, there was a reporter from ComingSoon.net, Berge from JoBlo.com, Daniel Robert Epstein from the Suicide Girls and a reporter from "Scientific American" who was covering the science fact portion of the film. Certainly an ecelectic mix of people. We drove over to the set in the middle of a rather nasty snow storm. Now, of course, I have no frame of reference and nothing to compare it to, but considering I really couldn't see that far in any direction, it was downright nasty in my book.
Before I move on to the actual set visit, I should give you some background on "The Fountain." This is a movie that Aronofsky has really poured himself in to and it's not been an easy film to realize. For those of you who read yesterday's discussion of the upcoming graphic novel, some of this will be a repeat. The film was originally set to begin shooting about three years ago with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett set to star. The ambitious film originally had a $70+ million dollar budget and was ready to begin shooting, but then the film fell apart. Pitt backed out and went off to film "Troy" and the huge budget was causing major problems for the life expectancy of the production. Everything appeared to be dead, until Warner Bros. asked if Aronofsky could put together the film with a leaner budget. Aronofsky and his writing partner Ari Handel (more with them later) worked up a new script that was used for the film that just recently wrapped principal photography. The original script is being used for the Kent Williams illustrated graphic novel.
"The Fountain's" story takes place in three distinct time periods - in 1535, during an ancient Mayan war; the present day, following one doctor's desperate search for the cure to a cancer that afflicts someone he loves; and the far off future in the vast reaches of space. Tying these three time periods together is Tommy (played in the film by Hugh Jackman) - a warrior, a doctor and an explorer - as he desperately tries to beat death and prolong the life of the woman he loves, played by Rachael Weisz. Aronofsky and Handel were naturally cryptic about story specifics, but we did get a bit of news out of them. Both Jackman and Weisz are playing three different characters, presumably connected by a common element. In the 16th century piece, Jackman plays Thomas Verde, an explorer who's been sent by Queen Isabella, played by Weisz, to Central America to find the elusive Fountain of Youth/Tree of Life. In the modern day setting, Jackman plays Tommy Verde, a cancer researcher. Weisz plays Izzi, Tommy's wife. Izzi's an author who's working on a book called "The Fountain" about Thomas Verde and his relationship with Isabella. This book provides an entrance of sorts in to the other worlds explored in this film. Joining them in the present day storyline is Ellen Burstyn, who plays Lillian who oversees the research Verde is doing. Izzi is stricken by cancer and Tommy pushes himself to find a cure for her disease. The final act, the portion that takes place in the far off future, we were told the least about, but our set visit did give us some clues, which you'll find below.
Back to the set visit, we arrived at Mel's and got ourselves settled in. We all dropped our stuff off in a make-up room that would serve as our conference room for the day and settled in. The film's producer and Aronofsky's long time producing partner Eric Watson came in and introduced himself to all of us. Watson's a thoughtful and eloquent fellow. We chatted a bit about the film, then made our way over to the set. On our way we stopped in a make-up room to see an upper body model of Hugh Jackman with full beard, long hair and flowers blooming out of his body. This is part of a scene in the modern day portion of the film, presumably what happens to Tommy when he finds the fountain and drinks from the tree of life. It was an incredible and very lifelike model and when we saw test footage of the film later in the day, it all became a bit clearer.
We made our way to the set and the first thing we saw could only be described as a giant freight container filled with monitors and computers affectionately called Ops. Apparently, this is a brand new device being used for the first time on a set with "The Fountain." Contained within this central command type set-up are everything and anything you'd want to know about the production. It included production designs, notes, still frames from every day of filming, etc. … pretty much everything that came out of this production was archived in Ops. We were given a short demonstration of how it can be accessed via touch-screen interfaces outside the container. Fascinating piece of equipment for film makers, but it may have its downside - this can easily be hooked up to the Internet and executives can forgo a set visit and instead look over the shoulders of filmmakers with ease from their Burbank office suites. It's something that I'm sure will make all directors and producers uneasy if it catches on.
We finally made our way over to the shooting set. It was a huge, massive stage with green screens all around. In the center of the room was the Fountain stage for the far off future storyline. It's a massive tree that looks like it's just clinging to life, in the last throes of its existence. It appeared to be two, maybe three stories tall. There was a small pond on the set. It all had a very organic feel, with a couple of levels and lots of earth and plants all around. Above it was a massive lighting rig that saw lights turning on and off in a circular pattern. As I was busy taking in the site of this massive tree of life, we were introduced by Watson to writer/director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel. Aronofsky was a genuine and welcoming fellow, wearing a New Orleans Saint's baseball cap and red sweater, sporting a rather long and scraggly beard. He told us it's part of a tradition that started when he was making "Pi." It seems when they were filming that movie they weren't certain whether or not they'd be able to get actors to play the Hasidic Jews that are part of the film's final sequence, so when he began filming "Pi" he stopped shaving in case he'd need to play an extra in his own film. It turns out they were able to get a number of Rabbi's to play in the film, so he wasn't needed, but since then Aronofsky's made it a tradition to stop shaving on the first day of principal photography and he won't shave again until they're done shooting. This was day 56 of a 65 day shooting schedule, so that scratchy beard was going to remain for some time.
Production designer James Chinlund came over and introduced himself. I asked him about the set and he said that, in total, it took some 24 weeks to construct and is sculpted with a number of organic materials and plaster.
Then it was time for us to just watch as Jackman and Weisz were about to film a scene. Suddenly the busy set got very quiet as Darren and Director of Photography Matthew Libatique took over. Jackman was standing on tree of life stage with Weisz laying on a medical gurney to the side. They were far enough away that it was impossible to hear the dialogue. The scene lasted maybe a minute or two and we were told they were filming wide shots at that moment. Jackman spent most of his time by Weisz' bedside, then suddenly stood up, shouted no, then walked over to the tree and touched it. I was told this was the way the character communicated with the tree ship. You'll have to wait until the film comes out to know what exactly happened, though.
The scene wrapped and Darren asked us all what we thought of the set. Everyone unanimously agreed it was an impressive structure, when suddenly a tall, gaunt looking bald fellow walked over to us. I didn't realize until he spoke that it was Hugh Jackman. He introduced himself too all of us and struck me as a very genuine fellow. He really was completely unrecognizable, having lost a considerable amount of weight (he said he lost 15 pounds since they began shooting) and the bald head certainly threw me ("I can go around New York with total anonymity [now]," Jackman said.). Up and down each of his forearms were tattoos that were reapplied daily. This certainly didn't look like the man we all saw in those "X-Men" movies. Apparently he shaved his head for the first time just four days prior, so it was all pretty new for Jackman. "I love it," he said. "It's very refreshing. I can't wait to go swimming!"
He noted how not everyone looked good with a shaved head and when asked by Aronofsky to shave his head, Jackman offered a cautious warning to the director. "I warned Aaron against it because my nickname in high school was 'peahead.'"
Aronofsky and Jackman met a while ago when Jackman was starring on Broadway in the musical "The Boy from Oz." Jackman told us a bit about that first meeting. "It was very bizarre when I met Darren because he came to see me in a Broadway musical and I had this image of him being dragged by the hair to see a Broadway musical. It turns out he loves it, he's a big musical guy."
We talked a bit further, then Jackman left us and Aronofsky took us up topside to view the tree of life up close. It was even more massive than I expected once I got up on top of it. The tree was huge and impressive and there was a crawl space or room underneath it. There was a massive root structure that was most evident on the outer most portions of the circular set, the roots curling up at the edges. In the film the tree is something of a space ship. It was described to me as a floating soap bubble in space. An organic space ship unlike anything you've seen in science fiction before. There are actually three different trees used for the production. Later in the day we were shown the tree for the present day storyline that was being disassembling. The present day tree was far more "alive" and green than the future tree. Very green, very vibrant. The two trees were in stark contrast to one another. Production Designer James Chinlund later told me that "All of the design elements came from that [tree]." The palette of film colors is inspired by the tree.
It was time to begin our interviews with the production staff, which we'll get to in a bit later today. We spent about two hours talking with Aronofsky and crew, then broke for lunch and a chance to see some footage from the film. A two to three-minute clip package featuring some music by composer Clint Mansel was shown to us. This wasn't a teaser, but in fact a clip package put together by Aronofsky for the crew to view, but it purposely didn't explain the story at all. That being said, it certainly got everyone in the room excited about the film as the scenes we saw and the style in which it was filmed was very impressive.
The package began with Jackman in close, whispering into Weisz's ear, "Don't worry, we're almost there," and then the scenes began flashing before our eyes. There were a large number of shots edited together featuring scenes from the 16th century and present-day storylines. Seeing Jackman in full conquistador attire was a treat. There were a number of scenes showing Jackman fighting through hordes of Mayan fighters. The tree of life was show and very overgrown. As we moved in to the present day storyline, we see Jackman as a well-groomed researcher and Weisz the writer, with a title shot of her book "The Fountain." What followed were some very impressive and stylized shots from the film, including an impressive one that started upside down as a car moved towards the camera. As it got closer, the camera moved with the car and suddenly we're seeing the car from directly above and finally it swings back around to show the car driving down a road towards a city in the background. All in all, everyone was very impressed by what we saw.
Then it was back to the many interviews and a number of more visits to the tree of life spaceship set. After about eight hours at Mel's it was time to go back to the hotel. One thing I made sure I was very aware of while on the set was how the publicists and unit publicists responded to all of us. In many ways it's the job of a publicist to seduce a reporter, to show them how cool the movie is that we're visiting. I was surprised by exactly how hands off they were with us. They gave us a lot of freedom to look around and talk with the production staff and really didn't try to impress us at all, letting the sets and the production staff take care of that all on its own. And impressive it was. It was a day spent with highly creative, smart and eloquent people all working towards a common goal. The experience was surprisingly refreshing and real. Before the set visit I knew very little about "The Fountain," but now that I've had this experience I can honestly say that I'm very much looking forward to seeing "The Fountain" on opening day.
Check back later today/early Friday for interviews with Aronofsky, Watson, Handel, Chinlund, Mansell and effects guys Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker.