“You guys came on a good day,” says Chloe Moretz. The actress is wearing all black – black t-shirt, black pants, black Ugg boots. The dour color scheme makes sense: in only a short time, she will be doused with a full bucket of pig”s blood.
“I”m really excited to do it,” she tells us. “But it”s like five gallons of a liquid being dumped on your head so it”s really heavy.”
It”s August of 2012, in Toronto, on the set of “Carrie.” Moretz is vivacious and confident and very pretty, but she is playing the title role here – a mousy social outcast with telekinesis. Indeed, such a wide gulf separates the actress and her character that upon first meeting the then-15-year-old, director Kimberly Peirce stated her intention to “beat [the] little confident person out” of Moretz in order to get the performance she needed. So she sent the actress to a homeless shelter.
“It was beautiful,” Moretz says of the experience. “I come from such a privileged life, and to go meet these people who have never known any semblance of love and money and life. …I talked to these women who have been sexually abused and physically abused and verbally abused, and they”re so strong. Even though they”ve had so much done to them, they”re so strong, and you look into their eyes and you learn so much just from talking to them. “
“I said ‘Look, the truth is that you’re walking the red carpet, you’re working with Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, the world loves you, your family loves you – that’s great for you as an individual and you’ve got to hold on to that,” says Peirce of prepping Moretz for the role. “”But for this movie, we have to take all that confidence and security and personality and we have to put it over here. We have to take a hammer and we have to crack that, and then we have to make you sheltered, scared, a misfit, unusual. You’ve been beaten by your mother.””
Peirce is a petite woman with a commanding presence and a fierce, scalpel-like intelligence. Her answers are detailed and methodical, taking us through her thought processes point by point. First winning acclaim for her 1999 feature-film debut “Boys Don”t Cry” – which netted Hilary Swank an Oscar for playing the role of real-life murder victim Brandon Teena – she went on to write and direct the less well-received 2008 Iraq War drama “Stop-Loss” starring Ryan Phillippe, Abbie Cornish, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Channing Tatum. “Carrie,” only her third film in 14 years, is her first real stab at the mainstream – which is not to say that she’s lost her independent spirit.
“I don’t really like to think of it as a remake, even if it is,” she tells us, referencing the original Brian De Palma film which itself is based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King. “I like to say, ‘Okay, what’s our movie going to be?” With all due respect to De Palma, ’cause he’s brilliant, I love him, what I did see was an opportunity to do something different. Not better, not worse, just different.”
For those unfamiliar with the story, it centers on Carrie White, a telekinetic high-school loner living with her religious-zealot mother who becomes the target of a cruel prank orchestrated by vengeful popular classmate Chris Hargensen that involves a high-school prom and one strategically released bucket of pig”s blood. Needless to say, none of this ends well.
The title character was played with piercing realism by Sissy Spacek in the original film, and the actress was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for her performance – as was Piper Laurie for ably chewing scenery as Carrie”s mother. Here, the latter role is filled by four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore, who clearly wasn’t shy about stating her opinions during production.
“It’s really fun having an adult come to set and say ‘I’m not going to say that line,'” Peirce tells us. “I’m not used to that, you know what I mean? I’m like ‘Well, why not?’ And she’s like ‘Well, because…blahblahblah.’ Okay, that’s fine. It’s just wonderful that somebody has run all the options and thought about it and has a very decisive choice about it.”
As Peirce tells it, “decisive” may be an understatement.
“What was great was Chloe would have to go home at a certain hour, because Chloe only has a certain number of hours because of her age,” she continued. “So it would just be me and Julianne and the crew doing some of her scenes alone and she just went. I mean, when I say you try to cross that edge, she would go over but it would be grounded. So we were all just watching it. I have to say, when she’s…in our movie, Margaret locks Carrie in the closet, that’s a staple of the story, right? We also have Carrie lock Margaret in the closet. Oh wow, does Julianne go there.”
The third part of the deadly trifecta that leads to the tragedy at the end of the story is Chris Hargensen, who was a one-note mean girl in the original film but will be more fleshed-out in Peirce’s telling.
“What I saw in the book, putting the original film aside, was a chance to really develop Chris as your villain,” she told us. “Who is Chris? Why is she going to pick on this girl? How does that escalate? …What I love about our Chris is that she’s totally right that her life is getting totally effed up because of Carrie White. So I made sure to make it that you really saw things through Chris’s point of view.”
Another relatively underwritten character in the original movie was Sue Snell (Amy Irving), the popular “good girl” and friend of Chris whose guilt over a bullying incident early in the film (the famed opening sequence in the original that takes place in a girls” locker room) leads her to coerce boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. In the new film, Sue isn”t quite so virtuous.
“You know, she”s not – Sue isn”t innocent or she wouldn”t really be my best friend,” says Portia Doubleday, who plays the role of Chris. For the actress, it”s the disintegrating relationship between the two girls (Sue is played by Gabriella Wilde here) that really provides the catalyst for the cruel action Chris ultimately takes. “As things progress you kind of see how my character, I guess, loses herself. Because her world slowly falls apart. I mean, she loses her best friend. …That was really important to me, especially because then it gives reason to her actions later. When they kind of start to split apart it gives justification for, you know, why she would do these things to someone else.”
Rounding out the teenage cast here are Ansel Elgort as Tommy Ross and Alex Russell as Chris”s sadistic boyfriend Billy Nolan, the latter being a role originated on film by future movie star John Travolta.
“I think the key with Billy is that you sort of smell trouble from the start,” says Russell, doing his second telekinesis film in as many years (he also starred in last year”s sleeper action/sci-fi film ‘Chronicle”). “He seems like bad news from the beginning, so that was a challenge. Because you want that the audience to 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.” There is a pause before he adds: “It’s not going to be like Heath Ledger’s Joker though.”
Elgort, a 19-year-old stage actor just now transitioning to film roles (he”s also got forthcoming YA sci-fi adaptation “Divergent” in the pipeline), sees Carrie”s ultimate lashing out as a representation of the very real daydreams he imagines are entertained by many who find themselves on the wrong end of the high-school power dynamic.
“She unleashes the power on the people who have done wrong to her and it`s almost like a person who is bullied, it`s their fantasy almost, of what would be going on in their mind if someone did that,” he tells us. “She would imagine herself with powers, destroying everyone who hurt her.”
Given that “Carrie” is being billed as a “re-adaptation” of King”s book as opposed to a remake, perhaps it”s no wonder that the name of the sympathetic gym teacher (being played this time around by “Arrested Development’s” Judy Greer) has been changed back to “Miss Desjardin” as opposed to “Mrs. Collins,” the moniker she was bestowed with in the 1976 film.
“I”ve seen the bathroom stuff and what I”ve seen of it has made me cry,” Greer (decked out in a blue dress) tells us of the infamous shower scene that opens both the novel and the original movie. “I think because bullying has really become such a problem…I think it”s maybe going to be more impactful right now, just because of where that is in society and how much more we”re hearing about it. At least 35 years ago, you didn”t have the internet telling you every single thing that happened in every school and college around the world, but this seems to me-and maybe it”s because I know Chloé and I didn”t know Sissy Spacek-but seeing the stuff happen to Chloé really breaks my heart and makes me feel really sad, and it makes me feel sad to think of kids going through that. Just watching her performance in the shower scene is really heartbreaking.”
Of course, as anyone who has read the book and/or seen De Palma”s film knows, Ms. Desjardin/Collins ends up paying dearly for her preoccupation with Carrie”s plight.
“For the next couple weeks, we”re getting electrocuted and blown up and set on fire and arms and legs cut off and stuff like that,” Greer tells us enthusiastically. “I”m still arguing about my fate. We”ll see. But I did want to get cut in half. I thought that would be really cool. One time I got my brains blown out of my head in a movie…I have really cool pictures of it.”
Our tour of the set is like a greatest-hits compilation of the original film”s most iconic scenes. One moment we”re in the girls” locker room, with its large communal shower and sinks filled with tampons; the next we”re being led through the White home, with its crucifix-adorned attic bedroom and dark little closet whose fake pop-out wall (allowing the director of photography to shoot from both sides) cannot dispel the lingering horror of watching Piper Laurie pummel Sissy Spacek with “Eve was weak!” invocations before locking her inside the tiny space to pray.
And the prom.
As I step onto the soundstage, the first thing that catches my eye is the collection of shiny stars that dangle from the ceiling. Adorning the walls, photos of senior proms past hang beneath a sign reading, “80 Years of Memories.” Long cafeteria tables accommodate punchbowls and blue plastic cups and whoopee pies of all different shades: lime green, and pale pink, and lavender and mustard. Hanging banners crow of past athletic victories (Go Bulldogs) as plastic trees lit with mini-lights share space with vine-bedecked lampposts and hordes of young extras in glittery prom-wear. At the front of the room, twin green screens flank the stage.
As the cameras roll, Moretz and Elgort make their way through the throngs of cheering “students,” the path they clear quickly filling in behind them as they ascend the lighted stairs to the stage. Moretz is wearing a dress of the same pale-pink shade worn by Spacek in the original. She is crowned.
As the applause reaches a fever pitch, a school song rises up to the rafters: “Let”s raise our banners to the sky/Our love for you will never die.” It’s a bad omen if I”ve ever heard one.
When it comes time for the climactic blood drop, tests are needed. Stand-ins dressed identically to Moretz and Elgort take their place on the stage. There is a buzz of anticipation and then, cameras rolling, the bucket is upturned above Moretz”s double. It splashes down her back but misses her head completely.
Peirce comes over to explain the physics of it. She tells us the drop we just saw was six inches off. She tells us that blood hitting the top of the head creates an unwanted “umbrella effect,” so they thickened the formula to make it work better. And then she”s off, to try it again. Only this time, they’re playing for keeps.
“I had a moment the other night actually on the catwalk when I was looking down [onto the stage], and I remember looking at Alex [Russell] and I think we both felt it the same time because we know the movie really well,” Portia Doubleday had confided to us earlier. “I actually didn”t watch it before I started filming but it was just kind of – it felt like kind of like an historic moment really. Like seeing everybody and the pig”s blood and everything…just a moment of, I guess, thankfulness and excitement that I got to actually be a part of it.”
After the stage is cleaned and prepped, Moretz and Elgort are back in position. This is the moment. The bucket hangs precariously. Anticipation rises.
The bucket is upturned. The blood pours thickly over Moretz”s hair and crown and down her pale-pink dress, and there is that moment of dread on her face as the entire wretched setup becomes clear.
“What I definitely wanted to not do is steal what [Sissy Spacek] did,” Moretz had told us before. “Everyone knows the typical hands-out, eyes-open look. There were so many times when someone [would suggest that]. People wouldn”t even think about it but I was doing one of the photoshoots and someone was like, ‘Just stick your hands out like this!” and I was like, ‘No! I can”t do that,” because the minute I do that I”ll be stealing someone else”s character. My main thing about this film was building my own Carrie, and she”s not what Sissy did, she”s not what De Palma made Carrie to be, it”s what Kim and I have constructed to be this being, what we have made into this living, breathing human. “
The blood drop is a rousing success. As Peirce yells “cut,” the extras cheer and applaud. Moretz and Elgort hug happily.
And then something somehow perfect happens. Elgort slips and falls to the stage, hard. Moretz laughs. The extras laugh. Elgort smiles through it.
High school is over. It was all just pretend.
“Why is it that we can keep retelling these great stories over and over?” says Peirce. “Hopefully it’s because it hits something so universal, and so primal, inside of us that we actually yearn for that same story over and over. But told in a different form and updated and modernized.”
“Primal” is a word that can certainly be used to describe “Carrie.” Looking at De Palma”s original film – one of the greatest of all horror films – it strips the fat from King”s novel to break the Hell of adolescence down to its most basic and painful components. In doing so it lays bare the core themes of the book in even starker relief, speaking to the deepest, rawest places in us. The terrible pain of rejection. The fear of exposure. Mother.
“Margaret White is an amazing character because she’s always right,” says Peirce. “What does she say? ‘Don’t go out there; the boys are going to come and they’re going to want to lay you. Don’t go out there; the people are going to laugh at you. Don’t go, there’s going to be a judgment.” So, that was the other thing in reading the book, that not only is Chris right in her own way but so is Margaret. Oh, so is Sue. You could complicate Sue. And that’s just how I look at the characters, is that they’re all right. I love all of them. And in a great story, hopefully they’re all right, they all have rational and reason and they all come at each other and that’s where the explosion happens.”
“Carrie” is slated for release on October 18.