Set Visit: A bridge too far for ‘Final Destination 5’

VANCOUVER, CANADA – It was an appropriately dreary and gray day to contemplate death in Canada. We’d arrived on the set of “Final Destination 5.” in late November of last year and it was drizzling and cold. The Vancouver area is unerringly pretty and green, even in mid-winter. A combination of the forest landscape and a clutched cup of coffee for the van ride from the hotel served to only slightly ready my brain for what we were to see next.

We all know what a “Final Destination” film is. The original 1999 film begins with a poor teenaged soul foreseeing and avoiding a catastrophic accident. In the original, Devon Sawa sees his airplane blow up and himself and his friends engulfed in flames. In the second a new kid sees a massive traffic accident involving a logging truck; In the third a roller-coaster goes off the rails; the fourth, a fun day at the races turns all fiery and un-fun.

The problem for the survivors is that they weren’t supposed to survive. and so fate, or death, or the devil or whatever you wish to call it, makes sure that the survivors do not survive much longer. Death nudges circumstances ever so slightly (or sometimes pretty ham-fistedly) in order to ensure that those young things that cheated death do not get away with it.

This, of course, is the fun part: the rest of the film is spent cringing at all the little possible ways that the next victim’s environment will turn lethal. A nail gun is left on perched precariously on a shelf, a car slips out of gear, an anvil falls off a shelf onto a head, you get the picture. It’s a somewhat existential take on the slasher movie. It’s a formula: you know the kids are going to get it, there’s just way more room for creativity when you’re not stuck with a guy in a hokey mask as your sole death bringer, and the fear is enhanced when the intelligence behind the kill is obscure and relentless.

Producer Craig Perry, who meets us on the set, is convinced that this absence of a physical threat is precisely what makes the series so popular, especially overseas.

“Every culture has an embodiment of what death or mortality is. By us NOT putting an image to it, they can ascribe their own culture to it. It was really able to speak to everybody”s sense of what death means without having it be specific” Said Perry.

“Final Destination 5” stars a new cast of young actors, headed by Nicholas D’Agosto (“Heroes”) as the lucky/unlucky one with the premonition, and Emma Bell (“The Walking Dead”) as his on again off again girlfriend. Miles Fisher of “Mad Men” and Arlen Escarpeta (“Friday the 13th”) bring the handsome and P.J. Byrne (“Dinner for Shmucks”) and Kavid Koechner Bring the comedy. Also returning is “Candyman” actor Tony Todd, who can always bring the spooky.

For “Final Destination 5” the catastrophe that sets all this in motion is the collapse of a suspension bridge. More specifically, the Lion’s Gate Bridge in Vancouver. Although it was all under wraps at the time of our visit, you can see a good amount of this catastrophe in the trailer embedded above. The scene is a complex combination of CGI special effects, practical sets, composite shots and green screen. On our visit day we got to watch them film a portion of this disaster in front of a green screen, all built on a giant life-sized portion of the bridge, set on a motorized gimbal.

Even though everything surrounding the bridge was painted green, it was still surreal and nightmarish to watch a bridge collapse, actors scream and cars plummet off the edge, only to stop in mid-catastrophe and re-set. Cars fell up, bridge un-collapsed and actors went back to their starting marks and it all started over again. It was a ‘deja-vu all over again’ feeling that was admittedly creepier than usual given the context.

“Final Destination 5” is the second film in the series to be shot in 3D, and they brought in the big guns in the form of Steven Quale, James Cameron’s second unit director for little movies like Avatar and Titanic. This is his first time directing a feature film on his own, but he’s been working with the technology for years, starting with Cameron in 2004 shooting the 3D Imax “Aliens of the Deep,” documentary. He definitely brings an air of confidence and professionalism to the set, “Before I directed I was a cinematographer, so I come from a visual background,” said Quale “so I’m bringing that to this series to elevate it to a visual level that I feel does it service and justice.”

The use of 3D Is not an end in itself for Quale, however, which may be a surprising position from someone so deep in the 3D camp. When asked about his approach to the 3D, Quale downplayed it’s importance “I designed some shots specifically for the 3D, then at the same time, for me, it was more the cinematic aspects of making it visually interesting, as opposed to go above and beyond the 3D. So I look at the 3D as icing on the cake. It”s really cool, it”s fantastic, but it”s not a be-all end-all.”

Perhaps the success of the latest “Transformers” with it’s in-your-face 3D will encourage directors that love it to speak in bolder terms about the process, but at that point back in November,  cautiously positive was as far as Quale would go.

A part of the days filming involved David Koechner’s death. When the bridge collapses there are workmen re-tarring the road, and their tar kettle comes loose and flips directly onto ledge where he’s hanging. So he gets a face-full of hot tar. David is instantly recognizable as regular Todd Packer on “The Office” as well as a co-star character actor in such films as “The Anchorman” and more recently in “Extract.”

When he spoke to us, however, he’d been in the makeup chair to simulate tar burns. As disconcerting as it was to talk to a man with half his face burned off he was in good spirits and said that he tried not to bring too much of his comedic background to this set. “You can’t ever mess with the plot, so if you’re going to add a little bit of levity to a serious scene, it can only be when appropriate” Koechner said.

Koachner’s casting is also indicative of one of the new directions the producers decided to go with this latest installment of the series. All the main characters in “Final Destination 5” work together in the same office. The film begins as they are all on their way to a work retreat.

Along with the added dynamics of office politics, this also enables the cast to be more diverse age-wise. From Koechner’s 50-something manager down to the college intern played by Ellen Wroe. Considering that the first film in the series came out over ten years ago, fans of the original may want to see some people their own age be hounded by unseen forces of death, as if being hounded by middle age wasn’t enough.

We’ll have lots more “Final Destination 5”  to come including more on the 3D, and we’ll hear from the actors.

Check out the poster below, “Final Destination 5” Opens in theaters August 12th, 2011