DEAD MAN DOWN
The Girl Next Door
A full year before shooting began on Dead Man Down, director Niels Arden Oplev had already developed a clear visual style that he wanted to bring to the film, as well as a wish list of collaborators who could help him achieve it, according to Stuart Ford.
"That was really reassuring and it was a no-brainer for us to agree to surround Niels with people he feels comfortable with," says the executive producer. "Niels Sejer, the production designer, and Paul Cameron, the director of photography, shared his vision and brought real consistency and a specific identity to the movie that made it possible for us to make a film that has a fresh and idiosyncratic feel."
Adds Ori Marmur: "From the very first meeting, he said he felt very strongly that the film should feel like real life -- but just a bit off."
The idea of duality was key to his visual concept for the movie. "Life has taught me that reality is a lot more peculiar than we think," the director says. "There are distinctive elements in Dead Man Down that make it larger than life and a bit like a fairy tale, complete with the themes of violence and vengeance that are often found in those stories. There's a seductive quality in this tough and frightening world.
"I wanted a realistic, grainy looking film that would be at one with its universe. But I also wanted it to be beautiful with soft light and rich colors. When I am dealing with a topic that has a certain toughness, I think it is more interesting to make the world in which it is set quite beautiful, because beauty has a seductive quality that pulls you in. Niels Sejer and Paul Cameron have created intense beauty, even in the middle of a gunfight. It is a seeming contradiction to the subject matter and it adds complexity to the story."
In true digital-age fashion, Sejer began his work on Dead Man Down remotely. "I was in Copenhagen preparing for the movie while Niels was in New York," he remembers. "We did our planning on Skype and even did location scouting via Google Earth. I could sit in Copenhagen, looking up and down the streets of New York. I watched every possible gangster movie set in modern New York. For three months, we communicated without seeing each other and we actually got a lot of work done."
Oplev encouraged his collaborator to continue exploring some of the elements they worked with in their previous film. "These are larger-than-life characters," says Sejer. "But we wanted to keep them real within the whole mythical universe of American gangster movies. He wanted to get into the mind of this man who's lost everything and is obsessed with revenge in a realistic and practical way."
It took a bit of serendipity to lead them to the massive apartment building where Victor and Beatrice's relationship begins. Oplev was living on Manhattan's Lower East Side, taking pictures of his surroundings and emailing them to Sejer for reference. "I was jogging one day when suddenly I saw this monster of a building, 20 floors and four towers on each side," he says. "There were hundreds of apartment and each tower had a balcony that faced another. I nearly ran into a street lamp, because I was thinking, what if they each were on the balconies watching each other? And in the background, it is clearly New York. I felt it was a way to see the city in a way that I don't think people would think about New York."
The production designer, who had lived in Soho in the 1980s and was familiar with the area, was intrigued by the possibilities. "Niels Arden and I are both fascinated with some of the same aspects of New York City," says Sejer. "We love the fact that New York is a port city. The water is everywhere, but you don't necessarily see it when you are living there. We love the bridges crossing in and out of Manhattan, those incredible steel structures and highway overpasses built on riveted steel. It's big, it's cinematic and it is quintessentially American."
The Lower East Side is the gritty, unglamorous side of Manhattan, but Oplev and Sejer saw the potential in the setting. "It can feel more like a documentary with thousands of people living on each block," the production designer says. "But if you are up in one of those apartments, all of a sudden there is a whole spectrum of glamorous backdrops. You have the most incredible view of downtown Manhattan, looking across Essex Street, and seeing giant ocean liners stranded at the tip of the island, all of Wall Street and the Manhattan Bridge. Looking up at Midtown, you see the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. It seemed the perfect example of dualism."
The buildings were utilitarian, with few architectural details. "The one thing they did have was balconies," says Sejer. "We imagined that all the initial contact between Beatrice and Victor was taking place through their windows and across the balconies. It allowed the director to create scenes of unusual intimacy."
The filmmakers began picturing the story as an urban fairy tale that takes place in the shadows of the iron bridge and in the apartments that float above the city. Violence begets romance and vice versa. "The audience is poised on the edge throughout, looking at something beautiful just as it turns horrific," according to Sejer. "We used warm colors and flowered wallpaper to make it more accessible. People get shot in the head, but it's also seductive. We were looking for that dualism that comes when you make something beautiful and then set something truly nasty against it."
But when director of photography Paul Cameron came to see the building, he pointed out that for 90 percent of the day, the sun would not be in the right place for shooting. In order to realize their vision, the filmmakers decided to construct three floors of the building facade and the apartments on a soundstage.
"That way, we could easily catch a little glimpse of Victor passing from his living room into the kitchen in the background of scene," says Oplev. "Those kinds of shots are part of the whole fairy-tale feeling, as it's actually more than just real."
To make the backgrounds authentic, Cameron shot massive plates of New York. "I photographed rainy days, and cloudy afternoons, and nights with clouds and sodium light underlighting them," he says. "We developed a whole world for these characters on those plates."
According to Marmur, "Paul added another layer of sophistication to the film with the stunning and original look he helped conceive and execute. We didn't have the traditional $100 million Hollywood tent-pole budget, but we still got that kind of look and vibe. Paul came in really excited about doing something different from his work on big movies like Total Recall. With minimal CG or visual effects, he and Niels Arden Oplev created a real, cool throwback to the awesome movies of the '70s."
The script had all the elements needed for a very commercial, action oriented film, says Cameron. "But knowing Niels Arden's work from Dragon Tattoo, I knew he would bring something very special to the mix. And he did. He made a character-centric film that is both a revenge tragedy and a love story. I could see right away he and Niels Sejer would bring a very European sensibility to this and that was the right direction for me.
"Our main focus was to make a very realistic looking film with an edge of fantasy," Cameron continues. "The duality is present again in the contrast between the worlds of Victor and Beatrice. When you walk into Beatrice and Valentine's apartment, it's like a little piece of Paris on the Lower East Side. It's a slightly heightened reality, brighter and warmer compared to the rest of the world.
"When you step outside into the hallway, it is lit with fluorescent lights and so bleak," he continues. "That carries all the way over to the next tower where Victor lives, which is very stark and without color. It feels like Eastern Europe."
Crime boss Alphonse's house provides another texture for the film. The opulent mansion was also built on a soundstage to accommodate the film's explosive finale. "When you see the film, you will realize that we had no choice but to build the house on a soundstage so it perfectly fit the action," says the director.
"It's very climactic ending," says Cameron. "It's late afternoon and the light is streaming into this rich, spotless interior, unlike the world that we've been in for most of the movie."
Oplev, Sejer and Cameron designed the mansion set together for the shots they knew they would need. "Paul mounted the camera on a descender rig, which is a pulley system, that allowed us to move the camera up and down that central stairwell for some pretty incredible shots," says Sejer. "It was very efficient, because we didn't have to remount the camera for every shot and we could remote-control it."
Oplev and his team pictured the house in Forest Hills, right at the end of Queens Boulevard. "You turn a corner in a working class part of Queens and find yourself on wooded suburban streets lined with beautiful homes," he says. "Alphonse is always beautifully dressed and has great taste, so of course he'd have an impressive home."
Oplev sees Dead Man Down as a natural extension of his earlier work, an action- packed thriller with riveting characters that strives to cross genre boundaries and appeal to a wide audience. "It dares to be commercial, yet at the same time it has a quality in its artistic expression that transcends that," he says. "The violence and action are not there just to look good. It's there for a reason. These are real living, breathing characters who interact and interrelate and there's a story to each of the relationships in the film. We have made, in many ways, a classic old-school thriller with an original love story at the heart of it.
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