Just a Cabin in the Woods
Fede Alvarez's daring reconception of Evil Dead was based on recreating some iconic visual elements of the original and amping up the fear factor with the best new technology available. The success of his plan depended heavily on meticulous coordination among the crafts departments of the film, especially since he had made an unusual and demanding choice. In keeping with the spirit of the 1981 classic, Alvarez was determined to use as many practical effects, or "gags," as possible, eschewing CGI effects wherever he could.
Auckland, New Zealand, was selected as the location based on Tapert and Raimi's extensive experiences shooting there. "We wanted to give Fede everything he needed and we thought we could do that best in New Zealand," says Campbell. "They have a really good, solid crew of people that take the work seriously."
The decision made it possible for the filmmakers to bring in craftspeople and artisans with whom they had worked for more than a decade. "A lot of people really wanted to work on this because they loved The Evil Dead," says Tapert. "They are all about my age and so joyous about blood and guts and scares and gags. It was an incredibly positive experience."
The preparations began with production designer Rob Gillies, who was responsible for creating a unique look for the film that paid homage to the original visuals. "Fede had a single-minded and clear intention of what he wanted to do," says the designer. "We just aided and abetted his vision. We kept things simple, working from a really restricted palette, so the background stays in the background and then things are added for emphasis, with blood being the thing that we really wanted to accent."
Alvarez shot as little of the film as possible on a soundstage. "We wanted a real cabin in the woods," he says. "For the actors, it's helpful be in the place for real, to look around and see the woods. That's something we really committed to from the beginning."
The director, along with Young, Gillies and Tapert, scouted locations in the forest outside Auckland before landing on the ideal spot. "It was very important to recreate the feeling of the Evil Dead cabin," says Young. "We found a really exciting, scary clearing to set it in and around. There's a certain texture to the trees that creates that frightening atmosphere."
Gillies' cabin effectively retains the look of the original and tweaks it slightly. "We invented a backstory for the cabin," he says. "It was built in the '20s. Its heyday was maybe in the '50s and then it went downhill big time. Mia and David spent time there as children with their mother and they had good times there. There are still a few traces of those good days, like old photos curling on the wall."
To achieve the effect they wanted, the design team had to build the cabin from scratch. "We also needed to build a duplicate on a soundstage because the heavy prosthetics were more suited to working in the studio," says Gillies. "The challenge for me was to duplicate it in its dereliction, even though we were building it new. We flat-packed one, took that out to the woods, and re-erected it out there. We were able to shoot a huge percentage of the movie outside on location."
The soundstage replica had to be flexible enough to accommodate Alvarez' ambitious plans for his cameras. "The cabin is a two-part set, ground floor and basement," says Gillies. "At the end of the basement is a door and you drop a few feet which gives us more potential for horror. It's full of dead cats and feels like the epicenter of evil, if you like, because that's where the Book is discovered. In the studio, we were able to actually lift the set up, so the basement was at ground level at times. The walls were all removable to accommodate the cameras."
In addition to the cabin, Gillies was charged with recreating another iconic element of the franchise: The Book of the Dead. "The book was the seed from which The Evil Dead exploded," says Tapert. "The first movie was originally entitled The Book of the Dead after something Sam read about in an ancient history class. But our sales agent said it was a terrible title, because books weren't going to scare an audience. He made a bunch of equally bad suggestions and The Evil Dead was the one we could live with. I guess the rest is history."
After proposing several ideas for the book's design, Gillies arrived at a fairly simple, straightforward version. "Except it's bound in human flesh and sealed with barbed wire," says the designer. "We decided that was scary enough. We also needed to create content, because the pages give Eric the information he needs to figure out that the demons are on the prowl. We decided it was written hundreds of years ago. It looks like a 12th century scribe made some notes, and then in the 14th century someone else added some notes in another language. It passes through many hands over the centuries, all of them adding and adjusting. The writing gets crazier and more colorful, and that is how it is when Eric opens it."
Alvarez surprised the filmmakers with his insistence on in-camera effects, believing that would retain the authenticity and immediacy he wanted for the movie. "This is such a visceral and simple story," says the director. "It's grounded by five people in a cabin, which everyone understands right away. Because that's so simple, I didn't want to bring CGI to the story.
"The effects are about taking real elements and putting them together in a new way to create something surprising," he continues. "Too much CGI would take you out of the moment. I work with CGI in my business in Uruguay and even the best effects can sometimes be noticeable."
When CGI couldn't be avoided, visual effects supervisor George Ritchie was called in to smooth out rough edges. "Everybody's seen the fancy eye candy, so it was really nice to work on something where we added value rather than trying to create the basics," Ritchie says. "I don't like to see gratuitous computer-generated imagery. It's far too broadly used these days and I prefer a lighter touch. It's a real privilege to be able to do something where if I do my job properly no one will know I've done it."
From the storyboard stage through shooting, the filmmakers were constantly asking themselves asked how much could be captured in-camera. "It makes it all feel seamless and tied together," says Young. "Every department made a huge contribution. It's exhilarating to realize those crazy, outrageous moments with all the different visuals brought together by the team."
Many of the gags depended on close coordination between Roger Murray, the makeup effects designer who created the elaborate prosthetics used in the movie, and the make-up team, headed by Jane O'Kane. "I've worked with them both for many years," says Tapert. "In the past, Jane always wanted to put in as much blood as possible; this was her chance to really let the blood rain.
"Roger's whole professional life has been leading up to this," continues the producer. "He's been creating props and special make-up appliances for years, but he's never done a movie that utilized his entire team and their skills like this. The business has evolved away from that with CGI. Going back to doing it this way gave a great team of artisans a chance to shine."
Having worked on many projects where CGI was used extensively, Tapert says he appreciates the difference. "When heads and arms get chopped off via CGI, there's a certain operatic beauty to it. CGI lends itself to creating 'pleasing' images, whereas someone slowly sawing their arm off and squirting blood everywhere has the visceral quality that makes it seem like you can really see things ripping."
Murray, who grew up watching horror films, still remembers seeing The Evil Dead for the first time when he was 15. "It was interesting going back and seeing it again, then reading the new script," he says "The new story line is a lot more realistic and approaches the characters differently, which makes it is a lot darker. Fede is a real special effects nut, so he wanted to get everything in-camera. It was great to work with someone with his background."
As movie effects become more sophisticated, it gets harder and harder to scare people, observes Murray. "People are exposed to a lot more horror and have become desensitized to it. Deciding what to show and what to suggest has become even more important. I think we've made something truly scary here."
All the actors go through an extensive and makeup-heavy transition as they metamorphose into their demonic forms. For Natalie, the team created five different prosthetic arms that represented the stages of her degeneration. "She has to chop off her arm," says Murray. "We started with a silicone arm and joined the actress to a double, so she is giving the performance and her double controls the infected arm. There's one that she actually cuts off. We've got one for after her arm drops off. Elizabeth went through it all."
But that was nothing compared to the punishment Jane Levy's Mia suffered through. "The character is caught in a thorn bush and she gets badly burnt before the whole Deadite part of her comes out," Murray says. "We isolated eight different stages as her possession progresses with about 150 appliances that we put together in different combinations."
Mia's injuries became the jumping off point for her makeup design, says O'Kane. "When we first meet her, she's coming off heroin, so she starts out very drawn and we watch her degenerate. The silicone pieces had to be made fresh every time, so Roger's crew was beavering away daily. Jane was usually three hours in the chair before she got her contact lenses in, then she was off to set. We needed another hour just to get her out of the make-up. She was extremely patient in the chair. She hadn't done this sort of make-up look before, but she's really driven and loved us making her look scary."
Levy claims to recall very little of the grueling process "I got in the chair and let them take over." She says. "After I was done, they hosed me down so that I look sweaty and spilled a jug of blood on me. I remember when I had my head cast, they took that goo the dentist uses and covered me with it. Then they wrapped me in papier-mache and let it harden before they cut me out of it. They also did my teeth, my tongue, my chest, my arm and my leg. It was probably a total of 12 hours of casting."
Bruce Campbell remembers a slightly different process the first time around. "We were making head molds with plaster of Paris," he says. "It was so primitive, we ripped all the eyelashes off of our lead actress. To get the mold off, she had to lean forward and let the gravity suck it off her face and her eyelashes were solidly embedded in the plaster."
But this time around, even the costumes were carefully coordinated with the effects. "We worked quite closely with the prosthetics department and special effects to get the looks right," says costume designer Sarah Voon. "The costumes had to be carefully manipulated to accommodate the rigs. Some of them have stretchy backs and others have special pieces built in. There's not a lot you can build into a see through slip, but you'd be surprised at what you can hide with flesh colored bandaging. And blood can hide quite a lot."
Alvarez tasked Voon with creating costumes that are timeless and have an American feel. "But he also wanted the looks to be a little bit aspirational," says the designer. "We wanted to be able to connect with young people in the audience and create a new legion of horror fans."
With that in mind, she created and artfully crafted a vintage-inspired look for Mia. "She doesn't have a lot of money to spend on clothes," says Voon. "So she gravitates toward older things, with some special pieces from her mother and her grandmother. We start off with her in her old sweatshirt over a vintage dress, because she knows she's in for rough ride and she's got her comfort sweatshirt. One of her other main items is a petticoat we built from a 1920s pattern. It's a very beautiful handmade slip and that pretty much carries through the drama as she turns into a demon. We just thought that the sweet, vintage styling was in stark contrast to what she becomes. We had to create 62 slips for the various stunt doubles and body doubles, all by hand."
Calling Evil Dead one of the bloodiest films of all time is not mere hyperbole, according mechanical and physical FX supervisor Jason Durey. "On 30 Days of Night, which was quite a big, bloody, vampire film, we went through 4,500 liters of blood. On this movie, we're looking at around 25,000 liters of blood. Crikey, we probably went through about 300 liters of vomit, including testing and shooting. The volume of bodily fluids on this is well beyond anything I've ever done before. It's quite yucky and completely terrifying."
Durey says the director's most frequent request from the FX team was "More, more, I want it bigger." "Fede brought a new element to our shoot by pushing us with certain gags and asking for things that we weren't sure how we were going to deliver," he adds. "It certainly made my job interesting. He was constantly asking for more smoke or more blood, and we whacked it in."
And that was exactly what Alvarez was looking for. "All the time, people were saying, is that too much blood? Is that too much whatever?" recalls the director. "I said, it's never too much. Nothing is too much if we're really going for it. Audiences should expect something completely unexpected! They're not going to see it coming."
The Evil Dead was an ultra-low budget endeavor, with much of the technology jerry-rigged in order to keep costs low. This time out, the filmmakers had deeper pockets. "And the thing that has evolved the most in filmmaking over the last 32 years is technology," says Tapert. "We shot The Evil Dead on the most primitive of systems and we improvised everything. We didn't even have dollies. We're trying to get that same kind of manic energy using the best technology available today. We shot on brand new cameras and super high resolution 4k's that look exactly like 16mm film."
Perhaps the biggest change in the film's overall look is the lighting. "In the first Evil Dead, we knew it was going to be in drive-in theaters," says Tapert. "There is always more ambient light in a drive-in than a conventional theater, so we went out of our way to make the movie quite bright so that people in the drive-ins could see the image on the screen. Fede took a more artistic approach. The film has a very moody, textured and expensive look."
Alvarez also departed from tradition by shooting many scenes in daylight. "It's not often you see this much of a horror film set during the daytime," he says. "But our camera was so great and had such color range, the movie looks gorgeous. I felt that, for a lot of scenes, the obvious choice would have been to do it during the night. But we found a wide range of other choices during daytime that are even scarier, because you can actually see what's out there in the woods."
Director of photography Aaron Morton describes the film's overall look as "raw." "Fede wanted a timeless quality that would lull people into a false sense of security at the opening of the film," he says. "We use the whole gamut of classic horror tools to make the audience care about the characters, so that when they're in trouble, we get the strongest possible reaction."
Morton says the most challenging aspect of the production for him was finding the right balance of darkness and light. "Even when it's dark, it's got to have shape," he says. "The girls have got to look beautiful and the guys have to look tough. We're using the brand new Sony F65, which is a fantastic camera. Coupled with our Arri Master Prime Lens, it delivers a very organic, film-like look. Part of it is the mechanical shutter the camera has, which emulates the film look we're all used to. It is at the cutting edge of digital technology at the moment."
The cinematography pays tribute to the first film with a moment that depicts the Evil Force chasing Mia through the woods. "That shot is a motif from the original films," says Morton. "Back in the day, they literally attached a camera to a plank of wood and had a guy on each side running with it. We wanted to put a little spin on that, so we've got a hand-held cable rig. When the Evil Force is chasing Mia, that's basically me flying straight at her on a zip line. It is a pretty visceral."
Editing also played a crucial role in creating the intensity and velocity with which the story is told. "The original had a sort of punk edge," says editor Bryan Shaw. "It was very much of that era, the early '80s, and we tried to recapture that. Fede had already written it into the script. Sometimes I read a script and hope they lose three or four scenes. But this was tight. He knows how to build to a scare and how long he can suspend the moment."
As different as the two experiences were for the filmmakers, the intense collaboration required to create Evil Dead reminded Tapert of the profound journey making the first film set in motion for him and his partners. "The original Evil Dead was physically hard and demanding, but in hindsight it was a great experience for Sam, Bruce and me," he says. "We have been lifelong friends as a result of it. This has been much less physically demanding, because money heals some of those issues. It was great to work with Sam and Bruce on something that brought us together again.
"Fede was a pleasure to work with," he continues. "He has the all qualities I look for in a director. Even though this is his first full-length movie, he has years of experience of working on set and having an artistic vision and chasing that vision. Working with someone like that was, for me, the best part of the process. I'm looking forward to seeing what he does next."
Campbell is enthusiastic in his praise of the finished film: "Not only is the acting in this movie better, so are the special effects and the cinematography. You're not going to see the green garden hose spewing the blood. This time we took modern-day technology and a decent budget and had it again. I hope that one day, there will be some wicked double bills of both Evil Deads. I want to introduce it at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. I think it would be a very solid interlocking double bill."
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