Creating the Atmosphere of Fear
"Prisoners" is set Pennsylvania, but was shot entirely in and around Stone Mountain and
other eastern suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The filmmakers settled on Stanton Woods, a
neighborhood near Conyers, which became the fictional Conyers in the movie. Shooting was to
commence in the month of January, which also pleased Villeneuve, who recalls, "The forecast
was for three months of Thanksgiving-like weather, meaning rain, cold, but not three feet of
snow falling from the sky like you'd get up north. The locals said it was the worst winter they
could remember, but for us, it was perfect."
To create the look and feel of a Northeastern town as winter approaches and a chilly pall
literally and figuratively hangs over the streets, homes and residents, the director turned to
production designer Patrice Vermette, costume designer Renee April, and venerable director of
photography Roger Deakins.
"For me, this was a chance to fulfill one of my biggest dreams as a filmmaker: to work
with a master cinematographer like Roger. He is one of my contemporary heroes," Villeneuve
The director had worked with both Vermette and April before. "Patrice and Renee were
on my first film, and they are both great artists. Renee is totally committed to helping the actors
bring their characters to life, and Patrice is all about the details -- behind each door, each curtain,
everything conveys real life, and I think that's so important."
Vermette's early inspiration for "Prisoners" came from photos, particularly some of
photographer Gregory Crewdson's less surreal work. "When I read a script, it's like reading a
book for me. I see images in my mind. I then start collecting imagery from personal photos and
sketches, books and the internet," he relates. "I also enjoy going on the road and taking pictures
of what I feel should be the right mood for the storytelling of the film. I make a virtual
scrapbook of what I think the movie's mood should be for each set. The mood board grows and
grows and it becomes the reference and guideline that you can always refer to in prep and
production. I think it's a helpful tool for everyone."
He then presented his material to Villeneuve, and they were on the same page. The two
went to Atlanta, scouring the neighborhoods to find the kind of locales that could fit what they
had in mind for a story that takes place in Pennsylvania.
While they scouted, Vermette recounts, "We discussed the visual environments: colors,
textures, reflective surfaces, everything that makes up the ambiance. We visited several homes
and realized that people often had a lot of things from the `70s and `80s. Not antiques, but a real
eclectic mix of textures that, for our purposes, I found to be more interesting than some of the
contemporary things we see today."
Fortunately there were outdoor sites that worked equally well for the production, with
architecture and foliage that resembled a typical northeastern neighborhood. "Fairmount Circle
could easily be in New York state or Pennsylvania," the designer continues. "We all felt that it
was important for the film that it feel like it could happen anywhere, to anybody. So, instead of
needing the town to be a real suburb or small town, we planted the story in what we called the
'exurb.' I think that's what North America is becoming: all these small villages that are united
by highways and strip malls eventually become one. In fact, if you look at aerial pictures of a lot
of these 'exurbs,' it's like a maze, there are no reference points. Mazes also happen to be an
important visual element of the film and one which we discreetly introduced in some of the sets."
One of the sets Vermette references is the dilapidated, abandoned apartment complex
where Dover takes Jones. The designer's team built the interior on a stage; its exterior was a
location near Midtown Atlanta, which they built an extension onto and turned it into an
abandoned apartment building. They also remodeled the interiors of the houses they filmed in
for the Birches' and Dovers' homes -- transformations welcomed by the real owners -- effectively
turning practical locations into stage sets with sliding walls. Different houses were used for their
In keeping with the foreboding tone of the drama, Vermette went for muted hues rather
than a bright color scheme. "We stayed with soft blues and grays and greens for the Birches,"
Vermette says, "and browns, ochers and burnt reds for the Dovers."
Similarly, costume designer Renee April sought to subdue her color palette. "I took
every piece of wardrobe and dipped it in light gray, just to take it down a bit. I favored grays,
maroon, purples...just melancholy colors in general." She shopped for costumes at such stores
as Sears, Wal-Mart and Target, and even Goodwill, places she felt the working-class characters
would actually buy their clothes.
The only exception to the muted color palette was the focus of the entire story, the
missing little girls. "For Anna and Joy, Denis said he wanted 'all pink,' and I agreed that that
was exactly what they should wear," April relates.
"Their daughters are the bright lights in their parents' lives, so we wanted to reflect that
in the colors they wear," Villeneuve says.
Roger Deakins also utilized color, along with light and shadow, to amplify the
atmosphere around the story. He says that most of the time he went for a monochromatic feel.
"There were a couple of scenes with color, but not a big variety, so it was quite austere. The
look up table was amusing, slightly de-saturated, with a little added contrast so the images were a
Villeneuve's goal was to be as realistic and authentic as possible throughout. "I wanted
people to feel the rain and the dust surrounding the pain of these characters." To that end, he and
Deakins worked with as much natural, or practical, light as possible -- and with as little as
possible -- employing slow camera movements to increase the tension.
"Roger created a claustrophobic element that was very suitable for the story," Villeneuve
says. "The darkness is so important in the film -- the days are gloomy and overcast, and the
nights, largely because of Roger's work, are very poetic."
One particularly tricky lighting challenge was a nighttime scene that takes place at the
edge of the woods, when the cops first come across Alex Jones in his RV.
Deakins recalls, "There was a gas station in the background, with mercury vapor lights.
The police cars have blue flashing lights, and you don't want to overpower them, so you tend to
work wide and open. I used an ARRI ALEXA, ASA at 1280 for low light, which is a lot more
than I would get out of film. We were basically shooting the action with the high-powered
flashlights in the hands of the actors so we could get a decent beam and a good, hot image out of
Broderick Johnson says, "Watching Roger Deakins light and shoot a film was one of the
highlights of my career. He uses natural light in ways that are not obvious, and even in a film
like this one, with so much darkness, the choices he makes are always interesting. When you see
him start to conceive a shot, there are always so many layers to it."
Deakins says, "I come from a documentary background and I still love being hands on,
being totally involved, operating the camera and moving the lights myself."
The cinematographer shot the film digitally, which he thoroughly enjoyed. "I can sleep
at night because I can see what I'm doing!" he jokes. "I've really gotten to like digital because
of the immediacy of it. The director can see what I'm doing; I can see what I'm doing. It's nice
to be able to look at a calibrated monitor and see exactly what the image is you're going after
and talk to the director about it. It's a big advantage."
Because of the number of practical lights he used on 'Prisoners,' Deakins found shooting
digitally even more to his benefit. "A lot of the work is about the choice of the lights in the shot,
such as using the practical lights that sit on a desk or illuminate a room rather than film lights to
create the look. It's easier to do that digitally, I had more dynamic range to play with."
With principal photography complete, Villeneuve was thrilled to work with experienced
editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach. "I knew from their past work that both Joel and Gary have
very strong instincts about the human condition. The way they cut their movies is always deeply
rooted in the exploration of the characters' journeys, which is precisely what I needed to tell this
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