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CASE 39

The Design
For Christian Alvart, fear begins in psychology and emotion, and he uses every element of a film's design to heighten the feeling that the world is tilting out of control. By manipulating the sets to create visual illusions and using a symbolic palette, Alvart uses a combination of old and new tricks to keep audiences on edge throughout CASE 39.

Alvart turned to a cinematographer he knew could provide stunning visuals: Hagen Bogdanski, cinematographer of the Academy Award®-winning thriller THE LIVES OF OTHERS, about life under the East German Stasi. Alvart and Bogdanski previously worked together on ANTIBODIES. "We have a very complicated, deep relationship,” says Alvart. "But I was very impressed with what he did on this film. He was breaking every record in terms of moving so fast, yet he still conveyed the style we needed. I don't think any other DP could have done this particular movie in this style with me in the amount of time Hagen did. I think he will now make many more movies in Hollywood; his dream is to shoot a James Bond movie.”

Alvart and Bogdanksi played freely with the camerawork, using overhead crane shots to constantly increase the sense of tension, and physical in-camera effects to keep things unpredictable for audiences used to the less-subtle CGI. "I love those old-fashioned camera tricks, even from the '20s and '30s,” muses Alvart, "Tricks like filming stuff backwards, or at a different speed, or opening up the lens or shaking the image. It's stuff that can look great and have a strong impact. We also used a lot of forced perspective instead of CGI for that reason.” Adds Kevin Misher: "In CASE 39, the camera is used in a way that keeps the audience unsettled and uncertain, with the ultimate effect being a very scary, but enjoyable experience that comes at you in ways you're not expecting.”

The unexpected was also key to the work of production designer John Willett, who designed the frosty sets for the arctic adventure EIGHT BELOW. This was Willett's and Alvart's first time working together, and Alvart was impressed with Willett's willingness to explore creative boundaries. "From the minute we started working together, John's mind was racing and he started bringing me color schemes and models and drawings,” recalls the director. "I knew it was going to be a very fruitful, creative relationship. He always exceeded my expectations.”

For Willett, the job couldn't have been more thrilling. "I've done several horror movies, but for the most part, they're pretty heavy-handed. What I loved about CASE 39 was that it read more like ROSEMARY'S BABY, where the terror builds up slowly from a place of bland safety, to a tumult of fear. This sort of thing is all about clever writing, and then later on, performances and direction,” he says. "I take the very strong outline of what is written, and just try to colour it in. This script was so frightening, that some of the people in the art department could only read it during daylight hours! "

Willett's tour-de-force was Emily's house, which he designed not only to reflect her taste and personality, but with some very unique and surprising characteristics. To intensify the emotional and psychological changes that come with the arrival of Lillith, the designer created hallway walls that could tilt at his command, and an office ceiling that could be progressively lowered, creating a disorienting feeling without the use of CGI.

These tweaks to the structure of Emily's house were so subtle, even Renee Zellweger didn't know about them until the day the walls began moving.

Willett felt that from the production design standpoint, the temptation to do something rather different was irresistible, and Christian and the producers were all for it. The result was a reasonably thorough manipulation of the world that the central character inhabits. "We designed walls that could tilt, and entire ceilings that could slowly lower as Emily's world closed in around her,” he says, "It gives you the sense that reality is slightly warped - something has changed, but you can't quite put your finger on it. It throws your perspective off.” Similarly, in Emily's office, the massive ceiling is 12 feet at first, then eight then seven, as if her entire world is slowly being crushed.

Willett wound up designing even many of the film's more simple interior locations as set so he could have maximum control over the physical environment. This was especially true for the bathroom in which Bradley Cooper's Doug is swarmed by an army of hornets. "We decided every element had to be designed by us in that bathroom in order to get exactly what we wanted visually,” he explains.

Although Alvart is not averse to CGI, he pushed his team to use as many real physical effects as possible. For the scene in which Emily and Lilllith plummet at high speed in a skyscraper elevator, Alvart had the designers build a mini elevator-shaft that could fall down about 4 ½ feet, simulating the stomach-churning motion for Renee Zellweger and Jodelle Ferland. "I think it was a very big adrenaline rush for Renee,” Alvart says.

Of course, they played a lot with the color as well. "Throughout the film, color is associated with certain people and feelings. For example, Lillith's room and almost everything to do with her is a very cold blue. Any time you see that color, you know that Lillith is nearby. In the same way, Emily is usually seen surrounded by warmer colors, greens and browns and those sorts of good, safe colors. Anytime insanity and fear come into the situation, we used a lot of offwhite.” "Most of all,” says Willett, "the aim was to integrate the sets with the performances and the story line so they all become one conduit to an onrushing sensation of fear. What was exciting was seeing how the design all worked together with the actors,” he says. "It really began to bring to life all the feelings that were present when I first read the script.”

That same sense of rich detail provided continuity through all the elements of production, including wardrobe, makeup and visual effects. Monique Prudhomme's (JUNO) contemporary wardrobe echoed the same carefully-constructed palette as John Willett's designs. The special-effects makeup of Julie Beaton and Harlow MacFarlane included adding faint blue veins to Jodelle Ferland's face to make her more frightening, and Chris Watts' (300) visual effects supervision provided judicious use of CGI to add hellish dimension to Emily's environment.

From the design of the film to the performances, the emphasis was always on layering an internal, imagined sense of fear that slowly becomes more and more real. "What's great is that when you start watching CASE 39, you feel like you're in a Sidney Lumet movie,” says Misher. "You're in this very gritty world of social workers and troubled children, and then slowly, the layers of the onion are peeled away and you realize you're in a supernatural world that doesn't play by the rules.”

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