“I think science fiction, fantasy and horror are at their most powerful if you believe in and care about the people involved,” says “Dreamcatcher” writer/director/ producer Lawrence Kasdan.
Since co-writing “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” early in his career, Kasdan has been looking for a story that would allow him to direct a big effects movie. Known for personal, humanistic films such as “The Big Chill”, “The Accidental Tourist”, “Grand Canyon” and “Mumford”, Kasdan sought an emotionally engaging story that was rooted in reality.
“In my movies I’ve always tried to find the most potent metaphor,” says Kasdan, “and one of the things Stephen King does really well is find interesting, extravagant metaphors for things that embody our deepest fears. “Dreamcatcher” is about controlling the fear of the chaos that’s out there, whether it’s somewhere in the universe, outside in the dark, or in your body as it begins to rebel against you. Then there are all the things I’ve tried to deal with in my other movies, the relationships between characters, friendships, issues of loyalty and redemption; but as with a lot of King’s writing, they’re married to an exotic, horrifying action story. That’s something I’ve always wanted to try.”
By the time Kasdan heard about Stephen King’s best-selling novel Dreamcatcher, a script was already in development for Castle Rock Entertainment, the company that produced the films “Stand By Me”, “Misery”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Dolores Claiborne”, “The Green Mile” and “Hearts in Atlantis”, all based on King’s books or stories.
“This is the first really successful horror/suspense movie made from one of my books in at least fifteen years,” says King. “Not surprisingly, the last one was also a Castle Rock film: “Misery”, with Kathy Bates. Castle Rock is the one company that has never treated me as a horror commodity. They’ve been able to see that these are actually stories about human beings, and that sometimes the monsters and the elements of horror are good ways of looking at the things that really trouble us in real life.”
Two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President¹s Men), who had previously adapted King’s novels Misery and Hearts in Atlantis for Castle Rock, took on the task of distilling the essence of the six-hundred-page book down to a couple of hours of screen time. Then, as is his custom, Kasdan wrote the final shooting script himself. “Dreamcatcher” is the story of four friends who perform a heroic act as children and are changed forever by the supernatural powers they gain in return. Over time, Jonesy, Henry, Pete and Beaver grow up to be men who feel isolated from the rest of the world, never quite recapturing the thrill of heroism that they felt in their youth. Unable to understand or master their powers, they are left with the nagging frustration of possessing great potential, but not the ability to realize it.
When the time came to begin casting, the filmmakers needed actors who could not only embody the characters, but also convincingly portray the strong bond between the friends that sustains them through their loneliness and frustration and forms the core of their story.
“Dreamcatcher” benefited from Kasdan’s expertise in bringing together a strong ensemble. “This movie is full of wonderful young actors,” the director attests. “I feel I’ve been very lucky in finding terrific actors all through my career, and this is a new crop of great guys.”
Thomas Jane plays Henry, whom we find at the beginning of the film has reached the end of his rope. “Henry is slightly telepathic,” explains Jane. “He’s a psychiatrist, which is a difficult profession to be in for someone with the ability to read people’s thoughts, because he always knows when you’re lying; to him, to yourself, to your wife. It becomes difficult for Henry to be of service because he so desperately wants to help that he eventually gets himself into trouble telling people what they don’t want to hear, and ends up doing more harm than good. So Henry is pretty suicidal when we meet him at the beginning of the film.”
“I’d seen Thomas in “Deep Blue Sea”, “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights”,” says Kasdan, “and recognized that he’s a wonderful, adventurous young actor and leading man.”
Jason Lee plays Beaver, a toothpick-gnawing carpenter with the dubious gift of maddeningly vague precognitive powers; he can feel when something bad is coming, but can’t see clearly enough to do anything about it.
“I’d worked with Jason in “Mumford”,” says Kasdan, “and I’d admired his performance very much in Cameron Crowe’s movie “Almost Famous”. He¹s just incredible in this movie. He’s funny and surprising when I was writing Beaver I thought, this is Jason Lee.”
“Beaver is the kind-hearted, good-natured one,” says Lee. “Larry is the rare director who encourages actors to make character choices. For instance, when I thought about Beaver, I just felt that he likes 1950s music; his kind of a good time is going to the bar, having a beer or two and hearing a 1950s song come on the radio. He¹s that guy; doesn’t smoke cigarettes, he’s got the Leatherman tool, the toothpick holder, looks a little like Buddy Holly. And Larry said, ‘Done,’ and it was great because it was my first time defining a character to that degree. He’s definitely one of the more unique characters I’ve played.” Kasdan cast Damian Lewis as Jonesy, who is the victim of a terrible accident early on in the film, the bizarre repercussions of which even he cannot fully grasp.
“Jonesy is a sensitive, rather sincere guy,” Lewis muses. “Not necessarily serious, but gentle and thoughtful. At the beginning of the movie, he gets hit by a car, which is the first time Stephen King wrote of his own accident in dramatic form. He gave that retelling of his own life to Jonesy, who goes through a difficult transition where he’s lost quite a bit of his confidence. Jonesy is harboring a secret through much of the film, and he grows increasingly fragile as the movie goes on.”
“Damian Lewis, whom I first saw in “Band of Brothers”, is an extraordinary young British actor,” says Kasdan. “He’s very magnetic, charismatic and soulful. I was just wildly taken with him, and could see that he played an American very easily; I was just knocked out by his abilities.”
A unique facet of Jonesy provided Kasdan and company with both a design challenge and an incredible creative opportunity: his “memory warehouse.” “The idea behind the memory warehouse is that all of Jonesy’s memories and experiences are stored in what is essentially a big library,” explains Kasdan. “In it are all of his memories; sports humiliations, old report cards, the lyrics to every song on every record that he¹s ever owned. It’s not the easiest concept to convey in a movie, but Jon Hutman, the production designer, achieved it brilliantly by coming up with a graceful spiral design, and our set designer Rose Marie McSherry filled every single shelf of this multi-storied warehouse. Eventually, it winds up being the scene of a chase in which Jonesy is trying to hide some of the warehoused information from the menacing intruder who has broken into his mind; your mind is not a place you would want anyone rummaging around and seeing what you’ve got in there.”
Timothy Olyphant plays Pete, whose unique talent for finding what is lost once saved a little girl and made him a hero; these days he uses it to locate misplaced car keys and try to pick up on women.
“I’d seen Tim Olyphant in Go,” says Kasdan. “Tim is a very typically American actor – he’s very instinctive and very much in the vernacular. I wanted him to play Pete, who in some ways is the saddest of the friends.”
“Pete wanted to be an astronaut,” says Olyphant, “and now he is selling cars at a used car dealership, so there’s a certain amount of disappointment that he’s living with, or denying; he’s turned to drinking all the time. I think that behind all of Pete’s charm and humor there’s a certain kind of sadness; he’s definitely confused about how he’s got to where he is, and why he isn¹t where he thought he’d be.”
Donnie Wahlberg was cast in the pivotal role of Duddits, the mysterious figure at the center of the friends’ circle. Kasdan knew that it was imperative that the actor playing Duddits be able to come in late in the movie and make the audience care deeply about the character in a very short amount of time. “He’s central to the story, so that in a very short amount of screen time he has to have enormous impact. And Donnie totally embraced that challenge, he went out of his way to look sickly, to lose the weight and shave his head and take extreme measures with his make-up.”
“In a sense, Duddits is the fifth friend,” says Wahlberg. “When they stumble across him in their childhood, they save him from a bully and he rewards them by giving them a gift. That gift forces them to bond together, and that’s the real power that he gave them, this bond that they share for the rest of their lives. “I experimented with a thousand things about Duddits,” Wahlberg reveals, “but I really found him in the other characters, in the way that they speak about him. It’s very easy to get trapped into wanting to do a grand performance, because Duddits is very ill – you could easily set yourself up. But I always went back to what everyone said, how sweet Duddits was and how lovable he was and how much they cared about him, and that his heart was the greatest heart in the world.”
The film also stars renowned actor Morgan Freeman as the alien hunter Colonel Abraham Curtis, commander of an elite, top-secret military task force known as Blue Unit, whose purpose is the eradication of all alien invaders and the containment of the contagion that they spread. A vigilante who works independently of the regular Armed Forces, Curtis is more than a little crazy after twenty-five years of obsessive pursuit of extraterrestrials.
“Curtis is king, he’s a very powerful guy in his group,” says Freeman. “It’s his own personal army, and whatever he needs, he gets – all the money, the manpower and weaponry. He’s a little burnt out, but he’s a dedicated soldier. He is a man who, if the job needs to be done, he gets it done; people call that ruthlessness, but he thinks of it as dedication to purpose.”
“Morgan Freeman has been a god to me for a long time,” says Kasdan. “He’s one of those extraordinary, monumental actors who I don¹t think has ever given a bad performance or had a false moment. There’s never a point in a Morgan Freeman performance where you feel it’s false or manufactured. And in this movie he plays a very dark character and he does it wonderfully. He embraced it beautifully and was happy, I think, to get away from his more saintly performances. Because people like to use his incredible charisma for goodness, and this is a much more sinister character.”
Tom Sizemore plays Owen Underhill, Colonel Curtis’s second in command and dedicated protege, whom Curtis has been grooming to eventually take over command of Blue Unit.
“I’d cast Tom before, in my film Wyatt Earp,” says Kasdan. “He is an incredibly convincing performer and he did excellent work in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawk Down”. He’s just a terrific actor.”
“The relationship between Owen and Curtis is a father-son relationship in the truest sense of the term,” says Sizemore. “Owen is looking for his approval too much. Curtis talks to him in too loving a way, and then when he’s aggressive, it’s too aggressive. He can hurt Owen the way a father can deeply hurt a son just by saying something, whereas someone who is only your boss can’t hurt you in the same way. In this movie, Owen can be hurt that way.”
“Dreamcatcher” is an unusual film in that it encompasses many different genres, and Kasdan used rehearsal time to get his cast on the same page with regard to the tone of the movie. “Larry likes trying to figure out characters more than most writers,” says Jason Lee. “Half of the filmmaking process is actually shooting the movie, but the other half is the fun and the challenge of figuring out characters, and he does that so well. When we shot “Mumford” we talked and talked and talked as a group for days, and from that comes the development of these characters. And it’s amazing that even in an effects-filled action movie like this, he still takes the same approach. I don’t care if you’re Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, every actor has to have a director. It’s like a conductor – the conductor walks off stage, the music just falls apart.”
“Larry Kasdan is a storyteller with a fabulous sense of humor and an instinctive ability to make dramatic choices,” says Stephen King. “He’s not afraid to work on a big canvas with a lot of characters. I think that he may have been attracted to the idea of making “Dreamcatcher” because it’s a story that goes back and forth between humor and horror. This is something that we’ve seen in Larry ever since the opening shot in “The Big Chill”, which appears to be somebody dressing up for a big party to the tune of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine,’ then the camera pulls back and you realize that this is a corpse that’s being dressed for burial. And that is maybe the essential Lawrence Kasdan; someone who’s able to play both sides of the fence.”
His versatility allowed Kasdan to deftly negotiate the film’s multilayered landscape. “The great thing about this movie,” says Timothy Olyphant, “is that the moments when you’re laughing and you’re nervous and you’re scared and you’re saddened and it¹s tragicŠare all in one scene. The fact that all hell breaks loose is a source of fun, but at the heart of it is a great story about friends who have a chance to be heroes again, to live like they haven’t lived since they were kids.”
The story’s action element enticed Kasdan, as it provided him with an opportunity to work with the latest filmmaking technology. “I’ve made a lot of movies where people sit around and talk to each other,” he says. “This movie has snowmobile chases and car wrecks and spaceships and monsters. It’s been wonderful to get out there and discover how you wreck a car, how you simulate a machine gun battle between ground and helicopter, how you depict an animal that’s been infected with an alien body.”
Kasdan has learned that the visual effects process is grueling work. “It’s incredibly frustrating,” he says. “You’re doing the mid-step; you’re preparing something for an effects shot that’s not going to be developed until months later. In addition to the technical challenges, we had to find ways to make it look absolutely realistic, because that’s the standard we set for ourselves on this movie.”
There are over four hundred visual effects shots in “Dreamcatcher”, created by a post-production group almost as large as the main filming crew. The visual effects team is comprised of some of the most accomplished professionals in the field: Stefen Fangmeier, two-time Oscar nominee and winner of three BAFTA Awards for “The Perfect Storm”, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Twister”, headed a huge team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM); creatures builder Steve Johnson, two-time Emmy winner for Best Makeup in a Miniseries for his work on “The Shining” and “The Stand”, created the puppet versions of the monster known as the ‘shitweasel’; and visual effects producer Jacqui Lopez oversaw the realization of it all.
Taking a more down-to-earth, humanistic approach to the story necessitated some changes in the way the team usually works. “Directors who are used to shooting visual effects for science fiction or fantasy tend to work more from a visual discipline,” explains Lopez. “They do their storyboards and adhere stringently to the dramatic concepts developed in pre-production. Larry is used to working with actors, so he is much more story and dialogue-driven. The visual effects must be a natural extension of the elicited performances, rather than adhering to the storyboard, so you have to allow for a lot more flexibility. It’s more challenging for visual effects, but I think it’s a much better way to work.” Some of the effects that appear to be the simplest onscreen were the most creatively challenging for the designers. One example of this is “The Line,” the physical manifestation of Pete’s inner radar that directs him to things that are lost. “The Line has a very mystical element to it, so when you try to visualize it, it’s very abstract, which is not necessarily easy to translate onto film,” explains visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. “While it¹s a technical challenge to match the realistic look of an Apache helicopter, we have very good reference photography that’s available, so we know exactly what it has to be. With more abstract designs like The Line, we have to invent something completely original.”
Bringing the hideous creatures that terrorize the world of “Dreamcatcher” to life was a very laborious process. Based on Crash McCreery’s design, the creature team built a clay maquette, which was then digitally scanned into the computer to form the bones of the three-dimensional monster. The computer graphics modeler then “sculpted” it with all the features and details required. Then the model was digitally painted, and the digital armature that the animators use to control the creature’s movement was embedded within it. When the creature moves, it bends and might deform in odd ways. So the designers employ a process called “enveloping,” which goes over the object and ensures that no matter how the creature moves, the skin will follow the movement naturally, without any kinks. After the animator animates it into a particular shot, the technical director lights and integrates the creature to blend into the three-dimensional world.
“Finding the right sense of movement for the various creatures requires a lot of creative searching as well,” Fangmeier attests. “How do you make something like that move in a very distinctive way? A lot of the personality comes from the movement, from the unique way it approaches and interacts with other characters.”
Once those images are rendered by the computer – after all the work done by the modelers, the painters, the animators and the technical director the resulting image is then composited together with the filmed footage. Small touches are added that increase the look of authenticity, such as a cast shadow, or a reflection in a puddle of blood on the floor. All these little nuances eventually add up to create an unbelievable creature that the audience can believe in completely.
The makeup team faced similar design challenges. One of the major hurdles for makeup supervisor Bill Corso was designing the disease that is spreading amongst the humans and animals unfortunate enough to be caught in the woods. “We had to come up with an unearthly biological disease that has never been seen before, and create something that is both visually interesting and practically effective,” Corso explains. “The animals in particular were difficult, because I had to figure out how to replicate the look of the growth that we put on the humans in a way that was safe for the animals. It must be edible and non-toxic because chances are they’ll eat it. Will it stay on them? Will the other animals try and eat it off them? But what makes this work fascinating is not just coming up with some creative idea, but figuring out how to implement it in a practical and realistic way.”
Usually, the most disturbing scenes in horror films are set in traditionally creepy settings, such as an abandoned house, a pitch-black basement, or a car parked in the woods at night. “Dreamcatcher” brings horror to a somewhat different locale: the audience is first introduced to the film’s terrifying monstersŠ in the bathroom.
“The sequence in the bathroom may be the most fun sequence I’ve ever done, and also the most gory and grossest and creepiest,” says Kasdan. “In some ways I’m prouder of that sequence than anything I’ve ever done because there were so many people working to make it so textured and varied: the creature designer, the puppeteer, the group at ILM, the actors, the set designer. There’s a lot of physical dressing, reflecting the effects of this alien infestation. When you go into the bathroom it’s an abattoir, a complete mess. It’s out there on the edges of what you can stand to look at – it’s funny and exciting and scary all at the same time, and those are the combinations that I wanted. In a movie like this you want to see a horrific effect but only for a glimpse and then have people look at each other and say, Did I see what I saw?”
A key figure in establishing the eerie, heart-racing tone of the film was Australian cinematographer John Seale, winner of the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on “The English Patient”. A man of boundless energy and good humor, Seale is an advocate of working with multiple cameras, often using three cameras in a setup.
“I love being able to work out schemes with a director where two or three cameras might be running during an entire scene,” says Seale. “I’ve heard in the past that a lot of actors like multiple cameras. I remember one actor saying, ‘Every time I came around a corner there was a camera in my face, so I could never stop acting. I had to keep the performance going, keep the character alive at all times.’ I think that’s fantastic, because that surely must make a better film.”
“Working with multiple cameras is very stimulating,” says Kasdan. “It gives me enormous freedom to move quickly. You automatically have different angles, and it means that you don’t need every take to be perfect, because you know you have a lot of options to cut around. It gives you an openness about the process that I haven’t always been able to achieve.”
When it comes to shooting style, Seale approaches each film as if it’s his first. “Larry said, ‘I want to get the feeling that we didn’t set this up for the camera; that we are there by invitation only. We didn’t create it and we¹re just trying to capture it.’ I loved the idea, it’s the first time something like that has been asked of me. It makes for a whole new look, the feeling that we’re simply there as observers, grabbing what we can with the multiple cameras and long lenses. This film is not about making every shot so beautiful you could frame it. It will be full of grit, misframings and flat zooms, rather than perfect tracking shots. If it’s consistent, it will give the audience the feeling, of ‘Man, we were there! We saw it happen!'”
Most of the action in “Dreamcatcher” occurs in the midst of a raging blizzard deep in the woods of Maine; unfortunately, filming in Stephen King’s home state wasn’t an option. Production designer Jon Hutman, winner of an Outstanding Art Direction Emmy for his work on The West Wing, scouted the United States and Canada in search of a hilly, forested area with a guaranteed snowfall. As the story often calls for only a single set of tire tracks or footprints in front of the camera, the location also had to make it possible for all the production’s support system, crew, camera, lighting and snow-making equipment to remain invisible. It also had to be near a community capable of accommodating two hundred and fifty people.
Hutman settled on Prince George, British Columbia, about 500 miles north of Vancouver. Most of the key exteriors were filmed in the countryside outside Prince George. The shells of a barn, a grocery store and the cabin known as Hole in the Wall were designed and built in Vancouver, then shipped to Prince George in segments and assembled at the location. They were so beautifully and convincingly aged, some locals wondered if they hadn’t been there all along. Most productions hope for mild, accommodating weather during shooting; “Dreamcatcher”, however, necessitated a harsher climate. Despite a history of severe winter weather, there were a few nervous moments the week before filming began in early January, 2002, when the city experienced a period of unseasonably balmy weather. But just as production began, the snow came back to British Columbia.
“The weather was never consistent,” says Hutman. “We had real snow that fell, real snow that we trucked in, snow that we made from water and blew in. Then we had paper snow of different sizes, which was mainly what went on the ground, and popcorn snow, made out of cornstarch for the falling snow. A smorgasbord of snow.” But there was always enough of the real stuff in the woods that equipment had to be moved on sleds.
And the cold came as well. The lowest temperatures occurred during a night shoot, when the mercury dropped to -34ƒF (-37ƒC). Car fenders dripped with icicles, hotel windows iced up on the inside, water bottles froze solid on set. With few daylight hours, everyone had to work efficiently despite the cold. To save time, the production¹s caterers carried hot food to the crew along logging paths.
Later the unit moved to Vancouver, first to stages where the interiors were built. These included the cabin and the massive Memory Warehouse, imagined as a spiral library rising to infinity. As spring came on, exteriors for the flashbacks to the boys¹ childhood were shot in the countryside nearby. The weather was better, and the days gradually grew longer, but the pace was still demanding.
Even after experiencing the seemingly endless challenges and difficulties of creating a film of such enormous scope, his experience working on “Dreamcatcher” has only heightened Kasdan’s enthusiasm for filmmaking. “I’ve been directing movies now for twenty years, and it’s only made me hungrier to try different things. I love so many different kinds of movies that I want the opportunity to play in those fields. A lot of what I’ve done has been about the everyday challenges that people face in the normal world, and I think that the pleasure I found in dealing with this story is that it is so extreme, so beyond the normal world, and takes those basic concerns and amplifies them. To me, this film was the most fun you could possibly have, dealing with extreme situations and doing things I had never done before; combining a lot of disciplines to create a great opportunity.”