NB: The following contains some saucy language and discussions that some may consider Not Safe For Work.
Half an hour out east on the Hammersmith & City Line, across a busy dual carriage way, just down from a branch of Tesco’s and tucked away in an old warehouse, about 200 people are making a horror film.
The warehouse interior is now, thanks to the ingenuity of production designer Matt Gant and a few dozen set builders, a basement mortuary in Virginia. There are long corridors. Low lighting that picks out the Victorian wallpaper but leaves corners shrouded in deep shadow. A junk-strewn room houses a man-sized furnace, something the production designer jokingly refers to as “the pizza oven”, but is actually a place where human remains can be tidily reduced to ash.
This is the set of The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, the English-language debut and second feature from Trollhunter director André Øvredal. It’s autumn 2015, and as your humble writer’s led around, two things immediately spring to mind: first, the set is really creepy, and second, there’s a pleasing sense of intimacy among the cast and crew. Where Hollywood productions can seem vast and bustling, like the biggest circus you’ve ever seen, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe feels more like a theatre production – albeit one that requires the construction of an entire, full-size basement building complete with a lift and coroner’s room.
The coroner’s room is quite something. There’s a big marble slab on which the examinations take place. The walls are lined with scientific stuff – microscopes, scalpels, bone saws and other tools of the mortician’s trade. Even having been on a few set visits, it always pleases me to see how many different textures you can create with wood, plaster and paint. Pretend brickwork looks like real brick. Fake iron beams look like real iron beams. There’s a really cool winding staircase that goes precisely nowhere – the upper part of the set is elsewhere in the warehouse, built more-or-less at ground level to make it easier to film. There’s also a bit covered in black cloth where a character can go up and out into the moonlight. It’s easy to see how, as an actor, you could forget you were in a set in East London and utterly immerse yourself in the world of your character.
“In terms of the design, it feels like different periods as we go through,” production designer Matt Gant explains as he leads us around. “The idea is that the house was built around the turn of the century, but as successive generations of the family have run the business, they’ve either renovated a bit or they’ve added a bit on or they’ve changed it. After these double doors, this is an original bit – turn of the century. Then after these doors it’s more 1960s. It moves on as you journey through it.”
The sense of immersion extends to the production schedule itself. Because the film’s plot requires the gradual deterioration of both the set and the main players, The Autopsy Of Jane Doe’s being shot in sequence – gradually, Gant tells us, doors will be alternately barricaded and bashed down, lights will splutter out and fires started.
“The set has to cope with a lot of physical effects,” Gant says. “We’ve had to make doors really solid so they don’t shake when they’re being battered…”
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe stars Brian Cox and Emile Hirsh as father-and-son coroners who, having received the remarkably well-preserved corpse of a young woman (the Jane Doe of the title), have a single night to figure out who she is, how she died, and maybe even how she wound up in the basement of a local family, all found dead in mysterious circumstances. The original script appeared on the Blacklist of best unproduced screenplays before American producers Eric Garcia and Fred Berger – attracted by the way writers Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing round out the story’s central characters – finally picked it up in 2012.
“Horror tends to be most effective when you care about the characters you’re watching,” Garcia tells us. “Otherwise they’re just expendable teenagers. The fact that [the script has] this father-son story means you’re really invested in them. So through the rest of the story, you’re on the edge of your seat, because you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. My investment in a horror movie triples when I care about the relationships.”
John Carpenter once said that the atmosphere on the set of a horror film can be light and fun; everyone gets excited when the blood prosthetic limbs come out. This certainly seems to be true of The Autopsy Of Jane Doe; while intense films like The Shining and Seven are occasionally dropped, the tone among the cast and crew is far less gloomy that the mortuary’s lighting. In hushed tones – to avoid disrupting all the activity in the background – Berger addresses a question lingering in the backs of our minds: why is this distinctly American horror story being shot opposite a dual carriage way in London?
“We felt extremely lucky to even be talking to Andre, let alone have him [as director],” Berger quietly enthuses. “He’s turned down a huge amount of studio films while making this movie […] Roman Osin, our DOP, shot Pride And Prejudice, but never really shot a horror film. That’s part of the reason why we’re in London shooting a movie set in Virginia – we always knew we wanted an international filmmaker… in LA, there’s a lot of horror movies going on, and that’s good for the genre. But it can breed a bit of a ‘workman’ environment. A sort of, ‘Yeah, I’ve done this before. Let’s go to work and get it done.’ There’s a real ambition and excitement here about doing something cinematic and interesting.”
Besides, there’s another, practical reason why The Autopsy Of Jane Doe was shot in the UK rather than a big city in the US – the cost of warehouse space.
“LA and New York are incredibly expensive places to shoot,” Berger says. “With London, there are certain expenses, but also certain aspects that make [it worthwhile] – I never thought I’d be in a 20,000 square foot warehouse where the set is one entire, continuous build.”
Away from the set, the rest of the building is a claustrophobic warren of little rooms, all kitted out for the various departments. The make-up team has a room. There’s a room for the production designers, full of plan drawings for the set and bits of research. There’s a green room, which is locked. We pass a little kitchen. Out back, there’s a canteen area where the crew can sit and eat. There’s also a ping-pong table.
Eventually, we arrive at a trailer parked behind the warehouse, where Brian Cox is unwinding between takes. As the great actor settles down into a chair, we suddenly notice that he’s wearing a blood-spattered coroner’s gown. Cox is one of those actors who can appear on screen for five minutes and steal the entire film; his chillingly amiable (pre-Anthony Hopkins) performance as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter was startling in its prowling economy. He was a veritable volcano of energy as the screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. The Autopsy Of Jane Doe, meanwhile, sees him in a less intense role – and while Cox isn’t exactly a fan of the horror genre, it’s the strength of the character writing that ultimately prompted him to sign up.
“Every so often there comes along a script which is completely compelling,” Cox says. “It has this quality of The Shining – the quality of something which is so mysterious. And it’s all done with such incredible detail. The whole notion of the material aspect of human life – it’s kind of spooky in that way. Again, like The Shining, it’s so contained in one space – it deals with itself incredibly well. It doesn’t try to take it outside. It just deals with what goes on in that room. In that mortuary. I just thought it was a script worth doing – I’m not particularly a horror fan. It’s not something I’m really wild about, but this script is very well written. It’s thoughtful and detailed.”
Over on the set, the crew’s shooting a scene involving Emile Hirsch and a close encounter of the spooky kind. We’re told that Øvredal and cinematographer Roman Osin are exacting over the finer details of lighting and framing, and it shows here. A double’s brought over to stand in position as lights are moved and the camera’s placed just so. Hirsch is brought in later.
The scene takes place in an office belonging to veteran coroner Tommy (Cox), where the desk’s cluttered with an 80s-looking computer and phone. Medical prints line the walls. Hirsch’s Austin stands in the murk, looking pensive, when all of a sudden a door crashes shut.
“Fuck!” Hirsch exclaims.
“Cut,” someone says. “Go again.”
“Fuck!” Hirsch says.
…and so on. This continues for what might be around 10 takes, Hirsch varying the way he says “Fuck!” each time. Between takes, Hirsch whistles nonchalantly.
We watch all this on sound monitors well outside the confined space of the set. Out here, the sound man tinkers with buttons on a console, and occasionally murmurs back some information to the crew inside the set.
Outside, a plane circles, noisily.
“Can we get an anti-aircraft gun out, please?” the sound man dead pans.
On a relatively tight budget, Øvredal remains focused on getting just the right reaction from his performers – even if it requires multiple takes.
“It’s very hard for him, and sometimes it’s very hard for all of us, because his attention to detail is remarkable,” Cox says from the relative comfort of his trailer. “It’s very particular, and if he doesn’t like a detail, he’ll do a take again and again and again to get the right feel, the right tension, the right emotion.”
Then again, Cox has worked with plenty of exacting directors in the past; Michael Mann was one; David Fincher was another. In Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece, Zodiac, Cox played defence attorney Melvin Belli. Fincher, somewhat infamous for his tendency to demand multiple takes from his actors, met his match in Cox.
“I was the only person who ever got David Fincher a day ahead, because I only ever did four takes,” Cox recalls. “Some people get 38 takes, you know? What happens is, he’s so busy with the detail of the scene that the actors do it again and do it again, then they get to the 10th or 12th take, and they think, ‘What the hell’s going on? What’s the problem here?’ Then they start to lag, and David says, ‘What’s happened to the actors? What are they doing?’ And he wants to do more takes.”
Over in the make-up department, we meet artists Bella Cruickshank and Jemma Harwood. They’re two of the six-strong team who have the task of designing and applying the movie’s cornucopia of prosthetics, wigs, makeup and lashings of gore; together, they make an extraordinarily funny double act. Within minutes, the discussion veers from pubic hair to pictures of dead bodies and, most weirdly of all, cat’s bottoms.
“We’re kind of hardened to it,” Cruickshank says when asked whether working on all these gory effects gets a bit disturbing after a while. “We’ve had to do this on quite a few films now, and had to look up [pictures of] severed heads, car crash victims and this kind of stuff.”
“We take it in turns sometimes,” Harwood adds. “‘Your turn. Look! Look!'”
“If you looked at our internet history,” Cruickshank nods, “we’d be locked up… There are so many images of dead bodies on our iPads. It’s just awful.”
On the topic of dead bodies, Irish actress Olwen Kelly arguably has the least glamorous role in the entire movie. She plays the titular Jane Doe, the eerily well-preserved corpse that causes so much chaos in the coroners’ basement. Thanks to her mastery of yoga, Kelly’s unusually good at lying still; Cruickshank and Harwood’s job, meanwhile, is to make the actress look convincingly dead – a tricky task, particularly with a movie that requires so many close-up shots. If the makeup looks to obvious, then it’ll show up on camera.
“Basically, we tried to do a look where we took out all the warmth in her skin, and make her look dead without looking decomposed,” Cruickshank says. ” She’s not wearing any make-up, and there are extreme close-ups on her.”
“Yeah, that’s the hardest part of it,” Harwood says. “If you’re putting make-up on her, and you go in macro, you can totally see it. So we tried loads of different ways to get something sheer enough to look like skin. But then when you put blankets on her to keep her warm, you then have to go back and retouch it. It’s a constant thing, looking after her.”
While we’re talking, we can’t help noticing some of the things dotted around the makeup room. There’s one of those massage couches with the hole in it for a face, and a towel and a water bottle in a knitted tea-cosy like jacket. On a table, there are a couple of wigs, one grey, one a light brunette – these evidently belong to Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch. Or, more accurately, their stunt doubles, the makeup artists later tell us.
But not far away, there’s an odd triangle of neatly-trimmed hair, lying forlornly. For a few agonising moments, we wonder whether we ought to address the elephant in the room, before Cruickshank and Harwood mercifully bring it up for us. The triangle’s what we assumed it was: a pubic wig, fondly dubbed ‘Mary’ by the crew.
“Getting her pubic wig correct was quite a challenge, wasn’t it?” Harwood says, chirpily. “There were lots of different emails from producers. Because she’s supposed to be from the 16th century – what’s correct? What’s not going to be distracting?”
“The worst part of that was actually the research – trying to find the perfect pubic area,” Cruickshank agrees. “We were sending around all these pictures. We first looked at 70s bushes, and they were too big. Very distracting. Then we settled on late 80s – there was a joke going around that we’d gone in for 87, but it was quite embarrassing. When you looked through the research folder, it was absolutely awful – you’d find pictures of dead bodies and pubes.”
Ah, the magic of cinema.
Back on the set, the atmosphere is still an odd mix of behind-the-scenes good humour and ominous lighting. Nearby, the crew – among them Cruickshank and Harwood – are watching the latest take unfold on a monitor, their faces lit up by the screen’s pale blue glow. For some reason, Don’t Mess With The Zohan is mentioned, and they all giggle.
As the titters die down, however, the set’s natural creepiness rushes back in, like water around our feet. During each take, the lights are dimmed, and the Virginia basement takes on a haunting atmosphere. Months later, we’ll see the finished Autopsy Of Jane Doe, and even having traipsed through the sets and talked to the crew about plaster, paint, fake blood and pubic hair, we can honestly report that the haunting atmosphere runs thickly through the finished movie.
The set visit at an end, we emerge back into the chill of a March afternoon in east London. It’s a relief to hear the workmen clattering away on the luxury flats they’re building opposite the warehouse while passenger planes drone overhead, because it’s a reminder that civilisation isn’t too far away. Tesco’s isn’t far off, either. There’s comfort in this. Nothing bad ever happens near somewhere civilised like Tesco’s.
The Autopsy Of Jane Doe is out in UK cinemas on the 31st March.