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WHAT LIES BENEATH: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey
The ImageMovers team discusses the film's charmed production and Hitchcockian lineage
By Matthew F. Saunders
July 27, 2000
With movies, much of the drama lies on the screen. Such is certainly the case with What Lies Beneath
, the suspenseful new thriller from acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis, which scared up $29.7 million and the number one seat in its opening weekend. But as any student of Hollywood knows, there are often plenty of stories lurking behind the scenes. While the more high-profile of these usually involve scandals or personality clashes, they're also the tales of production problems and difficulties.
In that regard, What Lies Beneath
is a charmed film. Not unlike its ghostly storyline, it's one of those rare films where all the various elements came together with supernatural ease. Produced by Zemeckis' ImageMovers partners Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke, it's the young company's first offering, and was one of the first scripts the trio looked at when they were deciding what types of films they'd like to make. When Zemeckis decided he'd like to try his hand at a suspense-thriller, fate lent a helping hand.Putting It All Together
As luck would have it, DreamWorks was sitting on just such a script, waiting for the right time to develop it. When the group mentioned the idea to the studio, an early version of screenwriter Clark Gregg's Beneath
script was pulled off the shelf for them to review. 'DreamWorks said, 'Well why don't you guys take a look at this one?'' says Starkey. The ImageMovers trio liked what they saw immediately.
'I read it and thought it was interesting,' says Zemeckis, who added it to his list of upcoming projects, which already included the Tom Hanks vehicle, Cast Away
. 'It was a clever psychological thriller, which are very hard to write. And I thought it was really pretty good. So I worked on it with Gregg for about six or seven months. We got another draft. And when we got that pretty good, I sent that to Harrison Ford and he said, 'Yeah, I think I should do this.' I felt really strongly that his instinct would be to gravitate towards this. I don't know why; I just had a sense of it.'
Ford was Zemeckis' first choice to play Dr. Norman Spencer, the seemingly devoted husband whose adulterous affair instigates the film's events. His quick acceptance was a casting coup that lent the film immediate star power. But the film's good luck streak had only just begin. Once Ford was on board, Zemeckis began pursuing Michelle Pfeiffer, his first choice for the role of Claire Spencer, Norman's haunted wife and the film's real lead. 'I said, 'Michelle is the one we've got to go after for this,' says Zemeckis, who felt she was not only the perfect match to star opposite Ford, but could portray Claire's confusion and terror, as well as her inner strength, with equal ability.
Like Ford, Pfeiffer's response was immediate. 'Ford virtually, instantaneously said yes,' says Rapke. 'And then we sent it to Michelle, who virtually, instantaneously said yes. It was very unusual for it to come together that quickly.'
While Ford and Pfeiffer have both credited the screenplay in their decision to sign aboard, they've also cited their desire to finally work with Zemeckis as an important factor. However, the director quickly dismisses the notion, passing sole credit on to the script. 'It was all to the credit of the screenplay, I think,' he says.
The screenplay itself originated as an idea from DreamWorks executive Steven Spielberg, who first proposed the notion of doing a ghost story at the studio. 'It was a Spielberg idea,' confirms Rapke. 'I think he wanted to do a ghost story in a house, with a couple haunted by a ghost. We weren't there for Steven's initial pitch, but DreamWorks had a script written based on that idea. They rewrote the script with Clark. And then that's when we came in.'
Happy with the script, and with its two stars in place, the film's charmed progress seemed unstoppable. Except for one thing: Cast Away
. In the film, Hanks' character becomes trapped on a desert island, which required Zemeckis to break the company in order to film Hanks healthy, then allow him time to lose significant weight and grow a lengthy beard before filming the second half. To complicate matters, Ford had a limited window of availability in which he could make Beneath
, and Zemeckis had to figure out how to work the production into an already busy schedule. Those complications, however, turned into blessings.
'I was struggling with how to do Cast Away
, and how to afford to break the company,' explains Zemeckis. 'It was unheard of. No one's ever done it, and I couldn't figure out how to do it. And then when Harrison wanted to do Beneath
but said, 'I can't do it for another year because I'm doing Random Hearts
,' I came up with this idea of taking this same crew and shooting Cast Away
part one, then Harrison would be available, roll them onto What Lies Beneath
and do the whole movie, then roll them back on to Cast Away
part two. So, it became economically feasible because we paid the crew for two movies and got two movies.'
The plan worked. Cast Away
began shooting in Russia in January of 1999, and following the completion of Beneath
, Zemeckis wrapped Cast Away
in May 2000, over a year later. And with Beneath
now in theaters, he's finally preparing to finish what was initially ImageMovers' first project, which will become the company's second release when it opens Dec. 22. 'I cut Cast Away
part one, then put it on the shelf,' says Zemeckis. 'I did all of What Lies Beneath
. And now I'm just pulling out Cast Away
part two and starting to edit it.'Selling the Package
Beyond the story of its inception and production, the film faced a unique creative challenge as well. Many critics and filmgoers have noticed the film's obvious homage to the works of director Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Rear Window
. While Zemeckis says that was a conscious decision, he also qualifies it as an inevitable result of both the genre in general, and the Beneath
script in particular.
'Well, just the idea of a psychological thriller is immediately a homage to Hitchcock,' contends Zemeckis. 'He's the one who perfected that kind of style or story. So the idea was, either we embrace it and do the story as a homage, or we try to figure out some way to make it so that it doesn't look anything like a Hitchcock movie. But that didn't seem to work.'
One of the film's most obvious examples of homage is the shower curtain scene, a la Psycho
, which occurs in the Spencer's bathroom. A central set in the film, much of the story's action and suspense revolves around the bathtub, which frequently serves as a conduit for the apparition's haunting of Claire. 'That is absolutely a homage,' admits Zemeckis. 'I figured if I'm gonna do this scene in this bathroom, you've gotta do it. Because, well, why not?'
But Zemeckis claims one of the film's most striking comparisons, the use of the name 'Norman,' was unintentional. 'When I read the script, I thought, 'Okaaay.' But Clark, the writer, swears that it never entered his mind, that he didn't even think of Psycho
. He swears that.'
As with a number of Hitchcock's films, misdirection is key on many levels to the success of Beneath
. Before the film even hit theaters, that misdirection was already an integral part of the marketing campaign. Rapke says the previews and teasers were created to purposely mislead viewers to believe the film has a more horrific bent than it actually does, while only hinting at the more subtle layers that lay beneath.
'We felt that we needed to create interest in the movie,' says Rapke. 'This particular trailer puts us to the edge of where we're given enough information to excite people to come to the movie, but yet haven't given them too much. We feel that, from what's been coming back to us, that it's been a really effective trailer.' Starkey agrees: 'It feels like it's revealing more than it should, but the plot is so dense, that in fact there's a lot that isn't there.'
Integral to that campaign, as well, was the decision not to feature Ford and Pfeiffer on the movie poster, a rare decision for a film with two major stars. Rather than seeing their faces plastered across billboards and posters, audiences saw the simple image of Pfeiffer's hand as she crawls out of the bathtub. It was a decision Ford and Pfeiffer signed off on willingly.
'To have stars in the movie and not take advantage and exploit their faces is unusual in today's market,' agrees Starkey. 'But that actually was the easier part, because they were compelled by the artwork, as all of us were. [They felt it was] really bold and different and were really drawn to it.'
Zemeckis, for one, appreciates the freedom they were given in marketing the film and feels that ultimately, audiences do, too. 'We know from how we study the marketing of movies that people really want to know exactly everything before they go see a movie,' says Zemeckis. 'I relate it to McDonalds, because the reason McDonalds is such a success is because you now exactly what you're gonna get. You don't have any surprises.
'But you now what? I think at the end of the day [surprises are] appreciated by audiences. That's why, unfortunately, the business is a schizophrenic thing because the movie is the movie and the marketing is the marketing. And unfortunately, they collide in that first two week. And then, if you're lucky to survive that, I think audiences do appreciate the movie on its own terms.'