Jan de Bont on the set of The Haunting
Before directing, Jan de Bont was the cameraman of some of the most visually intricate, elegantly lit films of the 1980s and early 90s, including Paul Verhoeven's The 4th Man and Basic Instinct, John McTiernan's Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October, and Ridley Scott's Black Rain. When de Bont made his directorial debut with Speed in 1994, the film's kinetic energy and precise attention to light and composition came as no surprise. What made the picture a classic was how finely the visual choices were matched to the nuances of performance. The speed starred Sandra Bullock, confirmed Keanu Reeves as a viable action hero, and was filled with colorful supporting roles by Dennis Hopper, Jeff Daniels, Glenn Plummer, and the myriad cast of the movie's runaway movie. At a time when larger-than-life action vehicles with Schwarzenegger and Stallone went high, de Bont found commercial and critical success by humanizing the spectacle of speed. He then shot a series of images confirming his status as a master of behavioral action films, enlivened by wit and a perfectly calibrated balance between design and spontaneity. Twister met the demands of a Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster without choking the very funny and often poignant love story to its core, while Speed 2 sent one caveat – Keanu Reeves' unwillingness to return for a sequel – into an advantage transformed by making the film Be on the psychological ramifications of Reeves and Bullock's breakup.
In 1999 de Bont took on another job for Spielberg directing The Haunting, the second adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. De Bont wisely went in very different directions from Robert Wise's 1963 film, turning Jackson's source material into a nightmarish adult fairy tale centered on Eleanor Vance (Lili Taylor), a woman who has spent most of her adult life making herself to take care of a sick mother. When her mother dies, the sleepless Eleanor takes part in a sleep study conducted by Dr. David Marrow (Liam Neeson) is headed. Marrow gathers Eleanor and two other people (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, both lively and hilarious) at the foreboding Hill House, an haunted estate where he hopes to secretly examine their physical responses to fear. When the mansion comes to life, The Haunting takes unexpected turns when Eleanor finds a sense of comfort and belonging in the house while the others just want to get out alive. In typical de Bont fashion, the protagonist's intricate emotional state is seamlessly integrated into the plot and demands of the genre, resulting in a hypnotic, high impact piece of engaging entertainment that will be remembered long after its end. A few weeks ago I was writing about a new Blu-ray release from The Haunting for my home video column, and after revisiting it, I kept wondering how de Bont achieved some of his effects – not just the traditional specials – and visual effects. but the unique mix of naturalistic performances and flawlessly orchestrated fantasy. After watching the Blu-ray again (which has great behind-the-scenes footage along with an excellent new broadcast), I phoned de Bont to ask about his trial.
Filmmaker: One thing I love about The Haunting is how strong the angle is when it comes to the camera. In your films, the camera is never just a passive observer and does not get in the way. It's a tricky balancing act. What was your philosophy regarding when and how you move the camera?
De Bont: I wanted the camera to be almost like a casual observer, like someone who happened to be in the building while all of this was going on. I didn't want it to be like a typical horror movie where you announce things like "don't go to the kitchen" and the characters go there anyway. I've always felt that if the camera moved like a person, allowing the audience to share their point of view and see the story from a very personal perspective, it would get a better idea of how the characters were in the Feel the film, especially that of Lili's character. The interesting thing is that she has nothing scary about what happens. She is slowly but completely occupied with this world. This is a very different point of view than in a horror movie, and it requires a certain amount of emotional detail that you can only get by keeping the viewer engaged with the camera itself. Because the camera always has a point of view – not just my point of view, but Lili's emotional point of view as well – and a slow build up unlike the momentary hardcore shock effects you get in other horror films.
Filmmaker: How did your lens choices affect this point of view?
De Bont: Since the camera is from a human perspective, it can't be super wide or super close, and you have to be pretty consistent. Same lens, same type of focus – in this case a 50mm anamorphic lens, which in my experience relates to a person's direct point of view as if they were just a viewer. So we almost never use a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens – it's always the same 50mm, and for almost everything to do with Lili and her emotional experience, I've used lenses that were a little softer and a little more picturesque.
Filmmaker: How did you get into Lili Taylor? She's great in the movie, but she wasn't a big star at the time and this was an expensive studio film. Did you get resistance?
De Bont: Oh yeah, they originally wanted a star, but I thought if it was a star I wouldn't really believe it. I feel like when you have a star you always look at the star and I needed an actress with a kind of open-minded vulnerability who was curious and full of life. Lili is such an amazing actress that she became that girl from start to finish – everything I imagined reading the script could all be read on her face. When you watch the film you can see her inner feelings and the process she is going through. This is believable because you won't be distracted by fame. Too much star quality would be confusing for something like that. I was really, really happy that we could finally use it.
Filmmaker: Well, one thing that has struck me in all of your films is that you are really rooting the performances into reality, even if you are into larger than life actions. Not just mentally but physically – it always looks like the actors are really doing what they are doing. Even in your big action films like Twister, you don't usually use conventional big action stars.
De Bont: When I was a cameraman, I worked with many, many directors and I always found that when you use a big star, that star often gets in the way of the character. When I did Speed, I was very happy to get Keanu because he wasn't exactly an action star at the time. In fact, he didn't really like action. He was scared of it, and that meant if he had to do things you could see how uncomfortable he was and really feel it, and therefore it becomes a lot more realistic. I like the actors doing their own stunts – not the dangerous ones, but many of these things can be learned by the actors themselves. I usually convince them that things are safe by doing them myself and I am not a very athletic personality. When I show them that it is possible and then they do it, all of a sudden the acting goes away. It becomes a natural form of response based on real adrenaline. When you're behind a jet engine and wind and dirt are flying at you, you don't even have to think about acting, it comes automatically. So you get services that are really unique and very, very credible. I think it's a key element in action films. Personally, when I see actors in action films, I have huge objections, and that keeps happening because you know they don't. I know from experience that they don't. Their reaction is not real, but if you put them in dangerous situations where they look dangerous and get physically involved, their actions mixes with a purely emotional reaction and becomes much more believable to an audience.
Filmmaker: I would think in The Haunting it also helped the actors to be on these incredible sets designed by Eugenio Zanetti. How did you choose him as your production designer?
De Bont: Yeah, it was an unusual choice for a horror film, but I saw it more as an opera. I wanted the set to be as much a character as the main cast, so I needed someone who'd done that. My research led me to Eugenio, I explained what I was looking for and the set he came up with was absolutely spectacular. It was so big it wouldn't fit on any soundstage – we had to build it in the aircraft hangar where Howard Hughes kept the spruce goose. When you step on this set it is overwhelming and there is no way that you will not have an emotional reaction – it puts you in the right mindset immediately. There is nothing an actor has to do, you immediately feel that something very special is going on in this house. That it is a bit alive, so that everywhere you look there is still something to be seen. You'll see something different every time you turn a corner. And it's very nice what I was looking for – Lili's room is full of elements that would be extremely scary to some people, but maybe attractive to others because they're so beautifully done. I didn't want it to be an obviously scary room because that's not how Lili sees it. For her everything is beautiful and unique and represents a different life than that in which she is. She is overwhelmed in a very positive way. The hardest part was that the room had to slowly come to life; All of the sculptural and architectural details had to be designed to work with any special effects that appeared on camera, as well as the visual effects added later. Everything had to be designed so that the room could move smoothly and respond to their state of mind.
Filmmaker: Another amazing set is the rotating room surrounded by mirrors. How on earth do you shoot something like that? Where do you put the camera?
De Bont: Very often when you have mirrors, cameras tend to go higher or lower to avoid reflections. But if you do, you lose perspective – you don't convey what these characters feel when they are in the room themselves. You have to be at eye level, so basically you have to film through mirrors, with the camera hidden behind a mirror that you can move along with the camera. It wasn't always easy because the ground was also moving. There was no way to hide the camera as the set was a circle with the floor and mirrors rotating. With vertical elements like pillars and a mirror we could very carefully avoid seeing it, but it wasn't easy let me tell you.
Filmmaker: That leads me to a question that I've always been curious about in your work. Given your extensive background and experience in the field, what is your relationship like with your cameramen?
De Bont: This is a question I've been asked a lot of times because people always assume it's difficult, but in my experience it's really easy to work with other filmmakers. I can see when things are difficult and when the cameraman needs more time to light. I always support him. Once I was a cameraman in a movie that the director had previously been a cameraman in, and it wasn't that easy because he was really committed to his ideas of how to do things. It would have been better for him to just hire one worker who does exactly what he wants without contributing. I am not that much of a cameraman. I really like contributing and enhancing the artwork and when I am directing I want my cameraman to do that. I don't want them to just follow my vision, I want them to come up with other ideas too. We talk a lot about how the style should be and how I like the light, but I don't dictate how to do it.
However, I operate the camera a lot when directing, and that's because of the very specific relationship I have with the actors. If I react immediately to what they are doing, I want to be able to whisper something to them and I want to go with them depending on their reaction to what is going on around them. It is very important to me to be an active participant in the scene and not just record it, and it is important that the actor does not feel restricted. I like to work with a flexible arm that acts like a small mini boom where the camera is balanced and I can move 360 degrees. That way, actors don't have to score hits – I'll follow them wherever they are and they can go where they want. They cannot be limited to grades. Markers will kill you and they will distract me as a viewer. I can tell in many movies when someone walks from marker A to marker B and then turns around and that makes getting to marker C uncomfortable. I can really see it in a movie.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streamed on Amazon Prime. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.