“The Dark Half” Takes Flight
“I’ve always wanted to make a novel of Steve’s into a film,” says George Romero. “So many people have tried but failed to either comprehend or retain his voice and intention. Maybe that will happen to me too. But I’ve always wanted a crack at it.”
At long last, George Romero is getting his chance. After several close calls – first it was “The Stand”, then it was “Pet Sematary”, then “It” – the Pittsburgh-based filmmaker and author Stephen King are finally on the marquee together again with “The Dark Half”. The $15-million Orion production, starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker and Julie Harris, is Romero’s most expensive film yet. Romero wrote the screenplay from King’s semiautobiographical novel about a pissed-off pen name, and spent 15 weeks shooting the film in and around Pittsburgh. Originally intended for a late 1991 release, the movie was bumped repeatedly by Orion’s much-documented financial troubles; it now looks set to hit screens on April 23.
“What I want to do is take one of Steve’s ideas, which he’s worked out so carefully over 500 pages, and see if I can give it a new life without messing it up too badly,” jokes Romero. “Seriously, though, I’ve gotten my chance now. And I hope Steve will like it.
“I tried to be as faithful as possible to the book, but there are a few changes. For instance, Tim plays both Beaumont and Stark, but that change was done with Steve’s input. I told him we were going to do it, that the studio liked the idea too, and he agreed. It makes it visually clearer in a two-hour time frame to have one actor play both roles. It’s a difficult concept to accept – just who is George Stark? Most people, when I tell them the story, are not sure if Stark is a monster or his twin. This approach locks it in harder without having any negative effects on the internal workings of the story.
“Another change is the casting of Julie Harris,” Romero continues. “In the book that’s a man’s role (Rawlie DeLesseps, an eccentric university professor), and we had three choices of actors lined up; but they all dropped out for other commitments. Then Julie’s agent called and asked if I would consider a woman in the role. I said, ‘What woman?’ She told me and I said yes right away, and went about rewriting the role for her. I talked to Steve about that one too, and he said it was a great idea. As I said, I hope to make good out of it. But, you know, there are a lot of challenges with this movie.”
And just what are the challenges of “The Dark Half”? Producer Declan Baldwin, who’s fast becoming the Richard Rubinstein of the 1990s (he co-produced the remake of “Night of the Living Dead” for Romero too), makes a list. “You name it, we got it,” laughs Baldwin, who previously worked as production manager for Frank Henenlotter on “Basket Case 2” and “Frankenhooker”. “We have babies, motion control, special makeup, special effects – and then there are the birds.”
For “The Dark Half”, more than 4,500 cutthroat finches (standing in for sparrows) were transported to Pittsburgh to be King’s “psychopomps”, a Greek word meaning “conductors of souls between the living and the land of the dead.” The birds were trained in a cavernous warehouse that overlooks the river, and head bird trainer Mark Harden of Animal Actors takes FANGORIA on a “Birdland” tour.
“For the past few months, we’ve been getting to know the birds,” explains Harden. “And we found out that they are a lot like cattle: we can herd them. So in order to get them to, say, fly through slats in a wall, we have to build things like collapsible cages with panels that will push the birds forward, to let them know that they have nowhere else to go but through the slats.” The birds are housed in about 45 cages, and different finches are drilled in certain tasks daily, such as flying over a man’s head as he stands in a doorway. “At first they didn’t want to do that,” says Harden, who worked with lions in “Out of Africa” and lupine buddies in “Never Cry Wolf”. “There wasn’t enough space and they got spooked.”
Harden reveals that the live specimens will combine with special FX birds in certain scenes to “add to the sense of confusion.” For example, real birds will be seen buzzing around George Stark’s head; a few have even been taught to land on him. “But as soon as they land, they look like what they are: itty-bitty birds,” confesses Harden. “That’s where the effects people come in. They made birds that actually pinch and tear and rip for the close-ups.”
Across town in the Hunt Armory, where the main sets have been constructed, John Vulich, one-half of the Optic Nerve team, holds a mechanical bird next to your Fango correspondent, and it pinches a finger. Ouch! “We ordered about 60 birds to be made by Larry O’Dien back in LA,” details Vulich. “Ten have flapping wings and heads that move and beaks that bite. And we made a standing suit with 60 birds stuck on it, too.”
According to Vulich, except for a few scenes, Romero has “toned down” the blood and guts from one of King’s most personal but violent novels. There’s the finale, of course, where Beaumont meets Stark and Stark meets his feathered friends. Then there’s the scene where Stark kills Beaumont’s New York agent Miriam Cowley (Rutanya Alda). “Several women on the crew got upset about that one,” recalls Vulich. “Her face is bashed into the wall and it cracks open. They felt that this woman was being victimized. But that was George’s point. It’s a key scene to show just how awful George Stark is, and you hate him from there on.”
Vulich’s partner, Everett Burrell, enters, and he shows a videotape of a cooked turkey from one of Thad’s twisted dream sequences. The bird in the oven splits open and begins oozing stuff all over the place – like those chickens in “Eraserhead”. “We went out and bought the biggest turkey we could find,” reveals Burrell. “Then we made a mold out of it. From that we had a fiberglass shell; we put vinyl skin on top of it, and a silk mesh on that. Then we airbrushed veins to give it another dimension, added a few latex veins and connected tubing and bladders for the ooze and pulsations.”
But the main challenge for Optic Nerve was transforming Hutton into George Stark. Hutton’s casting as both Beaumont and Stark raised some eyebrows among horror fans; reportedly, Ed Harris, Willem Dafoe and Gary Oldman were also considered. When the word came down that Hutton was the choice, Vulich, however, says he saw the reasoning behind it. “Tim is kind of soft-looking, so we had a lot to work with to make him change into Stark,” reasons the artist. “If another actor had been chosen who looked mean already, where would the transformation be?”
The day Vulich learned Hutton had been signed, he had photos of the actor sent out from Los Angeles and then fed the information into his Amiga computer. He and Burrell made digitized designs of the changes to Hutton’s face, as Stark. “There are six or seven stages of George Stark,” Vulich explains. “We take him from a regular person to, essentially, the zombie look we used for “Night of the Living Dead”. First up is the Clint Eastwood look with character makeup, a fake forehead and side pieces, a squarer jaw, more wrinkles, that kind of stuff. That’s George Stark at his most human. But then a crack starts to appear in his face. It’s the first stage of his disintegration. There’s a scene where’s he playing with the crack and it starts oozing. And from there we add more cracks, and contact lenses for bloodshot eyes. Then white lenses for the zombie look. A fake tongue that sticks out and is black and rotting. Black gums, rotten teeth. George wanted to be faithful to the descriptions in the book, and he specified a lot of this stuff to us. A line in the script which keeps popping up all over the set sums it up: losing cohesion. That’s what’s happening to Stark.”
Vulich adds that Hutton is definitely a Method actor and that, at Hutton’s request, they set the mood during makeup. “When we made up Tim as Thad Beaumont, we’d play a little low-key music on the stereo – Bob Dylan, Art Tatum, Tom Waits,” Vulich explains. “But with Tim as Stark, we blasted Alice Cooper, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin – that helped him get into the mindset of Stark. We specially set up what we called the Method makeup trailer. It had girly posters on the walls, old pizza boxes on the floor, Harley posters, a confederate flag. Imagine us at 6 in the morning blasting out Led Zeppelin for four hours as we made Tim into George Stark. I even spattered some stage blood around on the walls – at Tim’s request.”
Fango isn’t lucky enough to catch Hutton as Stark, but Vulich shows your correspondent a photo. Hutton as Stark looks a lot like… co-star Michael Rooker.
It’s two weeks later and your correspondent’s nose is pressed up against the glass, peering in on Cletus Anderson’s lake house set, which has been constructed in the middle of the Hunt Armory. There’s a fireplace, throw rugs, comfortable furniture, books galore and lots of wood. “We wanted Thad’s environment to give off a safe, contended feeling,” comments Anderson, who’s been Romero’s production designer since “Knightriders”. “That way, when it’s invaded by Stark, it makes the invasion that much more terrifying.”
“The Dark Half”: Today, the Beaumont summer home is being assaulted by much more than Stark – try about 200 of the cutthroat finches (so called not because they go for the jugular, but because the males have a red band across the neck). The set itself has been completely sealed off; a special two-door apparatus is the only way in or out. Inside, a scene is being rehearsed. Madigan and Rooker run from the fireplace, up the stairs, to where Beaumont and Stark are having their final confrontation. That scene was filmed a few days before Fango got to the set, but Romero claims it was one of his toughest shoots ever. “I’d done opticals, but never this motion control stuff,” Romero groans. “I’ve never done a scene where an actor is in a shot with himself. So I mapped things out more minutely to get an understanding of it. It was only a minor part; we only did three of four shots like that. I can’t imagine doing a “Dead Ringers”, where the entire film was shot that way. The amount of preplanning must have been astounding.”
Mark Harden and crew are on hand with about six cages of birds (as is a representative from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society). Madigan has a piece of rope around each wrist (Stark had tied her to a chair), and is wearing a blue sweater and tan corduroys. Rooker has a standard green policeman’s uniform and jacket. Barbara Anderson’s costume for Rooker is complete, down to the gold “Pangborn” nametag and the patch on the shoulder, which says “Castle County”. Romero sits in back by the monitor, legs crossed, in what has become his own uniform: faded jeans, a loose, untucked blue flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows and white tennis shoes. This is Madigan’s last day on the set and in tribute, first assistant director Nick Mastandrea has donned a red pageboy wig. He could be her twin brother.
It’s time for the first take. The fireplace lights are turned on and they bathe the set in a warm, orange glow. Smoke is belched out across the set, giving a room a dense, ominous film noir look. Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts eyeballs the camera lens. “Action!” Harden opens two cages of birds, and an assistant in the back of the set opens another. Madigan and Rooker run from in front of the fireplace to the edge of the stairs, dozens of birds whipping around their heads, adding to the frenzy. They stop. Rooker says, “Liz, wait here! I’ll go up.” But when he turns his head to something off-screen (in the finished film it’ll be a cutaway to more birds breaking through the wall), Madigan bounds up the stairs ahead of him. Rooker follows. “Cut.”
“That looked good,” Romero says. “We’ll go just one more on that. For safety.”
In between takes, Rooker grabs a can of Coke and spends a minute wiping the dirt off the rim with a towel (Henry is afraid of a little dirt!). Then he joins Fango for an impromptu interview on the back porch of the set.
“When I tell people I’m in a movie with King and Romero and that I’m a good guy, they can’t believe it,” laughs Rooker. “I think George cast me because he saw something good in my work, but also because he wanted a strong Alan Pangborn opposite George Stark. I have strength, but up until now it’s always been used in a negative, aggressive way. In this film it’s more protective. Some very bizarre things start happening to this guy, who had been a safe, small-town family man. As Pangborn, I’m scared. I’m afraid for myself, but also for my family. So I start to investigate as sheriff, but also out of self-preservation. And I’m very upset. I don’t believe in ghosts or supernatural beings. I’m a very down-to-earth guy. And if someone thinks he’s a character from a book, I think he’s a loony.”
In person, Rooker is less imposing than he is on screen; he has a Southern accent and smiles a great deal. “People who knew me before “Henry” realized that it was an amazing feat for me to play that character. And it was not a lot of fun for me personally because my psyche as a whole started being affected. And after a while it started getting to me; it was wearing me down playing that guy. You can only do so many characters from your negative side.”
Will we see a “Henry 2”? “Not if I can help it,” Rooker smiles. “But I owe a lot to “Henry”. It’s a very strong movie; it created dialogue wherever it was shown. And a two-minute clip from it got me interviews with Alan Parker for “Mississippi Burning” and Harold Becker for “Sea of Love”.
It’s time for another take. One bird flies up to the glass and Rooker cocks his finger at it like a gun. “Seriously, though, the birds have been great to work with,” he avers. “They flutter so fast and then move off; they’re almost like humming-birds in that they seem to hover. It feels like those little cigarette fans you see people use in restaurants. Two hundred cigarette fans around your head.”
Harden lugs in another cageful, just in cause the ones on the wall don’t feel like flying in front of the camera. Romero takes his spot by a monitor. Action is called. The shot goes well and Romero leans back contentedly in his chair. Roses are brought up on set for Madigan. She takes a bow as the crew applauds.
Romero tries to leave the set, but a pesky bird hovers near the exit door. It’s following him, like a psychopomp, and has to be shooed away by an animal trainer.
Romero fails to see the irony of this. Making movies is real life, not fiction. And his tires face tells it all: The bird has obviously got the wrong George. “The Dark Half”