“Did you see that moment we just had?” Melissa George strides over to RT, safely ensconced in front of a pair of gas heaters amidst the video village — a monitor set up to watch what the camera is capturing – as the crew prepares a new shot. “This movie is so subtle. There’s so much going on beneath the surface.”
Minutes earlier, she and co-star Stellan Skarsgard shared a emotional and dialogue-free exchange in an abandoned cement factory having just discovered the body of a seventy year-old woman with equations carved into her chest. We’re gathered together on location in Belfast at three o’clock in the morning on the set of gritty psychological horror WAZ. It’s a creepy environment to be in and a cold reality of movie-making glamour, or lack therof.
The script comes from City of Vice scribe Clive Bradley, who claims to have come up with the movie’s premise after flicking through a book on Darwinism. “It featured a mathmatical equation – W Delta Z – formulated by American population geneticist George R. Price,” he explains. “It supposedly shows that there’s no real altruism in nature; no such thing as selflessness. Price was so upset by his findings that he ended up giving away all his possessions to the poor and, eventually homeless himself, committed suicide with a pair of nail scissors in a filthy London squat.”
And filthy squats provide something of a backdrop for the film. Set in New York, it’s about a pair of detectives attempting to solve a series of grisly murders in which the victims have this equation, WAZ, carved into their chests.
“I play a kind-of beleaguered cop called Eddie Argo,” reveals Skarsgard as he joins RT behind the heaters, “but there’s more to him than meets the eye. He has dark secrets and Melissa’s character, Helen Westcott, who’s his new partner, is having trouble dealing with him.”
Joining them are Selma Blair, Ashley Walters and Tom Hardy. Argo’s secrets connect all of these characters to one another and to the case they’re trying to solve. Saying too much would give away the twisty-turny plot designed to keep you anchored to your seat for the film’s runtime.
“It was the story that attracted me,” continues Skarsgard. “It’s a very good story, it’s surprising and it has the potential to become something interesting I think, if Tom can create a universe that can carry the story, and I think he’s doing that.”
The film is being directed by Tom Shankland, who’s making his feature-length debut with WAZ. The film’s similarity to Se7en – detectives solving grisly murders – is not lost on the diector but, he claims, there’s more to it than that. “I love Se7en but it’s important, too, to point out that it’s not just a rehash of that film,” he tells RT. “We have to find our own style and identity. So there are shade of Se7en, but like any good drama you have to kill the father to kind-of grow up!”
The entire cement factory — a real location forty-five minutes out of the city centre — is bathed in just the right amount of light to give a suitably eerie atmosphere. As the hours of Belfast dark tick by and the rusted metal creeks, we’re left in no doubt that is an ideal spot to shoot a horror film. The lights have been set up to illuminate the building just enough to shoot around, and cinematographer Morten Soborg, best known for his work on the Pusher films, is running around making sure it’s suitable scary here. The crew are using shoulder-mounted High Definition digital cameras to keep the action moving and sharp.
“We’ve set up the location so we can shoot three-hundred and sixty degrees,” explains Skarsgard, “so we’re working very fast and can try a tonne of different things.” We witness one scene, in which Argo pins Westcott against a wire fence as they listen to a voice message on Argo’s phone after discovering the old woman’s body. It’s clear the message is from the killer. At the end of the scene, he lets go and walks off and on just one of the takes we’re taken aback at the torrent of abuse that spills from Melissa George — added in as an afterthought to give Shankland another option in the editing room.
Indeed, this whole moment has come from the actors’ rehearsal run-through with Shankland — the script initially calls for them simply to listen to the message and move on, but the actors sense the need for an emotional climax. “I love watching them work,” says producer James Richardson, “these two have an amazing chemistry and they can find things in the script that none of us saw.”
As powerful as the pair are in front of the camera, behind it they’re cracking jokes at every opportunity and keeping the atmosphere on the set light. “It’s actually pronounced Skars-gourd,” we overhear Skarsgard tell Richardson when he asks about the circle above the second A, “but you can call me whatever you want. Call me asshole if it makes you happy!”
The small nature of the location and the crew makes the production so much more intimate than it might be on a larger film, but you’d never guess the film’s modest budget from the quality of the footage they’re collecting. “I guess we specialise in making small films that can compete with the best coming out of big-budget Hollywood productions,” explains Richardson, “that’s something we’ve always tried to do at Vertigo.”
“It’s certainly quite, quite different from shooting something like Pirates of the Caribbean,” Skarsgard elaborates, “on Pirates there was a much bigger crew of people and everything was so much slower — it would be hours between shots. But in some ways the part of the Caribbean I saw was the tourist Caribbean and it wasn’t very fun. Belfast is much more intersting. I’ve walked around, I’ve eaten at restaurants and met and worked with locals so you get to see a little of the society you’re working in, which you don’t get on Pirates.”
As a swoop of police cars move into position to rehearse the final shot of the night, Skarsgard reminds us why we’re there in sub-zero temperatures at 5 o’clock in the morning. “I’ve done something like sixty-five films in my career, but it’s just as exciting an environment to me now as it was when I first started.”
Cut to eighteen months later. RT is in Edinburgh for the film festival in August 2007. WAZ premieres tonight and we’re walking the red carpet with Skarsgard, Bradley and Shankland. Skarsgard explains his earlier enthusiasm. “I like what I do. There are always new challenges and it’s always difficult and it’s always fascinating. I don’t deliver on the set what I’ve figured out at home. I’ve done preparations but I come to the set to explore the scene, to explore the material, to get together with the other actors. I still enjoy myself immensely when I work.
When we eventually get into the cinema the place is packed full of eager members of the public who’ve managed to nab one of the quickly sold out tickets, but as the lights come up at the end of the film and the Q&A starts, no-one has any questions to ask. It’s not that they didn’t like the film, it’s just that they’re so shell-shocked they can’t find words. This amuses the film’s director to no end.
“I love that it’s just about the most violent way of testing whether love exists ever, it really gets to you,” laughs Shankland with a devious glimmer in his eye as he sits down with RT later. He seems to enjoy torturing his cast and his audience and he’s already planning on some more – as WAZ releases he’s already on the set of his follow-up, a horror flick called The Day. “I saw WAZ more in the sense of a classic detective story than a torture porn film, and for me it was all about holding back. It’s violent, but something that I did take from Se7en was that that film leaves a lot to your imagination but sets up its shots to ensure that your imagination does its worst.”
If the audience’s reaction is anything to go by, the film does just that. WAZ releases in the UK today.