Creature feature: Richard LaGravenese enters the young-adult fantasy world with 'Beautiful Creatures'
Every publisher of young-adult sci-fi/fantasy and every movie producer of same hankers for the next Twilight or The Hunger Games—bestsellers adapted into blockbusters. Surprisingly, that's not an unrealistic goal. While I Am Number Four (2011) earned low numbers, Inkheart (2008) bled red ink and The Golden Compass (2007) made over $372 million worldwide but only $70 million in the U.S., sending sequel plans south, the studios still smell teen spirit: The "Chronicles of Narnia" trilogy generated over $1.5 billion at the box office starting in 2005, a second "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" movie is due out in August, and hopes are high for such YA romances as next month's The Host, based on book one of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer's planned trilogy; The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, starring Lily Collins and due this summer from Screen Gems; and Universal's in-development Wicked Lovely, from American Psycho director Mary Harron and Edward Scissorhands screenwriter Caroline Thompson.
These kinds of considerations all seem new to Richard LaGravenese, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of The Fisher King (1991) and the writer-director of Beautiful Creatures, the first book in Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's young-adult quartet about witches in a South Carolina town. While Warner Bros. hopes this will be a franchise, LaGravenese, who certainly isn't averse to the idea, approached the adaptation as a film that can stand on its own.
Beautiful Creatures, based on the 563-page young-adult novel published by Little, Brown in 2009, centers on the first-crush relationship between 15-year-old Lena Duchannes (Australia-born Alice Englert, daughter of Oscar-winning The Piano director Jane Campion), a supernatural "Caster" (of spells), and 17-year-old Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a popular boy who reads banned books and wants to break out of his dead-end burg and go to college far away. With Lena's 16th birthday comes "The Claiming" that will steer her toward her destiny of Light or Dark. Her uncle, the venerable Caster Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) wants the former; her Caster mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson) and cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) want the Dark. And the town's librarian, Amma Treadeau (Viola Davis), is a Seer who knows more than she immediately lets on. Thomas Mann, Margo Martindale, Eileen Atkins and Kyle Gallner co-star in the Feb. 14 release.
We spoke individually with LaGravanese, Irons and the 23-year-old Ehrenreich about shooting in New Orleans, recasting a lead before filming began and the pros and cons of being pegged as "the next Twilight."
Film Journal International: Jack O'Connell [of the British teen-drama series "Skins"] was originally cast as Ethan but had to bow out. At what point in the production did that happen?
Richard LaGravanese: It was about two weeks before I started [production]. It wasn't his fault. It was a visa issue.
FJI: OK. I'd heard it was scheduling conflicts, but it was about the visa.
LaGravenese: It was scheduling and something. They told me a bunch of different things, but it wasn't his fault. He wanted to do it, but it was sort of a scheduling/visa thing.
FJI: Good thing Alden is a such talented young actor, huh?
LaGravenese: Yeah, and we had gone to him as part of our original casting search. One of the reasons I wanted Alice and Alden was because neither one of them wanted to do it. My hesitation about doing this was getting lumped into this sort of Twilight world, and they didn't want that either. So he didn't even read the script when we first went after him because it wasn't something that interested him. And then after we'd lost Jack we went back to him, and that was the first time he read the script. And then he realized I was trying to do something interesting with this. And he came in to read for me and I cast him right away.
FJI: How does somebody get a script from an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and not read it? Dude!
LaGravenese: Because his managers told him it was of a certain genre that he wasn't interested in doing.
Alden Ehrenreich: I was pitched the movie as Twilight meets Romeo and Juliet. Whenever you're pitched something that sounds like it's just a rehash of other things that were successful, it's not very exciting because you assume that that means it's not somebody's personal vision, it's just a meld of certain tropes and conventions. So I passed because sometimes I'm dumb and I don't read scripts and I pass on them without reading them. So then the movie came back around and Jack O'Connell had the schedule conflict and they came back to me… It was fortuitous. And I went in [to audition] and Richard flew out to L.A. and he was like "I know you're skeptical," and at this point I held myself back from saying, "Listen, I read the script—I loved it! I want to do it! Please hire me!" [laughs] and auditioned for him… So thank God I was forgiven in the cosmos and that came back around. I got the part a week before production. That was crazy. I woke up, I got a phone call at eight in the morning, and then later that day I was in New Orleans getting ready for rehearsal.
FJI: The film's set in South Carolina but shot in New Orleans. Obviously, places substitute for other places all the time. Were there tax breaks, a better production infrastructure?
LaGravenese: Tax breaks in Louisiana are extraordinary and there's a lot of filming going on there and the crews have had a lot of experience. I loved it. I love New Orleans. I love the people, I love the culture of it, the food, the music. It was fantastic. We stayed on schedule. We had a couple of weather stops—one day, another half a day—but we still wound up shooting on schedule and on budget, and so it was a really great experience.
FJI: I've seen $65 million. Is that accurate?
LaGravenese: I think what you're seeing up on film was about $50 million. And then the post[-production] My contingency was saved [because of the on-schedule/on-budget shoot], so that went back into it. The visual effects, we needed to do more of because we got a little bit screwed. So, yeah, it's somewhere between $50 and $60 million.
FJI: You also shot in St. Francisville, which is famous for its ostensibly haunted houses.
LaGravenese: St. Francisville was where the hill was [for a Civil War re-enactment of the fictional Battle of Honey Hill]. I had no idea Louisiana was flat, and when we got there they could not find me a hill. And this wonderful location manager took us two hours outside, and so we did the Honey Hill stuff in St. Francisville. We had to move the company there for two weeks. We were in Folsom, we were in Morganza, Covington, Hammond. [Macon's] house, I think, was in Morganza.
We started shooting, I think, April 16th, and then we shot until June 26th, and then post was for me from July 5th to December 17th. It was a six-day week from July to December, sometimes seven, in order to meet our date.
FJI: I've heard that either you or the authors had Jeremy Irons in mind for Macon.
LaGravenese: They did, yeah. The authors had him in mind from the beginning, yeah.
FJI: Did you tell him that or did the authors?
LaGravenese: The authors did when they came to visit the set. They were so thrilled.
Jeremy Irons: Yes they did say that. It was rather frightening.
FJI: Why was it frightening?
Irons: I don't know. I suppose it's, I don't know, it's flattering or whatever. You're never sure how people think of you. I suppose it's a bit of the work you've done, but you wonder which bit of work it is. Well, I don't know if I was flattered—I was just interested when they said that. I thought, "Oh well, there you go."
Ehrenreich: The first day that Jeremy came in, we were doing a scene and it went fine, and we moved on. And he came back to Richard and he said, "I want to do that again." And, y'know, it was the first day and everybody's getting to know each other. And when we went back to the scene, he just cut through it and had this resolve that was so admirable. Because you can get really stuck in your own head or be afraid to be bold on a film set, because there are so many people looking to you with certain expectations. And he just freed himself from all of that and that was so incredible to watch him just power through the scene. And we got it in a couple takes, because he just committed. It was like seeing someone fully, fully commit the same way you see an athlete do.
FJI: In a 2005 interview, Jeremy said, mostly tongue-in-cheek, that in America, "They’ll say, 'We want a bit of cred, let's get Jeremy Irons on board.'" So here's Jeremy and Emma Thompson, two classically trained British actors—does that help, y'know, [lightheartedly] class it up?
Irons: I don't know. I think it was a pretty classy script.
LaGravenese: No, they were just the best people for the parts. In the book, Macon's described as you think you're going to get Boo Radley and out steps Noel Coward. There aren't many people who can do that. Jeremy has that voice and that manner and that intelligence and that wit. And Emma is just one of the most talented people ever. I've been love with her forever—I've been dying to work with her. And [Tony Award winner and Oscar nominee] Viola [Davis] as well. What I'm saying is, it wasn't my intention. I was so lucky to get great actors. I never in my conscious mind went, "Let's class this thing up."
FJI: So it was accidentally classy… Jeremy, a lot of American actors take the Actors Studio approach, where you make that sense-memory connection. And then there's the Laurence Olivier archetype, where you build the character from the outside in—the clothes, the walk, develop it that way. Where do you fall?
Irons: I normally fall in the first category. But for this one, because I came to it very late and most of the costume was designed and made, and I wasn't able to read the books in time, I had to rely on Richard as the writer, who had done all the research, to tell me everything he knew and try and build a coherent character from there. And I'm glad to say that the girls who wrote the book are very happy with what we've come up with.
LaGravenese: The way that I'm a screenwriter, I tend to feel too responsible to other writers and what they create. So I thought, "Well, if I don't read the other [two books in the trilogy], it will allow me to invent and recreate and reinvent when I need to." I tried adapting the book as it is in the first several drafts, but it was so overwhelming and it was too heavy. It was a lot of exposition. The two writers, Kami and Margaret, did such a wonderful job creating a new mythology, but they're two different mediums—in a book you can have pages and pages explaining different kinds of witches or different kinds of curses and going into much more detail, and I couldn't make that work in a film.
So I put it down for a few months, and when I went back to it, I just decided that the most important thing is the human element of it. I took the love story, the Romeo and Juliet love story, and that became my spine of a sort. And then I took the supernatural claiming of a 16-year-old girl as the clock that would move the plot forward. And then anything that was an obstacle to that love story I kept and the rest I let go. I just streamlined it in a way I felt I had to. And in the long run it became this story about the strength of humans—this idea of being 16 or 17 and not knowing who you are and being filled with all these feelings and confusions and having to claim who you are separate and apart from your parents, your family, your friends and the world as it sees you. And yet how much of us is inherited? How much of us is free will and how much of us is destiny?
FJI: Did anybody consider the irony that the Bible thumpers in the town who were railing against evil and the supernatural were right?
LaGravenese: They were right! I know! Well, [most of them] weren't evil, but it was more about intolerance. But yes, they were right. I know! That made me laugh. I thought that was funny.
FJI: I've seen that there's an actress, Camille Balsamo, who plays the character of Katherine Duchannes, but I don't remember seeing that character in the movie.
LaGravenese: Oh, OK. That was a thing I cut. There was one part that I shot on green screen where I had all these actresses playing all the different Duchannes women from different periods [from the Civil War on]. And my costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland, had gowns and things, one was from the turn of the century, one was from the ’20s, one was from the ’40s, one was from the '60s, and they were going to appear in the first flashback and at the end of the movie, and then I cut them.
FJI: Because it was already over two hours.
LaGravenese: That wasn't the reason. It just didn't work. It was just an idea that didn't work.
FJI: The studio, reasonably enough, would like this to be another Twilight. What are the pros and cons for you of being attached to a franchise?
Ehrenreich: Hopefully this is a good problem to have, and people hopefully will feel a fraction of the enthusiasm and passion they felt for the Twilight series for this. There are complications, I'm sure, for those [Twilight stars], but I can't even imagine what they are because there isn't really an experience before you have that level of recognition that you could even compare to it. I mean, being famous like that—what else could possibly be like that? I cannot imagine. But for instance, On the Road—that's a movie that they've been trying to make for 30 years, and Kristen Stewart says she wants to play a supporting part in it and they finance it in a heartbeat. I don't know that that's exactly how that went down, but for the most part those people are now in incredible positions of creative power—and this is speaking as someone who's been cast in a lot of movies and recast in a lot of movies that either didn't get financed, or they hired somebody else because they needed a bigger name, or the movie just never had money to begin with. I've read so many great scripts that should be movies, and there are so many that don't get to be made because they can't find name stars. Even some of the great directors still need these names in their film. So to me, the benefit of having something that has that level of success is that then you can make movies happen and you can work with the highest caliber of filmmaker around—it gives you a really good chance of that.
LaGravenese: I don’t know—I've never done it before, so I don't know if [a franchise is] going to happen. I wanted to make this as if, if I had to walk away and this was it, I was satisfied with how I told the story. If it turns into something else, because of the changes I made and the character combinations, I'm going to have to figure that out. I haven't read the other books, like I said, so I don't know where it goes. It would be a journey for me as well. But one of the reasons I would like to do it, the pros, would be to be with this company again, because I brought these actors into it and I don't want to abandon them. And because of the changes I made, I feel I'm best to navigate the adaptations.
But we have to see how the movie plays first. There's a commitment issue, but there's a lot of time to do the things you want to do in this life. If you're talking about the next two years or so, that moves by pretty quickly, and there's still a lot of time to create original work and other things that you want to do. So I don't think it's a hindrance to any other dreams I have of what I want to create.