How 'Devil' director shot in confined spaces

Project is first from M. Night Shyamalan's production banner

Filmmakers have the great advantage of being able to open up stories so the action isn't limited to one location as it is on stage.

But when it comes to thrillers, the trend is to work within very confined spaces.

Case in point: "Devil," opening Friday from Universal and Media Rights Capital, takes place mostly in a stalled elevator whose terrified occupants realize one of them is the Devil himself.

Directed by John Erick Dowdle ("Quarantine"), its screenplay by Brian Nelson is from a story by M. Night Shyamalan. It's the first project from Shyamalan's production banner Night Chronicles.

"He had seen our first film, 'The Poughkeepsie Tapes,' which is very disturbing and bizarre, and he loved it," Dowdle told me, referring to the 2007 thriller he directed and co-wrote with his brother Drew, an executive producer of "Devil."

In September '08 Shyamalan asked for an early look at their new thriller "Quarantine." He liked how the Dowdles made the most of claustrophobic spaces and invited them to meet him in Philadelphia.

"We got a call and were literally on a plane the next morning," Drew said. "It was just one of those dream days. We went out to his farm. We didn't know anything about the story."

When they arrived Shyamalan gave them a 10-page "Devil" treatment to read.

"Most of the film takes place in a very small space and there's just inherent tension when you're trapped," Drew said. "It was a story that felt right in our strike zone."

Why didn't Shyamalan direct "Devil" himself?

"I think he wanted to try his hand at branching out a bit," John speculated, "producing and creating a label that's in his sweet spot."

"He wanted an opportunity to tell more stories," Drew added. "I've heard him say many times that one of the criteria he has for the Night Chronicles is it has to be a movie that he would love to direct himself."

After they signed on, Shyamalan had Nelson write a first draft screenplay that they all worked on to develop.

"A year later we went up to Toronto to shoot," John noted. "We finished shooting Christmas of last year."

Toronto? Shyamalan likes to film in Philadelphia.

"It was August and the state of Pennsylvania still hadn't passed its 2009 budget," Drew replied. "So our tax credits were approved, but not guaranteed. That proved to be the difference maker."

About a week before they were to head to Philadelphia they suddenly found themselves with tickets to Toronto. With a budget that John puts in the $20 million range, getting the best possible tax rebate was critically important.

"For the genre, it's a fairly decent budget," Drew pointed out. "That's a fun zone to be in."

Their tight schedule gave them 39 shooting days, 14 of them in the elevator. They also shot in a security office set where events inside the elevator are being monitored via closed circuit TV.

"We did five days in the security office," Drew said, "compared to 14 in the elevator for what amounts to a similar amount of screen time at the end of the day."

Because an elevator is a space everyone is familiar with, he explained, "creating a horrific story within an everyday space is particularly fun."

Fun, maybe, but not easy.

"In pre-production everyone was like, 'The elevator will be super quick,'" John noted. "But it's funny -- the smaller the space, the longer it takes to shoot in it."

"We wanted something that was deep not wide so that when you're in the elevator you would be forced to stand deeper behind people, simulating being buried alive," Drew observed.

If the elevator was too wide, everyone would have access to its doors. Instead, they built it deep to create the feeling of a living organism whose occupants are captives.

Not only did they want a small elevator, but they insisted on there being a large back wall mirror. That made life much more difficult for "Devil's" DP Tak Fujimoto, who shot Shyamalan's 2002 thriller "Signs."

"We had days when our camera operator and focus puller were in full Day-Glo green execution outfits that we had to later paint out," Drew said.

To get their elevator shots they built sets and also worked in an elevator corridor in a Toronto skyscraper.

"We had two identical elevators," Drew explained. "One that we used to shoot all the scenes with the camera in the elevator and one we used in the security office where they're watching."

That meant shooting all the elevator scenes and then doing a replica scene for each one with the security camera so they could match them in editing.

Their two biggest challenges, per John, were "how do we keep multiple scenes in an elevator interesting and how do we keep multiple scenes in a security office interesting?"

The answer was finding ways to shoot them very differently.

"The security office was shot in that objective, more classical style like shooting through monitors, over the shoulder. Whereas in the elevator, we tried to simulate being in that space with them."

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