BD: Did you add anything to the existing script?
CB: Before we started shooting we had two or three script meetings. I added some ideas, but nothing structurally significant. At least I wouldn’t call anything I added significant. All the big set pieces were already envisioned. When we started shooting we learned quickly that the tiger will rewrite your script. In one scene he was supposed to put his front paws on the kitchen island and raise himself up to peer around the room. I called action and suddenly the tiger was leaping onto the stove and crashing into the hanging pots. We went with the tiger’s version.
BD: Was it hard mixing the two elements of a hurricane and a tiger into one suspenseful film?
CB: Not once I realized the two are really the same idea — just unbridled Nature. Suddenly then you’re not talking about good and evil. It’s actually more fearsome than that. Because you can’t read it. I think that’s why the hockey mask is such a classic horror image — that total absence of emotional cues — it’s just a force coming at you with a Benihana knife. You start to sense that the hockey mask itself has an intelligence that you can’t read. And that really creeps me out. I hooked into this story when I understood that tigers and hurricanes are just masks for the same merciless Nature. When you first encounter the premise of this movie, it can seem preposterous — to be trapped in a house with a tiger during a hurricane — but the hurricane is integral to explaining how that happened. In fact, I think my job is to take your hand and lead you in and show you how it happened, how it’s real, and if I do everything right, and you say, “Okay, now I get it,” then at some point it feels real enough for me to let go, and sort of say, “Okay, you’re on your own from here on.” And at that point, as my editor Miklos Wright likes to say, the movie takes over.
BD: How was it working with the tiger? Did the tiger ever work WITH any of the actors on set?
CB: The tigers — there were three, Katie, Sheka and Kizmet — did not work with the actors, due to the aggressive nature of the performances we were trying to get. We shot on a sound stage in Florida, next to the Universal theme park. Sometimes we were shooting the tiger on green screen and the actors on the set, and sometimes it was the reverse. But never the same days. We shot on a two story house built inside a sound stage, but that’s a pretty confined place to be moving around with three very large tigers. It was a locked set and some of our crew chose to leave the building before the tigers were let onto the set for a shot, and not return until the shot was over and they were back in their enclosure. And I understood why. Others, like our camera crew, worked face-to-face with the tigers for every shot because we had to get those shots. And again, you just can’t predict what’s going to happen. The trainers always want to do the crazy aggressive stuff last (in the shoot) because once a cat gets juiced up, you can’t really work with them again for awhile. For me the scariest moment was actually hearing the tiger’s warning growl when it feels you’re about to take it’s meal — that’s its most scary sound. When you hear it your body records it forever in the balls of your feet. Thankfully nobody ever got hurt, including the tigers.
BD: How bloody and violent is it?
CB: This is a thriller — with horror underpinnings, perhaps, but it’s not a horror movie, strictly speaking — so there is some but not a lot of gore until the end. When it does happen, it’s fairly gory. We’re still not sure if the ratings board is going to let us get away with what we have. And the funny thing is, at first I thought the gore we shot was not realistic enough. But at our first test screening I couldn’t believe how virtually everybody was totally repulsed by it! They wanted it to stop. I think it’s because even though we had used prosthetics, the tiger was still — again — 100% real. And therefore what happens very much comes off as disturbing. By the time the gag happens (so to speak) you haven’t been lulled into that CG complacency. My visual effects supervisor, Dan Schmit, actually promoted the concept of shooting as much “in-camera” as we could — even though it lessened his CG work. And it benefited the movie enormously. I think that’s the mark of good VFX. While it’s surprisingly easy to use gags and gore to get people squirming, it’s much better when you get them genuinely filled with dread first.
BD: How did the test screenings go, did you have to do any additional shooting?
CB: Test screenings are very instructive. Especially at this point in my career, I become a chemistry student — I sit there and ask why is the audience reacting this way in this moment? what is that moment doing for them? what if we cut three more frames? It’s all very instructive. Our first test screening told us the audience was much more interested in the tiger’s back story than we had anticipated. So we were able to shoot a scene with Meat Loaf doing a cameo that turned out very well. That was an additional scene, but there was no reshoot of anything previously filmed. That said, I will go on record and say that reshoots ought to be line items in film budgets. In fact, for Woody Allen I think they are. But what we did to improve our odds of getting what we needed out of the gates was we did not attempt to complete the tigers during principal photography. Instead, we set aside our green screen tiger days so that we could edit the film for awhile and discover exactly what was needed to complete it. It was a very successful strategy.
BD: What’s the release plans as of right now?
CB: Lionsgate has first crack, so we’ll let you know their release plans when they see the finished film. As it happens I’m off in about fifteen minutes to lay in the final end credit design.