Alejandro Amenábar's Anatomy of Fear
This notion of childhood fears becoming real is one that has long fascinated rising director Alejandro Amenábar, who is already being considered a prodigy of the reality-bending thriller. He says of THE OTHERS: "I wanted to make a film full of long, dark corridors, a tribute to those beings, never unmasked, that stalked the hallways of my boyhood nightmares. "
Fresh off the success of his acclaimed Spanish film, "Open Your Eyes (1997)" -- a sexy, fantastical suspense thriller which won critical accolades and will soon be seen adapted into Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky (2001)," starring Tom Cruise -- Amenábar was ready to go even deeper into the mystery thriller genre. He began thinking about the very nature and origins of terror and suspense.
"My childhood was beset by fears - fear of the dark, fear of half-open doors, fear of closets, and generally speaking, fear of anything that could conceal someone or 'something,'" he recalls. "Thus, it is no surprise that I should become an avid devotee of the occult film. "
"I often wonder," he continues, "why do we take so much pleasure in fear? And in part I believe it's because the experience is so intense, and yet we know that we are still safe on the other side of the screen. The more that safety is in question, the scarier the film. "
Amenábar knew from the beginning that the unrelenting spell of THE OTHERS could only be created through a deep emphasis on mood and psychology, not superficial special effects. "I think it is dangerously easy in this type of film to go overboard with special effects and turn the desired shivers into revulsion," he notes. "For me, leaving something to the imagination is the essence of real horror. It's about the anxieties, the obsessions, the paranoia that lie latent in our consciousness. Wake these primal feelings up and you will transport the spectator back to the darkest corners of childhood fear. . back to that spine-tingling shiver that can only be described as terribly wonderful. "
This is what Amenábar set out to do with THE OTHERS. He also wanted to provide an entirely fresh take on the root causes of haunted house with a surprise climactic twist that lingers a long time in the imagination. "So many horror stories are about sin - the idea that a haunted house or person must be purged of its curse and then the ghosts will disappear and good will triumph," he observes. "But with THE OTHERS I attempted to approach the subject from a different point of view. The characters are neither heroes nor villains, but ordinary human beings trying to understand a situation that defies everything in which they believe. "
A Mother On a Supernatural Journey
To bring THE OTHERS to life, Alejandro Amenábar knew that the key to it all would be the actress who plays Grace, a devout Christian and dedicated young mother stoically raising her children alone amidst the very palpable fear of wartime. Just when Grace thinks she has pulled her children through every known threat, a series of events unfold -- so strange and disturbing that she is forced to abandon all her beliefs and fears and enter the realm of the supernatural.
Amenábar felt that to capture Grace's journey he would need a woman capable of embodying a roller-coaster range of emotions, from maternal love to creeping paranoia to shattering shock. He also wanted someone with the classical grace and porcelain beauty of a Golden Age leading lady - a sophisticated, headstrong woman for whom a supernatural encounter would be the last thing expected.
He found all these qualities in Nicole Kidman - and something more. "What really drew me and captured me completely about Nicole was the undeniable force of her stare," says Amenábar. "Much of the terror created in the film takes place in Nicole's eyes. They are better than any special effects money can buy. "
Kidman was deeply drawn to the mystery inherent in the story of THE OTHERS, and to the torrent of emotions roiling underneath the ghostly events taking place in Grace's house. "I found myself absolutely fascinated and enchanted with Grace's story," she says. "I have never done a supernatural thriller before, which was very intriguing to me, and I knew that with Alejandro Amenábar I would be in the absolute best of hands. "
For Kidman, it was Amenábar's unique understanding of how to subtly build fear in audiences that gave her total trust. "It was truly a pleasure to work with such an imaginative and original talent," she says. "He has an incredible ability to build true suspense, which comes from the heart and mind, from the inside, rather than the outside. He's not afraid to go to the very darkest places, and he gave me the courage to go there with him as Grace slowly begins to accept that reality is not quite what she thinks it is. "
Children Who See Things in The Dark
The two children who play Nicole Kidman's frightened - and sometimes frightening -- son and daughter add an eerie sensibility to THE OTHERS. Like many children in occult classics, they are strangely attuned to the supernatural rhythms cascading around their cavernous house, and they wonder why their mother refuses to believe.
The search for the two children took 7 months, as the filmmakers scoured more than 70 schools all over the United Kingdom. More than 5,000 kids auditioned for the roles, until finally, Alakina Mann and James Bentley appeared, essentially out of thin air. Neither child had any formal acting experience, but both exuded a complexity that made them compellingly real. To Amenábar, they seemed to capture the essence of the story: expressive, mysterious, darkly intriguing.
"These two children, Alakina and James, had a wild and unconventional magic to them," comments the director, "and this was coupled with an enormous inner discipline and maturity that was highly unusual for their age. They had a wonderful chemistry with Nicole and each other and, most of all, they are truly different from the children usually seen in horror films with an unusual and moving quality all their own. "
Director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe's camera swoops and glides - almost like it, too, is a spectral being -- through dark, echoing halls and into foreboding, half-lit rooms. The pace of the camera movement quickly turns from calm and peaceful to harried and panicked, and the result is a loss of all sense of time, as if the characters have entered some strange twilight zone.
For Amenábar, it was essential that the mansion itself become another eerie character. He found his fog-bound exteriors at an old English-style manor in rugged Cantabrie, a city on the misty Atlantic Coast of Spain, which made an excellent stand-in for the Isle of Jersey, which lies 14 miles off the coast of Normandy. Meanwhile, the interiors were specially created on a soundstage in the middle of suburban Madrid. Here, Amenábar and production designer Benjamin Fernandez (who last was part of the art design team on the Oscar-winning "Gladiator (2000)") were able to custom design the dark halls and hidden corners from which surprises emerge in THE OTHERS.
"The story turns on this house of gray shades and long corridors," says Amenábar. "In these dark, empty spaces we are bound to bump into the things we most fear. "