Cinema symbologists ready for 'Omen' 6+6+06
By Martin A. Grove
"Omen" opening: On the heels of "The Da Vinci Code," moviegoers who'd like to continue their big-screen religious studies can do so with 20th Century Fox's remake of its 1976 thriller "The Omen" about the long-prophesized Anti-Christ child Damien.
While "Omen's" core audience is likely to be the large fan base that turns out for scary thrillers and horror movies, it could also benefit from the fact that religious symbolism is very much on moviegoers' minds these days thanks to the $145 million-plus they've already spent domestically to see "Da Vinci."
Cinema symbologists can study in "Omen" the birthmark on Damien's skull with the numbers 666. These, according to the Book of Revelation, are the symbol of the Devil: "This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666." In "Omen," of course, young Damien is Satan's reincarnation and, needless to say, that's bad news for the rest of us since what it points to is Armageddon.
It's fitting, therefore, that Fox chose June 6 as the opening date for the remake at about 2,500 theaters. Expressed numerically, the film's launch date is 6/6/06 -- or, as Fox's marketing puts it, "6+6+06." The fact that June 6 happens to be a Tuesday, a day of the week that typically doesn't bring movie openings, is posing some additional challenges for Fox's marketing team.
Directed by John Moore ("Behind Enemy Lines," "Flight of the Phoenix") and written by David Seltzer (who wrote the original "Omen"), "Omen" stars Julia Stiles, Live Schreiber, Mia Farrow, David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Gambon and introduces Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as Damien. It was produced by Glenn Williamson and Moore and executive produced by Jeffrey Stott.
The original "Omen," by the way, was directed by Richard Donner and starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. After opening June 25, 1976, to $4.3 million at 515 theaters ($8,298 per theater), it went on to gross about $61 million domestically, which was terrific business 30 years ago.
While talking Monday morning to an understandably very happy Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder ning about the studio's record setting $122.8 million Memorial Day weekend launch of "X-Men: The Last Stand," I asked if arranging for "Omen" to kick off on a Tuesday had been difficult to work out with exhibitors. "Not with exhibitors," Snyder replied. "They're fine with it. I'm afraid that with the public we have to let them know it's opening on Tuesday -- not that it's 'Omen 666' and (we) assume they're going to know that (refers to its opening date). We have to drive home the fact that 666 starts Tuesday because it is so unusual.
"If it was a Wednesday it wouldn't be quite as difficult, but that's the reason you make the movie (so you can launch it) when 666 rolls around again. So we had to go out on that Tuesday. Now we have to educate the public that not only is it opening on 6/6, which people may think is a Friday, we have to tell them that it's 666 (and it's a) Tuesday. That'll be the thrust of part of this campaign to let people know it's there."
As for how the remake came about, I spoke recently to Moore, who told me, "It really sort of started as a rumor. I've done all my movies with Fox so I know that gang pretty well. I heard a buzz around the studio that they were thinking of doing this (remake) and I was a big fan of the original. So I was naturally very interested. The executive on the project, Peter Kang, called me and said, 'Yeah, we're doing it. Are you interested?' I said, 'Absolutely. Without condition. Yes. Committed.' in the first 10 seconds. And then he said, 'Well, we're aiming for this release date on the 6th of June.'
"This was late June last year so we were looking at having maybe only 10 months from first phone call to completed product. So that was a little daunting, but exciting at the same time because, believe me, a director likes nothing better than to know what the release date of the movie's going to be. It can be hellish waiting around and having your date moved. So that made it all the sweeter. I hung up and was like, 'Oh, my God. We have to start right now.'"
Asked what starting right now means, Moore replied, "Usually, having a very stiff drink and then you just sit anxiously and wait for the script. I didn't know actually how developed it was within the four walls of Fox as a project. But the script came over and (on) the cover was 'The Omen. By David Seltzer. 1975.' So it was clear that we were going to be working from the original text, which was very exciting because daunting as it is remaking anything you're usually likely to incur the wrath of some of the people all of the time. What excited me was knowing that we were going to work with the same story. To me the text was superb. It's a classically good text. It's like a piece of Shakespeare. So knowing that we had that story was actually reassuring rather than disappointing.
"Then I just set about thinking, 'Okay, what is the one thing that I can bring to this to make it worth remaking it?' It kind of hit me that it was all going to be about contextualizing the notion of the story and to make people feel that it had an immediate relevancy. That's why I added the new scene at the beginning of the movie where Cardinal Fabretti (Carlo Sabatini) basically presents his case to the Pope and demonstrates that the world is in a very dark place and that the time is ripe for the coming of the Anti-Christ."
It's a scene that clearly pertains to the times in which we now live. "Very much so," observes Moore. "Whether or not it feels relevant in 30 years is questionable, but knowing that we had this release date and knowing that this movie was going to be seen right now I felt that I had a good chance of making it relevant right now. The three sixes, as we see in the Book of Revelation, is foretold as being the mark of the beast. The Anti-Christ will be marked with three sixes and all of his followers will be marked with three sixes. So the series of numbers is hugely relevant in the film and obviously with our release date we've a great opportunity to draw awareness to that.
"I worked with screenwriter Dan McDermott, who unfortunately isn't credited due to the somewhat bizarre Byzantine WGA rules. I actually still don't fully understand how the arbitration works, but unfortunately he didn't get a credit, which is a shame because he put some nice touches on the movie. We thoroughly went through the script and tried to make it feel like it was happening today. And that ranges from everything from technological touches to just making the dialogue sound a little more like it's spoken today. But I think the most obvious change is the notion that we set the movie up (so that) the coming of the Anti-Christ is a product of the sort of domino effect of the prevalence of evil in the world today."
With Hollywood doing so many remakes these days, I mentioned to Moore that in many cases such major changes are made that filmmakers say their productions aren't really remakes so much as films that are merely inspired-by the earlier movies. "This is my second remake. I did 'Flight of the Phoenix' before," he said. "What I smile somewhat ironically (about) is that some of the harsher critics have denounced me for remaking classics. And in my view, they are the ones that should be retold. If a story is that good, like a Shakespeare play, then I see no harm in retelling the story for a new generation. Some text deserves to be told 'generationally' and I felt 'The Omen' very much was one of them.
"The other remarkable thing is that a lot of the horror remakes that have been abundant recently are, in my humble view, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. They have a self-awareness that sort of, I wouldn't go far as to say neuters them, but definitely is more of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink affair. You know, you go to the movie. You know you're going to get scared. You have a good time with your girlfriend or whatever. 'The Omen's' a very serious film. It's more terrifying in its contemplative notions than it is jump-in-the-dark scary. 'The Omen's' one of those movies, certainly for me, that stays with you a long time after you've seen the movie whereas I think a lot of the crop of recent horror remakes are all about those two hours in the dark and having a good time there."
Over the last 30 years the whole concept of what's a horror film and what's a thriller has changed significantly. In the '70s when "The Omen" first came out, films like "Rosemary's Baby" that were referred to as horror films were actually more like thrillers. And today the type of films we routinely refer to as being thrillers are really more like knife slashing horror movies. "I have a difficult time going along with the notion of 'The Omen' being a horror movie," Moore pointed out.
"It's a bit of a genre buster. It doesn't fit easily in one category. It's very much a detective story. The entire movie is about figuring out a puzzle that has horrific implications, but there's nobody jumping around in a hockey mask with a chainsaw. It's very much about putting the audience on the boil and bringing them to the ultimate conclusion that, like I say, has a horrific implication but isn't in itself of the gory horror genre."
Coming back to how he made the film, I asked what Moore did next as the clock was ticking down those quick 10 months that he had to make the movie. "The next key move was casting," he explained. "I think I've been blessed by God or the Devil, I don't know which, with the cast I ended up getting. I went about casting this in a very old fashioned way. The casting process in Hollywood is a truly sickening affair lately whereby an agent calls a manager calls an assistant calls a studio rep and it's all about, 'Well, make me an offer and then I'll read it.' It's a horribly cynical process, I think in my limited experience. So I kind of went about this the old fashioned way and picked up the phone and called some actors and sort of made a one on one dialogue with them. In Julia's case, I flew to New York to meet with her and (presented) my case.
"Apparently, with a remake a lot of actors are more wary than they would normally be about approaching a project. There's just this specter of the previous performance hanging over them. And certainly in 'The Omen's' case, the original movie had a stellar cast, as well. But I tried to use that to my advantage in my appealing to these actors that they could take this on and that they were of quality that would easily match the original. Liev Schreiber's an incredibly complex actor. I think he will be one of the truly great actors of his generation. He's just head and shoulders above anybody in his age bracket. He's also a filmmaker. He makes the film with you. He isn't the sort of actor that's (just) going to hit his mark and say his lines. It's all about working everything down to the last possible permutation, till he's sure that it's the right way to do it. And that makes for a thrilling working experience because you always know with Liev that the minute you roll it you're getting the best that it can be because he's mined it for all those nuances."
Stiles, he added, "is a wonderfully complimentary actress to (Liev). There's a sweetness and an angelic (quality) that plays so beautifully to the notion that evil prays on innocence. So once I had those two set, I think a lot of the cast saw it as a very good signal that actors of Liev and Julia's caliber would do it. And then I called David Thewlis, Michael Gambon and Pete Postlethwaite and we were set. And then, lo and behold --
"We'd fantasized about getting Mia Farrow -- and I mean fantasized, like sat around the office going, 'Boy, can you imagine if?' The way I cast is that I put people's pictures up on a card. We stuck Mia's picture up and just like I said, pathetically, fantasized about her doing this. She, at the time, coincidentally was in a stage play ('Fran's Bed') with Julia off Broadway last year. So I thought, 'Wow. I'm going to take a risk here and just drop a dime on (calling) Mia and just take a shot in the dark.' So I called her up and introduced myself and said, 'Look, I'm sure you get this all the time, but is there any way you'd consider this? And, by the way, Julia's in this movie, too.' I knew they'd had a good relationship and I thought, well, that might be attractive to her. You know, when you work with somebody and you get on well with them often times you'd like to do it again.
"And to my ongoing astonishment and gratitude she said, 'Yeah. It sounds like fun.' I promise to God, I dropped the phone! I was (like), 'Are you serious? Are you going to do this?' And she said, 'Yeah. It sounds like fun. Let's do it.' I'll never to my dying day forget that moment. I hung up and I turned to my associate Peter Veverka (the film's associate producer) and he knew just from the look on my face. He said, 'She's going to do it, isn't she?' And I said, 'Yep.'"
When it came time to shoot, most of "Omen" was filmed in Prague. "To be brutally honest, I enjoy the challenge of being on location," Moore explained. "To me, it tends to focus your mind and the mind of the cast and crew. So I knew I wanted to shoot it somewhere like that. Prague is a great double for London and Rome, where most of the action is set. And there's a good studio there -- Barandov Studios -- (with) a very good crew base. And the exchange rate is pretty friendly even though they don't have a tax break per se. When you add it all up, it made sense."
How does he work as a director? "I tend to storyboard action scenes with a lot of detail," he told me. "I'm still learning how to work with actors. Working with Liev and Julia I rehearsed a lot more than I had previously. I'm photographically minded. That's the side of the industry that I come from (having started out in his native Ireland as a news cameraman and then as an assistant cameraman on features directed by Neil Jordan and Jim Sheridan) so I tend to be sticky about framing, which I had to learn to be more flexible with because sometimes an actor needs some room somewhere to make it better. I think I've learned how to work better with actors because of the quality of the talent that I had on this movie. So, yes, we did end up rehearsing more than I had done on previous movies."
In storyboarding, he acknowledged, "I can't draw for peanuts, but I'm very fortunate that I have an old, old friend who I've worked with way back for 10 years even when I was doing commercials (for advertisers like Adidas, Guinness and SEGA). He still does me a great favor by storyboarding with me."
Moore didn't have much time in which to shoot "Omen." "The shoot was in total 52 or 53 days, so it wasn't that long," he said. "Obviously, we had this post-production crunch coming because we couldn't miss that (June 6 release) date. We started in mid-October. We had a situation that got screwed up in Croatia. We were meant to shoot the last piece of the film in Croatia in December, but we lost our shooting permits because the Church kicked up a fuss. We ended up actually only shooting that vital scene -- the scene in Jerusalem and the beheading -- as late as mid-March. So you can imagine it was a little tense."
As for the biggest challenges he faced during production, Moore told me, "It got very cold in Prague a lot earlier than it had in previous years. We ended up with three feet of snow. There were occasional days where you thought, 'Ah, this is the curse of The Omen.' You know, it was a tough shoot because it's a very small amount of time really and there are some complex action sequences in it. And you're dealing with dogs, as well, (and) there's a lot of action with the dogs. So when you add it all up, it was sort of an ongoing difficult time. But then you'd have a good take with the cast and it all just melts away and you end up being happy to be there."
Not surprisingly, editing was being done while production was underway: "My editor, Danny Zimmerman ('Flight of the Phoenix') was in Prague with me. It was kind of vital that Dan be present. (Because of) the tight turnaround time, Danny was cutting as we went on. I tend not to shoot a lot of takes. Danny showed me a statistic that like 90%of the movie is made up of take 3. It seems to go like one (take) for the crew, one for the actors and then one for the movie. I think we only got into double figures a couple of times. But that's probably attributable to the rehearsal time and the fact that the actors are good. When they get it in their heads they really nail it."
Looking back, he concluded, "My most fond experience, I have to say, has been with this cast. I just truly think that if this movie's any good it's because of this cast. They were just superb and I'm happy to shout that from the tallest building!"