The Hitcher: Set Report
On the set in Austin, Texas: June, 2006
A few years ago, I was watching one of the movie channels when I caught a movie from 1986 called "The Hitcher" from the beginning and slapped myself in the face for not having seen it sooner. The original film directed by Robert Harmon, written by Eric Red and starring C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey, who is en route to San Diego from Chicago. He picks up a Hitchhiker played by Rutger Hauer named John Ryder and is then framed for a series of murders that Ryder commits and tries to find help in waitress Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and it all adds up to a thrilling, sometimes unbelievable ride.
Flash forward to 2006 and the guys at Platinum Dunes (headed by Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form) who are behind the remakes of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Amityville Horror" as well as the upcoming "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning", along with Rogue Pictures are bringing us a remake of "The Hitcher" complete with some fresh faces and a mostly original plot. What's cool about "The Hitcher" is that unlike the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or "The Amityville Horror" (which Platinum Dunes did a good job with despite some opposition), "The Hitcher" had a much more cult following and didn't find that large of an audience. The original is definitely a great watch but some things are pretty far-fetched in what is an otherwise very realistic story.
The feeling that I got from visiting the set of "The Hitcher" in Taylor, Texas (40 minutes outside Austin) on a night in June is that the all of the filmmakers and actors involved are all very aware of the possibilities to add new elements to the story, as well as help it find a larger audience, while still paying tribute to many of the things that made the story so beloved by its dedicated fans. This go-round finds college student couple Grace (Sophia Bush) and Jim Halsey (Zachary Knighton) being terrorized by John Ryder (Sean Bean). "The Hitcher" is being directed by esteemed Music Video and Commercial director Dave Meyers and is written by Jake Wade Wall and Eric Bernt.
I arrived at the evening's set at 8pm for a night shoot and walked through a parking lot full of Trailers and other vehicles to find the City Hall building that was the location of the night's festivities. After meeting up with John Pisani, the film's publicist and Stax from ign.com, we got acquainted and then headed off to interview Brad Fuller, one of the film's producers. From there we took our first steps inside the City Hall.
The scene being shot may be familiar to fans of the film, as it was a new take on the scene where the protagonists get locked up in jail and without ruining anything, bad things happen. It was a cool night for summer in Texas, around 70 degrees, but as soon as we stepped inside of the building, I started to feel the heat. The first thing I saw was a Hallway from which some of the actors were yelling loudly to practice the scene. We stood against the wall and listened to the action from around the corner as Jim (Zachary Knighton) and Police Officer H. Bremmer Jr. (Travis Schuldt) argued furiously as Jim was locked up. There were several very intense and loud takes before we were able to turn the corner and see the action but it was pretty great just to listen to.
Once we turned the corner I found that the set was an old jail from many, many years ago. You could feel the authenticity and the terror in the walls. A smoke machine from another room filled the air with smoke and we made our way through the crew in a fairly tight space to a cell in the back from which we could watch the action. It was confined, hot and pretty much a perfect place to film a scene like this. We got to watch right in front of us as the actors rehearsed and filmed several takes of the very powerful scene. Jim had dirt and dry blood all over him and looked like he had been through a lot. H. Bremmer Jr. looked like a very classic interpretation of small town police officer and they exchanged verbal blows back and forth until Jim is left alone in his cell screaming frantically.
After this series of takes, we retreated back upstairs to get some fresh air and take a breather. We got a chance to sit down and watch the monitor and get in an interview with Zachary Knighton, who hopefully has a bright future ahead of him, and then decided it was time to go back into the prison cell. Back downstairs, we got to see a confrontation between John Ryder (Sean Bean) and Jim. Jim is still alone and panicking as the lights go out and he is attacked by Ryder. This scene was an exceptionally great treat to see as the rehearsal between Bean, Knighton and Meyers (director) was a very collaborative effort. Each suggested their own interpretation and they all agreed on a final routine that birthed a new scare that didn't seem to be in the script. Bean looked great as Ryder, dressed in the signature grey trench coat and sporting short, messy hair. While Rutger Hauer did a breathtaking job as John Ryder in the original, I have no doubt that Bean will make the character very memorable in his own, talented way.
After watching that scene see its completion, we headed upstairs again where he got to sit behind the monitors some more and do some more interviews. We eventually got to enjoy some Craft Services with the entire crew for their "lunch hour" at 2am (sidenote: there's nothing like some good prosciutto-covered chicken and sweet potatoes at two in the morning). This is where I caught my first glimpse of the beautiful Sophia Bush who I had the great opportunity to interview just a bit later. We walked out of the cafeteria with Dave Meyers and hitched a ride back to his trailer for an interview. On the way we passed the car that Jim and Grace drive for at least some of the movie, which was a very classy looking blue Oldsmobile 442, which Meyers described as being both "cool and affordable for the characters."
From there, we sat down at the monitors with Brad Fuller and Andrew Form as well as some of the other crew and watched as the crew got some pick up shots inside the jail. The coolest part at this point was that Dave Meyers kept running upstairs to mention more movies that he counts as influences to me, which was the last question I asked in our formal interview. We ended the night with talking to the very nice and well-spoken Sean Bean and decided to clock in as we looked up at the spotlight above the city hall and saw hundreds of bats flying overhead.
Overall, the set of the "The Hitcher" was an amazing thing to see. There was a perfect balance of people having good attitudes in their real life while being able to snap into terror mode for the movie whenever necessary, which has always been one of my curiosities of Horror film sets. It's time to get excited for "The Hitcher". Everyone involved is very excited about the project and it's definitely a story that deserves more attention than the original film received.
Come April 2007, this is one Horror movie you need to be sitting shotgun for.
The Hitcher: Star Sean Bean
On the set in Austin, Texas: June, 2006
BD: We've been watching some of your stuff on the monitor down there, it's hot down there.
SB: Oh, you've been down there?
BD: Yeah, we were watching your altercation with Zach.
BD: So how's the shoot going for you so far?
SB: Good, I've been here just over a week now and we've done quite a fair amount of work. I mean, we started up with a scene, it was the scene in the car with Jim and Grace when we first meet and so you know, we did a big chunk there. Which was probably good because we didn't really know each other in the scene and we didn't really know each other as people, so that's good. It's been really good and really exciting. It really comes alive, really comes off the page.
BD: Had you seen the original film?
SB: Yes, how long ago was it?
BD: Almost 20 years ago.
SB: Yeah, I went to see it at the cinema and it made quite an impression.
BD: Did you revisit it at all before this?
SB: No, that was the last time I saw it, maybe 15-20 years ago, when it first came out in cinemas. And you know when I was going to start doing this, I didn't really want to revisit it at all because I thought it was a good film and an exciting film, I just didn't want to have something in my head that wasn't going to be in this film. I always sort of like to make the part mine rather than seeing someone else play a role and then recreating that.
BD: Does that come from your background in theater? Because I know that a lot of theater actors believe that no one actor owns a role, they kind of rent it for a while.
SB: Yeah, I suppose with something like film, it's different because doing something like Lord of the Rings, for instance, I'm playing a character in that, it's something you don't very often get the chance to do and that's sort of set in film for the next 20 years or whenever they decide to make another Lord of the Rings, which you know, is probably doubtful in the near future. So I suppose with theater you can, like Shakespeare, there's many people that play many parts like Macbeth and Hamlet, Othello, people are always playing those parts all over all over the place, whereas on film, in something like "The Hitcher" it's something that's being done on stage or anything. And so it's good to have to opportunity to do something like this and sort of stamp your authority on it and create a character.
BD: What do you see as John Ryder, your character's motivations for terrorizing these kids?
SB: We're still sort of figuring that out at the moment. It's kind of a journey for him, it's probably a journey he's done before and I think he just feels kind of frustrated and amused by the fact that he can get away with anything and nobody's stopping him. He's pushing the boundaries and nobody's pushing back. He wants to know where to stop and when to stop and how to stop. I think he's kind of happy about it but he thinks if there's someone up there or some kind of spirit, then why is he not stopping me from doing what I'm doing? Who is going to stop me from doing what I'm doing? Maybe I see Grace as a woman who can but you know, it's not in the text, it's not mentioned of him having a previous life. I imagine him as sort of a ghostly character that lives in the shadows that does this thing probably on a quite regular basis and gets away with it and sees no reason to stop and he probably gets pleasure from it and finds some sort of peace in that experience.
BD: He's kind of a traveling angel of death type character?
SB: Yeah, he's not particularly vicious. I don't even know if you ever see him killing anyone in this film. In fact, you don't see him killing anyone, you see the aftermath and you see the results of what he's done. But he's not a particularly angry man or a vicious killer, he's very controlled, methodical and quite charming in a sense.
BD: He seems like he's inhabiting his own realm, he's just on a different plane .
SB: Yeah, he's on a different level really I suppose.
BD: In the original film, in the first scene where he meets the C. Thomas Howell character, there's immediately a disturbing presence about him, does your interpretation of the character start off as a friendly guy and then he segways into who he really is as something darker or is he menacing from the minute he gets into that car?
SB: Sort of. He's pretty lucid at the beginning, seems pretty friendly, a quite affable guy, the sort of guy that you maybe would give a lift to a motel. I didn't want to sort of start him off as the bad guy right from the beginning, I think it's more interesting to see…there's not much time to show his friendly side so I thought I'd make the most of it at the beginning and try to portray other aspects of his character, the more human side to his character. From then on, once they give him the lift, he's pretty ruthless.
BD: What was it about the role or the project in general that attracted you? I know that you were just coming off another movie and you were probably very tired from that production so what was it that grabbed you and made you say you're going to do this?
SB: I just read the script and I was very excited by it. It was a real page turner and it was very exciting and I thought there was a lot I could do with the part that wasn't restricted in what you could do. There wasn't a lot of exposition to the character, you don't have to explain things, he just is who he is, therefore that gives you a kind of freedom to experiment and try things out. I thought there was a lot of potential there and working with Dave, I've worked with Michael Bay before and I enjoyed that experience. With Dave, he's got such good ideas, he's very stylish, very inventive, and I think with the script being so good I thought a combination of those factors made it very appealing to me. And it's something unusual, it's not very often you get to play this sort of phantom of death and the opportunity to take things to extremes which I like to do if at all possible.
BD: A lot of the other actors and the producers commented on how well you can be in the character and be evil and then snap out of it and ask "are you okay?" How do you manage that as an actor to go between evil villain and the normal you?
SB: I've never found it a problem really, there are some characters where you're working very intensely for a certain amount of time where you take away some residue of that character and that can filter into your everyday life but I've always found it quite easy to snap in and out of a character. I try to find out as much as I can about what I'm doing, do my research and study so that when it comes to the moment of really putting it on the floor and acting, I kinda know what I'm doing. I think it's too much to carry that weight of a character around in your daily life. I just think I can compartmentalize that I suppose which I always have done.
BD: Do you think that actors that do carry it with them, is that a sort of narcissistic or self-destructive behavior for them to bring it home with them? Should they be able to turn it on and off?
SB: I don't know, I suppose every actor has their own approach to their work, it just happens that I try to distinguish between reality and fiction. I feel that otherwise, being the person that I am, I would get a little disturbed by it. I mean, everyone has their own approach and that has to be respected. Every one has their own method of work and as long as you portray it as truthfully as possible and immerse yourself in your work when the crunch comes then it doesn't really matter how you approach.
BD: Are you more at peace now with the idea the Hollywood has generally cast you as the heavy, even though overseas you're Sharpe?
SB: I don't really have a problem with that. I really enjoy playing these kind of sinister, idiosyncratic roles which have got meat and juice to them. So you know, I don't have a problem with that and I feel as though I can flip from one to another, I have the ability to do that. So it's not as though I have a problem being the bad guy. It's just the way you're perceived in certain circles, perhaps in Hollywood I'm seen as kind of a bad guy because I've played a lot of good bad guys, if you know what I mean, successful bad guys, convincing bad guys, so therefore I suppose people approach you to play them again.
BD: A lot of the villains you've played are kind of justified in what they're doing, at least in their own mind. There's an emotional justification for what they're doing, whether it's in Patriot Games or even in GoldenEye. Is that something you're cognizant of when you're picking villain roles or is it just so happens that that's kind of how it is?
SB: I suppose it's more of a rounded character, more three-dimensional character. You do look for the human qualities and virtues if you're playing a villain especially. Everybody's got that capacity for the dark side, for hatred, and anger and darkness, I think it's just a matter of what level it's at. You know, we all feel that at some point in our lives and I suppose for some people, you feel it more than others, I mean, the characters that I've played have often felt it quite a lot.
BD: Did you audition for the role of Bond back in '87 or something and what do you think of Daniel Craig?
SB: No, I didn't audition for it, there were sort of rumors going around that I was up for the part and I might've been at the time. I was before I played 006, that sort of put the kibosh on me playing Bond. Many actors look to play James Bond, so no exception, but I thought Pierce Brosnan made a great Bond and I enjoyed working with him on GoldenEye. And I think they made a good choice with Daniel Craig. I worked with him on Sharpe, he was in that, and I met him on several occasions over the last few years and I think he'll do a good job. He looks the part.
BD: Do you have any favorite villain characters? In your head, who's the quintessential bad guy?
SB: I remember Boris Karloff and all those kinds of guys, I used to watch all those films and I suppose those spring to mind. And Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs", I think he played that to perfection. I mean James Cagney and Edward G. Roberts and all of those guys, I know they played bad guy gangsters, but at that rate, with a very believable, human side to them and charm. You could go with them and sympathize with them and that's something I try and do, try and make people sympathize with your cause, even though it's not a very admirable one. You've got to allow people to get into your world and feel sorry.