To the 100 million gamers living in the United States today, the more super-realistic and obsessively addictive a videogame is, the better. But there is a game about to hit the shelves that is so harrowingly real, so capable of taking over your life, its effects are more than thrilling - they're deadly. The new horror survival game, "Stay Alive," inspired by the true-life story of the shocking 17th century serial killer known as ''The Blood Countess," is still in beta testing. But it's already got a sizzling reputation for supernatural chills and death-defying challenges that push the player to the edge. There's just one little problem - the group of New Orleans gamers who recently got their hands on an underground copy of "Stay Alive" keep winding up dead ... one by one ... each killed in the same way that their characters died in the game.
So are they playing the game ... or is the game playing them?
Get ready for a riveting motion picture experience that blurs the lines between games, legends and reality ... and takes off into the realm of totally original, mind-bending horror.
Straight from the minds of two young gamer filmmakers - writer-director William Brent Bell and writer-producer Matthew Peterman -- The producers are McG, Peter Schlessel, James D. Stern and Matthew Peterman. Serving as executive producers are Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman, Douglas Hansen, Becki Cross Trujillo, and Adam Del Deo. The film features a group of rising young stars, most of whom are themselves gamers, including Jon Foster, Samaire Armstrong, Frankie Muniz, Jimmi Simpson, Milo Ventimiglia, with Sophia Bush, and Adam Goldberg.
Creating an unprecedented visual environment in which 3D game action merges into everyday reality with startling results - and shooting in the inimitable atmosphere of New Orleans -- is a team that includes cinematographer Alejandro Martinez, production designer Bruton Jones, costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer, VFX producer Gayle Busby, VFX supervisor Kent Seki ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") and gaming consultant CliffyB ("Unreal").
THE GAME EVERYONE'S DYING TO PLAY
When brand-new law clerk and long-time gamer Hutch MacNeil finds a simple, hand-labeled disk among the possessions of a friend who was tragically murdered, he knows exactly what it must be. It's an underground copy of a hot new videogame that hasn't yet hit the shelves. Devastated by his friend's death, yet unable to resist such contraband, Hutch can't help but share it with his close-knit group of gamer friends - including 21 year-old Goth vamp October, her punky older brother Phineus, their tech-wiz friend Swink and the group's newcomer, the shy shutterbug Abigail. They all know they shouldn't even have the game, but that just makes it even more exciting to play.
Right from the start, this game is different from any other and they've played them all - "Splinter Cell," "Silent Hill," "Halo" and the list goes on. But "Stay Alive" is the most intensely scary, most technologically advanced and most obsessive horror survival game they've yet encountered. Taking place in New Orleans' creepy Gerouge Plantation, a sprawling Southern estate where a group of young women has gone missing, the game's objective is simple - unravel the haunting mystery of the missing girls and, most of all, stay alive. But the latter turns out to be far more challenging than anyone expected.
Of course, video game characters die all the time, and when they do, you simply start the game all over again. But when the first person whose character dies in "Stay Alive" is actually found dead, savagely attacked in reality, suspicion begins to mount. If you die in the game ... will you die in real life? And who is doing the killing? Is it one of the gamers? A dangerous outsider? The game itself? As both the threat and paranoia grow, the play turns deadly serious and the gamers must turn their keen cyber-survival skills to unraveling a real life mystery that could truly mean "game over."
What happens when the thin line between life and games becomes completely blurred? That was the explosive question that the co-writers of STAY ALIVE, William Brent Bell, who also directs, and Matthew Peterman had in mind as they decided to create an entirely new and different kind of horror legend for their game-loving generation.
Avid gamers themselves, they had a vision for blending the wild graphics and action of video games with the psychological thrills of a horror movie in a way that hadn't been done before -- forging what they hoped would be a uniquely visceral and utterly 2151 century experience.
It was a vision so new and innovative, just a few years ago they couldn't get anyone interested in it. But as videogames have continued to explode in popularity, their concept became more and more intriguing to Hollywood - soon drawing the eye of forward-looking, youth-oriented director and producer McG ("Charlie's Angels," "The OC"), who passionately threw his support behind the project. Soon after, STAY ALIVE went into development with three major Hollywood forces behind it: McG's Wonderland Sound and Vision, the leading feature film company, Spyglass Entertainment and the innovative Endgame Entertainment.
"Matt and I had felt for a long time that teen audiences were truly ready for a movie using a videogame as a story engine, but it took awhile to convince other people," explains William Brent Bell. "It's something no one's really done this way before. In this day and age, when games are so rich with story and characters, it really made sense to us to bring the two forms together. Movies and games each have their own way of telling stories, but the marriage of the two is something we really believed in, something that we felt like we understood and could turn into a powerful experience."
Having been inside the gamer culture themselves, Bell and Peterman knew the heart of the story would be a typical group of young friends caught up in a gaming mystery that becomes ever and ever more real. "When young audiences watch a film with a young cast who they can really relate to, they start to live vicariously through those characters and get much more scared by what they're going through," notes Bell. "So we tried to create characters right out of everyday experience - not your stereotypical jocks and cheerleaders but a group who are intelligent, funny, emotional and act as the kind of surrogate family that a lot of young adults today are for each other."
Even before they started writing, Bell and Peterman started hanging out in gaming cafes on a regular basis to soak up the subculture's distinctively sharp language, laissez faire style and intense atmosphere. "We play a lot of games ourselves of course but we also wanted to research how kids are talking, dressing and playing games right now. We wanted to capture how they interact with each other, how intense they are," says Peterman. "Basically, we wanted to get inside the gamers' world as completely as we could."
To provide even keener creative insight into the highs and lows of gaming life, the filmmakers brought in consultant CliftyB, a leading innovative game designer who has been deeply involved in the development of the "Unreal Tournament' franchise and recently designed the dark and scary "Gears of War" for the XBox 360. As the script was developed, CliftyB provided sage answers to questions ranging from up-to-the-minute gamers' vocabulary to specific game tactics. "Cliffy was basically our sounding board," explains Peterman. "If we had a question about lingo or game strategy he was the guy we went to and he gave us a lot of input that really upped the credibility of the game."
As they explored the story deeper, Bell and Peterman also found themselves dancing carefully through the surreal zone where reality and fantasy bleed into each other. It was a place they found dark and lined with pitfalls, but definitely inspirational. "We had a lot of fun because we were able to really play around with time and space, to break all the usual rules," says Bell. "At times in the story, reality is mirroring the game and at other times the game is mirroring reality and then the two converge together to make this fusion type world that was fantastic to imagine and not like anything else we'd ever seen. It could also get very scary, even for us."
When Bell and Peterman's edge-of-your-seat screenplay fell into the hands of McG things really began to take off. Impressed with the strength of their vision, McG strongly supported the idea of William Brent Bell taking the helm of the movie. 'We believed in these guys" explains co-producer David Manpearl, who works with McG at Wonderland. "They have such young, fresh voices, they're completely tapped into youth culture and they look at things differently, which is what we are all about at Wonderland. We also thought the idea of mixing videogames and horror, two of the most popular entertainment forms today, was a great one."
McG in turn brought in Peter Schlessel, former head of Columbia Pictures, who also joined the project as a producer. 'When McG showed me the screenplay, it just screamed out to me that it was a great idea," says Schlessel. "I liked the voices of the characters and how timely a subject it was. Anytime you can tell a horror story that involves what's going on right now in youth culture, that's a compelling thing. STAY ALIVE takes something that most kids do every single day, that's a major part of their lives, and turns it into something terrifying. I thought it would be great, fun entertainment inspired by something very true-to-life."
Schlessel did not balk at the idea of neophyte Bell directing the destined-to-be-complex production. "With William and Matthew you clearly had the voices of two writers who really knew what they wanted to accomplish on the screen," he notes. 'We also had a huge safety net in McG, who's one of the greatest guys in the business, and who personally committed himself to supporting these guys. I knew McG was the perfect mentor to guide them through the rough spots of making the film and that gave me a lot of confidence. Then, you have two leaders in filmed entertainment - Spyglass and Endgame - coming on board, so there was a lot of strength behind it from the start."
As deals fell into place and development began in earnest, Bell and Peterman were awestruck by all the support they received. "This was our very first feature film, so were really excited to have so many great people and companies involved. McG, Wonderland, Spyglass, Endgame -- they really believed in us, which was awesome," says Bell.
As a director, Bell looked for further inspiration in the classics of the horror genre, the films that took fear to the next edge for previous generations including "The Shining," "The Omen" and "Rosemary's Baby." 'What I loved about those movies is the pacing," Bell comments. "My idea for STAY ALIVE was to do something that would merge that classic quality with the more comedy-filled MTV-style horror movie of today. So in STAY ALIVE, we build the pace slowly with shots of long halls and cracked open doors and that type of psychological fear but there's also a lot of payoff with fast-moving, graphic, bloody scenes that will shock you."
When it came to designing the look and feel of the game "Stay Alive," Bell and Peterman knew they'd be behind the curve even if they used today's most sophisticated and cutting-edge games as a template. Instead, with CliffyB and others as their guides, they chose to look ahead to what the next generation of video games is likely to look and feel like. "In designing the game, we basically took what games are able to do right now and multiplied that by three," says Peterman. 'What you see in this movie is probably what games will really be like in just a few years. We went to the edge of what people in the gaming industry expect will be possible."
THE REAL-LIFE LEGEND BEHIND THE GAME
The game of STAY ALIVE chills the blood and pumps the adrenaline of its players in part because it based on a story of murder and bloodthirsty madness that is itself disturbingly and hauntingly real. At the center of the game's action is an actual historical figure who was quite possibly the world's most prolific serial killer ever: Elizabeth Bathory, the alluring 17th century aristocrat whose bizarre thirst for human blood garnered the nickname "The Blood Countess." Bathory's almost unspeakably depraved biography remains a chilling reminder that within humanity, evil monsters lurk in all guises. Explains Matthew Peterman: "Brent and I both felt strongly that the very scariest stories you can tell almost always come from real people and incidents. So we started looking into historical figures who were considered particularly mean and nasty and that's when we came across probably one of the scariest and nastiest women who ever lived: Elizabeth Bathory. Her story still haunts anyone who hears it."
Adds William Brent Bell: "With Elizabeth Bathory, we felt like we found a new kind of horror icon, someone far more sophisticated than the typical guy in the mask chopping up teenagers, and someone who could really drive this story because she's not just a made-up character in a videogame she's someone from history who remains truly frightening and gruesome."
Born into a powerful noble family in the 17th century, Elizabeth Bathory started out with every advantage. She was rich, well educated and a renowned beauty said to have been possessed of glowing raven hair and pale, luminous skin. Married off for political reasons at the age of 15. Elizabeth instantly became the Countess of Transylvania (where Count Vlad Dracula had ruled a century before) and was whisked to a mountain-top fortress in the Carpathians, where she was installed as the Lady of the Castle of Csjethe. There, while her soldier husband (himself known as "The Black Hero of Hungary") was away on various war campaigns, a bored and alienated Elizabeth searched for ways to amuse herself. Drawn to the dark side of life, she took up the study of "the sinister arts" and, as a hobby, began gleefully torturing local debtors in the castle dungeons. But it was after her husband's death that things took an even grimmer turn. In an increasingly desperate effort to maintain her waning youth and vitality, history has it that Elizabeth made the accidental and unfortunate discovery that fresh blood could purify and smooth her skin. Thus, she began a ruthless rampage through the countryside, kidnapping, torturing and killing numerous young peasant girls in order to bathe in their moisturizing blood. To create an even steadier supply of virgins for bloodletting, she later opened up a school in her castle, taking in 25 girls at a time from rich families, who were subjected to unsettling cruelties and mass fatalities.
It was a mistake. Though the deaths of impoverished peasant girls might have been overlooked by the authorities, the murder of noble children was not. Soon, rumors of Elizabeth's terrible crimes began to spread. Forced to act, the Hungarian Emperor, Matthias II, mounted an investigation, which turned up rooms of lavish torture racks and mutilated, bloodless corpses in Elizabeth's castle. Elizabeth was put on trial, but refused to attend the proceedings, ultimately admitting nothing about the 650 missing girls of whom she was suspected of killing.
In the end, the Countess's alleged accomplices were all convicted of being witches and executed, but Elizabeth herself escaped that fate due to her noble birth. She was never even convicted. Instead, she was declared a menace by her family and condemned to live walled up inside her castle, driven insane by solitude, for the rest of her days. It is assumed she died there - but in STAY ALIVE it appears Elizabeth's spirit was able to escape and set up a new lair across the oceans in another famed haunt of vamps and vampires: the city of New Orleans.
Today, the Blood Countess is considered one of history's first and most voracious serial killers and an inspiration for numerous vampire legends, including the creation of "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. Although a few contemporary novels and comic books have been written about the Blood Countess, her legend primarily faded into obscurity - another reason why Bell and Peterman felt she would make the perfect villain at the heart of STAY ALIVE.
Bell summarizes: 'When we started reading about Elizabeth Bathory, it was like 'why haven't we ever seen a movie about her? She's so dark and fascinating and she's absolutely real. Virtually everything she does in the movie is based on things she actually did according to various histories, which gives it all a very chilling power that affected us even on the set."
THE GAMERS: PLAYING FOR THEIR LIVES
Just as important as the game in STAY ALIVE are the gamers caught up in it, a mix of young adults from disparate backgrounds who nevertheless share one thing in common: they live for the adrenaline thrills and challenges that only videogames give them. In casting, the filmmakers hunted for a group of actors with strong, original personalities, cultural savvy and a definite sense of adventure and came up with a collection of exciting young stars who are, for the most part, themselves gamers.
To play Hutch, who learned through adversity long ago to live vicariously through videogames, the filmmakers chose one of today's most promising new faces: Jon Foster, who rocketed to widespread acclaim when he starred as a teenage intern trying to assist the eccentric, grief-stricken children's writer played by Jeff Bridges in "The Door in the Floor." For the filmmakers, Jon seemed utterly real and current. "The key to casting Hutch was finding somebody extremely likeable, who you really want to root for," says director Bell. "Jon is that guy. He's got such a warm personality and a big heart but at the same time he's already an amazing pro as an actor. He seemed to embody Hutch effortlessly."
Jon's attention was riveted by the script's originality. "I thought the idea was really scary and exciting, the quality of the writing was awesome and Hutch was a great character," he recalls. "I'd never seen anything like it before, where game play is so involved in the story of a movie and I thought it would be amazing to see it come to life. There were so many layers to the story that were intriguing to me: the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the whole gaming culture and in the middle of it all, the complex friendships between the gamers and their own struggles in moving on with their lives."
Then there's the fact that Jon is himself somewhat obsessed with games. "I didn't have to do too much research to play Hutch," he admits. "I think it was the same for pretty much everyone in the cast. We all had tons of games and on the weekend all we would do is sit around playing, so it worked in really well with the story we were telling!"
Still, playing Hutch was about more than just the gaming. There's also a secret side to the character that begins to emerge as the investigation into the strange murders surrounding the game heats up. "Hutch's secrets kind of leak out into his life and lifestyle," observes Foster. "On the surface, he's the All American guy, a very gentlemanly, very respectful, overachieving guy who clerks in a law office, but you learn there's a lot more to him than that. One of the things I most connected with in him is that he really cares about his friends. He has a lot of love and that's important to me."
Hutch's feelings come to the fore with Abigail, a bohemian photographer and newcomer to gamer culture who joins up with Hutch's friends in the wake of tragedy. To play her, the filmmakers knew they needed a young woman who would be unconventional in every sense - unconventionally beautiful and unconventionally full of spunk. That combo seemed to come together naturally in the performance of actress Samaire Armstrong, who has emerged as a rising talent with roles in the hugely popular television shows "The O.C." and "Entourage."
"From the first moment we met her, Samaire showed exactly the right attitude for Abigail," notes Bell, "but it wasn't until I started working with her in rehearsals that I realized just how talented she is. She's an incredible actress with great instincts." Adds Matthew Peterman: "Samaire is probably the single most creative person I've ever met. Whether it's acting, drawing, music, or just about anything else, she's unbelievable at it. And like Abigail, Samaire is unconventional, quirky and very expressive."
Also like Abigail, Samaire is an enthusiastic "newbie" in the gamer world. "I've only played Tetris before and my brother's Doom," she admits, "but that was perfect for Abigail because she's never participated in this lifestyle before either. One thing I do really understand now is the appeal of games and how they make you feel so alive. I think in this day and age when there are no lions, tigers or erupting volcanoes, and we're so safe and secure, the thrills of games remind you of raw existence."
Samaire also related to Abigail's iron-clad inner strength, which is tested as the game grows more threatening. "Abigail's sort of a Lone Ranger," the actress observes. "She's very secure in being herself, in being this kind of gypsy woman who lives in her van and travels from place to place. What's interesting is that she and Hutch are both loners - but in helping to care for each other in the middle of all these events, they begin to open up. What I loved about the movie on top of the scariness is the individual growth that each person goes through as they struggle with these mind-blowing events."
Despite relating to such a strong female character, and despite having studied Japanese swordsmanship since the age of 4, Samaire found the profound psychological chills of STAY ALIVE the biggest challenge of all. "I'm a tough cookie. I can fight, I can use weapons, but I'm terrified of ghosts and spirits and scary stories," she confesses. "I always feel that telling stories about evil is like Pandora's Box - once you tap into it you don't know what's going to happen! "
Meanwhile, Frankie Muniz, known to television viewers for his long-running role as an ingenious adolescent on the hit sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," breaks out into entirely new territory with STAY ALIVE, starring as the tech whiz Swink Sylvain who transforms from nerd to newfound action hero in the course of the film. William Bell liked the idea of taking a risk with Muniz: "So many people see Frankie as this one particular type so we thought this was a great character for him with a very interesting arc - a kid-like character who by the end of the film does a complete 180 and becomes more of a heroic man. He was so pumped to do it, we were convinced he could pull it off."
Frankie went aggressively after the part because he's always been into games and loved the character of Swink the minute he read the script. "I like Swink because he's so deep into his own little private tech world," Frankie says. "I thought it would be really fun to play a guy who is such a great gamer and lives in a complete fantasy world -- but then suddenly realizes he's playing not just for kicks but for his life and the lives of his friends. It becomes a huge responsibility because Swink is the one who has to try to keep everyone else alive as long as possible by playing well. And the great thing is that because of this he changes more than anybody else in the movie."
Frankie continues: "It was also great because this film came along at a time when I was ready to open up a new door; trying different kinds of challenges." One of those challenges was learning a whole new lingo - Swink's own personal form of geek-speak. "Swink is always saying all this random stuff about 'transcranial magnetic stimulation' and that sort of thing is something nobody really understands," Frankie laughs. "He's incredibly smart, and I think gamers will really appreciate his character and also his incredibly cool, modified computer equipment. The computer they created for him was so amazing, I was hoping they'd let me buy it!"
Most of all, Frankie was elated to have the chance to star in a horror movie, especially one that pushes new boundaries. "I think even if you're not a gamer, you'll still be on the edge of your seat in this movie because there's something in it that will scare just about everybody - whether it's the line between reality and fantasy or serial killers or vampires or murders. Even while making it, there were a lot of really weird, eerie moments. There were times when I'd be taking a shower or something and I'd start to worry that when I opened the door some kind of ghost or spirit would be there. That was creepy, but it did help me get into my character!"
Another young actress who had no trouble getting into her character is Sophia Bush, the up-and-comer from the popular television series "One Tree Hill," who plays tough, tattooed gamer girl October. William Bell recalls: 'When we met Sophia, we had no doubt she was October. It's such a difficult role to play because October is pretty rough and tumble but at the same time she's kind of like the mother of this group. Sophia pulled off this mix beautifully." Adds Matthew Peterman: "Sophia is a lot like October, very strong-willed, smart, articulate and sexy," Continued, read more
GAMING CULTURE: AN INTRODUCTION
FORGING A NEXT-GENERATION GAME ... INSIDE A MOVIE
NEW ORLEANS GOTHIC: THE VISUAL DESIGN OF STAY ALIVE
WILLIAM BRENT BELL (Director/Co-writer) / MATTHEW PETERMAN (Co-writer/Producer)