Privilege and beauty abound at Spenser Academy, a New England boarding school for the region's reigning elite. Directed by Renny Harlin, THE COVENANT tells the story of the Sons of Ipswich, four young students bound by their sacred ancestry. As descendants of the original families who settled in Ipswich Colony in the 1600's, the boys have all been born with special powers. When a fifth descendant suddenly moves to town, secrets begin to unravel which threaten to break the covenant of silence that has protected their families for hundreds of years.
THE COVENANT is a hip, visually dazzling, sexy supernatural thriller showcasing rising young stars Steven Strait (Sky High, 10,000 B.C.), Laura Ramsey (Lords of Dogtown, She's the Man) and Taylor Kitsch (NBC TV's Friday Night Lights) as well as award-winning actress Wendy Crewson ("24," Eight Below). Directed by Renny Harlin (Exorcist: The Beginning, Die Hard 2, Deep Blue Sea), The Covenant is from an original screenplay by J.S. Cardone (Alien Hunter, True Blue).
THE COVENENT'S breathtaking action and riveting suspense were just part of what attracted Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper to J.S. Cardone's original screenplay. "I wanted to make a "Lost Boys" for this generation, and this was just the script to do it with," says Culpepper.
Producer Tom Rosenberg was particularly drawn to the script's clever subtext, which subtly explores contemporary social issues, including addiction and the sense of invincibility many teenagers experience.
"The film works as a pure thriller fantasy but it's also a cautionary tale for young people," says the Lakeshore Entertainment chairman, whose recent producer credits include Clint Eastwood's multiple Academy Award®-winning Million Dollar Baby and the horror hits The Exorcism of Emily Rose as well as Underworld and it's sequel Underworld Evolution. "It's about five friends who share a secret bond--all 16 and 17 years old--on the threshold of developing their full powers. The rest of society has to obey the laws of physics, but these boys don't. The problem is that if they use their power, it shortens their lifespan, which can be seen as a metaphor for many other things."
Finnish-born veteran filmmaker Renny Harlin was excited about the project from the moment he read the script. Harlin, whose credits include Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and the 2004 prequel The Exorcist: The Beginning, has established himself as a distinctive horror auteur as well as a director of action blockbusters such as Die Hard 2.
"When I read THE COVENANT, I felt that it was a story that I hadn't seen in a long time," says Harlin. "In the age of movies like Harry Potter, we're used to seeing witchcraft stories for kids, but to have something like this for teenagers and adults is very unusual. It offers the ability to explore this ultimate wish fulfillment of having powers to make anything happen.
"I also was intrigued by the fact that these young characters are on the verge of adulthood, a period when you face some very hard issues and decisions and your life is changing rapidly," Harlin continues. "Like all of us, they want to fit into society and live fairly normal lives… but these guys have the extra challenge, the extra pleasure, and the extra danger of having these magical powers."
Harlin also appreciated the fact that the script defied easy pigeonholing. "Films tend to come in very clear categories: fantasy films, thrillers, comedies and horror stories. But this film takes several genres and fuses them together. So you're watching something that is very entertaining, very visual, very exciting, very scary and very dark. It's not your typical thriller."
While it's become common for Hollywood to turn to contemporary comics and graphic novels for source material (think Hellboy, Sin City and V is for Vigilante), in this case, the filmmakers turned that idea on its head. J.S. Cardone's original screenplay actually inspired a series of four graphic novels by Aron Coleite, a writer whose credits include the hit series "Crossing Jordan," and artist Tone Rodriguez whose other comic credits include Violent Messiahs.
But although the material may have made ideal comic book fodder, Harlin chose a different aesthetic in bringing the story to the big screen. "In general, there are two styles of comic book movies," says the director. "There is the sort of very colorful, oversaturated comic book movie, and then there is the sort of dark and brooding comic book movie. We wanted to create our own style that doesn't fall into either one of those camps, but which had its own very graphic feel. It was an interesting challenge--to create a world that was fascinating, dark and different, yet still grounded in reality."
Long before the first frame was shot, Harlin had carefully mapped out the look and feel of the film. "Renny basically created a book out of the screenplay," Rosenberg recalls. "He did drawings, he took photographs from magazines, and put them all together to show his concept of the film from beginning to end. It was like a graphic novel of the script. It was fantastic! And he's delivered on every one of his promises."
THE VISUAL MAGIC OF THE COVENANT
Establishing just the right balance between THE COVENANT'S fantasy elements (a cabal of teenage boys with superhuman powers) and its more realistic themes (the loves, friendships and rivalries of a group of prep school kids from differing backgrounds) was one of the biggest challenges facing the film's creators, according to Rosenberg. Nowhere was that balance more crucial than in the filmmakers' approach to visual imagery and the use of cutting-edge special effects.
"We have people jumping off cliffs and so forth, and we can't do that without visual effects," says Rosenberg. "On the other hand it's not strictly an effects-driven film. We need the visuals to propel the story, but without being overdone or overused."
Director Renny Harlin elaborates: "Digital effects technology makes it possible to create almost any kind of world on screen. But ours is not a fantasy world; it's not a science fiction world, so it had to be grounded in reality. I wanted the audience to feel, 'that kind of resembles my school or my home, but it's different. It's more exciting and it's something I'd love to be a part of.' At the same time, it's the effects that allow us to create the action sequences and those moments where we see the boys' magical powers working. So the film depends on them being perfect."
In order to make the most efficient use of the film's visual effects budget, the producers decided to shoot in Montreal, a filmmaking mecca which offers financial advantages such as tax incentives, government rebates and a favorable currency exchange rate as well as talented production professionals and shooting locations that can stand in easily for New England.
"They have a very capable group of visual effects houses in Montreal," says Lakeshore Entertainment's Andre Lamal, who served as executive producer on THE COVENANT. "The money we saved allowed us to get so much more bang for our buck."
Working in Montreal also put them on the home turf of award-winning cinematographer and native Quebecer Pierre Gill (TV's "Joan of Arc" and
"Hitler: The Rise of Evil").
Gill compares THE COVENANT'S unique action sequences to another groundbreaking and visual stunning film: "After The Matrix--where they came up with an amazing fight sequence with people flying--a lot of films used the same device. The characters in our film are flying also, but we have another approach to the movement and the way they fight. Usually, when people are flying on a cable system, the movements are controlled manually. Technicians are pulling cables, and actors go up when the cables are pulled, and go back down when the cables are released. But we have a computerized device that was built for Cirque du Soleil, which performs a lot of flying effects. Computerized cabling means that not only can we control every movement of the actor in the air, but we can predict the movement with precision and repeat every take exactly the same way. It's a great system."
Another way Harlin sought to maintain the right equilibrium between realism and fantasy was to have the actors perform their own stunts whenever possible. "One thing that is special about this film is that all the action is really done with the actors," Harlin elaborates. "And in the flying sequences we are not really using digital effects. Our wire system--which is being used for the first time in motion pictures--enables our actors to move through the air, up, down and sideways… and do these very exciting and rough, and sometimes balletic moves using the actors instead of stunt people or digital characters. In this way we're really able to give the audience an unusual experience."
Steven Strait, the male lead, agrees: "It always helps the scene if you're doing the stunt yourself. You get these really honest reactions. And I think that what we're doing in terms of wire work is probably the closest you can come to flying--unless you're jumping out of a plane or bungee jumping. I mean, how many times in life do you really get to fly through the air at 17 feet per second, 50 feet above the ground? It's such a rush, and what a sense of freedom. If I could choose one of Caleb's powers, it would definitely be flight. Who hasn't wanted to fly?"
To prepare for the stunts, the actors required extensive training. They also needed to get comfortable with the idea of often saying their lines on an empty set in front of a green screen. "It's definitely something that you have to get used to," acknowledges Strait. "It's really challenging to be shot through the air one day and then have to imagine that you're on a cliff somewhere the next. It's hard at first, but it comes."
Ramsey too was thrilled to expand her on-set experience. "I had to train for a series of underwater shots so that it would look like I was levitating in one of the scenes," she recounts. "So I trained to stay underwater for 45 seconds and not come up for air. In the end they gave me a respirator and wax up my nose so they wouldn't get bubbles in the shot."
The film's young male stars found themselves literally wide-eyed about another special effect, specifically the spooky blackening of their gaze that indicates when they're characters are using their warlock powers. The effect was achieved through the insertion of special contact lenses.
"Putting them in sometimes hurt," says Taylor Kitsch, who played the role of Pogue. "And after a long time, they could completely irritate your eyes, causing them to water a lot. But they also helped in terms of getting into character, and being in the moment. Once they were in, you just felt like there was something else going on… like you were someone else."
Harlin was equally rigorous in the precision with which he approached the non-effects details of the film's look. "In terms of the colors we used, the outfits that the actors wore, the way we lit the sets, the way we shot the scenes, we were very deliberate," he says. "I didn't want to just document the events for the audience to experience. I wanted to take the audience's hand and lead them on a journey. I really wanted them to be there and experience the story in a precise way, and hopefully create exactly the right mix fear, excitement and enjoyment."
Gill felt right at home with this type of stylized composition, having recently completed Maurice Richard, a biopic of the famed Montreal Canadiens hockey player, for which he received a Jutra Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
"With THE COVENANT, we were trying to achieve a look that is kind of soft," Gill says. "It isn't a hue you see a lot nowadays. There are a lot of movies that are very blue. This is not blue, but it's kind of a stark, dark tone with a desaturated color scale. Not a lot of colors are popping. It's a little bit like a Vermeer painting with very soft light."
The film's many low-light settings presented unique challenges for the crew, says the director of photography. "When I read the script, I knew it wasn't going to be an easy shoot. When every scene you read begins with 'night, night, night, exterior forest, car driving, rain, lightning,' you know it's going to be tough. It took a lot of people to prepare the sets; we used multiple cameras and we had to light three kilometers of forest some nights. That's a lot of lighting and a lot of crew."
"Sometimes we were shooting outdoors all night long," recalls Gill. "It would be four or five o'clock in the morning, and it's, like, three degrees out, but it's supposed to be a summer party. And Renny had 250 kids out there dancing and emoting--convincingly--as though they're really having a great time when they were freezing. Then, of course, there was the rain, the lightning… and the mud. There was so much mud at one point we were in puddles up to our knees and still trying to work the dollies. But you will want to see this film!"
Harlin was also meticulous about finding the perfect shooting locations. "We were counting on the sets and scenery--in particular the high school--to ground the movie in a particular style that we are trying to create," he says. "So we spent a lot of time finding a school that really felt like New England, but which also had a very gothic and special look to it."
Executive producer Lamal adds: "Montreal offers a great sense of verisimilitude to New England. We found the location for Spenser Academy, for example, in Lennoxville, in the Eastern Townships. It had this perfect, red brick, New England Anglo kind of look to it, which was exactly what we were looking for. We also found some great interiors in mansions at McGill University and around the city. It's a beautiful, diverse city."
But for all of Harlin's painstaking preparation and acute attention to detail, the director's passion and sense of adventure shines through in finished product, says Gill. "He's a very fun guy and that's important, because he could still maintain a good energy while making the film. This is something the audience doesn't get to see, but they will feel it.
Read a Q & A with James McQuaide was the Visual Effects Supervisor on The Covenant.
CASTING A SPELL
When it came to selecting THE COVENANT'S gorgeous ensemble cast, the filmmakers agreed to focus on finding the best emerging talent rather than turning to established stars.
"The great thing about working with young actors," says Harlin, "is that they are so eager and so excited and so passionate about what they're doing. They don't go back to their trailer and hang out, talk on the phone with their managers and get yoga lessons. They're actually on the set with you, they're excited about the whole process of filmmaking and they never get tired of trying new things. That really builds a kind of a family feeling.
"I needed really talented young actors who were on the brink of stardom. From hundreds and hundreds of candidates we found a group of actors who have the talent to pull these characters off. Actors who have made movies before, but haven't really broken out…yet."
It was producer Tom Rosenberg who brought actor Steven Strait to the attention of Harlin and Screen Gems' president Clint Culpepper for the role of Caleb. "I think Steven Strait is about to be a movie star," says Rosenberg.
Strait's career trajectory so far seems to bear out that assessment. In just a few short years, Strait has segued from a guest spot on the hit series Third Watch to playing Warren Peace in the Disney family superhero action comedy Sky High, alongside Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, to a starring role in Roland Emmerich's upcoming prehistoric epic 10,000 B.C.
Strait says the fact that THE COVENANT was inspired by a graphic novel was a big part of his attraction to the role: "I collected comic books for years--hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of comic books as a kid. It's always interesting when you get absorbed into this world that is hard to fathom, but you're there anyway. It's a really great escape. Reading a good comic book takes you out of whatever you're thinking for a while. I think that's what this movie will do too."
Strait describes his character, Caleb Danvers, as "the leader of the pack. He's got a sense of responsibility and has seen what powers have done to his family. And he doesn't want to abuse his powers. He's mature for his age and in some ways I relate to that. I guess you can say he's a caretaker."
The person Caleb cares for most, of course, is Sarah Wenham, played by Laura Ramsey, a busy young actress who was discovered a few years ago fresh out of a Rosendale, Wisconsin high school in classic Hollywood style - while waiting tables at a Sunset Boulevard restaurant.
After a stint as a series regular on the ABC hour-long series The Days in 2004, Ramsey landed her first feature role in Catherine Hardwicke's 2005 skateboarding drama Lords of Dogtown, starring Heath Ledger, Nikki Reed and Rebecca De Mornay. Later that year she starred in the horror thriller Venom alongside Agnes Bruckner, Bijou Phillips and Method Man, as well as Cruel World with Edward Furlong and Jamie Pressly. Earlier this year she appeared with Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum in the DreamWorks/Lakeshore Entertainment comedy She's the Man, a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
"My character Sarah is the new girl in school," explains Ramsey. "This is a really prestigious school where all the kids are rich. I'm the new girl from Boston Public, so I don't have any money, but my character believes that going to this school will help her fulfill her dream of going Harvard."
Ramsey sees similarities between herself and her character, parallels she says Harlin encouraged her to explore. "For example, I dress like her. She's kind of crazy and wild, and sometimes I'm crazy and wild. And she likes Steven Strait… I think he's cute too!"
Harlin has high praise for the actress: "Laura doesn't even know how good she is. She was such a harsh critic of herself that I decided to show her some of the dailies so she could see for herself how well everything was working. I can't even imagine how good she's going to get!"
The cast also features award-winning actress Wendy Crewson ("Sex Traffic," "The Many Trials of One Jane Doe") as Caleb's mother Evelyn Danvers. "She's a bit 'Norma Desmond,'" says Crewson of her character, referring to the bitter, over-the-hill screen siren played by Gloria Swanson in the Billy Wilder classic, Sunset Blvd. "I'm very mean and dark. That's been very fun to play."
"Evelyn is the glue of the family," Crewson continues. "But even though she's still mourning her husband and she's worried that her son's going to go the same way, she looks good all the time! She has fabulous hair and she's always in her nightgown."
Strait, with whom Crewson shares the screen in virtually all of her scenes, was effusive in his admiration of the seasoned veteran. "Wendy is such an incredible actor and such an incredible person," he says. "It's very heartening to see someone that accomplished, who's done so much great work, be so down to earth… just someone that you can hang out with, talk to and learn from. Her focus during the scenes and right before is really incredible. She'll be eating something, hanging out, whatever, and once it's time to go, she's right back into character."
For Crewson, the most challenging part of the project were the shots that involved acting in front of a "green screen" - a process by which computer generated images are later added to the scene. "I'm better at a kitchen sink with a tea towel, crying," she laughs. "It's just that's what I do best… that's my comfort zone. Everything I do in this film depends on a special effect. They're CGI-ing all my expressions and everything. The only thing that's real is my hair--well, even that's not real."
Despite these high-tech challenges, Crewson has high praise for Harlin. "He had a lovely vision of what the picture would be," she says. "In his office he had all the pictures up of what it was going to look like and everything, so you really knew where you fit in. That was terrific. I really liked working with Renny."
In casting Caleb's nemesis Chase Collins, the filmmakers chose actor Sebastian Stan, whose big screen credits include the role of Isabella Rossellini's son in the 2006 independent film All Fall Down as well as parts in the critically acclaimed Red Doors and Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, based on the longest running theatrical comedy in history.
"My character is introduced early on and there's sort of an ambivalence about him," says Stan. "Nobody really knows what he's about. But he shows up and wants to befriend this group of guys, particularly Caleb, and basically just fit in."
Stan has no problem identifying with that aspect of Chase's character. "We moved a lot when I was growing up, so I was always the new kid in school, trying to be cool and whatnot. I'm really glad that I had the opportunity to explore this part. I think we've done a good job establishing the idea that we're really young people at a school. Sure, some of the characters have special powers, but we have emotions too. We're young people and it's kind of nice to express the innocence and insecurity that goes along with that."
Also joining the ensemble were Taylor Kitsch (Snakes on a Plane, TV's "Friday Night Lights") as Caleb's best friend, volatile, motorcycle riding Pogue Parry; Vancouver-born Jessica Lucas (She's the Man, "The L Word") as Kate Tunney, Sarah's rich, beautiful roommate; Toby Hemingway ("Bones," "Summerland") as blond troublemaker Reid Garwin; and Texas-born Chace Crawford as Tyler Sims, the youngest of the four Sons of Ipswich.
Harlin says he used a variety of techniques to help his young cast inhabit their characters and the dark, dangerous world in which they dwell. "I talked with them about the script a lot. I showed them my storyboards so that they could visualize it better and get an idea of the tone and the feeling of the movie. I also use music to convey a certain feeling for the actors, so they could get the atmosphere of the scenes."
For their part, the actors were appreciative of Harlin's willingness to let them explore their roles. "The great thing about Renny is that he's always got an open ear," says Steven Strait. "He's always open to ideas, and open to things that you feel are right for the character or for the moment. It's a great collaborative process that goes on with him. And you just feel that you've got the room and the space to work and give things a chance."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
RENNY HARLIN (Director) Renny Harlin is one of Hollywood's most prominent filmmakers, with nearly two decades experience behind the camera. His credits span multiple genres, ranging from action-oriented blockbusters to critically acclaimed dramas.
Harlin's psychological thriller Mindhunters was released in the spring of 2005. Exorcist: The Beginning, directed by Harlin, was a domestic and international box office success in 2004.
Harlin first came to prominence in 1988 with A Nightmare on Elm Street IV, which, at the time of its release, was the highest grossing independent film of all time. He followed up this success with The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and the box office smash Die Hard 2: Die Harder, starring Bruce Willis, in 1990.
In 1993, Harlin directed and produced the blockbuster Cliffhanger, establishing himself as one of Hollywood's premier action directors. Harlin directed and produced 1995's Cutthroat Island and 1997's The Long Kiss Goodnight. In 1999, Harlin thrilled audiences with the summer hit Deep Blue Sea. Harlin made his producing debut in 1991 with the critically acclaimed Rambling Rose. The film starred Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Laura Dern and Diane Ladd, and earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress (Dern) and Best Supporting Actress (Ladd). He also produced the romantic comedies Speechless (for MGM), which starred Geena Davis, Michael Keaton and Christopher Reeve, and Blast from the Past (for New Line Cinema), starring Alicia Silverstone, Brendan Fraser, Sissy Spacek and Christopher Walken. Harlin's production company Midnight Sun Pictures is based in Los Angeles, where he resides.
J.S. CARDONE (Writer/Executive Producer)
J. S. Cardone is a writer, director and producer with an impressive list of feature film credits that includes The Marksman, Sniper 2&3, Mummy an' the Armadillo, Alien Hunter, True Blue, The Forsaken, Outside Ozona, Exit in Red, Black Day Blue Night, Shadowhunter, A Climate for Killing, Vampires: The Turning, The Slayer, Crash and Burn, Shadowzone, Thunder Alley, 8MM 2 and the upcoming Wicked Little Things. Cardone's next project is Burn In Heaven.