The first original screenplay to be produced by Platinum Dunes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is the result of collaboration between Michael Bay and his producing partners Andrew Form and Brad Fuller. The trio liken their working relationship to that of graduate students developing and nurturing a project with the support of their college professor (Bay) overseeing every step of the process, giving them the benefit of his experience, instinct and success, not to mention his ability to connect with an audience.
"Starting Platinum Dunes was a whim," says Bay. "It started off as an idea to help young directors break into film. So I put it together with two of my best friends, but we had no idea we'd be as successful as we were with our first two movies. We just wanted to make lower budget movies where the film is the star, and horror movies are much more of a director's medium."
When the Platinum Dunes partners completed their 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, they had no expectations of its success or of making another movie in the same vein. But over the years, people would approach them to talk about the strange antics of the Hewitt family, peppering them with questions about how the family came to be such methodical and violent killers. Finally, during pre-production of their recent remake of The Amityville Horror, Form and Fuller began brainstorming about the Hewitt family history, determining how interesting it might be to explore their origins.
"The fans wanted another Chainsaw, it was that simple," says Bay. "But then again, it wasn't because we cut off the bad guy's arm at the end of the first one. So the storyline was definitely a challenge, but once we decided to make a prequel rather than a standard sequel, the possibilities were endless. We just had to keep ourselves in check and not go too far out there."
Brad Fuller adds, "Andrew and I sat down with Michael and discussed whether or not the family's story was compelling. Is being a family of killers enough of a base on which to build a movie? We knew the first step was finding a writer to help flush out the details."
FINDING A WRITER
The filmmakers contacted Scott Kozar, who penned the 2003 remake, but he was tied up with other commitments, so they immediately turned to Amityville writer Sheldon Turner. To get things rolling, the producers gave Turner a copy of the 2003 film and asked him not only to come up with some ideas, but also to come up with answers to questions posed by the original story, such as: How did this family become the people they are? Why is Uncle Monty a double amputee? Why does Hoyt have no teeth and how in the world did he become a sheriff? And, of course, why does Leatherface do what he does, and what's up with those horrific skins he wears?
The producers were thrilled with the answers that Turner devised and shortly thereafter found their director in Jonathan Liebesman
"We hired a great writer," says Fuller. "When the script came in as strong as it did, we knew we were prepared to make it, so we went to Jonathan early on. The meetings started, Jonathan made a presentation and showed us how he planned to elevate the screenplay, and that was all we needed to hear."
The Platinum Dunes producers first met director Jonathan Liebesman in 2002 when they were interviewing a short list of directors for the first The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but Sony snatched Liebesman away to direct Darkness Falls before they'd finished reviewing the candidates. They kept in touch and called him again for Platinum Dunes' second venture, Amityville Horror, but instead of Amityville, they earmarked his talents for their next stab at Texas Chainsaw. Although he has the enthusiastic support of the producers, Liebesman was not certain about taking on the film until he discovered that his concerns about another Chainsaw project were the same as theirs.
"Making a sequel to such a great movie, especially one in which the principal antagonist has lost his ability to be menacing, was not especially appealing to me," explains Liebesman. "But exploring how this legend began was much more interesting. As a fan of the first movie, I wanted answers to the questions it posed. In my first meeting with Michael, Andrew and Brad, I basically laid out what I thought the movie should be and mentioned ideas I would like to see included in the script. At the end of the day, we had the same vision: the movie needed to feel like the beginning of hell."
Andrew Form adds, "The main idea for doing a prequel was to show how the killer, Leatherface, came about. You see the rage build in Thomas Hewitt, you watch it take over, and then you see this sad man kill another human being for the first time. As Thomas falls deeper into Hoyt's clutches, Hoyt takes on the role of puppeteer and begins manipulating him in the most calculated and heinous way."
Once they decided that making a prequel was the way to go, the filmmakers had to decide exactly how far back they wanted the story to go.
"The movie opens in 1969, about three years prior to the time of the original movie," says Brad Fuller. "The town is built around a slaughterhouse which has been condemned and is going out of business, and with it, so goes the town. Thomas Hewitt loses his job, along with everyone else, and his anger that's been on a slow burn since childhood propels him to make his first kill, which compels his already unstable uncle to take the law into his own hands and wreak his own havoc."
"At the same time, a group of kids, who are dealing with their own conflicts, are driving across Texas, and through a terrible turn of events, find themselves in this horrible town," continues Fuller. "When the kids encounter the Hewitts, the family is on a slippery slope of killing one person after another in order to cover up the previous murder, and it just spirals out of control."
Form sums it up succinctly, "That's what spawns the chainsaw massacre."
With the back story in place, filmmakers still had to make some decisions about how best to present it in the film.
"The most difficult thing about working in the horror genre is trying not to demystify the mystery, because when you explain evil or show too much of it, it's no longer scary," says Jonathan Liebesman. "It's a fine line in trying to illustrate the irrationality of serial killers - one doesn't want to explain too much or rationalize their behavior to a point where it's no longer mysterious. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is just that - it's about the day the killing began, but not necessarily too much of why it happened."
In discussing the viability of a prequel, one of the first items on the filmmakers' list was the issue of casting. Who would be returning from the previous movie? Andrew Form likes to say that his producing partner, Brad Fuller, takes charge where casting is concerned. They began with the strongest link in their Chainsaw chain, R. Lee Ermey.
"Unfortunately, horror movies get a bad rap because some of them cop out and don't strive to get the best actors," says Fuller. "When we cast Lee, he was a mark of quality and hiring him allowed us to surround him with people who were similarly talented. We didn't wimp out and go with clichés. We wanted to find true actors who could bring something to this family. They are the root of the interaction between all the characters and the audience has to believe them."
Form adds, "Lee has his own theories about who his character is. He is an actor without boundaries. He's said to me on numerous occasions that he wants Hoyt to be the most politically incorrect person there is, and so he finds himself striving to figure out who else he can offend. There isn't anyone who's safe."
As a result, Ermey's performance is one of the highlights of the film. "Lee is one of the most entertaining parts of the first movie," says Jonathan Liebesman. "His character is insane, and at first makes little sense, but that's what makes him so interesting, because there is no explanation. He's a mystery. Lee, himself, was very helpful in exploring and molding his character."
"He adds such humor," agrees Michael Bay. "Whenever you do intense horror movies, it's always good to have a comic release, especially when the audience is really tense. So while Lee's performance was very real, it was also bizarre and even a little funny all at once."
Ermey is quite passionate about his contribution to Sheriff Hoyt. "It bothers me to think that as an actor, I am simply a puppet, that somebody puts words in my mouth and pulls the string and makes me move," says the veteran actor. "I think it's an actor's obligation to make suggestions and to make the script better. As I see it, the writer is spread pretty thin, but I'm only concerned with one character. I like to be off-the-wall, shocking, colorful. And let's face it; Hoyt is a sexually perverted homicidal maniac. Now, how can you take that over the top? With Hoyt there's no limit. I would classify Sheriff Hoyt as the most dastardly character I've ever played."
Jonathan Liebesman adds, "Hoyt is the man that brings Thomas out of his shell, who believes in him and gives him the tools to become Leatherface."
The filmmakers knew that Ermey was coming back to the fold, along with Marietta Marich as Luda Mae and Terrence Evans as Old Monty, not to mention Kathy Lamkin as the Tea Lady, but also crucial to the mix was the return of Andrew Bryniarski, who plays Leatherface and has established a cult following all his own since appearing as the masked murderer.
"These actors have been living with their characters for a long time," Liebesman says. "They had a lot of suggestions for things they didn't get to do three years ago, and we gave them enough time to explore that. Some of the stuff is great, some is bizarre, and some didn't make it into the film. But because in 2003, director Marcus Nispel made a movie packed with texture and atmosphere that comes from the actors being in the surroundings and being allowed to improvise, each of them already knew what he or she wanted to add."
"Marietta, for example, has been acting for about 50 years," continues Liebesman. "An actor who has been working that long has a lot of really good ideas: singing to Bailey in the midst of her torture, which is one of the creepiest moments in the movie, and playing with a tongue while she makes dinner - weird, crazy stuff that none of us would have thought of, which was surprising for a dignified woman of her age."
A seemingly innocuous character, Luda Mae has a definite role and position in the Hewitt family hierarchy. "She is the only one who can keep Hoyt in line," Liebesman explains. "He's an egomaniac and thinks he rules the world, but when he goes crazy, Luda Mae is there to remind him that even though he kills and eats people, he must mind his manners at the dinner table."
"Luda Mae is the matriarch of what I like to call the 'killer brood,'" says Marich, who auditioned for the part by donning an old robe of her husband's, not combing her hair, and pretending to chew a wad of tobacco by letting chocolate run down her chin.
"I always make up a personal history of characters I play, so I suspect that Luda Mae was a homeless young woman who had to make her own way during the Depression," Marich describes. "When she finds Thomas, she takes him home, even though he's disfigured and hideously ugly, and protects him as much as possible from the cruel people he encounters and the world at large. That's her main purpose, and the only reason Luda Mae sticks around."
Unlike Luda Mae, Monty's quiet nature does not belie hidden confidence or any fervent convictions. According to Liebesman, Monty is "the lackey of the family. His job is to keep the junkyard full of rusty paraphernalia. He's the maid, the brother that never got out, the ne'er do well, but he also serves as a device for Leatherface to practice the art of sawing flesh and bone."
Actor Terrence Evans defends his character. "Monty is practically an innocent, not totally, but certainly more than Hoyt or Thomas," he says. "I see Monty as a secondary character because Hoyt really drives the scenes, and my role is more reactive. Nobody ever asks Monty for his opinion, not even when Luda Mae brings Thomas home, so he just goes with the flow and endures whatever's thrown his way."
"I think there was a chance Thomas' life could have been different," Evans continues. "But the teasing he suffered, coupled with a bad temper, and following Hoyt around like a puppy dog, left room for Hoyt to get absolute control. So Hoyt becomes the daddy and I take on my role as uncle."
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, Leatherface is far from a one-note character; it is a surprisingly involved role, difficult to portray given that the actor cannot speak to convey his emotions, desires or needs, and must rely solely on body language and eye movement.
"It's harder to act when you cannot speak," asserts producer Andrew Form. "Gestures and movement can easily translate into overacting, so there is a fine line when the actor has a lot to convey. Andrew Bryniarski is particularly good at finding the middle ground because he knows the character so well. He is Leatherface and he takes his role very, very seriously."
"Let's face it, the guy's got a social phobia," says Bryniarski. "He suffers from some real anxiety due to people being mean to him his whole life, which changes him at a certain point and after he's taken enough, he becomes the person responsible for a chainsaw massacre."
Because so many people identify Bryniarski with Leatherface, he maintains he must work harder to be a nice guy in order to play down the image of the serial killer. "I've played a lot of crazy characters very convincingly over the years, so I am used to people keeping me at a distance," he says. "But I knew I had to do this role. As Michael Bay likes to say, 'I was born to wear the mask.'"
"The truth is, he tore it up in my office," jokes Bay. "That's the true Hollywood story! He was genuine and kept telling me, 'I am that guy!' Seriously, how can you turn down that kind of sincerity?"
A question that might never be answered in any installment of the series: How are the Hewitts related? Everyone on the show - cast and crew alike - had a different opinion. During breaks between set ups, it became a game to see who could come up with the wildest story for the threesome.
"We never decided how they're connected," confesses producer Brad Fuller. "We think it's more interesting to leave it alone. Why does Hoyt call Luda Mae, a woman who is obviously a bit older than he is, 'Mama?' There's no way she could be his mother. It doesn't make any sense. And Monty, is he Luda Mae's husband? Or are he and Hoyt brothers? Just the thought makes the whole dynamic unsettling."
Terrence Evans has his own theory. "Luda Mae is my sister and Hoyt is my brother. Hoyt didn't get all the brains in the family, but he sure got all the meanness. So whatever Hoyt says, that's what we do."
"We all have our own theory," laughs Form. "I don't even know if we agree." The Hewitt family is both funny and bizarre, but given the goal of creeping out the audience, the family dynamic works. And as a family, they take in a deformed, motherless infant who, under their care and nurturing, becomes a blood-thirsty killer.
"They raise him as their own," says Fuller. "But in a lot of ways, Thomas Hewitt is more like a pet than a member of the family. At the same time, they do love and admire one another, albeit in peculiar and unusual ways."
"You never know what another family is like until you live with them," he continues. "You see them out at dinner, you enjoy their company at social events, but you really don't know what goes on in anyone's home. We thought it would be compelling to show what goes on inside a really screwed up home. But what's most bizarre is that the Hewitts don't think they're abnormal. When you walk through their door, it's their rules and nothing else applies, and ultimately, anarchy prevails. That's why this is scary, because that can happen anywhere. You never know what goes on behind your neighbor's door."
Instead of taking the easy route and making a commentary on physical appearance and its social ramifications using Thomas Hewitt's deformities, the filmmakers focused on the Hewitts as a case study in family relationships. "What makes a family a family?" poses producer Brad Fuller.
The shift in focus from the kids in the 2003 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake to the Hewitt family in the prequel will not only allow audiences a chance to get to know the family better, it is a device that will hopefully ingratiate viewers to a new group of young actors playing the innocent, unsuspecting victims of circumstance. The producers like to think of these characters as "the audience proxy."
"The kids who are trapped in this terror are the people the audience will relate to," explains Fuller. "The emotions they are feeling are the emotions we hope the audience feels, so we had to find compassionate people to play those parts. The audience needs to associate with them and root for them. We tried to find the best, most believable, sympathetic young actors who you could watch and say, 'I would do exactly what they're doing.' That's the root of good horror."
Director Jonathan Liebesman adds, "My favorite characters in horror films are always the ones who want to be strong even though they're as frightened as you and I would be. All the characters in the movie are questioning their own courage. It's not about whether they cry or not, whether they're strong or really cowards at heart; what's important is that the characters try their best to save each other. And Jordana Brewster, who plays Chrissie, the lead protagonist, comes across as exactly that type of girl."
Brewster was the first member of the new cast to be hired. As Chrissie, she plays a young woman who is devoted to her boyfriend, Eric Hill, and their relationship. When she discovers Eric's plan to re-enlist, she remains steadfast and supportive despite her fear that he won't make it home. Chrissie also knows that even though she might have reservations about his decision to return to Vietnam, Eric's sense of honor and responsibility confirm the kind of person he is, the kind of man she loves and admires.
Once the kids find themselves fighting for their lives, Chrissie never wavers in her quest to save the other three. "She is vulnerable and afraid, and every time she moves to help someone, you can see her doubt," says Liebesman. "Like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, Chrissie is completely frightened of what's behind the next closed door, but she will walk through it anyway. That's a hero."
Both Brewster and the filmmakers understood that Jessica Biel set the bar high in her portrayal of Erin in the 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. "We got Jessie just as her career was taking off," says Michael Bay. "We were lucky because she's not only talented and dedicated, she's an actress who really likes her job and wants to do whatever she can to make the project better as a whole. She's generous with her fellow cast and just an all-around nice person. And even though she and Jordana are very different in many ways, we lucked out again because Jordana has those same qualities."
"I don't think people are prepared for how smart Jordana is," Bay continues. "You can't help but focus on her beauty, but then you talk with her and you're bowled over by her intellect and her interest in everything and everyone around her. She's experienced in the horror genre; she knows her stuff."
For Brewster, the key to the role was to portray her character as being different from the typical overwhelmed young woman that is often seen in these kinds of films. "Jonathan and I tried to strike a balance between Chrissie being a complete heroine who unrealistically faces a 300-pound Leatherface versus a girl who's a damsel in distress, which is really irritating to watch," she says.
"When she hits the point where she's basically lost everything that matters to her, she strikes back," continues Brewster. "I had a scene with R. Lee Ermey where Hoyt justifies what his family is doing to Chrissie and her friends - he calls us sinners. That got to me; it really pissed me off, so I used that in terms of not surrendering and not wanting to be one of the Hewitts' victims."
Next to be cast was Diora Baird as Bailey. Beautiful, free-spirited yet determined, Bailey convinces her boyfriend Dean that he could never survive being a Marine and that his only hope of happiness is following her to Mexico, far away from the insanity of war.
Baird describes Bailey as "sassy, and very much a hippie of her time, everything for peace and love. She's a hopeless romantic, but on the other hand, she doesn't take crap from anyone, even the Hewitts. I like this character because she's got an edge. Even when she's in pain, she gives her captors a piece of her mind."
"Bailey is a firecracker," agrees director Jonathan Liebesman. "In any other horror movie, she'd be the pretty, dumb girl, but we wanted to give her a bit of spice."
The filmmakers purposefully looked for a counterpart to Chrissie - although both are beautiful, Bailey and Chrissie are very different. "Chrissie is erudite and contemplative while Bailey is more simple and free spirited," says Brad Fuller. "When Bailey is scared, it's amazing because the fear is palpable. Watching Diora in these terrifying situations, listening to her scream, is very unsettling."
Liebesman, who asked the actress to scream continuously after hearing her give an impromptu shriek while filming a torture sequence early on in production, also heaped praise on Diora's work. "She has an Energizer bunny of a scream," he says.
"I never even screamed for the audition and I don't think it was in the script," says Baird. "But once I screamed, Jonathan asked me to keep screaming. After a while, it did take a physical toll, but I just hope I don't make the audience crazy," she laughs.
At 21, Taylor Handley is the youngest cast member in the production. His audition tape was so incredible that the filmmakers offered him the role of Dean without ever meeting him face-to-face. After Brad Fuller saw the tape, he called Andrew Form, who was scouting locations in Austin, Texas, to express his excitement at discovering the actor. When Michael Bay saw the taped reading, he immediately concurred.
"Usually we bring people back five or six times, but Taylor never saw the inside of our office," says Fuller. "He's very young and doesn't have a huge depth of experience yet, but he's immensely talented."
The ease with which Handley landed the job speaks to his relaxed personality. Warm and affable, he was a favorite on set, one of those people that everyone likes. Nonetheless, Handley's emotional range will surprise audiences.
"Dean is an artist and a lover," Handley says of his character. "He's very innocent and not all that knowledgeable about Vietnam, but he knows it's not his scene."
"Horror movies are a genre I like very much," he admits. "It allows actors to go to a deep, tormented place somewhere in their soul and bring up all this stuff that you normally don't get to in a teen movie or a drama. In a horror movie, you're screaming your lungs out, running, tripping and falling, and you really do get a feeling of sheer panic when some guy with a chainsaw is chasing you. Even with the crew standing around, you have to get into the moment, because that's the fun of it; just to feel that rush."
The role of Eric Hill was the most difficult to cast. "Finding a guy who is tough yet sympathetic is hard," says Fuller. "We wanted someone who looked like Taylor, but certainly, at the end of the day, the acting ability is far more important.
"We asked Jordana to come in and read with ten actors a day," Fuller continues. "We did that for about a week. And when Matt Bomer came in, you could just feel the chemistry. You could see that Chrissie was in love with Eric and Eric was in love with her. Matt was also able to convey the feeling that he'd been in Vietnam."
A graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University's prestigious drama program, Bomer prepared for the film by watching several movies about Vietnam and reading Born on the Fourth of July to give him "a detailed account of what is was like for someone injured in the war, having to come back home. It was a good starting point in terms of preparing to play Eric, to understand the sense of alienation these guys go through, while trying to keep everything together."
During production Bomer also used R. Lee Ermey as a research source. "I spoke with R. Lee pretty extensively," Bomer says of the former Marine. "He was very helpful anytime I had a question."
After Matt Bomer's audition with Jordana Brewster, Michael Bay turned to the actress and asked her, "Did you like him?" Her response was simple, "I loved him." And that was it; the foursome was complete.
Rounding out the non-Hewitt family cast in small yet pivotal roles are Lee Tergesen as the biker, Holden, and Cyia Batten as his girlfriend, Alex.
SHOOTING THE FILM
READ MORE ABOUT THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE