MAKING THE JOURNEY
"Taking Jules Verne's well-known novel and developing it into an updated story with new characters, using modern technology, was a tremendously exciting opportunity," says Eric Brevig, who makes his feature directorial debut with "Journey to the Center of the Earth." "My goal with this film was to capture the spirit of adventure, discovery and the belief that anything is possible."
"I think certain stories are timeless, and the tale of three unlikely explorers helping each other along this seemingly impossible voyage is a great example," says producer Charlotte Huggins. "The idea that you can do what others only dream of doing is a concept people have not only written about, but also attempted since the beginning of human civilization."
Producer Beau Flynn remarks, "Our job as filmmakers is to transport audiences to another world. We want moviegoers to lose themselves in the adventure. It was also important to us that we capture a certain tone for the film where the characters are very real and accessible, but the story never takes itself too seriously."
The appeal of refreshing a classic Jules Verne tale with cutting-edge filmmaking drew Brendan Fraser to the project in the leading role and as an executive producer. "When I go to the movies, I want to be taken away," says Fraser. "The story's premise combined with an original script that is full of action, comedy and adventure from start to finish got my attention right away."
The screenplay for "Journey to the Center of the Earth," written by Michael Weiss and Jennifer Flackett & Mark Levin, revolves around scientist Trevor Anderson, his nephew Sean and their Icelandic mountain guide Hannah; together, the trio stumble upon a volcanic passage that sends them plummeting to the center of the Earth. Landing in a deep crystal blue lagoon thousands of miles beneath the Earth's surface, they discover an extraordinary world of lush jungles and prehistoric creatures as described in Jules Verne's novel. Taking in the staggering sights and sounds of this unchartered land, they soon learn that it is fraught with peril and must rely on each other to find a way home.
Brendan Fraser plays Trevor Anderson, an American college professor and scientist in the field of plate tectonics, a study of geology that links movements of the Earth's crust with earthquakes, volcanoes and weather. Together with his brother Max, Trevor was on the path to a geological research breakthrough. But then Max disappeared on a field expedition in Iceland. "Since then, Trevor has had little luck advancing his research on his own, and now the lab is on the verge of being shut down by the university," says Fraser.
As if he doesn't have enough problems, Trevor gets a surprise visit from Max's teenage son, Sean, who is reluctantly spending a week with his uncle.
"With Sean's sudden arrival, Trevor is suddenly thrust into a dynamic where he feels the pressure to assume a paternal role, but Trevor doesn't really understand how to deal with kids, even though he is a college professor," Fraser notes. "He can deal with college kids because they don't listen to him in his lectures anyway."
Josh Hutcherson, who steps into the role of Sean, adds, "Our characters butt heads at first, but each proves useful to the other as the story progresses. They soon realize they need each other more than they ever imagined."
Trying to break the ice, Trevor and Sean dig through an old box of Max's belongings and discover a copy of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Flipping through its pages, Trevor finds Max's handwritten notes in the margin with clues to Max's final expedition to Iceland 10 years ago. Excited that he may finally discover what happened to his brother, Trevor rushes off to the Land of Fire and Ice, taking Sean along for the ride.
Trevor and Sean get hopelessly lost and stumble upon an isolated mountain cabin inhabited by a young mountain guide named Hannah, played by Anita Briem. An Icelandic native, Briem notes, "Hannah lives by herself in the remote cabin that once served as a field laboratory for her father--a 'Vernian'--someone who believed the writings of Jules Verne were actual fact rather than science fiction. Sadly, because of his beliefs, Hannah's father became ostracized in the scientific community and died years ago as an embarrassment to her family. On the surface, Hannah is tough and independent, but underneath she's still angry at her father, who put his research ahead of his family."
With one look at Max's copy of Verne's novel, Hannah points out to Trevor that, like her father, Max too was a Vernian. Not wanting to get caught up in chasing unrealistic Vernian fantasies, Hannah names an exorbitant price for helping Trevor. Undeterred, Trevor calls her bluff and agrees to pay her to guide them up to the remote peak of Mount Snaeffels, where he believes the last seismic sensor was placed by Max.
As Trevor, Sean and Hannah ascend the rocky terrain, they find themselves caught in the middle of a lightning storm. Taking refuge in a cave nearby, they enjoy a split second of safety before a bolt of lightning strikes the side of the mountain, creating an avalanche that collapses the cave's entrance and seals them in. Unable to get out the way they came in, the three explorers end up plunging towards the depths of the Earth, where their fantastical journey truly begins.
"Together, they set off on this wild ride," says Fraser. "Of course, as circumstances have it, forces of nature conspire against them and nothing goes as planned. There's a mythical quality about this whole adventure because anything could be at the bottom of this 'rabbit hole.'"
"We were fortunate to have such a great cast with amazing chemistry," offers Huggins. "After all, it is just the three of them on screen for most of the film."
"Brendan was definitely my first choice for the role from day one," states Brevig. "We hit it off right from the start. We shared similar ideas for making the film fun for the audience, and Brendan has a deep appreciation for and understanding of working with visual effects."
Flynn adds, "Brendan's got a sense of integrity and a genuine quality that comes through in his performances, which make him very watchable. He's really a unique actor who is very engaging both on screen and in person."
For the role of Hannah, Brevig recalls, "We wanted the relationship between Hannah and the boys to be fun, so we looked for someone who could take charge of the situation but not initially appear that way."
"Anita has a certain authenticity to her, not only because she's Icelandic, but also because she has fabulous training, and was physically up to the challenge. She also has a great sense of humor," remarks Huggins. "The camaraderie that developed among her and Brendan and Josh was so much fun to watch throughout the production."
The filmmakers were equally impressed with the young Josh Hutcherson, who was just 13 years old at the time of production. "Josh is wise beyond his years," notes Flynn. "He also has a quality about him that is very natural. He is very easygoing in between takes, but as soon as he's in front of the camera, he's instantly in character."
"Josh was very proactive about asking the right questions," says Brevig. "He was so committed and enthusiastic, and always arrived prepared. He brought fresh ideas and suggestions to scenes the way an actor maybe 10 or 20 years his senior would. Also, I think it's tough when you're the only kid on set because you're surrounded by adults," the director continues. "But because Brendan is such a big kid at heart and Josh is such a grown-up at heart, they got along really well."
Spending so much time together on set as a trio gave the three actors a chance to form very close bonds.
"Brendan's comedy is non-stop. I learned so much from working with him. Anita was really great with the action scenes...and she's very pretty, which is always a bonus," laughs Hutcherson.
"It was such a delight working with the boys," Briem states. "We were like a little family on set, so I think that definitely contributed to the story and the onscreen chemistry."
Fraser agrees, "The three of us formed a triangle, which is a very strong structure in nature and, in this case, dramatically speaking."
DESIGNING THE WORLD BELOW
To capture the scale of sweeping panoramas ranging from the glacial peaks of Iceland to the vast sea at the center of the Earth, and the intricate detail of petrified mushroom forests and calcified rock formations, Brevig called on the expertise of an array of talented artists, including concept lead artist Erik Tiemens, production designer David Sandefur, director of photography Chuck Schuman and visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend.
"When creating a fantasy story, you're taking the truth and stretching it," offers Brevig. "We began with the concept art, which was the touchstone for production design, visual effects and cinematography. The final look in the film is the product of tremendous collaboration by nearly 200 artists."
In referencing the concept art, Sandefur remarks that one of the greatest challenges was balancing the real and surreal. "There had to be some level of the fantasy, but at the same time, I wanted to try and maintain a level of realism," he notes. "The texture and color needed to look and feel very real and very rich. And although the audience knows we're in this fictitious world, I'd like them to think that we went to a location and shot underground or in a jungle."
"We approached the look of the film using what we called a 'color script,' which was a plan for the use of color throughout the movie," notes Brevig. "At the beginning of the movie, we start in a muted color range, then we take the audience into a heightened color reality once we get to the center and by the end of the film, they return to a more vivid environment to imply that Trevor's life is brighter and more hopeful."
Production took place in Montreal, which was hardly jungle-like, but surprisingly, the northern city proved invaluable when it came to set designs, particularly its natural surroundings. "One of the things we found helpful was the access just outside of the city to a phenomenal, organic terrain, which we used to come up with the texture and configurations of our sets," explains the production designer. "We took molds off of real surfaces in a lot of different areas and made plaster skins out of those and attached them to the walls."
For the Mushroom House that Trevor, Sean and Hannah find at the center of the Earth, Sandefur remarks, "My team and I spent weeks experimenting with materials to get the surfaces to look just right. After all, what does the inside of a mushroom look like? Can someone get me a few books on interiors of mushroom homes...anyone?"
Sandefur finally decided to use industrial-sized sponges, slicing them into thin slivers and painstakingly lacing them on top of each other to give the surface a porous, organic-looking texture. Once the slivers were bonded together, "we cast surfaces with translucent latex, and then painted and backlit them for a bioluminescent effect," continues Sandefur. "It's like being inside a giant Jack-o-lantern."
While Sandefur's team built a rock wall that measured roughly 40-feet high by 30-feet wide, the visual effects team, led by visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, extended the wall hundreds of feet down with CGI. To create the visual effects (VFX) shots in "Journey to the Center of the Earth" in 3D, Townsend's VFX team performed double duty, rendering twice the amount of shots for each of the film's 726 visual effects shots, resulting in a total of more than 1,400 visual effects shots created.
Townsend explains, "In 3D, what we have to do is recreate the world behind the actor and convey that volume and that space. We have to render a piece of geometry in computer graphics that disappears back just as far as it would disappear back in the real world. So if it's six miles to the horizon, then within the computer, you have to build a computer model that actually disappears back six miles. You can't just fake it with a flat painting. You actually have to put it in its correct dimension."
Making a live-action 3D action adventure film with extensive visual effects that will be added in postproduction requires actors to have active imaginations during principal photography. "They have to be ready to interact with fantastical objects and creatures--glow birds and giant flying piranhas--that obviously aren't really there," states Brevig.
The filmmakers tried to make the experience as natural for the actors as possible. "You really hope that the technology is as invisible to the actors as it is to the audience," notes Huggins. "The cast needs to be focused on their characters and in the story."
PREPARING FOR THE PLUNGE
For the three leads, working on an action adventure film also meant many intense physical challenges. Hutcherson states, "During the weeks of pre-production, we went to a really awesome rock-climbing gym to prepare for the scene where we repel down the big volcanic tube."
"There was a lot of climbing and falling, running and harnessing, which is all great fun," say Fraser.
Hutcherson picked up a few tricks of the trade from Fraser. "There's so much big action in this film that, day after day, climbing walls, getting thrown around on ropes and jumping from rock to rock, the physical demands do take their toll. On the first day of filming, I was like, 'I don't need knee and elbow pads,' but after a short while, I learned I was very wrong."
"After doing three 'Mummy' pictures, I've gained a full appreciation for the makers of athletic padding," smiles Fraser. "There's a reason why my shirt sleeve is rolled up at three-quarter lengths in many scenes and not all the way up. I mean, it's nice to show off your muscles, but if you're jumping and diving around on set, you're going to get a couple of knocks and the padding comes in handy."
Briem adds, "It was hard, but I got a real kick out of all the rigorous training we did. It's a real treat as an actor to get to learn all of those different skills. I had a couple of days where I was absolutely convinced that I could be a super hero. It was fantastic!"
Sometimes the demanding physical stunts made it difficult for the actors to get through their lines. "One of the most challenging scenes for me was the one where we fall towards the center of the Earth," recalls Briem. "We had these huge fans blowing on us to simulate the fall, and they were so loud it was physically very difficult to just get our lines out."
"The sequence was called 'The Big Drop,'" notes Brevig, referring to the scene where Trevor, Sean and Hannah plummet down thousands of miles toward the center of the Earth. "They're falling for so long that they actually have time to talk about their situation," he smiles.
"My initial vision for the shot was to see them travel from way up above us to way down below us, falling maybe 200 feet in one shot. Unfortunately, due to physical limitations of our soundstage, it was impossible to capture this continuously," notes the director. "We thought about raising them up really high outdoors, but that required a huge blue screen behind them, making it impractical. So I came up with the idea to put the actors on their sides, turn the camera sideways and dolly past them, so it would be the camera moving and not the actors. This way, we were able to run two to three hundred feet across our soundstage floor and capture the feeling that they're falling a great distance. We found a hot-rodded golf cart that could go like 60 miles an hour and shot the scene. The only challenge left was stopping the golf cart in time before slamming into the stage wall at the other end."
At the end of "The Big Drop" in the film, the three explorers are met with giant gravity-defying water globules until they finally reach a tunnel that acts like a waterslide funneling them into a crystal blue lagoon, the watery paradise at the Earth's center. This underwater set was built in Montreal's 1976 Olympic stadium diving tank, one of the largest in North America.
In addition to "The Big Drop," another action-packed thrill ride that Trevor, Sean and Hannah experience was the mine shaft "rollercoaster" ride. "We had a lot of fun playing with the volumes and spaces and the lighting to make the mine car ride dramatic, fast and fun," Christopher Townsend says.
The mine car sequence took equal parts visual effects and acting. "While the visual effects may look convincing, the actors are the ones who really sell any visual effects shot," states Brevig. "It's the acting that's going to convey the sense of danger and excitement. If the acting is good, the audience will trust the situation their characters find themselves in. Brendan, Josh and Anita were great at that."
GO TO JOURNEY 2: MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
READ MORE ABOUT STORYTELLING IN DIGITAL 3D
READ MORE ABOUT ERIC BREVIG (Director) AND MICHAEL WEISS (Screenwriter)
THE ART OF REMAKES