Inside Shutter Island: The Design
As soon as U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule arrive on Shutter Island, they are thrust into a strikingly Gothic atmosphere that mirrors the terror and anxiety they feel within. With calamitous weather, howling winds and driving rain ratcheting up the urgency of their investigation, they are confronted with a disorienting realm of imposing brick buildings, elongated corridors, claustrophobic cells and craggy, water-logged surroundings.
To fuse this starkly impressionistic world out of chillingly real locations, Martin Scorsese needed extraordinarily detailed design work from his artistic crew. The director turned to many of his loyal, longtime collaborators to tackle this creative task, among them the award-winning quartet of director of photography Robert Richardson, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.
The task of evoking the film's panoply of visual moods, from mystery and confusion to fury and panic, both physical and psychological, fell to director of photography Richardson, a regular Scorsese collaborator who has won Oscars for his work on The Aviator and for Oliver Stone's JFK. Richardson used the camera creatively, sinuously, expressionistically to forge the sensation of moving through a spiraling fog of unanswered questions and lingering uncertainty. He and Scorsese garnered inspiration from a whole library's worth of classic films, not only from the previously mentioned features, but also from the camera movement and lighting of Roman Polanski's groundbreaking studies in abject horror, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac and Rosemary's Baby.
Scorsese explains: "The idea was to come up with a way of reflecting a state of mind in the lighting, the tone of the picture and the island itself. The look of any film is important but if you're doing something that deals with street life, say in the case of The Departed, there is a simpler approach to visuals, whereas with Shutter Island, a state of mind had to be conveyed in every frame. We had to create a place that was more than just a setting, and there was a constant discussion about that between myself, Bob Richardson and also Dante Ferretti," he says. "There is a visual sense of not understanding what's going on around you, who's really in charge, who's in control."
"Bob Richardson is one of a kind," adds Bradley Fischer. "From the first shots I saw, the variations in the lighting and the mood were so transporting that I immediately thought, 'Wow, you can tell Bob Richardson is shooting this movie.' He's one of many brilliant people who showed up for Marty."
Richardson's work provided an additional thread of inspiration to the cast. Says DiCaprio: "The look is almost like an M.C. Escher painting, where things are just a little off and you're never quite sure what you're really seeing. There's an omnipresent feeling of being locked into an inescapable environment."
After long conversations about film references and the structure of the film and characters, Scorsese set out on a scout with Ferretti and Richardson to find a stand-in for Shutter Island itself. They were looking not just for the right logistics, but the right feel. Several East Coast locations were considered but, ultimately, the filmmakers were drawn to the rustic, rocky shores of Peddocks Island, less than 100 miles off of Boston and which was settled by American Indians prior to the arrival of European settlers and has been used by farmers since the mid-1600s.
Equally key was the search to find a real hospital that could stand in for the imposing, unsettling complex of buildings that is Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a quest that would take the filmmakers on an intriguing ride into the history of mental asylums. It turns out that our preconceived picture of what a psychiatric hospital looks like, complete with Gothic brick architecture, wing-like spires and sprawling lawns, come largely from the ambitious designs of a 19th Century East Coast doctor named Thomas Story Kirkbride, who helped to forge a series of American mental hospitals according to what became known as "The Kirkbride Plan."
Kirkbride's idea was to design Cathedral-like sanctuaries for the mentally ill that would give them a peaceful, elegant, morally ordered world to live up to. Unfortunately, in the end, many of these facilities would be under-funded and overpopulated, their vast halls turned eerie with deterioration and neglect.
Several Kirkbride Plan hospitals were built in Massachusetts but, by now, all have been converted into condos or fallen into total disrepair. However, the filmmakers found one abandoned asylum that could fit the bill: Medfield State Hospital in Medfield, Massachusetts, which had been closed since the 1960s, but never refurbished. Although the hospital is not one of Kirkbride's personal designs, it features a similar collection of two-story, red brick buildings on sprawling grounds, a classic asylum look that could be used as a raw shell for Ferretti's creations.
Occupying the buildings, however, would take an intensive process. Using Kirkbride's blueprints as his guide, Ferretti recreated a chilling embodiment of a 1950s psychiatric institute. Long before the start of filming at Medfield, Ferretti presented Scorsese and Richardson with an entire miniature, three-dimensional model of the Ashecliffe compound, enabling them to map out precise blocking of scenes, positioning actors for every camera move. The real thing, however, was even more evocative.
"My job was very clear," says the two-time Academy Award-winning production designer, who garnered Oscars for Scorsese's The Aviator and, more recently, for Sweeney Todd. "Marty wanted American Gothic and so American Gothic is what we created on the grounds of Medfield."
He continues: "I designed several Gothic-looking entrances and additions to the buildings that were already standing. Then, we built a long, rectangular wall around the buildings and the grounds not only to create a compound, but also to give a sense that we were in a confined, almost prison-like space, even to suggest that we were on an island within an island. We also created a lush-looking lawn within the compound, with flowerbeds and rock gardens that the patients carefully tend. We also reworked and redesigned all the interiors, including the orderlies' quarters and rest areas, the hospital corridors, the cafeteria, Dr. Cawley's office and the patients' quarters. I'd say we built 60% of what you see at Medfield from scratch. We even built Ashecliffe's graveyard, which is key to the plot."
To stand in for Ashecliffe's imposing executive mansion, off-limits to most staff and patients, the production moved to the intensely Gothic grounds of the Turner Hill Golf Club in Ipswich, Mass. Here, inside the mansion's baronial, wood-lined sitting room dominated by an oversized fireplace, Scorsese staged the hostile encounter between Teddy and Chuck on the one side, and Dr. Cawley and Dr. Naehring on the other. In addition, Rachel Solando's cell, from which the barefoot woman mystically vanishes, was constructed from scratch in a Medfield warehouse.
Later, Ferretti would metamorphose an abandoned textile mill in Taunton, Massachusetts into a section of the Dachau concentration camp, where Teddy Daniels, as a young soldier, has a seminal confrontation with humanity's destructive power, replete with barbed wire, fenced-in compounds and a rundown railroad transport carriage.
For the cast, these sets were a kind of vehicle, transporting them into another world beyond everyday reality. Says Patricia Clarkson: "The set for my scene in the cave was extraordinary from the second you walked in. It was cavernous, ominous, frightening and it even seemed to have a smell to it, although it didn't. It was incredibly real and alive and that set the tone."
Adds Jackie Earle Haley: "The sets were a trip and incredibly motivating. When I went into my cell and they shut the door it was very dark and isolated. It didn't feel at all like a movie set. The walls were all in place and you'd pound on something and be surprised that it wasn't really brick. I think that really added to our state of mind as actors."
Later, Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (Titanic, Apollo 13, The Aviator) and visual effects producer/post production supervisor Ron Ames (The Departed) would create further magic by scattering dramatic clouds and skyscapes into sunnier shots and intensifying the film's shades of grey with digital nuances. "They helped to create the very special look of the cliffs, the water, the cave, the sky, and this also became part of the creation of a state of mind," says Scorsese. "It was a major challenge all very, very well-thought-out shot by shot."
Another previous Scorsese collaborator, costume designer Sandy Powell, added to the details and depth of Shutter Island's all-enveloping world. Twice an Academy Award winner, for The Aviator and John Madden's Shakespeare in Love, Powell's body of work has spanned many eras and lifestyles, but she had never entered the unusual realm of a 1950s mental institute before. She began her work by talking with Scorsese about his view of the characters.
"He gave me ideas, insights and guidelines that were indispensable," she recalls. "For instance, he said about Teddy, Leo's character, 'He's not particularly well paid. He's an ordinary kind of guy.' Immediately, I then knew the direction I wanted to go in. Shutter Island is all about what's going on inside the characters, so my challenge was to make what the actors wear believable for that journey."
The compressed, fast-paced time frame of the story was also a challenge. "It takes place over four days, so there's not much scope to change the characters' clothes progressively," she explains. "Most of the characters wear one or two costumes, yet those costumes go through a lot. We had to make 44 versions of the orderly outfit Teddy puts on because it is drenched and rumpled in the hurricane and he goes through different adventures in it; he goes into the sea, walks along cliffs, and sleeps in a cave. He passes through various stages of dirtiness, if you will, and that was a process."
Also key to Powell's work in Shutter Island is color, which in itself is so linked to psychology. "Color is the first thing I think about and it's usually an instinctive feeling," she explains. "For example, with Dolores, I just had this feeling she should be wearing yellow and her dress plays throughout the film, so I had to get it absolutely right. On the other hand, Ben Kingsley chose the color of his costume. He told me he felt that his character should be in green. So, together we came up with the right shade, a deep, dark, almost olive that suits the doctor's intensity."
In search of authenticity, Powell sought out vintage pieces but mostly created her own. "Suiting fabrics in the '40s and '50s were actually much heavier than they are today," she notes. "So for Leo and Mark's suits we had to find contemporary fabrics that matched the vintage ones as best they could and build them from scratch. For Max von Sydow's character, Dr. Naehring, I had a very strong idea that I wanted him in dark black with a strong stripe and I couldn't find the proper weight, so we wove our own fabric. I did use some original clothing for Michelle Williams' character."
Weaving the film's equally vital aural fabric is music supervisor Robbie Robertson, who has known Scorsese since the director filmed Robertson's seminal rock ensemble, The Band, in The Last Waltz. Recalls Scorsese: "Instead of writing a conventional score, I said to Robbie, 'What if we took some modern composers of the 20th century and some popular songs and moved elements of those around to create a wall of sound?', and he liked that idea. We pulled together pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, Max Richter, Ingram Marshall, Marcel Duchamp, Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, Nam June Paik, John Adams, Brian Eno and Robert Erickson and used them in different ways throughout. There's also some popular songs from the early '50s, including Johnny Ray's 'Cry,' Kay Starr's 'Wheel of Fortune' and Lonnie Johnson's 'Tomorrow Night.' What Robbie did with the music was to create a kind of tapestry of what Teddy, Chuck, Dr. Cawley and all of them are feeling as the days and story unfold."
The Storms of Shutter Island: About the Weather
Weather is central to the atmosphere of many a Gothic horror thriller, but in Shutter Island it becomes not only an expression of the film's psychological volatility, but another unpredictable and dangerous character, turning on a dime from a silvery haze to a killer Class 5 hurricane pelting the island with ferocious rain and wind. The task of forging subtle, moment-by-moment changes in the weather fell to special effects coordinator R. Bruce Steinheimer, who helped weave together such elements as bone-soaking, sideways rain and gale-force gusts that uproot trees. Steinheimer previously collaborated with Scorsese on Gangs of New York and The Aviator, so he dove into the task knowing there would be a demand for absolute authenticity. He and special effects supervisor Rick Thompson searched for technical solutions to producing a palpable sense of natural forces at work.
"For the rain, we ended up using four overhead rain-bars, two of which were 100 feet long and held up by huge cranes, to produce rain that covered an area measuring 140 by 60 feet," explains Thompson. "We also used what we call Spiders, square rain-bars that put down rain in a pattern of 80 by 80 feet, but the real challenge was that, since Marty's camera positions and his camera moves are so inventive, we had to be equally creative in positioning the rain-bars and the cranes."
To feed the rain-bars, Steinheimer and Thompson used water trucks with a 40,000-gallon capacity and high-pressure pumps. In addition, several large fire hoses, producing 60 to 80 pounds of water pressure, were used to bring the rain and mist to a fever pitch late in the film, but it wasn't rain alone that made the hurricane. There also had to be the sense of powerful bursts of wind throughout many of the film's most suspenseful sequences. "For that, we had four gasoline-powered fans capable of creating breezes up to 80 miles per hour," Thompson recalls. "For scenes in which dialogue was important we alternately used electrically powered fans that were quieter and produced winds of 75 miles per hour. We also attached tubing around the fans so we could produce sideway drafts, sending out sheets of rain in a horizontal pattern. We not only drenched the actors but most of the crew members as well."
Cast and crew became inured to drying off only to get drenched all over again. They also were ready to jump into action when the real weather suddenly cooperated with the filmmakers' ironic hope for inclement days. "We worked inside when it was sunny and outside when it was cloudy," remarks Fischer.
Recalls DiCaprio: "If there wasn't a crane dropping water on you then it was guys with fire hoses or a giant fan blowing air into your face.
But the result was that it ended up feeling very real to us. It added to the sense that these characters are confined to this island, that there's really no way out, and to the increasingly emotional impact to which the story builds."