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adaptation secret window

koepp on filming secret window
For Koepp, Secret Window is very much in keeping with his body of work. He has considerable experience in the thriller genre. All the films he has directed fall into this category, as have several of the scripts he's written. 'I don't know why I am drawn to thrillers. I'm from Wisconsin and we're very nice people.  But, you know, everyone has some sort of nasty impulse inside them and it has to come out somewhere. Fortunately, I work in a field where I can express that in a legal manner," Koepp deadpans.

Beyond that, Koepp admits that he is fascinated by exploring the surface people present and what's below it. "Everyone has their pleasant, civilized fašade, but what are the instincts and impulses that lurk below that? Who acts on them and who doesn't? Those are the kind of questions I'm drawn to. In terms of the movie-going experience of a thriller, I think that it's quite compelling, especially when we watch it as a group in a theater. There is a communal pull that both suspense movies and comedies have in common."

With a nod to Stanley Kubrick's great, dark comedic "thriller" Dr. Strangelove, Koepp and his crew kept themselves on track with what was affectionately known as 'The Big Board' - an oversized rectangular cardboard panel revealing the day's shot list in a series of detailed storyboards. Koepp delighted in crossing off the storyboards as he completed the scenes.

Through 'The Big Board,' Koepp also displayed his theory of shooting suspense thrillers. "Suspense sequences are really all about pieces. What is the character looking at? You need to see his face. You need to see what he saw - and maybe what he didn't see. It all comes together in pieces, as opposed to something you shoot in blanket coverage and try to put together later. Any suspenseful sequence needs to be very carefully designed. Coverage is no substitute for style.  You have to develop an approach, an attitude. The only way to do that is to figure it all out ahead of time. I had the luxury of a lot of prep time during which we created some detailed animatics - basically animated storyboards that take you through the entire sequence. In some cases, I had people read dialogue over them to give me a sense of the timing. It's a great technique. It helps you realise when you're missing something or if you have too many shots."

This kind of detailed preparation made the actual shoot much smoother, yet not so rigid that it short-circuited the spontaneity of the creative process. "There is nothing worse than being on a sound stage or on location and realising that things are not well thought out," says Koepp. "Storyboards and careful preparation help avoid that. But there are times when a different inventive way to cover a scene presents itself, and I always want to have the freedom to try it. Other times you just have to get the hell out of the way and let the actors act. It's a balance. I see some sequences where I need to take over a little more and others where my job is to notice what the actors do naturally and make sure the camera is in the right place to record it."

Often, Koepp is able to do both by skipping the traditional establishing shot in favour of a whip pan shot from the actor to the next position. "I like the whip pan, because it adds movement, takes you from one place to another quickly and is easy to cut into," Koepp explains.

Koepp worked closely with his cinematographer Fred Murphy, with whom he'd previously worked on Stir of Echoes. In preparation for production, Koepp and Murphy watched several notable suspense films, including Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant and John Boorman's Deliverance. Taking a cue from the latter film, Murphy opted to shoot Secret Window in the wide screen Super 35 format, an interesting choice for a movie that, on some levels, is about confined spaces and the intimate, inner workings of the protagonist's mind.

"I like the wide screen for close-ups, because it allows you to add more to the background," says Murphy. "It also opens things up more, so the movie doesn't feel so claustrophobic.  We had several scenes at the lake near Mort's cabin, and the wide screen allowed us to take advantage of the great scenery."

The danger with shooting in wide screen, however, is that it's hard to conceal any mistakes, and there were plenty of opportunities for error since Koepp was interested in employing a recurrent theme of reflections. "Much of the movie is about a guy in his house by himself. That's very interior. But Fred opened it up by including multiple reflections. This is really a mirror movie. At one point Fred said he's never had as many mirrors in a film as in this one.  Because it is about reflection - looking at yourself and seeing things you may not like - mirrors are a major element, particularly the large one over Mort's fireplace. A mirror also makes the set look bigger, providing for some interesting shots. But you have to be so careful because the actors aren't the only thing that's reflected. The crew and the equipment can show up too. It was hard to work with, but the film definitely looked better and was more visually compelling."

The mirror images that had been scripted were challenging enough, but as the movie progressed, other reflections organically manifested themselves, and Murphy and his crew had to accommodate for them. For instance, a shot where Mort comes upon Karsch sleeping like a dead man in his car at night became a "mirror shot" when Koepp and Murphy saw that they could capture Mort's reflection in the car window.

"One of the difficulties about filming reflections, especially in mirrors, is that they tend to go darker so we always have to equalise the light," Murphy explains. "For the shots involving the mirror in the living room, we could plan ahead in terms of lighting. Other possibilities for reflections, like the one of Karsch in the car at night, just appeared. But in order for us to realise the effect of Mort's face reflected in the car window, we had to rig a special light so it shined brightly into his face. Fortunately, it worked out very nicely."

Koepp and Murphy also exercised a wide variety of cinematic devices to slowly reveal the truth about Mort's demons. They included several carefully choreographed crane and dolly moves, including an elaborate series that opened the film and a special 'Technocrane' shot that pierced the living room mirror, snaked through Mort's cabin and ended up outside in the driveway. That shot also required the use of a Super-8 camera and cross processing, a special manipulation of the Ektachrome film developed through a color negative process that results in higher contrast and increased graininess.

Another approach was to bathe Mort's memories of his previous life with Amy in a sunshiny glow with brighter, more cheerful colours in bold contrast to the drab hues that pervade his life after their break-up.


shooting secret window
The cast and crew spent three weeks shooting interior and exterior scenes at a tranquil, rustic resort in Quebec known as Sacacomie, where Mort's cabin is situated on the banks of the fictitious Tashmore Lake. Nestled amidst a rambling forest of pine and maple trees, abutting the majestic Lake Sacacomie, the resort offered the appropriate topography for Mort's lakeside retreat and a pastoral lodge in which to house the crew and the ad-hoc production office. 

What it lacked, however, was Mort's cabin, which was designed and constructed by production designer Howard Cummings and his team. The long wooden cabin contained a screened-in porch and a shallow second floor that housed Mort's office and the small "secret window" overlooking Amy's garden.   

"We wanted the cabin to be close to the water, and it ended up being about 20 feet from the lake," says Cummings. "But the ground there was bedrock so we ultimately had to lift it up nine feet.  Since we only had three weeks to work at Sacacomie, we built the cabin for several exterior scenes and interior scenes as well - in case we ran into bad weather. We rebuilt the interior on stage later, which we also had to raise nine feet off the ground."

While a raised set is never popular with crew technicians because they have to hoist up the equipment, they realized Cummings had no choice. The cabin set that was built on stage was slightly oversized, so it was easier to work in and included walls that could be removed or changed to accommodate the camera moves. Because of the perspective of the original cabin, which was juxtaposed against the real Lake Sacacomie, Cummings had to also elevate the stage-built cabin to overlook the two-dimensional 'translight' version of the lake. Cummings said that what read as a "simple story about a guy at a lake in a cabin" ended up being one of the most complicated sets he's ever had to construct. But he derived great satisfaction with how it turned out and how well it suited the story. 

"The first time we saw the location, it was covered in snow, so we couldn't get a true sense of it, yet it seemed to have all the things we needed.  It was isolated and had a place for us to put the cabin so it would be right next to the lake, which we wanted. The irony is that Mort never actually goes to the lake.  He always stays inside the cabin, which is dark and gloomy but also strangely comforting and reassuring - at least to Mort," Cummings notes.

Throughout the story, the audience gets a glimpse of the lake, which provides a pristine, sparkling contrast to Mort's dank and morose interior life. During the ominous night-time sequences, when Mort is stalked by the malevolent Shooter, the lake, which was lit with Fred Murphy's strategically placed lamps, was further enhanced by a layer of ghostly smoke, giving it an eerie portentousness.

In addition to creating the same set twice, Cummings also had to design one set just to be burned down. In a series of bizarre and sinister events in the film, the house that Amy and Mort had shared as man and wife is mysteriously torched. Amy, Mort, Ted and a cadre of investigators survey the charred aftermath.

"Their house had to be in a neighborhood, since we see it in flashback, but, clearly, we couldn't actually burn someone's house down," Cummings explains. "We found a house we liked in another part of town where we shot the scenes of Amy and Mort in their happy days together. Then we went online and researched a bunch of burnt down houses until we found one that looked similar to the one we'd used and we built a set to look like it on a vacant lot in the middle of an upscale Canadian suburb. It had all the proper plastering, brick and lattice work. We took all the burnt pieces and 'rebuilt' them into a partial fašade, matching its position to the original 'flashback' house, and adding additional burnt wood and fake ash," Cummings says.

The production also filmed in several Quebec locations, including the town of North Hatley, which provided a view of Lake Massawippi from the small police station set that Cummings sandwiched in between the town's quaint restaurant, gift shop and clapboard drugstore. Lake Massawippi, along with Lake Sacacomie and Lake Gale - a green lagoon full of frogs in the village of Bromont - were merged for the production to become Stephen King's Tashmore Lake.

On the stage-built version of Mort's cabin, the crew filmed not only the interior cabin scenes but several elaborate motion control and green screen sequences. These painstaking shots primarily revolved around Mort's slow recognition of his true inner self. Depp played both Mort and "the inner Mort," which meant that he had to separately film both parts, essentially acting opposite himself. In one of the green screen sequences, a wall of green enveloped the entire set and the camera, serving as Mort's inner voice, circled Depp as he reacted to "himself."  Later, Depp replaced the camera, taking on the part of Mort's secret self.

In another version, Mort's inner voice bedevils him from various points around the cabin. Those points were earmarked by orange circles placed at the edge of poles. Depp anthropomorphized his marks by drawing smiley faces on them. "There was nothing to react off of except this little orange, round thing," notes Depp, "so I drew a face on it. In those kinds of situations, the level of absurdity is so high that it becomes a challenge - a grown man standing in the middle of a circle screaming at a c-stand with an orange face on it. It doesn't get much weirder than that.  It's bizarre but also a fun sort of obstacle. You just put yourself in his situation and go with it."

It sounds as if Depp was both in the moment and outside it, too - a rather appropriate manifestation of his character's increasingly peculiar and dangerous psychological state. His affliction is known as dissociation, the state in which part of a person's life becomes separated from the rest of his personality and acts independently. Often, this occurs as a result of trauma - in Mort's case, the shock of his wife's infidelity and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage.

"The idea is that this pushes Mort to a place where a light goes out for him and that part of him is completely in the dark," Depp sums up. "When he blacks out, though, another light comes on somewhere else.

Koepp depicted the extent of Mort's dissociation in what came to be known as 'The Magritte Shot,' because it resembled a painting by the famous Surrealist artist.  In the painting, the viewer sees a man looking into a mirror. But instead of his facial reflection, we see the back of the man's head. Executing the shot with Depp required the intricate timing of two cameras filming him in front of the mirror - with the glass replaced by green screen. Visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall worked in tandem with Murphy to realize the effect. Murphy approached with one camera looking at Depp and one behind him. One camera was devoted to Depp and the other served as the "reflection camera." The latter had to be bigger and faster to compensate for movement and perspective, since objects appear larger in mirrors than in reality.