As called for in Bertino's story, the lead actors were put through the wringer far more than the trio of Strangers. "This role was emotionally, and especially physically, draining," says Tyler, who was additionally stricken with tonsillitis during the shoot. "Usually, on a movie, there are a couple of scenes that you know will be tough to do, and you think, I'll just have to get through that particular day. This was two months of that. We worked long hours. It was by far the hardest film shoot I've ever been a part of."
In addition to sustaining actual cuts, bruises and sores, in addition to the throat trouble, the actress was obliged to be made up with fake blood and have black paint brushed under her fingernails and over her hands. "In The Lord of the Rings, I only had to do one sequence on a horse," Tyler says. "On this shoot, I would come in each morning, clean and showered, then get disgusting. It was an amazing challenge every day, and I didn't know I had it in me. But by the end of the shoot, my body was gone."
To help realize Bertino's desired sustained pitch of heart-pounding, breathholding fear, both Tyler and Speedman often ran sprints on and around the set, returning to their marks just seconds before the writer/director called, "Action!" Tyler estimates, "I probably ran a mile a day. Scott and I would be all out of breath and sweaty."
Bertino notes, "Liv definitely connected to what Kristen was going through. We talked a lot about the physical demands beforehand, and she worked incredibly hard. Also, she's barefoot for basically the entire movie. There were times during the shoot when I would look down at her bruised feet and feel horrible that I hadn't written, "Kristen is wearing tennis shoes."
Despite the actors' endless days of running, crawling and hiding, stunt coordinator CAL JOHNSON provides, The Strangers isn't a stunt-heavy movie. But even with the little stuff, we still needed to take the time to figure it out and protect our actors and stunt people." Johnson himself stepped in to double for an actor in one of the film's most shocking moments.
Given that The Strangers is her maiden effort in the genre, Tyler also developed a "screen scream." The performer provides, "I was really worried at first, because I had no idea what it would sound or look like. All of a sudden, this huge scream came out; I think I terrified everybody."
Bertino agrees: "Liv is an amazing screamer. She and I talked about not doing "practice screams," because I wanted to capture the horror moments as they happen for Kristen. On the first take of the first time she had to scream, I had my fingers crossed, and she really let loose. It shook us up. Beyond that, there are violent scenes that get played out in this movie, and some of them were upsetting to people on set to watch. Everyone became attached to Kristen and James, and to Liv and Scott."
Speedman adds, "For the heaviest emotional scenes Liv and I had to play, Bryan kept two cameras going so we wouldn't have to shoot all day. With those heightened moments between characters, you don't want to repeat things over and over. Bryan was also comfortable with our doing things that had not been in his script. He wasn't overprotective of it."
Similarly, the actors playing The Strangers were free to explore their characters" shared dynamics, since, as Bertino says, "We give no outside information. Kristen and James don't have any, which is a perspective or lack of it that adds to the horror."
Weeks says, "Being in a world where we are so desensitized by the Internet, TV, war, video games, YouTube, I felt we had lost what should be a basic human response to violence and, more specifically, to death itself. In some demented way, we were trying to reestablish those feelings of guilt and sorrow by experiencing the violence firsthand." Ward adds that what helped her with motivation was to believe that these people don't have a lot to say. They want to dominate something for the first time in their lives, controlling the situation."
Margolis concurs: "I think my character has the nerve to do what she does largely because she's wearing a mask. In her regular life, she doesn't have any power or control. But when she puts on this mask, she controls everything. Behind the Masks".
The design of the masks for The Strangers was as important to the film as the design of the Hoyt house. Bertino states, "I wanted the masks to feel basic and accessible, and to represent imagery we can all recognize and respond to. When we walk into a room, we look at people's features, at their eyes. We wonder, "Is this person friendly?" With that taken away, Kristen and James are even more vulnerable."
After several drafts of designs, the masks for Pin-Up Girl and Dollface were created in vacuform plastic; The Man in the Mask's was made out of cotton. Weeks offers, "The fact that these are the kind of masks anyone could buy anywhere, or put together, just makes the whole scenario that much realistic."
For all their simplicity and on-set familiarity, the masks still cast a chill. Liv Tyler reveals, "I have always found masks of all kinds creepy, because you don't know what's behind them. At first, I couldn't bear to be near them at all."
Scott Speedman agrees: "It was hard to look at these. There was a deadness in the eyes, like a shark's. Pin-Up Girl's mask was really quite scary. Laura turned into a whole different person when she put it on."
Margolis surmises how unsettling it was to play a woman who delighted in capturing and torturing her prey: "What I found so terrifying was that there was no humanity in her. It doesn't seem like there's a person who feels and hurts, and that's part of why my character does what she does. To play her, I did have to tap into things in myself that I don't want to believe are there."
Surprisingly, the trio of actors warmed to the process of wearing their masks while performing. "There weren't many difficulties and I was not uncomfortable," says Weeks. "You can convey a character through so many things other than your face"your movement, your posture, the way you breathe. The mask became another part of me, and I could convey every emotion with it."
Ward muses, "It was freeing, in a way. Because of my regular job as a model, I had a very strong reaction to wearing the mask. I was not as self-conscious. I could get in there and be as scary and menacing as I wanted to be and feed off of the reaction from having a mask on. There was a power to it."
Margolis also found the experience to be "kind of liberating." She adds, "If anything, it was more challenging for Liv and Scott, who didn't get to see any emotion on our faces."
Speedman confirms, "I didn"t ask the three of them what their thought process for their characters was. But it worked!"
As shooting ended, the cast and crew looked back on their experience and on their thoughts on the thriller they made. "It's a love story, a drama and a horror movie," says Tyler. "The film has different elements and levels to it. Oftentimes, scary movies are about the scares. This film is so different. To be truly afraid and showing it. is shocking not only to other people, but also to yourself."
"What happens in this movie could happen and does happen," reflects Speedman. "What"s scary is how real it is. Hopefully, we let the audience in a bit with this, and that"s different than most horror movies. You get to sit with these people for awhile and get to know them."
Of his hopes for the project he started on those late nights several years ago, writer/director Bertino concludes, "So often now, people go to the movies and are distanced from what"s happening on screen because it could never happen to them. We strip that away with The Strangers."
The Strangers Production Design Of The Film
With a screenplay and cast in place, preproduction on The Strangers began. Given that 90 percent of the film's incidents take place in and around a house in the dead of night, design and construction needed to be finalized well in advance of shooting. The first-time director, logically, carefully storyboarded the scenes to be shot with production designer John D. Kretschmer.
Kretschmer, whose design work includes the suspense films The In Crowd and Deceiver, believed Bertino's screenplay detailed "not a horror film, but a terror film. We all have these fears, and Bryan prods at them in a unique way." He admits, "When reading, I was gripping the pages."
To contribute to a "this could happen to you" feeling for the audience, no geographical location was specified in the script. That didn't mean, however, that Bertino wouldn't design a blueprint of the Hoyt family vacation home in his exacting script. Of this, Kretschmer commends, "Bryan cleverly and thoughtfully built the architecture of the movie into the screenplay. So, I could tell which way the hallway turned and where the kitchen and the bedrooms were. He conveyed a very visual sense, as well as succinct blocking. When I spoke with him, it was clear that we were on the same page regarding the style of the house."
In fact, when Bertino met with Kretschmer and they compared floor plans, the production designer marveled at their complementary ideas. He laughs, "Mine was almost exactly the same one that he had drawn three years earlier and 3,000 miles away." Kretschmer and Bertino"s design strategy pivoted on a central twist. "In your classic horror movie, there's a house on a hill. this scary place that you're standing back from and looking at," says Kretschmer. "The Strangers reverses that; we're on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around."
The home set was built on a warehouse-turned-soundstage in Florence, South Carolina. The process of creating the set took eight weeks: two to design, two to draw up blueprints and four to build.
The production designer and his team systematically built the interior of a roughly 2,000-square-foot home to allow for several weeks of filming. During the construction process, Kretschmer conferred extensively with Bertino and director of photography Peter Sova. Kretschmer notes, "We had to be able to allow Peter"s camera to go anywhere it needed to go, so that Bryan could get all his shots. He wanted the audience to be right there with the characters. The entire interior was flexible and functional; all of the walls were able to be moved as needed."
Along with set decorator MISSY BERENT, Kretschmer"s team designed from the inside out to offer the feeling that the interior of the home is propelling the audience outward. As Kristen and James struggle to get out of the house of terror, the viewer wants to run out with them, even if uncertain of what lies beyond the front porch. Bertino's admiration of 1970s films influenced not only his screenplay, but also the set decoration. For the Hoyt family vacation home, the mandate was to make the interior full of warm dark hues, comfort and familiarity. Kretschmer provides, "It"s the kind of house that Bryan and I, and a lot of people, grew up in a cozy, safe place that's full of strong memories. This makes the picture even more frightening, because you realize that terror can occur even in your most comfortable environments."
For the house's exterior, the director and the production designer again recalled their upbringings. "A ranch house built in the 1970s was something that Bryan and I were familiar with," says Kretschmer. "I grew up in North Carolina and Bryan grew up in Texas, and we both knew these types of houses."
Perfectly fitting the "casting call" and selected to portray the exterior of the Hoyt home was a family-built, "70s-era brick ranch house located in Timmonsville, South Carolina, about 10 miles southwest of Florence. Bertino recalls, "It looked the part" situated in a close-knit neighborhood, yet eerily isolated during the winter when James and Kristen are visiting."
The house and property had the details called for in the script: a garage, driveway of a certain length, imposing trees in a large backyard and a metal barn that was the perfect distance from the road (and possible passersby who could aid Kristen and James). When Bertino, Kretschmer and location scout STEVE RHEA arrived at the house, they instantly knew it was their Hoyt home. Fortunately, they were able to integrate the agreed-upon interior design with the look of this Timmonsville property.
The only element that had to be built and added to the house's exterior was the back porch specified in the script. Kretschmer and his team added sliding glass doors, classic examples of "70s-era architecture, that led to the porch.
Because of the damage that The Man in the Mask would inflict upon it in several scenes, multiple copies of the existing carved wooden front door on the Timmonsville house were created. The "stunt doors" were individually mounted onto parts of the entranceway, creating a small set within the existing location.
To add to the creepiness, Bertino designed some additional surprises for the cast. He says, "When we were shooting at that house, you really couldn't hear nearby cars. But you could hear things in and around the house, so we had crew members generate unexplained noises during, or just before, takes. The actors felt like they were there, and they would get surprised and scared. We would too."
For the film's flashback scenes in which we see Kristen and James at the wedding, additional lensing took place in and around Florence at the Pee Dee Shrine Club, at the Hilton Garden Inn and on residential streets. South Carolina's seventh largest city, located in the northeast part of the state, Florence has seen increased filming activity due to the South Carolina legislature"s June 2006 passage of large tax incentives for film productions in the state, as well as through the efforts of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership (FCEDP). The three-month shoot of The Strangers provided jobs for residents and funneled millions of dollars of business into the area's economy.
For the most part, the production opted to shoot the film in chronological order. Mostly, it received unexpected atmospheric benefits from the weather. However, rain, wind, fog and unseasonably cold weather all impacted the shoot at various times. Bertino admits: "We had to make some changes because of the rain. But while it forced our hand sometimes resulting in reshoots because of the swampy mess], we'd often find out that the revisions looked the way we should have gone all along."
Adds Kip Weeks, "The elements became part of the story and part of our performances. It made the shoot more natural; we really were running through mud, so we didn"t have to pretend."
The Strangers Casting The Film
In addition to keeping the writer"s vision intact, the team wanted to further anchor the project with an actress who was fresh to the horror genre. Bertino provides, "Liv Tyler is that rare actress who is beautiful, yet also accessible. When I found out she was interested, all it took was one meeting for me to want her in this movie."
Tyler, an audience favorite since her days as the immortal Elvish princess Arwen in Peter Jackson's blockbuster fantasy The Lord of the Rings trilogy, read the script and was quite impressed by what she found. Tyler enthuses that she "couldn't put it down. It was the first time in a couple of years that I knew I was reading something I absolutely wanted to do.
"I saw layers in it of love story, drama and horror all of them unconventional," continues the actress. "I especially liked Bryan's way of saying a lot, but not saying everything. Often in movies, it's all spelled out for you, and the dialogue is very explanatory. But Bryan doesn't write like that; he writes how normal people communicate with questions lingering. I knew it would be interesting to act that."
Recently seen as an unwilling lycan in the action-adventure films Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, Scott Speedman signed on to star opposite Tyler as the other half of the besieged couple. Of his interest in the role, he offers, "Kristen and James are not "chosen" because of sins from their past, or because they did something wrong. There's no supernatural element; like the Manson family, The Strangers just want to harm." Speedman also found what others who had read Bertino's script were shaken by. "Bryan doesn't just go right to the scares. The audience actually gets time to breathe with the characters before things get scary as hell. That got me interested from the first pages." Not only was Speedman excited about the project after he read the screenplay, he couldn't agree more with the casting of the film's Kristen. "While this was one of the better scripts I've read, I also knew that if Liv Tyler was doing the movie, it was going to be good. She always is very organic and alive on screen, and she could generate chemistry with a bedpost."
Tyler returns the compliment to the actor with whom she would spend many days huddled in shared fear. "I've never worked so closely with another actor before; we're in almost all our scenes together. Scott was generous and giving, which helped us convey the intimacy the script called for showing that Kristen and James care for each other."
Both Speedman and Tyler were astonished to find that the author of such a powerful screenplay was, in fact, their junior. "With Bryan, I thought, "I can't believe I'm working with a director who's younger than I am,"" Tyler continues. "But as the writer and the director, he saw the big picture not only of Scott's and my characters, but also of The Strangers and the movie as a whole."
Bertino was just as proud of the efforts his Kristen and James gave the project. He shares, "I was very fortunate that Liv and Scott brought so much to what I had written. We were able to take things from them and add in extra elements for Kristen and James. This was so helpful in establishing their characters before things get rough, and also for the scenes that have little or no dialogue and are in long takes."
With the terrorized couple in place, the filmmakers were ready to cast the group of relentless intruders. Casting The Strangers called for a unique auditioning process to find three performers who could elicit pure terror in the audience while their masked faces (which are never revealed) show zero affect. Bertino and the producers knew that filmgoers, by not being able to read the expressions of the unwelcome visitors, would project pure terror onto their upcoming actions...and find even greater sympathy for the couple's plight.
Executive producer Sonny Mallhi reveals, "We asked actors to tell us who The Strangers were to them. This helped us find performers who are not typical horror movie villains, which was part of Bryan"s motif." For example, the willowy actress Gemma Ward looked exactly like what Bertino pictured for his Dollface (hidden by a kewpie-doll mask that is framed by waxen yellow hair). While she appears sweet and innocent, the first Stranger to whom the audience is introduced is extraordinarily intimidating.
Of The Stranger who comes knocking first, Bertino elaborates, "All during the scripting, I had a look in mind for Dollface. This woman would have to be beautiful and seemingly very warm, but with an underlying darkness perhaps even darker than the other Strangers. When I met with Gemma, I knew she was ideal for the part, especially because she has a lot going on behind her eyes. For a young woman, she has an old soul. Because of her, the character went to a different level than I had anticipated; she has great instincts and would bring little touches to Dollface every day."
The supermodel, who has her first major film role in The Strangers, reveals, "I'm a huge fan of scary movies, and reading Bryan's script I thought, "Wow, this is different." This story is so raw and intense. No amount of pleading from Kristen and James will talk The Strangers out of what they have come to do. To get inspiration for Dollface, I read "Helter Skelter," so I could get a feel for twisted girls and how their minds work when they reach a certain point."
Recently seen in the sports drama Glory Road, Kip Weeks, who plays The Man in the Mask (a monster hidden behind a cloth, scarecrow-like mask), feels that "these three cross all rational lines, which is their choice. Knowing that any one of us, at any time, could encounter a situation like Kristen and James do made the story so intriguing to me."
Of the solitary male Stranger, EP Mallhi notes, "We wanted The Man in the Mask to be scary, but not in the manner of the iconic masked characters in horror movies. Kip is tall but not hulking, and he is able to convey how his character wants to do all these horrible things."
The role of the third Stranger, Pin-Up Girl with a face covered by a "Betty Boop-type" mask went to Laura Margolis of the ABC series Dirty Sexy Money. "Laura just had this sense of the character," says Mallhi. "She's also shorter than Kip and Gemma, which matched up well with Pin-Up Girl being, arguably, the weekest of the trio."
Margolis remembers, "The script was a page-turner; I couldn't read it fast enough. There was so much depth to the characters of Kristen and James, and to what The Strangers do to them and their relationship."
Cast to play Kristen and James' unsuspecting friend Mike who arrives pre-dawn at James' family's vacation home to pick up his buddy was Glenn Howerton. Known for his comedic role on televisions It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Howerton jumped at the chance to make a scary movie. A fan of horror films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, Howerton enjoyed that Bertino's non-supernatural script was smart. "It was less about turning the corner, the cat jumping up and meowing and everybody screaming, "Oh!"" Howerton offers. "The scares are less obvious. They're the best kind: psychological."
The Strangers About The Production
First time writer / director Bryan Bertino has long been interested in complex characters and telling their stories; he found his way into the suspense genre as a way of better connecting with his audience. Bertino admits, "Early on when I started writing, I figured out that a way to connect with people was to scare them. Through doing that, you can talk about other emotions, other feelings and connect with them more easily."
For his first screenplay, originally titled The Faces (ultimately The Strangers), he explored the fact that often violence can be senseless. The filmmaker says, "Crimes are committed all the time that nobody has a chance to explain to the victim why it happened. It just happens. And we"re left to deal with the aftermath." Bertino would take that concept and craft a script that focused on a primal fear we all harbor: What would you do if you were under attack by people whose only mission was to harm you and the person you loved most"
On his inspiration, Bertino reflects: "Something gets missed in a lot of scary movies these days. I set out to write a raw, spare script that would have only a few characters in it"one with a couple in a relationship, rather than just two people suddenly brought together. I didn"t want to lose sight of the characters and go right to the scares. By concentrating on both, I hoped to access a lot of different emotions"on screen and with audiences."
In crafting his screenplay, he looked to the world imagined by master horror filmmakers from another era. He continues, "The thrillers that inspired me come from the 1970s. So I wanted to create one that explores something that could happen with characters at their most vulnerable, like movies did back then."
The story for The Strangers unfolds over a period of several hours, beginning the night before the terrifying events. We meet a couple at the wedding of the young woman"s college friend. Exhausted and inebriated, Kristen and James leave the reception and return to the vacation home they are visiting. Shortly thereafter, they are visited and subsequently attacked by three masked intruders.
As with most great scares, pieces of the writer/director"s script were based in reality. Bertino remembers, "That part of the story came to me from a childhood memory. As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody that didn"t live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. In The Strangers, the fact that someone is at home does not deter the people who"ve knocked on the front door; it"s the reverse."
In fall 2004, the screenplay landed Bertino manager Michael Connolly, who was excited by the script and felt it would be a very feasible sell. Connolly then coordinated a meeting with production company Vertigo Entertainment. When executive producer Sonny Mallhi and his longtime colleagues at Vertigo, producers Roy Lee and Doug Davison, read Bertino"s script, they felt as if they had found something distinctive that would stand out in the current movie climate. Mallhi notes, "It was different from other horror movies, and different from the other movies we had done at Vertigo. This one felt more real, in that it could actually happen to you, in your own backyard."
Mallhi was not only fascinated by the haunting quality of Bertino"s words, but the heartbreaking end of a romance that was The Strangers" throughline. "There was also a love story involved," Mallhi remembers. "The relationship between Kristen and James, two people you care about, is an element that you don"t see in a lot of these kinds of movies."
Vertigo bought the script, and the elated Bertino quit his job. "I was now confident enough that I didn"t have to work as a grip anymore," he laughs. While Bertino further tightened the screenplay, Vertigo joined forces with another production company, Mandate Pictures, with which it had previously successfully partnered on The Grudge and The Grudge 2. The Strangers was soon headquartered for development and production at Rogue Pictures, where Vertigo was already working on other projects.
Logically, the producers interviewed several interested directors, most of whom wanted to alter the script to their sensibilities. Ultimately, it was Bertino who broke out of the pack of potential directors. The production team realized that the man whose original vision was The Strangers was the same person who could best direct the screenplay.
Bertino recalls: "We felt I could bring it to life better than anyone else and retain my original inspirations and intentions for the script." That process wouldn"t, however, be as simple as a new director might have expected. The filmmaker states, "Although, as the director, I did sometimes argue with myself as the writer; it was always clear where the story was meant to go and what the balances among the characters were."
With a working script in hand and an eager first-time director ready to get started, it was time to cast two actors who could spend hours upon hours being chased in the dead of night"and several others who were eager to stalk them.
"Strangers" is a suspense thriller revolving around a couple in a remote suburban house
"Strangers" is a suspense thriller revolving around a couple in a remote suburban house who are targeted by three dangerous masked strangers. The resulting clashes force the couple to go well beyond what they thought themselves capable of in order to survive.
The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known.
Champagne. Rose petals. Candlelight. It was supposed to be a night of celebration for Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman). But after leaving a friend's wedding reception and returning to the house, everything had collapsed for the happy couple.
Then came a 4 a.m. knock on the door and a haunting voice: Is Tamara here?
Writer/director Bryan Bertino explores our most universal fears in The Strangers, a terrifying suspense thriller about a couple whose remote getaway becomes a place of terror when masked strangers invade. The confrontation forces Kristen and James to go far beyond what they thought themselves capable of if they hope to survive.