‘Beautiful Creatures’ Interviews and Set Visit: Cast and Crew Talk Bringing the Book to Life
Back in May, there was something magical brewing an hour and a half outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Namely: director Richard LaGravenese's big screen adaptation of the first in a serious of beloved young adult novels, ‘Beautiful Creatures.’ And we were there on set, braving the 90-degree heat to bring you all the juicy details! Trust us, we may've come for the cast list (Jeremy Irons! Emmy Rossum!) but we stayed for the catering (mac and cheese, fried chicken and corn bread were considered nothing more than a pithy midday snack around those parts).
If you're unfamiliar with the original novel, you'll want to remedy that. ‘Beautiful Creatures’ is set in fictional Gatlin, South Carolina. High school sophomore Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) has endured the oppressive, gossipy small-town atmosphere all his life, and yearns to break free — especially after his mother dies in an accident and his bereaved father withdraws physically and emotionally, leaving him in the care of the family’s housekeeper Amma (Viola Davis). But when mysterious and alluring Lena Duchannes (Englert) transfers to Gatlin’s high school to live with her uncle, eccentric town shutout Macon Ravenwood (Irons), Ethan finds himself drawn to the gorgeous stranger. The two eventually band together against naysaying townsfolk (an outspoken parent and social leader played by Emma Thompson, among them) and classmates bent on ostracizing Lena to find themselves intertwined in hundreds of years of Gatlin and Duchannes family history. The tale weaves in casters (essentially witches with predisposed specialties), supernatural phenomena, and one pretty righteous curse plaguing the Duchannes women, wherein their fates — being claimed on the dark or light side of their powers — are determined on their 16th birthdays.
The four-book Caster Chronicles series by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl is ridiculously addictive, and it has much to do with the star-crossed chemistry of its main characters: mysterious outsider Lena Duchannes and small-town dreamer Ethan Wate. LaGravenese (who has impressed before with absolutely beautiful visual and emotional on-screen adaptations like ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and ‘Water for Elephants’), took a risk casting two relatively unknown leads (Alice Englert and Alden Ehrenreich, respectively). But, after seeing them in action and speaking to them about their passion for the role, it's clear that he's about to launch the careers of two big stars.
We were lucky enough to be on set with key members of the film's incredible cast for a key part of the film: the party celebrating Lena's fated 16th birthday, preceding the big reveal -- will she be claimed as light or dark? Located in the courtyard adjacent to a massive, traditional Southern plantation, we watched the events unfold under ancient Spanish moss-covered trees. As those of you who've read the book know, the party involves a huge gathering of casters bracing for the moment when the full moon is revealed and Lena is chosen for either the light or dark side.
LaGravenese has taken a decidedly couture, Tarsem Singh-esque bent to the material: elaborately-costumed extras and impressive, modern statues and set pieces peppered the densely-wooded surroundings. Rossum (who plays Lena's cousin Ridley, a meddlesome, siren-like presence in Lena's life since she went dark on her 16th birthday) spoke to the film's look, crediting both LaGravenese and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot's specificity of vision. "They’ve really created a world that looks different than any other world that’s out there," Rossum said. "It doesn’t look like ‘Twilight,’ it doesn’t look like ‘Hunger Games,’ it doesn’t look like any of that stuff. It’s very much based in this Southern gothic world, but it has this sense of magic and also kind of a nod of the head to high couture fashion, and also a nod of the head to old paintings. I think there’s really a sophistication and a way that he’s adapted the material that’s going to make it quite visually different."
Juxtaposed by the aged exterior (a feat that took set dressers two months) of the massive columned, moss and vine-covered white plantation house, known in this film as Ravenwood Manor (complete with requisite double-decker wraparound porch, arched doorway and windows, grandiose staircase), the party -- thrown by the manor's owner, Lena's uncle Macon -- and its invitees pop in their extravagant garb and sleek modern decor. Geometric chrome art installation pieces (circles and squares among them) were placed within the outdoor square court (which boasted a graphic black and white-checkered floor), where extras mulled about in costume, half-full champagne glasses in their hands. "I need style and angles and I need an attitude!" LaGravenese called out to them.
Black and white seemed to be the visual motif for patterns - with highlights of bright colors strewn about as accent points. A woman walked by in full corseted, feather-coated regalia carrying a live tarantula in her hand; massive and dramatic circular hats conceited of twigs; a red and orange gown covered in monarch butterflies; a man sporting a pair of antlers; a white porcelain face mask covering only half of a person's visage; classic pieces like bowler hats embellished with feathers; a vested man with his skin painted like a cloud-strewn sky; a woman in a leopard-print dress wearing spotted face paint; suits boasting black and white pinstripes; headpieces made of massive lilacs -- these are the visuals gracing this scene, harkening to a vintage '30s style with naturalistic, fantastical elements strewn throughout.
Extras waved paper fans between takes - surely boiling beneath their garb - then silently chatted and mingled while the cameras rolled, a soundtrack of R&B hits like En Vogue's "Something He Can Feel" crooning as background noise (presumably just to get everyone in character). Seeking solace in the shade of various tents on the sidelines, Jeremy Irons, his hair swept back in an impeccably tailored deep silver suit and matching patterned vest, chatted with Emmy Rossum (sporting short blonde hair, a '50s-style pillbox hat, white pearls and a Chanel-style mint-colored skirt suit and gold pointed-toe pumps). Margo Martindale (Lena's Aunt Del, a caster on the light side of the Duchannes curse), wearing a white updo with a black section curled inwards and a massively-skirted corseted black dress with white flowers, enjoyed a make-up touchup. Englert, donning a black v-neck off-the-shoulder dress with a black corset top, was shuffled to and from set, clearly the focus of the day's events.
"It's the scene that the whole movie is, to a degree, leading up to. This and the next sequence, our big ending sequence," Englert explained, further teasing the film's grand finale. "We've already shot some of that, at Honey Hill, where they're having a reenactment for the Civil War. It gets overtaken by this flashback, where it merges into the actual battle, so you have the reenactment, and then you have the actual soldiers dying. It's quite epic." Anyone who's read the original novel knows this much to be true - and it sounds like LaGravenese is doing the sequence justice.
Englert also had a very interesting take on the film's material, clearly a thoroughfare to how LaGravenese is interpreting the tale for audiences. "What's so interesting about this story and the casters versus the humans…is the casters are presented as a highly evolved kind of species, in a way, and they believe themselves to be so," she explained. "They believe the humans to be messy, because they're complicated and they have all these problems, they can't figure it out. But the casters have a very primitive idea, that you can only be good or bad, and that's just who you are. What Lena has to learn through the story, and what she learns through Ethan, is humanity, and the fact that it is complicated and that we do have both within us. I think the idea of good and evil is really just these rules they've given themselves, and they're never really examined. They've been living this way up until this moment."
Of her uncle Macon, Aunt Del and the rest of her family in Gatlin, she explains, "The town is under the impression that we're satanists, rich, plantation-owning satanists - the sort of stuff you hear ghost stories about. It's only Ethan who discovers that, he's the only human that becomes aware of it."
Ehrenreich explained the bent he's taking to his character - the film's protagonist, saying, "I felt that Ethan was a character out of some of those older films. I liked this kind of Jimmy Stewart, like, get out of here and fight for it."
Regarding the visualization of blossoming attraction, which begins immediately upon Lena's arrival at Ethan's high school and quickly escalates into a phenomenon neither of them can control, Englert explained, "There's a sense of premonition…they're still in this normal world…when they realize that they love each other, you start to see the magic." Ehrenreich added, "It builds to a perfect point where me finding out the truth about her and her family is the same scene where we kind of come together as a couple."
Under LaGravenese's direction, this doesn't seem to be just another saccharin entry to the supernatural teen drama category. There are larger ties to adolescence and empowerment at play. "We talk a lot about the parallels between what is going on. It's all sort of symbolic for those feelings, those first experiences…like emotional puberty," Ehrenreich (who admitted to never having seen a ‘Twilight’ film) explained. "I think the claiming -- when you see the movie and have an eye towards that, there's a lot of material that is sort of double entendres," he continued. "Sexuality, menstruation and all sorts of stuff." "This film, for a supernatural film, I think it's so much about people, humans," Englert added. "We've spoken about everything from first love to bodily functions, and where that's represented in this story."
One change from the source material could involve nixing the internal monologue Lena and Ethan share. "The jury is still out on that," Ehrenreich said at the time. "It's still in discussion."
Rossum, who gets to have the bulk of the fun in the film as devious dark caster Ridley, described the changeable nature of her character. "Today I’m blonde. Other days I look different. I’m a bit of a shapeshifter," she explained. "My power is the ability to manipulate people to see or think anything about me. Kind of just, ultimate man control. To think that I’m somebody that I’m not, to think that I look different, to think that I am different, to think I’m kind." Her decidedly downplayed costume the day we were on set was not at all indicative of the norm. She has about six costume changes in the film, and she told us that normally, "I actually dress very very provocatively. I always like to stand out. And this is all due respect to my cousin, it’s her big moment, her coming out, she’s going to become a woman tonight. So I thought I’d be a little throwback Doris Day."
And what about those provocative outfits? Rossum called it "All very couture. Like a high school boy's fantasy of a girl wearing Alexandar McQueen." She promised that her character will also show up in various states of coiffure: red, brunette, blonde, you name it. Fans of the novel know that Ridley tempts men by setting spells on them, often using a lollipop; but Rossum and LaGravenese collaborated to bring a different take to that particular plot point. "We’ve kind of expanded it to be more of just a general oral fixation," she said. "So there’s lots of fruit, candy, juicy plums. The lollipop will appear, though. In the book, the reference kind of feels very Lolita - in that Ridley wears sunglasses and sucks on a lollipop. I think both Richard and I talked about that just being a little bit too – when you saw it visually, it might be a little too derivative. Whereas it completely worked in the book. So we kind of thought about fruit options. It’s more like ‘Witches of Eastwick’ with the cherries."
Fans can also rest assured that we'll be treated to some of Ridley's pre-dark backstory. "We’ll see kind of the moments leading up to when she’s claimed and the moment that she’s claimed and the first evil act that she does right after she’s claimed, in a flashback," Rossum explained. "And then after that I believe she is who she is, although I think she has settled on the fact that she is dark in essence. I think that she’s not dark and evil and snarly, she’s quite bubblegum and happy about it."
Martindale, who plays Ridley's mother, described the broken bond between the two, saying, "That happened because when her day came, I don’t think she wanted to go dark but that’s what came out. It’s not what I wanted for her." She went on to explain that her character isn't in Ridley's life as a result, saying, "She’s really gone down her own path. She comes to visit and it’s, 'Oh dear! What kind of trouble is she going to bring?'"
Martindale's Aunt Del is a palimpsest -- she can read time (basically, she sees the past, present and future all at once). She's described in the book as being really spacey, because she's never really able to distinguish the present from other moments. Of playing the challenging role, Martindale explained, "I want to feel like that, kind of like seeing through a prism. Ohhh how do I get… I need to stop spinning!"