About the Production
For director Christophe Gans, the appeal of making the film of Silent Hill lay in its otherworldliness, its mixture of horror, sci-fi and drama elements, all the while refusing to succumb to the rules of any one genre. “This is a classic Twilight Zone story, dealing with emotions and the supernatural,” says Gans. “The story, embedded in different dimensions and linked by the fact that everyone is suffering, rests between the tradition of Romanesque melodrama and surrealistic science fiction. What I like is that Silent Hill is a current place, but once you are caught in it, you are condemned to wander there forever. But of course, it’s absolutely mythological; not a normal story at all.”
It was while on the set of Gans’ hit film Brotherhood of the Wolf, talking with Samuel Hadida, the producer of the film - and the man behind Metropolitan FilmExport and its production arm, Davis Films – that the idea of transforming the popular video game Silent Hill into a feature film developed. Brotherhood was the pair’s second film together after Crying Freeman and they instantly latched onto the possibilities inherent in creating a gripping tale and arresting cinematic experience around the idea of a town caught between heaven and hell, trapped by a vicious secret.
“Silent Hill is a step beyond what we have seen in cinema,” continues Hadida. “The video game is extraordinarily popular because each gamer experiences something unique when they play it. This film is going to further that experience by adding dimension and mythology to an already amazing concept. I first met Christophe when I was presenting one of my films, Evil Dead at the 1982 Festival du Film Fantastique de Paris; he was there with his short film, “Silver Slime”. Throughout our years of working together, we have been waiting to make a film that would be an homage to the horror genre. Silent Hill is that homage.”
Convincing the makers of the game, Konami, to give Gans and Hadida the rights to make the movie was no small task, but Hadida knew the game’s richly visual aesthetics and spooky narrative would dovetail perfectly with Gans’ encyclopedic film knowledge. “It’s a twisted story with enormous reference to the cinema of today because the Japanese creators have taken their influences from the masters of the horror genre,” says Hadida. “Christophe, having seen almost every film ever made, is the right person to reference these genres.” The competition for the rights to the game was fierce. Hadida and Gans found that they were competing against more than a few major Hollywood production companies. What made the difference, and it was the only thing that made the difference, was Christophe Gans’ vision, which he conveyed in a thirty minute on-camera statement to the game’s creator, who in turn took that to the Board of Directors at Konami. Gans took home the prize because Konami felt he was the only one who perfectly understood the essence of the game.
Yet at the same time, the difference in media was crucial to understand. “A game is a game, and a film is a film,” says Gans. “Silent Hill is about diving into a frightening world. What was important in the idea to do a movie was to bring a background story into the foreground. And we wanted to make all the characters grey and ambiguous, very multi-dimensional.”
The Worlds of Silent Hill
Integral to understanding the complex universe of Silent Hill is grasping the many realities and unrealities of the place. “Silent Hill is very different from any other film in the genre,” comments Hadida. “This is a world that exists on four different dimensions or levels of existence: the town of Silent Hill in the 1970s when it was real and existing, Silent Hill now, Silent Hill in the fog state and Silent Hill in the Darkness state. Carmody adds, “it’s an incredibly challenging effort to show all these levels visually and to do so, massive sets were built, requiring five studios to accommodate them all, and for every set, there are two or three levels of existence.”
Two of the dimensions have to do with time – reflecting the real Silent Hill of thirty years ago as seen in flashbacks that look like scratchy old film stock, and the real Silent Hill of today, in which Sean Bean’s Christopher has gone looking for his wife. The other two dimensions to the town – the foggy daylight in which Rose tries to find her daughter, and the rust-colored, occasionally enveloping Darkness that represents an evocation of Hell – have to do with space. “I like this idea that we are literally exploring dimensions of space, time and something metaphysical, mystical,” says Gans.
Executive Producer Andrew Mason, who came to this project with a curriculum vitae that includes The Crow, Dark City and the Matrix trilogy, gravitates towards filmmakers who create a complete world. Having spent a childhood reading science fiction, he has a penchant for alternative realities. “This is either a story about what happens in the moments between death and your fate or perhaps it’s a story about the existence of a real alternative dimension some of us get trapped into because we deny our fate,” says Mason. “This film deals with the terror of loneliness, the fear of the dark, the fear of taking responsibility for your own evil side, and the fear of your own fate. In Silent Hill the game, the creators put you constantly in an environment in which everything is potentially threatening and nothing feels like it will ever offer you comfort. This film seeks to reproduce that experience for a wider audience.”
And if there’s some confusion about its altered realities, it’s intentional, Gans says. “We do not try to explain everything because I prefer people to find the meaning in the dream quality of this story. It is more pleasurable to enjoy the opacity. It is a playful invitation to be intelligent.”
In adapting the game, Gans did make a crucial change to the story - the protagonist of the film is female, rather than male. “If you deal with disturbing issues such as we do in the film, you must have a saving grace,” he says. “Bringing women into the story, (the cast is almost entirely female), was my way of doing that. By putting the issues on a feminine level, it makes them more complex and, at the same time, more ambivalent.”
The leitmotiv in “Silent Hill” is motherhood, faith and persecution, all presented on a symbolic level. Gans’ film Brotherhood of the Wolf (which he regards as his ‘boy’s film’), features Mani, a shamanistic North American Aboriginal who believed in the forces of nature. Silent Hill is the feminine counterpart in which Gans explores the force of motherhood against intolerance. “Rose, as Sharon’s adoptive mother, loves the child so much, Sharon becomes her own. In this way, motherhood in the film is about Immaculate Conception - motherhood achieved in the noblest way. And that is the saving grace of the film. All these female characters have different ways of coping with motherhood.”
Complementing Rose is Cybil, the childless police officer who adopts Rose’s quest; Dahlia, the suffering mother who lost her child to a fanatical sect; Christabella, the religious leader who has turned away from motherhood for what she believes is the greater good of the community; Anna, the innocent who grasps onto anything that fashioned itself as a mother; and Dark Alessa, who tends to her namesake with all the savagery that the maternal instinct can mobilize.
By the time Silent Hill reaches its devastating conclusion in the suddenly unfriendly sanctuary of a witchobsessed cult, Gans’ film has coalesced into a cautionary tale of the dangers of religious fanaticism that evokes the disturbing history of witch hunting. “In the 17th and 18th century in Europe, the witches who were persecuted were women who wanted to be free, who wanted to be considered as conscious entities,” Gans details. “Monotheistic religions constantly attack the idea of femininity and this is something that was clearly in my mind. But I am not moralizing. I try first to tell a story and if audiences dig into it, they might find what I like and what I don’t like. If someone was to watch Brotherhood of the Wolf and then Silent Hill, they’d have a pretty good idea of who I am.”
Mason concurs. “Anyone who’s seen Brotherhood of the Wolf knows there’s a very sure hand at the helm of this movie. They’d know this was someone who enjoyed the grandeur that cinema has to offer and who could bring vast and amazing adventure alive on the screen. But what they didn’t perhaps see was how twisted and surrealist a brain he has, and this is an opportunity for him to put those things together.”
Cinematographer Dan Laustsen returned to work with Gans once again, having shot the director’s hit Brotherhood of the Wolf. “Christophe has a very clear vision of what he likes and it’s just fantastic,” explains Laustsen. “I’ve never worked with anyone who knows so much about movies. He’s completely visual. I’m sure he has seen all the movies in the world. In the case of Silent Hill, it is not horror, horror, horror. It’s scary, but it’s very poetic with beautiful, sweeping images and that’s its power.”
While adapting a game experience to screen is similar to adapting a novel, it is not the same. A novel is often compacted, but this video game has been distilled. Akira Yamaoka, the creator of the Silent Hill video game, embraced the work of French surrealists, like Hans Bellmer and modern artists such as Francis Bacon, blending in a healthy serving of Kafka. “It’s logical to approach a film version from a French surrealist point of view, which Christophe does,” explains Mason. “In Silent Hill, there are layers and layers of story and every time you think you understand, something occurs that makes you reevaluate everything. Adapting this game is more about finding its essence, as well as taking as much familiar material as possible, retaining the intensity of the mystery and suspense.”
“I cried when I played “Silent Hill 2,” ” recalls screenwriter Roger Avary. “It’s a beautiful piece of art and it will always exist. But we had to disassemble it and create something new.” Together Avary and Gans spent hours and hours studying not just story elements and details, but how the camera floats through the game. “The one element we always felt we must remain true to is the spirit of the material,” Avary continues. “If not, then all is lost.”
And what is the spirit of this fever dream called Silent Hill? Avary explains, “That was the one great and true struggle Christophe and I had. I believe in forgiveness and Christophe believes in justified revenge, and I think Christophe won.” Comfortable with the results, Avary explains, “Christophe understands Silent Hill as well as, if not better than the creators of the game. First as a player, then as a writer and then a director, Christophe absorbed the necessary metaphorical elements of the material and then layered on his and my and everyone else’s interpretation of the material. You could have had a million different filmmakers do their own interpretation of this, but there aren’t any who are as media hungry as Christophe. He absorbs all manner of manga, novels, movies, TV shows, video games, and music. He was the one to make this movie because he lives and breathes the material.”
Ultimately, Avary believes Silent Hill has a richly unclassifiable quality to it. “Is it a relationship drama? Is it science fiction? Is it atmospheric horror? Is it an apocalyptic film? What Christophe has created is unlike anything else that has been put to film. One of the things about Silent Hill is that it defines itself.”
Casting the Characters
Christophe Gans approached casting by considering more subtle actors, those who would offer nuanced versions of the characters, and avoid the obvious. “All my actors belong to independent, educated cinema, which brings a certain cache to this film,” explains Gans.
Radha Mitchell portrays Rose DaSilva, the mother of Sharon, a very troubled little girl whose sleepwalking takes her to dangerous places and who, while still asleep, keeps asking to be taken ‘home to Silent Hill ’. Against her husband’s wishes, Rose takes Sharon to the abandoned town of Silent Hill in West Virginia to find answers. As they enter the town, Rose loses control of her car. When she regains consciousness, Sharon has disappeared and the search begins.
“Radha is a cross between Grace Kelly and Mia Farrow,” says Gans. “She’s playing a very rich woman who, until this film begins, has led an untroubled life. Radha brings something sophisticated and vulnerable to a character who is not initially sympathetic. She’s elegant with a slightly 60s look which is, for me, very interesting. She is Rose and she is my Rose.”
“The first time I read this script, I got ten pages into it and had to stop because I was too scared to keep reading,” says Mitchell. “I did finish it, but only by reading it in the afternoon sunlight. It was a pageturner, to be sure, but it freaked me out. And that’s the reason I took this part. As the film moves along, my character gets tougher and stronger. There’s a joke on set that Christophe is our personal trainer because for the first few days it was ‘Run, Radha, run’. It’s very primal training.”
“Silent Hill is a mystery unto itself,” Mitchell notes. “It’s the kind of film that doesn’t have a conclusive finish so you’re really on for the ride. There’s something new to look at in every scene. Christophe’s vision is so intense and so grand that this has been a great experience.”
At the center of Silent Hill is Sharon, portrayed by 10 year-old Jodelle Ferland, noted for being the youngest nominee in the history of the Daytime Emmys. In Silent Hill she plays Sharon, Alessa and Dark Alessa, three girls who exist simultaneously, yet in vastly different time/space dimensions. Ferland’s unique achievement was deconstructing these personas and then delivering three individual, captive performances. “When I was working on the script with Roger Avary,” Gans recalls, “we were alarmed by what we had created because who was going to play it? We briefly considered the idea of triplets. But, based on her work in Kingdom Hospital and footage from Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, we brought Jodelle in and she hit the spot on the first take. Every time. She’s amazing because she’s ten and she acts like the little girl that she is, but she’s more. She has a brilliant mind.” In fact, the filmmakers knew that Ferland was the right girl for the part when she walked into her audition and announced “I’ve always wanted to play the devil.”
Gans nurtured Ferland’s performances with a combination of charm and gentle direction, mixed with a peculiar dialect they invented that involved a lot of meowing. “Christophe is really nice,” says Ferland. “I like him a lot. And playing three people isn’t hard, but Dark Alessa wears a lot of makeup and her school uniform has a lot of gunk on it.”
While the character of Rose is a new incarnation for Silent Hill, the Brahams police officer Cybil Bennett, played by Laurie Holden, is someone gamers will know well. Cybil is a loner and a survivor. Her religion failed to support her through a personal tragedy in her youth, but where faith fell short, Cybil’s instinct to serve and protect leads her to eventually help Rose because she recognizes a kindred spirit in a woman trying to safeguard her child.
“This script is riveting,” notes Holden, brimming with delight about every detail in the film. “It’s spectacular - so many levels, so many complexities and so many wonderful themes permeating the story. Christophe is amazing. I feel blessed because he is such an artist. He is so respectful of the process in every way. He explores character development unlike any director I have ever worked with before. When I first arrived and was in hair and makeup, I asked him, ‘This girl Cybil, what is she?’ and he looked at me and said, ‘You are my white wolf.’ Not only did it explain it all, it created a clear path for me to become Cybil.”
Gans had seen Holden in The Majestic, a film he defends enthusiastically. “In it, she was beautifully feminine and I cast her so I could show her other side, make her strong and sleek. Laurie on the screen is, for me, a perfect manga image brought to life.”
Deborah Kara Unger, who plays Dahlia, and Christophe Gans have known each other since before Unger acted in David Cronenberg’s Crash, a movie Gans recommended that she take. In the intervening years, Gans had hoped to work with her, but explains, “When you’ve known someone for a long time, you want to offer something amazing. When I proposed that she play a woman of seventy, one who was bizarre enough to frighten me, I thought that she’d throw the script in my face.”
On the contrary, Unger leapt at the part. “Dahlia has a core essence akin to John Procter in The Crucible,” she explains. “She is someone who did not speak out in time; someone who was blinded by faith and her silence caused injury. Dahlia has become wise through suffering. She functions in all of Silent Hill’s worlds, bridging light and darkness as the prophet. She functions in an enigmatic way.”
Unger expounds, “Dahlia is the most operatic part I’ve ever tackled. She’s a more complicated character than I anticipated. Not that I underestimated her, but Christophe has conceptualized her in a much more layered fashion. This film is Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno.”
Christabella is the one character Gans finds difficult to discuss because of her intricacies. “Christabella consciously decides not to be a mother and yet, she tends to her flock,” he explains. She is also the catalyst of the story. To play Christabella, Gans selected Alice Krige specifically because of her work in experimental films such as Institute Benjamenta and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and her mainstream work in Star Trek. “I knew in casting Alice that she’d have the ability to play her role with passion and strangeness. In confronting Radha’s Rose, she has delivered Christabella with a combination of elegance and violence.”
Krige was enamored with both her role and her director. “Christabella is the dominant controlling figure of a religious sect with puritanical antecedents. They have a deep-seated belief that they are responsible for holding Satan and evil at bay.” To prepare, Krige turned to Erna Paris’ book, The End of Days, about the 300-year development of the Spanish inquisition, which bore its fruit under Isabella of Spain. “I thought this role would be difficult and it is. But Christophe has the most fertile and vivid imagination and a passion for telling a story layered with emotional content in the imagery of every frame.”
Away from the fog and the Darkness of Silent Hill is another dimension - reality. There, Christopher DaSilva, played by Sean Bean, and Officer Gucci, played by Kim Coates, struggle to find Rose and Sharon.
“Sean’s role is a difficult one,” says Gans. “When you exclude the loving husband and father from the dimension where the women are fighting, it is by definition, romantic. He can only operate from his love for his wife and daughter, but do no more. He can only be in love and in pain, searching and waiting, trying to understand. I like that the central guy in the story shows his vulnerability, his tenderness.”
“My character has lost his family and he just can’t get any information,” explains Sean Bean. “He’s unaware of the evil going on, but he can feel it. He can sense it. And I think the heartbreak and despair starts to drive him crazy. Christophe has developed a world that is so vivid and so real that it’s not difficult for me to put myself in Christopher’s situation. He’s very eloquent and very inspiring. Besides, he loves this bizarre, weird, wild stuff: he revels in it.”
Kim Coates weighs in with his take on the Silent Hill experience, “I have to say this is by far the strangest movie I’ve ever done. It’s two movies! Sean and I are in one; Radha and Laurie and Jodelle are in another. We never set foot in the worlds of fog and darkness. So Gucci’s story is simpler: he has secrets, something that happened when he was young, and it changed him, but he keeps everything inside.”
The Creatures of Silent Hill
Embodying the terror of Silent Hill are a panoply of vividly creepy entities: the relentlessly destructive, sword-wielding Red Pyramid, the harrowing Grey Children, the Armless ones, the mysterious Janitor, the Cockroaches and the Dark Nurses. Their combined effectiveness is the result of the harmonized efforts of acclaimed creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos in Los Angeles, prosthetic effects supervisor and codesigner Paul Jones in Toronto (who also was responsible for all ‘organic’ injury effects), costume designer Wendy Partridge, visual effects producer Holly Radcliffe, and movement consultant Roberto Campanella.
While the Cockroaches were entirely computer-generated images, Red Pyramid began as a Patrick Tatopoulos design. “We stayed very close to the images in the game, but for me, it was all about proportions and elegance,” explains Tatopoulos. “It’s very simple: beautiful doesn’t mean pretty. If you retain the elegance of the creature and some degree of humanity in the design, it becomes mesmerizing. The components of Red Pyramid were sent to Toronto and Paul Jones’ team took over the implementation, including working with costume designer Wendy Partridge to build the skin skirt and boots with 15-inch platforms worn by Roberto Campanella, one slightly lower than the other to create a truncated gait.”
The Grey Child, which was multiplied in post-production to create a Grey horde, was Tatopolous’ favorite project. A body suit for petite dancer Yvonne Ng was crafted out of spandex, with silicone sprayed on to create a translucent skin. Ng’s deliberate posture accentuated the design of the infant’s belly and sway back, but it was the face which held the creation’s truest artistry. Adds Tatopoulos, “Christophe wanted each creature to be sensual and to have the sense that they are constantly screaming. The Grey Child’s face is human, elongated, twisted, with the skin slipping back with a mouth stretching into an eternal howl.”
Dancer Michael Koda played the Armless one, and Tatopoulos’ design was intended to stress functionality for the performer. “Even though the Armless one does not have a mouth, under his skin you can still feel his perpetual scream,” explains Tatopolous. Finally, there were the Nurses, notable for their ashen uniforms, which seem to grow out of their skin, and a lack of features on their faces. Layered onto that image is their movement: marionette-like, frozen in time, coming to life when light appears in the darkness of the hospital.
The character of the Janitor was added during production, and Paul Jones designed and built both the mummified version found in the fog world, and the living, crawling twisted being who appears in the Darkness. Jones’ own long history of playing the game enabled him to find a design which tapped into familiar themes, including a disturbing use of barbed wire. “Disturbing, not disgusting” became a mantra of sorts for Gans when it came to the visual and prosthetic effects, says Jones. “It's very easy to gross you out,” he says. “The trick for Christophe was to have it still be visceral and disturbing, but something you can't take your eyes off. He doesn't want people to turn away. He wants people to be entranced, but have the same kind of horror in their eyes.”
All the creatures were further digitally manipulated in post production. The Grey Children’s skin was treated to resemble burn victims, Armless’ limbs were elongated and distorted, the Janitor’s legs were twisted, and the Nurses’ movements were time-shifted. But Jones takes pains to point out that they are performances first and foremost, and that without the dance-infused portrayals by Campanella, Koda and Ng – who had never played creatures before -- all would be lost. “It’s a very tough job being a creature in a movie, it’s no fun at all,” says Jones. “You’re covered in a cumbersome costume that makes you sweat incredibly, and it can be physically uncomfortable to hold positions for long amounts of time. But they were so cool and so much fun and they never complained once. They made my job so much easier.”
Building a Four-Dimensional Silent Hill
Realizing the special, strange world of Silent Hill required the coordination of physical set design with the virtual capabilities of CGI. The narrative space of Silent Hill consists of four dimensions: reality in the Silent Hill of 30 years before, reality in present day, the Fog world, and the Darkness.
Born in the 1960s, the great period of the big epic adventure films, Gans has long been inspired by the impact of the cinemascope image on a physical environment. “There was something grand about those films,” he says. “It was much more about being in a different place, Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I enjoy the scale of the human being on the giant set.”
For Silent Hill, Gans was excited about creating a complete town, but not inside a computer: one that he and the actors could see and touch and be inspired by. The filmmakers took over a Canadian town and completely transformed it. “We created it with more than 100 sets,” says Gans. “And that makes it real, strangely real. That’s my old fashioned style. But there are visual effects, because it’s impossible to do a film like this without them.”
Gans initiated the design process with his own storyboards, which were based on the concept of Japanese manga comics (graphic novels). Unlike Western comics which are based around superhero themes, manga have an advanced story structure, utilizing depictive image-making techniques that imitate cinema, such as zooming, scene "panning", and stills/close-ups of characters.
As a result, Gans’ brief to production designer Carol Spier was incredibly comprehensive. “I work with very precise storyboards,” he explains. “I like to design each of my shots because dealing with three different dimensions, often superimposed on each other, you have to be extremely clear, otherwise the audience will be lost. I first test my vision on a storyboard and then move to camera. Because I work from specific angles, the sets can have a high level of detail.”
Spier worked from those storyboards to create a world wrecked by time. Decayed settings are the environment for 80% of the film, varying between the deterioration of the Fog state and the corroded, decomposed conditions of the Darkness state. In some cases, real buildings were altered for the movie’s purposes, such as the factory set and the school set, and in other cases, sets were built from scratch, such as the massive church – which took eight weeks to construct -- and the mountain road that leads into Silent Hill, which was created in a studio.
One of the best finds, Spier says, was a street in Brantford, Ontario to duplicate Silent Hill’s empty thoroughfare. “A lot of sections of the street had closed down because they were going to renovate it,” says Spier. “We were able to go in and redress windows and change colors and take away signs we didn’t want to see, and make it look like the town had been abandoned for thirty years. And we had considerable help from the people in Brantford. We worked in great detail to raise the two-dimensional world of the video game into the three-dimensional world of Silent Hill.” Spier’s primary inspiration were places that had been left to age and decay, so she perused extensive photographs from the Chernobyl disaster and eerie, abandoned psychiatric hospitals in upstate New York. Taking Spier’s work further were artists at several visual effects facilities, including Buf Compagnie in Paris, and Mr. X Inc. and C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, Inc. in Toronto, all led by visual effects producer Holly Radcliffe.
As appreciative as audiences will be of these sets and the sweeping cinematography, it was the actors who were overwhelmingly grateful that almost all principal photography was shot in real environments. “I may not have been a good enough gamer to play Silent Hill very well, but for three months on these incredible sets, I have been living there,” says Radha Mitchell. “It’s a visual feast.”