Black Christmas doubled NZ for US

Paranormal Activity producers Blumhouse shot their new film in Dunedin on the South Island

By Chris Evans 15 Oct 2019

Black Christmas doubled NZ for US
Set shot. Credit: Adam Hendricks

Turning an entire feature film around in just 16 weeks for delivery would be hard enough in your home country with your own team. Imagine trying to do it in a country on the other side of the world with a completely new crew….

That was the task of US outfit Blumhouse Productions, renowned for producing horror films, such as the Paranormal Activity, Halloween and Insidious franchises. Regular backers Universal Pictures saw a window on a release date for December for new horror project Black Christmas, and so Jeanette Volturno, head of physical production at Blumhouse, and her team, including producers Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove and Adam Hendricks, went for it.

“The challenge was getting the budget, schedule, location, production team and all the creatives and cast together within a matter of a couple of weeks,” Volturno told KFTV.

Based on a 1974 classic horror of the same name about a group of students stalked by a stranger over the Christmas break, Black Christmas is set on the East Coast of the US. But for budgetary reasons, the production team decided to shoot elsewhere.

Originally Iceland was considered, which offers a 25% rebate for qualifying spend, but the production team were put off by the long hours of light and modern looking colleges, which didn’t have the East Coast, New England style look and feel to them.

Other locations around Europe and South America were looked at, but again they couldn’t find the right buildings and typography. So, they turned to New Zealand, all the way down at the bottom of the South Island on the south east coast in the city of Dunedin, known for its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, large student population, and cold weather.

“The buildings were much better suited to what we were looking for and the cold weather was vital, as we wanted the film to feature snow. So even if it wasn’t snowing, it would still hold the look if we sprayed it or did special effects, and you could see the breath coming out of the actors’ mouths,” explained Volturno.

After a three-day scouting mission with local line producer, Chloe Smith, Blumhouse’s creative director, and the film’s director, Sophia Takal, they all agreed it was the right place. Within about two weeks they returned to start production.

Smith orchestrated getting all the local crew together, setting up interviews with the production designer, first AD, costumer designer etc, so Volturno could look up their resumes, have a conversation with them, see the presentation of what they wanted to do, then sign off on them; as did Takal. “Chloe and I had a similar way of thinking and doing business,” enthused Volturno.

The only non-Kiwi crew member was the American director of photography, Mark Schwartzbard. Volturno had originally hoped to use Toby Oliver, the Australian DoP who had shot Blumhouse’s hugely successful film Get Out, and is working on their new film Fantasy Island. But “Sophia wanted to bring in her one person [Schwartzbard], because it was too scary for her to go into a country not knowing that anyone had her back,” added Volturno.

However, it was Oliver who recommended they shoot in New Zealand and use the services of Chloe Smith, who proved vital not only in gathering the crew, including hiring a location manager, but also with the prep work in Dunedin, which took about five weeks, and helping access the local incentive, partly through Blumhouse setting up a local company for the project. (See more details on the New Zealand incentives here).

After the prep period, the lead cast arrived, including Cary Elwes (Saw, The Princess Bride), Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later) and Aleyse Shannon (Charmed). They had just a week of rehearsals before filming began. British actress Poots had to quickly brush up on her American accent. Locals who could also muster an American accent were also brought onboard for supporting roles. “It was a fantastic team effort,” enthuses Volturno.

Next was the tricky task of converting Dunedin to look like the East Coast of the US. “We had to change the signs to turn them from being NZ/British to American,” explained Volturno. “The cars were also a problem as they were right hand drive. So, we had to source some in to work for the movie. There were driving scenes where we had to cheat and drive on stage, rather than on the street, so we could control the elements because we weren’t blocking off the streets in some areas.”

Fortunately, they also found an abandoned area with schools and houses, which they closed down and used to shoot some of the street scenes and wider shots. Another location was the University of Otago’s gothic registry building, which was transformed into the fictional Hawthorne College.

Another difficulty they found was getting the distinct look of the front lawns and picket fences of the US and the walkways up to the front door. “To achieve this look, we have to build pieces of things, cheat things or do another unit for one or two days in the US, which is then blended with the rest of the movie,” said Volturno.

It was a major undertaking, but Volturno insisted it was fun to see something come together so quickly, and “we were able to magnetically pull in the right people, the right mixt of personalities and skillsets to get the job done”.

The shoot proved so successful that Blumhouse has decided to return to New Zealand next year to film another horror project, M3GAN, in Auckland, again doubling it for the US.

The suburbs of Auckland will be made to look like “a Denver, Colorado type feel” for the MEG3N shoot, said Volturno. “There’s a science facility we’ll be at and a couple of other more generic spots that we could play as anywhere in America. It won’t be as complicated as Black Christmas, which specifically required snow and an East Coast college look. MEG3N is more homes, business, normal life.” For more details on this project, click here.

Currently in post production, Black Christmas is due for release through Universal Pictures on December 13 this year.

Homepage set image of Black Christmas, credit: Adam Hendricks

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