By MICHAEL GINGOLD
To promote the alligator-attack thriller CRAWL, Paramount Pictures invited a group of New York-area journalists on an outing to both talk to the lead cast and witness the real reptiles in action. Read on for our report, words from the actors and video/photos from the event.
The experience took place at the Long Island Aquarium, where we were treated to lunch and introduced to “Blue,” a smaller specimen from the facility’s alligator population. His handler shared plenty of facts about gators and their crocodilian cousins, and we learned that in real life, alligators aren’t as big a threat to humans as they’re portrayed by CRAWL director Alexandre Aja and screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen—though when Blue got restless and began thrashing around, you got the sense that you wouldn’t want to get close to them. That was reinforced when we were led to the Gator Invasion! area, where we watched a couple of the reptiles chowing down on some afternoon snacks.
We then sat down for interviews with CRAWL stars Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper (along with Aja; look for that chat soon). They play competitive swimmer Haley and her estranged father David, trapped in a house in the Florida Everglades as hurricane-driven water rises and hungry gators try to make a meal out of them. Their struggle to survive is counterpointed by the repairing of their fractured relationship under life-threatening pressure, and Pepper says, “I like the fact that the story was anchored in this relationship between father and daughter, and I could identify with them as a family. They’re just kind of regular blue-collar Floridians dealing with a modern environmental disaster, and that seems to be something we’re all pretty familiar with these days.”
As their situation becomes increasingly dire, Haley and David have to support and urge each other to find their inner strengths. “That’s something we worked on, me and Barry, quite a lot, finding that dynamic and what would work,” Scodelario says. “I never wanted Haley to feel like the victim, and Barry never wanted his character to feel like the victim either. He knows how to motivate her, and that annoys her slightly in a very honest, adolescent way, where she’s just like, ‘Don’t tell me what you know is true about me.’ I love that, and I wanted it to feel real; I didn’t want them to see each other and embrace and suddenly be OK. They’re still bickering, they’re still angry at each other and there’s so much unresolved conflict between them that they’re both forced to face straightaway.
“Barry has a teenage daughter, so he really tapped into that,” she continues. “I had a complicated relationship with my father, so I was able to use that as well, and we slowly let [our onscreen relationship] build as naturally as possible. We shot quite a lot of dialogue scenes than are in the movie, so that we would have it and we could put what made sense into the film. I didn’t ever want it to feel as though, ‘God, these two are having a heart-to-heart for two hours and there are fucking alligators everywhere. What’s wrong with them?’ I think the edit does a really good job with that. They managed to put the emotions in there without it ever feeling like it doesn’t make sense in the sequence.”
Getting those emotions right was just one facet of the CRAWL experience for its two stars; then there were the weeks they spent in the cramped, wet set in Serbia representing the crawlspace where a good deal of their ordeal takes place. “We were in there for at least three weeks, and submerged,” Pepper recalls. “It was brutal, because it was just funky, gnarly swamp water 12 hours a day, and they didn’t heat it because they didn’t want the crew to get sleepy in the warm water. Which was good, because it kept us alert and engaged, and really immersed in the characters. We were in a confined, claustrophobic space, just one on one with each other, so immediately we started to really rely on each other, because it was just the two of us.”
“To get in there,” Scodelario adds, “even if you were the camera guy or the cable guy, you had to fucking crawl to get to where we were shooting. And that helped us a lot as actors. I think it would’ve been ridiculous if we could just stand up in between takes and go back to normal life. It was very much, once you went down into the hole, you felt like you were there all day. And you could smell it on your clothes; you’d be like, ‘Oh shit, it’s the smell of the crawlspace. Here we go again.’ You’d put your head in, and that’s where you’d live for the entire day. But I think that made it so much better for us. We were all in it together; Alex was in the water with us every day, which was quite impressive. I know a few directors who wouldn’t have done that. It was tough as hell, it was insane, but that’s what I was excited for.”
Even the exteriors of the flooded town, Pepper reveals, were shot in interior environments. “We had these massive football-field-sized soundstages that they built the entire Everglades town in, with the gas station and houses and floating cars, and five million liters of water flooding in. And they really didn’t have a reference point: Are these houses going to be able to sustain this kind of punishment over two months of filming? Are they going to fall apart? How are we going to hold the water in these sets? We had a few catastrophic failures with our cistern tanks; some mornings we’d come in and all our water had flooded out into the Danube River, and we had to bring in more water trucks.”
The alligators themselves are largely computer-generated, though there were a few physical references for the actors on set. “They built life-sized, photorealistic mechanical gators, as well as puppets,” Pepper says. “They were really well-done, they were so believable. The second unit captured other gator stuff, but working directly with an arm down one’s mouth, it obviously all had to be done with puppetry and mechanical gators and stuntmen in gator suits, and whatever they could do to simulate the proximity and the bite force and pull—those types of effects they would need to [digitally] replicate being attacked. For me, just in terms of performing what it was like to get bitten, I’ve been kicked by horses, bitten by dogs [laughs] and all kinds of things, so I had to really employ my imagination in those sequences.”
Scodelario agrees: “Sometimes we had a practical dummy that kind of looked like an art-project version of an alligator, which was sort of helpful. Sometimes we had a yellow cushion on a stick, and sometimes we had a Serbian guy in a leotard. It left very little to the imagination. Alex had some artwork he could show us, which was really cool—small pre-vis, nothing too elaborate. But I’d gotten to a point where I was like, ‘You know what, I just have to completely immerse myself in being a 6-year-old and use my imagination, and picture the scariest fucking thing I can.’ Alex was helpful for the size; he’d be like, ‘No, no, the tail is on you right now. That’s how long it is.’ I just had this image in my head of the most vicious thing I could picture.”
To prepare for all their waterlogged work, Scodelario and Pepper went through a great deal of pool training, stunt training and endurance training. And then there was the dog training, required so that the multiple hounds portraying David’s pet Sugar could get comfortable with the actors, particularly Pepper. “That was one of my favorite parts,” he says. “We had five different dogs that could do different tasks, and the lead dog, Cso Cso, was wonderful. We spent months together, because you have to get to know them to the point where they really trust you. I remember doing a film with Mira Sorvino [LIKE DANDELION DUST] years ago, and somebody just said, ‘OK, here, this is your family dog,’ and it was just a crewmember’s dog. And so I came home in my pickup and slammed the door and came up onto the porch and picked up my dog, and it bit me in the face because it didn’t know me.
“So I was really quite nervous about working with these dogs in Serbia,” he continues. “They were highly trained, but very on guard with me when I first met them. Cso Cso circled me, in about a six-foot-wide circle around me, until the trainer handed me a couple of little pieces of hot dog [laughs], and then she came over slowly and we got to know each other. Because in the film, I had to pick her up in some of the most haywire conditions—in a boat capsizing, in the hurricane, with the wind machines and rain machines going, and we’re screaming and there’s gator attacks. She needed to be really comfortable in my arms, like she was my own dog, so that was pretty cool—to build that relationship and not get bitten in the face!”
Through it all, Scodelario, who has been seen in megapictures like CLASH OF THE TITANS, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES and the MAZE RUNNER epics (two of which co-star Pepper), enjoyed doing a smaller-scaled genre piece that’s essentially a two-hander. “I’ve had amazing experiences on MAZE RUNNER and PIRATES, and I’m eternally grateful, but there’s something about having such a huge budget with so many people around that you lose part of the story, part of the heart. That’s what I’ve been looking to go back to, and CRAWL felt like the perfect mix of that. There’s a studio name behind it, but it was me on set every single day. I didn’t have a scene off; I was part of the creative process, I was part of the physical process. Getting to work so intimately with another actor and with the director is what I always wanted, and it was lovely.”
On the other hand, she’s not necessarily raring to do CRAWL 2. “Unless it’s, like, shot on a beach in Hawaii!”