Two years ago, I was given a copy of the script for Shutter Island, the movie I had just been hired to work on as a locations assistant. My George Tenet-esque conclusion, after tearing through it in less than an hour, was: slam dunk.
Later that day, a man wandered into our office, and my boss introduced us. “Tyler, this is Dante Ferretti, the production designer.” Whatever… until a few days later, when I was half-watching the Oscars on TV while doing a crossword. Up on stage, receiving his second Academy Award (for Sweeney Todd), was Dante Ferretti.
It began to dawn on me that I could be working on a truly special project. The call sheet was absolutely littered with Oscar-winners: Scorsese. Sir Ben Kingsley. The DP, Bob Richardson (he has two). The costume designer, Sandy Powell (who now has three). Visual effects legend Rob Legato (who won for those revolutionary CG shots in Titanic). All working on a film starring one of the world’s most bankable superstars. Showing up for work each day using maps created by me.
Ninety days of shooting only heightened my expectations. Walking around Ferretti’s sets (particularly those of the concentration camp at Dachau)… seeing a room of three hundred extras in wardrobe and make-up… watching how Hollywood manufactures hurricane conditions on an otherwise calm night… watching animal trainers spend two weeks training 75 rats… being blown away by DiCaprio’s acting (he did four or five takes of a scene in which he discovers his drowned children; each was better than the one before). I’m sure I told lots of you that the movie would “get nominated for everything” at the Oscars.
Shutter Island was set to be released in October 2009 — Paramount’s horse in the Oscar derby. But a few weeks beforehand, “The Mountain” pushed its release date to February 2010, citing financial reasons. My friend and colleague on the movie, A.J. Boles, smelled a rat. He was sure that Paramount simply didn’t think the final cut was that good.
I’ve seen the movie, and I think he was right. The friends I saw it with liked it, but certainly weren’t raving about it. In my opinion, it’s probably a three-star movie — which is a crushing disappointment to me.
Reviews for Shutter Island — which have been mixed — have cited the movie’s “bloat” as its main weakness. There’s a lot going on in protagonist Teddy Daniels’ head. There’s a lot going on (or is there?) at Ashecliffe, the mental hospital for the criminally insane. There are plot twists galore, and a final “reveal” on which the entire story ultimately rests.
My point: it has to be incredibly, ridiculously difficult to make a “great” movie. Here, we had Martin Fucking Scorsese, working with a cast and crew of All-Stars, adapting a creepy, haunting, kick-ass bestseller (Laeta Kalogridis, who co-wrote the screenplay, and often lobbied to keep Snoots in her trailer, told me she considered it one of the finest works of prose she’d ever read). And it was still just too much to pull off. The next time I see a movie that blows me away, or re-watch Aliens or Pulp Fiction, I am going to mentally genuflect to the director for telling a story so beautifully. Because now I know how fucking hard it is.
One final note: while watching my Oscar hopes for this movie get dashed on the rocks, two more unlikely nominees, I hope, will sneak in — Max von Sydow and Patricia Clarkson, for their supporting roles. Both of them absolutely steal the film from Leo when they’re onscreen, and both seemed to be really nice people. Von Sydow is a talkative octagenarian who brings his wife to the set with him; Clarkson spent about twenty minutes on the floor of the art department (in her tattered-rag-costume) petting Snooty and talking to a few of us kids about her dogs back home.