Editors Note: The following interview was conducted in September 2011 but has never been published before today. It is finally seeing the light now because The Day is finally hitting DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, November 27.
After seeing the minimal-exposition post-apocalyptic thriller The Day at the Toronto Film Festival last year, I wanted to rename the film “The Real Hunger Games.” Not because it’s anything like The Hunger Games but because it’s about a group of survivalists (played by Dominic Monaghan, Shannyn Sossamon, Shawn Ashmore and Cory Hardrict) who are starving. And unlike another group (led by a man known only as “Father,” played by Michael Eklund), as well as the majority of humans still roaming the land, they won’t allow themselves to become cannibals in order to stay alive.
Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski, a protege of Robert Rodriguez, The Day was apparently purposefully a grueling film to shoot, with the ensemble cast making the effort to play their parts as if they were actually living the 24-hour plot, suffering freezing temperatures and avoiding craft service in service to their craft. I talked to Aarniokoski and most of the actors about working on the movie, with the group separated into two groups. First up is my conversation with the director, Eklund and Hardrict about the production and why being miserable on location is actually a great benefit.
Michael, you’re also in The Divide. We can talk about that too, because you’re in two post-apocalyptic movies this year. You’re not part of the group in this one where everyone’s at each other’s throats, but….
Douglas Aarniokoski: You’re the lone apocalypticker.
Michael Eklund: I only met Dominic [Monaghan] today – I mean yesterday.
You’re in the movie for a very short time, but you’re quite memorable as “Father.” Part of it’s the look. Immediately you are a scary dude.
Eklund: I haven’t seen the film. This is my first time tonight.
Aarniokoski: We talked about what do you think you do with your hair? You did a version cutting it yourself, didn’t you?
Eklund: I didn’t want to show up on your set too fucked up. And then we just went into the mohawk thing.
According to the press notes, the script was written and they didn’t do any changes at all until it got to filming. But you did a little bit of improv stuff, right?
Aarniokoski: We did. We had the luxury. We got to shoot the movie in sequence, from when they arrive on day one through literally the final battle and the kills and what have you on the last day of filming. In that regard it was a blessing because the actors could do whatever they wanted within the construct of that scene.
There’s not a lot of back story. You don’t even know what happened to the world or where these characters came from. Did you guys develop back stories before you came in. Or was that something that the writer had in mind?
Cory Hardrict: Always, when I do a character I create one. If there’s not a lot there I still try to create a back story. Give him certain little things that can help him develop his character a little bit. I did that with this film. I had to lose a lot of weight because I was sick. I just tried to embody it all into the character. We had a history, me and Shawn [Ashmore]’s character back in school. I took that and kind of went from there, it helped me out.
Did you have time to talk amongst yourselves about any of the back stories beforehand?
Hardrict: No. Everyone’s a professional and kinda knows what they have to bring to the table. I know that when it’s time to work it’s time to work. Everyone gets that and hopefully you guys will love it. I love it, I’m excited.
Michael, did you have anything in mind about where Father has come from?
Eklund: I was the last cast member to come on, and we talked a lot of about the character. The important thing for us was that in other movies like this… we didn’t want to make the choice of the bad guy character being bad. We wanted to show a side at the other end as they’re survivors as well. Those guys are trying to keep their humanity, living off whatever they can find, whereas my group, we’re going to survive eating whatever we capture. It’s just another way to go. I don’t think there’s any good guys or bad guys in the movie. You do what you have to do to survive. Especially in this post-apocalyptic, end of the world setting, similar to The Divide – what are you going to do in those extreme conditions? Choices change. You think one day what you’re going to do tomorrow, but you don’t know what kind of person you’re going to be.
It’s interesting the way that your character has two kids, so it makes him more…
Eklund: You feel more. It shows another side of the character, that he has a life, he has children, and he’s trying to protect them. He’ll do whatever he has to do for his kids. That’s why he goes in the direction he goes in. It’s more for his kids.
Cory, I have kind of a silly question, but it has to do with the tradition for black guys to die first in movies…
Hardrict: I knew that was gonna happen. Didn’t I say that was gonna happen? Lay it on me man. Damnit!
You come into the movie, and you are already sick. And we expect that you’re going to die first, and that’s just how movies are.
Hardrict: First off I just want to thank the writer for that.
You think the black guy is going to die first, and he doesn’t.
Hardrict: And I was thankful for that. I mean, you get that a lot.
Eklund: In the script it wasn’t written as a black guy.
Hardrict: No, it isn’t. I met with Doug and [producer Guy Danella] and basically told them how I felt about the character and how I really enjoyed the material and enjoyed the challenge of doing something different. When I read characters I don’t see black, white, or whatever. I just see a universal character. And I am black, you see that right? Well, I’m brown. I just try to tell it from a universal approach.
Aarniokoski: And you put up a good fight, for a sick man.
Hardrict: It was fun, man. That was some of the best fun filming-wise that I’ve had. It was a short shoot, but you had to focus and hone in on the day to day. To make sure everything comes out really cool, and we did that.
And when you’re pretending to be sick, does your mind, in this cold rainy atmosphere…
Hardrict: When I’m sick I’m sick. I actually got on a strict diet where I was eating protein and vegetables, no sugar, no starch or processed foods. I did that for two months before I started. And when I was filming I ate the same way. No junk, just because I wanted to feel that way. Like a detox and how my body would feel. People will decide if it worked, but I thought it worked. I think everyone’s happy. Doug’s happy I think.
Aarniokoski: I was happy. You were miserable. I think you were miserable the whole time. It was perfect.
Hardrict: So it worked out, man.
Aarniokoski: Nobody was happy. It was not a happy-go-lucky set by any stretch of the imagination.
Was there any time where you guys just got frustrated with each other?
Aarniokoski: I don’t think we were frustrated with each other. It was all by design. We could have built that set on a sound stage somewhere and been very comfortable and happy and have trailers and that kind of thing. But the whole idea was to all be there to experience this environment and to bond as a group to tell this story. None of the actors went to their trailers. Everyone stayed on set. We all talked at the beginning and said, “Look, we’d rather you not go back to trailers and warm areas. We’d rather you stay there. We’re all going to be miserable. We’re all going to be cold.” When you see the movie, all the breath, all the chill, none of that’s manufactured. It’s all there. We were freezing our ass off every day for 18 hours a day. That was the world, so we wanted to embrace that world. We were miserable together. We never got at each other. We knew at the end of the day we were all fighting the same fight.
Eklund: Even the kids. The two actors who played my children were freezing. Not once did they complain.
Hardrict: There were times trying to hold my weapon and my fingers would like, “Damn, my shit’s like frozen but you know you gotta be.”
And did you just cut off all craft services completely? The characters were all starving.
Aarniokoski: Well, people have to eat. But we had trail mix out there. It wasn’t like a donut fest. Very minimal. All these guys were on very strict diets. They had lost weight, were working out, whatever their version of getting into character amounted to. Everyone was diligent about what they wanted to bring to the movie. Again, I’m not an actor but I can only imagine when they see everyone going through the ropes – the actor mentality – and they think, “You know what? I’m going to do it because they’re doing it, and if they’re going to do it I’m gonna do it.” Before you know it, everyone was doing it. The crew was very supportive of all that. The catering crew was very supportive of all that. It was almost like film camp, in a way. It was almost like we all went away and made a movie at film camp and then all came back and reaped the benefits of it. It was very unique.
Eklund: We also had an ensemble cast who were ready to commit to conditions like that, which is rare.
Doug, when you were casting, did you really try to convince everyone not to do the movie?
Aarniokoski: Everyone. Everyone I met. We didn’t even cast. All we did was meet people who we thought were and embodied the character. And with everyone we met, we said the same thing: “Look, we don’t want you to do this movie. It’s going to be miserable. It’s going to be hell. You’re not going to have a good time. We aren’t going to give you any trailers. We aren’t going to allow cell phones on the set. If you want to go through this journey and fight this fight with us and really dive in and be this character we’d love to have you, and if not we totally respect you. Good luck, enjoy the studio and the whole nine years.” The first people we met for every character were all like, “We’re in.” We didn’t cast one person. We met, all agreed, and we moved on.
Can you guys talk about making that commitment?
Eklund: As you know, I went through a similar situation with The Divide. I kind of knew what I was getting myself into, different situations. In The Divide we were indoors at all times, and here we were outside. I knew making these kind of films is hard. It’s not a cozy comfortable environment to live in. To set up a world that you’re making these kind of movies is not a safe place. It’s difficult. I felt like I had my training wheels off. The Divide got me ready for this one, and so I was ready to jump right in and do it again. I knew the actors that were already attached to the movie and I respected them all, so I knew it was going to be fun. It’s one of the funnest movies to work on after you’re done, because you go through so much together. Other movies where it’s comfortable, easy and stuff, you don’t go through something together. With this kind of movie you’re bonding. It’s like going to war and then going home after. There’s a bond that’s established. It’s rare.
Hardrict: For me, I like challenges. It’s not about working or how big or the studio, it has to be something that puts the stakes up for me and I’ll go. I’ll just give it my all. I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t know anything about it. I just knew it was great material. I don’t care if I go and I have to be buckass naked, I’m gonna do it. I want to do it. The cast involved, this could be something special. We’re sitting here at TIFF talking about it. It worked out so far, so that’s a blessing right there. I had to shoot another weapon, so that was kinda cool. The character is pretty awesome, and I was just ready to go and have fun and see what happens and work with some amazing people, a great director, great producers. The crew was great, even the cook who fed us every day was great.
Eklund: How many days was it, actually?
Aarniokoski: Wow, how many days was it? How many days was it, Guy?
Guy Danella: I don’t know if we’re supposed to talk about it.
Aarniokoski: We’re not actually supposed to say. It’s one of those urban legends. It was never enough, and sometimes we felt like it was more than we could ever have dreamed to get.
Eklund: We can say it was a fast shoot. It was long hours, and it was a lot more real than you expect.
Aarniokoski: We were there 16 to 18 hours on some days. It’s not a studio movie where you get your crazy turnarounds. We were back to work the next day at 7am. That’s how it was. We would go home and crash and wake up and get up four or five hours later and do it again.
Eklund: Crash, cry, sleep, back to work.
Hardrict: What’s so cool about a film like this is I believe in the old fashioned way of acting. If you love what you do and you love the craft and you respect the art form, you’ll do it no matter what’s at stake. And we all did that. We all came together for a reason and we made it happen. We love what we do. That’s first and foremost, and the end result is what you get when people work together like that.
Aarniokoski: Everyone was on board. The crazy thing is we didn’t rehearse one scene. We didn’t have one read through, by design, because we didn’t want any of the characters to hear anyone else’s dialogue from anyone else’s mouth. We wanted them to react the way that they would if they had heard it for the very first time. So we almost never rehearsed on set. We would figure out where the blocking was and where they were going to go and we would just start shooting.
Hardrict: And the cool thing about Doug is… I would call him the Phil Jackson of directing, because Phil Jackson’s not a screamer, he’s not a hollerer, he just lets his players figure it out. He won’t get on you about what to do, he’ll just go and do his job and he’ll trust that you’ll do what you’re supposed to do. I appreciate that about a director.
For Shannon’s shower scene, is that actually freezing water?
Aarniokoski: Here’s the crazy thing. We had special effects to have warm water. Unfortunately, because it was so cold there and because it was actually raining as well, and the roof top was cracked, we had cold water coming in with our warm water, which created steam. So we had to kill the hot water because we kept having steam rise up. It was designed for her to be comfortable. It ended up being miserable. And she wanted it that way. She said, “The water wouldn’t be warm. Bring it on. Fuck you, steam, let’s go.” Everyone was like that across the board. You’d say, “Lay down in the mud”… “Ok, let’s lay down in the mud.” It just sucked, and we got to film it.
Doug, it sounds like you were lucky to have these guys to do it.
Aarniokoski: Well, the Phil Jackson analogy is an amazing one, but I have to say when you have the best at what they do, I can’t bring anything to the table, I’m just lucky to film it. Let the horses run.