Urban legends: The most enduring are often the most disturbing-stories of murder and mayhem happening to ordinary people that are shared around campfires, retold at slumber parties and spread through chain emails. Some may have started as simple gossip or rumors that, like an old-fashioned game of telephone, were embellished and eventually grew into myth as they passed from person to person. However, there is one terrifying thought about any urban legend·that it may have been born of the truth.
"There is a viral aspect to an urban myth-the way it's told, the way it's repeated, the way it catches on· No one can ever really know the truth that possibly lies behind it. K™ji Suzuki's book Ringu was supposedly based on an urban myth. But it's a 'chicken and the egg' thing; I don't believe we'll ever know the origins for sure," director Gore Verbinski remarks.
K™ji Suzuki, who wrote the book-actually a series of novels-was once a somewhat obscure writer, but is now referred to as the Stephen King of Japan. Japanese director Hideo Nakata brought the story to the screen in his gothic horror mystery "Ringu," which was released in January 1998. It quickly became a phenomenon, spawning the most successful horror film franchise in the history of the Japanese cinema, as well as a television series, and Manga, a kind of Japanese comic book or graphic novel. Soon after the release of "Ringu," a whole new genre of Japanese films emerged-psycho-horror, or J-horror as it's often called-which exploded into Japan's multiplexes. Whether or not it had its origins in an urban legend, "Ringu" resulted in one that transfixed readers and moviegoers alike in Japan and much of Southeast Asia, and would soon capture the attention of people on the other side of the world.
DreamWorks executive Mark Sourian was the first at the studio to see the movie, and immediately called producers and co-heads of DreamWorks Pictures Walter F. Parkes and Laurie MacDonald. "Mark said, 'I've just seen the scariest movie I have ever seen in my life. You have to see it right away,'" Parkes recalls. "Laurie and I cancelled everything and watched the movie on videotape, which, come to think of it, was appropriate for this film. We were both frightened and mesmerized by it, and immediately decided we were going to remake this movie. "
MacDonald adds, "We felt from the beginning that it was a strong idea, and the Japanese movie had given us a great template for our movie, not just in the premise, but tonally. Another of the movie's strengths was its wonderfully incongruous marriage of a kind of pop teenage story with a high concept movie that revealed itself in a very surprising way-more mysterious, more evocative, and with underlying emotional issues that you wouldn't necessarily expect from the genre. "
"The allure of good thrillers is to get that adrenaline rush, to be on the edge of your seat without actually being in danger. The best ones are equal parts intellectual exercise, emotional exercise and visceral experience. They engage your mind and involve you intellectually, but the payoff is the scare·the scream. I guess that's why as filmmakers, we look for them, and as moviegoers, we can't wait to see them," Parkes comments.
To direct the movie, the first and only person the producers approached was Gore Verbinski, who had made his feature film directorial debut on DreamWorks' offbeat comedy hit "Mouse Hunt. " "The main reason we chose Gore was that he is just a consummate visualist," Parkes says. "Having worked with him before, we felt his sensibility was right for this and that he would be intrigued by both the story possibilities and the visual possibilities. He has the expertise and the artistry to create images that in and of themselves can involve you and truly scare you. "
Verbinski relates, "The first time I watched the original 'Ringu' was on a VHS tape that was probably seven generations down. It was really poor quality, but actually that added to the mystique, especially when I realized that this was a movie about a videotape. There is something about that image of a seemingly innocuous videotape·just sitting there·unlabeled. If you are aware of the myth, the object itself becomes both tempting and haunting. "
"There are unmarked videos in everyone's house," MacDonald notes. "There are always those unlabeled tapes where you can't remember what's on them; and the television is another thing that is part of everyone's life. The idea that these two everyday items could be at the center of this, could lead you to your death, can really get under your skin. "
Verbinski expounds, "In 'The Ring,' there is a tape, seemingly like any of those unmarked tapes, but if you watch it the phone rings, and then there's the warning that you have seven days left to live. So it is not enough that you will die; for seven days you know you are going to die. There is that desperation as you get closer to the end and start to feel the walls closing in on you. And that, I think, brings a uniqueness to the horror.
"Our central character, Rachel, is an investigative reporter, who learns about the tape through a personal tragedy, when her niece, Katie, becomes its latest victim," the director continues. "Then the questions begin: Where is the tape? Where did it come from? Who made it? Is it haunted?· When Rachel finally gets her hands on the tape, she watches it-of course. "
Naomi Watts, the Australian actress who last year drew critical and audience acclaim for her work in David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," stars in the pivotal role of Rachel Keller, whose investigative curiosity puts her in a race against time to cheat the deadly curse of "The Ring. "
"I saw 'Mulholland Drive' and immediately responded to her performance," Verbinski states. "I think Rachel is a tough role, and Naomi is a very gutsy actress. "
Parkes agrees, "Naomi is a very serious actress, and I think her role within the particular story we are telling required that. What Rachel Keller has to go through has to do with not only her own survival, but also that of her child. As a result, the part demanded some very intense, very real, acting moments. Naomi has the ability to be extraordinarily intense, yet she delivers those moments in a way audiences will be able to relate to. "
Watts offers that the demands of the role were only part of what drew her to "The Ring. " "This is definitely a genre film, but what I think sets it apart is the story is very clean, very straightforward and moves with a lot of momentum. You watch this video-which is incredibly scary on its own-then the phone rings and you're told you have seven days to live. Right there, that one sentence sets up the kind of suspense that makes your skin crawl and the hair stand up on the back of your neck. "
The actress adds that she also responded to the character of Rachel, whom she describes as "very driven and strong, but at the same time, she's a flawed person, which made her more interesting to play. She's a mom, but perhaps not the best mother. She is obsessed with her own life and career until her sister asks for her help in finding out the cause of her daughter's-Rachel's niece's-death. At first, all this information is coming at her about a videotape that seems ridiculously implausible·nothing more than teenage gossip. But then she finds it and watches it and the phone rings. .. She gets more and more scared as coincidences begin to happen that really start to tap into her own psychological beliefs and self-doubt. Could this be true?"
As Rachel's skepticism is gradually eclipsed by fear, she turns to her friend Noah, whose own cynicism takes over. "Noah represents the devil's advocate in the beginning of this whole thing. He thinks, 'A videotape that kills you? You've got to be kidding. ' He doesn't take it seriously until he's forced to," Verbinski says.
New Zealand-born actor Martin Henderson was cast as Noah, and Parkes notes that it was more than acting ability that made him right for the role. "Martin is so at ease, with a natural charisma and an ability to occupy a role effortlessly. What was also great about him for the part of Noah was that his natural exuberance and charm is a great counterbalance to Naomi's intensity on screen. The two of them were fantastic together. I thought it was interesting that Martin is from New Zealand and Naomi's from Australia, but you'd never know it to hear them do American accents. When Martin came in for the role, you would have thought he was a kid from Long Beach or something. "
Naomi and Martin's dueling accents led to some good-natured ribbing on the set. "Between takes, we'd joke around with each other's accents and play into the whole New Zealand-Australia rivalry," Henderson smiles.
Long before he came to the set, however, Henderson recalls reading Ehren Kruger's screenplay and being immediately hooked. "I thought it was extremely scary, and every time I read it I became more aware of the little subliminal things that you don't notice at first. I think that's the beauty of this movie; you don't know where the evil is coming from. There are images on the tape, and as the movie progresses, you begin to see the connection and understand the origin. Hopefully, the audience will be taken on that ride. "
In many ways, the characters of both Rachel and Noah are along for that same ride, though, Henderson acknowledges, Noah is decidedly reluctant to be taken in. "There's this very sarcastic attitude to my character at first. His expertise is in the world of cameras and videos, which is why Rachel enlists his help, but it makes him very disbelieving. He thinks, 'It's a videotape, a piece of plastic, get over it. ' But as things start happening to him, he starts to wonder if there may be some truth to the story, and when it becomes irrefutable, he pretty much freaks out and jumps on the train and they're off. The stakes get higher and higher as they go on. "
The stakes reach their breaking point in one devastating turn when, to Rachel's horror, her son Aidan watches the tape. Child actor David Dorfman plays Aidan, and Verbinski says he had an understanding of the role that belied his years. "David really is brilliant. He was smart enough to know what his character was thinking and to understand the emotional core of the role. It didn't blow his mind when we talked about things on that level, and that is really wonderful when you're working with someone so young. "
The director has equal praise for Daveigh Chase, the young actress who plays Samara, the girl who holds the key to the mystery of "The Ring. " "Daveigh is great. We were so lucky to find such talented young actors with whom you could talk openly about not only the internal mechanisms of their characters, but what we were trying to achieve with them in the context of the story. "
Rachel and Noah's desperate search for the answers that might save their lives and the life of Aidan eventually leads them to Samara's last living connection to the world: her father, Richard Morgan, played by veteran, award-winning actor Brian Cox. "From the very start, I had Brian Cox in mind for the role. I couldn't imagine the part being played by anyone else," Verbinski states.
Like his fellow actors, Brian Cox was captivated by the screenplay. "I thought it was a great yarn, a real page turner," he remarks. "I was intrigued by it, by where it was going·the twists and turns in the story. That's basically what makes a good script in my opinion. "
Although Richard Morgan parts with little information, Cox felt he understood what had brought his character to the point at which Rachel and Noah find him. "He is a tragic character. He's a man who has lost everything in life. Now, he seems to be rattling around on his ranch, which was once a horse ranch, but is no longer for reasons you'll come to understand. He lives in a sort of half-dead world, a man who has been left behind by terrible events. "
Clues to those terrible events are buried in the haunting images burned into the mysterious videotape that leads those who view them to their own horrifying end. Rachel Keller comes to know all too well that the video brought her niece Katie, played by Amber Tamblyn, to her death. And while she never watched the tape, being a witness to Katie's unspeakable final moments drives her best friend Becca, played by Rachael Bella, to a mental ward.
For Gore Verbinski, one of the first and most daunting challenges was to create the ominous videotape that is at the center of "The Ring. " "The tape had to serve two functions," he notes. "It had to contain clues to its origin and to understanding why it was created. As abstract as it appears at first viewing, as you progress, those images have to have a reason to be. The video also had to be bizarre, to shock you without seeming to have been designed to do so. That's a tricky thing to do. I started with some of the key images from the Japanese film, because when you remake a movie, you want to keep the great moments from the original. Then, for me personally, I drew on what scared me, my own kind of horrors, and tried to include them in a way that was compelling, but could also make sense from the perspective of the person who made the video. "
The director continues, "I am a big fan of horror films. But there are the ones that simply shock you, and there are the ones that operate more subversively. These have a particular psychological manipulation going on that the viewer is not completely aware of. When they work, there can be a tremendous residual effect-those films stay with you longer, because they get under your skin. All horror films are derived from an essentially very simple premise, as it is in our film. It is only in the execution that certain films elevate themselves beyond the genre. These are the ones that inspire me because they scare me the most. Ultimately, it is about the craft. "
Crafting "The Ring" involved a creative team that included director of photography Bojan Bazelli, production designer Tom Duffield, costume designer Julie Weiss, editor Craig Wood, Oscar¨-winning composer Hans Zimmer, multiple Oscar¨-winning special make-up effects artist Rick Baker, and Oscar¨-winning visual effects supervisor Charles Gibson.
While much of the principal photography was accomplished in and around Los Angeles and on soundstages, portions of "The Ring" were filmed on location in the state of Washington. The Pacific Northwest winter provided a seemingly perpetual overcast and cold, gloomy weather that only added to the story's atmosphere of dread. The lack of sun also lent itself perfectly to the soft light and lack of shadows that Verbinski and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli were employing to complement the story's surrealistic moments.
Bazelli expounds, "In lighting the sets and the actors, we tried to eliminate all the shadows cast by the actors, which is meant to subconsciously alter the viewer's sense of perception and add a heightened sense of ambiguity. "
While the gloom and doom were integral to the story's themes, the cold, wet weather was not as welcome a climate for production designer Tom Duffield and his team. "The toughest thing for me creatively was trying to build sets standing in six inches of muddy water," Duffield says ruefully. "It was also quite an experience trying to make the paint stick. Paint doesn't stick in the rain, and it rained nearly every day. "
Duffield states that renowned New England painter and illustrator Andrew Wyeth heavily inspired the overall palette of "The Ring. " "In Wyeth's work, the trees are always dormant, and the colors are muted earth tones. It's greys, it's browns, it's somber colors; it's ripped fabrics in the windows· His work has a haunting flavor that I felt would add to the mystique of this movie, so I latched on to it. "
The primary exception to the film's subdued color scheme was a fiery red Japanese maple-seen in the cursed video and acting almost as a signpost along the way. "The tree is a focal point of the movie. It kind of unifies the different elements-everything always seems to come back to that tree," offers Duffield.
Nicknamed "Lucille" after a certain red-headed actress, the tree was actually artificial, built by the design team out of steel tubing and plaster, and painted silk for the leaves. Perhaps because it was not natural, it seemed especially susceptible to nature. "Every time we put it up, the wind would come up and blow it over. In Washington, we put it up three separate times, only to have it knocked over by nearly 100-mile-an-hour wind gusts. We tried it again in Los Angeles when it wasn't windy at all, and that night we had 60-mile-an-hour winds that blew it down all over again. It was very strange," Duffield comments.
The red maple was also one of the designer's homages to the story's Japanese origins. Others that might be picked out include an American version of a sliding luminous door, and a Japanese wall hanging seen at the Morgan ranch.
Throughout the movie, Duffield also incorporated a ring motif wherever possible-like the ring-patterned carpeting and wallpaper, and the circular knobs in the kitchen-which calls to mind the film's enigmatic title.
"One of the things I first loved about the project was the title," Walter Parkes says. "Within the context of the movie, it could have a number of different meanings: the ringing of the telephone, the ominous image of an eclipse-like ring of light, or perhaps it is the circular storyline that leads you back to the beginning·"
"Our journey began with a videotape that comes with a warning. Yet, it is the very warning that makes it all the more interesting to us," Gore Verbinski muses. "Taboos are always accompanied by temptation; it's an essential quality of human nature-to discover the forbidden. Knowing this about us is what makes the evil essence of 'The Ring' all the more horrifying. "