When an obsessive teenager is thwarted in the pursuit of young love, four students suffer the terrible consequences of a damaged and dangerous mind.
As soon as director Nick Hamm read Guy Burt's novel "After The Hole" in 1993, he knew it had all the ingredients for a riveting contemporary film. The story - about four teenagers who are locked up in an underground bunker by a psychopathic youngster until only one gets out alive - started Hamm thinking about what it's like to be a teenager, especially a teenager in love. Hamm had already carved a reputation as one of the British stage's brightest young directing talents at the Royal Shakespeare Company and had recently made the move to television, directing a string of acclaimed dramas, including "DANCING QUEEN", starring Rik Mayall and Helena Bonham Carter. He'd also just won the Best Short Film BAFTA for HARMFULNESS OF TOBACCO, the (1991), and was looking for a project with which to make the leap to feature films.
"The book was very compelling," says Hamm. "It was about the emotional disintegration of a group of characters who are locked in a basement and can't get out. About a prank, a bit of fun that goes horrifically wrong. There’s something of ‘Lord of the Flies’ about the novel, watching a group of people disintegrate, which the whole Big Brother and Survival thing tapped into. And it was about a group of teenagers. Guy Burt was seventeen when he wrote it so it reeked of authenticity.
Teenagers fascinate me - kids between 16 and 20 have an arrogance that makes them believe they can do anything. Teenagers look down on all adults, because adults don't understand them and never will so there's no point in even beginning a meaningful dialogue with them. It was the special arrogance of adolescence that has always gripped me."
Turning the novel into a film, however, proved more complicated than Hamm ever anticipated. Not that the novel didn't have its supporters - some of the most admired independent producers, including Miramax's Harvey Weinstein and Working Title's Eric Fellner, had optioned the novel for Hamm only to be frustrated in their attempts to adapt the complex story for the big screen.
Hamm also discussed the project with British mini-studio FilmFour, for whom he went on to make the romantic comedy Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel And Laurence (1998), starring Monica Potter, Joseph Fiennes, Rufus Sewell and Tom Hollander, in 1997
Eventually, in 1995, Hamm showed the novel to Lisa Bryer, co-head of Cowboy Films for whom he had started making commercials. After several attempts with established writers, Bryer's head of development Suzanne Warren took a punt on two newcomers she had been introduced to. Ben Court and Caroline Ip, fresh from the National Film and Television School, fashioned a treatment that at last started to make sense.
New Writers Bring Fresh Approach
Ben Court and Caroline Ip, long-time fans of the horror and teen genres, took their cue from the final page of the novel, in which the police psychologist sits down to talk to Liz, the only survivor of the group.
Court and Ip unravelled the strands of the story, invented new characters (including the psychologist Philippa whose investigation gives the story its structure), introduced the flashback structure and, crucially, added the second version of the events down in the hole - the first a result of Liz's traumatised imagination, the second a grisly reality that shocks to the core.
"All we took from the original book was the premise that a group of teenagers get locked in a bunker and there's only one survivor - that and some of the names," explains Ip. "What happens in the hole, the characters, their motivations - are all our own invention. The book ends by telling you that Liz is the only survivor but does not say how anyone died nor what really happened. We thought it would be fun to adapt the novel precisely because it established a great mystery and did not answer any questions."
"What was so clever about Caroline and Ben's approach was that they focused on Liz," says Hamm. "When she emerges, she is so traumatised by the experience that she's in denial, she can't face up to the terrible things that happened down in the hole. So she becomes an unreliable witness. She begins to tell the story but we realise half way through that she's blocked out the truth, she can't deal with it. When the real story emerges, it's all the more terrifying."
"Caroline and Ben also introduced the theme of obsession into the film," says Hamm. "Liz's obsession for Mike, Martin's obsession for Liz, Philippa's obsessive fascination with Liz - all these cranked up the psychological dimension of the story."
While Court and Ip were fine-tuning the screenplay, Bryer began to put together a production team. She teamed up with Jeremy Bolt, one of Britain's most entrepreneurial producers who is perhaps best known for his collaborations with director Paul Anderson on such big-budget films as EVENT HORIZON (1997). Bolt had been introduced to the novel by Nick Hamm and took up the offer of handling the physical production of the film with enthusiasm.
Pippa Cross, Head of Film at British independent broadcaster, Granada, had long tracked the project and at this point called Bryer to check on progress. She was quick to commit to a development deal and joined Bryer as a producer on the film.
"I'd always been very intrigued by the novel but the previous adaptations just hadn't clicked," says Cross. "Ben and Caroline were brave enough to answer some of the questions the book doesn't. It's also true that the genre had caught up with us, with the success of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the (1999). THE HOLE gave us a chance to do an edgier version of the teens-in-peril genre. This isn't just another teen thriller."
Thora Birch Is Cast As Liz
Events came to a head at the end of 1999, when Nick Hamm began casting in earnest. He met Thora Birch, the young star who had just shot into the international spotlight for her extraordinary performance in Sam Mendes' AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999), which went on to sweep the floor at the Academy Awards in 2000.
After workshopping with the actress in Los Angeles, Hamm realised he'd found his Liz. "Thora is incredible," he says. "She can tell the truth and the lie in the same moment; there's a duality to her, and there are always two ways of reading what she does. That ambiguity is very difficult to pull off. There's a minimalist brilliance to her work and she's very aware of how to manipulate the camera. Liz is English but we had no doubts that Thora would be able to pull off the accent, even though it's an emotionally demanding role."
With Birch on board, interest from British financing companies suddenly soared. In order to complete the funding, Bryer, Bolt and Cross approached Pathé Pictures, the National Lottery franchise studio with whom Bolt had worked on his most recent film, THERE'S ONLY ONE JIMMY GRIMBLE (2000). Pathé swooped on the opportunity and, in the early summer of 2000, the project went into pre-production.
Casting And Rehearsals
Casting the other key roles - gorgeous Mike, handsome jock Geoff, teen queen Frankie and intense Martin - was a challenge. The filmmakers were keen to cast youngsters, actors who were either still living their teenage years or had only just become twentysomethings. But they were also after that elusive magic that marks out the true star of the screen. "We in Britain don't look hard enough for our movie stars," says Hamm. "We had to get actors who could hold their own with Thora, who's a formidable talent, and who had charisma."
Nine months after beginning the search, Hamm and his producers finally had the three young actors to star alongside Birch - Desmond Harrington, who was singled out by film industry bible Variety as a star in the making for his performance in MY FIRST MISTER (2000), as Mike; Laurence Fox, the newest member of the Fox acting dynasty and still at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts, as Geoff; and Keira Knightley, a newcomer whom Hamm describes as "a young Julie Christie", as Frankie. For the part of Martin, the brilliant yet creepy student who is a key to the mystery, the filmmakers chose Daniel Brocklebank, best known as the male Juliet in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998).
In the key role of Philippa, the ambitious psychologist who is undone by her young patient, the filmmakers cast Embeth Davidtz, the South African-born actress who is best known for her gripping performances in Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993) and Patricia Rozema's MANSFIELD PARK (1999)
"I'd long wanted Embeth for the part of Philippa," says producer Lisa Bryer. "The character is a go-getter, a confident career woman who is always on top of her work, who has never been defeated professionally - until she meets Liz. Embeth has the power of a beautiful woman but there's a tense, brittle undercurrent that I knew would be perfect for the role of Philippa."
Two intense weeks of rehearsals followed. "We talked a lot about the characters," says Hamm, "but in the end, I wanted them to be very natural. There's something wonderful about working with young newcomers because they're not jaded, they're incredibly fresh."
The longest discussions Hamm had were, of course, with his eighteen-year-old star, Thora Birch. The focus of THE HOLE, Liz has a multiple personality that made the role a delicate juggling act for the young actress, who was keenly aware that giving too much away would compromise the film and its suspense.
"I've never done a psychological thriller so it was a new genre for me and that was appealing," explains Birch. "But it was the character that drew me to the film. Liz is several different people at same time. The first Liz we meet is the traumatised Liz who's just survived a terrible incident and is almost comatose. Then we're introduced to the Liz of the flashback - innocent, goody-goody, introverted, mousy, sensibly-dressed, quite a baby. At the same time, we see Liz as she behaves with Philippa, and again there's something not quite right there. After that, Liz goes home and there are hints of another, more disturbed girl coming through, and those were the toughest to play because I had to be very vigilant about how much to reveal. And then there's the real Liz.
"It was a challenge every day," continues the actress. "How much do we tell the audience? How far do we go? Those were the questions Nick and I would toss back and forth. The whole shoot was a continuous dialogue with Nick and that was very exciting. It was a real stretch, because the character was constantly changing. In the end, I think Liz is as confused about herself as we are."
Birch spent some research time visiting an English public school to acquaint herself with the culture of that particularly British institution. "I got the sense that the kids there love the idea of being bad but they are mostly good kids, compared to most American kids. Teenagers around the world are fairly similar so it wasn't too hard getting inside the head of an English sixteen-year-old."
It wasn't only Birch who had to play different versions of the same character. Desmond Harrington, Laurence Fox and Keira Knightley were all required to identify subtle differences in their characters for the two versions of the story.
For Knightley, in her first major role after small parts in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) and Halcyon Days (1995), it was an invigorating prospect. "Frankie is a real bitch so she was fantastic to play," laughs the young actress. "She's sparky, fun and headstrong. In the first version, she's more of a caricature, in the second, harder and more tarty - much more 21st century, I suppose. I go to a comprehensive school so I have no idea what girls like Frankie are like but it was clear from the script what kind of girl she is. Playing the scenes in the real hole were very demanding - we stayed in character between shots so we really felt as though we were trapped there - and the set was terribly evocative."
Like Frankie, Laurence Fox's Geoff is more innocent in the fantasy hole. "He's a well-intentioned, good-natured, slightly gauche rugby captain," says the twenty-two-year-old. "The real Geoff smokes dope and has a harsher edge. He's the kind of guy who needs someone like Mike to give him confidence and, in return, protects Mike from anyone he offends. I went to Harrow, so I'm very familiar with these kinds of kids. In fact, Geoff is the kind of boy who used to beat me up! Knowing that kind of milieu, there's something about this film that is very believable - the idea of four kids getting locked up in a hidden bunker - and that's what makes it all the more frightening."
That authenticity also appealed to Desmond Harrington when he first read the script. "It's a great psychological thriller," says the Bronx-born New Yorker. "There are very few films for teenagers that have such a feel for authentic dialogue. And for teenage characters. Mike is so well drawn. He's the cool kid, the son of an American rock star who's cheeky and witty and sharp. He feels like an outsider and it's his wit that gets him through - and the fact that his best friend is Geoff, whom no-one will mess with.
That's the first version of Mike. The real Mike has a much deeper veneer of arrogance, he's more sarcastic and bitter and really doesn't care about anything much. Nick was great to work with - he really gave us space and was very receptive to suggestions, I guess because in a way we're closer to the material than he is."
"I always felt that Nick was the right man to direct this, not only because of his passion for the project but because he is so skillful in working with kids," says Bryer. "That's thanks to his theatre background. He's an actor's director and that what we needed because performances are what make this film and Nick proved he could get the best from this young cast."
Creating The Look
With such an emphasis on suspense, it's not surprising that Hamm and his producers spent as much attention on the look of THE HOLE as on the performances. They recruited some of Britain's top behind-the-scenes talents, including cinematographer Denis Crosan (I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997)), production designer Eve Stewart (Topsy-Turvy (1999)) and editor Niven How
The film was shot over six weeks on locations around London and southern England, including the neo-gothic Downside Boarding School near Bath, and Bray Studios in north London, where Stewart built the two versions of the hole - the fantasy version and the much gloomier and more terrifying real version
"It was crucial that we believe in the first, fantasy version of the hole so that when we learn what really happened, it comes as a huge shock," explains Hamm. "The fantasy version is Enid Blyton, about cooking bangers on fire and telling ghost stories. The real version is more Marilyn Manson, about taking drugs, getting drunk and having sex. The first is much brighter, with wider shots and slightly wider lenses. The second is about low angles, edgier framing and dark corners."
Denis Crossan, who had just worked on the period romp CLANDESTINE MARRIAGE, a (1999) approached the challenge of lighting the film with relish.
"We decided that both versions of the hole would contain sources of lighting that could have been abandoned there," he says. "In the first, we wanted to give the impression that the place had been used quite recently so we used fluorescent lights which gradually die out as the film progresses, and then torchlight. In the second, we wanted a much darker ambience so we thought of car headlights which would have been dumped there. These give out a tungsten light and when they run out, we used mainly candles. It made the second hole a much darker, more forboding place."
"We also used different film stock to get a more desaturated look to the second hole," continues Crossan. "For the first, we used ordinary fast stock, for second we used low contrast stock which makes colours more muted. It was important not to make the difference too extreme because that can become distracting so we used a black filter which gives a slight diffusion without affecting the black areas and thus maintains a tonal contrast. We also avoided bright colours to give it a monochromatic feel. The only moment where there is bright colour is when the kids come out of the hole at the end of the first version of the story. There, we cranked up the colour to make it very sunny and bright to reflect the scene's optimism."
The film also afforded Crossan an opportunity to experiment with framing and point of view. He used hand-held and steadicam to film both versions of the hole but opted for a more daring approach to the early scenes of the film.
"When Liz begins to recount her version of events and we move back in time to her version of school, we decided the camera should stay as close to Liz as possible. We were shooting on Super 35 which gives a wide frame so we placed the camera behind Liz's head, thus enabling us to keep her within the frame and look over her shoulder at the events she is describing. It means the audience is always with her but can't see her face. That contributes to the enigma of the story."
Production designer Eve Stewart's brief was very precise - to create a real environment. "Nick was very clear that the story would only work if everything was completely authentic. There was no room for suspension of disbelief. Both versions of both the hole and the school had to be realistic. If the first version was too over the top, the audience would smell a rat."
Stewart and Hamm thought long and hard over what kind of space the hole should be. The idea of a World War II bunker came to Stewart after several weeks of research during which she looked at tube stations, water tanks and underground basements for inspiration.
"The army often used schools for their headquarters during the war so the idea of an abandoned bunker was very credible. I decided that a circular shape would work best not only aesthetically but also for Nick because as a theatre director he's used to working within a round space. From there, I made several models and opted for the hexagonal space."
Stewart first designed the real hole, a dark, dank, cramped concrete space littered with rusting junk, decaying rubbish and puddles of stagnant water.
To create the fantasy hole, she imagined herself to be Liz, looking back and sanitising the experience because she can't face up to the reality. "There are subtle differences between the two versions of the hole," says Stewart. "The fantasy version is slightly bigger and lighter, it's not as dirty or derelict, it's a cleaner version of reality. The second version is smaller and grubbier and it disintegrates fast as the food begins to rot and the toilets begin to smell. It becomes a hell-hole."
In an unusual twist, Stewart found herself recast as pest wrangler mid-way through the shoot. "We talked to forensic examiners about what the effects of having a dead body in an enclosed space would be," says the designer with a shudder.
"A dead body starts to decompose and becomes a breeding ground for flies. So we had to cultivate 10,000 bluebottles in controlled circumstances so they wouldn't pose a health threat to our cast. They only survive for ten days so we had to get the timing exactly right to bring them onto the set at Bray. Thankfully, it all went like clockwork."
The other main locations included Downside Boarding School near Bath, a sprawling Victorian pile that doubled for the fictional Brabourne School. "It was difficult to find the right building for Brabourne," says Stewart. "It had to say British, moneyed establishment but many of the schools we asked couldn't fit us in. Thankfully, Downside has exactly the look we wanted and the aerial shot at the beginning of the film really does it justice
"We were also keen to find isolated locations as much as possible," she continues. "There are a lot of institutions in the film - the school, the hospitals Liz spends time in, the police station - and we wanted to give the sense of Liz being overwhelmed by these symbols of authority. So most of the locations are remote and isolated. We also gave that tone to the interiors. For example, for the examination scene just after she is found, we built a hospital room at Bray Studios that is very white and sterile which Denis gave a harsh, almost neon look. And the corridors of the school at the beginning are very stripped down with a controlled colour palette."