How They Did It: Thriller Ascent to Hell Made a Small Location Feel Large Through Careful Planning
When I closed my eyes I could see it: a factory capable of holding more than 500 workers throughout its three levels.
Enclosed stairways connecting the floors. Multiple twisting hallways leading from one room to another. People would feel lost in the maze of endless doors opening up onto other doors, making the exits nearly impossible to find.
Then I opened my eyes. Instead, I stood in the middle of an abandoned graphic design firm—just one floor, with two large-ish empty spaces, which had been used as bullpens. There were also a couple of small offices to the side, and two straight hallways connecting the bullpens.
After a week of scouting buildings to find our primary location in my thriller Ascent to Hell, this was where we were. It was the best we could afford. I looked at my DP, Will Turner, hoping he was ready for some massive creative problem-solving. He nodded.
This was our location. It was meant to be an old New York factory that our protagonist, a realtor, is showing to a prospective buyer in the film; they soon realize that the building is haunted by the victims of a deadly turn-of-the-century fire.
But how were we going to make it look as big as we needed it to? We wanted to give an audience the feeling of a building so spacious that, conceivably, any way out would be difficult to find, and people could die while lost. To say that there were challenges is an understatement. For one, we needed to have the feeling of a specific place, because the entire script was spun off of a real-life tragedy. In the real event, women actually died due to their inability to find the exits; the building trapped them inside. We decided that rather than bringing the story down even more to meet the space, we would attack the space in such a way to make it match with the story.
The first step was a rewrite to make the story more location-specific. I sat down with our writer, Golan Ramraz, and my creative partner, Isak Borg (who conceived the story with me), and for the next few days we wrote to suit a building that had just one floor, limited small rooms, and only two hallways. It was a huge change, and one that had to be done in an incredibly precise manner in order to not destroy the integrity of the story. We spent days making sure we had used every space in the building we had access to, from the fire escape to each individual bathroom. Every room, no matter how small, was going to be featured in some way to help expand the look of the film.
After the rewrite was completed, I handed it off to Will, and the two of us got down to work. One of the things we knew for sure was that on our 13-day schedule, we would have to be filming at a breakneck pace to get through shooting the whole script. This meant being as detailed in our planning as possible, in order to eliminate any downtime on set. Part of this planning was shot-listing every single day before we ever got to set.
First thing to deal with: the hallways. If we used them as places of movement, we could let the viewer make their own assumptions about where each hallway was located, and what it led to. To that end, we were very careful to never reveal the specificity of the ends of each hallway. Due to the nature of the story, we decided that keeping the full layout of the floor plan as a mystery to the audience would not only serve the story by adding to their disorientation, but would allow us to double rooms as additional space, giving the feeling of what I’d first envisioned—a long, twisting floor plan with multiple ways of getting in and out of each area.
We chose four distinctive looks for how to shoot in the hallways, basically doubling the number of connective spaces we could be using. The front hallway is first revealed in the deep background as our cast enters the space. Using the camera behind our main characters, we followed them in, cutting to a reverse before the end of the hallway could be revealed, ensuring that the viewer would stay unclear as to exactly which room it led to. We also framed the shot up to exclude the front door on the left side of the hallway. Later in the movie, when the characters come back down what is technically the same hallway to get to the front door, we shot from the other direction, angled in towards the door and ensured that the room in front of them wasn’t seen. This allowed us to take two rooms which were in reality connected by one short hallway, and increase the space in between them, as well as give the illusion that each room had multiple ways of getting to the space.
Continuing on the theme of disorientation, we now needed to make the two main spaces look like floors big enough to hold hundreds of workers, when in reality a company of 25 graphic designers had outgrown the floor plan. Our main room had two entrances on opposite sides of the room, and in order to create this size illusion, we tried to make sure to never have a shot which showed those two entrances together. Well… I’d love to say we succeeded at that, but we did end up with one long handheld shot with no cuts in it where we do see both doors. Hopefully, it doesn’t break the illusion, but I suppose the viewer will be the judge of that!
Overall, we focused on utilizing each of the directions in the room as, essentially, a quarter of our illusionary larger space. So, if we were shooting towards the back wall, in the establishing shot towards it, we both framed and moved production design to force it to look like it was only half of the space we truly had. Having an element of repetitive production design (rows of antique sewing machines) helped sell the effect, as the viewer could never know how many rows actually existed in the space, and how far back into the space they were seeing.
Our final strategy was to utilize unusual angles in the smaller rooms to trick the viewer’s eye about size. One of the smaller rooms had a large vent near the top of it. I asked our production designer if he could pull that out for us, creating a hole in the wall from where we could shoot. Through that, we were able to create a fully disoriented view of the room. The first time we go in there, the shots are all on sticks, but when we return for another scene in that same space, the high angle shots give the room a completely different feel, and leave the viewer questioning if we are in the same room as before or a completely different location.
During the editing process, as we began showing rough cuts for feedback, one of the questions we were always asked was about the size and orientation of the floor that our main characters spend most of their time on in the film. We knew we had succeeded in our goal of making it look bigger when the majority of the feedback from audiences confirmed that they thought we were in a large factory with multiple points of egress that our characters just needed to find and get to.
And so now, when I close my eyes, imagining the world my characters were trying to escape from, it looks like that abandoned graphic design firm—just much, much more complicated. MM