V For Vendetta is set in London in the near future. Though still anchored by venerable landmarks such as Parliament, Old Bailey and Big Ben, the city, like the rest of the country, has fallen into a state of post-war isolation and depression. Chancellor Adam Sutler wrested incalculable power over this tightly-controlled society by championing his extremist Norsefire party as England’s only safeguard against war, disease and famine. Yet Sutler’s oppressive policies have stripped the culture of its spirit, vitality and hope. Food is rationed but fear is in great supply. Personal freedoms are an antiquated notion of the past, and no one dare raise a voice in dissent, lest they be “black bagged” by Fingermen – Minister Creedy’s secret police force – and never heard from again.
Led by director James McTeigue, the V For Vendetta filmmakers strived to capture the essence of present-day London in their rendering of the film’s grim socio-political landscape. “England has become quite soulless,” says production designer Owen Paterson, who previously collaborated with McTeigue and the Wachowski Brothers on the Matrix trilogy. “We tried to create a London that is very recognizable, yet frozen by having become this totalitarian state.”
Paterson and costume designer Sammy Sheldon used a palette of gray tones to evoke the bleak, regimented pall that envelops the city and its citizens. “In this environment, choice is limited,” set decorator Peter Walpole notes. “You might be able to buy a car or a can of baked beans, but there’s only one brand available. This was reflected in the television studio set, for example. All of the monitors are the same brand, and all of the desks and chairs are exactly the same.”
The film was largely shot on soundstages and interior settings to underscore the story’s tone of anxiety and alienation. “We wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia, so the film is very purposefully interior,” McTeigue explains.
Filming began in March 2005 at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam, Germany. With nearby Berlin doubling for a handful of practical locations, the production spent ten weeks on the Babelsberg soundstages before moving to London for a few weeks to shoot principal exterior sequences.
Paterson oversaw the design and construction of a staggering 89 sets for the Babelsberg segment of production alone, including the Jordan television tower, home to the government-controlled British Television Network; Victoria Station, a former stop on the ruins of the Underground, which the government shut down years ago; as well as another critical section of the Underground that V has commandeered for use in his plot to blow up Parliament.
On historic Stage 2, where Fritz Lang’s classic futuristic thriller Metropolis was filmed in 1927, the cast and crew of 500 inhabited the grandest and most elaborate of Paterson’s sets: the labyrinthine Shadow Gallery.
Like V himself, his subterranean lair is elegant, mysterious and enthralling – a stylish cross between a crypt and a church, carved from the passageways beneath the city. “I envisioned the Shadow Gallery as an expanded ace of clubs, with a central space and chambers spiralling outwards from the middle,” McTeigue says of the sprawling set, which includes a library, V’s dressing room, a kitchen and a screening room/lounge. “It feels like it’s located beneath some great cultural institution that has long been closed down by the government.”
“The Shadow Gallery is the sort of place that could exist below St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey,” Paterson elaborates. “It’s an arched, Tudor kind of space where you can imagine someone bricked up a door years ago and forgot it was ever there.”
V’s vaulted hideaway also serves as a museum of sorts, a home to his extensive collection of music, film, literature, philosophy and art – all of which has been banned by the government’s Ministry of Objectionable Material. “V has become a caretaker of everything that the government won’t allow,” says McTeigue.
“He’s a guardian of a culture that is in danger of being lost forever,” adds Hugo Weaving. “I suspect there are a number of people in this world who are like him, who have their own hoards, their own treasure troves like the Shadow Gallery.”
One of the biggest challenges for set decorator Peter Walpole and the art department was securing the rights to reproduce the Gallery’s myriad iconic works – and then replicating them and dressing the numerous Gallery chambers. “We had to get an enormous variety of objects – everything from Picassos to Turners, modern art to comic books,” Walpole says.
Walpole’s team also had to collect and arrange hundreds of books to dress V’s makeshift library. It is here that Evey first awakens in the Shadow Gallery and finds herself surrounded by stacks and stacks of treasonous volumes.
“As you enter the room, the books are piled low, as though they’ve been blown in like a bunch of leaves,” Walpole describes. “But as you move toward the far end, the piles grow until they reach the ceiling and line the walls, almost like a snowdrift.”
To give McTeigue and the crew maximum flexibility while filming in the library, many of the books were fastened together like building blocks, so the stacks could be moved quickly and reconnected like Lego components, rather than moved piecemeal.
During production of this scene, Natalie Portman recalls, “James brought in a clipping from a newspaper with a photo of a library that was discvovered in Iraq. The government had shut it down and there were piles and piles of books everywhere. It was sort of incredible, having this real life parallel as we were filming.”
In addition to designing the sets, Paterson also collaborated with McTeigue and art director Stephan Gessler on the creation of V’s eerie mask. More than a mere disguise, an affect of his theatrical personality or a veil for his hideously disfigured face, V’s mask becomes a powerful symbol of the ideas of freedom and expression he represents.
Paterson’s design was modeled on V’s iconic visage from the graphic novel, which illustrator David Lloyd based on the eponymous masks worn in tribute to traitor-turned-folk hero Guy Fawkes. But as drawn by Lloyd, V’s mask takes on different moods and expressions from frame to frame.
McTeigue opted to create a “fixed” façade, rather than using CGI or a flexible mask that could be manipulated to form expressions. “I wanted the face, even though it’s very distinct, to have a ‘universality’ to it,” he says. “I knew that if we achieved the right look for the mask, we would be able to tonally and atmospherically change the way it appears on camera through the lighting design and Hugo’s performance.”
The result, which the director describes as “a cross between a traditional Guy Fawkes mask and a Harlequin mask,” was sculpted from clay – a considerably more imperfect and painstaking process than the modern mold-making method of computer cyber-scanning – then cast in fiberglass and painted with an airbrush to create a porcelain doll-like quality.
“We had a very fine sculptor named Berndt Wenzel who patiently went through seven generations of carving the mask from clay to get the right personality,” Paterson says. “We needed to capture the perfect generic look so that when we lit the mask in different ways, it would take on different expressions.”
Bringing the mask to life was “definitely a collaborative effort,” Weaving reports. Though aided by lighting and cinematography, the actor needed to convey a great deal of emotion solely through his voice and body language, as no part of his eyes, mouth or face are visible behind V’s façade.& nbsp; “James often gave me notes about my dialogue or my performance as I would do it if I weren’t wearing a mask. That was great, because central to making the mask work was making the character behind the mask work.”
Finding V’s voice was crucial to the process. “I knew I didn’t have to worry about my voice being muffled by the mask when we were filming, because we would re-record my dialogue in post-production,” says the actor. “But it’s still important to find the character within the voice and give the right performance on the day.”
In addition to the challenges of emoting through the mask was the considerable challenge of learning to work with the mask. “It has a very narrow field of vision,” McTeigue explains. “Hugo’s actual eye-line when he’s looking at the character he’s playing opposite is at their stomach.”
Weaving also had to integrate acting in the mask with the character’s wig, hat and a heavy cloaked costume featuring a high neckline that restricted his head movement. “The amount of sweat that pours off you when you’re wearing a wig, a hat, a very hot costume and a mask is phenomenal,” Weaving says good-naturedly.
Created by costume designer Sammy Sheldon (Black Hawk Down, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Weaving’s wardrobe was styled after McTeigue’s vision of V as “a cross between the actual Guy Fawkes character and a gunslinger.”
“V’s costume is rooted in the 16th century, but we chiseled it down to look more simple, sleek and modern – futuristic in an historical way,” says Sheldon, who crafted the ensemble from cashmere, wool, leather and an original 16th century silk basket weave. “V’s hat was modified, for example. We shortened it and made it cleaner, instead of fancy and feathered as it would have been in Fawkes’ time.”
As with V’s wardrobe, his weapons of choice – six handmade throwing knives – reflect a combination of period and modern design. “When V opens his cloak, I wanted it to look as though he has metal teeth attached,” McTeigue explains. “Our armorer, Simon Atherton, did an amazing job of crafting V’s knives and creating the metal sheaths they slide into.”
V’s chillingly exquisite calling cards, Scarlet Carson roses, were portrayed in the film by red Grand Prix roses. The prop department purchased dozens of Grand Prixes daily to ensure there were always a few on hand at the studio in the perfect state of bloom for filming.
While Weaving contended with his character’s multi-faceted costume, Natalie Portman had a much more minimalist wardrobe challenge in portraying V’s unlikely accomplice, Evey Hammond: she was required to have her head shaved on camera for a pivotal sequence in which Evey is imprisoned and tortured to reveal V’s identity.
Knowing he had only one take to capture Evey’s anguish as Portman’s auburn locks were stripped, McTeigue used multiple cameras to cover the action and asked the film’s hair stylist, Jeremy Woodhead, to handle the shears.
Portman found the experience liberating. “It’s been really nice to step away from vanity a little bit,” she says. “The time you spend on your appearance as a woman – if you put all that together you’d have an extra ten years of your life. It’s been great to get away from that. But at the same time, it takes a really long time to grow back, so the sooner, the better!”
Another powerful shot that McTeigue and company needed to achieve in one take is a stunning sequence in which V touches off thousands of dominoes meticulously arranged in an intricate “V” pattern on the Shadow Gallery floor.
Four professional domino assemblers from Weijers Domino Productions spent 200 hours of building time placing 22,000 dominoes in position for the breathtaking visual feat. During the setup, the stage had to be closed to everyone but the assemblers, as a slight disruption flattened the dominoes at one point early on.
Tension was palpable on the set the day the scene was filmed, lest anyone’s footsteps or voice tumble the dominos again. Loud gasps were heard when an assistant hairstylist dropped her comb while grooming V’s locks as he sat cross-legged at the head of the domino chain. Fortunately, the comb narrowly missed the first piece. The dominoes were then officially “touched off” – and fell into place perfectly.
In addition to months of soundstage work at Babelsberg, a few weeks of location filming were completed in Berlin. A flashback of Chancellor Sutler’s Norsefire rally was staged in Gendarmen Market; scenes in Bishop Lilliman’s bedroom chamber were filmed in a rambling castle in Potsdam; and a former chicken farm was transformed into the sinister Larkhill detention facility.
It was at the Larkhill location that stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, a four-year veteran of the Matrix trilogy as martial arts stunt coordinator and Keanu Reeves’ stunt double, walked through searing flames to achieve a haunting shot emblematic of V’s harrowing past and his indomitable quest for vengeance.
While principal photography rolled on at Babelsberg, an advance team prepared for the final few weeks of filming in London. Owen Paterson’s art department transformed exterior locations to convey the dull pallor of the strictly-controlled society – removing advertising signage, all signs of public transportation and any splashes of color or brightness.
“We wanted everything to be gray,” says set decorator Peter Walpole. “Then we added surveillance cameras and telegraph poles with speakers mounted on them to emphasize the ‘Big Brother’ atmosphere.”
For flashbacks to the 1990s that depict life in England prior to the election of ultra-conservative Chancellor Adam Sutler, the sets are “a little more cluttered, a little more lived in, a little freer,” Walpole describes. “In the scenes set in the present day in the film, there’s not quite as much set dressing. Everything’s a bit more regimented. There’s a subtle contrast.”
The film’s climactic sequence, set in the shadows of Parliament, took place on Whitehall, the iconic thoroughfare running from Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square to the Parliament Buildings and Big Ben.
Home to such high-profile Westminster addresses as 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defense, the security-sensitive thoroughfare had never before been closed to traffic to accommodate filming. After nine months of negotiating with 14 government departments and agencies, including the Ministry of Defense, location supervisor Nick Daubeney secured unprecedented permission to close the street for filming between the hours of midnight and 5am for three consecutive nights. This gave the production only four hours of shooting time per night, given the setup and removal of equipment, personnel and the production’s vehicles, including two army tanks.
As with the multiple permissions secured to film on Whitehall, the production also had to obtain authorization for the use of the two tanks and simulated weaponry during rehearsals and filming at the location.
The decommissioned ex-military tanks were acquired from a prop warehouse in the UK. Prior to transporting the vehicles to Whitehall for filming each night, the tanks were inspected off-site by government security personnel to ensure their weaponry was not functional nor had been altered in any way. They were then taken via trucks to the location – with no stops or changes to the tanks allowed during transport – and were accompanied by security officials at all times. (On screen and on set, the tanks moved under their own power.)
Background checks were conducted on every actor and technician who carried simulated weapons during production of the Whitehall sequence. Barcodes on the weaponry were scanned to track each piece and the individuals authorized to handle them.
Meanwhile, government secu rity personnel surrounded the production at all times – some of whom were identifiable to the cast and crew, and others who maintained anonymity within the crowd to ensure the security of everyone involved.
This ambitious sequence also required costume designer Sammy Sheldon and her team to outfit 500 extras in V cloaks and hats, as well as fabricate uniforms, helmets and flak jackets for 400 extras portraying militia.
Following the completion of principal photography, visual effects supervisor Dan Glass and the V for Vendetta miniatures unit, led by Model Unit Supervisor José Granell, spent ten days detonating large-scale models of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Old Bailey for key scenes in the film.
While some computer-generated effects were later fused with footage of the models being exploded, it was important to the filmmakers that the explosions, which carry great symbolic value, be as realistic as possible, so they opted for the practical effect of detonating physical replicas of the buildings over CGI.
“The models provide a real, tangible environment,” Granell explains, “and when you’re dealing with physical elements such as water and fire, and especially pyrotechnics, you get a better look when you have real, physical events taking place. With CGI, unless you actually deliberately create them, you don’t get any accidents – so you don’t get that essential feeling of nature doing its own thing.”
The filmmakers chose to utilize large-scale models in order to create a realistic relationship between the size of the buildings and the pyrotechnic events being filmed. Built in eleven weeks at Shepperton Studios by the London firm Cinesite, the plaster models were constructed at one seventh scale, which yielded an impressive 20-foot of Old Bailey, with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben towering at approximately 30 feet high and the length of Parliament stretching 42 feet long.
During the course of their research, Granell and his team studied documentary footage of actual stone buildings being exploded to get a feeling for how stone reacts to detonation. From there they began their experiments with materials. Since plaster breaks up well and behaves most like stone when detonated, the models were predominantly constructed with cast plaster. The team experimented with a variety of plaster recipes for different areas of the model – some components had to be more rigid, while some of the finer detail necessitated a weaker version of the plaster.
Prior to the final filming, an effects element shoot was held during which the team performed individual pyrotechnic explosions that they would later be able to use in post-production. They tested a variety of combinations of types of charges and different varieties of plaster, to see how each pairing performed on film. “For instance, one of the problems we found is that the weakened plaster we used tended to create too much dust,” says Granell. “And the one thing I didn’t want to do was hide any of the color of the actual combustible elements – the pyrotechnic charges, the flames, all of those details. So we adjusted the plaster recipe to remedy the problem.”
The team had to study the architecture of the Old Bailey and Parliament buildings inside and out, in order to accurately surmise how the structures would react to the detonations. For instance, how fast the explosions would travel through the building, how the structures would break apart – which areas would give first, which would be able to withstand the blast, what the size of the fragments would be and how fast and far they would travel.
In addition to this structural accuracy, the designers studied the outer detail of the legendary buildings to achieve exactly the right look. “You’ve got to be a real stickler for detail,” says Granell, “and pay close attention to how the real building looks – such as design elements or the aging of the stone – so that you can match it. You have to keep in mind that you’re dealing with structures that are potentially very familiar to a lot of people, who will be in a position to judge whether they look right or not.”
All of the research, time and work put into creating the incredible structures resulted in extremely convincing detailed models and detonations that look authentic onscreen and performed perfectly during filming. “The buildings looked just fantastic,” says Granell. “I apologized in advance to the chaps who were working for us because they put a lot of hours into this and the miniatures looked beautiful – until we blew them up. So the only thing I could do was make sure we did a good job of blowing it up, and make it all worthwhile!”
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