“The main character, a kid called Louis Drax, is in a coma. He’s fallen off a cliff on a family picnic. He might have been pushed by one of his parents. His doctor falls in love with his mother. Anyway, the kid does nothing but lie in bed and talk to a ghost with a bandaged head,” I tell my agent when I deliver the novel in 2003. “Which means this book’s never going to be filmed.”
A few months later, the phone rings.
“Are you sitting down?” my agent asks. I hear “Miramax” and “Harvey Weinstein.”
Fast forward twelve years: my family are Miramax’s guests in Vancouver, where the French horror director Alexandre Aja is directing the screen adaptation. It’s an enormously poignant moment, as well as an exciting one. The screenplay is written by Max Minghella, whose late father Anthony was originally slated to direct. And Tim Bricknell, Anthony’s right-hand man, is co-producing. If Max and Tim hadn’t kept the project alive after Anthony’s sudden death in 2008, it might still be languishing in a Hollywood vault.
The location is a former psychiatric hospital, Riverview, rumored to be haunted. Here, just a few decades ago, patients were forcibly lobotomized, sterilized and experimentally electro-shocked. The buildings, set in a vast park, are linked by underground walkways penetrated by tree-roots. It’s freezing cold and raining: thick electric cables worm about as if searching for light, rather than carrying it. It seems the perfect gothic setting for a psychological mystery.
Aiden Longworth, playing the troubled, accident-prone Louis Drax, isn’t just a gifted actor but a chatty, sunny and ferociously intelligent nine-year-old. “I really liked your book,” he says. “I read it with my mom for research.” I’m taken aback. He’s probably my youngest ever reader. He tells us he loves acting, but wants to study robotics one day. We all discuss belugas and jellyfish, and what Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (aka the TV series’ meth-cooking Jesse Pinkman) is like as his screen dad, before he and my son Matti, a mechanical engineer, become immersed in conversation.
Soon they’re talking in low voices about how hot the stars are.
They do not mean Hollywood stars, or hot as in sexy.
They’re talking nuclear fusion technology.
Over the days that follow, we devour abundant, high-quality meals served from vans, select exotic snacks, chew gum, and watch Aiden/Louis lying in bed with wires coming out of his head. We observe his beautiful screen mother, David Cronenberg’s muse Sarah Gadon, arriving in an elevator in a stunning red dress bearing a caged hamster. We admire Molly Parker’s sharp detective asking Jamie Dornan, playing neurologist Dr Pascal: “Are you fucking her?” (That line wasn’t in the novel, but it should have been.) While not on camera, Jamie Dornan – funny, down-to-earth, and perpetually fidgety – walks around in his white doctor’s coat bashing a blown-up surgical glove.
“That’s the worst hat I’ve ever seen,” says my step-daughter Laura, eyeing the bobbly sky-blue snood I’ve started crocheting for Aiden Longworth. “Couldn’t you just buy him one?”
But I persist, and by the end of the third day, five balls of wool have become ridiculous, unwearable home-made garments which look like the inside- out of my own space-hopping, insomniac mind. On the fourth day I ruin a scene by dropping my metal hook on the floor with a clang.
“Find her a nurse’s tunic,” says Max, diagnosing my plight. “We’ll make her an extra.” I wreck another scene by nodding my head over-vigorously when Max, playing a doctor, pretends to ask me out on a date.
“Too much movement in the background,” my husband hears the director murmur discreetly. “Let’s go again.” It’s mortifying, but Alexandre Aja has the magical ability to make everyone on the set give their best, so even the crazy crochet woman gets it right this time.
In one of the toilets there’s a printed notice above the cistern:
BROKEN. TO FLUSH, LIFT THE PLUNGER AND HOLD IN PLACE FOR 3 SECONDS.
Beneath it someone has scrawled: Livin’ the Dream.
On our final night we really are living it, at a champagne dinner with producers and stars, a multi-tiered seafood extravaganza on the table before us. It’s so preposterously glamorous I imagine an elf with a spray-can of fairy-dust, prepping the scene with actual particles. When the conversation turns to the disposable society, Jamie Dornan offers me, Aaron Paul, and Sarah Gadon a quick flash under the table. No throw-away clothes for him: his Lucky Socks are 13 years old, fire-engine red and in good nick for their age. We agree that they’ve served his career well. By now the evening has become so surreal I half expect Salvador Dali to pop out the seafood tower brandishing his lobster telephone.
Did it all happen?
And now there’s a beautiful, haunting movie to prove it.
And some pretty darn weird bits of crochet.
Click to enlarge photos