It is the middle of the night. The five ladies are standing in a ghastly cold Pittsburgh quarry with bare legs and what could euphemistically be described as "party dresses." Pacing back and forth nervously is a young man holding a tire iron. A black Escalade with its headlights on idles in the background as a girl in white lingerie lies motionless in the dirt. The young actresses shiver and sniffle. An assistant director shouts…
"We're gonna get bloody."
Someone jokingly yells out, "This bitch dead yet?"
"Jackets off please! Alright, jackets are off, let's pull heaters, apply blood…here we go!"
"Sound. Speed. ACTION!"
The young man mimes thrusting the tire iron into the lingerie girl's chest. All the other sorority sisters come running.
"What did you do?" one of them asks.
"There's no air in her lungs now," he replies.
As the doomed girl convulses on the ground, the others panic. Now she's motionless. "You mean she wasn't dead yet?" he yells while pushing a bespectacled girl against the Escalade. She screams.
Ahh, when a good prank goes horribly wrong…
This is the location shoot for the opening sequence of Sorority Row, a remake of the 1983 cult classic horror film The House on Sorority Row. Writing partners Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg first conceived this scene ten years ago for another project, but when they began pitching ideas for the remake they remembered this scene and, as Stolberg recounts, "everything just kind of fell in place from there."
Garrett, the young man in the scene played by Matt O'Leary, sets the plot in motion when he inadvertently kills his girlfriend, the girl in white lingerie. His action is the result of a prank played on him by her and her fellow Theta Pi sorority girls. They find out he cheated on his woman, so to get revenge they make him think he's accidentally killed her. Grief stricken, he goes with the girls to the quarry to throw her body into a mineshaft. One of the girls mentions offhandedly that in pre-med they learned that air brings the body up and you have to puncture the lungs so it will sink. Garrett takes this to heart, and plunges the tire iron into her, turning the joke into a nightmare.
In the original '83 film, a group of sorority girls get back at a cantankerous landlady by pretending to shoot her, although they wind up fatally wounding her and leave her body in the pool where she fell. They all agree to cover up the incident, but while holding a party in the sorority house they begin getting picked off one by one. This new update promises to take things in a different direction, says screenwriter Josh Stolberg as he sits on location in a heated tent musing enthusiastically about the picture.
"There's the general idea, sorority prank goes awry and chaos ensues, but there's not a character that's the same," says Stolberg. "There's not a kill that's the same. There's not a plot point really that's the same. Again, with total respect to the original because we wouldn't be here sitting in this f**king freezing tent if the original didn't exist. I love Mark Rosman and the film was, again, one of my favorites as a kid. But that film exists. You can go to the video store and rent it. There's no reason to remake it. This is a different egg."
Directing the new incarnation is 30-year-old Stewart Hendler, a bearded, perpetually genial man who is braving this chilly Pennsylvania evening in high spirits and many layers. "I'm an L.A. boy, so when it gets windy, it's exciting," he says. "It's like a weather event. So this is all the clothes I own. I've been in L.A. my whole life and it's monotonously beautiful. So a departure is great.
"The script is very tongue-in-cheek," he continues. "It's very self-aware, it's sort've having fun with the genre, and I thought it could go two ways: It can be campy horror, exploitative, hot girls getting murdered and boobs all over the place, or it can be really fun. It can be one of those movies that's in the world of Scream, that is playing with the conventions and having a good time. So I had a meeting with the studio and said, This is like Mean Girls meets Scream, and you can kick me out of the room if you want. They're like, Totally, that's exactly the movie we want to make. From there on out we've been on the same page.
Regarding leading lady Briana Evigan (Step Up 2: The Streets), Hendler says she "plays a very street-smart girl in the movies she does, and I said Can you be a sorority girl? You know, definitely the outsider of the bunch, but this is a bit of a departure for you. She said, As long as the movie's having fun with that culture, a send-up - and a celebration - of sorority life, then I'm totally in. The movies that we're referencing are Bring it On or Heathers, movies that are taking a world and having a good time just dissecting it, being brutally honest about it, and making as much fun of it as they are enjoying it. She and I were in sync on that."
Says Evigan, "I play Cassidy and she's kind of...well, I like to call her a little bit of the 'Debbie Downer' because all the other girls are always so funny and joking around and silly about everything. But she is very strong and confident and wants to step away from the whole sorority thing and wants to spend more time with her boyfriend and isn't really into the whole I'm a girl, let me dance around in my little lingerie outfit and all that. I think she joins the sorority because she wants to have a little of that side, rather than the tomboy she is at heart, and tries to open up and make all these friends with girls that aren't the nicest in the world, but she finds a way to love them."
"Then the fun was just packaging the rest of the girls around her," adds Stewart. "Leah Pipes is her counterpart [Jessica] in the movie, they're always at each other's throats."
"Jessica is a bitch!" declares Pipes. "Through and through. The way she thinks is so different from the way a normal person thinks. It's such a Sophist attitude, and I really respect it because it's very black and white: either she's benefited by a situation or she's not benefited by a situation, and if she's not benefited then she's not bothering. There's a certain element of intelligence to that philosophy if you think about it. Deep down we all have a little bit of Jessica in us, she's just honest about it!"
Some of this "Sophist attitude" was glimpsed during the death scene, where after the initial panic Jessica tells the other girls "We're all responsible…we're gonna need lawyers!" She then rationalizes this to her sorority sisters. Ellie, the bespectacled one played by Rumer Willis, is easily swayed and goes along with the pact to cover up the death.
"Ellie is definitely smart," says Willis, daughter of Bruce. "She would have been valedictorian if the unfortunate incident with Megan hadn't happened. She definitely has a little bit of sarcasm too. She is one of those girls you won't really expect it from but, all of a sudden, she'll come out with a line and you'll be like Oh, alright. She has a little spunk to her. I really like that she has such a transformation throughout the script because there are a lot of people who have the confidence but don't necessary want to use it, especially if you have someone like Jessica, who is the Queen Bee and leader of the group."
"Jessica IS the Queen Bee," agrees Pipes. "She's the hottest girl on sorority row, hence the raw celery I'm eating right now. She holds her own and really works hard for her reputation and doesn't want to see it go under because of some stupid prank."
The scene ends with everyone except Cassidy agreeing to the cover story that Garrett's girlfriend vanished. With tears streaming down their cheeks, they begin lifting the body to carry it to the mineshaft. Altogether, from the initial death to the agreement, the scene is over 8 continuous minutes without a break for the multiple actors all trying to convey the emotional decision over their friend and how it will affect their lives. The actors all perform flawlessly over several takes. On the last one Stewart yells "CUT" and Leah Pipes looks distraught, but not necessarily about the scene. "Oh my God I have to pee so badly!" she cries.
They will shoot tonight until 5:40am, and it will get as cold as 25 degrees. The next night they continue to cover the sequence...
Stay tuned for part 2!
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