The Raven Sets: Baltimore, Belgrade, Budapest

The Raven Sets: Baltimore, Belgrade, Budapest

The Raven is set entirely in Baltimore, Maryland, a city built around one of the earliest ports in what would become the United States. A prosperous place both before and after the American Civil War, the city was devastated in 1904 when the Great Baltimore fire burned 70 blocks of the downtown area to the ground. Although the city was rebuilt, it was impossible for the filmmakers to replicate mid-19th-century Baltimore there. Ironically, they would have to go to Eastern Europe for the backdrops they needed.

“When I think Baltimore 1849, I don’t automatically think, let’s go to Serbia and Hungary,” says Ryder. “My initial plan was to shoot the movie in a city in North America that had an old-town section we could take advantage of, like New Orleans or Montreal. We quickly learned it would be cost-prohibitive. In addition, those sections of towns are relatively small. American cities have been so gentrified that it would be a real challenge to be able to find all of the exteriors we needed.”

Budapest and Belgrade provided the filmmakers with plenty of vintage buildings, cobblestone streets and vistas free of cell-phone towers. “It’s a part of the world that has been preserved from gentrification to some degree,” says Ryder. “When James and I came to scout locations, we toured all over. It became clear pretty quickly what the plan would be.”

Production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Danny Ruhlmann collaborated with McTeigue to create a visual style for the film that is both of the period and completely contemporary. “I was going for a very specific look and they got me exactly what I wanted on the screen,” says McTeigue. “We took a bit of artistic license, but it’s not meant to be a slavish period piece. We tried to stay authentic, without letting that override the narrative or the characterizations. I wanted it to be dark, but not oppressively dark. It’s more like a graphic novel, where there’s lots of negative space in the image. You can read detail in the blacks.”

Director McTeigue provided a specific reference point for his director of photography, Danny Ruhlmann. “The whole idea was to create a dark-looking film with a lot of soul,” says Ruhlmann. “James often referred to a Van Gogh painting called The Potato Eaters. It was these very old, craggy, poor people seen in soft, but cool and slightly depressing light. I stayed away from bright sunlight and tried to find cool shadowy light, keeping it soft and diffuse. It was important at the same time not to have the eyes lost in that darker light. The audience needs to be able to see the character’s eyes to learn where he’s coming from and where he’s going. I also wanted to keep the characters looking quite beautiful even though it was dark. That was another reason for focusing on the eyes.”

Ruhlmann and McTeigue agreed that they wanted to make an old-fashioned film in a contemporary way. “We moved the camera in a very sophisticated way to create contemporary images within a period story,” says Ruhlmann. “We liked the idea of mixing a period film with modern filmmaking techniques and modern lighting equipment. As the pressure on Poe grows throughout the film, the lighting and the camera style grow a bit as well. We created a bit more contrast by going a bit hotter with the light and adding more camera movement just to create a slight sense of chaos.”

For production designer Roger Ford, the jumping-off point was a book of images presented to him by McTeigue at their first meeting. “He had stills from other films, as well as illustrations from references on Baltimore and Poe, down to the kind of lighting and the frames and the composition. He went back to Nosferatu, the famous early vampire film made in 1922.”

With locations and sets in two countries, as well a complex script and only seven weeks in which to shoot, the designer had his work cut out for him. “There are between 40 and 50 locations in the movie,” he says. “We were never on any set or location for more than a day. We were very fortunate to have excellent crews in both Budapest and Serbia. To pull off a movie like this, there were plenty of challenges. Our greatest asset was the crew.”

Ford likes to say the only similarity between Baltimore, Belgrade and Budapest is that they all begin with a B. “Most of the architecture dates back to about 1880-1890, whereas our period is 1840-1850,” he adds. “But the look is very successful for the film. James wanted a stylized look that immediately took it a bit away from the period. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that telling the story is more important than slavishly following period detail, as long as the atmosphere is right. Architectural purists might pick up something here or there that’s not strictly period, but we never intended to make a full-on authentic period movie. We wanted to make a good thriller.”

Ford shaped a dark and mysterious environment out of the disparate elements available to him, says Evans. “Roger’s got a great track record of creating worlds of his own for movies. We couldn’t replicate the look of Baltimore in 1849 exactly, but we didn’t need to because we’re watching this story unfold through Poe’s eyes. That gave Roger a great deal of freedom to mix and match elements and create a palette of locations in Budapest and Serbia.”

The designer was able to build quite a few sets for the film’s more unusual scenes, including the site of a grisly murder inspired by “The Pit and the Pendulum.” “I really like the ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ set,” says McTeigue. “He found a huge attic space above a school in Belgrade, then retrofitted it and put the gigantic working pendulum in there.”

The pendulum setup was tricky, says Ford. “It’s massive with all these cogs and gears, and the thing drops a little lower every few seconds. We looked long and hard for a location. You can tell when a location’s going to work and when it’s not. Everybody walked into the space and said, ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ The special effects department put together a big set of cogs and wheels and the thing went backwards and forwards. It’s very impressive.”

Other scenes were shot in a studio on sets constructed for the film. “We saw a lot of interiors along the way that we thought we might use as locations,” says Ford. “But for a variety of reasons, we decided to build a set. If you look really carefully, you might see similarities between the newspaper offices and the police precinct room. In fact, it is the same set basically, turned around, repainted and redressed so it looks different.”

Ford says he was relieved to move into the studio. “Everybody breathes a sigh of relief, because at last we’ve got control of the lighting and the sound and the space. I get a chance to truly influence the look, rather than trying to adapt a location that’s not quite right.”

He was also able use the studio to expand on practical locations to make them more versatile. “We filmed in some underground fortification tunnels in a castle in Novi Sad, two hours away from Belgrade,” says Ford. “They are defensive fortification tunnels made of brick tunnels that go for miles. We recreated them in the studio by taking molds of the brickwork in those tunnels, bringing those to the studio and reproducing them to perfectly match the real tunnels.”

In fact, Luke Evans was the only actor to shoot in the actual tunnels and he says it’s impossible to tell them apart onscreen. “They’re brilliant,” he says. “In Novi Sad, there were about 18 kilometers of tunnels around the fortress. The replicas set the mood perfectly. They’re quite eerie.”

Carlo Poggioli, whose spectacular costume designs have been seen in films that range from the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Season of the Witch, Dangerous Beauty) to post-Civil War America (Cold Mountain) and fantasy fairytale worlds (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Brothers Grimm), was brought in to create the hundreds of costumes fabricated for the film. “Carlo Poggioli is a superstar,” says Mark Evans. “We were very fortunate to get him. Carlo really understood the movie conceptually. That doesn’t always happen.”

The designer began his research for The Raven in New York City. “I went there because there are such wonderful book stores,” he says. “I found the perfect book with pictures of the accessories and everything I could want that dated back to 1840-1850. So I started from there.”

The costumes he created for Alice Eve’s character, Emily, started with real-life silhouettes, to which he added a touch of fantasy to set Emily apart. “Alice was a joy to work with because she was so enthusiastic about the clothes,” says the designer. “Emily is an educated girl, an independent girl and the daughter of an important person in Baltimore. We dressed her in wonderful colors, very strong colors for that time. We deliberately made her costumes a little different from the other women’s clothing in the film. I was thinking that her father owns a shipping company, so he’s bringing in fabrics that others don’t have access to.”

Eve had an additional challenge because of the period corset she had to wear. “I’m not sure she’d ever worked in one before,” says Poggioli. “They make sitting and standing very difficult if you are not used to them, but the corset also helped her move in a way that is not modern. In, the end she loved it.”

Poggioli also developed a signature look for Poe that combined period and contemporary. John Cusack took a strong hand in the process, insisting that Poe should be dressed in black. “James and I were initially thinking very dark greens and blues, but John’s vision was black and we accommodated him,” says the designer. “He’s a romantic poet and so everything that he’s wearing has softer shapes and fabrics, like light wool and cottons.”

Poggioli had a chance to truly shine, as well as a monumental task to fulfill, when designing the biggest scene in the film, the masked ball that Hamilton hosts to celebrate his daughter’s birthday. With more than 300 extras in lavish period costumes, vintage masks and elaborate head pieces, the scene is an extravagant, over-the-top spectacle that took seven teams of costumers to execute.

“We wanted it to be unique,” says Poggioli. “James and I decided to use the ocean as a theme to make it a really unusual world that borders on fantasy. We used a lot of blues and greens. When Poe arrives, we see the scene through his eyes and it’s a little surreal as he encounters a giant octopus, some mermaids and some really strange masks.”

Historically accurate or not, The Raven is a well-crafted story peppered with intrigue, suspense, history, spectacle and excitement, and the film’s imaginative version of Edgar Allan Poe’s last days shines a new light on the legendary American writer. “I want people to be super entertained,” says Shakespeare. “It’s really a psychological thriller and the audience is along for the ride. We show writing as an admirable profession that takes a lot of courage. Poe was not just a drunk who was hallucinating and wrote down some things about a bird. He was a man of passion and heart and empathy.”

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