A dead body is not just a still body, it has a certain color. Not colorlessness, color. If you have seen one, depending on the length of time since death, it has a progression of losing (in the case of a Caucasian) pink and taking on grey. And there is almost an artificiality about it, as if the body never really lived. You can almost imagine that someone took away the carcass that used to be living and replaced it with a less-than-adequate substitute that is somehow not quite right. Without the life of the person that once inhabited it, the body loses more than the life it held; it loses its realism.
So often movies do not capture the appearance of death, particularly in the case of murders. The film may portray a body that is bloody, but that blood appears applied rather than shed; the body may be still, but not obviously absent spirit; it may be laid out, but lacks the seeming obscenity that accompanies one who is splayed ignominiously after having been felled.
I wanted the death of the young girl in the movie to be portrayed in a way that would capture the horror, sadness, and unfairness of murder. So many things had to come together just right to make that happen. The actress had to be willing to act, purely act. In other words, she had to abandon any attempt to “look good” and allow herself to be what she was to be….murdered. Director Roger Lindley had to arrange for her to be laid out on the bed in a convincing manner. The male on-looking actors had to be totally professional, because one simple jocular remark could have marred the seriousness with which the scene was laid out and played, and thus how it would appear on screen. And the camera work had to be exceptional, with the angle capturing the scene without being prurient or grotesque.
When I first viewed the takes of the death scene, I was silent and sad. It was that good. I stared for a long time, considering how much time should be on the body, and then on the action around the body. The balance needed to be struck with enough time on her to show that the scene was ever so serious, yet also sufficiently on the investigators to keep the action moving and the dialog relevant. It took a lot of thought and time, but in the end, it felt right.
But it had to wait until coloring to make the scene whole. By that I mean that the “dead” body was still pink, still alive.
When Colorist Justin Warren and I got to the death scene, we spent a lot of time analyzing it. I was the one who knew what hue of grey we were after for the body, so we worked until we got that. But we also needed to subdue the other colors in the room as well as the lighting. It had to inter-mesh.
In the end, we achieved a color correction for the scene that I think goes very well with the somberness of murder, with the loss of a young life. The effect on the viewer is subtle, but that is the way it should be. No one should know that the mood is being set; it should just happen.
But all of that effort at making sure that death is properly conveyed almost went for naught. It was during the final sound design review, after the coloring had been completed, when Johnny Marshall, our Sound Designer, said, “Hey, are you going to fix the heart throb?”
“What heart throb?” I asked. I felt that odd mix of adrenaline you get when you are at fault, coupled with a high level of anxiety over whether a serious mess can be righted. I guess the best description is that I was overcome with dread. Here we were, finished with editing, special effects, coloring, and in the final run-through of sound and there was a big problem.
“You know, Maria De La Cruz. When she is lying there dead, you can see the blood pulsing in her neck.”
Shit. My editor hadn’t seen it. My colorist hadn’t seen it. But most importantly, I hadn’t seen it. I am well aware of where the buck stops.
I went back to Justin even though we’d finished coloring. “Hey, let’s fix the heart throb.” And he did.
But the event really unnerved me. If I had missed that, what other obvious things had I missed? It is okay if I saw something and chose not to fix it, or couldn’t fix it. But the throb was in a scene for which I had pulled out all of the stops on the amount of time and level of attention I’d been willing to devote to getting it right.
But, thanks to all those who put so much into making that scene, I think it came off very well. And, thanks to Johnny, it wasn’t blown by having one stupid mistake, a heart throb.