With a screenplay and cast in place, preproduction on The Strangers began. Given that 90 percent of the film"s incidents take place in and around a house in the dead of night, design and construction needed to be finalized well in advance of shooting. The first-time director, logically, carefully storyboarded the scenes to be shot with production designer John D. Kretschmer.
Kretschmer, whose design work includes the suspense films The In Crowd and Deceiver, believed Bertino"s screenplay detailed "not a horror film, but a terror film. We all have these fears, and Bryan prods at them in a unique way." He admits, "When reading, I was gripping the pages."
To contribute to a "this could happen to you" feeling for the audience, no geographical location was specified in the script. That didn"t mean, however, that Bertino wouldn"t design a blueprint of the Hoyt family vacation home in his exacting script. Of this, Kretschmer commends, "Bryan cleverly and thoughtfully built the architecture of the movie into the screenplay. So, I could tell which way the hallway turned and where the kitchen and the bedrooms were. He conveyed a very visual sense, as well as succinct blocking. When I spoke with him, it was clear that we were on the same page regarding the style of the house."
In fact, when Bertino met with Kretschmer and they compared floor plans, the production designer marveled at their complementary ideas. He laughs, "Mine was almost exactly the same one that he had drawn three years earlier and 3,000 miles away." Kretschmer and Bertino"s design strategy pivoted on a central twist. "In your classic horror movie, there"s a house on a hill"this scary place that you"re standing back from and looking at," says Kretschmer. "The Strangers reverses that; we"re on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around."
The home set was built on a warehouse-turned-soundstage in Florence, South Carolina. The process of creating the set took eight weeks: two to design, two to draw up blueprints and four to build.
The production designer and his team systematically built the interior of a roughly 2,000-square-foot home to allow for several weeks of filming. During the construction process, Kretschmer conferred extensively with Bertino and director of photography Peter Sova. Kretschmer notes, "We had to be able to allow Peter"s camera to go anywhere it needed to go, so that Bryan could get all his shots. He wanted the audience to be right there with the characters. The entire interior was flexible and functional; all of the walls were able to be moved as needed."
Along with set decorator MISSY BERENT, Kretschmer"s team designed from the inside out to offer the feeling that the interior of the home is propelling the audience outward. As Kristen and James struggle to get out of the house of terror, the viewer wants to run out with them, even if uncertain of what lies beyond the front porch. Bertino"s admiration of 1970s films influenced not only his screenplay, but also the set decoration. For the Hoyt family vacation home, the mandate was to make the interior full of warm dark hues, comfort and familiarity. Kretschmer provides, "It"s the kind of house that Bryan and I, and a lot of people, grew up in"a cozy, safe place that"s full of strong memories. This makes the picture even more frightening, because you realize that terror can occur even in your most comfortable environments."
For the house"s exterior, the director and the production designer again recalled their upbringings. "A ranch house built in the 1970s was something that Bryan and I were familiar with," says Kretschmer. "I grew up in North Carolina and Bryan grew up in Texas, and we both knew these types of houses."
Perfectly fitting the "casting call" and selected to portray the exterior of the Hoyt home was a family-built, "70s-era brick ranch house located in Timmonsville, South Carolina, about 10 miles southwest of Florence. Bertino recalls, "It looked the part" situated in a close-knit neighborhood, yet eerily isolated during the winter when James and Kristen are visiting."
The house and property had the details called for in the script: a garage, driveway of a certain length, imposing trees in a large backyard and a metal barn that was the perfect distance from the road (and possible passersby who could aid Kristen and James). When Bertino, Kretschmer and location scout STEVE RHEA arrived at the house, they instantly knew it was their Hoyt home. Fortunately, they were able to integrate the agreed-upon interior design with the look of this Timmonsville property.
The only element that had to be built and added to the house"s exterior was the back porch specified in the script. Kretschmer and his team added sliding glass doors, classic examples of "70s-era architecture, that led to the porch.
Because of the damage that The Man in the Mask would inflict upon it in several scenes, multiple copies of the existing carved wooden front door on the Timmonsville house were created. The "stunt doors" were individually mounted onto parts of the entranceway, creating a small set within the existing location.
To add to the creepiness, Bertino designed some additional surprises for the cast. He says, "When we were shooting at that house, you really couldn"t hear nearby cars. But you could hear things in and around the house, so we had crew members generate unexplained noises during, or just before, takes. The actors felt like they were there, and they would get surprised and scared. We would too."
For the film"s flashback scenes in which we see Kristen and James at the wedding, additional lensing took place in and around Florence at the Pee Dee Shrine Club, at the Hilton Garden Inn and on residential streets. South Carolina"s seventh largest city, located in the northeast part of the state, Florence has seen increased filming activity due to the South Carolina legislature"s June 2006 passage of large tax incentives for film productions in the state, as well as through the efforts of the Florence County Economic Development Partnership (FCEDP). The three-month shoot of The Strangers provided jobs for residents and funneled millions of dollars of business into the area"s economy.
For the most part, the production opted to shoot the film in chronological order. Mostly, it received unexpected atmospheric benefits from the weather. However, rain, wind, fog and unseasonably cold weather all impacted the shoot at various times. Bertino admits: "We had to make some changes because of the rain. But while it forced our hand [sometimes resulting in reshoots because of the swampy mess], we"d often find out that the revisions looked the way we should have gone all along."
Adds Kip Weeks, "The elements became part of the story and part of our performances. It made the shoot more natural; we really were running through mud, so we didn"t have to pretend."