When the first hints of “the happening” hit the television news, science teacher Elliot Moore is already unsettled by recent signs that nature is changing its rules – especially the unaccountable (and real) mass disappearance of bees around the world – something he struggles to get his students to talk about in class. His home life is no less unsettling, as it seems his relationship with his beloved wife Alma is disintegrating without Elliot fully understanding why. Once the spate of horrific deaths begins to spread, Elliot switches gears into a determined man on the run, forced to quickly explore who he really is, yet the threads of his past become woven into his solutions for how to survive.
To play Elliot, M. Night Shyamalan always had envisioned Mark Wahlberg, who began his career in music, then broke out with a series of unpredictable and unforgettable screen roles in such films as Three Kings, Boogie Nights and The Perfect Storm. He sealed his acting credentials by garnering Oscar® and Golden Globe® nominations for Best Supporting Actor in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed and became a sought-after action hero after taking the lead roles in such hits as Invincible and Shooter. Yet Elliot was unlike any character Wahlberg, who hails from a rough background, had played before: a quiet, sensitive teacher pushed to the edge by inexplicable events in just a few short hours.
Still, Shyamalan was convinced the role was right for Wahlberg. “I know Mark and I’ve always seen him as this sort of guy,” says the writer/director. “I don’t know the tough guy from Boston who gets in scrap fights, I know a different guy. And when I’ve seen glimpses of Mark playing this sort of person, for example in Three Kings in the scene when he’s calling his wife from Iraq, I just love him, and I’ve always wanted to do a whole movie with him like that.”
He continues: “I also think Mark is one of the most likable people in Hollywood and that made him the perfect counterpoint to all this dark, taboo stuff going on around Elliot. If you had a darker lead in this movie it would be overwhelming -- but Mark brings a lightness to the dark.”
It turns out that Wahlberg had been waiting for a chance to work with Shyamalan. “He had worked with my brother and with Joaquin Phoenix and I was always jealous of them both because of that,” he confesses, “so when he said had thought of me specifically for this role, I was thrilled.”
Shyamalan took Wahlberg to a big sushi dinner to talk to him in depth about the role. “I realized then that Night knew everything inside out about this story,” Wahlberg recalls. “If I asked him any question, he had an answer, one he’d apparently already spent an entire afternoon thinking about.”
Still, as seductive as Shyamalan’s storytelling was, Wahlberg knew that bringing Elliot to life was going to be one of the toughest tasks of his ever-expanding career as an actor. “I like a challenge but this was by far the most challenging role I’ve played to date,” he says. “Night seemed very convinced I could be this very innocent person, but I am definitely not as innocent as Elliot. I’ve had my brushes with the law and my scrapes with trouble, but I guess Night saw that my intentions are always good. Still, I had to do a lot studying and a lot of what I picked up about how to portray Elliot was from spending time with Night.”
Producer Sam Mercer believes Wahlberg made for a perfect match with Shyamalan’s style of storytelling. “There’s always an Everyman quality to Night’s movies and Mark has such a relatable personality,” he says. “I think the audience will really identify with him and with what’s happening in his life at the moment the disaster hits.”
The deeper he got to know Elliot, the more moving Wahlberg found him. “He’s a very positive, optimistic person,” the actor comments. “He always thinks that things will work out whereas his wife Alma is the complete opposite. She takes things very seriously. But what’s interesting is that through this horrific event, they both are forced to refocus on what life is all about, and they find themselves understanding each other better and reconnecting.”
Wahlberg was especially gratified to go through this emotionally intense journey with Zooey Deschanel, with whom he immediately hit it off. “I just feel this very strong emotional connection to her,” he says. “It always felt like we were right in the moment and we are able to say a lot without words. The relationship between Elliot and Alma really had to work, because for me, that’s what makes the movie stand apart from other disaster or horror movies. And Zooey’s so likable, that made everything easier. I think with another actress Alma could have been perceived as a villain but with Zooey, you see how much they actually really love each other. It’s just that relationships are tough, you know. With Zooey, no matter what, the chemistry was always there.”
Shyamalan had also been drawn to Deschanel’s vibrant, endearing personality, which has been showcased in films ranging from Almost Famous to Elf to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“Zooey’s character is somewhat troubled in the movie, but I didn’t want to have a brooding actress in there,” he says. “I wanted someone the audience would instantly like, and also someone whom you like Mark even more for marrying. Zooey and Mark are both so vulnerable and charming together on screen that you really root for them to survive this.” Deschanel was very intrigued when Shyamalan explained the approach he wanted for the character. “We talked a lot about how to make sure she was very compassionate and relatable and about how the relationship between Alma and Elliot forms a counterpoint to the larger issues that are at stake for humanity,” she recalls. “It was very exciting.”
That excitement continued as she began to work on set with Mark Wahlberg. “Mark made it so easy for me as he is so generous as a person and as a actor,” she says. “I think we were able to show that Alma and Elliot are like so many other couples out there – in that they love each other but they just need to gain some perspective in order to remember why they’re connected to each other. It’s also really fascinating how their relationship relates to this bigger imminent disaster that’s about people forgetting their connection to the planet.”
The actress also was drawn to Alma’s psychological sophistication. “I feel like Alma is a more grown-up role for me as an actor, and I think Alma is also growing up, so it’s kind of nice that my work coincides with my real life in that way. I also really like that she’s so smart and that she uses humor to diffuse situations. She has a lot of nervous energy, which was interesting to explore.”
Working with Shyamalan helped keep Deschanel inspired to bring more colors to Alma. “He’s such a rare director because he has a picture of the entire film in his head before you even start. He has such a strong vision, but he’s also a really sensitive person who is willing to explore every line in the movie,” she notes. “It was a treat to work with him as an actor because he’s always joking around and it’s a fun experience, but at the same time, it was a very intellectually stimulating experience.”
Bringing both a comic and a touching edge to the story of THE HAPPENING is Emmy award-winning multi-talent John Leguizamo in the role of Julian, Elliot’s exuberant best friend and fellow teacher who find himself facing his own heart-wrenching personal dilemma as he fights for his family’s survival.
“For Julian, I wanted a heroic, poignant performance tinged with some comedic moments that would fit alongside Mark, and that’s why I cast John Leguizamo,” explains Shyamalan. “I think Julian is a very compelling character because he has to make this sort of terrible choice between trying to protect his daughter or his wife. And John did this terrific audition where it was clear he would be very complementary to Mark.”
Leguizamo, who is as known for his comic one-man stage shows as he is for his many memorable film performances, wanted the role since he first read the screenplay. “I guess I really related to that sort of parental fear in apocalyptic times, especially because I was in New York on September 11,” he says. “I think we all live with the fear that something terrible could happen at any moment, so I think a film like this helps us to sort of exorcize that fear. I just love the way Night creates these fanciful nightmares that help you release all that.”
He also liked the idea of playing an ordinary man forced into extraordinary actions in the midst of a national crisis. Leguizamo says: “Julian’s a high school teacher, a smart guy with a good marriage, but it’s time like these when I think your real character as a man shows – when you answer the question of what kind of person are you really and how far would you go for those that you love?”
To prepare for the role, Leguizamo brushed up on his math skills and read some teacher blogs to get into the school spirit. But most of all, he spent time with Mark Wahlberg, building up a very real feeling of close friendship that came naturally to the duo. Wahlberg loved their rapport together. “What I like is that there’s no B.S. between these guys and their relationship is very open. Elliot doesn’t ever feel like he has to hold back what he’s thinking and feeling,” he says. “And for me, having a guy like John, who is so funny and so smart, in the role really elevated the material. The chemistry was there between us and the friendship always felt true and organic.”
Like the rest of the cast, none of whom had worked with Shyamalan before, Leguizamo was inspired by the atmosphere the director nurtured on the set. “He’s pretty much the kindest, gentlest director I’ve ever encountered,” says Leguizamo. “But he also watches the actors so that he always knows if you’re being honest, if you’re on your game or not. And no matter what’s going on in his movies, they’re always personal journeys about relationships. You always get several genres in one.”
With Leguizamo bringing humor and grit to the role of Julian, Shyamalan knew he needed a young actress who could stand up to that with her own riveting child-like innocence as Julian’s daughter, Jess. Always drawn to the creativity, imagination and mystery of childhood, Shyamalan has a long history of working with child actors in breakout roles and has his own distinctive ideas about how to cast children. “I think to find the right kind of special qualities at a young age, I’m really casting somebody to be themselves,” he explains. “I’m not necessarily looking for a three-foot tall Daniel Day Lewis because I really don’t want them to go too far away from themselves but, rather, to allow that natural childlike quality within them to be exposed.”
The search for a little girl who could do that with Jess prompted a nationwide search for a child actress who had the kind of naturalistic spark Shyamalan was seeking. After scouring the country, the filmmakers ultimately found their Jess close to home, in young Los Angeles native Ashlyn Sanchez, who made her feature film debut as Michael Peńa’s daughter in the Oscar-winning Crash but had never taken on a major feature role.
When the filmmakers saw Sanchez audition, they knew right away they had come across someone special. “As soon as Night saw her, he said, ‘that’s it,’” recalls co-producer Jose Rodriguez. “She had something indescribable, there was just magic happening behind her eyes, and we felt very lucky to find her . . . otherwise we might still be searching!” “I needed an almost angelic force who would be able to kind of keep Elliot and Alma sane in trying to protect her,” says Shyamalan, “and that was Ashlyn.”
Adds Rodriguez: “What’s wonderful about the role Ashlyn plays is that she becomes the reason that Elliot and Alma have to grow up and become more responsible, the reason why they have to do the right thing. She has such an important role, because she’s the real metaphor for the future in the movie.”
Also taking on a key role is THE HAPPENING is Betty Buckley, the Tony Award®-winning actress who made her feature film debut as the gym teacher in the horror classic Carrie – who portrays Mrs. Jones, the eccentric and suspicious old farm woman who provides an eerie refuge for Elliot, Alma and Jess just when all hopes seems lost. Buckley was asked to audition for M. Night Shyamalan via DVD, but when she was unable to transfer the tape to a disk, she simply gave in and shipped off the entire video camera to the director. “I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity,” she says. “I think Night is a poet and his interest in exploring spirituality and creating alternate universes on screen really intrigues me. I like that his films always have an intelligent social commentary to make. And I just love any good thriller; I guess I’m an adrenaline rush kind of person.”
Shyamalan was amused to receive an entire video camera in the mail, but was impressed with what he saw on the camera and offered Buckley the role. She notes that although Mrs. Jones is a bitter, solitary person filled with quirks, she quite enjoyed playing her. “My role models have always been Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page and Gena Rowlands and I like that kind of authentic, realistic character work. I love that this role is not about trying to be glamorous or acceptable in some way but about being unafraid of your own humanity and really putting it out there for the camera.”
Rounding out the cast as Jared and Josh, the two young men who join Elliot and Alma on their journey, are teenaged stars Spencer Breslin and Robert Bailey, Jr. Breslin and Bailey say that their generation is particularly compelled by apocalyptic themes. “I think the story is really exciting to us because there’s always that fear in the back our minds -- like, what if this is the last day of earth? And what would it be like if suddenly you end up in a situation where all you’re trying to do is survive? It connects because we all are wondering when something terrifying like this might really happen,” says Bailey.
Adds Breslin: “What I thought was interesting about this story is that there have been a lot of movies in the past about scientific experiments gone wrong and nuclear fallout and man-made disasters but this movie asks what happens if nature strikes back at us. I thought that was a really original way to look at the end of the world.”