COVINGTON, LOUISIANA - Richard LaGravenese is experiencing seasonal confusion on the set of "Beautiful Creatures."
The reality is that it's May in this small city an hour's ride (if your driver is more prone to telling stories about his time in the Marines or complaining about the corrupting influence of movies on kids than paying attention to directions) from New Orleans.
But time is passing very differently in fictional Gatlin, South Carolina.
The morning scenes came in the aftermath of Halloween, but by afternoon the calendar pages have flipped to Christmas and there's some debate on how much, exactly, the halls should be decked.
Like bats in the belfry, a small cadre of reporters is perched in the balcony of a local church watching the pulpit get dressed and re-dressed for Christmas. There are wreaths on the windows and poinsettia on the pulpit and, after coming and going from the set a couple times, LaGravenese makes sure that there's also a Christmas tree. Unlike the plant and the other decorations, the tree has been subject to debate.
"I just asked a Baptist," he explains.
Although the temperature outside is hovering in the 90s, extras parade into the church in their Christmas finery. To a person, they enter looking sweaty and uncomfortable, only to experience the enlightenment that some people get from religion, but everybody gets from air-conditioning. They are accompanied by many of the film's stars.
The cast includes Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate, a normal high school student who falls in love with Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a mysterious girl whose ties to the magical world will soon change his life. Across the pew is Zoey Deutch as Ethan's ex-girlfriend Emily Asher. Nearby, we see Thomas Mann as Link, Ethan's best friend and a source of comic relief in the story. And sitting next to Link is his fundamentalist mother Mrs. Lincoln.
Mrs. Lincoln is played by multiple Oscar winner Emma Thompson, whose presence is part why you should judge "Beautiful Creatures" by its Barnes & Noble placement in Young Adult Occult Romance at your own peril. In addition to Thompson, the cast also includes Jeremy Irons as Lena's uncle Mason, Viola Davis as Amma (rather different in the movie from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's books), Margo Martindale and Eileen Atkins. [Of that latter group, only Thompson and Davis are shooting on this Christmas morning/afternoon.]
"Beautiful Creatures" is a story of romance and witchcraft, but we're just watching a Christmas sermon, presented by Randy Redd's Reverend Stephens.
"The scene we're about to shoot is one of my favorite scenes in the script," says Deutch, who you may know either from The CW's "Ringer," or as the daughter of Lea Thompson and Howard "Pretty in Pink" Deutch. "The reverend has this beautiful speech that made me cry the first time I read it. And I just read the sides and cried again. It's lovely! I don't want to give away the speech, but it'll be really cool."
Before shooting begins, Redd warms up the audience by playing "Oh Night Divine" and then, pre-homily, he makes the now obligatory warning, "Ministers hate it when your phones ring during the sermon, as to ADs."
It's a sermon about sacrifice and about the darkness and light within each of us. It's got rather a lot to do with the themes of the movie and I wouldn't want to spoil if for you, so as to at least allow for the chance that you might also have Zoey Deutch's emotional response. See, the sermon is also about free will and I'd like to leave room for yours.
In brief pauses, Thompson frequently consults with LaGravenese, but in longer breaks she comes up to the balcony to chat with the journalistic e, shifting freely between her British accent and the South Carolina accent she's taking on for the film.
"I love this accent," she says. "It suits me... One of the accent coaches said to me that for some reason, I don't know why, English people or British people sometimes find it easier to do this accent than the Americans and I don't know why that should be."
While she had a featured role in the "Harry Potter" franchise, you don't necessarily expect to see the "Howard's End" and "Much Ado About Nothing" star in projects that yearn to tap into the same audience vein as the "Twilight" franchise. Not surprisingly, the "Bridges of Madison County" and "Fisher King" writer was a major draw.
"[I]t was the script. I haven't read the books yet, I will. I'll get around to it, but I've been busy. But I love the script, I thought the script was funny and witty and very much a kind of intelligently-told very fun story," Thompson says of LaGravenese's work. "And the part was one of the most interesting ones I've been asked to play in a long time... But Richard just did a great job adapting it. You know adaptation is about distillation, so the most difficult thing is that there's an awful lot of story, there's an awful lot of comples exposition that needs to be brought out. So our main work has been to pare down, pare down, pare down, and Richard is such a wonderful man to collaborate with. He's such a great artist to work with."
Mrs. Lincoln's fundamentalist values put her at odds with the new supernatural element in town and Thompson doesn't sugar-coat the character.
"Oh yes. I'm playing a villain though one who's like Milton's Satan in 'Paradise Lost,'" Thompson laughs. "The person you most want to be with and is the most persuasive is Satan. Everything he says makes such good sense and he's charming and funny and clever, and that's what she is. She's very very clever and she's very charming, and funny, slightly psychotic. And you just want to be with her. So she's definitely a baddie."
And did she base Mrs. Lincoln off of anybody?
"No, I base her on my inner bigot, and she's come up trumps," she says. "No, I didn't actually. I don't live in The States, but it's very easy to watch and find things. Richard had found something on YouTube, which was this woman just coming into her house and she's screaming about Satanists and her poor children, but in the end, this is a dramatic film, but it's a comedy too. She has to be funny. The extremity of her views are not rare here in the South."
It didn't hurt the draw of the film that she gets to go head-to-head with fellow Oscar winner Irons.
"Oh it's bliss, it's absolute bliss," she says. "I knew it would be. I know Jeremy. You can't be in Equity for longer than five minutes and not know the entire membership. So Jeremy's great and he's so helpful and has such good ideas just at the right moment."
And the young stars aren't too bad either, Thompson suggests.
"I cant tell you how impressed and happy and just awed I am by all of them, they're the most wonderful crowd of kids," Thompson gushes. Some of them are very young -- Zoey and Alice are 17, Tom is 20, Ryan is 23, I think, and Alden is 22, I can't remember -- they're young young young, and I'm SO old! So I don't really expect to sorta be able to form relationships that easily with people that much younger than me. I think, 'Oh, they'll want to do things and talk about music I've never heard of. They'll use words I've never heard of.' But no, not only is that not the case, but I've had some of the most interesting discussions with these incredibly intelligent funny, witty young people who are massively good at the craft already, really good! I mean, better young actors than I've seen in many years, really. I think they're remarkable."
The feeling is mutual.
"It was a little scary at first," says Thomas Mann, who isn't the author of "The Magic Mountain" and "Death in Venice," but is the 21-year-old actor whose credits include "Project X" and "Fun Size." "We did an Oscar count the other day of all the Oscars that have been involved, the people, collectively with nominations and stuff, and we just realize we really have to hold our own in this movie. But meeting Emma, she just most open, nicest, most fascinating woman I've ever met. She's so insightful and so smart, and it's been a pleasure watching her work, along with Jeremy and Viola, who I haven't gotten the chance to work with yet, but yeah. It's incredible."
Of Thompson, Mann continues, "She gives you advice just on everything. I've had the most in-depth conversations with her that I've had in my entire life, just about philosophy and politics. I'm not a political person whatsoever, but she can bring it out of you."
In the books, Link is Ethan's basketball-playing buddy, who also dabbles in Christian rock and becomes intertwined with Lena's alluring cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum). While the musical side of the character doesn't seem to have made the cut, the core aspect of the character remains intact.
"I think in order for this movie to not take itself too seriously, it has to kind of poke fun at itself, and I think Link is a good balance because he's Ethan's best friend," Mann says. "He's going through a crazy time in his life and Link is such a good presence for him and a good positive energy for him to have around, which is probably why he's so easy to corrupt. And that's where Ridley comes in."
Like Thompson, Mann hasn't read the books and like Thompson he swears he's going to. But he agrees that it was the script that drew him and that he hopes will attract both fans and "Caster Chronicles" neophytes.
"We're just trying to make the movie right now, we don't even know how we feel about it," Mann says. "We know we're just trying to make the best movie possible, so any comparisons to whatever... it's sort of irrelevant to us at this point, and we're just here, in New Orleans, trying to just focus on the work and hopefully making something that a lot people do love, and hopefully the fans will enjoy it as well as people who never read the books."
Deutch, who has read the books, proudly notes that she's even wearing the color nail polish that her character wears on the page, though she notes that Emily Asher may be a little bit more sympathetic than "Beautiful Creatures" readers might expect.
"You have to figure out a way to find yourself in every part you play, I think," Deutch says. "So I kind of found that in her vulnerability, which I don't think you really see in the book that I've been playing in the movie. People aren't mean for no reason, people have a reason for feeling the way they feel and she's genuinely hurt because she loves this boy and he doesn't love her anymore and that's how I've been justifying it to myself.
She adds, "When the screen is that large, you don't want to hate the person you're watching all the time. Right? You gotta like them some way or another! I just felt it was a stronger choice to have her be the way she is, for a reason, not just being a insert-bad-word-here, female dog, she's not just mean for no reason, she's clearly hurt."
And you can add Deutch to the fan club for the "old war horses," as Thompson calls herself and Irons and Atkins.
"It's just amazing to watch them," she gushes. "That was really one of the most exciting things for me when I got the part. I realized I was going to be able to watch them and see how they work, see what they do and they have not failed me. They are incredible. Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson, we just shot for two days, there's a big scene in the church and that's my favorite scene in the entire movie, the entire script. And it was beyond, there was not a second when I was bored, and we shot for two days. It was incredible. Jeremy Irons was like kinda close. We didn't have dialogue, really, per se, but I felt... He knew I existed."
Audiences will be able to know "Beautiful Creatures" exists on Friday, February 13, 2013.