BEHIND THE SCENES with Cam Gigandet
When the screenplay for The Roommate first arrived on producer Doug Davison’s desk, he immediately knew it had all the elements of a successful thriller. The script was skillfully constructed, and grounded in character and dialogue. The tension and suspense built so that, as the story progressed, the audience would feel more and more uneasy, and then, finally, out and out scared. But what he didn’t know was the real identity of the writer.
Sonny Mallhi, who submitted the script to Vertigo Entertainment under an assumed name, was a development executive at the company. During the years he had been evaluating and helping refine other peoples’ scripts, Mallhi had also been mulling over an idea for a thriller that would combine two elements that intrigued him. "First, the whole freshman college roommate thing has always seemed uncomfortable to me," he says. "You are forced to live with someone you don’t know at all for a full school year. Things happen for better or worse. You either end up being friends for life or never speaking to that person again."
"I also had this idea about stalking that I wanted to develop," he says. "Everyone stalks at some point in their life whether they admit it or not. In high school, when you drove past someone’s house because they didn’t answer the phone or rode your bike past someplace they said they were going to be—it’s all stalking. When I melded the two scenarios together, I came up with the idea for The Roommate."
When he finished his first draft, he submitted the script to the most logical place: his employer. "But I felt I needed to invent a fictitious name to put on it."
Mallhi rechristened himself "Christine Mullen," a playwright from New York. He showed his screenplay to a number of people at Vertigo under that name, and received some very positive responses.
"I didn’t know Sonny was the writer until after I read it, but I loved the premise," says Davison. "I just thought it was something anyone who has been to college could relate to. When I was a freshman, I showed up, and I was assigned a roommate. I was fortunate because my roommate was pretty normal. In this case, the roommate turns out to be more than a little crazy."
The producers began to search for a director who could bring a fresh point of view to a time-honored genre. "I had seen the Danish movie Råzone, directed by Christian E. Christiansen, and liked it a great deal," says Davison. "He has a European sensibility that I thought would make the look and feel of the film unconventional in a good way. We had a few phone conversations and Christian’s approach to the material was all about making it feel real."
Råzone, Christiansen’s first full-length feature, explores the phenomenon of girls who bully, in a thought-provoking and disturbing way. The director proposed bringing an equally realistic point of view to The Roommate. "When I read the screenplay, I could see the movie from beginning to end," says Christiansen. "I understood it completely. I understood the characters. I thought it was sexy, it was hip. And most of all, it was dark and scary, which really turned me on. I love thrillers, especially from the ’70s and ’80s, and being offered the chance to do something similar was really exciting."
The tension, says Christiansen, comes from establishing a feeling of normalcy and then slowing upending it. "Our main character, Sara, comes to Los Angeles to go to college. She’s assigned a roommate she has never met, Rebecca. We don’t know much about Rebecca except that she’s from a wealthy family and she is interested in art."
"We first present what Sara’s real life is like when she arrives at this dorm," he continues. "She’s from the Midwest, and maybe a little naïve. She has big dreams about what she wants to become. She’s into fashion design. And so she’s getting to this dorm with an open mind about her roommate."
"And then we twist it," he continues. "It turns out Rebecca is not a normal girl. She has emotional problems. She might be bipolar; she might have some sociopath in her or maybe some schizophrenic elements. In any case, she becomes obsessed with Sara. And by the time the story is done, Sara will have learned a little about what real life may hold, and she’s not as naïve."
The finished film incorporates all the elements Davison recognized in the first draft of the script. "Christian has made a truly frightening thriller that’s grounded in reality," says Davison. "Anyone who has ever had a roommate can relate and go along for the ride. I think audiences will not only enjoy the experience, they’ll want to talk about it afterward."
For his part, Christiansen says he just wants audiences to have fun watching the film. "I think they are in for a treat in the roller coaster ride sense. If you’re into creepy movies, you’ll definitely have a good time. The Roommate is a thriller about the line between friendship and obsession, as well as about finding your way when you are young and everything is new. It’s full of emotional ups and downs, full of surprises—and it’s seriously scary!"
The cast of The Roommate features some of the most popular young actors working today, including Leighton Meester of the phenomenally successful television series "Gossip Girl" and the film Country Strong; Minka Kelly of "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood"; and Cam Gigandet of the Twilight film series.
"Leighton was the first person we cast for this movie," says Christiansen. "And she is a fantastic actress. The role of Rebecca requires an actress who can go from normal to insane in very little time. Leighton did a lot of research for the role, trying to figure out what kind of person this would be."
The young star was the only performer considered for the role, according to Davison. "She has a lot of range as an actress. Everyone involved was already a huge fan, so we decided to go after her. She really responded to this script and to Christian’s previous movies."
Meester’s ability to hint at something dark and mysterious lying beneath a seemingly sweet façade filled out the character. "Not every actor can play that and she does it quite well," says Mallhi. "She can turn the creepiness on and off like a switch. She builds the small moments into bigger moments as the story goes on, giving the audience a feeling that Rebecca has done this before, maybe more than once. The audience doesn’t know what happened to her to make her behave this way. Was it something with her parents? Why is she a little ‘off?’ And Leighton plays her in such a way that I think people will want to hate her, but instead find themselves feeling sad for her as her story is revealed."
Meester signed on after reading an early draft of the script and speaking to Christiansen at length about the movie he wanted to make. "He was so open to everything," she says. "It was really fun to watch the process of developing it. Everybody was bouncing ideas off of one another."
The edge and rawness of Christiansen’s earlier films won her admiration. "His style is not overly manicured," says Meester. "Christian does what I think of as ‘ninja’ directing. He doesn’t spell anything out. He just plants an idea in your head. Even if it’s not something that’s in the front of your mind, it’s back there, and the wheels are still turning. He conjured as much from me as he possibly could."
Meester, who has been a successful actress since her early teens, has never been through the roommate experience herself. "Being assigned the person you’re going to live with for the next eight or nine months sounds a lot like a blind date," she says. "It’s strange to think that when you come to college, you have to live with someone you don’t know at all. The idea of sharing some totally intimate moments with somebody you don’t know that well is disconcerting and a great jumping off point for this story. I think everyone who sees this film will interpret it a little differently. They’ll certainly be scared and intrigued."
The role made tremendous demands on Meester, both physically and emotionally. "It wasn’t an easy movie to make, but it was always interesting," she says. "Christian had a very specific vision of how he wanted things, which made me confident that it would turn out beautifully. He’s all about making things as real as possible and getting the most honest performance out of everyone."
She delved into the character’s psyche, developing a personal history for Rebecca and consulting with psychiatrists to learn more about what makes her tick. "This is the story of the psychological deterioration of a human being who has no real identity of her own and is trying to appropriate another person’s," she says. "The character has so much depth. I had to find whatever I could in her to love, because I don’t think she means anybody any harm. Her relationship with her parents was particularly interesting."
The only child of two wealthy, but extremely self-involved parents, Rebecca has trouble establishing relationships. "Rebecca’s parents may not have truly cared about her and she was very isolated as a child," Mallhi says. "But I don’t think she is inherently crazy. As Sara pulls away from Rebecca, she starts developing an insane desire to protect Sara and goes a little overboard."
But at the start of the movie, Rebecca seems like the ideal friend for Sara. "She’s actually a good influence on her," says Meester. "Rebecca shows Sara all around the city, not just the clubs and parties. But she grossly misinterprets the relationship, which is the beginning of a lot of problems. As they get closer, Rebecca starts to lose touch with reality."
As Rebecca’s attachment becomes a full-blown obsession, she tries to shut out the rest of the world. "She progresses into this completely irrational alternate universe, thinking that Sara needs her as much as she needs Sara," says Meester. "Anything threatening to Sara seems like a threat to Rebecca’s life. Whenever Sara has a problem, Rebecca intervenes in not such a nice way."
Finding the right chemistry between Rebecca and Sara meant casting an actress who could naturally complement Meester’s intensity, without being overshadowed by it. Minka Kelly, best known for her work on the television series "Friday Night Lights," was selected to play the object of Rebecca’s obsessive love. "Minka is very sassy, which is a really good quality for Sara to have," says Meester. "She is also approachable and very kind—and she’s gorgeous. You can understand why Rebecca loves her."
The two developed a friendship off camera as well as on. "Minka and Leighton had a lot of fun between takes," the director says. "Sometimes too much fun, but when you’re making a scary movie, it helps if you can laugh and fool around just before you’re doing a really serious scene."
Kelly’s all-American freshness and sunny outlook perfectly suited the role of a Midwestern girl with ambitious dreams. "Minka has the vulnerability that we really wanted for that role," says Davison. "Sara is from Iowa. We wanted someone that the audience could really understand as being from a small town and trying to make it in the big city."
On "Friday Night Lights," Kelly plays a cheerleader who is a bit of a bad girl. "I thought it would be really interesting to see her as an innocent girl in this one," says Christiansen. "It takes some time for Sara to become aware of what’s going on. Minka brings her innate likability to the character, which allows us to be scared for her."
This is the actress’s first leading role in a feature film. "I was excited about the story as a whole," she says. "Both Sara and Rebecca are great roles, and it was as much fun watching Leighton play Rebecca as it was to be Sara. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Everything she does is quite subtle and so creepy that I wouldn’t leave children alone with her."
The Roommate is a movie that people will enjoy the first time and come to see again, in Kelly’s opinion. "When I first met with Christian, we talked about making an intense psychological thriller. On set, he was very patient and took the time to talk through each scene with the actors. There’s nothing cheesy or silly in the film. It is understated, very classy, and honest. I just hope the audience is taken for a ride throughout the whole thing, and that they are perched on the edges of their seats wondering what’s going to happen next."
Cam Gigandet, already a heartthrob from his role as bad boy vampire James in the blockbuster Twilight, plays against type in the role of Steven, Sara’s boyfriend. "Steven is a little goofy but he’s a good guy," Christiansen says. "As a counterpoint to Rebecca, he’s a source of normalcy and stability in Sara’s life. Cam brings enormous likability and charm to everything he does, and he has real sex appeal. Seeing him as good guy is an interesting switch."
Initially, Gigandet had doubts that he was the right actor for the role. "When I first read it, I did not see me playing Steven," he says. "Steven is quirky. He’s in a fraternity and he plays drums. It’s very different from everything else I’ve done. But I gave it another read and the second time, the wheels started to turn. Suddenly I got all these ideas about the character."
The Roommate’s emphasis on character and relationships makes it transcend genre, says Gigandet. "This is a classic thriller with hot young actors that give it a whole new twist," says Gigandet. "It’s extremely character driven. Sara and Steven’s bond has to be strong and authentic enough to counterbalance Rebecca’s psychosis. The two of them have to go through a journey together, and the question is will they continue on, or will Rebecca win in the end?"
Gigandet gives his co-star credit for lifting spirits on the set whenever she appeared. "Minka’s amazing," he says. "Whenever she arrived, it became a whole new set. Like her character, she’s just so lovable and endearing. She made it very easy."
The first scene they filmed together was Sara and Steven’s first date. "Our real life friendship was growing just as our on-screen relationship was supposed be to be growing," he says. "They were mirror images. The first date scene was awkward, which was perfect."
Aly Michalka, who recently appeared in Easy A opposite Emma Stone and stars in the television series "Hellcats" with Ashley Tisdale, plays Tracy, Sara and Rebecca’s dorm mate. A high-energy party girl, Tracy is the first obstacle for Rebecca in her friendship with Sara. "Tracy is a wild girl," says Aly. "She has a great personality, and likes to drink and meet guys. She makes it her job to ensure Sara has a social life. Rebecca does what she has to in order to put the kibosh on the friendship, because it gets in her way."
Michalka was attracted to the script’s edgy, dark look at campus life. "It’s a creepy story, without crossing over into the horror genre," she says. "It’s still in the realm of reality, but it takes you into this world that is uneasy and unsettling from the very start. As Rebecca, Leighton definitely has a crazed look in her eyes. From what I’ve seen, she definitely scares me."
The actress, who has not attended college, says that working on the movie was an education in itself. "It was a very chill set. I was excited to be able to be part of a young and up-and-coming cast. Doing this film made it seem like I was going to college—minus the whole creepy roommate thing."
For Frances Fisher, who plays Rebecca’s distant mom, the film was a chance to earn points with her real life daughter. "She is a huge fan of ‘Gossip Girl,’" says Fisher. "When I heard Leighton Meester was doing it, I had to. And Leighton’s very good in a difficult role."
Fisher says, "Christian is a really specific director and in this movie he has created unseen terror. It exists mainly in your mind, which was a very smart way to approach it. What goes on in your mind is always so much scarier!"
The Roommate was shot almost entirely on location in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. "I think about 80 percent of the movie is shot on location, which is what I prefer," says Christiansen. "Even though it could seem like a traditional genre movie, everything had to be logical. We didn’t want conventional action movie stuff."
His goal in directing the film was to make everything look as realistic as possible and allow the actors to react to what happens in an authentic way. "That kind of realism gives the film an edge that, for me, is a little better," he says. "But we are showing L.A. in a quite different way. It’s not as sunny and bright as you would normally expect from an L.A. movie. It’s pretty dark."
Mallhi first envisioned The Roommate set in New York City, which he thought was a suitable background for his dark thriller. When the filmmakers decided to base the film in Los Angeles, he was a bit worried. "Most people don’t think ‘thriller’ when they think of southern California," says the writer. "But our production team managed to stay true to the original look and feel of the story through their design and filming techniques."
Campus scenes were shot at the University at Southern California, just south of the downtown area and at Loyola Marymount University’s campus on the city’s West Side. Downtown clubs and art galleries, as well as the busy nightlife on Hollywood Boulevard created a grittier version of the city than is usually seen in films. "We’re seeing it from a different perspective," says Meester. "Sara’s seeing Los Angeles for the very first time, and the audience is experiencing that with her."
One of the most striking locations used in the film is a historic house in Pasadena, which served as Rebecca’s parents’ home. Built in 1916, the house is an exact replica of Marie Antoinette’s Versailles getaway, Le Petit Trianon. Everything in the house is original from the doorknobs to the chandeliers. Its ballroom, a popular setting for fundraisers, is decked out with moldings of 14- and 17-karat gold.
Over the decades, guests have ranged from silent film legend Charlie Chaplin to the Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles. Now owned by Letty Isberra, the house has become a local landmark. The Isberra family is so proud of their home’s unusual provenance, they travelled to Versailles to visit its inspiration and had themselves photographed in front of the original. "Then we came home and took a picture in front of our house with the same clothes," says Isberra. "We had both pictures framed and we display them side by side. You can’t tell the difference."
While Christiansen’s concept for the film precluded the use of arbitrary shocks to create suspense, he ratcheted up the scariness with unconventional camera work and evocative setting.
"I wanted to make the camera a part of the storytelling, so it’s not just observing what the characters are doing," he says. "Phil Parmet, the director of photography, has done some truly great films, and when I learned he was available for this movie, I was very excited. His camera becomes part of the action. When we are trying to show the mood of the characters at certain points in the film, we use movement and focus to portray that. Working with Phil, making the movie seemed like painting. I put up the frame and he paints it in a dark and really exciting manner. You will definitely have sweat on your brow because there’s so much tension built into the visuals."
Parmet’s previous film work includes the thrillers The Ticking Clock and the 2007 remake of Halloween, as well as a number of acclaimed independent movies. "The desire to keep the film feeling grounded and real informed the decision to hire Phil," says Davison. "The more real it feels, the more the audience relates to it. And the more they relate to it, the more scared they will be because they are experiencing it as something palpable."
"And then our production designer, Gary Steele, did an amazing job of creating the sense of authenticity we were looking for in the settings," says Davison. "It all seems lived-in and not too precious."
Steele was intrigued by the storyline of The Roommate, and his interest soared when he learned Christiansen would be directing. "Christian’s previous movies got me really excited," says Steele. "I think he’s brilliant. I knew he would have an intense, original take on the material. In his earlier work, he has a certain way of shooting and using light that’s very interesting visually."
Because Sara is in college to study fashion design, clothing was an important element in the film, both to establish character and further the plot. Christian requested costume designer Maya Lieberman keep the palette muted, with occasional pops of color for emphasis. "It was also very important to Christian that the wardrobe be believable for college girls," says Lieberman. "But since it is Los Angeles, you can go a little further than you would if they were almost anywhere else."
"I wanted the wardrobe to describe the characters’ arcs during the film," the designer adds. "As one girl gets darker, the other gets lighter, until they meet in the middle, rather than Rebecca simply morphing into Sara."
Designing for Meester and Kelly was easy, she says. "Dressing two beautiful girls with great bodies was so much fun. They were very into the process of expressing character through fashion. Both of them like clothes, which makes it a lot easier. There are some actresses who are not interested, but both of them were."
In addition to typical college-girl jeans and hoodies, Lieberman incorporated a number of vintage and vintage-inspired pieces in Sara’s wardrobe. "She doesn’t come from a lot of money, but she knows style and she loves fashion," she says. "The challenge was to create all of that without it looking like she’s living beyond her means. Using vintage gives the impression that she finds these little awkward pieces and puts them together in a way that looks very stylish. She starts out pretty soft in a very innocent-looking little white blouse and she gets a little bit hardened by events, she’s a little tougher and a little darker, but subtly so."
Rebecca has the money to spend on expensive designer garments, but is less interested in fashion than the budding designer. "We wanted to show that she has nice things, but that she really doesn’t care about them," Lieberman explains. "And then as Rebecca starts morphing into Sara, we added brighter colors as well as accessories, because Sara wears hats and jewelry and scarves and all that stuff."
While the director intentionally avoided showy special effects and action-movie clichés, in the climactic confrontation between the two girls, he pulls out all the stops for a frightening fight to the finish. "When Sara and Rebecca finally face off, it’s spectacular," says Davison.
Rigged with wires to facilitate some thrilling stunts and armed with just her own two fists to defend herself, Kelly threw herself into the scene. "It’s not girly at all," she observes. "If you’ve ever seen girls fight, they throw punches as well as pull hair! It was very, very emotional."
Meester says the final battle is in keeping with what she learned in her research. "One of the doctors I spoke with said that people who have these kinds of personality disorders are not violent all the time," she explains. "In fact, they’re not usually violent, but when they are, they take it to the extreme—and we did!"
Christiansen is grateful for having so many resources available to him in his American film debut. "I’ve never been able to put together all of these elements before," he says. "In Denmark, we’re doing comparatively low-budget movies, so it was really a pretty amazing experience to have so much support for the film. Having a big crew and the facilities that were available meant we could do pretty much anything I wanted to do. I look at the finished film and I’m very pleased with what we accomplished.