Because Old takes place primarily in one location, finding that location became one of the single most important tasks facing the filmmakers. Together, they quickly set their sights on the Caribbean, specifically the Dominican Republic. M. Night Shyamalan and his key creative partners scouted three separate sites in early 2020 before choosing the majestic beach at Playa El Valle as the principal place where they would shoot. Not only was it breathtakingly beautiful, it also had just the right sense of isolation—though the remote nature of the beach, which lies roughly 30 minutes outside the city of Samana, created logistical hurdles for the production.
“The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, and the people are wonderful and really kind,” says Old producer Marc Bienstock. “But the challenge with going to any smaller country is the infrastructure that’s available for filmmaking. So, a lot of the equipment, and the crew, and the resources that we needed to make this movie needed to be brought in from outside of the country. In this case, the Dominican Republic is an island in the middle of the ocean. So, bringing in all this equipment and these resources and these people, it was quite a big deal.”
Filming took place during 2020 when much of the world was in lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This created additional complications, and no detail was overlooked to ensure the health and safety of the cast and crew. Additionally, Old was shot in a short time frame, meaning that Shyamalan and his cast and crew needed to work swiftly and efficiently. “There was no room for error at all,” Shyamalan says. “We literally did not have one extra day on that beach.”
Fortunately, Shyamalan is known for his thorough planning. Before cameras roll, he meticulously storyboards all his films; once those storyboards are complete, he rarely deviates from them—they serve as a kind of creative Bible, not only for the writer-director but also for each of the principal behind-the-scenes departments including cinematography, production design and costume. The approach proved to be an excellent way to make a wide-open space feel both confined and threatening. “It becomes very claustrophobic for these individuals on this beach,” Shyamalan says. “You can see them panicking. They’re trying to get out, but there’s no door to leave….. What used to be beautiful now becomes oppressive and dangerous. The water, which looks so beautiful at first, just becomes death to you. That slow turn from something that was safe to something that’s unsafe is a goal of ours in the movie.
So how do you transform paradise into a prison? It was the central conundrum facing Old production designer Naaman Marshall, whose previous collaborations with writer-director M. Night Shyamalan include The Visit and the moody Apple TV+ series Servant.
When the characters first emerge onto the beach through a striated slot canyon, they’re rendered nearly speechless by the majesty of the scenery that awaits them. But they then begin to feel a creeping sense of claustrophobia as they realize that they’ve entered a place with no obvious way out. “The beach becomes lonely,” Marshall says. “It becomes scary. It becomes the villain—the ideal of isolation and being stuck.” To bolster that sense of the vacationers’ feeling trapped, Marshall set out to create the enormous rock wall occupying one end of the beach that Shyamalan had outlined in his script, using an existing wall at Playa El Valle as a starting point. After taking photographs and measurements of the site in the Dominican Republic, Marshall returned to his home base in San Luis Obispo, CA, where he created a model of the wall that served as the basis for his design.
“Once we landed on the idea of being on a beach that needed to feel secluded and locked in, and our actors are stuck here, you feel the weight of this wall,” Marshall says. “El Valle presented a section of wall that was existing, so my job was to take our wall and blend and merge it into that wall, with the use of plaster, scaffolding, foam, paint and sand. We tied into the existing wall with a lagoon behind us and a very small stream going under our wall.” Before the wall could be completed, though, a hurricane struck the location, washing away a roughly 150-foot section of the barrier and tearing away cables from the support scaffolding. The portion of the wall that remained was missing sections of plaster and was leaning to one side. There was nothing to do except begin again, although Marshall and his crew did attempt to shift the wall back as far as possible from the water the second time around. When the wall was finally completed, the imposing structure stood roughly 32 feet tall and 900 feet wide (later, in post-production, the visual effects team expanded the wall even further, using photographs of the natural rock face to digitally recreate the proper variations in texture on the wall’s surface).
But Marshall’s design efforts on Old extended well beyond creating the massive wall. The creative choices made by that visual team, which includes cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, costume designer Caroline Duncan and set decorator
All the choices were in keeping with Shyamalan’s overall vision for Old. “When you work with Night, you have the sense that he has the whole film in his head,” Marshall says. “He’s already worked out the movements of camera. The camera movements are driving the set design. The set design is driving the camera movements. The colors are designing the film. We’re just this whole family of filmmakers that, knowing Night, we all know what drives him.”
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