The Cast of 'Old' Had Much More Fun on That Beach Than Their Characters Did
Vicky Krieps, Alex Wolff, and Gael García Bernal discuss filming during quarantine and the nature of time itself.
For those of us lucky enough to spend the 2020 pandemic lockdowns largely in a state of perpetual boredom, it was odd how aware we became of time passing, or not passing at all, or passing so fast we felt as if we couldn't keep up, dilating and contracting in ways that time shouldn't without the events, interactions, and trips that typically serve as markers. In M. Night Shyamalan's latest supernatural horror thriller Old, this effect is multiplied exponentially: A group of people gets trapped on a secluded beach where minutes turn into days and hours into years, with children growing suddenly into adults and adults into older versions of themselves, seemingly without reason. (Obviously, there's a third-act twist that explains it, since this is a Shyamalan film.)
During an interview with costars Vicky Krieps, Gael García Bernal, and Alex Wolff, the very meaning of time itself naturally came up more than once. According to Krieps, who plays Prisca, a mother of two young children who drastically age in the blink of an eye, experienced some déjà vu when reading the script. "All of us, we had spent weeks and weeks on our own in our apartments kind of feeling trapped, in my case with my kids," she says. "So, when I read the script, for obvious reasons, I felt very connected to the character. It moved me in a deeper sense, because it was talking about life and time passing. And we were on our own, secluded from the world, [thinking], you know, Who am I? Who am I without the others?"
García Bernal, who plays Prisca's husband, Guy, felt similarly. "This was in May or June of last year, so it was a huge moment of uncertainty," he says, adding that, right before he was given the Old script, he had coincidentally just watched the 1962 Luis Buñuel surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, about a group of wealthy guests unable to leave their own dinner party. "And it really hit in a very deep way and dealt with something that was similar to what we were going through, which was this alteration of how time passes, not in an empiric way, but in a more interpretive way. The pandemic changed completely the concept of time, of what we were experiencing. So to do something that plays with that was fascinating."
The cast members had to arrive two weeks early to their shooting site in the Dominican Republic in order to properly quarantine. "We could use that time to really properly prepare, because Night knew that weather conditions [there] are so extreme," Krieps explained.
"It was a lot like camp," said Alex Wolff, who plays the teen version of Prisca and Guy's son, Trent (Thomasin McKensie plays their daughter, Maddox). "We were all kind of claustrophobic in this fun experience. It was a very, very, very stressful camp in terms of like, we go and we do this very stressful work. But there was the beautiful beach and the beautiful ocean as a reward. It was never too taxing because there was always this unbelievable prize at the end of the day, which was the beach."
"Funny enough, right before we started shooting, there was a thunderstorm which brought in so much water that it took away the beach," Krieps said. "So, right before shooting, there was no beach. Night stayed all calm, and he said, 'OK, we don't have a beach. Basically, we don't have a set. We have to rebuild the wall. But it will be fun. And I will tell you that the day we start shooting we'll have a beach.' And that's how it went. He just believed in it. And it just happened like that. After we wrapped the beach, he actually did an Indian ceremony to thank the beach. We all put flowers into the ocean."
Because they were all in such close quarters together beforehand, the actors felt they had much more time to prepare for their roles and bounce ideas off of each other. "Me and Vicky were neighbors in the hotel," Bernal said. "Our gardens were connected, so we would spend a lot of time swimming and talking and cooking and just philosophically wondering what the hell happens with Guy and with the crisis of the marriage and we would just talk about all of this."
Not only did the actors need to work on lines and characters with each other, but also conceptualize what it would feel like to rapidly and mysteriously age into an elderly version of themselves. "What we found out during the shooting is that we actually created the same kind of old person," Krieps said. "I had thought of my grandmother, and I think he had thought of his grandfather. And one day I catch him rehearsing the walk, and I was looking at him, and I was like, 'Oh, that's what I thought my old person would look like!' It was so funny."
"Nolan is a little genius," Wolff said of his young co-star Nolan River, who plays the 6-year-old version of Trent. "I would just imitate him. I would imitate everything he did, basically. I've never matured so I've just basically been 6 since I was 6. It was like, OK, my brain is done developing and my body just got tall and hairy and I have a beard and yet my brain just didn't develop, so that was easy. It was just like, oh, great. I have been typecast as a child."
Shyamalan's ever-mobile camera is even more frenetic here, as he deliberately obscures characters' faces and bodies so as not to give too much of their transformations away too soon. There's an extra long take about halfway through, when everyone on the beach is figuring out what it is exactly that is happening to them, and, as anyone would, completely freaking out. "Things are happening so fast that you have a feeling you cannot even follow it," Krieps explained. "The camera is going from one person to the next person and creating this movement, almost like a choreography showing you what you want to see next, but then leaving right at the moment where you would like to stay. We had to all be acting at the same time although the camera was moving from one person to the next one."
It's easy to get bogged down in the twists and turns and supernatural thrills of it all, but Old does have a few very clear messages about aging and time and spending your best years with the people you love that the actors gravitated toward. "It's very hooky and very tasty," Wolff said of the script. "But I found that there was a whole other level of movie running underneath it, where there's this whole metaphorical allegorical underpinning. So I felt that that was a special thing that comes around once a century. Kubrick said a cool thing about how a movie should be an emotional experience. And I think you have to remove plot or you have to remove something like that sometimes for people to experience their primal experience, if they feel something they don't know why."
Bernal also read it as an allegory for relationships themselves: "The characters that me and Vicky play, we are going through a crisis that is one of the most common crises, a couple in a crisis situation, but one of the most abstract ones as well. It is not an empiric problem that can be solved. It's a strange little grudge that we have to carry all the time. And who knows, maybe there will never be an answer to that."
"I would like to believe that the movie is telling the people to stop running and start living," Krieps said. "The beach is saying, 'Hey, guys, where are you guys running to? There's nothing. I am the beach, this is what there is, as is each moment of your life, each moment of your life is all there is, there is nothing more. And if you want to find more, you might find it in yourself.'"