In Director Roseanne Liang’s sophomore film, SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, the throes of World War II are taking place, when Captain Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) joins the all-male crew of a B-17 bomber with a top-secret package. Caught off guard by the presence of a woman on a military flight, the crew tests Maude’s every move. Just as her quick wit is winning them over, strange happenings and holes in her backstory incite paranoia surrounding her true mission. But this crew has more to fear…lurking in the shadows, something sinister is tearing at the heart of the plan. Trapped between an oncoming air ambush and an evil lurking within, Maude must push beyond her limits to save the hapless crew and protect her mysterious cargo.
For the release of SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to chat with Director Roseanne Liang where they discussed everything from how she knew Chloë Grace Moretz was the right choice for Maude, what caused Liang to direct via text, and the actual inspiration behind the creature design.
Let’s talk a bit about how this project came about. What was the process like in making this story your own and what elements were important to you that you really wanted to get convey to the viewer visually and/or emotionally?
Roseanne Liang: I was new to Hollywood after securing representation with my action short Do No Harm. I responded to this script of SHADOW IN THE CLOUD when it came into my inbox. I was able to work on the script with the support and faith of producers and financiers who were all on the same page about what an exciting, out-of-the-box proposition this was.
I liked that this project was a genre-bender, I loved that I couldn’t predict where it was going to go. It felt fresh and presented an exciting challenge for me as a filmmaker. There was only really one rule for where to put our camera, and that was inside Garrett’s head. She’s not the most sensible person, but she’s my kinda hero. My job as a director was to make sure the audience would root for her and understand why she took the extreme actions she did.
When it came time to cast the role of Maude Garrett, what was that process like and how did you know that Chloë Grace Moretz was the one to embody the character?
Roseanne Liang: To be honest, we were looking at older actresses than Chloë. My producer suggested we meet, and from our first video call I knew that she was it. Chloë has such a rare and wonderful combination of talents – the action prowess of Charlize, the depth and screen presence of Meryl Streep – but what resonated most with me was that she had a lived-in kinship to the character of Maude Garrett. Chloë knows more than most the constant negotiation and burden of wasted energy when one is repeatedly undermined, underestimated and objectified.
Some of the most tension-filled moments in the film take place with Maude in the cockpit underneath the plane (I don’t know if cockpit is the right word – sorry!). Can you talk about filming those scenes – I can only imagine it must have been wild considering it was such a small space.
Roseanne Liang: It’s all good – the ball under the B-17 is called a Sperry turret, after the Sperry Corporation that designed and manufactured it. I didn’t know this before I took on this project!
You’re absolutely right about it being kinda wild – logistically and psychologically. The Sperry turret is an incredibly tight space – we had to scale it up about 10% to even fit our lens inside when an actor was in place. For 2 weeks, we filmed inside that metal and glass ball which was mounted on a working hydraulic rig – It looked like a giant eyeball on a stick. The art dept and SPFX team did an incredible job of making the controls actually work. Chloë could only get in and out via a wheeled set of stairs. She’s genuinely claustrophobic, so we mostly shot with one ‘side’ of the turret off. Scenes that required all sides on, we only really had 20 mins to shoot. It was super uncomfortable to be crunched up like that for 10 hours a day. Chloë got cabin fever in that thing – she told me that she kinda lost track of time. She was doing really long takes sometimes 12 pages a pop because it took so long to reposition the camera, the sides of the sperry and the bluescreen out the windows.
Soundwise, it was also a doozy. We had seven male actors outside in a windowless shipping container in the parking lot feeding lines and occasional improvisations to Chloë, to really capture the nuanced micro-expressions and real-time reactions to their words. Chloë could only hear the actors if she put on her headphones. I was in video village within visual range, but not really in hearing range, so I had a microphone to speak to Chloë. The sound guy had rigged it so that I could speak to her and the actors separately if I wished. Chloë had a mic stuck inside the turret to respond to me and the actors, but it was a bit harder for her to speak to just me, so we ended up communicating via text sometimes. That was the first time I’d directed via text before, but I thought it worked well in the end!
When it came to the creation of the creature, I could definitely see a parallel to The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” That said, were there other places you pulled inspiration from?
Roseanne Liang: It’s so interesting – the Twilight Zone episode is something that US audiences immediately recall because that episode and its remakes have a huge imprint on American popular cultural history. For me it was a reference, but not a seminal one. I started instead with the history of the Gremlin – less the Joe Dante movie, and more the fact that Gremlins were originally propaganda tool used by the Allied forces to lift morale, which then morphed into actual testimonies of sightings of Gremlin-like creatures by Air Force pilots of the time. I didn’t realise when I began that Gremlins are to the Allied Air Forces in the 1940s, what aliens are to Roswell in the 1950s.
We gathered up a file of visual references and historical lore around these creatures first. Then we worked with Weta Digital on a biological profile for the creature, as if the Gremlins were the product of a lost, unknown evolutionary path that diverged from known genuses and species. We chose rodents because of the bat-like history of Gremlins, and watched lots of videos of vampire bats for motion. Then we had fun talking about other idiosyncratic characteristics that might’ve evolved – eg. the tooth-tongued eating apparatus of deep sea hagfish and the ‘stridulating’ high frequency vibrating mating calls of some crocodiles.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from the experience of making this film and is there anything you hope people will take away from this film upon viewing?
Roseanne Liang: Logistically the biggest lesson I’ve learned is ‘where possible, fix it in prep’. We were a lean and mean production, and were beholden to a number of time restrictions out of our control, but the experience of working with Weta Digital – one of the best VFX companies in the biz – opened my eyes to their nerdishly joyful, meticulous approach. Good stuff takes time. I really look forward to getting stuck into something bigger and as fun in the future.
Reception-wise, I’ve been told that this film is like salted caramel – it’s an acquired taste that, when people love it, they really love it! That’s a beautiful description to me. I love exploring the edges of genre, and it’s a delight to me when people respond positively.
Most of all, I hope people will have a good time watching this film together with other people – at the theatre or the drive-in where possible, but also at home. It’s a movie made to be experienced with others, and we’ve had such wonderful responses from groups of friends and families watching from home. There are deeper takeaways of course – about the systems we have to exist in, about the language we use and about facing up to our monsters. Something Chloë and I loved about Garrett is how messy and scrappy she is, because that’s how life can feel right now.