Based on the book by Ron Rash, with a script written by Christopher Kyle, and film direction by Susanne Bier, “Serena,” is an old-old fashioned thriller centered around the mysterious, and haunting characters of George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper), Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), Buchanan (David Dencik), and Galloway (Rhys Ifans). The plot-line, although feeling somehow a bit familiar, finds a way to create imagery for the audience that is difficult to look away from. The story begins with George, a businessman running a timber company with his partner Buchanan, who appears to have a questionable attachment to George. Longing for a companionship with a deeper meaning, although not necessarily looking for one, George happens to cross paths with the beautiful Serena – a brilliant young woman with a mysterious and tragic past. The two are quickly married, and Serena begins to aid in the management of the business, earning respect from men in a “man’s world” by proving her intelligence and tying up loose ends.
Soon after she has settled into her new role as wife, and her new title as partner, Serena is thrilled to learn she is carrying George’s baby, and that she is finally going to be part of the family she’s been hoping for much of her life. All is going well for the newlyweds, until (as is the inevitable case with all movies of this nature) an unforeseeable tragic event occurs. In this case, a logging accident causes Galloway – George’s ex-con hunting guide, who also works at the camp – to lose a hand. A very pregnant Serena rushes to his aid, saving his life; however this good deed did not come without a high price for Serena. She becomes fearful that everything she worked so hard for will be ripped away, and this births a rage inside her which was forged from tragedy, and becomes fueled by paranoia. Trying to protect her marriage, and not lose the love of her life, she sets into motion a string of events which can only result in the destruction of everything George considers important.
The talent chosen to portray these characters that are responsible for driving such a dark plot could not have been chosen better. However, it takes more than good actors and casting directors to make a good film, and for those who have never made a movie it’s easy to forget that while success of a film’s opening week does in many cases ride on the faces hired to play the roles, that there is a whole lot more that goes into making a film good, and good enough to make sure you can hold an audience for more than a week. The production crew for Serena seemed to really understand that, and while watching “Serena” the sense of passion for the film’s production values overall is really noticeable as the film has a lot of interesting technical features that make it worth the trip to the cinema.
A standout value was the detail of the location; Serena is an American tale, set at the end of the 1920’s, and taking place almost entirely in the Smoky Mountains located in North Carolina. However, the production chose to film entirely in Prague and surrounding countryside of the Czech Republic. However should the production staff have chosen to film in any other location “Serena” would have been a completely different film. Peter McAleese, the film’s executive producer (American Odyssey 2015, Bridget Jones’s Diary 2001), explains that the decision was based on finance, as the Czech Republic has a very attractive rebate for filming there. Additionally, the scenery naturally bares a striking resemblance to the Smoky Mountains, so it was a very cost-effective way to maintain the illusion of North Carolina in the late 1920’s. It seems to be a trend in the film/television circuit, shooting footage for American-based/supported productions in places that aren’t America.
While not every film buff will agree with producing a film abroad, the money being saved on location costs can now be used elsewhere, raising production values on a “low-budget” film where money affects every aspect and time can cause a tight budget to run out quickly. Just because the film saved money by filming in a location outside of the U.S. doesn’t mean they didn’t spend it. The term low-budget is broad, and not always as low as one might assume; a film such as Serena still cost at least a few million to make, and had the film’s producers chosen to film elsewhere, the production quality in terms of design may have gone down as the budget would have been considerably lower. Trading in America for the Czech Republic though was not a simple task. Yes, the area was able to provide the production with everything it would need in terms of surroundings, but not right away, the crew had to go in search of locations that would serve their purpose. When the location scouts were searching for places that could effectively become the towns of Kingsport and Waynesville, the crew was limited in spaces they could define as sufficient, considering those two towns need to be next to a train track.
The film producers lucked out when they came across the village of Kolec, which has a train track. Once they found the location the production designer, Richard Bridgland (Fright Night 2011, Resident Evil 2002) then had to construct the appearance of two different towns – for which he used the same buildings but dressed them differently to display the difference in the economic wealth of areas. The production crew built a station, had a bit of railway closed down for the days when they were shooting the movie, and used an original train from the 1930’s (which they were able to get from a museum). Once the train cars were obtained, the set crew then redecorated the inside of the cars so they would embody the feeling of the period and location more accurately. Additionally, one has to assume that building this all took time. So not only did the filmmakers have to invest in the decor of the film so it would define the era, at the same time as being appealing to the eye, but they also had to account for the time and crewmen it would take to build it.
Building a set isn’t the only thing that costs money; it is costly to acquire high caliber actors, distinguished costume and makeup artists, photographers, effects artists and the list goes on. Not to mention costs of getting the film promoted and distributed once it’s completed. In cinema, and the making of a film there is always more to the completed product than what the audience is looking at directly. Understanding a little bit more about the values of a production can lend insight and perhaps change the way audiences interpret the worth of a film. So yes, while it’s easy to judge a film by what you’re looking at, perhaps when watching “Serena” look a little bit closer as the film’s final product is an excellent display of how much more work goes into creating a piece of art than what meets the eye.
“Serena” opens in theaters on March 27th. For more information about the film visit: