13 Movie Tricks…Revealed!

How does James Franco cut off his arm in 127 Hours? How do actors have sex on film? Shoot heroin? Vomit? Marlow Stern exposes movie-making secrets you’ve always wondered about.

10.31.10 10:44 PM ET


James Franco, 127 Hours

During the premiere screening of director Danny Boyle’s ( Slumdog Millionaire) based-on-a-true-story film 127 Hours at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, three people fainted and one experienced a seizure after viewing the climactic scene when trapped hiker Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, hacks off his own arm with a blunt pen knife, according to The Guardian. And pulling off the seizure-inducing scene was no easy task. “At first, we used James' real arm with realistic make-up to match the initial stages of the cuts while his arm decomposed,” said Stephanie Scott, one of the film's make up artists. “At the point where he actually tears it away we used several prosthetic arms at various severed stages and a lot of movie blood. That, mixed with great acting, and talented editing is what creates the realism. It's the art of putting it all together that sells it.”


Armie Hammer, The Social Network

“I’m 6’5, 220, and there’s two of me,” exclaims statuesque Harvard/future Olympian rower-cum-Internet entrepreneur Tyler Winklevoss in David Fincher’s The Social Network. He, along with his identical twin brother, Cameron–and pal Divya Narenda–claim that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) stole their idea for a social networking site, and effectively serve as Zuckerberg’s nemesis in the film. Both twins appear to be played by Armie Hammer onscreen, but creating this effect required some serious CGI trickery. For shots that included both twins at the same time, in-demand model Josh Pence, who has a similar build to Hammer, stood in for the second twin, Fincher told Entertainment Weekly. Hammer later went into a studio, where he strapped his head into a harness, and filmed the other twin’s face and voice, which was then digitally superimposed over Pence’s face in the film. “I said, “Look, if you agree to do this, all the over-the-shoulders are going to be you, you gotta learn all the lines, you gotta be there for every shoot day,’” recalls Fincher, “‘And when push comes to shove, I’m gonna lop your head off and put Armie’s head on you.”


Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man

Peter Klaven, the effete, air bass-slapping, Rush-loving, groom-to-be played by Paul Rudd, is initially a hopeless cause. Friendless, he goes on a frantic search to find a best man for his wedding to Zooey (Rashida Jones). Before finding his bromantic partner/best man in Sydney Fife (Jason Segel), Peter, at his wife’s behest, pays a trip to her girlfriend Denise’s home to have a boy’s night out with her husband, Barry (Jon Favreau), and his pals. Klaven soon finds himself wrapped up in a game of “boat racing,” where two teams of three line up across from one another and chug a stein of beer against the opponent facing them, one after the other. After Peter beats Barry, sealing his team’s victory, he taunts him, and then proceeds to vomit Exorcist-style all over Barry. In order to create the projectile vomit scene, they outfitted Rudd with a high-pressure, air-charged vomit projector, according to the film’s DVD extras. There were two pressure tanks–one with vomit, made from cans of Hearty Tomato Progresso soup, and one with air, which allowed the vomit to project out. The result is, according to director John Hamburg, “the greatest vomit scene in the history of cinema.”


Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

The story of Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling), a passionate teacher at an inner city school who strikes up an unlikely friendship with one of his students (Shareeka Epps) after she discovers him high on crack in a bathroom stall, is a sincere, heartfelt piece of work. Gosling’s performance is masterful, and earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. A great deal of care went into every aspect of the low-budget production, including creating the crack and cocaine used by Dunne. “What ended up working was an off-white coffee mug that I broke up into about a million little pieces, then dyed in coffee,” prop master Jeremy Balon, told The Daily Beast. “During the scenes I would use a piece of the broken porcelain that most resembled a ‘rock’ and then set a small ball of tobacco behind it, so that when lit, a very small amount of smoke would come out. Movie magic.” And to create the cocaine, he and the director, Ryan Fleck, did a drug test in pre-production where they tried out various lines of fake cocaine–vitamin B12, Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), sugar, etc.–in the middle of their bustling production office. “To this day, the visual of this still makes me laugh,” said Balon. They ended up going with MSM (a dietary supplement for your joints), which Balon crushed and bagged.



Before he became an Oscar-winning director with Slumdog Millionaire, filmmaker Danny Boyle helmed the 1996 cult classic Trainspotting. Based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, the film, about a group of low-rent Scottish heroin addicts, vaulted Boyle and the film’s star, Ewan McGregor, into the spotlight. To create the film’s several heroin-injecting scenes, Boyle, who is no stranger to prosthetics (see: 127 Hours), “injected a colored liquid into a prosthetic arm,” property master Gordon Fitzgerald told The Daily Beast. “You can draw the plunger up and down and it looks as if the blood is mixing with the liquid.” They used “water and dye as the injectable substance” in the syringe, according to the film’s head of art direction, Tracey Gallacher.  


John Cho and Kal Penn, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

After Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) get high on marijuana, the two stoners get a bad case of the munchies. A mouthwatering TV commercial convinces the duo that what they need, more than anything else, are some White Castle burgers. They soon embark on an epic journey to satisfy their craving, squaring off against a racist cop, diarrhea-suffering Princeton University students, and a horny Neil Patrick Harris, in order to reach their ultimate goal. When they finally set foot in their own personal Mecca, they each order–with an assist from NPH–30 sliders, four large French fries, and four cherry Cokes (diet for Kumar). Unlike Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, who scarfed down all of her delectable Italian cuisine, Penn “was fine using a spit bucket,” the vegetarian told DVD Talk. “The producers and the studio went way out of their way to make sure they brought in veggie patties and had them cut up, and they were very delicious, so props to them for that.”


Phil LaMarr, Pulp Fiction

There are a number of memorable scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s deliciously lurid non-linear black comedy–the adrenalin shot, the bondage sequence, the list goes on. But how did they do the exploding head? The setup: After miraculously surviving a flurry of gunshots at point blank range in an apparent “act of God,” retro hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) kidnap the lone survivor, Marvin (Phil LaMarr), and go for a ride. After hitting a bump (according to Vega), his gun accidentally goes off, spreading Marvin’s brains all over the backseat of the car. In order to create the effect, “they did a mold of me in the position I thought I would be in at the point of impact,” LaMarr told The Daily Beast. “Then they built a shoulders-up bust of Marvin that had a hole in the back of the head connected to some kind of CO2 rig that would blow out blood and brain matter.” While LaMarr was not there when they shot the scene, he did see a test where they shot the goop onto a poster board. “I remember Quentin's primary note was: ‘more chunks,’” said LaMarr.


Shower Scene, Psycho

Voted “the most nail-biting moment” in the history of cinema by readers of The Daily Mail, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic is one of the most heavily studied scenes by film students. Newspapers in 1960 reported audiences fainting, vomiting, and staggering out of film screenings after witnessing Janet Leigh’s sudden stabbing death at the hands of cross-dressing killer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) just 30 minutes into the film. The scene consists of “78 pieces of film perfectly edited into a 45-second sequence featuring the piercing shriek of Bernard Herrmann’s violin,” according to Salon. In order to construct the scene, the notoriously meticulous Hitchcock tricked audiences by using an extra instead of Anthony Perkins in drag, discovered Salon, chocolate syrup for blood, and had a prop man violently stab watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, and casabas for the stabbing sound (he eventually went with the casaba). Although the makers of the film, including Janet Leigh herself, long claimed that the knife never pierced her body, it was later revealed that it does in three quick frames. There’s a fun little video tutorial here on how to remove the edge of a steak knife for horror film stabbing scenes.


William H. Macy and Maria Bello, The Cooler

This touching story of a despondent casino employee (William H. Macy) who falls for a hooker with a heart of gold (Maria Bello), was initially too hot for censors; the film was branded with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA for a tender love scene where the viewer catches a fleeting glimpse of Maria Bello’s pubic hair as Macy performs oral sex on her, followed by some wild, headboard-banging sex. To shoot the controversial scene in question, “you need actors who are game for getting naked physically and emotionally on screen and you need to reward the trust they put in you as a filmmaker with giving them the space to perform these moments,” said director Wayne Kramer in an interview with The Daily Beast. The trio were by themselves in a hotel room on a closed set, and, “with an assist from Mr. Jack Daniels,” according to Kramer, shot the scene. Macy and Bello “had the standard privacy patches”–double-sided sticky tape, like a Band-Aid to cover their genital areas–but Kramer said, “I don’t think they used them (much) or at all.  We were doing a lot of full frontal and they would have been visible in the shots.” Kramer added, “I think you either need to commit to doing these scenes in an authentic, naturalistic way or don’t do them at all.” And, Kramer added, “We were all laughing hysterically after each take–and I think the playfulness of the actors can be felt on screen.”


Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump

There are a variety of cool f/x employed in Robert Zemeckis’ tale of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a simple Alabama man who travels across the world influencing some of America’s most historic events in the latter part of the 20th century. In addition to incorporating Gump into archival footage, the effects team, led by visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, had the unenviable task of trying to make Gump’s commanding officer and best friend, the crippled Vietnam vet Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), appear to have no legs onscreen. There’s a protracted shot in a VA hospital where the orderly comes in, lifts Lt. Dan out of bed–revealing his stumps–and takes him away. “What’s happening there is the bed has holes in it–his legs are just down in there–the guy comes in, picks him up, his legs are dangling there, and he carries him out,” said Ralston on the film’s DVD extras. “The holes in the bed were repaired digitally so they don’t exist, the shadows of his real legs are removed, and Gary’s wearing blue stockings which helped us” in trying to remove the legs using CGI. Winning the Best Picture Oscar is no walk in the park, apparently.


Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and Bill Murray, Zombieland

In one of the best cameo sequences in recent memory, Bill Murray stars as himself in zombie makeup in this action-comedy tale of a dystopia where the world has been taken over by zombies. Shy guy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), action hero Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), sexy shotgun slinger Wichita (Emma Stone), and her little sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), find refuge in the Hollywood home of the Caddyshack star. While Columbus and Little Rock are off watching Ghost Busters in the mansion’s screening room, Murray treats Tallahassee and Wichita to a hookah packed with some grade-A marijuana, before the trio hilariously reenact a scene from Ghost Busters, while stoned. “For the hookah scene in Zombieland we used herbal cigarettes as pot,” props worker Katrina Rice told The Daily Beast. “Whenever actors are actually smoking in a scene, we break apart and use the contents from herbal cigarettes to either roll in joints or use in situations like the hookah one. They are tobacco and nicotine free so they make an excellent stand-in”—much, it seems, to the chagrin of pro-marijuana activist Harrelson.


Albert Dupontel, Irréversible

* Warning: Gruesome

This 2002 French film, written, directed, photographed, and edited by notorious shock filmmaker Gaspar Noé, was voted the No. 1 most disturbing movie of all-time by GreenCine, and caused several people to pass out in the theater when the film premiered at Cannes. The rape-revenge story, told backward, concerns a trio of friends–lovers Marcus and Alex (played by real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel). In a nightmarish opening sequence, the two men go searching for a man known as le Tenia (“the tapeworm”) in a gay Parisian S&M club called The Rectum, and the scene ends with one of the most brutal deaths in the history of cinema, as a man’s head is smashed to pieces with a fire extinguisher, like a pumpkin. On the film’s DVD extras, visual effects supervisor Rodolphe Chabrier talks about how they filmed it. The crew shot two scenes: one with Dupontel holding an extinguisher cut in half, allowing him to “hit” the actor without actually striking him, and another with Dupontel holding a real extinguisher and bashing the head in of a latex face filled with blood. The effects crew used rotoscope techniques to match the CGI face with the actor’s, then used matte painting to create the bruises, blood, and show the deformed face at different stages. They also added movements to the mutilated body through their own software, dubbed “Trukor.” When they filmed the scene, “even the people around [Dupontel] in the club thought he was really killing someone,” Noé told Vice Magazine. “People were screaming.”


Nicolas Cage, The Wicker Man

Although Neil LaBute’s American remake is a far cry from the 1973 British horror classic, the story of a sheriff (Cage) investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a small, remote island who discovers a strange mystery involving the island’s neo-pagan community, still gives chills. The film’s shock ending–at least to this generation of filmgoers–elicits the biggest shrieks, as (spoiler alert!) the sheriff is burned alive in a large wicker man-a wicker effigy used in human sacrifice by the ancient Gauls–as the island’s creepy inhabitants look on, chanting a neo-pagan hymn. In order to recreate the haunting end scene, “wide shots of the burning was done with a mannequin of Nic Cage, this was articulated by remote by Tony Lindala, creature effects” said art direction head Michael Diner in an interview with The Daily Beast. “We had only one live burn and kept it going until there was not much left. Secondly, we built a second duplicate wicker man head, for the close up work with the actor. This allowed us complete control of smoke and fire effects” many of which were added using CGI in post-production.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.