Making History Breathe: Creating the World of The Debt
To keep the suspense high in The Debt, filmmakers carefully created the East Berlin safe house.
Two weeks of intense rehearsals were held at Ealing Studios; the setting of the safe house/apartment on a crumbling East Berlin block was built by production designer Jim Clay (BAFTA Award winner for Children of Men) and his department as a 360-degree environment, carefully following the script’s specifications to create a genuinely claustrophobic atmosphere for Christensen to interact with Chastain, Worthington, and Csokas. Minor adjustments were made with regard to blocking needs as well as for the characters being impacted by their environment.
Principal photography commenced in chronological order – with the safe house scenes filmed over three weeks – so that the actors could maintain the momentum from the rehearsals and better play out the festering tension between captors and captive.
Worthington notes, “It was our good fortune to be shooting in sequence – a great luxury to have in making a movie – and not having to suspend disbelief, given the tangible nature of the set.”
“It wasn’t unlike working in the theater,” says Csokas. “We would go into the studio and rehearse on the same sets every day. When the crew got in there with the lights and the cameras, it became more claustrophobic.”
“By the end, I wanted to kick the place down,” admits Worthington. “Just like the character, I didn’t want to be there any more.”
Chastain reflects, “I was kind of hoping that I wouldn’t like Jesper when I first met him in rehearsals; I even tried not to get to know him that well. But I found him to be absolutely lovely, and I thought, ‘Well, the scenes are going to be impossible to shoot now, because I really like this guy.’
“But he’s such a good actor that as soon as we got onto the safe house set, I just hated him; hated that he was there, tied to that radiator. I just wanted to get away. I would leave the set at night exhausted.”
Clay reveals, “The safe house set was inspired by a series of Francis Bacon paintings showing his lover’s final desperate moments. I had happened to see these at the Tate gallery – just after John Madden had sent me the script. It struck me that these paintings had a real relevance to Vogel; he is captured and tied up in a room, facing the moment of his truth and the abyss of mortality. We tried to create that atmosphere on the set, what with the dark walls and a black frame around the lone figure of Vogel, and [director of photography] Ben Davis conveyed that.
“We also tried to layer in a back story for the apartment itself, to give it color on the walls which suggested that the apartment once had happier days and a purpose, being occupied by young art students.”
“You could have moved into the apartment,” marvels Thykier. “You’d look behind the doors and find what would be there; no detail was left to chance. As soon as everyone –cast and crew – saw what Jim and his department were building, the bar was set.”
The verisimilitude of the safe house set was enhanced by Clay’s team’s use of actual materials; distressed door and window frames, floors and tiles – much of which had been found at demolition sites visited as part of location scouting in Budapest. Clay notes, “My set decorator, John Bush, and I sought out all those dressing details, and shipped them back to London.
“We didn’t have to paint those elements. They had the natural decay of time, which lends an element of reality that is virtually impossible for even a skilled crew to achieve.”
The crumbling architecture in and around the set also underscores the corrosive effects of the lie that pervades The Debt. Worthington notes, “It certainly informed my performance. It was this little world that our characters are forced into with Vogel.
“We had to come in prepared. As a director, John shoots fast and trusts the actors, but he will push you in the right direction towards what he wants.”
The production then moved to the previously scouted Budapest, which had been judged capable of providing the textured background that would ably suggest East Berlin in the 1960s. Arriving in the city at the end of a particularly harsh winter, the production was able to take advantage of a cold and dampness that pervaded exteriors and kept the streets clearer than expected during daylight hours. The cast and crew’s endurance was tested by the long and freezing night shoots.
Most of the desired locations were grouped around one central area; these included the safe house exteriors, Vogel’s clinic, and a re-created Berlin Wall. Clay hastens to clarify that the latter “is not the iconic Berlin Wall that everyone came to know, but instead the block-and-concrete that was rather hastily thrown up during the period in the 1960s in which this part of the story is set. This was done in the areas where citizens had tried to escape.”
The “ghost station,” where the Mossad trio convenes to smuggle Vogel out of Germany, was played by an actual train station in Istvantelek, just outside Budapest. The sequence was finalized for the script only after visits to the real-life location, with the specific geography and parameters carefully written in; the presence of an on-site bridge in particular allowed the filmmakers to maximize the locale’s potential. “One should do that more often, really, writing the script around a location,” offers Madden. “It worked out so well…
“…although coordinating the arrival of an actual train was a nightmare. But the scope and scale of the station added so much to the scenes, and not to the budget.”
Six weeks later, cast and crew decamped to Tel Aviv, having been accepted as one of the few international productions to film in Israel in recent years. Evanstone Films, the production company of Eitan Evan, is based in Tel Aviv. Evan notes, “I was able to coordinate production services in Israel, so it was like wearing two hats.”
In recreating the 1990s, the filmmakers’ mandate was a sharp visual contrast between not only the decades but also between East Berlin and Tel Aviv, underlining the sense of the three characters having left the claustrophobic darkness of the safe house behind. While shooting on Tel Aviv streets, cinematographer Davis worked to get as much of the city on-screen as possible.
“For John, there was no question that it was important for the movie to film there, given its sense of place,” says Thykier. “The searing light and heat of Israel exposes the characters and leaves no place to hide. The notions of darkness and light were central to the story.”
Locations in Israel also included the scenic, Mediterranean-lit Dan Acadia Hotel, in Herzeliya on the Sea, where the book launch and other sequences were filmed, and where cast and crew and production offices were headquartered; and Lod’s Ben Gurion International Airport.
Mirren says, “In Tel Aviv, history and modernity co-exist. It’s an extraordinary city in a fascinating country.”
Evan reports, “With every kind of geography and climate, a highly developed film industry, and well-trained crews, Israel is equipped for films of any size.”
Proving the producer’s point, four lines of a main road in Tel Aviv were closed for two days so that a crucial in-broad-daylight sequence involving stunt work could be realistically staged. “This took about six weeks to arrange,” says Evan. “But we got everybody in agreement – even the neighbors.”
The production then returned to Budapest, which this time doubled for the Ukraine; pivotal scenes were shot at Lipot, an imposing and eerie hospital building just outside Budapest.
Kris Thykier comments, “The Debt has an incredible cast acting out a story with an emotional complexity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats as the characters’ fates unwind.”
John Madden concludes, “This is a thriller that keeps tightening the knot, with a sense that panic is just barely being held at bay.
“The film’s title has multiple layers: historical, political and personal. The Debt asks questions that we face daily; ‘What would I have done in this situation?’ ‘How would I have behaved in those circumstances?’ ‘What is the price I would – or will – pay?’”