CARRIE’s Prom Scene: An Oral History (Part One)

On the film's 40th anniversary, a look at this incredible scene from those who were there.

40 years ago, Carrie White went to the prom. It did not go well.

Director Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel is consistently hailed as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but it is less remembered for being one of the funniest horror films of all time. At a packed screening I attended two weeks ago (which functioned both as a 40th anniversary retrospective and a fundraiser for star Nancy Allen’s weSPARK cancer charity), I was struck by how consistent the laughs were, both unintentional and – more often – aggressively intentional. Piper Laurie has often mentioned that she thought she was making a black comedy while shooting the film ("I laughed so much during the whole making of this movie – I can't tell you – at how preposterous I was," she told NPR in 2013), and here’s the thing: she wasn’t wrong.

I can’t stress enough what a different experience it is to see Carrie on a big screen in a crowded theater, an opportunity most people under the age of 50 have never been afforded. Perhaps due to my own unfortunate brush with teenage pariahdom, I had always taken the film deadly seriously, as a sort of revenge parable/angsty character study. But at the weSPARK screening I attended, it was suddenly revealed to me as the blackest of comedies – the rapturous, cosplaying audience around me laying De Palma’s intention bare with each mordant peal of laughter.

“He was always looking for laughs in the film,” Allen told me while reflecting on the shoot. “As we know, any horror film benefits from a little bit of a laugh.”

Yes, there are unintentional moments of comedy in Carrie. After 40 years, certain elements of any film – particularly a film about teenagers – will inevitably feel dated. Even De Palma’s intentional stabs at humor don’t always work, most notoriously the goofy, helium-laced scene where Tommy (William Katt) and his friends go tuxedo shopping. But most of them do, thanks in large part to a game cast and especially Piper Laurie, who channeled De Palma’s ghoulish, decadent sense of humor perhaps better than any performer before or since as Carrie’s abusive, histrionic mother Margaret.

In contrast to Laurie, Sissy Spacek plays Carrie entirely straight, which was absolutely the correct choice. It is critical that we sympathize with the teenage loner’s plight from beginning to end, and Spacek movingly conveys the character’s wounded nature and, later, her tentative hopefulness as she makes a courageous effort to connect with the outside world whose routine pleasures (and attendant heartaches) Margaret has continually forbidden her from taking part in. Even as we know going in that Carrie’s efforts are doomed to fail in spectacular fashion, we can’t help but hope this time things will turn out differently for her. It is a testament to the sheer craftsmanship involved that we hope this even up to the very second the bucket of pig’s blood falls from the heavens, fulfilling not only Margaret’s ghastly prom night prophecies but Carrie’s own worst fears about herself.

As opposed to a ‘70s horror contemporary like The Exorcist, which offers viewers a semblance of comfort in its denouement, Carrie is an unrepentantly bleak film. De Palma toys sadistically with his audience, first as Carrie’s prom night dreams are cruelly dashed and finally with Sue Snell’s (Amy Irving) literal dream-turned-nightmare, in which the vengeful Carrie’s bloody hand shoots from the dirt, effectively severing any hope for Sue’s vindication.

Even bleaker, Margaret’s twisted worldview is itself validated by the horrific climax, suggesting that the seemingly-liberated reality represented by Sue’s day-drinking mother (Priscilla Pointer) is, as Margaret herself so vociferously announces, “Godless.” In one sense, De Palma’s film can be viewed as an indictment of the Me generation of the 1970s, which subsumed the earnest countercultural/social movements of the previous decade and twisted them to suit a conformist, capital-driven culture in which “liberation” came to mean gratification for the self as opposed to the betterment of the many.

The real tragedy of Carrie is that its title character, caught between two merciless extremes, is ultimately unable to find salvation in either. Her only recourse becomes expressing her own terrific inner power through violence, tearing down the dual worlds that tormented her in a cathartic blast of fire. As viewers bearing witness to Carrie’s terrific anguish during the film’s first two-thirds, there’s a catharsis there for us as well; the audience at the weSPARK screening erupted in howls of shock and exhilaration as lights bathed the theater in red at the very moment Carrie did the same on-screen, cueing us that De Palma’s delirious carnage was about to begin.

As an exercise in tension and release, there are few sequences in the genre as effective and bracing as Carrie’s prom, the dark centerpiece and greatest set piece of De Palma’s classic film. From the suddenly-glowing Carrie’s dazzling entrance into the sparkly lion’s den to the final, fiery bloodbath visualized intermittently in split-screen, it is one of the greatest, most perfectly-rendered sequences in horror and even cinematic history.

On the occasion of Carrie’s 40th anniversary, I spoke with close to a dozen individuals who helped bring the sequence to life, including cinematographer Mario Tosi, art director Jack Fisk, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, editor Paul Hirsch, associate producer Louis A. Stroller and stars Nancy Allen and P.J. Soles. De Palma, ever the elusive figure, was not made available for an interview despite multiple attempts, but if you care to know his thoughts on prom night, remembrances from the director are widely available elsewhere, including in the excellent Noah Baumbach/Jake Paltrow documentary De Palma released earlier this year.

Here, I’ve pulled from a range of sources both above and below the line. Some, like stuntwoman Mary Peters and camera operator Joel King – who both risked and even sustained physical harm to fulfill De Palma’s vision – have rarely if ever been heard from before. Their participation is a direct testament to the collaborative nature of filmmaking itself, whose disparate elements rarely come together with such combustible force and synchronicity as they did in Carrie.

I. After initially (and unsuccessfully) attempting to sell film producer and talk-show host David Susskind on the novel Carrie while working as a script reader, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was eventually lucky enough to stumble into a job with producer Paul Monash, who had recently optioned the film rights to the book. Tasked with paring down Stephen King’s 199 page book into a viable screenplay, Cohen cut out most of the testimonies and fake news reports that surrounded the main storyline, a technique King had used to beef up the narrative. Once De Palma came on board, Cohen was forced to make further cuts, transforming Carrie into a leaner, meaner scream machine without sacrificing the story’s emotional core. According to Nancy Allen, the prom sequence was one of the last of the film to be shot, on the same massive Culver City Studios soundstage that had once housed the Batcave.

Lawrence D. Cohen (screenwriter): Partly to pad out the main Carrie narrative that was too long for a short story but also too short for a novel, [Stephen King] employed an epistolary technique the way Bram Stoker had in Dracula. This collage of secondary material primarily featured survivors, witnesses, and townspeople testifying to a White Commission convened to investigate the terrible events of prom night as if it were a real event— Steve’s sort of fictional riff on the Warren Report. …The main creative challenge for [the prom sequence] was to sketch out a template – a layout that retained the best of Steve’s narrative but rethought things in film terms. That meant condensing a huge amount of material into a highly concentrated arc, excising anything nonessential or redundant along the way that would interrupt its climactic build.

Rosanna Norton (costume designer): What I did was I found this bride store that was going out of business. You used to be able to rent prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and bride gowns even and we found this store in the Valley that was going out of business. They had tuxedos and dresses and we were able to get the doubles we needed. We got them pretty cheaply actually for the other characters. Carrie's dress was made. I designed it and had it made.

Jack Fisk (art director): We didn't have much money, and high school kids don't have much money to decorate a prom, so we used mostly cardboard, tin foil, and crepe paper. Crepe paper's so cheap and it can really change the feel of the place.

Norton: At the time, prom dresses and bridesmaid dresses and things were very fussy. They had all these ruffles and detail and I wanted to do a....[Carrie’s dress is] a bias cut dress and I wanted it to be really simple and look as if she could have made it herself. It didn't have a lot of ruffles or detail work. It's sort of a classic 1930s bias cut dress. I wanted her to look different from everybody else but beautiful at the same time, and all the other girls, they looked like teenage girls wearing these sort of ruffly, fancy, gathered dresses.

Fisk: The gymnasium was a set that we built onstage at Culver City Studios and it's an old studio where they shot Citizen Kane and the Lassie TV series.

P.J. Soles (“Norma Watson”): We had little wooden dressing rooms. I always thought of it as like a campfire. We had little individual dressing rooms that were on the outskirts of the whole set, so if you pulled back the whole thing, you would see these little wooden houses, and each of us had our own little house. It was so cute. Because Brian didn't know exactly who was gonna be in the background or whatever, we were called to the set every day. And so we needed a place obviously, SAG rules, of where to hang out and have our own individual space.

Fisk: Brian [De Palma] does little story boards of every scene, but they're stick figures. …He had 3x5 cards and he thought in terms of shots that he wanted to do. He worked out crane shots, where he wanted close-ups. You'd walk into his office, and he would have the whole film laid out on the 3x5 note cards with stick figures. Like, a close-up of Carrie's eye or looking down on the prom. Everything was really rough in that way.

Mario Tosi (cinematographer): I have to be honest, I didn't have that much to do with [the set design] because I started with the movie when the movie was already in progress. They started shooting for the first couple of days with another camera man. I don't know why he didn't – I guess they didn't get along. He didn't get along with the director, then they called me after a couple of days. So I didn't have much pre-production time with the set decorator or the art director, which I usually do because I have my own needs.

Fisk: I remember that Mario and Brian [De Palma] put lights at the top of the set looking down. In a way it was kind of stylized. You wouldn't have those in a gymnasium, but I thought they were really effective.

Tosi: I was going to light [the prom sequence] really dramatically, but because of the fact that there were teens around...I decided to do something in between. …The lighting was at times very happy, very bright. If it was only…[a] dramatic story [featuring adults], I would have lit it almost like a black and white drama. …Don’t forget, that this being 40 years ago, was one of my first feature films. I was a beginner myself at that time. So I was experimenting…I let my taste dictate without much experience.

Fisk: Behind the king and queen's chair, we had lights up there so they were sparkly…and there's a lot of blue in there just to make it seem kind of out of this world, or in the heavens. For her, it was such an important evening. It was like a dream. It started out so poetic, so beautiful and it ended so horribly. It was all to slow it down and make it seem timeless.

Paul Hirsch (editor): I did visit [the prom set] once. I was based in New York during the filming, but I came out near the end of the schedule to show Brian the assembly to date. I remember Sissy was there, but she wasn't shooting that day, and didn't have to be drenched in Karo syrup. She and I had become friendly on [De Palma’s] Phantom [of the Paradise], when she was working with her husband Jack Fisk on painting the scenery downstairs from where I was cutting on location in Texas. I think the whole sequence took about two weeks to film.

Nancy Allen (“Chris Hargensen”): When we got to the prom sequence, it was really the only time that Sissy was around the rest of us, because she kept herself separate from everyone, so that she could feel what that felt like to not be part of the crowd. And once we got to the prom, she even had a guitar, and she'd sing, and I think she had a puppy then, and she was a little more interactive at that point.

Ron Snyder (makeup artist): [Sissy’s] a blonde redhead [with] freckles, and with this subject matter, we kept her natural look throughout except for the prom scene. During the prom scenes I punched her up just a little to make a difference.

Mary Peters (stunts): I doubled for two ladies. One was Betty Buckley. She was the P.E. teacher [Miss Collins], and she was involved in that sequence and also, I believe her name was P.J., she always wore a cap, very tall.

Soles: I came out with my prom dress on. I didn't have the [red baseball] hat. And [Brian De Palma] said, “P.J., where's your hat?” I go, “Well, I'm wearing my prom dress, and my hair's all curled, I'm pretty.” And he goes, “No, Norma always wears her hat.” He wanted me to stand out.

II. Once the prom set was built, De Palma and his creative team set themselves on putting the director’s ambitious visual ideas into literal motion, including the famous revolving dolly shot around Carrie and Tommy’s first dance, as well as the nearly two-minute-long crane shot that begins with the doomed couple at their table and ends on the bucket of pig’s blood balanced on a rafter above the stage.

Joel King (camera operator): We built…a circular track [around Sissy Spacek and William Katt]. …Which I'd never seen before, a circular dolly track, right? I would say it's maybe 13, 14 feet in diameter. They even had me lower the camera as low as I could go, which was really [low]. I had running boards and planks built so I could lay down, practically. I'm laying a couple inches off the floor.

Tosi: That’s another shot that Brian came up with. We had the old fashioned dolly shot with the circular rapid track…Brian told [Sissy Spacek and William Katt] to dance revolving in one way. Then…the lights revolving in a different way and the dolly revolving in a different way.

King: Once we got the track down, we put the camera on it and as they started to dance, we started to dolly. Peter Breen was the dolly operator, and he started dollying opposite the direction that they were dancing.

Tosi: Brian was running behind the camera, and we were going so fast, so fast that at a certain point that I was afraid that the camera and the dolly would tip over and that everybody would crash.

King: My hands were going 100 miles an hour because you have to tilt up, tilt down, front pan, back pan, up, down, to keep them in the frame. Even though they're stationary, the dolly's going, it took me a lot to keep them in the frame. Then, Brian has the dolly grip – which is, as I said, Peter Breen – go faster and faster and faster. He was running as fast as he could go. I think the shot is about two minutes, isn't it? Something like that. Mario, once I got the camera set real low, shooting that low angle up, he put lights up in the scaffolding so as we're dollying, those lights are bursting around her head, which I think really added to it.

Tosi: We started the dolly around and everybody was behind the camera. Brian said, “faster, faster, faster, faster.” Everybody was going so fast that at the end when the shot was over, everybody collapsed on the floor because we were spinning. It turned out to be a real magical feeling …The girl, Sissy Spacek, she looked really in a trance. She looked wonderful, in a dream. Dreamlike.

King: When the shot was over, everybody applauded me for lasting for two or three minutes as fast as you can go, my hands going up and down, back and forth and when the dolly stopped I just rolled off the dolly on the floor. I was so dizzy, I couldn't even stand up.

Allen: [John Travolta and I] were under [the stage] forever. [Laughs] It just seemed forever. It was horrible. I think the worst day, the very worst day, was the day that that incredible set piece, the one where the camera starts on Sissy, it starts with them at the table, pans around to P.J. with the ballots, and over to the stage, and down around the stage, and then over to Amy [Irving] coming in, and up over the top of the stage to the bucket. That long crane shot, that was a full day of shooting. So we were all basically plastered to our positions.

Cohen: [Brian De Palma] asked me to drop Sue’s testimony to the White Commission [as written in the novel]. As the single element I'd kept from [Stephen King’s] collage of material, I was reluctant to lose her presence as the one person whose conscience leads her to try to do the right thing, only for it turn out disastrously. Brian explained that he didn't want to risk cutting away from the main narrative vise for even a second, and proposed that we might instead find ways to repurpose her material more directly. What if Sue [Amy Irving], curious to see how her plan for Carrie had worked out, came to prom earlier, and thus figured more significantly in the action?

Tosi: We didn’t have storyboards [for the crane shot]. …The difficulty with the movement that [Brian De Palma] required, and the zoom and the focus and the crane and this and that…it was really an incredible shot. I think that one shot took almost all day.

Cohen: This one single fluid shot would contain more sheer narrative than most directors would have attempted in a dozen set-ups. Running nonstop and almost dialogue free, it combined dread, romance, exhilaration and protracted suspense, plus include most of the principals, the entire film in microcosm. It took the better part of a day to set up, and seriously freaked out the studio, which worried Brian was spending so much time on a single shot.

King: We didn't have video assist, so we kept doing take after take and then Brian would say to me, he said, "Joel, when you tell me it's right, we're going home." We shot 12 hours that day and Paul Monash was the producer and he kept going to Brian to tell him, "Brian, break up that shot. We can't keep going all day with just one shot."

Tosi: I don’t know how [Brian De Palma] is now in his old age, but when he was younger, he was a little – I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but he was not very communicative. …I had no friendly relationship with him. Just a professional one.

Louis A. Stroller (associate producer): Brian and Mario, they got along fine, there was never any animosity that I observed between the two of them, but Brian's very demanding and he knows what he wants and he'll lay it out for them, and do it until he gets what he wants.

Cohen: The prom was the second time in the film, the shower being first, that Brian employed extended slow motion. Combined with Pino Donaggio’s expert scoring, [the slo-mo] bathed Carrie and Tommy’s walk to the stage in a spell of romanticism and elongated the suspense with an agonizing build-up. At the same time, the slo-mo and music subliminally called to mind the shower scene, creating anticipation and dread.

Hirsch: There are over 100 setups in that portion of the scene alone, and it was challenging. Carrie was still very early in my career. I discovered that the cutting points in slo-mo are as critical as in real-time, and one frame can make a huge difference. Also, it's an effort to maintain a comfortable pace when the action is slowed down.

Allen: [Brian would say] “We're gonna get a really tight shot of your mouth. Okay, now lick your lips.” And then [he would] be on my eyes, and he'd say, “Okay, now look up as if you're thinking about – you're just about to pull a rope.” He'd just give direction like that.

Hirsch: A shot that tight reads very quickly, so these were essential when the pace quickened just before the fateful pull on the rope. I used Nancy licking her lips at the very end of the sequence to underscore the malice driving the whole awful prank and lift the scene up beyond a mere recording of physical events.

Allen: Obviously, when you're shooting that tight, your movements have to be restricted just a little bit. …”Look over here, look up as if you're gonna pull a rope. This is what you're thinking, this is really exciting. Oh my god, this is like an orgasm.” You know? “Oh, this is so great.” It was like that. And it was hard, it was hard. I felt a little bit uncomfortable.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our Carrie Prom Scene oral history tomorrow.