CARRIE’s Prom Scene: An Oral History (Part Two)
Continued from part one, which you can read here.
III. By all accounts, the scene’s most iconic moment – Carrie being doused in pig’s blood– was accomplished in a single take, courtesy of Spacek’s husband Jack Fisk. Made of Karo syrup, the stage blood presented a trial for Spacek, who was forced to walk around in the sticky concoction for the rest of the shoot. While filming the subsequent chaos, De Palma’s exacting nature also made things miserable – and even occasionally dangerous – for several others on the film’s production team, including stuntwoman Mary Peters and actress P.J. Soles, who famously broke her eardrum while filming a shot that required her to be forcefully blasted with a fire hose.
Stroller: I remember a few scenes before that where they secure the blood for [the prank]. That is an actual existing location downtown, I don't know if it still exists today, but years ago it was a slaughterhouse of pigs. I can't remember the name of the company. Some big company. I had never been in or around a slaughterhouse before, and it was pretty interesting and not my cup of tea, to borrow a phrase. We did that and then the blood, making up the bowl of blood, and [talked about] how the effects guys [were going to] get it together and what they were going to do.
Norton: You may have noticed if you read the book that Stephen King had the dress red, but of course I went to Brian and Jack and I said, "If the dress is red the blood's really not going to show and it won't be dramatic." That's why the dress is sort of that blush, peach tone.
Fisk: If I remember correctly, I dumped the bucket on [Sissy]. I think everybody else was scared to.
Norton: Jack was so clever, Jack Fisk, he fixed it so that…he stood on a ladder and poured the blood down on her and we didn't really have to do retakes. Brian De Palma is a very masterful director and he knew that our budget was very limited and so he was really cautious of that. I think we did it in one take, the actual blood pouring down on her.
Fisk: There's a story I heard about the remake of Carrie and they were talking about how they did all this stuff and it cost them a fortune because they had worked everything out electronically for the bucket to drop and they said to Brian, "Well, how did you do it?" He said, "Well, Jack Fisk was on a ladder. He just dropped a bucket of blood on her."
Norton: I bet we applauded. I wouldn't be surprised. We probably did applaud when they said “cut.” Poor Sissy, and she was such a good sport about it. She really was amazing when I think of what she went through there. She's just like amazing like a rock during all this thing and yeah, we probably applauded. Usually it's sort of a classic thing to do. After a big stunt people applaud when it's successful.
Fisk: When she was covered with blood at the prom, the blood was Karo syrup and food coloring, but Karo syrup, you know when it dries it sticks like honey or something. It sticks to your skin, so people had to follow her around with water bottles, squirting water on her to unstick her arms from holding to her body.
Allen: I felt bad for her, because that was Karo syrup, and the dress, everything was stuck to her, her arms were stuck to her. It was kind of tricky getting her unstuck some of the time.
Snyder: After the blood was dropped, the blood spatter had to be matched from my photographs for all her closer shots on the stage. It took a few days to complete all her coverage, with all her reactions and her undoing. The calamity that followed of course was the major story point. She was great during that ordeal, and she’s a total pro.
Norton: I only had like two costumers on the show. It was just ridiculous. We were just running around and trying to get the blood out or put more on, make it match. I don't really remember. I do remember at one point [Sissy and William Katt] got blood in their hair and it was hard to get the blood out of their hair. It was harder because obviously the hair's connected to them and it was harder to get that blood out of their hair before doing a retake or something.
Snyder: The hard part was after [Sissy’s] coverage, the reverse coverage on all the carnage, took a couple of weeks to complete. With stunts, reactions, fire, et cetera. She being a professional, put on her dress with the blood, stiff and dried, for the other actors to be able to react to her. She got a little depressed putting on the dress for days and just standing up there reacting off camera.
Cohen: To keep the prom action continuous, I agreed with Brian to excise an interlude [Stephen King] had created after the blood fell in which Carrie fled the gym, ran across the school's front lawn and went sprawling on the grass. It was then, only then, that rather than return home to her life with Margaret, humiliated and defeated, that her fury spilled over and made her consciously decide to go back inside to teach her classmates a lesson. Having Carrie deliberately consider and then take revenge felt like an extra step. More importantly, it worked against us. We wanted the audience to feel empathy for her, so in what became a huge tonal change, we instead had her remain onstage as she’s devastatingly humiliated and then respond defensively when it all becomes too much. She implodes and melts down, unable to contain her power any longer, and snaps into an almost catatonic state – an avenging angel on the rampage and kicking butt with the audience now solidly on her side, cheering her on.
Soles: Brian was always throwing me these little things to do. Because everybody else is in shock, he said to me, “P.J. is the only one who’s gonna laugh.”
Cohen: Our intent was always that [the laughter] was entirely in her mind. Other than Norma who’d helped rig the vote and laughs at Carrie with a few of Chris’ gang, the other kids and teachers watch frozen in shock and horror. To cue us that we’re in Carrie’s head, Brian created a subjective, kaleidoscopic shot as she “hears” Margaret’s voice warning prophetically, “They’re all going to laugh at you!”, the girls chanting “plug it up!” in the locker room, and Miss Collins’ voice saying “trust me, Carrie, you can trust me” all swirling around in her memory.
Soles: I got to be the one, naughty Norma, to hit the guy with my elbow and laugh, and then in her mind because I was laughing, I think Carrie thought everybody was laughing. But in reality, no, nobody else was laughing, just Norma.
Hirsch: I always assumed that once P.J. Soles started the ball rolling, a lot of people joined in. Either that or we messed up.
Cohen: Prior to shooting, Brian shared with me his intent to use split-screen for the destruction, and I admit it concerned me. As a rule, I find that showy, film techniques call attention to themselves and risk removing one from the story. Brian, however, had used it well in Sisters, and argued that it would supply more heft and spectacle to the sequence than conventional cuts would. It was a big gamble, and I crossed my fingers he was right.
Tosi: I guess [split screen is] effective story-wise. I don’t think – to me, I think…it’s a little too gimmicky. But I guess it’s effective for the story, so I have nothing to say about that. Because that’s all done in editing.
Hirsch: Carrie's ability to trigger events was communicated by cutting from her looking to the object and it reacting. It got tricky when she was on one half of the split screen. She looks to the left, and the to the right, or vice versa. The first look worked, because she seemed to be looking at the object on the screen next to her. But when she looked the other way, she seemed to be looking off the screen, away from the new object. So we had to slide her screen over to the other side so that her eyeline was correct.
Tosi: The main shot of the disaster that happened…that Carrie did with that kind of magic strength. That was shot – there was no possibility of repeating it. You know, for many reasons. For the budget…I’ve gotta be good once, period. I imagine they fixed things that didn’t work [later]…But for us, that was it. So in any case, I think we had three cameras: the master camera, my camera, and another two cameras or three cameras. A camera in close up and stuff like that. …We went and everybody shot as much as we could shoot.
Cohen: On such a tight schedule, it became a beat-the-clock challenge to get as much good footage as possible so that [Brian] and editor Paul Hirsch would later have lots of options in building the sequence. Whatever my concerns about split-screen, I started to think it actually might turn out to be an inventive way to get more bang-for-the-buck spectacle here – way more visceral, say, than Carrie simply flexing in one shot, and then cutting to flat, straightforward footage of the result.
Hirsch: [Brian] had intended to use more [split screen], and actually cut it himself on a two-headed Moviola. The problem with his cut was that the screen direction got very complicated and, more importantly, the studio hated it. So he sort of threw up his hands at that point and turned it over to me. I replaced the split screens wherever possible with full frame shots, but he hadn't always protected the full frame, so, if there were crew or camera stands, or lights, on one side of the frame, my hand was forced.
Allen: We all [stuck around during filming], until a couple of people got hurt, and then Brian said that he didn't want people around. So if you were done, you were done. But that was well into the chaos. He just wanted to make sure that no one got hurt anymore.
Cohen: As for who else would live or die, Brian didn’t decide until the last minute. Wanting to maximize those characters that had figured prominently in Carrie’s story, he had her electrocute Principal Morton, the clueless administrator who can’t get her name right, instead of a random student we hardly knew. He also had her animate the fire hose against Chris’ mean-girl-in-chief, Norma, with us squarely on Carrie’s side.
Peters: P.J. Soles, I think she her ear got exploded or something and [stuntwoman] Janet Brady was right there with her and the nurse looked at me too and said, "Hey, you both are going together,” so we held each other's hands and went to the hospital together. You know, we were very young and naïve, we didn't know any better. We just...we were doing our job.
Fisk: Yes, it's true. It's terrible. I've talked to [P.J.] since and she laughs about it. I think there was a scene shot in the film where she's on the ground and you see that fire hose just going right toward her face and her ear. It wasn't as hard as it looked…but she did bust an eardrum.
Soles: Luckily, that was my last day on set. The fire hose, Brian wanted it full force, and the fire marshal said “No, it's gonna -- it's dangerous.” And the stunt guy said “I'll man the hose, give me that.” And you know, it was really full force. And Brian wanted a close up of just my head being kind of batted around like a ball, with this fire hose. And it went straight, the full force of it in my ear and broke my eardrum. And that's the last shot of me. You can actually see me wince, and then you assume, “Okay, Norma's dead.” But I slithered down the bleachers and they carried me off and brought me to the hospital and I had broken my eardrum. Which, you know, is very painful. But it healed and now I can hear better than ever.
Peters: I was black and blue. Brian De Palma, who was the director, he had me do [the fire hose] stunt over and over and over. I mean, I kept on going up to the [stunt] coordinator going, "What am I doing wrong?" He says, "No, continue Mary, he's really enjoying what you’re doing." Here I am, I'm black and blue because this was a very forceful hose.
Allen: There was that, and then someone else had a cracked rib. There were a number of people that were hurt.
Cohen: Lots of specific beats came straight from the novel -- the steel pail that falls and knocks Tommy unconscious, Carrie slamming the gym doors shut and locking the prom-goers inside, her unspiraling the fire hoses and spraying the kids, et cetera. I’d also scripted her to dispatch Mr. Fromm, the invented English teacher who’d been such a cruel dick to her in class, an act of revenge that brought with it a certain undeniable satisfaction.
Peters: Then the fire hose goes on to Betty Buckley who was the P.E. teacher, and she runs and she goes into the gymnasium and she runs to this basketball backing in the gym and it cuts her right in half, it collapses and cuts her right in half, so I did that part too for her.
Cohen: Having followed [Stephen] King’s lead in making Tommy collateral damage of Chris and Billy’s prank, Brian went one step further. In an inspired and perverse choice, he broke an unspoken audience compact and sacrificed a core character like Hitchcock had done with Janet Leigh in Psycho. I’d scripted Miss Collins, horrified by what happened, moving toward Carrie to help – only for Carrie to fling her back like a rag doll against a wall. I remember standing on set expecting that to occur, when the backboard suddenly came crashing down into her stomach, almost vivisecting her as blood comes from her mouth. I gasped aloud in horror, just as audiences would.
Allen: The whole prom scene was very complex, and took a lot of time, a lot of choreography if you will, things were timed out, especially in that sequence. That's a split screen, so you're having two cameras that are working in different directions. So as one [camera focuses on] Billy [Katt] across the room, [then moves] towards Betty [Buckley] up against the basketball hoop or whatever's going on over there, the other camera's pushing in and pushing up to John [Travolta] and I. So everything was counted out. …After awhile, at least for me, you feel the rhythm, there's a certain rhythm when you have a – almost like you're in a dance with the camera, I don't know how else to describe it.
Soles: You know, you get a good feeling of the chaos once it gets rolling, and Brian's yelling, “Scream! And you can't open the door! And there's someone trying to push the door against you!”, which was my big scene of screaming. And you get a real feeling that you've gotta get out of there. But it all helps with your acting.
Stroller: We had some great effects guys. There were two guys, one is Ken Pepiot, and I'm trying to think of the other guy's name, but I can't right now [Ed. note: the other special effects technician on the film was Greg Auer]. They were first class guys. Using them made it so much easier because anytime you deal with fire and a lot of people and stuff like that, it's very dangerous and we take every precaution, but you can never be too safe with that stuff.
Fisk: I remember it being very hot and seemingly dangerous on set. We shot on a sound stage in Culver City, but it was a big stage and it was kind of a controlled burn. The set was burning too so the crepe paper and all that stuff, so you just hope that nothing went out of control.
Peters: I was right there at the prom when they had the fire and all. The pyrotechnics people and all that. A lot of crepe paper was on fire, a lot of debris. … It did get to be very dangerous. We called special effects "Special Defects" – but no, they were very qualified. They were good people, they didn't get us hurt.
Cohen: Brian told me there wasn’t money in the budget for Carrie to set the town ablaze as in the book. Great as it was, I’d also thought any destruction after the prom was simply more of the same, and had already excised most of in my draft. We’d still have Carrie making her way home in her bloody prom gown, but in contrast to the novel, I’d switched her encounter with Chris and Billy [Allen and Travolta] to occur before she returns home. It was a better running order, and Brian staged their trying to mow Carrie down with her using her powers in a shocking, highly telescoped way – causing their car to turn over with them in it and then explode.
King: The rolling of that car, [stunt coordinator Dick] Ziker was the driver. He almost killed himself. I think Ziker was in there, I know he was the stunt coordinator. He might not have been, but I think he was the driver also. He loaded that thing up with so much dynamite, and they had a cannon underneath that car. That's what rolled the car. The camera, you'll see what I'm on, that car rolls one more roll and that would've been on top of me, and I never moved away from the camera. That rolled about eight times right towards my camera and then it stopped laying up with the bottom of the car facing the camera.
IV. Once Carrie was complete, it was previewed for audiences around the country in a midnight sneak on Halloween, where unsuspecting moviegoers were rattled by the final slo-mo jump scare that De Palma cooked up halfway through production. The film garnered impressive reviews and was a hit at the box office, sending De Palma’s career soaring and netting Spacek and Piper Laurie nominations for Best Actress at the following year’s Academy Awards. In a film full of great moments, the prom sequence held an almost mythic power, owing to De Palma and Tosi’s dynamic use of the camera, Fisk’s otherworldly set design and Spacek’s haunting performance. The scene continues to burn bright in the popular culture – no less a fan than Quentin Tarantino paid deliberate homage to it in the explosive climax of his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds – and it remains arguably the single most famous sequence of De Palma’s entire filmography. With precious few caveats, De Palma’s collaborators on the film were just as pleased with the final result as critics and audiences were, even as some of them suffered to fulfill the director’s demands.
Cohen: The first time I saw it edited was at a screening Brian set up for me, and I truthfully sat there open-mouthed at its sheer craftsmanship and artistry. The camerawork pushed so hard that the film itself, mirroring Carrie’s destruction, seemed about to detonate. Watching her raging down hell in split-screen, I marveled at how Brian and Paul [Hirsch] had orchestrated so many disparate pieces into a breathless sequence. Side by side, all sorts of plot elements – Carrie unleashing her powers, Sue desperately trying to get back inside, Chris and Billy escaping and watching outside from the window above – were juxtaposed in ingeniously visceral ways. …This sensory overload was climaxed by the hallucinatory vision of Carrie walking through fire and devastation – then, as we cut to the exterior of the burning gym, the doors seemingly open by themselves, and Carrie exits as the prom that she’s brought down is consumed in flames – a scary-beautiful shot.
Allen: There was something – it just seemed absolutely magical when we saw it for the first time. It was a cast and crew screening at MGM, this gorgeous, amazing theater, a packed house. It was overwhelming, really, I have to tell you. It was incredible.
Fisk: It's not specific to one year, one time... anybody could understand it, whether you graduated from high school in the '60s or '70s or '80s, you can respond to it. I figure some things about the film now are more dated, but the prom is still sort of magical.
Tosi: Some things that I am not happy about. …When the movie was over, after several months, I was on another movie working. I think it was MacArthur with Gregory Peck. I was working on the movie and Brian called me up and said, “Oh, we're doing the [color] timing of the movie.” So I said, “Well look, I am doing another movie. …I really would like to supervise the timing and the color correction of the movie," because I had some specific, classic lighting. So he said, “Well, I'm going to try, but this and that.” To me, I could have done it only on the weekend. Then they didn't call me back, they just did the whole thing, timing the movie, color correcting the movie. And that really damaged my cinematography.
Cohen: Was there anything I didn’t like? It’s a minor quibble, but the intense red-filter in some of the split-screen shots was so darkly tinted that at a few junctures, it was difficult to make out the action clearly. That said, the overall technique was exhilarating because it intensified rather than distracted from the story. It felt organic rather than gratuitous, and delivered everything one could hope for.
Soles: That was my first movie. I had done commercials of course, but to see the whole thing kind of come together, to see how Brian actually envisioned that Chris Hargensen needed this innocent girl, this naive girl I should say, to do her bidding, it was really quite genius, you know? Because alone, she wouldn't have been able to do what she needed to do. I had to get the ballots! [Laughs]
Norton: Usually the wardrobe goes back to the studio but this was an independent. You'd have to look this up, I don't know about this but I'm sure it's on record. When you wrap a show, when you work in a studio all the wardrobe goes back to the studio. In this case I bet we had a sale or something. I don't know what happened to all the wardrobe because it wasn't in the studio as I say so it just disappeared. I'm sure it doesn't exist anymore unless Sissy has one [of the dresses]. That's possible. I sort of doubt it. She isn't the type to collect things like that. I mean she probably got sick to death of the thing.
Peters: I learned kind of the hard way. I really realized that boy, you better stop and say, "Hey what more do you want, what kind of angles?" Since [Brian] had so many angles to capture, there was... Now I'm getting hurt because it's very painful after three and four takes, or five takes. What more do you want? It was a learning experience. It was like a stepping stone, a very good learning experience for me to finally say, "Okay, I think that's all I got, no more."
Tosi: Today, after 40 years, after 40 movies and more that I did, experimenting with soft light and bounce lighting…I would have probably done it differently. But 40 years ago, I would say that I was brilliant in what came out.
Hirsch: I wouldn’t change a frame of it.
Cohen: What none of us anticipated then…was that Sissy would make us feel such huge empathy for Carrie that our hearts would hope and believe that prom would go well for her – even when our minds knew better. Casting Sissy changed everything. She was Carrie.
Fisk: You know, ten years after that prom, I think we had Schulyer, our little girl. We were in Hawaii, and I remember we were walking by a school and I look in and they had the same silver stars hanging and crepe paper. It looked like the Carrie prom and I go, "My god, this stuff's so universal. It's everywhere."