In “The Devil’s Double,” which opens in Los Angeles on Friday, actor Dominic Cooper does double duty. Not only does he play Uday Hussein, the notorious sadistic playboy son of Saddam Hussein, he also plays Latif Yahia — a man whose resemblance to Uday earned him the unwelcome job of his body double.
Audiences have long loved a twin-type story — and given the economics of modern Hollywood, getting two performances out of one star must seem like a good deal. Although making it appear as if the same person is doubled on-screen is one of the oldest camera tricks around, digital technology has given filmmakers more options than ever to work their sleight-of-hand.
In last year’s “The Social Network,” for instance, two actors were used to portray the bodies of the Winklevoss twins — but digital head-replacement effects gave them identical faces. Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar is set to make her return to series television this fall with “Ringer,” playing a woman on the run who assumes the life of her twin sister. Comedian Adam Sandler will play male-female twins in November’s “Jack and Jill.”
In making “The Devil’s Double,” director Lee Tamahori found that constraints of time, money and story meant that rather than strictly going for the shiniest new tools available, crafting Cooper’s on-screen double would require a mix of old and new techniques and figuring things out as the production moved along.
The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Yahia and creates a garish portrait of late-1980s Baghdad that is equal parts seductive and repulsive. Cooper’s dual performance becomes a vivid exploration of identity, as an innocent man loses himself inside the disorientingly glamorous and dangerous world of a depraved monster.
Michael Thomas’ script specified that Uday and Latif be played by the same actor, making the casting especially important, while also pointing toward the visual effects problem-solving that would be needed to put the two characters on-screen together.
“That was going to be the big challenge of the film,” Tamahori said. “Everything else was kind of a no-brainer, but there’s really no road map for doing these twin-shot movies. You can talk to the technical people about how to do it and we looked at what other people had done, but I was adamant that really the most important thing was to separate the two characters so completely that people would believe they are watching two characters, not one actor playing two parts.”
“The Devil’s Double” returns Tamahori to the international indie roots of his 1994 film “Once Were Warriors,” after excursions into Hollywood filmmaking on titles such as the James Bond movie “Die Another Day.” The fast 52-day shooting schedule on “Devil” and relatively low budget (less than $15 million, according to Tamahori) meant that some obvious solutions for putting Cooper (whose films include “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Mamma Mia!”) on-screen with himself wouldn’t work.
“I thought going in that it was going to be a full-blown VFX picture with head replacements and motion-control everywhere,” said Tamahori, referring to a kind of computerized camera control. “We had a very tight schedule, and I was trying to throw the entire bag of tricks at it. I wanted a motion-control rig hired for the entire movie, and that was just too expensive. So we went on a kind of two- or three-track approach of trickery combined with good old-fashioned acting.”
Foremost was to make strong distinctions between Cooper’s portrayal of the two characters. For Uday, he used a higher, slightly wheezier voice, which an on-set voice coach monitored to ensure he didn’t slip into while talking as Latif. False teeth, makeup and some prosthetics were also used to change Cooper’s appearance between Latif and Uday.
“I had the feeling I was working with two actors,” said actress Ludivine Sagnier, who plays a girlfriend of Uday’s who becomes involved with Latif.
For scenes in which Cooper was to appear in both roles, Tamahori would shoot him with another actor filling the opposite role. Then Cooper, and sometimes the double, would change costumes and do the scene again for the other role. Shooting digitally meant that Tamahori could immediately get an idea of how the sides matched up.
Tamahori was surprised to discover that the sound recording was often as important and difficult to match as the image. So that Cooper could properly seem to be exchanging dialogue with himself in the finished version, Tamahori and his technical team decided to record a handful of takes of the first side of a scene, then stop to decide upon the best one right on the set.
A sound edit would then immediately be made of the dialogue so that Cooper — sometimes wearing an earpiece to hear his recorded voice — could go ahead with the second take knowing how to respond to the timing of the lines, heightening the reality of his interactions with himself. (A similar on-the-spot technique was used for some scenes in “Moon” when Sam Rockwell played a man trapped in a space station with a clone of himself.)
“The technicalities of it for me were unlike anything I’ve ever known,” Cooper said. “One of the things I find most enjoyable about acting is that ability to react and respond with another actor, to develop and unravel and make a scene progress. And here I would do it as one character and that would be set in stone. The most helpful thing was I knew all the thoughts going through my head as I was acting it the first time and I could kind of respond to the memory of that.”
David Cronenberg‘s 1988 film “Dead Ringers,” in which Jeremy Irons played twin gynecologists, was among the first to use computer technology to exactingly replicate camera moves when shooting both halves of twin-effect shots. In “Devil’s Double,” a full motion-control setup — where the entire camera body can without human contact physically move and pan or tilt and then the sequence can be repeated — was used for the most complicated shots, such as when Uday brings Latif to a full-length mirror to admire their likenesses.
More frequently, though, Tamahori and cinematographer Sam McCurdy used what they came to think of as a half motion-control set-up, whereby the camera could be moved on a dolly or tracks by grips and then brought to a stop, with the camera operator executing a pan or tilt once the camera had come to a fixed position. A computerized mount known as a memory head was then used to perfectly re-execute the operator’s move on a second pass. This technique was faster — and cheaper.
Among the most complicated shots to achieve in any “twin” film is to have the two characters appear to touch. In “Dead Ringers,” the twins touch only once, and they are not moving in the shot. In “The Devil’s Double,” the two characters touch several times, one being a scene in which Uday places a gun into Latif’s hand. That was one of only three instances in which a digital head-replacement effect was used in the film.
As the production progressed, Cooper and the filmmakers modulated their approach to each shot.
“I was always learning,” Cooper said. “It would change, sometimes I’d have another actor, sometimes I wouldn’t, sometimes I had an earpiece, it was all how I felt at that time and what was most useful for that shot and that moment.
“There were moments where we were all shouting at each other, ‘Maybe this would work,’ ‘No, this,’ and it was just a fantastic, vibrant, very un-technical environment,” he added. “I had no idea really what I was getting myself involved in, this technology that no one knew a huge amount about. I think we were all kind of amazed it worked at all.”