Faking It: How Red Sparrow Made Torture Look So Terrifyingly Real

Photo: Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
Welcome to Faking It, our monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
Type "Best Torture Scenes" into Google, and you'll get roughly 1,900,000 results, a great many of which consist of homemade video montages, and lists ranking of some of the most violent moments in Hollywood history. Reservoir Dogs comes up a lot (the ear!), as do Hostel, Saw, and 1987 British horror cult classic Hellraiser (not for the faint of heart). But repeat that same search a couple of months from now, and you'll probably find a new addition, courtesy of Red Sparrow.
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Starring Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina turned Russian intelligence officer, Red Sparrow goes out of its way not to buy into the James Bond myth of the spy life. No Q, handing out keys to the latest sexy sports car; no sleek bespoke suits; no silk sheets, or lavish casinos in exotic locales; and the only Champagne consumed in this story is done so under duress. Even sex, presented for so long as a perk of the job, is framed as a chore, an ordeal to be overcome in pursuit of the greater goal.
That same gritty mentality applies to the film's multiple torture scenes. This isn't a Casino Royale situation, in which our hero gets his balls whipped with a heavy rope, and then manages to go about his mission. Egorova lives in a world where pain is currency, and everyone pays the price.
Still, one scene in particular stands out. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the film, Egorova's loyalty to her country is tested when her uncle, deputy director of Russian security services, orders a henchman to torture Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), the CIA officer she's been having an affair with. If she resists, they'll assume she's turned double agent for the Americans. If she helps out, she's been playing Nash all along. I won't give away the outcome, but let's just say that this particular scene demands the services of an instrument ordinarily used for skin grafts. It peels layer after layer of derma so smoothly that you barely even bleed.
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Needless to say, it's utterly horrifying to watch. While much is left to the imagination, the sound of skin slowly peeling off of a man's body is not one I ever thought I would experience, nor do I wish to ever again. And as a final touch, the assailant lifts each piece of skin as a trophy to parade in front of his victim, a reminder of what he went through, and is sure to experience again.
That moment has been seared in my brain since I saw the film nearly three weeks ago. And so, out of morbid curiosity, I asked director Francis Lawrence (no relation to JLaw) to run me through its inception, and to clarify some lingering questions about what makes a truly memorable torture scene.
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1) Don't Torture For Torture's Sake

The first thing Lawrence makes clear is that violence should serve the story, not the other way around. "A huge part of our movie was showing the brutal, colder, side of the espionage world," he said.

Unlike Bond, or even Atomic Blonde's Lorraine Broughton, Dominika has not chosen this life. After a an accident leaves her unable to dance, the one thing she's worked towards her entire life, a series of circumstances lead her to become a Sparrow, an elite breed of spies trained to use sex to extract information. And while she does eventually excel at her job, you never get the sense that she enjoys it.

"This is a survival story," Lawrence continued. "The lead character is dragged into a world she doesn't want to be a part of, and wants out. So, I knew violence was going to be important to the story, but I also never really wanted to be gratuitous. I'm not really interested in the gore of it as much as I'm interested in sort of the emotional value of the violence that takes place in the movie. It's revealing something about the character, or it's revealing something about the story."
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2) So... What Does A Skin Graft Sound Like?

Red Sparrow is actually based on the first novel in a trilogy by Jason Matthews, a former CIA employee turned writer. But as it turns out, we have Lawrence to thank for the addition of the skin grafting scene. The idea came to him after watching a documentary a couple of years ago that followed a burn victim through the healing process — including grafts.

"I just remembered that tool, and seeing the actual skin grafting as something I found very disturbing, and I sort of stuck it into a dark spot in my brain and pulled it out when we were trying to come up with something for the torture sequence to be able to do something kind of new," Lawrence explained.

But to do something new, you have to brush up on the old, which means Lawrence spent a fair amount of time looking up torture scenes from various movies. "That's kind of the genius thing about YouTube now is you can go and find video lists of top 20 torture scenes of all time."

Because Red Sparrow isn't an action film (I'd categorize it as a deliberate spy thriller in the vein of The Lives Of Others), Lawrence tried to come up with a way to express the tension of the scene without having a choreographed fight sequence. "I'm a believer that real fights tend to go very quickly, especially if it's close quarters and you're dealing with knives, and things like that," he said. "Watching those [videos] kind of helped shape of the pacing of that sequence."

And now, for the gory details. That skin shaving held up by the torturer? "Latex!" Lawrence laughed. The makeup department created skin-like strips that they could then stick into the rubber makeshift grafting tool, and unravel as needed.

The sound you hear during the actual peeling process though, was made with an electric shaver grinding into another object, turning a light buzzing sound into the soundtrack to my nightmares. "When you hear the buzzing it's no big deal," Lawrence said. (Debatable, but sure.) "When you sort of actually hear it start to dig in, that made it really disturbing."
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3) Sell It

Ironically, while the skin graft scene is probably the most shocking to watch in the film's nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, Lawrence says it was also the most fun to shoot. "When you're doing those kinds of things, it actually feels sort of silly on the day because Joel [Edgerton]'s just kind of squirming around pretending to be hurt, and you've got this stupid rubber prop that's standing in for a skin grafting tool. You sort of feel you're 10 and shooting a little homemade movie with your friends in your mom's kitchen."

It's a testament to the magic of cinema that none of that silliness comes across onscreen. Lawrence says he was actually shocked at the visceral reaction the scene has been getting, which he attributes to two factors: the sound, which we covered above, and Joel Edgerton's acting. "He just sold it," he said. "I mean, the sounds that he's making, the tensing of his whole body and the veins and tendons..."

One scene that was a lot more physically and technically demanding takes place earlier on in the film, when Dominika's character gets tortured by her own colleagues, who believe she may have been giving information away. (No trust among spies, I guess.) That sequence required Jennifer Lawrence to to be tied naked to a chair in a stress position, and have water poured on her back. In the film, the water is freezing. In real life, it was more like room temperature. Still, when a scene requires actors to be put in an uncomfortable position, the idea is to get it done as quickly as possible with no repeat shots.

"We slightly heated the water but it had to be cool enough not to steam, warm enough ideally not to be too uncomfortable," Lawrence said. "The stunt team had figured out the straps and all that kind of stuff, and so [Jennifer] would go in there with her costumer and keep her robe, and then she'd get on the bench and they would strap her in and set the cameras up, and roll. We basically did one take of the wide and one take of that kind of low angle for that water scene." The whole thing took roughly 15 minutes from start to finish.

Ultimately though, Red Sparrow will forever be associated to torture by skin graft. And I suspect I won't be the only one to shudder when the the thought creeps into my mind.

"The idea of a tool like that makes people feel very squeamish because it seems really painful and slow," Lawrence said. "There's just something about the idea of a very thin slice of skin getting peeled off that just gets under — no pun intended — bur really gets under people's skin."
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