The Stoning of Soraya M.

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Feature Film  (2008)     |     Shot on location in the Middle East     |     UPM: Stephen Marinaccio

Case Study for "The Execution" Sequence  by Stephen Marinaccio

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This is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful scripts I have ever read.  When I was handed the script to read and give my advice on the overall cost and budget, it was a real page-turner.  The emotion was palpable, the gut was wrenching and the eyes were watering up.  I knew I had to be part of this great project.

I met with the director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, and we discussed his desire to not "pull any punches" with the story.  He aimed to make the film with no comprimises, culminating in this intensely dramatic scene.  After all was said and done, it truely was.  I recall watching the film with audiences at the Toronto Film Festival where some people covered their eyes and some left the theater for a bit.  The sequence was not intended to be a "hollywood" version of a stoning - but a dramatic, realistic punctuation to the story.

SPOILER ALERT:  If you have not yet seen this film, please do so before reading these pages.



       Start by reading the Script so you can understand what the sequence called for...





Script written by Betsy Nowrasteh & Cyrus Nowrasteh     |     Copyright Mpower Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

This sequence begins just after Soraya has been given a quick trial by the town elders, and found guilty of adultry.  She has been marched through town to the execution site, with a throng of villagers behind here, chanting for her blood.

Now that you have read the script pages, you are ready to see some of the issues production faced to prep, shoot and complete this sequence for the final film.


       Continue into Preparation... 




We shot this film in the Spring of 2008.  Before going to location, Cyrus and I had many meetings about the various sequences of the project, but always knew the stoning sequence would need a little extra care.  The budget was tight, so we needed to really plan out our shots, visual effects, prosthetics and other details.

About a month before leaving for location, myself and the head prothetics technician (Christien Tinsley, "The Passion of the Christ") spent the afternoon in Cyrus' backyard.   With a volunteer double for "Soraya", we used wadded up balls of paper stuck with tape to represent impact points for the stones, and wads of paper taped to the end of sticks to show the trajectory of throws.  We were able to create a very comprehensive "Beat Sheet".  Below is a page from that prep document.


As you can see, we took a lot of time to detail out each aspect for each shot.

Tinsley then took these notes and went to work creating the actuated puppet Soraya's to be used during the sequence.  In all, there were three dummies made, each with subsequently more 'damage' to the body.  Our "Soraya", portrayed by actress Mozhan Marno went to the prosthetics shop and a body cast was made of her torso and head.

Body     Face     MozhanAndDouble

While this process was coming together, we hired a storyboard artist.  The 'Beat Sheet' was translated to these drawn frames which were then eventually used as a guide for us on set.  As we proceeded with all this prep, with no VFX supervisor, I knew we had to keep track of each shot with a unique number.  The numbers you see for each frame were then used as a reference through out the shoot and into Post so we all knew exactly what shot we were talking about.


  Jump to the Storyboards tab...


With the planning phase almost complete, the last pieces were coming together in the construction of our 'Soraya' puppets at Tinsleys' prosthetics shop.  Production was already on location deep into location prep, so the following video was made to let us see what was happening back here in Los Angeles.

Note: Please allow this video to load before playing, otherwise it will look a bit choppy.  "Plug-in Failure"?  try reloading the page in your browser.

The last bit of prep had to do with where to actually shoot the scene.  We knew it had to be in the main town we were shooting in, so Cyrus set out to scout many areas in the town which not only looked right, but that had enough space for equipment, the puppetry crew, the correct distance for throwing the rocks and, of course, the entire crowd of people.  The photo below shows the location chosen before production began prepping the area.  That is the director, Nowrasteh, surveying the area.


Regarding this area, we had to repaint all the surrounding walls, remove the satellite dish and there is a black power cable you can see in the top-middle of the photo.  This needed to be removed for the overhead crane shot which looked down on the body.  The green door was the front door to someone's house, so we needed to be aware of their needs when we did shoot, to allow them access to their home.

About three days before shooting this sequence, we started digging the hole which "Soraya" would be buried in up to her waste.  The hole was dug large enough for an ergonomic chair to be set into, which allowed the actress to sit in relative comfort during the shoot.  Next, a platform of thick wood was created which would slide togther and cover the hole with her in a small hole in the middle.  On the shoot day, the wood would cover the hole around her, and then be covered with dirt to mask the area.  Additionally, a small channel was dug from the hole to a small shack we built to the side of the location.  This shack is where the puppeteers would be located to operate the prosthetic "Soraya's".

Once this location was prepped and scheduled, there was little left to do than shoot it.



       Review the Storyboards...


       Jump to the Shoot...




  Back to Preparation...                                              Continue to the Shoot...




Before the shoot, we scheduled it.  Cyrus asked for plenty of time to shoot it, and indeed it was a complex scene involving the actor who had to be in the right mindset, three dummies for the different stages of her wounds and all the dramatic action with the crowd of people.  The shoot for this sequence spanned over the course of five days.


Incidently, we knew that the controvery of this scene might have angered the locals, or cause them to become irritated with the film we were shooting.  So, we shot these five days in this town as the last thing we did there, and then prompty hustled out of town.  Aside from an incident where some rumors started flying around about real stones and throwing at real people, the overall shoot for this sequence went pretty much to plan.

shootprep1Thanks to the directors vision and the production teams detailed prep, we stayed on schedule and got everything we needed.

During the shoot, as I mentioned before, there was no VFX Supervisor on location with us.  I took on the task myself to monitor the camera positions, and worked with the Script Supervisor to keep notes on camera angle, lighting set-ups, lens use and other details.  Our VFX team at SoHo VFX in Toronto was very good about detailing their needs.  During the planning phase, we identified the 27 shots in the sequence which would involved CG rocks, which ones would be soft foam rocks and which ones would be real rocks (thrown only at the dummy).  To that note quickly, we knew the heavy violence would become more an more intense as the body got more damaged, so the final stage puppet was built to withstand pumelling from real rocks.

Below is a "" exclusive clip showing some behind-the-scenes of the shoot.  The "Soraya" here is the 'stage two' dummy, and the rocks being thrown are all the foam rock - because the camera's and crew are in the line of fire.  Safety first.

Note: Please allow this video to load before playing, otherwise it will look a bit choppy.  "Plug-in Failure"?  try reloading the page in your browser.

As you may notice, we had three cameras running during these shoot days.  This allowed us to capture various angles at once, minimizing the time we needed to shoot, and increasing our continuity as we moved from real person, to the multiple stages of prosthetic puppets.  In the photo below, on the right hand side, you'll notice a tin structure.  It's in there where our puppetteers were working the controls.  The cables were only so long, so this structure allowed Nowrasteh the freedom to see in multiple angles on each take.


One of the other things we did to prepare for on the shooting days was increase security.  These days were by far the largest number of extras, and in this local community, bringing in one person for picture meant that they brought one or two family members to be with them.  Overall, there must have been 500+ people in this town which normally had about 30.  This meant we had to hire extra security during the day and additional people for overnights to secure the actual 'execution' area.  All of our equipment and the prosthetics were safely locked away in trucks - but, the set was 'hot' for five days.

Below is the crew prepping the 'Stage two' dummy and the ground for a take.


Additionally, we hired some security to dress and act as extras which we assimilated into the crowd.  In this way, we were able to monitor the overall 'mood' of the crowd and nip things in the bud before rumors or hysteria grabbed hold.  As mentioned earlier, there was an outside event which caused a little bit of mayhem for about an hour, but it really had nothing to do with the filming.  As a precaution, we had pre-established safe routes to get our stars and key crew out of harms way.  In this instance, that plan worked flawless, and showed evermore that good planning was key to things not getting too dangerous.

Below, Mozhan Marno enjoys a quick snack while the crew prepped for the next set-up.  She was a trooper, and stayed in that hole for extended amounts of time.


While the main unit prepped for some shots with the 'Stage Three' puppet, the "B" Camera was used to get some key inserts and cutaways for the edit.  Below is a shot of this work being done in a separate location (just down the road form the principal spot).


The team on this shoot really worked hard together to ensure that the plan which the director, prosthetics, visual effects and myself had created well over two months earlier was carried out well.

       Continue to Post Production...



Post Production

When it came to the Post Production, because of the extensive planning we did, there was only the detail management of shots at VFX and the editorial schedule to deal with.  As an added benefit, I was not only the UPM on the project - I was also the Post Supervisor.  This helped a lot because the was clear continuity on what was and what was not done during the shoot.

I worked closely with SoHo VFX to ensure the various itterations of shots were being approved by the director.  Meanwhile, Steve McEveety brought in an editorial consultant to help with the editing on this particular sequence.  McEveety knew this person from their work on "The Passion of the Christ", and so Nowrasteh had two editors working with him - one for the stoning sequence and one for the rest of the show.  This was a good thing, because of the truncated time for editorial and the specfics to which Nowrasteh needed to see the cut for his vision.

Below is a work-in-progress shot for two subsequent VFX shots.  In the first shot, we corrected the angle at which the rock leaves one of the boys hands, and in the second shot we added the two rocks making impact in sync with Mozhan's reaction.  Additionally, she wore a headpiece which hid a tube for letting blood drip from her skull.  The tube can be seen in this hero take, so we masked it out and removed it for the final shot in the film.

Note: Please allow this video to load before playing, otherwise it will look a bit choppy.  "Plug-in Failure"?  try reloading the page in your browser.



I'll end as I started by saying that this film remains as one of my most proud productions to have been involved with.  I truely feel that the script was powerful, and it translated to the screen very well.  Thanks for reading.




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       Read more about the Projects Details...


       Watch the Trailer...



Project Details



Director:  Cyrus Nowrasteh

Producer(s):  Steve McEveety, John Shepherd

Production Company:  Mpower Pictures



Total Budget:  $4M USD

Total Number of Shooting Days:  34

Union(s):  DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGA

Shot on:  Viper HD

Released:  Fall 2008




   Official Site



   Visual Effects:  SoHo VFX, Toronto

   Prosthetics:  Tinsley Studios





7 May 2013







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