Reinventing the vampire in 30 Days of Night
When actress Melissa George compared her 30 Days of Night director David Slade to a “modern-day Hitchcock,” little did she know that she had just made this writer’s job a lot easier. Although Mr. Slade of Hard Candy fame certainly doesn’t want to be seen merely as a “horror director,” he certainly puts the amount of time, intellect and vision into his movies as Mr. Hitchcock did when he was at his peak with movies like Psycho, The Birds and Vertigo. Then again, Hitchock never made a vampire movie, but if he did, it might look something like 30 Days of Night, a jarring film experience that follows very few conventions of the clichÃ©-ridden vampire genre, being more in the vein of what Danny Boyle did for “zombies” with 28 Days Later.
At the New York junket for the movie, ShockTillYouDrop.com sat down with the eloquent British filmmaker to talk about some of the decisions that went into his reinvention of the vampire genre, based on the equally unconventional graphic novel by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: I know you were a fan of the graphic novels, so were you contacted by Sam Raimi when he had the script?
David Slade: This is what happened. Before Sundance, I took a general meeting at Sony, and I don’t take many general meetings, but my agent enthused I should take this one and I took it. One of the films mentioned was “30 Days of Night.” It was the one thing I knew, so I expressed interest and things just tumbled when we got back from Sundance because we were literally sound mixing “Hard Candy” up until two days before.
Shock: Was that Sundance 2006 or 2005?
Slade: 2005. I’ve been in the service of vampires for two years now coming up in November. So Sam saw the film, liked it, phoned-up Steve Niles and told him he thought he’d found the guy. I met a bunch of other producers and that’s how it went. I just went in, took a meeting that happened to be that project. I didn’t expect it to be my next film. I certainly didn’t expect to be doing a horror film. I am a fan of the genre – I’m not the kind of person that doesn’t like horror films – I do, but very selectively, and I was just like, “Well, let’s get the monster movie done. Let’s do the monster movie early in the career,” if there’s going to be one – a career that is – and then just whole-heartedly got it out of development hell and into production within about six months which is pretty quick in that kind of situation. I think they had had it in development for at least three years.
Shock: And you brought “Hard Candy” writer Brian Nelson on because you two had obviously worked together before, so what did he bring to the mix?
Slade: I had a really clear idea of what I was after, but I knew that Brian had a very clear moral stance on things and that he would really listen very inventively to everything I said and make it better. [laughs] And that he’s great at writing dialogue, and the worst thing about horror movies usually is dialogue. We decided very early on – I think we’re right and we’ll see – was that we were going to do a scary vampire film. To do that we would have to make a believable world and to do that we needed believable characters saying the things people say, not giving you expositional plot points, which is often the battle when you’re working with a studio which is more used to a plot-driven movie rather than a character-driven movie. We managed to try and make the film character-driven, which I believe it is. Brian is great at character writing. I’d rather have someone who’s great at character-writing than someone who is great at writing set pieces because quite frankly the set pieces are something that I like to try and do as much as I can.
Shock: I guess you must have already had some of that with the screenplay already written by Steve Niles and Stuart Beattie, too.
Slade: A little, yeah. I mean we just went back to the graphic novel as much as possible, and then, as is the way with good writing, the set pieces came from character. SPOILER had to go out and die because he’s that guy, and that’s not a clichÃ©. By the time he’s finished talking halfway through the film you know that he will not be able to stay there with these people. He has to go out and die, and that’s not to say that he’s a hero. He is going to be punished for that act of heroism. That was part of Brian and my pact, was that heroism would be punished, because all the things that we didn’t like about horror films, we were going to try and get rid of. It was that straight forward. I knew that if I had Brian and I said that to him, he would listen to me, and if I had writer blah-blah-blah, then maybe there’d be pressure from the studio or from somewhere else, and Brian’s a brilliant writer. I’m blessed to have a relationship with him.
Shock: I’m amazed the studio allowed a lot of the really daring decisions you made in this that go completely against commercial conventions. Was it a matter of getting Sam Raimi into your corner for this?
Slade: Sam was really busy with “Spiderman 3” for most of it, but the two things that really swung in our direction as far as getting the kind of film made that this is. First of all, Sam came off of “Spider-Man” at the critical point in the editing. When the eight hundred pound gorilla is jumping all over us, everybody has an opinion…as they do and they’ve been doing it longer than I have. So there they are in the room with their opinion, and Sam comes in and is incredibly supportive. That was the first thing. The second thing – it’s a little annoying really – was that the testing of the film actually helped us, and I hate testing, because it destroyed my last film, and it will probably destroy any other sign of the Apocalypse that I bring to the cinemas. The audience responded really well to the unconventional, which I think should be obvious to most people, but audiences are smart. They don’t need to be force-fed like foie gras ducks or corn-fed hens. Audiences as a mass can make decisions, can decipher information, they don’t need to be beaten over the head with plot points. It was great. The testings we did brought out three specific issues of the film and we made alterations to that, and I was quite happy to, because to be honest I agreed, and away we went. Not to say that it wasn’t a huge daring risk on the part of Columbia because this is, I believe, the first R-rated horror they’ve put out, if not ever than in a long time. I made sure that we were R-rated and had it actually stipulated in my contract when we went in to make the film because there was no way this film could exist as a PG-13. It’s easy enough to say that, but I don’t want to be stuck within the horror movie that is trying to make this film PG-13.
Shock: Of course not, especially when you’re adapting a graphic novel where the blood is quite literally splattered on every page.
Slade: But those things begin to manifest themselves subtly, I would imagine. The way we approached the film, which was great, was that they really left us alone when we were shooting the film. If it was a PG-13 film I would imagine there would have been more hands on. There was a great amount of trust. God knows where it came from [chuckles] but we went out and we shot the film.
Shock: Were there issues with the gore as far as the R-rating?
Slade: We were worried about a lot of things, but the MPAA gave us an R-rating on the first pass. We didn’t have to change a thing.
Shock: It’s nice when the studio is involved with the MPAA.
Slade: We showed certain people in the studio camera tests of vampires and I think they were afraid. There was nervous mutterings, but as far as the MPAA was concerned, everything we did was within the grounds of an R-rating.
Shock: So how did you decide on New Zealand? Because it’s the furthest from Alaska you can get and you’d have to rely on actors being able to pretend they’re cold.
Slade: Well, New Zealand is very close to the South Pole, so geographically speaking, it has a similar climate to L.A., but if you go to the South Islands, there’s flat, snowy landscapes that go on as far as the eye can see. It’s not all CGI. A lot of real location shooting was done there which came with all of its dangers, whiteouts which would come out of nowhere and altitude sickness. So we shot on the South Islands where there are mountains that we had to erase because Alaska is very flat, especially Barrow. There was that, but largely though, Rob Tapert, the producer of “Evil Dead” and other films by Sam Raimi has a house, a boat and a wife there. (laughs)There was a tax bracket. We didn’t have the biggest of budgets, and we wanted to make it go as far as possible. Weta were there, who showed great interest in helping us make the film.
Shock: Did they do a lot of the makeup stuff too?
Slade: Yeah, yeah. Weta Workshops and Weta Digital worked on this film. Weta Workshops did prosthetics for us. We had the great delight of working with Gino Acevedo and Richard Taylor, who are amazing people and people that I am continuing to communicate with and we’re trying to get a film going together. That was fantastic. Working with Weta was a dream. Particularly the closing. I don’t want to give spoilers away, but that closing scene, we previewed the film without it because the effects weren’t finished, because it was going to take four months to do those things and none of it’s real.
Shock: Speaking of that closing scene, that beautiful sunrise and sunset. Was that one of the first locations you found when you did location scouting? Or was that CGI?
Slade: They’re all CGI.
Shock: No way.
Slade: Well, yes actually that is. The opening scene when Billy and Eben are on the hilldside and they found the burnt-out cell phones, that was shot on location, but we shot the final scene in a studio. Well, it’s not strictly true, some portions of it were location shots, but that thing at the end took four months, and the studio said, “When can we see it?” and I’m like, “Four months, sorry.” And they’re like, “Well show us something.” And then a month later, “When can we see it?” “In three months!” You know, it went on like that.
Shock: The comic book has such a great ending, and I’m glad they kept that and didn’t cop, because I was worried that would be changed.
Slade: With all due respect to the studio they never enforced anything like that upon me. As far as Columbia Pictures being an eight hundred pound gorilla, you know it actually wasn’t a bad experience at all. They just wanted the best film. They trusted Sam Raimi obviously and Rob Tapert to deliver a decent horror movie and there was very little in the way of intervention in the terms of, “That’s too much” or “That’s not Hollywood enough for us.” There was none of that really, so I was lucky with that.
Shock: They gave you a great release date, too. You can’t really beat an October release for a vampire movie.
Slade: Sure, I’m really pleased that they got behind the film. At a certain point, you do the best you can with the film in the time you have and you have to just go, “Well, the rest of it’s mucked.” But I’m really pleased with the release. The release date was actually set when we were shooting and hasn’t changed.
Shock: You’ve been working on this a long time, and you and Brian must have had other things you were working on. Will your next film be less genre-based? Are you going to try and get away from horror and go back to more dramatic stuff?
Slade: Yeah, I think so. I have two films right now which I’m very interested in doing. One of them has an actor but no finance, one has finance but no actor. There’ll be clarifications with the next two weeks, but I can’t really talk about them. I’m certainly not going to do a straight horror film right away. I really enjoy doing it. I’d absolutely love to do it again. I certainly don’t have any aspirations above and beyond, as if horror is something that wasn’t great fun to do and something that I take very seriously. I’m just looking for a film where I can cast great actors and have a great script.
Shock: Of course, when people see this movie, they’ll think, “Boy, he makes great horror movies. We gotta have him.” But speaking of actors, you got Josh and Melissa who are really strong actors and then cast relative unknowns around them. It was surprising that there were not a lot of names or faces I’ve seen before. The guy with the beard I recognized from a few other things.
Slade: Yes, Mark Boone Junior, he is a fantastic actor who you would have seen in “Batman Begins” and he was in “Memento” and he’s been in a ton of independent films like Steve Buscemi’s “Animal Factory.” He’s a great character actor and I tried to work with him on something else, on this narrative-based commercial that I shot, and it didn’t work out, but I really liked him so I managed to get him to be Beau. He just is Beau to me, and I’m really pleased he took that role.
Shock: So it was a conscious thing to get lesser-known actors?
Slade: Yeah, listen, you’re talking about an environment like Alaska. You don’t want to have people with symmetrical faces who look great or like hot models. It’s just crazy. Josh comes from Minnesota, and he’s used to the cold. He may be an attractive-looking guy, but he has rugged features that come from that kind of a cold environment and I was really pleased with that. And so I cast character actors. A lot of them had to be from New Zealand. I got the best of the New Zealand actors. I mentioned the names of Nat Lees, who if you look him up you’ll see him in a plethora of fantastic films and on stage, Craig Hall who is amazing, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Chic Littlewood, all great character actors with character faces, and there was no pressure to cast really good-looking people.
Shock: But I guess you could also do that and not worry about blowing all your budget on the cast.
Slade: Yeah, I guess. I didn’t really think too much about that. I knew I needed Ben Foster to play The Stranger. I had met Ben through Ellen Page and had become good friends with Ben, so as we were developing the script I kept saying, “I got a role for you and can’t offer it to you yet, but I really want you to do it.” And then eventually I said, “I really want you to do this role” and thankfully, he took the role for much less money than what he should have been paid. And Danny Huston was someone who took the role. That was something where the studio didn’t see it at first. I campaigned about eight months for Danny, and they just couldn’t see it. Eventually when they did, they just embraced it completely.
Shock: Danny’s story is amazing because he was following his father and had this career as a filmmaker going, but he started acting to work with other directors, and now he’s become so in demand as an actor to where he has this amazing acting career going.
Slade: Absolutely, Danny is just like a tour de force of a human being. One of the great things about having actors like Danny, like Josh, and like Ben is also… I mean, you’re in New Zealand, you’re away from home. It’s just that they’re great human beings too, so it’s not all that dilettante bollocks that you get with big stars… I imagine anyway. I haven’t really experienced it. I was just thankful that they were nice, and you could go out in the evening and it would be like being with normal human beings. Listen, two months of night shoots? People were just dying, and just to have nice down-to-earth people, but Danny – like all the actors on this film – but I want to single Danny out because he had to go through great discomfort wearing teeth and eyes, and he just really committed to it, really thoroughly committed to the character. And Ben Foster obviously, I mean Ben carries the first act of the film.
Shock: I wish there was more Ben Foster.
Slade: I wish there was more of him, too.
Shock: Is there more stuff of him for the DVD?
Slade: There is a little more, yeah. There are no new scenes of his, but we certainly cut the scenes down. We had a long film, we had a long script.
Shock: I hope they publish the script eventually, because I’d love to read it.
Slade: There is one actually. IDW is publishing the script and I believe it is unabridged, so there’s a lot of stuff that may come on a later DVD that’s in there.
Shock: You’ve talked about the actors you’ve worked with. Since Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson did “Hard Candy” with you, people have started to discover them, and I’m not surprised that people are now buzzing about Ellen Page getting nominated for an Oscar.
Slade: “Juno,” yeah. She’s always been amazing. Well, Billy Wilder said the three most important things about directing: casting, casting, and casting. I’ve been lucky to work with great actors. The one story I’m going to tell you before I’m dragged out of here is about Mark Rendall. I was looking for somebody to play the character Jake and we were seeing tons of people and nobody was really working out, so I called Ellen Page. She was shooting “American Crime” in L.A. So I said, “Ellen, you got to help me. I need you, only male. Do you know anybody?” She goes, “Oh yeah, my friend Mark Rendall. He’s fantastic. He’s an amazing actor.” So I was like, “Okay I’ll take a risk with this.” So we got him in to read and he was amazing so we cast him from Ellen’s recommendation.
Shock: I thought you were about to say that you wanted to cast Ellen as a boy which I bet she could have pulled off, if she had wanted to do it.
Slade: We really wanted Ellen to play the character of Iris, but Megan Franich who played her was fantastic.
30 Days of Night opens everywhere on Friday, October 19, and look for our interview with Melissa George soon.
Source: Edward Douglas