A Set Visit to the Cirque Du Freak


Paul Weitz & John C. Reilly on The Vampire’s Assistant

In the heart of The Big Easy, something heavy is going down. The vampire known as Larten Crepsley has shaken things up in the underworld. And now he’s being told he is under arrest by the imposing Gavner Purl. Crepsley doesn’t show any fear. Beneath a flock of red, almost rockabilly-esque, curly hair, his scarred face is composed, a sign that he’s cognizant his actions would arrive to this outcome.

ShockTillYouDrop.com is witnessing this scene just outside of Crepsley’s living quarters, a set that resides within a massive New Orleans soundstage where Paul Weitz is bringing Darren Shan’s “Cirque Du Freak” to life. (When the adaptation opens in theaters on October 23 through Universal Pictures, it will be called Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.)

There is a palpable intensity hanging in the air as Crepsley, played by John C. Reilly, and Purl, Willem Dafoe taking his third stab as a cinematic bloodsucker (behind Shadow of the Vampire and Daybreakers), exchange banter. When Reilly responds to Dafoe, it’s with respect. His pronunciation of Dafoe’s character rolls out with a mellow “Gaaaaavner…” While it’s clear this slice of the film is a pivotal moment for Crepsley, Purl owns it.

Dafoe’s skin is pallid, a widow’s peak creeping just below the hairline – an archetypal old school vamp visage that makes this writer smile. His lips, hovering beneath a pencil-thin mustache, defy this ghoulish approach to his character and appear rosy. They’re not the only color brought to Gavner Purl. With each take Dafoe lends different shades to the news he offers Reilly. First with trepidation, then elation. When Weitz calls for a third take, Dafoe is much more stern. “Once a general, always a general,” he utters, and I can’t help but admire the actor all the more, his participation in the film and the creative team Weitz has called together for what is, no doubt, a stretch outside of his normal fare like American Pie, About A Boy and American Dreamz.

Written by Brian Helgeland (Payback, Mystic River) and Weitz, the film’s narrative covers grounds in Shan’s first three books: “Cirque du Freak” (published in 2000), “The Vampire’s Assistant” and “Tunnels of Blood.” Chris Massoglia plays the story’s protagonist, Darren Shan, a 14-year-old who’s life drastically changes when he sacrifices his life for his friend, Steve (Josh Hutcherson of Zathura), and becomes not only one of the undead but an assistant for the aforementioned Crepsley, a vampire. Shan becomes a part of the traveling Cirque Du Freak family and ultimately upsets a balance between the vampire race and their more evil counterparts, the vampaneze. The cast also includes Salma Hayek, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Fugit and Ray Stevenson.

Shan is not here today when I pay a visit to this colorful, fantastical and macabre set. Instead, he’s off writing and reportedly on book tour. But as I find, Shan is definitely being kept in mind by Weitz and executive producer Andrew Miano.

“From About a Boy to The Golden Compass, we’ve all found it’s in our best interest to involve the author as opposed to alienate the author,” says Miano, who also exec produced both aforementioned titles. “So far, all of them, from Nick Hornby to Darren, they’ve all been open to the sense that the movie and the book are separate entities. And there will be difference. Darren has been open to that.”

He’s overseeing a 75-day shoot. A hefty production schedule, to be sure, and about 30-40% of it is taking place in this soundstage where the Cirque Du Freak’s gypsy-like camp has been vibrantly realized. Every tent here reflects each character. The Snake Boy’s quarters, where ShockTillYouDrop.com is stationed for most of the day, is a typical teenager’s living space. At the entrance sits a green scooter riddle with snake bumper stickers. Inside, socks litter the floor competing with other discarded clothes. There’s a can of grape soda, a guitar, copies of Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” on a shelf. The centerpiece here is the (currently empty) giant snake tank sitting not too far from a small cove where a coffin rests – this is what Massoglia’s character calls a bed. A look inside yields the discovery of a cup holder. Cute.

The tent itself takes on the guise of a serpent’s skin and this thoughtful, personal touch, by production designer William Arnold, is represented through all of the tents. The Wolf Man’s cage looks like gaping, blue jaws. Before you enter Gertha Teeth’s “home” you’ll find the entrance is a set of giant chompers, 3-foot tall pearly whites above and below you.

“Part of the excitement [in doing this film] has been to work with the production designers,” muses Weitz. “But certainly, there are two things you could do – fall in love with that and not pay attention to the characters or you can get a little too esoteric and be above the material.”

And so, as a director and co-writer, it has been a delicate balance adapting “Cirque Du Freak,” as Weitz tells Shock over lunch. As it turns out, how he set about realizing the world of Shan’s novels and why he got involved with them went hand-in-hand.

“There’s some dark stuff in the books which is what appealed to me,” he explains. “I read the books and thought they were cool, but I had no interest in doing them because I felt it could be something that would be a cool commodity for a studio – in terms of me trying to get better as a filmmaker, that wasn’t something I want to do. But it stuck under my skin. In the books, the kid fakes his own death, which is a horrible thing to do to your own parents.” Weitz says this with a chuckle. “There’s this aspect of conformity versus individualism. Sort of being okay with being a freak that I became more and more interested in. Crepsley is morally ambiguous. He’s taken this kid to be his assistant without worrying too much about what it’s going to do to his private life or childhood. It reminds me a little of Grimm’s Fairy Tales where there are horrific things happening but somehow they make sense to kids.”

That tone spreads through all of Shan’s twelve “Cirque” books. In the first entry alone, the Wolf Man surprisingly attacks a member of the titular event’s audience and one of the main characters is put into a coma from a wicked spider bite. “Grim” stuff, indeed. And Weitz isn’t going to skirt the morbid details, however, he emphasizes the film isn’t going to be wildly violent. Again, it was all part of the “adaptation dance” he’s already grown accustomed to.

“It’s similar to About a Boy, where the last quarter of the film doesn’t exist in the book, but we were trying to make it as if it organically grew out of that so it was cohesive,” he says. “I took the same perspective here, which was to have the bones in there, but realize I can’t exactly film the books because I can’t personally get excited about that. There’s a lot directly lifted from the books. Whoever reads them already has their vision and I can’t top that. It’s [all about] trying to make it it’s own piece.”

As far as the rules of vampirism are concerned in he film, Weitz says they’re staying true to the source material. The vamps can’t come out during the day (a staple in bloodsucker lore), however, they can be killed and not just by a stake. “They can get stabbed or run over. They’re much tougher than normal people. They don’t live forever, but they do age ten times slower than a normal person.” Reilly’s Crepsley is estimated to be around 220 years old. “I know so much has been covered when it comes to vampires, and it’s been covered in a post-modern way. So we have rules we adhere to, but I’m not trying to be overtly clever about it.”

Weitz reached out to a, let’s face it, unusual choice to play Crepsley. I certainly didn’t envision Reilly, yet, the actor’s resume reflects diversity across the board even though, as of late, he’s being most recognized for his comedic turns in Talladega Nights, Walk Hard and Step Brothers. Lest we forget he also starred in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Gangs of New York.

“I just had a gut feeling that he’d be interesting in this. I knew that, in person, he was a thoughtful guy and occasionally brooding,” he laughs. “John’s done different kinds of parts, but this is different than what he’s done before. But I thought, in meeting him, there was a lot of him I could use for this. He’s an articulate person and I wanted the character to be that.” And finding Crepsley’s apprentice, Massoglia? “Chris came in and did an audition – I kept him there a few hours and he didn’t overact. It’s been really fun for me to see him through the course of filming and get more and more comfortable. I think [co-star] Josh [Hutcherson] has actually been a big help. When we first started, it was Josh and him acting. Josh made Chris really comfortable and they were playing basketball, hanging out.”

Regarding the other “freaks” of this bizarre Cirque, Weitz was highly aware of Todd Browning’s depiction in the controversial 1932 film Freaks. “I re-watched Freaks right before making this and it’s certainly an interesting film, but it makes a big impact,” he posits. “When you think about portraying strange looking people, the question of political correctness could arise. In this, since you’re including things that can’t humanly happen like vampires and the wolf man, there was a weird tonal line to walk where I didn’t go in the Browning direction of using people in those days who could have been in a freak show. As a kid, in terms of the freak aspects, I grew up around a lot of German-Jewish refugees and there were these people that had lost a lot of their possessions but had aesthetic things like paintings or clothing. They carried their lives on their backs. They were colorful and had big personalities. Part of the way I related to the freaks in this movie is them being artists in a sense. A lot of what I used, instead of going to Browning or something like Carnivàle, I used ’20s and ’30 expressionist art like Otto Dix or Max Beckmann. There is a very weird grotesque sense to them, but very colorful.”

To lure Dafoe to the role of Purl, Weitz – who had worked with the actor on American Dreamz – says he had Dafoe look at the work of Dix. “That got his imagination going.”

Although Shock is not able to talk with Dafoe to talk further about this, we do have Reilly meet up with us in the Snake Boy tent to pick his brain about Crepsley. What we found was an actor who immersed himself in the world completely by reading Shan’s entire series and appreciated the fact that readers did not want to see too much of a deviation from the character. When Reilly speaks, he refers to the “rules” of the series and honoring Shan’s universe.

“I already have the parameters sketched out in the book for me,” Reilly says, commenting on his character. As for the look, “it’s dictated by the book.” Of course. “He’s got a scar on his face and red, or orange, hair. The [long] nails. The most collaboration I had was the costume. All aspects of the character, when Paul and I were talking with the designers, was based on this idea of ‘If you were this old, what would your world view be?’ What would you wear? Also, when you’ve been around this long, what matters at this point? How much of human existence do you find amusing and how much of it are you involved in? That’s really why I took this character. I started to think about his point of view and how much he’s gone through. How cynical that would make you, how wise it would make you. How self-destructive or not. These are all great things to play with in the back of your mind.”

The actor says he was also drawn to the mentor/apprentice theme he shares with Massoglia, drawing from personal experience. “My best friend is much older than me and I’ve had a rich relationship with him. I recognized a lot of that in this character. A mentor will let you do things and make mistakes a parent will never let you do. A parent is always concerned for your safety, but a mentor will be like, ‘Yeah, try it if you want, you might get hurt.’ I think that’s what teenagers love about the books. Some of it is transparent, there are obvious metaphors for coming-of-age, but Darren has been astute about realizing, socially, what’s important. What they notice in their relationships, loyalty and betrayal. It’s been blow up to this larger than life scenario. It’s fantastic enough to be interesting, but it’s real enough to seem relatable.”

When I query about the action of the film, Reilly gets especially excited, citing many of his vampire’s abilities. “We can leap up onto a balcony and we have these razor-sharp nails. But if we’re hit and we fall on the ground, it hurts. So me and another character have this fight and it’s two birds battling in mid-air. Scratching and clawing. The things that are unique about us are the things we highlight in the fight. We try and stab each other with our hands. We start with knives, but then we use our hands. The action is going to be cool.”

We’ll take his word on that. The actor returns to set for the next scene of the day which finds him acting against Madam Octa, a spider Crepsley speaks to on a telepathic level that will be created later in CG. More trippy stuff from Shan’s imagination and Weitz’s vision.

Will the director carry the rest of the books onto the big screen? “I hope I’m not worried too much about making sequels because that feels like a trap and I’m too superstitious about it,” he confesses. “Because there are all of these books and characters, I hope there’s not too much of a smarmy wink to the audience that, ‘Hey there could be another movie.’ I’m not trying to stress it too much, but also trying not to wrap things up too tightly.”

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Source: Ryan Rotten, Managing Editor