Some would say to have the career director Stephen Hopkins has carved for himself takes confidence. Yeah, sure. This writer will simply say he’s got a lot of balls. Especially when you spend your time mucking about with established movie icons. A few examples: He gave Freddy Krueger a saucer-eyed rugrat, steering the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series in a wild new direction, and he challenged stringy urban gladiators Danny Glover and Gary Busey (?!) to go up against the Predator with Los Angeles serving as their arena. Not to mention, he gave Alien and Predator nerds something to stroke to on freeze frame in his sequel’s final moments until Alien vs. Predator came out 14 years later.
He didn’t take such radical extremes helming Judgment Night and 1994’s other explosive bomb-happy summer popcorn flick (next to Speed), Blown Away. But in ’98, he’d test geek expectations once again with Lost in Space, the big-budget sci-fi pic, based on the cheesy television series of the same name, which finally dethroned James Cameron’s Titanic from its number one spot at the box office after 15 weeks.
Hopkins doesn’t mind the risks, but these days, with a Golden Globe Award for his work on “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” (starring Geoffrey Rush) to show for it, he’s a little older, a little wiser and still attracted to big spectacle movie-making, as is evident in The Reaping. Starring Hilary Swank and Idris Elba, this troubled production (that act of God known as “Hurricane Katrina” put a dent in shooting) is a religious mystery that ropes Hopkins back into the horror genre where he had hung up his hat in the mid-’90s with three “Tales from the Crypt” episodes to his credit (“Abra Cadaver” being a highlight of the declining series).
Ryan Rotten: “Reaping” reunites you with Joel Silver which must mean your past experiences with him on “Predator 2” and “Tales from the Crypt” were positive ones.
Stephen Hopkins: Oh, yeah. But the first time he sent me the “Reaping” script, I didn’t think it was very good. When Hilary [Swank] came on, the whole nature of the script changed and I thought it was something that I could do well. Joel is great when I work with him. I don’t know what it’s like for others, but when I work with him he leaves me alone, supports me and tells everyone else to leave me alone. All the while I’m thinking, “Man, this is great!” Then when you need him he just makes things happen, he’s a great producer to have.
RR: You’ve come a long way since your Freddy Krueger days on “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child.” That Golden Globe must be a nice reminder of how far you have come, how have you changed since your early flicks?
Hopkins: On “Nightmare 5” I felt like I was an 11-year-old running around with a camera. I remember I got that project on Valentine’s Day and I was in Florida with my girlfriend. [New Line] called me up and said I got the job, but they wanted it in cinemas August 24th on 4,000 screens and they didn’t have a script. So, that left me with five months to finish the film and work it out as to what it was going to be. New Line was a bit arrogant at the time, sorta like “Anything we do with Freddy is gonna be fine.” We just tried to do something scary. I was just thinking I was the luckiest guy in the world, it was my second film – I had done some 2nd unit on “Highlander” and I had done a film in Australia called “Dangerous Game.” I was 28 or 29-years-old, so I was a lucky bloke. Then Joel hired me off that to do “Predator 2.” I went from this tiny non-union film to being 12 year-old running around with all the money in the world blowing up Los Angeles. Once again, with not much of a script, 50 pages of something.
RR: And now?
Hopkins: It’s all about the script, it’s not about release dates. I brought great screenwriters [in addition to credited screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes] on “Reaping” like Jacob Estes who wrote and directed “Mean Creek” and then the guys from “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” came in and wrote a bunch of stuff. We tried to make this as real as possible and tried not to cheat. It’s a very difficult film to balance, I’ve found, because you’ve got to get all of this information out. You’ve got to make it frightening and there are all of these twists at the end you have to protect. You have to tell the truth as much as you can – I think when we look back on the film, generally, 95% of the time, it’s all pretty honest. For AnnaSophia’s character, she plays this mute, ill-educated girl from a family no one likes who is imbued with an enormous power and she doesn’t know what’s going on. That’s the truth of it. You’re trying to create a mystery yet make it frightening. A good example of this is when we shot the opening sequence in Puerto Rico. We’re in a real fort there and you’re creating a scary sequence, but there’s nothing to be scared of yet.
RR: But you give us clues though, such as the blood…or what appears to be blood. That unsettles you from the beginning.
Hopkins: Right, so you’re presenting, generically, from films that you should be scared of but it turns out to be something else. I found it quite a handful.
RR: Many genre films are becoming dependent on a twist, as if that’s their only backbone. Did you ever feel this film postured itself as being over-reliant on its third act plot trickery?
Hopkins: Nah, man. I think it’s a really difficult thing to pull off well and I’m not sure if we did pull it off, but for a lot of people it works and I’m pleased with that. How often does it work? It worked in “The Sixth Sense” and everyone tries to do that. If you can pull off a film like this or “Sixth Sense,” when all the cards fall on the table, normally they work because there’s one simple idea. In “Sixth Sense,” Bruce Willis is dead. That’s it. In this movie, you have to reveal huge amounts of information in the last ten minutes and I tried to minimize it. When we finished shooting last year in Louisiana, and I had to bring all of the actors back, we made some things different so you got more information up front and you didn’t have to tell the entire story at the end, especially with the double-twist. Everyone thinks it leads to a sequel, I just thought it was a really fun idea.
RR: The second big reveal is yours?
Hopkins: Yeah, and, originally, Warner Bros. and Joel didn’t want it. I gave it to them and they still weren’t sure if they wanted it until the preview audiences loved it. If you can walk out of the cinema chatting about something, I like that. It doesn’t have to be about twist necessarily, it has to be a real ending.
RR: Quick aside, how did you land “Fright Night’s” William Ragsdale as Sheriff Cade?
Hopkins: He was in Louisiana and he came in to audition..
RR: He lives down there now?
Hopkins: He’s got a house there and one here, too. Actually, his house in Louisiana got squashed so he lives here now. But he was a riot and so many people recognized him. In the script the sheriff is this big fat guy, and I thought, “Let’s make him cool.” There are so many guys down there looking like Elvis, why not do that to him?
RR: “The Reaping” marks an end of an era for Dark Castle before it ventures into other psychological thriller type projects. How do you think the film fits in with the existing library?
Hopkins: The others were all released around Halloween except “Gothika” and “House of Wax” – and I think most of the others tried to be PG-13 whether they succeeded or not they were. I thought “Gothika” was an intelligent movie, but the “House of Wax” ones were for kids, a fun hand-holding thing. The kind of horror movies I always loved were “The Exorcist” and “Don’t Look Now,” which is probably my favorite one. I like more esoteric movies about atmosphere and trying to get into uncomfortable areas of the unconscious.
RR: Audiences tend to flock to supernatural thrillers with a religious bent – why do you think that is?
Hopkins: Biblical films in the general, I think. The bible is an incredible document. I’m not a Christian but I find it a fascinating, illuminating document. It’s probably one of the first documents about human nature that exists with those archetypes. I mean there’s the Greek gods which would be very interesting. The bible contains very powerful, archetypal legends. And the Old Testament is so different from the New Testament, I mean, you’ve got one telling us how to live properly. Like, if you had sex with the neighbors’ wife, you were punished terribly. So, it was some sort of way to bring laws in based on human nature. I’m not sure if you’ve read “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, which is this great book.
RR: I haven’t…
Hopkins: Check it out, for sure. Anyway, there’s just a lot of stuff in the Bible – if your child blasphemes you have to kill him. Where are these practicing fundamentalists? If they say they’re fundamentalists, they’re not real ones. Tell them, “Here, kill your kid if he tells you ‘f–k you.’ Immediately. That’s what has to be done, according to the Bible.” So, yeah, the Bible is an interesting historical document.
RR: In addition to being a great wealth of archetypal storytelling.
Hopkins: Yeah, creepy stuff. Sci-fi stuff. Parents sacrificing their children to God, which sounds satanic, and a whole race of people being wiped out because they’re not behaving themselves.
RR: You shot “Reaping” in the thick of Bible country, how did the locals respond?
Hopkins: The head of the Methodist church came over to me because we were shooting on their land and he asked “What rating are you shooting for?” And I told him PG-13, I think. He says, “God, I can’t imagine you getting anything less than a triple-X because any movie about the Bible would be unwatchable because there’s so much blood and death, incest and pain.”
RR: Speaking of ratings and such, how did Warner Bros. get away with using a “river of blood” on the poster? Doesn’t the MPAA have restrictions over how much blood, if any, you can get away with in your advertising?
Hopkins: We had to change the color slightly, which got us out of trouble. It’s an R-rated film now but if it was PG-13 we couldn’t have gotten away with that.
The Reaping hits theaters April 5th via Warner Bros. and Dark Castle.