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Directing MODERN VAMPIRES, Part One
Richard Elfman on the Joys of Being Politically Incorrect.
By Steve Biodrowski
November 12, 1999
One of the strange, baffling, but ultimately intriguing oddities of midnight cult cinema was THE FORBIDDEN ZONE, a low-budget movie that appeared on a handful of screens in the early 1980s. The visual style of the black-and-white effort--with its expressionistic, painted sets--suggested a whacked-out CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI mixed with a modern-day cult sensibility. The director was Richard Elfman, brother of Danny, who appears in the film along with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Although this may sound like some kind of nepotism of vanity project, the film showed too much talent to be dismissed so lightly, and those of us lucky enough to see it were left wondering when Richard Elfman would direct something else. A few years ago, he got a chance with SHRUNKEN HEADS, one of the better films from Charles Band's now-defunct Full Moon company (about kids who become 'superheroes from the neck up' after being killed and brought back to life as the titular characters). The film, written by Matthew Bright, showed some wit and cleverness, but it was still a product of a studio (albeit a small studio) that smoothed off some of the rough edge that makes truly independent films really stand out.
With MODERN VAMPIRES, Elfman has returned again to the director's chair, working from another Matthew Bright script but without the overseeing eyes of a studio system. The cast of the graphic black comedy includes some rising young stars, some Hollywood veterans, and even a few cult icons: Casper Van Dien (STARSHIP TROOPERS, SLEEPY HOLLOW), Natasha Gregson Wagner (LOST HIGHWAY), Rod Steiger (ON THE WATERFRONT, MARS ATTACKS!) Kim Cattral (STAR TREK 6: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY), and Udo Kier (BLOOD FOR DRACULA, known in this country as ANDY WARHOL'S DRACULA).
Despite the high profile cast, only a half dozen 35mm prints were struck for some play dates at a handful of festivals and art house theatres. With MODERN VAMPIRES now out on video and DVD, Elfman took some time to sit down and discuss the realities of low-budget independent filmmaking and to explain the joys of being politically incorrect.
FANDOM: WHAT WAS THE ORIGIN OF 'MODERN VAMPIRES,' OR 'REVENANT' AS IT WAS KNOWN DURING PRODUCTION?
Richard Elfman: Well, it's still REVENANT in Europe. 'Revenant' is a French word: one who returns after a long absence, one who returns as a ghost. But in North America, we needed something a little bit more on the nose, like MODERN VAMPIRES.
Matthew Bright, who did GUN CRAZY with Drew Barrymore, wrote something called BLOOD SUCKING SOPHISTICATES, and he actually wrote the role of 'Richard' for me--a rich gallery owner. Nothing ever came of itt Then a couple years ago, I asked him if he could dust if off and do a rewrite for me. [Bright appeared in FORBIDDEN ZONE, wrote DARK ANGEL, and wrote and directed FREEWAY.]
BRIGHT'S PAST WORK HAS BEEN TONGUE-IN-CHEEK. WOULD YOU CHARACTERIZE 'MODERN VAMPIRES' IN THE SAME WAY?
This is very much darkly satiric.
WHAT ABOUT THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT APPEALED TO YOU?
Matthew's characters make me crazy. I laugh so hard I have tears rolling down my eyes. Where he and I overlap in sentiment is a sense of comic pathos. The Van Helsing character is a tragic character--still done comedically, but he's playing it tragically. He has to stake his own son.
WHAT MADE YOU REVIVE THE PROJECT?
It was one of those days where I'm sitting around the office, smoking a cigar when I should be working on something else and I'm not. I'm dusting through the files, and there's this old BLOOD SUCKING SOPHISTICATES. I called Matthew up and said, 'Do you own rights to this?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Okay, do you have a week to do a little update?' And there it was.
WHAT DID BRIGHT DO TO UPDATE THE SCRIPT FOR YOU?
He did a rewrite. I changed a few things. We had our customary fight; we've long since made up. We have one every time we work, where we don't speak for six months.
ANYTHING IN PARTICULAR TRIGGER THIS ONE?
I didn't want the character of Nico [Wagner] to stomp her mother to death, because I felt it would take sympathy away from the character. He felt I was watering down his work--again! He had a character do something similar--he took out all his venom and vitriol--in CONFESSIONS OF A TRICK BABY: FREEWAY 2. Anything he didn't get to do in my film, he did in his own film.
WHY PICK THE CHATEAU MARMONT ON SUNSET BOULEVARD AS THE SETTING OF MUCH OF THE ACTION?
I think if you go up into its upper regions you will find vampires very similar to the ones portrayed in the film. when I was shooting there, and some people saw the fangs on these beautiful, chic people, they thought I was doing a documentary! It's about contemporary, urban decadence: the beautiful, the powerful, the immoral, the decadent.
WHAT KIND OF TONE WERE YOU AIMING FOR WITH THE ACTORS? SINCE THIS WAS SATIRE, DID YOU FEEL YOU COULD GO OVER-THE-TOP?
The film is definitely a dark comedy. I generally have the actors play it straight, but some of the characters were flamboyant characters. Richard, the gallery owner, is a flamboyant character. Vincent, the Udo Kier character, is a flamboyant character. The gang members were very colorful characters. So some of the characters are flamboyant...I'll leave that [whether we went over the top] up to the audience to decide.
HOW DID YOU DIRECT ROD STEIGER?
That was an amazing experience. As a director, I always think I'm a know-it-all, but you work with Rod Steiger and you learn things, particularly how generous he is with other actors. It could be two in the morning, and we shot had him, and now we're shooting another guy's close up, and Rod's lines are only off camera--but he would always get out of his hotel, come to the set, and be there to read his lines off-camera. Most actors are not that generous. It was also interesting to watch how he approached a roll. He knew it was a comedy, but he played it straight, straight, straight. He's always believable. But the way he breaks a script down and hits beats...! Sometimes I'd see him running lines with his scene partners. The guy's amazing. He's a living legend. And boy, was I lucky to work with him.
YOU ALSO WORKED WITH KIM CATTRAL.
God, was she a wonder to work with. She's beautiful, professional. She loved the roll, loved the fangs. She'd walk around with her fangs on. One of the sexiest women you'll ever meet. She was one of the people who, when I was short on time, would hit her mark, find her light; the nuance, the flash are perfect.
I ASSUME YOU CAST UDO KIER BECAUSE OF HIS ROLE IN 'ANDY WARHOL'S DRACULA.'
Still perhaps among my all time favorite vampire movies. He's very professional. In JOHNNY MNEMONIC, he played a more conservative bad guy. He has a lot of range. He's an absolute gentleman on the set. He's fun to work with. He's one of those guys that just puts a good energy out. And he always looks good in front of the camera.
THERE ARE ALSO NEWER PEOPLE IN THE CAST, LIKE CASPER VAN DIEN.
Casper we're going to see for many years to come. He has something about him--he's a movie star. The first time I met him, before STARSHIP TROOPERS, he had a certain quality. Cary Grant had it; Marilyn Monroe had it; Gary Cooper had it. He's a movie star. It's somehow the way light refracts off his skin: it's a glow; it's a charisma that he has. And he's the nicest man in the world. This guy would do his own stunts, injure himself, not tell anybody, see if we needed an extra take, and do it again. During production meetings, he'd stay after and put away the chairs. And this was after STARSHIP TROOPERS. The ladies just went crazy about him while we were filming. And he's just a constant cut-up, so even when conditions were hard, he kept an energy on the set, so everybody had a smile on their face. He sent flowers to all the ladies, to their dressing rooms, on the first day of production. And I thought he was a great sexy hip young vampire.
ALTHOUGH SHE'S RELATIVELY NEW, THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT NATASHA GREGSON WAGNER'S FACE (BESIDES THE FACT THAT SHE'S THE DAUGHTER OF NATALE WOOD AND ROGER WAGNER) THAT MAKES HER SEEM FAMILIAR.
We really have two faces of her, because PART of the film is a PYGMALION story--kind of like the MY FAIR LADY of vampire movies. We start with her as a street urchin. A lot of people don't recognize her because she's scuffed up and dirty, with a different hairdo, and then she's given the PRETTY WOMAN treatment on Rodeo Drive: different makeup, different hair, different costumes. They're trying to civilize her. So we have two Natasha Wagners. A lot of other actresses read for the role--I can't tell you who--and she was just perfect. She has a combination of beauty and vulnerability that was just right for this.
YOU DIDN'T CAST YOURSELF IN THE ROLE ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR YOU.
No, I found somebody much better. I was very luck to have Craig Ferguson, who plays the boss on THE DREW CAREY SHOW. He was perfect. I of course did my signature cameo, although I saved it for the very end of the film to get my face in the same frame as Rod Steiger. I was the donut-munching cop who arrested him. I had a really scene-stealing monologue. It went, 'Are you okay, mister?' [laughs] It's all in the inflection, but people will be going over the speech for years to come in their drama classes, I'm sure.
I might as well tell a little secret about filmmaking. When you see certain scenes, they're not always shot the same day, and sometimes when you see a close up of hands, they're not the same hands as in the wide shot, because the actor's gone off to do another film, and now it's a month later on the stage at S.O.T.A Effects. (By the way, I love S.O.T.A Effects, god bless them!) So the black hands of the gang-banger staking Udo Kier were my hands, with makeup on them. Just before I staked Udo, I said, 'Dear sir, I've been waiting twenty years to put a stake through your heart.' Boy, does he do a great vampire death!
WHAT SORT OF PROBLEMS AROSE WHEN TAKING THIS SCRIPT OFF THE PAGE AND PUTTING IT ON THE SCREEN?
Bly had an easier time of it on the Bounty; Cortez had an easier time of it with Montezuma--that's the only way I can put it! There wasn't nearly enough time; there wasn't nearly enough money. Also, this film is extremely politically incorrect. Bill Maher, who I adore, has this show on TV called POLITICALLY INCORRECT, but it isn't politically incorrect. He has a smirk on his face about everything-that isn't political incorrectness. If you want to see political incorrectness, you watch MODERN VAMPIRES. Most of the audience screams and howls. A certain percentage, which usually includes a critic, storms out halfway through--they've never been so offended in their fucking lives. So, no, it wasn't easy.
IS IT ONE SCENE IN PARTICULAR THAT SENDS SOME PEOPLE RUNNING OR AN ACCUMULATION?
There's an accumulation of things. I don't know if it's the bloody vomit over the crack-selling pimp or Van Helsing railing about vampires controlling the international press and international banking. [laughs] And we get into his nefarious past. He is a mixed character--there are no good guys in this film--but in his own words he was 'fully exonerated at Nuremberg' because he only experimented on vampires. This is when he's on his right-wing, religious-fanatical pulpit, telling Count Dracula what a monster he is. And Count Dracula says, 'No, Doctor, it is not I who is the monster. You are the monster.' And Van Helsing sputters, 'What are you talking about!'
Getting back to your question, I think it was the scene where the gang-bangers from South Central gang-bang a hideous, scab-covered monster. We pull no punches, Matthew Bright's upset not withstanding that I watered his work down. I think he gave me the most politically incorrect script he's ever done.
I GUESS THERE'S A CERTAIN GLEE OVER BREAKING THOSE TABOOS AT A TIME WHEN THERE'S A TENDANCY TO PULL PUNCHES AND BE SENSITIVE.
I grew up and went to school in a black neighborhood, where I was the minority--Dorsey High School, in the Crenshaw district, where they shot BOYS IN THE HOOD. I grew up with a lot of good-natured joking, and everybody laughed about our differences. I don't have a racist cell in my body, and I'm certainly not anti-Semitic--I'm Jewish--although I was accused of anti-Semitism for putting this horrible Jewish stereotype in THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. It was my own grandfather, thank you, and he wasn't acting; that was just how he talked, and those were his mannerisms!
But this is a satire on contemporary urban decadence, and everybody gets it. The white kids get it worse than the black kids. My black gang member, Time Bomb, is ultimately a sympathetic character, who's ethical. But it's all shades of gray. I don't tiptoe; I don't walk on eggs. I'm not out to really upset anybody, but if I do, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!