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Making MODERN VAMPIRES, Part Two
Richard Elfman on directing the Decadent and the Damned.
By Steve Biodrowski
November 26, 1999
In Part One of our conversation with Richard Elfman , the director discussed the travails of shooting a decidedly non-P.C. movie on a restricted budget and schedule. In Part Two, he assesses the finished work, and places it within the context of his previous films, THE FORBIDDEN ZONE and SHRUNKEN HEADS.
QUESTION: NOT HAVING HAD THE TIME AND MONEY YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED, WHAT WAS IT LIKE LOOKING AT THE FOOTAGE IN POST-PRODUCTION?
Richard Elfman: Well, luckily I had this great cast, so even though I didn't get quite the coverage I wanted, I think I was able to put a very entertaining film together, because I had such a great cast. I've seen it now at half a dozen festivals. Now some people are going to hate this film, but those who have an outrageous sense of humor and like bloody vampires, it plays very well. I lose a certain objectivity until I see if with different audiences, and it works very well for the intended audiencenot meaning to beat my own drum.
IT WAS VOTED THE AUDIENCE FAVORITE AT THE FANT-ASIA FESTIVAL.
Yeah, we beat BLAIR WITCH! It's a little unreal. I have a hard time looking at my own work objectively; it takes me a couple years. Then I wonder, 'Should I have cut this in or cut this out?' I know when it hits the press, certain critics are going to trash it, and hopefully a few will love it. In Europe, it's done very well with the press. If I would have known what would have happened with the ratings...I tried to do an R-rated film, and I got an NC-17. The DVD is the uncut version; VHS is the R-rated version. If I had known I was going to get an NC-17, I would have made the first version more raunchy, knowing I would have to cut all the stuff out. I had to cut some of my favorite stuff out, although the MPAA could have been worse with me. They were actually intelligent and okay to work with. What happens is you go crazy and say, 'For art's sake, I can't possibly cut these bosoms out, and the full frontal nudity is necessary to the core of the scene, and all the blood spurting out of Udo's chestI can't possibly tell the story without that!' But I understand the job they have to do; there's two sides to every story.
DO YOU ACTUALLY SIT THROUGH THE FILM WHILE THEY SCREEN IT?
No, they do it. Then I had one guy they assigned to work with me, who was actually pretty intelligent and on my side. He made suggestions that he thought would sell it to the rest of the board and wouldn't hurt the film. To be honest with you, it didn't hurt the film. I was going crazy and flipping out, but I looked at it the next day, and the cuts I made didn't hurt the film; they were good suggestions. Considering that we weren't a big studio film, he spent a lot of time with me, going over things with me frame by frame, and I don't feel I got short shrift. It was okay. I don't feel I got screwed over. . He suggested things other people had done that worked: can we show fewer frames of the stake going in the chest and hold on the reaction shot longer? And ladies, if you want to see Casper's bare backside, you'll have to do it on DVD or see the prints in an art house, but not on VHS. Same for guys who want to see some naked ladies. The 35mm prints are uncut; there are about a half a dozen going around to art houses. I always prefer to see a film on the larger screen; it's more beautiful.
WERE YOU EVER SURPRISED BY THE AUDIENCE REACTIONS?
The first audience screenings I saw were in Spain. I was sent over with Rod Stieger to the Sitges Festival. They had two screenings: one for the festival elite and critics, and one for the people of the town. The one for the elite and the criticsthey enjoyed the film and there was polite applause. The one for the town peopleparticularly the gang-banging, controversial sceneit blew the roof off the damned theatre, and I'm going, 'My God, I shouldn't have cut as much out! This is my audience, and they can't get enough!' They were literally screaming and yelling and pounding the floor. But live and learnI didn't have the luxury of test screening it. I didn't even have the luxury of editing it for the amount of time I would have liked.
But that's low-budget independent filmmaking. When you do a studio film, you have more time, but then you have studio hacks on your back telling you what to do and doing test screenings to the wrong audiencegoing through the corporate process.
HOW DO YOU RATE THIS FILM IN YOU FILMOGRAPHY?
I feel good about the work. Always, I wish I'd had more time and more money. But more money wouldn't have allowed me to do something as controversial as this. I'm not Scorsese; I'm not Kubrick. I'm just poor, miserable Richard Elfman! Some people are going to love it; some people are going to hate it.
YOUR PREVIOUS FILM, 'SHRUNKEN HEADS,' WAS A WEIRD COMBO OF KIDS MOVIE AND HORROR MOVIE.
Well, that was a Charlie Band film, and he was used to doing kids films. I don't know if he appreciated all the nuances of Matthew Bright's humor. For him, it was just, 'Yeah, flying shrunken head, yeah!' So for that, I basically shot a Walt Disney movie for the first thirty minutes, and then the good kids are killed by the bad kidswhich is bad enough if we didn't reanimate the heads, and one is still in love with a girl!
YOUR FIRST FILM WAS 'FORBIDDEN ZONE.'
Actually, my first film was HERCULES' FAMILY, which was the predecessor to FORBIDDEN ZONE, done three years before. That's a 16mm film that I never finished. I'm going through my old archives. Some people have approached me about doing a DVD of FORBIDDEN ZONE, and if I do that I'm actually going to run some pieces of that original 16mm film. But technically FORBIDDEN ZONE was my first completed feature.
IT WAS AN INTERESTING ATTEMPT TO RECREATE THE STYLE OF OLD, EXPRESSIONISTIC GERMAN CINEMA.
I was very influenced by CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, German Expressionism.
IT PLAYED ONLY MIDNIGHT SCREENINGS AT ARTHOUSES. WAS THAT THE TARGET AUDIENCE, BEFORE THE ADVENT OF HOME VIDEO?
It wasn't done for an audience. I was doing kind of avant garde music theatre with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and we were doing some new stuff, some old stuff, but we couldn't really market ourselves as this unwieldy, avant garde musical theater group, and eventually the larger industry bent us into the rock group that evolved into Oingo Boingo, which my brother took and did something nice with, I felt, but still within the framework of a rock group. I wanted to capture on film, as a legacy, what I had been doing on stage (because I was not going to be doing it anymore).I took some quick real estate profits and plowed them in, doing this film, not knowing what I was going to do with it.
It came and went, did a summer of midnight shows, disappeared. I didn't know how many people had seen it until I went online last year. Somehow, it must have been bootlegged, because we weren't given a dime in profits from this Media Entertainment, which flew by night and went out of business. Apparently, tens of thousands, maybe a hundred thousand people, around the world have seen it, because of the e-mail I'm getting. You can guy it on my website now. I was quite surprised at how many people are still looking at bootleg copies, because I get e-mail from sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-old kids. So it kind of found an audience.
GOING FROM THAT TO 'SHRUNKEN HEADS' MUST BE QUITE A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE.
Somehow, someone at Full Moon had seen FORBIDDEN ZONE and seen some of my stage work. They called up and said they had a Matthew Bright script. I didn't get to do exactly what I wanted to do with it, because the Bands have their own mindset about how it should look, how it should be shot. They made me shoot a PG film, and ironically it got an R-ratingbecause the kids die! I yelled at the MPAA, 'But you never see them die! I didn't even shoot it!' 'It doesn't matter; they did in the film.' 'But how do I get their heads off?' 'That's your problem.' There's no sex; there's no violence. If I would have know I would get an R-rating, I would have shot a different film, and a lot of stuff I took out of the script, I would have put back in.
WHERE DOES 'MODERN VAMPIRES' FIT ON THIS SCALE?
For MODERN VAMPIRES, I had very cool producers, so I had a free reign artistically. My only limitations were with the clock and the pocket book. Which still limit you artistically. You can't do anything you want, because you've only got twenty-three days to shoot it, and you don't have a mint. You can't do this effect; you can't have a crane. But I didn't have anybody on my back telling me what to do. It was jus the elements restricting me, so in that sense it was refreshing. It was fun, and it was stimulating artistically. I got to be much more myself on MODERN VAMPIRES than I did on SHRUNKEN HEADS.Click here to visit Richard Elfman's Lounge.