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SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE: Director E. Elias Merhige
By Steve Ryfle
December 28, 2000
E. Elias Merhige isn't your typical horror movie director, and Shadow of the Vampire
isn't your typical horror film. It's debatable as to whether it's horror film at all, really, for the true villain of the story isn't a bloodsucking fiend but a modern-age machine, the movie camera. In this fictional story about the making of the 1922 classic silent shocker Nosferatu
, actor Max Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe) is a real-life vampire, and silent film auteur F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) is a crazed artist, so obsessed with the creative process that he promises to let Schreck feast on the leading lady (Catherine McCormack) if he'll first appear in the movie. Of course, the vampire can't wait that long for a meal, and things go bloody wrong (nyuk, nyuk).
Merhige, whose only previous effort is the low-low-low budget (and, ahem, very pretentious, methinks) art film Begotten
(1991), was hand-picked by Nicolas Cage (whose Saturn Films paid part of the bill) to direct Shadow
, which was shot for under $8-million in Luxembourg. Although Merhige's new film has a seemingly fun, laughable premise and some funny scenes, it's certainly not a comedy. Well, if it's not a comedy, and it's not a horror movie, then what is it? At a recent press junket, Merhige tried to answer questions like this, weaving poetic answers peppered with ten-dollar words and musings on the roles that art and artists play in the human cosmos. What follows is Part One of a roundtable discussion Merhige conducted with reporters from Fandom and other online media outlets: Q: WAS THIS A CASE OF LIFE IMITATING ART?
There wasn't enough time for life to try to imitate art, because we shot the film in 35 days, and I think when you get the real juicy stories is when you have a real long shoot, when everybody starts to get a little loopy and isolated from the real world for too long. Q: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU WANTED TO ACHIEVE IN THE FILM IN TERMS OF A BALANCE BETWEEN AN HOMAGE TO THE ORIGINAL NOSFERATU, AND THE HUMOR, WHICH IS TONGUE-IN-CHEEK?
What I wanted to do really was to create a film that wasn't just about or commenting on expressionism, or even an homage to expressionism; I wanted to create a film that was itself a genuinely expressionist work of art. It was important to me that my love for cinema, and cinema history, and certainly German expressionismI wanted that to come through by digesting that time period, with its philosophies, with its artwork, with its literature, with its films, with its politics, and turn that into an atmosphere that had a sort of fever to it, that had this sort of palpability to it in terms of both its color and its texture, its shadows. And also to then bring that and make it contemporary, you know, make it something that people can be enthusiastic about today. Because I didn't want to make a film that was too homage-y, I needed to take some leaps and some chances; otherwise, I think it would just become this stiff, intellectual, art-house thing that only people who love Murnau would go to. The whole thing that I want to do, is that I want people who don't know who Murnau is to want to know who Murnau is, and want to see his films and want to rediscover the rich history of early silent cinema. Q: HOW MUCH OF IT WAS MEANT TO TIP THE OTHER WAY, INTO THE ELEMENT OF THE ABSURD?
I think the creative process is absurd, and certainly the obsession that one goes through in trying to create a work of art is something that, on the outside, you can laugh at very easily, but on the inside you're deadly serious about it. There were times at 3:00 in the morning, I'm in an eleventh century castle, and we're setting up the camera, and I'm racing against the sunrise. All of a sudden it's 4:15 in the morning and it's springtime in Luxembourg and the sun starts coming up, and the sky starts turning blue. So I start repositioning the camera so we don't see the sky; then I start feverishly looking at people's faces to see if there's any hint of blue coming off their complexion. And then, as soon as I see too much blue I say, 'OK, that's it.' And I'm miserable, because I never got everything that I wanted to get, because my shooting style is very ambitious, the camera setups are very complex. And sometimes the movements themselves are very complicated. There were times when I'd be coming home in my car in the morning and I'd be just thinking about what I'd just shot, and just being miserable at the fact that the sun came up so I couldn't keep working. I'd be so deadly serious about it, and then all of a sudden I'd just start laughing, because I'd realize how just absolutely ridiculous that type of focus, that profound energy, can be, and then all of a sudden you step outside of it and you say, 'Hey, it's a movie!' You know, you're not curing cancer. But at the same time, for me, art is homeopathic. To me, film is art, and that's the way I treat it. I treat it as something that should endure; it should have the possibility of being enduring. And that's what turns me on about filmmaking. Q: DID YOU RECEIVE THE SCRIPT FOR SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE FROM NICOLAS CAGE?
Nicolas Cage had seen my first film, Begotten
, and had a good a deal of respect for it and liked it very much. Nic wanted to get together with me, because he wanted to find a project that we could both collaborate on with his company, but he wanted to meet me first and see what kind of person I was, of course. So we got together, and it was a very great meeting: we talked about everything from Nikola Tesla to Leonardo Da Vinci; we had very similar interests in art and art history and literature and movies, and a similar passion for expressionism. This all came up before the script, and a few days later, his company sent me the script to Shadow of the Vampire
and I knew I could do something very exciting with the script. You know, the stuff that I developed in the movie, from color to black-and-white, and from black-and-white to color, is stuff that I had worked when I made my first film, Begotten
, because I had built the optical printer that I did all the special effects on in that film, and I was able to do experiments in color with that. Q: WAS NICOLAS CAGE ORIGINALLY GOING TO BE IN THE MOVIE?
We talked about that originally, with the idea of him playing Schreck. But Nic made, I think, a brilliant decision, because he felt that if he was in the movie then people would say, 'Oh, the movie got made because Nicolas Cage was in the movie, not because of the director, not because of anything else.' The thing about Niche was just such a gentleman at every step of the way. He really had a tremendous respect for me, and gave me an awful lot of trust in making this film, and I didn't want to dishonor that trust by making anything mediocre. So, it was important to me that, at the end of it all, when I delivered the film, that Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe and John Malkovich were proud of the film, and felt that they had put their trust into the right person. Q: HOW MUCH ROOM DID YOU GIVE THE ACTORS TO DEVELOP AND CHANGE THINGS?
John Malkovich invited me to Paris for 10 days, months before we were shooting. So we would have lunch and dinner together, and John and I became really great friends. And in reading through the script, we began to make notes, and what was important about that time period was defining who the Murnau that we were creating was going to be. I would throw a lot of esoteric stuff at Johnthings like Wittgenstein's philosophy, that was coming up in the early '20s, with this idea that if it can't be said grammatically then it's just senselessness, and it's meaningless. How do we turn this into something non-intellectual? How do we turn this into something really interesting and related to film? And a few days later, John came up with, 'If it's not framed, it doesn't exist.' In the beginning of the film, when Malkovich says, 'Why would you want to act in a play, when you can act in film?' Greta [Catherine McCormack] says, 'A theatrical audience gives me life, and this thing'she points to the camera'takes it from me.' There's moments like that, that I really wanted to bring to the surface and illustrate the fact that the camera really is a character in the film. The fact that the camera is a vampire, and the industrial revolution was sort of like the birth of the vampire because we all have become sort of less human, as a result of the machines and the inventions that we create.
And with Willem, it was just sort of painting the landscape for him. He's this Byronic figure that has been this nobleman, and now he's been reduced to this rat-like fiend, alone in this crumbling castle, and this film crew and this sort of arrogant director comes in and turns him into a flea in his flea circus, in his own home. That adds to the humiliation of it all. And then he's expected to die for the sake of art at the end. I just found all of those elements to be really funny, and also very sad and interesting. And with Willem, with a great actor, I find it's very important to give them limits, and the limits were already given to him in terms of the makeup, the mask, the teeth, the shoes, the corset, constrictive clothing. That worked to sort of define the frame of how Willem would sort of work against the costume, or work with the costume. Q: DID DAFOE HAVE DIFFICULTY WITH THE LONG FINGERNAILS?
Oh, yeah. I'm sure he would tell you. We'd be eating lunch, and he'd be having trouble picking up the salt shaker, and we'd notice that this thing was happening. You know, he's a very intuitive guy, and those things just sort of emerge out of it. You know, 'can't move my head too far this way, so I'll just do this
[juts his shoulder out to one side, face-first]. All of a sudden, the physicality and clumsiness of what's on him works to define these brilliant moments. It's WillemI'm not saying it's the makeup and the corsetit's Willem's ability to work with and against that stuff. Q: [SCREENWRITER STEVEN KATZ] SAID HIS ENDING WAS QUITE DIFFERENT FROM WHAT YOU FILMED. CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY?
A lot of the ending was written on cocktail napkins in a French restaurant in Luxembourg by myself and John Malkovich, the night before we were shooting the scene. I was in a panic about that last scene, because I wasn't happy with it. I felt that the ending, though very nice, that Steven had written, there was not enough pathos. I wanted to bring you into that sort of filthy, dirty place of someone who is so obsessed, and taking liberties with life and art, that you just feel completely uncomfortable with it; you just don't want to be there, in that room, with this guy, and you don't want to see what he's going through because he's comical in his own madness, and at the same time, he's dangerous.
Q: THE QUESTION THAT ARISES FROM THAT SCENE IS 'WHO IS THE REAL MONSTER?'
Well, that's the question that I want you to ask at the end. And in Steven's script, it was less clear and those polarities were not presented well enough. I wanted those polarities to stare you in the face at the end.
Q: WERE YOU CONCERNED ABOUT THE ENDING AHEAD OF TIME, OR DID IT COME UP DURING THE FILMING OF THE MOVIE?
I really think there should have been a lot more time spent working on the script. I have to admit that when we went into production I didn't think that the script was in the shape that I was comfortable with. So, as a result, a lot of rewriting took place on the set, off the set and at night. I just wanted to give it a deeply serious tone, and take away this sort of middle gray of campinessis it funny, is it this, is it that?I wanted it to be this; I wanted it to be that, and I wanted them to come together and switch. And I wanted to just fuck with everything. And to do that meant taking things a little more extremewith Willem's role, with Malkovich's role, and with the arc of the story. I didn't want to end with just the vampire dying and everybody going [claps his hands], 'Well we got our movie done, and we killed the vampire, that threatening, rotten, old guy.' I mean, who cares? For me, this movie was always about the horror of the creative process itself, you know. Once you get taken on that train into the creative act, the more pure it becomes and, seriously, the more frightening it becomes and the more powerful it becomes. At the same time, there's balance, and there's a road fraught with many different dangers in arriving at that.