Director Eric Red has been a shaping force in the horror movie genre for the past two decades, with scripting credits for the vampire film NEAR DARK, the psychological thriller THE HITCHER and director of COHEN & TATE, BODY PARTS and the werewolf movie BAD MOON. He now prepares to embark on a new project, a return to the vampire film with NIGHTLIFE, based on a novel by Wayne Smith. I recently had the opportunity to ask Red a few questions about his films... ..
Q: You directed a few short films before you directed your first film, COHEN & TATE. Can you talk a bit about them?
RED: I directed two short films before I did my first feature, which is good training for any aspiring feature director, because you get the hands on experience of taking a film through production on a smaller level, before tackling the rigors of a full feature schedule. My first short in 1981 was an urban western called "GUNMEN'S BLUES", about a confrontation between an aging hit man and a violent young thug in a Hoboken New Jersey Bar. I cast the late Darwin Joston as the hit man, because I liked his performance in John Carpenter's " ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13". I wrote the script in three days, storyboarded all the shots myself, hired a NABET union crew, and filmed it in 16 mm in five days in an actual bar in Hoboken. I had some prosthetic makeup effects in it, and a couple of stunts and special effects with gunfights and shootouts, but mostly it focused on the psychological relationship between the two characters. It was my film school basically.
I hired a professional editor to cut it, but when he passed away, I finished editing the film myself. I wound up getting national television distribution on the short through the cable show "NIGHT FLIGHT". My second short was a psychological thriller called "TELEPHONE" about a suicidal young woman who dials up a random number, puts a gun to her head, and tells the stranger she gets on the line she is going to shoot herself in 60 seconds. The guy she gets on the line decides to try to talk her out of it, and the film is about their suspenseful emotional connection. I wrote and filmed it, also in 16 mm, in L.A. in 1986, with Bud Cort as the lead.
Both shorts helped convince Nelson Films to give me my first feature directing shot with "COHEN AND TATE" in 1987.
Q: In COHEN AND TATE the main character was a child and in BAD MOON you directed both children and animals, two things they always say are difficult to deal with on a movie. Talk about these two experiences and how they were the same/different?
RED: If you cast a professional child actor, usually they know their lines, hit their marks, and do their acting homework, so there aren't problems on that level. You have to remember they are children,, so you don't pull the psychological numbers to get a performance you periodically have to do with adult actors. By child labor law regulations, you can only work with children a few hours a day, so there is a scheduling consideration. And kid actors often have limited concentration. The biggest thing with kids I've found is it is counterproductive to rehearse with them, because they generally don't have the resources that adult actors have to do it over and over again, and you can use them up in rehearsal. It's a "lightning in a bottle" factor. So I find it best to just bring them to the set, run through the scene before shooting, and save it for the camera.
As far as animals, you cast them as carefully as you cast actors, because they all look a certain way on film, just as actors do. It took me weeks searching in the U.S. and Canada to find the German Shepherd dog with the right visceral, heroic, protective look for Thor in "BAD MOON". The key with animals are good trainers and a extensive prior training for the animals. Preparation is everything. I had outstanding trainers with Mark Dumas and Anne Gordon, and the dogs in "BAD MOON" were trained exhaustively up in Vancouver for six months prior to filming on a list of activities that I meticulously culled from the script. Everything from walking up to a bed, picking up a child's doll from the floor, putting it next to the boy's head, and licking his face, to the running, jumping and fighting stuff. I basically used two dogs. The first, Primo, the close up star dog, a hi-strung alpha male who had almost no concentration span. He couldn't sit or stand still for more than a matter of seconds, but he had the primal, atavistic "look". For the sitting, lying down dog, I used a dog named Echo, who you could just place and sit still for over the shoulder shots or whatever. Echo was a bitch, by the way, but nobody could tell the difference. For the key close-ups of Primo, the hero dog, I had a B camera set up close to the A camera set where I was shooting scenes with the actors. During breaks during lighting setups or camera changeovers, I would go over and film the close ups with the dog for the various scenes. This maximized the shooting schedule. And we rolled a lot of film. For every three minutes of film with the dog twitching, or blinking, or yawning, there would be three or four seconds of footage where his look and performance would be powerful and right on. In the cutting, the editor Tim O'Meara and I used just those good pieces of film, often only 48 or 72 frames worth, sometimes reprinting it, or doing opticals to slow it down. And basically we built the performance of the dog Thor in the editing. Additionally, I used a East German border attack Shepherd for one shot at the end where Thor knocks the creature across the room, and had a special padded suit built for the stuntman. For the action scenes where the dog was thrown through ceiling light fixtures, or crashed out a window two stories to earth, Steve Johnson at SFX built dummy dogs, and he built a puppet dog head for close ups where the dog is biting people or werewolves.
Again, all this stuff was prepped way in advance, from storyboards. Some of the tricks you use to get the shot are quite funny. There is one terrifically effective violent series of cuts in the dog werewolf fight at the end of "BAD MOON" where the dog has the creature down, and the monster is hacking and slashing at the dog with his claws, apparently punching and ripping the living shit out of the dog. All that was is the stuntman in the creature suit play fighting with the dog and harmlessly pushing his head around like you do with a house pet. Which of course gets the dog playfully riled. We improvised it on the set. But we put lots of fake blood on the dog, and added loud and brutally savage sound effects for bone snapping, flesh tearing blows in post. I will say, however, that dogs are the easiest animals to train, and German Shepherds are the smartest, so my experience has been somewhat limited.
Q: How did the screenplay for NIGHTLIFE come about?
I asked Wayne if he'd written any novels after "THOR". He mentioned he had subsequently written a vampire novel he had not been able to get published called "NIGHTLIFE", and asked me to read it. The title grabbed me, as did his logline, which was "THE GRIFTERS' with vampires". The novel was about five hundred pages, and it was rough in places, but had the elements I knew with development would make a good script and film. Wayne gave me a free option on the book, and I did a first draft that cut the book down to a manageable screenplay length. Then, over a period of a year, we revised the script back and forth by e-mail. Wayne has a rare quality as a writer of being able to approach the screenplay for the film of his own book as separate entities with different requirements, and he is able to write new scenes and dialogue based on those script requirements without missing a step. I think the story works rather better as a script than it did a book, although the screenplay is very faithful to the novel.
The story revolves around a beautiful young grifter named Vickie, who comes to San Francisco looking for her missing prostitute sister Stephanie. Vickie's search leads her to a rich, handsome and charismatic man named Ethan, who is a vampire. Ethan was in love with Stephanie and has already made her a vampire, but she escaped from him, and is now trying to kill him. The three characters are set on a collision course with some very surprising twists and turns in the end. It is not a high concept script, it is all about what happens with the characters. The story keeps you guessing.
It appealed to me from the beginning because it worked on a flatly commercial level. It has strong roles for two hot young actresses and a hot young actor. It is very erotic, and has a interesting romantic psychological triangle between the three characters. It is contemporary and can be made for a price. And it has two solid "rippers", the knockout gore sequences every good horror film needs. In this, one is a funny and grim set piece where Stephanie captures a sadistic lowlife, chains him up, and turns him into a vampire. She needs to find out how to kill a vampire so she can kill Ethan, which is why Ethan never told her. So she experiments different ways of trying to kill a vampire on her captive, including blowing the top of his head off with a shotgun. It grows back, and he has this running commentary with her which is both disturbing and amusing. The other is a spectacular climatic battle involving a beheading where the discorperated body tries to get its head back in hand to hand combat with one of the sisters as she tries to destroy the head. And there are many interesting modern twists on the vampire myth . For instance, Stephanie sleeps in a zipped police body bag she stores in the back of stolen cars to survive night by night, instead of a coffin. Stuff like that.
The central vampire, Ethan, is a regular guy in a lot of ways, and not your conventional vampire. He's the kind of rich, cool happening twenty something most of us know somewhere and like. Early on in the film, we're not sure is he is that bad a guy, until we see what a two hundred year old vampire is capable of. Both of sisters are believable blue collar, hard luck girls from a rough background, who live on the edge. Vickie is a con woman, Stephanie is a hooker, and while obviously not standard sympathetic characters, they are human and identifiable, and unapologetic. What redeems them is a strong, loving protective bond and poignant connection as sisters... I know that side of life, and I've known girls like these in my travels in New York, Texas, and California, and I understand them. Vickie and Stephanie each have a code, even though they are criminals. Vickie only hustles dishonest men who cheat on their wives, and doesn't sell her body. Stephanie is a prostitute because she refuses to cheat or steal from anyone, and figures at least her johns get what they pay for. They both have their individual morality, and it is a central conflict between them, that escalates as they enter the world of vampires. Vickie becomes dangerously attracted to Ethan because, as a con artist herself, she is helplessly impressed and swayed by his superior vampire powers of suggestion, since vampires are the ultimate con men. It gives their relationship a sexual charge. In this film, vampires take on, at least temporarily, the positive human feelings and spiritual attributes of their victims, which is why they feed on young attractive prey. Stephanie only feeds on the scum of earth, because she won't harm a good person, only those who deserve to die. She just wants to find a way to kill Ethan, then kill herself, because she doesn't want to exist as a vampire. I like the way that the sisters are a contemporary take on the feminist erotic aspects of the vampire myth, like "CARMELLA". Or those Hammer Karnstein pictures, like "TWINS OF EVIL" .
Lastly, I like that "NIGHTLIFE" mines the territory of Jim Thompson and James Ellroy, as much as Stoker or Rice, and has the feel of "THE GRIFTERS" and "THE KILLER INSIDE ME", as much as any vampire book or film. It is really a hard-boiled noir. There is analogy in it that vampires and grifters are just different kind of vampires, with a similar psychology, who survive night by night, feed off people and each other to one degree or another, and share a similar predatory mentality. And it is this aspect that sets this story apart from the standard vampire exploitation film and takes it into the realm of the film noir. In fact, "NIGHTLIFE" is an archetypal film noir. The whole film takes place at night, and about the only daylight in the movie is in two flashbacks involving the sisters. And vampires are textbook film noir characters. Killers and criminals who live and survive on the edge, outside the law and society, have their own code, but have no escape, and probably won't make it. It's like the line in "THE ASPHALT JUNGLE": "Crime is just the left hand of human endeavor".
Q: How did you first meet Wayne Smith?
RED: Strangely enough, Wayne Smith and I have never met in person. This is partially because I live in L.A., and he lives up in the San Francisco Bay Area. We've had several phone conversations, but mostly we communicate through e-mail. We had no contact on "BAD MOON", but after the picture was released I got ahold of his e-mail address and on a whim one night sent him a message asking what he thought of the film of his book. He sent me a detailed e-mail back, saying he liked it but didn't love it, but he was sharp, articulate, and shot from the hip, and I respected that. Then he said he had this other book, and, well, you know what that leads to. Wayne is a very talented writer, and he writes horror novels in a very realistic, visceral, straightforward way, with a true authenticity and believability to the characters. We share a similar sensibility in our approach to the genre.
Q: The vampires in NIGHTLIFE could very well be in the same universe as the vampires in NEAR DARK. Was this intentional?
RED: Remember that this was a novel by someone else that was sent to me and appealed to my sensibility, but was not an original script of mine. So any similarity is coincidental. One thing both films have in common is an edgy realistic approach to vampires, in which the protagonists are predators and killers and are sympathetic and involving on their own terms, but are anti-heroes at best. Both films take the subject matter seriously. Both projects imagine what vampires really would be like if they existed. But the settings of the films are completely different. "NEAR DARK" was a rural Midwestern road movie and "NIGHTLIFE" is contemporary and urban. And a lot hotter. The sexual content of "NIGHTLIFE" is extremely strong and provocative, close to NC-17, and it deals with the violent eroticism of the vampire myth in a contemporary and graphic way.
Q: You mentioned that NIGHTLIFE would benefit from a lower budget. After working with higher, Hollywood budgeted movies why this change?
RED: In terms of production, "NIGHTLIFE" is a low budget film to begin with. It is to be shot almost entirely on location, is not that special effects heavy, and has a relatively small cast. It's really an intimate and intense people film that doesn't have the larger special effects and action setups of some of my prior films. The only thing that would kick the budget up are cast fees, but to tell you the truth, I'd be just as happy casting talented newcomers or unknowns. Also, stylistically this should be a hard-edged gritty looking film with a harsh low budget "feel". Both "BODY PARTS" and "BAD MOON", I shot in scope, to give them a big, dynamic, slick expensive look. "NIGHTLIFE" is a different ball of wax, more down and dirty. And, realistically, due to the subject matter, I will probably have to make this film independently, and the costs have to kept down.
Finally, "NIGHTLIFE" is a film for select core audiences, and is probably too hard core for other audiences, so I don't think it justifies a huge budget. I am actually considering shooting the film as a DV feature, for creative reasons as much as production ones. Now the digital technology is getting very good, I can go out and film in all kinds of great locations with much less major lighting setups and crew. It's fast and mobile, and cheaper, of course.
Q: Every writer's work is influenced by his life's experience to a certain extent. Do your films reflect anything autobiographical?
RED: The closest direct autobiographical link was Jim Halsey in "THE HITCHER" doing an "autodriveaway" and delivering a car to Texas when he picks up John Ryder. I moved to Austin, Texas from New York City when I was 22, and had delivered a car by 'autodriveway". It was on that long drive through those wide-open spaces with way too much time to think that I worked the story out for the film. It's hard to point to any other specific autobiographical references, but I came from a problematic family background, and on "BODY PARTS" and "BAD MOON" I was drawn to material where a stable family is threatened by a trusted loved one undergoing increasing psychosis or a supernatural variation on a violent mental illness or schizophrenia. That to me is true horror. That is not my specific personal story, and there have been no particular family members like them, but I have been around elements of that. I think the broken family element also appeared in "COHEN AND TATE", with the boy orphaned and kidnapped by hit men who has to survive and defeat these professional killers by outsmarting them, all alone. I had a great feel for that character, a kid who has to survive by his wits in a dangerous world where he is never safe. Sometimes it is less the specifics of your life, then the place that you are at in your life emotionally that shows up autobiographically in the writing.
Q: Was your script for THE HITCHER based on a real-life incident that happened in Texas?
RED: The boring truth was I always loved The Doors' song, "RIDERS ON THE STORM", with its filmic image of a hitchhiking killer, and felt it would be a great start for a movie. When I took my long drive to Texas, I worked out the rest of the story in my head, continuing where the song left off, and wrote the script when I got to Austin in a few weeks. Credit the inspiration to "THE HITCHER" to Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. I even set the opening sequence in a storm because of the rain sound effects on the song.
Q: What about THE HITCHER 2? Were you approached to work on this at all?
RED: I had a contractual right of first refusal on the project, and passed on it years ago. A sequel is not going to live up to the first, and I didn't then or now want to make the same movie twice.
Q: Everyone has a project they really want to do-what is your dream project?
RED: It's, SURPRISE, another vampire film. No, it's a western. Actually, it's both. It is a vampire western script of mine called "DEAD BEFORE DAWN". Professor Van Helsing pursues Count Dracula into the American West in the 1880's, where the doctor has to recruit and train a team of rough young gunslingers and wranglers in the methods of vampire hunting. Of course, the cowboys don't believe in vampires, and much humor derives from Van Helsing being a European gentleman who is a fish out of water in the old west. Dracula is unleashed when some train robbers blow up the tracks of a steam train traveling through Arizona, and break into his coffin, which is in the cargo hold. The story revolves around the good guys struggling to stop Dracula and his army of vampire bad guys from repairing the train and using it to get to Dodge City, where Dracula would spread his vampirism across the U.S. The film is non-stop action. Six guns outfitted with silver bullets. Indians using bows and arrows for airborne wooden stakes, water towers being blessed to contain holy water, then blown up with dynamite onto the vampires. That kind of stuff. The climax is a spectacular twenty-minute battle on the period steam train between the cowboys and vampires in a violent thunderstorm that will blow you out of your seat. It has elements of 'YOUNG GUNS" and "LOST BOYS", and "RIO BRAVO" and "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN", as well as some of my films. It is a very classical and archetypal western and vampire film, and needs to be shot in huge epic style, in anamorphic widescreen with a great symphonic score and huge sound effects. This one is really a fun movie, for general audiences, and probably a PG-13. The film is something of a tribute by me to the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Hammer Dracula series, and the intent is to create that great sense of bigger than life good guy bad guy confrontation you had in those films for audiences today. Imagine Terence Fischer meets Sergio Leone, and you get the idea. Van Helsing is designed to be a modern action hero, like Russell Crowe, combining old world grace and humanity, with a fierce warrior. Dracula is not a guy in a tux and cape. He is conceived along the lines of a bloodthirsty serial killer of a king knight like Vlad The Impaler, with H.R. Gigeresque medieval armor that protects him from sunlight. Jean Reno would be the perfect Dracula. Come to think of it, he would make a good Van Helsing, too. I have come very close to getting this made the last few years. This will be the Eric Red western.
Q: One last question... why did you change your name to Red?
RED: I was 17 and changing my name to Red sounded like a good idea at the time. No special reason.