Q: First, give us some background on the producers and director.
An ardent horror film fan since childhood, Sleepless Nights director William Hopkins is an alumnus of the School of Visual Arts in NYC. His other film work includes the original screenplay upon which the 1993 feature Children of the Night was based. In addition to writing and directing Sleepless Nights, Mr. Hopkins also edited the film and executed its special visual effects. He currently lives in NYC, where he's preparing his next feature film project for Open Communications.
A film producer since 1991, Sleepless Nights producer Howard Nash co-produced Children of the Night, which starred Karen Black and Garrett Morris and enjoyed considerable success on cable TV with multiple airings on HBO, Showtime and the Sci-Fi Channel. In 1996, he produced A Perfect Heist, a crime drama recently released in the U.S. on home video. In 2001, he co-produced the controversial prison drama, Tracks, starring Ice-T and John Heard. When he's not busy producing, Mr. Nash can be found teaching film production courses at two colleges in NYC, where he resides.
After a long and successful business career, Frank Cilla, a life-long film fan, makes his entry into the field of film producing with Sleepless Nights, which he hopes will be the first of many future film projects. Very much a "hands-on" producer, Mr. Cilla brought his considerable technical knowledge and organizational skills to bear on the film. With Nash, he personally oversaw the production during its months of principal photography in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island, where he currently resides.
Q: How did the idea for SLEEPLESS NIGHTS come about?
In 1997, film producer Howard Nash became intrigued with the idea of producing a feature film on digital video. "This was before The Blair Witch Project had enjoyed its great success," says Nash, "and most distributors still looked down on video, preferring features shot on film." This didn't stop Nash though. "My idea was to produce a film with substance using the new digital video technology. Yes, there were others shooting films in digital, but how about producing one with a real story, an ensemble cast and multiple locations."
It was with this goal in mind that Nash and co-producer Frank Cilla entered into discussions with writer/director William Hopkins to see if he had any ideas for projects that might be suitable for the DV format.
"As it happened, I had a script for a gothic horror feature that I thought would be ideal," says Hopkins. "I had written it with the hope of raising enough money to produce it on film, but as a DV project it obviously could be shot for a lot less."
Hopkins' script, Sleepless Nights, was an homage to the classic horror films of the 30s and 40s as well as the horror television of the 60s and 70s. "When I was a kid," says Hopkins, "I would watch Dark Shadows on TV on weekday afternoons and the classic Universal horror flicks on the weekends when the local stations ran Creature Features.
Between the two, I had a steady diet of vampires, werewolves and the like and when I was writing Sleepless Nights, I had a chance to immerse myself in nostalgic memories of those shows.
Since Sleepless Nights would be shot on video on a low budget, the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows seemed an ideal source of inspiration. "Like Dark Shadows," says Hopkins, "we had to limit cast size, the number of sets and the amount of special effects." Interest in the story would therefore have to be maintained by the sharply drawn characters and the engaging plot.
From William Hopkins' audio commentary on the MTI Home Video DVD release of Sleepless Nights:
HOPKINS: "I began work on the script for Sleepless Nights shortly after seeing the completed film of Children of the Night, which I wrote the original screenplay for. One of the things that I was most surprised about, in the case of Children of the Night, was the extent to which the director of that film changed my screenplay. If he felt so much needed to be changed in the script, I couldn't understand why they bought it in the first place. There's no way for me to know now whether I'm right or wrong about this, but at the time I came to the conclusion that the changes had been made for budgetary reasons. Even though that film had a budget in excess of a million dollars, there were apparently things in the script that they couldn't afford. So, when I set to work on my next screenplay, I was determined to make it something that could easily be shot, even on the smallest budget. My first thought was that stage plays would make excellent models. Most plays tend to have limited casts, a limited number of settings, and usually don't involve much physical action or spectacle. Plays that were done live in the early years of television also made good models for the type of film I was envisioning, since in addition to having many of the same limitations of stage plays, they also demonstrated that, with imaginative staging and camerawork, you could make something visually interesting from something that had the potential to be static and dull.
Television soap operas, which could be seen as the last surviving descendants of the live television dramas of the fifties, have all the same production limitations but have the additional problem of being forced to limit the amount of plot that is doled out on a daily basis. They can't afford to chew through too much of their storyline in the course of one episode or even in the course of a week's worth of episodes, so there's a lot of repetition and rumination. As a result, most soaps aren't likely to interest more discriminating viewers. Still, I thought there might be something to be learned from them. Any show that can keep people tuning in, day after day, for years, must be doing something right. Given the subject matter of Sleepless Nights, my mind naturally turned to memories of Dark Shadows, the old ABC afternoon soap opera. Even though Dark Shadows' storyline and characters bore little resemblance to Sleepless Nights, it served as a source of inspiration for the film. The tone, the atmosphere, the style of storytelling, became our model.
The first scene I wrote in what eventually became Sleepless Nights, was the scene of Kaitlin entering Grey's house, finding his coffin, being confronted by him and eventually asking him to make her a vampire. Initially I hadn't developed the concept of the Necromorph Control Agency, so Kaitlin, at this stage was just a woman who had somehow found Grey's hiding place. She wasn't even motivated by her impending death to ask to be made a vampire. She was just someone who was in love with the idea of becoming a vampire and who would in time fall in love with Grey. This was enough plot for maybe a fifteen minute movie, but knowing that I wanted to produce something feature length, I was forced to begin to elaborate on this basic premise. Around the same time I had the idea, for another screenplay, of a secret government agency of vampire hunters who were so brutal and so fascistic in their manner that the audience would be led to sympathize with the vampires. This idea by itself was going nowhere but it fit very neatly into Sleepless Nights. Once Kaitlin became an agent in the NCA, I was provided with an easy explanation for how Katilin was able to find Grey. And her position as an agent lent additional drama to her situation... her conflicting impulses of loyalty to the agency and her desire to become a vampire herself. Adding in the character of Jeff, her boyfriend and fellow NCA agent, made her situation even more difficult and heightened the drama.
As for Grey, he needed some reason to agree to Kaitlin's proposal... some reason not to just kill her on sight. So I began to flesh out his backstory... he's a reluctant vampire... he's seeking to kill the vampire who made him a vampire... that's the main objective of his existence. Then it occurred to me that it might be interesting if Grey had been a vampire hunter himself. Maybe he was even the right hand man of the guy who goes on to establish the agency Kaitlin is now working for. Here's where the invention of Malgaard became necessary... they're all after the same guy... a master vampire who seeks to enslave the mortal population of the world. He made Grey's wife a vampire and she made him a vampire and now he's after Malgaard, for revenge and to free the soul of his wife. Sloane and the NCA are also after Malgaard, so now Grey has a reason to help Kaitlin. She gives him the NCA's data on Malgaard and he makes her a vampire when the time comes.
Finally I realized I needed a deadline, something that would motivate the characters to move towards some sort of resolution of the story. This is where the idea of Arlock's amulet came in. Kaitlin already has a deadline of sorts... she only has six months to live. But I felt Grey needed something to get him into motion. Realizing that Malgaard might be on the verge of possessing something which could help him achieve his goal of world domination, gives Grey the motivation to seek him out and pushes the story towards its climax. Now, since we can't have Malgaard just pull the amulet out of the air, I needed to invent Hogarth, the multimillionaire who has the means of obtaining the amulet for Malgaard. Along the way, I make Hogarth the head of a new age church, which Malgaard can take over and use as a staging ground for his crusade, providing us with a relatively spectacular setting for the climax of our film.
At each step along the way, I had to invent characters whose goals and motivations provided the story with its impetus... to push it in the direction I wanted to go in. And I found that by making the characters a little deeper, a little more dimensional, we ended up with a story that was twistier, more involving. For instance, Sloane could easily have been presented as just a one-note character... the head of the agency who wants to "get those vampires." Instead, as the story unfolds we find out he's more personally involved and that his rigidity comes more from fear -- fear that he might have been wrong all these years, that the cause he's devoted his life to may be based on a lie. Rather than deal with that possibility, he becomes more rigid... closes himself off even more. So what could have been a rather obnoxious and annoying character becomes instead a sad and pathetic figure... someone the audience might even feel sorry for, rather than just hating. If we had had the budget to do a more elaborate production, something more spectacular, with greater physical action, then this kind of character development might not have been necessary. But when you spend ninety minutes in close quarters with a group of characters who are doing little more than talking, those characters need to be a little deeper, a little more interesting, if they're going to be tolerable."
Q: It follows the basic idea as John Carpenter's VAMPIRES (vampire hunter squadron, a master vampire looking for a spell that will enable him to walk in the daylight and take over the earth…). Was this inspired or just coincidental?
It has been pointed out in some reviews that certain elements of Sleepless Nights bear some similarity to John Carpenter's Vampires. While Sleepless Nights draws its inspiration from a wide variety of TV and film horror, John Carpenter's Vampires was not on the list. The script for Sleepless Nights was written and registered with the Writers' Guild before Carpenter's film was released. And writer/director Hopkins and producers Nash and Cilla have never seen Carpenter's film nor have they read the novel on which it was based. The concepts that Sleepless Nights has in common with Carpenter's vampires are (a.) the idea of a secret agency that hunts vampires and (b.) the idea of a mystical charm which allows vampires to walk in daylight. The concept of the secret agency of vampire hunters is not original to Carpenter's film, having appeared in various forms in numerous books, movies, TV shows and comics over the years. In fact, the same idea was seen in the TV movie Vampirella just a few years back. In creating the Necromorph Control Agency, writer/director Hopkins was actually inspired by the squads of black-suited vampire hunters in The Last Man on Earth, the first film version of Richard Matheson's classic novel, I Am Legend. The black-garbed SWAT team members in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was another source of inspiration. As for Arlock's amulet, the mystical charm that enables vampires to endure sunlight, it serves a very utilitarian purpose in Sleepless Nights. It is the McGuffin, to use the Hitchcock term; something the main characters fight for possession of, lending a sense of urgency to the plot. When writer/director Hopkins conceived of the idea, he assumed it wasn't a particularly fresh concept, but it wasn't inspired by Carpenter's film. "With a genre like vampire films," Hopkins says, "everything has been done before. There aren't likely to be any bold new ideas coming from this type of story. How these old, rather cliched concepts are executed is what matters. Like westerns and space operas, the basic conventions of the vampire genre are familiar to everyone. Because these ideas have been done before, we can assume the audience will understand what sort of story we're telling and we're then able to tell a somewhat more sophisticated variation on those old themes then we would've been able to otherwise.
Q: How did you go about casting your actors. Talk about the four leads?
After reviewing over a thousand head shots and resumes, Nash, Cilla and Hopkins went through an exhaustive auditions process, looking at over 200 actors.
"It was difficult finding people who fit the parts physically and had the ability to handle the script's challenging dialog," says Cilla. But in the end, an outstanding cast of experienced professionals and talented newcomers was assembled and Sleepless Nights was ready to go into production.
JACQUELINE ANDERSON (Kaitlin Moore) brings a wealth of experience to her role in Sleepless Nights, including appearances in the films Jesus, Mary & Joey, The Chester Story and Investigating Sex. Her television credits include The Late Show with David Letterman, the CBS series Hack, ABC's The View and the NBC series Ed. Jacqueline holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Toronto and studied with both Sheila Gray and Penny Templeton in New York.
MATTHEW THOMAS (Christian Grey) is a graduate of Boston College where he earned a B.A. in Film Studies. His theatre credits include Naked for E.S.T., Confessions for the Newfallen Theatre Company and the recent Burning Blue, where he co-starred with Chad Lowe.
RICHARD RYAN (Jeffrey Burke) holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from the University of Findlay, and an M.F.A. in Acting from Purdue University. He studied the Meisner Technique with Kristine Holtvedt and has trained with Alan Savage and Richard Rand. Recent stage appearances include the Broadway production of The Man Who Came to Dinner with Nathan Lane.
DUKE YORK (Lord Malgaard) has appeared in stage productions of Hamlet, Julius Caesar and Much Ado About Nothing. His training includes extensive work with Gregory Abels and David Wells in New York, as well as movement and stage combat with Teva Bjerkin and David Chandler. He holds a B.A. in English Literature. Sleepless Nights is his first film appearance.
Q: How long did the movie take to complete, from shooting to finished edit?
The first phase of the production took place from August to November of '99. The cast and crew shot at locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island, completing approximately fifty percent of the script, including all the scenes with the character Christian Grey.
The second phase of the project took place from March through November of 2000 and involved some of the film's most elaborate sequences, such as the raid on Malgaard's coven, scenes in the NCA headquarters and the climatic battle on the roof of the Worldwide Church of the Future's Manhattan office building.
"It would have been nice to have shot everything straight through in one month," says Hopkins, "but working on a such a small budget meant we sometimes had to wait for locations or actors to become available. We didn't have a lot of money to throw around, so we had to work around other people's schedules. That slowed our progress somewhat but in the end it worked to our advantage in many ways."
When principal photography was finally completed in the fall of 2000, Sleepless Nights went into postproduction, with Hopkins working till the Spring of 2001 to complete the editing and special effects work.
Q: Any anecdotes about the production?
Before commencing production on Sleepless Nights, there remained one question: could such a project be done in digital video? "In order to produce a product that would be of interest to distributors, we knew we had to achieve a fairly high standard in terms of the look of the project," says Co-Producer Frank Cilla. "We knew we had to make it look reasonably close to the sort of slick Hollywood fare we've all become used to seeing. The shaky, handheld look of films like Blair Witch -- though it worked well for that film -- simply wouldn't work with a story like ours."
"And so," says Nash, "on the hottest day of the summer of 1999, we crowded into the basement of a house in Queens, New York to shoot a test in digital video. We wanted to see what it would look like on video and what it would look like when transferred to film." With a cast of three and a crew of six, director Hopkins shot for eight hours in the sweltering heat until the test was completed.
"It was an important first step," says Hopkins, "even though none of that footage made it into the final cut, we proved to ourselves that a cinematic look could be achieved quickly and cheaply on DV. We also learned a lot about what works and what doesn't in DV and we were able to put that knowledge to good use when we actually went into production."
Writer/Director William Hopkins on Sleepless Nights Pre-Production Art and Promotional Art:
Hopkins: "Because of the tight schedule we were on, most of the storyboarding I did was very rudimentary stuff... simple stick figures for the most part. But for some scenes I did more complete storyboarding. As it turned out, with the tight schedule we were on, I rarely had time to stop and look over the storyboards I had done, but the scenes in the finished film are still remarkably close to what was planned.
Once production on Sleepless Nights began, I started working on posters and other graphics for the promotion of the film. The photos used to create the poster art were captured directly from the video footage we were shooting and then retouched in Photoshop. Even though we had no way of knowing what artwork the film's eventual distributor would end up using, I thought it was important to have a poster, to serve as a kind of flag for the cast and crew to rally around while we were still in production. A poster acts as a tangible thing that anyone involved with the film can point to and say, "That's Sleepless Nights. That's what we're putting all our time and effort into." Posters also help draw the attention of potential investors, and while we were still in production, we were always looking for more money."
Writer/Director William Hopkins on Sleepless Nights Special Effects:
Hopkins: "With the special effects that are routinely seen in big budget studio productions, I didn't think it was likely we would impress anyone with the effects we had planned for Sleepless Nights. There's little way we can compete with the effects work of a hundred million-dollar movie, so we didn't try. We didn't have any money in our budget for special effects so it was impossible to hire someone to do the work for us. In the end I did the effects work, as well as I could, in the computer, while editing the film. Most of the effects are just servicable. Good enough for us to be able to tell the story. But some of the effects shots are pretty good, I think. I did learn a valuable lesson: when it comes to special effects, people will judge the quality of the effects work in your film by the weakest effect. You could have a hundred different optical effects in your film that are so good that no one even notices them and you won't get any credit for them. But if you have one weak effects shot in the film, everyone will say your effects stunk.
A lot of the effects work I did in the computer was just to hide problems with the original footage. Inserting things that should've been in the shot and removing things that shouldn't be, became the main focus of the effects work.
Since we really didn't have anything in our budget for special effects, I ended up doing them in Final Cut Pro, using elements created in Photoshop. Most of the effects are simple matte work or animations.
In one case, the building we were using as the headquarters for the Worldwide Church of the Future was only a few stories tall, not impressive enough to serve as the skyscraper described in the script. To solve the problem, I used Photoshop to add additional levels to the building, making it seem more imposing. The addition of a layer of fog and some traffic noise completed the effect.
In the case of the Worldwide Church of the Future sign hanging in Hogarth's office, we found we had some difficulty properly lighting the prop sign we'd built. So in post, I created a Photoshop version of the sign and just matted it into the shot.
Originally it wasn't my intention to actually show Hogarth's decapitation. Such a shot was not in the original script. But while I was editing the film, I came to feel that the audience would feel cheated if we always cut away at moments like this. The actor who had played Hogarth was not available to do retakes, so I resorted to Photoshop again. This time creating a Photoshop image of Hogarth, with a removeable head and other moveable elements. That Photoshop file was then animated in Final Cut Pro. Malgaard's sword swing was done in front of a green screen and worked into the animation. By blurring the image and adding the appropriate sound effects, the end result is effective enough, I think.
The building we shot the film's climatic roof scenes on was only three stories tall and located in Long Island City, far from midtown Manhattan. I created a mask in Photoshop to hide the actual background beyond the edge of the building's roof. Then it was a simple matter to insert footage, shot out of the window of a Manhattan office building, into the background, completing the illusion.
Malgaard's fall from the top of the Worldwide Church of the Future required a certain amount of work. First we had to shoot Duke York, the actor playing Malgaard, flailing about as if in mid-air, while lying on a sheet of blue paper. This was shot with the camera on a higher roof, about three stories above Duke, zooming out, away from him to create the illusion that he was dropping away from the camera. Then the footage was put into the computer and everything except Duke was eliminated from the shot. That footage we shot out the window of the Manhattan office building was used here as well. Once Malgaard had been matted into the shot, I slowed his movements down and blurred the image to make it more convincing. It's a brief shot, but effective, I think.
The final major effects shot in the film is Malgaard's decomposition. Again Duke York was photographed lying on a blue screen. His image was then composited into background footage shot at the Garden City building we used for the Worldwide Church of the Future Headquarters. The animation of Malgaard withering to a skeleton and crumbling away was done in Final Cut Pro using some video footage of a plastic skeleton model, still frames of which I brought into Photoshop for retouching. The puddle of blood Malgaard is laying in is another Photoshop image. I used some video of my own eye to create the eyes for Malgaard's decomposing skeleton. The actual disintegration effect was done by applying various filters to the skeleton image in Photoshop. Finally I superimposed a layer of smoke over the shot and created the various crumbling sounds of Malgaard's decomposing body using balls of plastic wrap and a wet rubber glove."
Q: How do you think SLEEPLESS NIGHTS compares to other vampire movies?
Despite the long popularity of vampire films and the great number of such films that have been produced over the years, there really aren't many that qualify as truly great -- or even good-- movies. After you get past those few vamp films that are typically cited as being the best of the genre, like Murnau's Nosferatu and Dreyer's Vampyr, you're left with a pretty mixed bag, with many entries, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, notorious because of their low quality. This being the case, Sleepless Nights, even with its tiny budget, will probably be seen to compare favorably with other films of its kind. While it can't hope to match recent films like Blade in terms of special effects or action content and it pales beside the extravagence of such multi-million dollar efforts as Interview with the Vampire and Coppola's Dracula, the involving plot, strong characters and direct, earnest storytelling technique that Sleepless employs should make it interesting and exciting to genre fans.
Q: Is there going to be a SLEEPLESS NIGHTS sequel?
If the response to Sleepless Nights is strong enough, the potential exists to be able to do one or more sequels or perhaps a television series. Grey and Kaitlin, both vampires by the end of the first film, could operate as a vampiric Holmes & Watson, or Mulder and Sculley team in the sequels. And the world created in the first film is so complete, so fully realized that other possible storylines immediately suggest themselves.
Q: Anything you wish to add (website info, et cetera)
The official Sleepless Nights website is sleeplessnights-themovie.com. The site has tons of photos of the production, behind the scenes information and a detailed description of the story and characters. Information about the cast is also available. A major upgrade of the site is planned to coincide with the film's release through MTI Home Video this summer.