Unless you’re an avid horror watcher, there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of the 1985 horror-comedy Fright Night. Though the vampire pic, written and directed by Tom Holland, holds up as one of the best genre flicks released in the '80s, its legacy has been designated as more of a cult classic than a mainstream landmark. Holland’s took a simple premise—a suburban teenager believes that an evil bloodsucker has just moved into the house next door—and meshed together sly, self-aware humor and balls-out, shameless gore; the result, is a far-better-than-average vampire movie that’s just as entertaining today as it must have been back in its first days of release.
With such a beloved reputation intact, Fright Night was bound to get the remake treatment, especially considering that vamps are more popular than ever today, from higher-profile TV shows (True Blood), teenybopper fare (Twilight), and independent horror favorites (Stake Land).
Making funny horror flicks isn’t easy, so, fortunately, the producers behind the new Fright Night (in theaters tomorrow) hired a filmmaker who’s proven himself able to balance comedy with darker themes: Craig Gillespie, the director of 2007’s indie standout Lars And The Real Girl (the one where Ryan Gosling falls in love with a blow-up doll) and a consulting producer behind Showtime’s recently cancelled series United States Of Tara.
The Australian filmmaker’s take on Fright Night, written by Marti Noxon (who executive produced, and wrote several episodes of, Buffy The Vampire Slayer), retains the central premise: Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, a former nerd with a new hot girlfriend (Imogen Poots) who suspects his neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a vampire after his best friend (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Consistently funny, often suspenseful, and unafraid to go overboard with gore and wacky horror ideas, Gillespie’s Fright Night is one of the better genre remakes to hit screens in a while.
Complex caught up with Gillespie to discuss the film’s adherence to old-school vibes, his preference for wholly evil vampires, mixing scares and laughs, his plans for Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, and Kid Cudi’s involvement with Fright Night.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)
Complex: Your version of Fright Night does a fine job of acknowledging the elements that made the original film work, but also deepens the story quite a bit with better characters and bigger set-pieces. Were you mindful of the 1985 movie while making yours?
Craig Gillespie: Yeah, definitely. Obviously, there were some strong points in the original. There’s a certain '80s style to the original, that’s very strong; there’s that mix of humor and horror that makes that movie very fun, and that’s what we were trying to capture in this. One of my favorite films growing up was An American Werewolf In London, which was such a rollercoaster of emotions and a great mix of tones.
When Marti [Noxon] wrote the script for our film, she definitely put a lot of that horror and humor in it, and it’s a very straightforward script in the sense that this guy’s just a vampire from Hell. He’s your worst nightmare, a predator living next door. And I loved that she simplified the vampire in that way and took all of the emotional baggage out of it.
Backtracking a little bit, Fright Night is your first movie since 2007’s Lars And The Real Girl, a simple human drama with quirky humor and unique sweetness. Typically in Hollywood, once a director hits it big with a movie, like you did with Lars, he or she is sent a gang of similar scripts. Fright Night, however, is a much different kind of movie. How’d you come across the project initially?
It’s funny, really. Ultimately, I loved that it was so much different than everything I’d done before. Doing Lars, which is very close to my heart, I did get sent a lot of similar stuff, but I didn’t want to repeat myself. That is such a personal film to me, I’d already gone down that road, and I wanted to do something completely different for my next project.
That being said, I was attached to a couple of projects, which were independent, and just with the economy being as it were, we were having a tough time getting things made. It was right during the height of the recession. But then this script came along back in April of last year; I was going into a meeting with Dreamworks, actually. I’d done United States Of Tara for a season, so I’d worked with Dreamworks through that. When they sent me the Fright Night script, I thought, “I’m not gonna do a vampire movie, there’s just so much of that out there.” But then I read the script and I just loved its mix of horror and comedy.
It was that, plus Marti had written this vampire who was so much more like a sexual predator, and remorseless and so aggressive. That was the fun thing for me, so I kind of jumped on it. It really wasn’t in my wheelhouse at all, in terms of things I was thinking about, but once I read the script I couldn’t resist it.
Since it wasn’t in your wheelhouse, was their any trepidation in your mind? Shooting an effective horror sequence seems like a much different beast than the smaller character moments you’ve handled in Lars And The Real Girl and United States Of Tara.
That’s what I get attracted to, in general: balancing two tones at once. I did some of that in Lars, and with Tara, which has very heavy subject matter and you’re trying to infuse some humor. So, oddly enough, it was the two tones of Fright Night that made it feel more right up my alley. In my mind, if it had been straight horror, then it would have been a drastic change. I’ve done commercials for sixteen years, so I’ve used all of the toys—they just haven’t been applicable to the work I’ve done in features, prior to this. In horror and thriller films, the camera is such a character, so to be able to use the camera in that way. And, on top of that, it was 3D, which was another opportunity for me.
Was the film shot in 3D from day one?
Yeah. It’s a monster, believe me. [Laughs.] It’s like going back to the '40s. You see all of those old cameras that were massive, and the one we used for Fright Night, with the massive rig, weighed 90 pounds—it was ten-and-a-half by three feet. So, you’re very conscious of how you’re going to move that thing around, because you want it to move. It’s in 3D, so everything looks better when the camera is moving because it gives you that sense of depth. And then there are certain restrictions; you can’t do handheld in 3D, it takes all of the 3D out of it, and I think it’d become a real strain on the viewer.
So there were a lot of things that we were thinking about while we were doing it. Ultimately, though, all of those concerns lent themselves to a more classic style of filmmaking. There are longer takes between cuts, and the camera is creeping around—I like that. That was fun.
That’s interesting, because there’s a really effective car chase scene where the camera keeps spinning around inside of one car as it captures crashes, a motorcycle getting tossed into the back windshield, and the vampire’s hand ripping through the floor. That must have been incredibly difficult to shoot with a 90-pound camera.
Yes, it really was. [Laughs.] I figured out the shot that I wanted to do; we produced the shot, and animated it. Then I showed it to the crew and they all scratched their heads and said, “Well, OK—how in the hell are you going to do that with a 90-pound camera?” We tried things for several months, testing stuff on the weekends; we tried hanging a 90-pound camera on a bungee, and kinds of things like that.
Ultimately, how we did it, we literally could have shot it back in the '40s. I remember when I saw Rope, a movie that [Alfred] Hitchcock did, he shot it in four takes, four 20-minute rolls, and it all takes place in an apartment. They moved all the walls and the furniture as the camera would move around; they ended up making so much noise as they were doing it that they had to dub the whole movie.
With our scene, we ended up chopping up the van into eight pieces, and all the chairs were kept to the doors; as the camera moved, the actors were slid out of frame and then slid back into frame. The car was like a big Rubik’s cube. We designed that whole thing. It’s all practical, which is cool, but it was this crazy scenario where actors were saying their lines, sliding out of frame, coming back into frame and saying more lines, and so forth. [Laughs.]
In terms of setting the tone, the first scene immediately switches things up from the original movie. In that one, it opens with a comedic scene involving the main character screwing his chance at having sex, but yours opens with a pretty brutal, visceral slaughter of an entire family. Why was it important for you to start off with a straightforward horror moment?
That’s a good question, because that scene was debated a lot, actually. We debated quite a bit over whether we should have that scene or not do that and create the lingering suspense of what is Colin’s character—what is he capable of? We could have kept that mystery going for the first half of the film. To me, I always liked—and this is in no way a comparison, it’s just something that I thought worked greatly—how in No Country For Old Men you have that horrific scene at the beginning of the film; every time Javier Bardem is on screen after that, you’re anxious, because you know what he’s capable of.
I thought that’s just a great tension builder. I wanted to do a really violent scene upfront; that way, you can do less in the next few scenes that we meet him. You already know how extreme he can be.
For Jerry, you’ve retained all of the old-school vampire mythology, such as the aversion to sunlight, no reflections in mirrors and cameras, and the necessity of an invite to enter someone’s house. It harkens back to Dracula and all of the older vampires. Was that the intention?
That was in Marti’s script, and I loved that. For decades, there was a very basic set of rules for vampires, and then suddenly everyone started taking a creative license as to what works and what doesn’t work. We wanted to set the rules up early and clearly, so the audience understands the parameters; that way, you can really have fun with it. But it was a pain to shoot. [Laughs.] There are so many shots that we’d look at and we’d see Colin’s reflection in a mirror or something, so we’d have to take things out.
Growing up, I was aware of the clear mechanisms involved with fighting a vampire. It was fun to have that in our movie, know what the boundaries are, and find ways to play with those.
It’s also interesting how your version spends less time treating the Charley character (played by Anton Yelchin) as a me-against-the-world thing, where he’s the only person who believes Jerry is a vampire and everyone else makes fun of him and calls him crazy. There’s a little of that in your movie, but you don’t spend too much time doing that before Jerry tries killing everyone in sight.
Yeah, and, also, it's quite different because in this version it’s his friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who first thinks Jerry is a vampire, which is the opposite; Charley is more like the audience, going, “Come on, that’s ridiculous,” and I liked that aspect, having Charley represent more of the audience’s point-of-view.
When I read the script, when Jerry does come next door and blow Charley’s house up, it was such a shocking turn at such an early point in the script that I didn’t know where the hell the script was going to take me. I thought that was great. You expect from Charley and Jerry’s initial confrontation at Charley’s front door that there’d be this drawn-out cat-and-mouse game, but then Jerry just throws the gloves off right away. I loved that turn.
Yeah, that scene where he blows their house up definitely seems like something you’d see happen in most movies’ final acts, more of a climactic moment than a midway event.
Yeah, and then you just don’t know where it’s gonna go, which was what I found exciting the first time I read the script.
The characterization in your Fright Night is also much different than the original’s. Charley, for instance, does more than just react to things; he’s given a back-story. What was your approach to how the characters were handled, outside of the comedy and horror?
It’s extremely tricky, too. There’s always that balance of the plausibility of what’s going on. You’ve got that self-consciousness where they clearly don’t believe in vampires, and then they have to do the turn where they realize they’re in a reality where there are vampires. Anton is great at playing that straight guy and making it plausible, making it feel grounded, and that his emotions are coming from a real place in the midst of what’s basically a crazy scenario.
Colin Farrell is an interesting casting choice for the vampire. I’ve read that he was your first choice all along—were there any specific performances of his that made you think he’d be the right Jerry?
It’s a combination of his roles. You want this alpha male, because Charley’s going from boyhood to manhood, and Jerry ultimately ends up being a catalyst for Charley to grow in a very aggressive way. Colin is a very masculine guy, but then you also want a villain who has a sense of humor about himself and has fun with himself. Colin has done some really heavy dramatic work as well as some great comedies, like In Bruges. There’s even Cassandra’s Dream. He has that side to himself. I really wanted somebody who could be intimidating but still not take himself too seriously. I think that’s a classic thing with good villains: as despicable as their actions are, they’re having fun.
Another interesting casting choice is David Tennant as Peter Vincent. In your film, Peter Vincent is a much different character than Roddy McDowall’s older one in the original Fright Night. David Tennant is a big deal in Britain, for Dr. Who, but he hasn’t done anything here in the states, really. How’d you decide upon him?
I loved the way that Marti had written the Peter Vincent character. It’s incredibly interesting to have someone who’s been very successful but has this self-loathing quality about him; he’s just empty inside. That just seemed like a fun dynamic to play with.
Initially, I wasn’t sure who could play Peter Vincent, but then my casting director, Allison Jones, immediately said, “I’ve got the guy.” She sent me over a tape of David Tennant, who I wasn’t that familiar with; I saw some of his tape, and I instantly thought he’d be great. It’s a tricky role, because that character can get one-dimensional so quickly. He’s a very comedic character, but you also wanted to make sure that underneath there was some pain, and David has done Hamlet and Royal Shakespearean theatre. He’s a very well-respected dramatic actor. Being able to straddle both of those things, he was a no-brainer for me.
Going back to how the film balances tones, there’s a really strong sequence where Charley breaks into Jerry’s house to rescue an exceptionally hot neighbor, watches her get bitten, and then tries quietly escorting her out of Jerry’s house without Jerry hearing them. It’s really suspenseful, but then there’s a funny bit where we see Jerry watching Real Housewives, and that seems to embody the movie’s overall spirit. Is it difficult to insert jokes like that without trivializing the scene’s overall mood?
Yeah, I loved that Housewives bit. [Laughs.] Hopefully it works, but that is the trick. While editing, we had an arsenal of humor and jokes that we’d done on the set that we could either use or not use. It was just about deciding how much was too much, because, first up, I wanted to have the tension and the horror and then try to get as much humor in there as possible without losing any of the suspense. That’s how I approached the whole film, really. It was the same balancing act with the basement sequence near the end.
Speaking of that basement sequence, there’s a fair amount of gore and freaky special effects in that scene, with Jerry’s undead minions attacking. The original film’s climax is a blast, but it also doesn’t shy away from over-the-top effects, like one guy emitting green goo and this werewolf-dog hybrid thing bleeding profusely. For you, was there a sense of not going too far with the horror visuals, in fear of entering camp territory?
For me, I like to shoot as much as I can in camera, so most of that sequence in the end is two guys in fire suits, which required us to shoot extensively and meticulously for a number of days. I think it pays off, though, because you can tell that it’s two guys on fire, instead of CG. That’s important. There’s a character thing there, too, which I loved, and that’s just how fatalistic Charley was; it’s just no-holds-barred for him at that point. What he does is almost suicidal.
Most of our sort of campy, extra gory effects are used on the Ed character, once he’s been changed into a vampire. One of my favorite old-school horror things is when Jack keeps turning up in An American Werewolf In London and he just keeps decaying more and more, and he’s just so casual about everything. That kind of sensibility was very much in my mind with Evil Ed. You can make it really gory when you’re having fun with it; you can get away with more.
The next film you’re about to start working on is an adaptation of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies, which, coming off of Fright Night, seems right in your wheelhouse. How has making Fright Night prepped you for that project?
You’re always learning, so there’s a lot of stuff I figured out while doing this film that I’m realizing will come in handy for the next one. The difference with Pride And Prejudice is…. Again, I was attracted to the tone of it. It’s similar in the sense that there’s humor and horror, but it’s a different kind of humor. They’re not self-aware; the humor’s all coming from the Jane Austen story, the properness that they have in that society and how it creates the tension and humor amongst the characters, and then they’re dealing with all of that while zombies are all around. So there’s humor for that, but, in their reality, they’re zombies; there’s no disbelief or skepticism or any of that kind of humor.
Horror comedies, in general, seem like such a difficult balancing act for a filmmaker. For every one that gets it right, there are dozens of others that completely screw it up.
Yeah, it really is. I think any time you’re mixing tones, it’s really tricky. I don’t know why I keep putting myself in that box. [Laughs.] It certainly makes the job harder. It takes more balls.
In addition directing Fright Night, you also directed the video for Kid Cudi’s soundtrack song, “No One Believes Me”. How’d you and Cudi link up?
He has a relationship with Christopher Mintz-Plasse; he did a video with him last year [“Erase Me”]. While I was editing, I wanted to use his song “Pursuit Of Happiness,” which we do use in the film when we first see Peter Vincent in his lavish apartment. Getting approval for that through Kid Cudi and his people, I came to find out that he’s a fan of the original Fright Night and was familiar with this project. So he wrote a song and sent it to me. I thought it was great. I’ve always been a fan of his. So we got together and ended up making the video together.
The video is interesting because it’s very dark, ominous, and not all that funny. It’s totally different tonally than Fright Night.
I didn’t want to get into trying to mix the genres for the video, because when you’re not dealing with dialogue, I think that gets very tricky. I thought the video he did last year with Chris was great, but it’s clearly more in the humor category. With music videos, I think you kind of have to pick a director road, so to speak. It’s not easy to mix the two so well, and Cudi’s song is rather dark and moody in its own right. Taking the video in darker direction seemed like the right move, and I think it worked out quite well.
Interview by Matt Barone (@mbarone)