Director Craig Gillespie has had an interesting career. After making his debut with “Lars and the Real Girl,” episodic television work ensued, followed by a contretemps over the comedy “Mr. Woodcock,” starring Seann William Scott, Susan Sarandon and Billy Bob Thornton that saw him removed from the project. His latest film is the adaptation/reboot of 1985’s horror-comedy “Fright Night,” starring Anton Yelchin as a Las Vegas high school kid who finds out his new neighbor (Colin Farrell) is actually a vampire. ShockYa recently had the chance to talk to Gillespie one-on-one about what attracted him to “Fright Night,” what he thought about shooting the movie in 3-D, and his next film, the genre mash-up “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: (Screenwriter) Marti (Noxon) talked about the setting of “Fright Night” in Las Vegas being a sort of “a-ha!” moment for her. Obviously the specific degree to which setting informs a film depends on the movie, but how much of your reaction to the script was maybe based on the feeling that this could be a chocolate-and-peanut-butter type of fit, that [a vampire] story told in Las Vegas could be interesting?
Craig Gillespie: I got the script and it was in such great shape, that was obviously what attracted me to the project. I really liked her mix of the horror with the comedy. I hadn’t seen that genre since the 1980s, with like “An American Werewolf in London.” But then, also, with the setting, it was a huge juxtaposition which I thought would be really fun. And I really pushed the blandness of the neighborhood — no trees, no greenery, everything looking the same. And then the impact of Vegas; we built that penthouse as large as we possibly could — the ostentatiousness of it, and that colorfulness and energy seemed like such a great backdrop, because once we get into that part of the movie it’s such a huge shift from the intimate, bland setting up front. So it was really fun. We got some great helicopter shots too.
ShockYa: And is that early birds-eye shot (of a tucked away cul-de-sac) real, or is it digitally manipulated?
CG: No, (it’s real), can you believe it? It’s partly because Albuquerque (where the film was mostly shot) has those amazing natural landscapes. It may have been cheaper to do digitally, but I went up in a helicopter and we found this square of houses in the middle of nothing.
ShockYa: It’s sad that it’s so striking, in a way, but the cast for the film really all seem to be on the same page (as to the type of movie they’re making). I’m sure everyone has their own process, so what is it like finding the sweet spot to get everyone together with respect to the material?
CG: Firstly, it comes from just being able to cast them. Dealing with this tone, of being able to balance horror and humor, you immediately check off a lot of actors that aren’t going to be able to walk that line. That’s the biggest battle or debate with me in working with a studio, and DreamWorks was really supportive on this — being able to cast the people that are really going to be able to do the material as opposed to stunt-casting certain large actors for financing or whatever. Not that these guys aren’t (big actors), but here you could really be specific and say, “No, we need this sort of tonality here.” And so I managed to get five actors together that could walk that line, so they’re all on the same page before we start. Some for different reasons. Colin is obviously the horror in the film, the heavy, and he has that masculinity and presence about him; he’s the fear that is that undercurrent throughout the film. We go a bit more for the comedy with Christopher Mintz-Plasse and David Tennant, but both of them [delivered an] emotional side that was really a pleasant surprise, because it keeps you invested in the characters. That opening with Chris, one of the first scenes with him, the crew actually applauded after his first take because he delivered something we haven’t really seen in his other movies. So even before we got started I felt like I had the luck to be able to cast people who I knew could walk that line. Then you just hope that the chemistry works between everyone.
ShockYa: I’m struck by all the obvious surface differences between something like “Fright Night” and “Lars and the Real Girl,” and without saying one film alone can represent the sum totality of your interests, how do you juggle your own personal filmmaking interests and instincts with what may be a studio’s appetite for more commercial fare?
CG: (laughs) I don’t think you could actually draw any sort of logical line between “Lars” and “Fright Night.” And even myself, if someone had said to me right after I’d finished “Lars” that my next film was going to be “Fright Night,” I would have said (sarcastically), “Oh, of course.” (laughs) What’s funny is that definitely “Fright Night” is in every aspect a commercial movie but it’s a commercial movie where I can’t help but put myself in a sticky situation because I picked a film that is a specific tone that is hard to pull off. That’s what attracted me to it, as opposed to maybe certain superhero movies. I’ll always remember a friend saying to me (about another script), “There’s 15 directors that could shoot that movie,” [meaning] I had to find something specific to what I could do. And in this movie it was the tone, trying to pull off the horror and the comedy. That hasn’t been done in a while. Back in the 1980s it was a big deal with “An American Werewolf in London,” which I loved. But being able to pull that off is both what excites me about it, and also really dangerous, I guess, as a career move, because if I fall flat on my face with it, it’s not as safe as doing something that’s more straight down the middle. That’s what attracted me to it, though.
ShockYa: I’d be interested in that element of embraced fear you talk about, especially coming off of an experience like “Mr. Woodcock” (a film Gillespie left during production, with David Dobkin stepping in to direct) where there were disagreements about the final tone of the movie, where you couldn’t bridge that gap [between what you and the studio wanted].
CG: It was a very amicable firing. (laughs) No, that’s partly why… (pauses) I learned so much from Mr. Woodcock,” and I made a lot of mistakes on “Mr. Woodcock.” And part of that was having a very clear idea of the tone of the film from the get-go. I was trying to make this dark, subversive little indie movie, and that was not the script. I kept constantly saying to the studio, “I’m making ‘About Schmidt.'” And they said, “Yeah, but it’ll be funny, right?” And I said, “Sure, it’ll be funny like ‘About Schmidt’ was funny.” And it was actually right before all these big comedy blockbusters. While we were filming they finished “Wedding Crashers,” which was the first big R-rated comedy of that wave. And we’d never really been on the same page, so since then, as part of that great learning curve, I’m hyper-clear about what we’re making, and either let’s make it or not make it. It definitely helped in that regard, because I was making the wrong movie. It should’ve been a summer comedy.
ShockYa: We’ve talked some about the 3-D, but how much of a hurdle was that in the filmmaking experience?
CG: I didn’t take it as a hurdle, I just immediately decided to embrace it because it was something that we felt strongly about wanting to do. I’d seen 3-D for “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” and these spectacles that were so fun to watch. And I thought I’ve never seen two guys standing in a kitchen in 3-D, and of course a lot of this movie takes place in a house. But that, with horror, I thought could be fun, because it’s so much about going down corridors and through doorways, and looking over people’s shoulders, and that seems like a real opportunity. And then partly also you can’t be too frenetic because if you are and there’s too much cutting then there’s too much of a strain on the eye and it starts to hurt and people get headaches. It almost forces you to go back to more classical filmmaking, which was a really nice advantage in a way. Both Javier Aguirresarobe, my director of photography, and I really enjoyed that you could design these longer takes. …As long as the camera is moving and reminding your eye that you’re in 3-D — because if it stays locked off then you don’t feel the impact of it — you can design these beautiful creeps, and let the actors move in the space and really feel like you’re in the room with them.
ShockYa: In that way it feels sort of like a safety net as a filmmaker, because you can say, “No, no, we don’t need frenetic cuts here to goose an audience.”
CG: It is, in one way. But you’re making more commitment on the day, because you don’t have the coverage.
ShockYa: I have to ask you about (Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 novel) “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” which (screenwriter) Marti Noxon did a pass on, and you’re set to direct next.
CG: That’s a little bit more of a straight line from “Fright Night.” (laughs). I was aware of it when I was in the edit bay finishing “Fright Night.” And they were looking for directors, but I had too much time left on “Fright Night” and it went to another director. I was kind of frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t engage or go in and do my pitch, and then later it feel out again, and it felt great. I had the opportunity to go in and have a pitch on it, and I got it. I did have a degree of pause about going back into a similar genre so quickly, but it was David O. Russell’s adapted script to start with, and I literally got to page 30 and called my agent and said I wanted to do it because it’s a different mix of tone again. It really stays true to Jane Austen’s dialogue and storyline, which contains a lot of humor… and then they take the zombie threat really seriously, and it can be very scary. It’s this great mash-up, and with martial arts everywhere. (laughs) [Except for one] large plot point, they stay true to the book, so there’s a lot of those sequences, and it really motors along. We’re out to actors now, and we’re hoping to be shooting by the end of the year.
Written by: Brent Simon