INTERVIEW: The Vampiric Arts of Merhige and Dafoe in "Shadow"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 1.5.01) --Filmmaker as vampire -- it's a metaphor that most of us can comprehend. You suck the blood of credit card companies, friends, families, actors' emotions, all for the sake of your art. But E. Elias Merhige goes a few steps further in his second feature, "Shadow of the Vampire." Not only is the filmmaker leeching the resources of everything around him, but so is his star performer, literally, a bloodsucker. Willem Dafoe plays Max Schreck, the actor who eerily embodied the first famous screen vampire, Nosferatu, in F. W. Murnau's classic 1922 film. But in Merhige's retelling, Schreck is an actual vamp. It's a clever conceit, not lost on audiences and critics, and as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice praised in his top ten list of the year, "is far funnier and more resonant than its absurd premise would suggest."
But director Merhige talks serious business. Though the film has some of the most hilarious dialogue voiced -- or more exactly snorted -- by Dafoe's nefarious, bat-like Schreck, Merhige is getting at some deeper issues: the inherent vampiric nature of creation and the film medium itself. The director of 1989's experimental feature "Begotten," Merhige works his surreal touch on what is arguably a mainstream movie, produced by Nicholas Cage's Saturn Films and starring John Malkovich, as Murnau, and Dafoe, who was just recently nominated for a Golden Globe award for his tour-de-force creepy crawly performance. indieWIRE spoke with Merhige and Dafoe at last year's Cannes Film Festival about draining the life force from color film, the original "Nosferatu," and the accessories of the vampire.
indieWIRE: So how did this movie fall in your lap?
E. Elias Merhige: It's an amazing story, a friend of Nicholas Cage had given him a tape of "Begotten" and he was very moved by it and when [Cage] opened the doors to Saturn Films, his production company, he gave a tape of the film to Jeff Levine and said that he'd like to work with me. And months and months later, we met, and I thought that they were both artists, and I thought, if I was able to work with these guys, it would be absolutely amazing. Because producers can destroy a film and producers can also make a film better and encourage it to be its best.
iW: Can you talk about some of the stylistic and experimental techniques you use in the film? You do come from an experimental background?
Merhige: Absolutely. I built an optical printer that I did all the rephotography on "Begotten" with. Doing the rephotography on "Shadow of the Vampire" was something that was very meticulous and very important to me. And I had a very close hand in participating on what it is on the screen. And moving from black and white to color is something that I decided to do from my second reading of the script. The thing that I loved about the script was that it demanded an innovative style and an innovative use of technology to tell a very poetic story. And the marriage of those two things made it a perfect film for me, because I love cinema. And I aspire to make films that are very cinematic, that are very visual, and stylized. So, what I love is, you have this black and white frame, which is very cinematic, and then you have the blood and life force of color and light bleeding into the frame, and then you have the blood and life force being drained out of it, as we move back into the scenes from "Nosferatu." That was very exciting for me to do. It was very important to me that it wasn't just a cut from color to black and white -- that I wanted to create this bridge between these two worlds, of artifice and life. Because there is constantly this dialectic going on of where does life begin and where does artifice end?
iW: Was it always your plan to put the actual footage of "Nosferatu" into the film?
Merhige: It was always the plan to put original footage from "Nosferatu," because for me, it's this great metaphysical time travel. When Malkovich says, "Look, Count, what is it? It's a locket?" And then he looks at the locket. And that locket is from 1921. It was shot by Murnau in 1921. And then when he picks up the locket, it's the one from my movie in the year 2000. So there's this time travel where he's taking the locket out of the past, from 1921, and bringing it into the present and reinvigorating it with a new life, which is something I want to do with this film. I want the film to invigorate an interest in the beginnings of cinema. Because at the time "Nosferatu" was being made, it was considered a fringe art form, it was considered second to theater. It was also considered sorcery, where people looked at it as black magic. So it was very important to work with original footage from "Nosferatu."
iW: The relationship between Murnau and Schreck reminded me of Klaus Kinski and Herzog and their version of "Nosferatu." Did that ever come into your head?
Merhige: Certainly, when you see the documentary, "My Best Fiend," you think, my God, there it is, they both want each other dead, but at the same time, they can't live with out each other. It really is a sad and beautiful relationship.
iW: Did you ever feel aligned with Malkovich's Murnau, in sacrificing life for art's sake, either in making this film or otherwise?
Merhige: I'm very collaborative as a director. I'm not a despot, I'm not like the Murnau portrayed in "Shadow of the Vampire." I like to work collaboratively, and I hire people because I want the best of them, and not destroy them. In many ways, I do feel that art is the great redemption of life, where what we know and understand of our experiences, our emotions, our feelings -- everything fades. But with art, we're able to penetrate into some inner essence, some mystical eternal nature of things and how things operate. So I do put an importance on art that may be a bit unhealthy, as opposed to somebody else who thinks why don't you just relax and enjoy life. I am very much a perfectionist and if something was mediocre and ridiculous, I would find it hard to live with myself. But that's how I'm built.
iW: How did you prepare for the role of Max Schreck, when very little is known about the man?
Willem Dafoe: I didn't feel like I needed to do research. The film was plenty to work with. Also, because this is a film within a film structure, I knew what he was going to look like, how we was going to move. I started from a place of mimicry, really, because I had that as a very clear model. Unlike the original, I knew I was going to have to speak, so I decided on an accent. I placed an accent in the Tatras Mountains, the question was how theatrical to go with it. And I think I decided to go pretty theatrical. Other than that, I researched for my own pleasure about Murnau, seeing some films, which I love very much, particularly, "Sunrise." Other than that, I really had to wait until I got into that make-up and those clothes before any work could begin, because the character was those things. Even in the most naturalistic movie, I always look through a mask to perform through, but this was the most literal and extreme mask you could have.
iW: Can you talk about choosing this project? Was it an opportunity that immediately seized you?
Dafoe: It was a really witty script. Very comic, very creepy, a real weird hybrid of genres. I could anticipate an interesting process, because it is idiosyncratic, but very rooted in practical things and that appealed to me. It's a mythical character, it had the right balance of stuff that I knew I had to do and stuff that I didn't know how I was going to do it.
iW: How long did it take to get into the makeup and clothes?
Dafoe: It took a little over 3 hours to get into the makeup. I usually dress myself on movie sets, but in this case, I had to be dressed, because there were some undergarments, a shoulder piece, very awkward boots, and a very tight waistcoat, so that took awhile. And then at the end of the day, it took another hour to clean me up and get me out. Which was interesting, because some of the people that I worked with only saw me in the make-up, as Max Schreck, because I was the first one there and the last one to leave, so they never knew me as Willem.
iW: Have you ever done a character before that came so much out of these accessories and attachments?
Dafoe: A little bit in the theater. When I'm not on a movie set, I'm always working with The Wooster Group. Sometimes, you do a role that's deceptively physical. For example, the role in "The Last Temptation of Christ," is a very physical role and I don't think anybody thinks of it that way. But as far as the physical restrictions and limitations, probably nothing as extreme as this. But maybe this goes without saying, but in those restrictions, there was terrific freedom, which is one of those great ironies of performance. It's a life lesson, for that matter.