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October 15, 2007
Director David Slade shines a light on Josh Hartnett and Melissa George to bring a new vision of vampires to the screen in 30 Days of Night


By Cindy White


The concept of 30 Days of Night can be summed up in three words: vampires in Alaska. It's an idea so simple and obvious that it's amazing it wasn't done hundreds of years ago. What better setting for a vampire film than an isolated town where the sun doesn't rise for 30 days straight? The story first appeared as a graphic novel in 2002. But writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith weren't content with merely having a good hook; they wanted to reinvent the vampire genre, to make it actually scary again. And by all accounts, they succeeded.
The comic was optioned by Sam Raimi, who was keen to make a film version as close to the source material as possible. To that end, he hired Niles to write the first draft of the script. Although Raimi initially planned to direct the film himself, scheduling issues made that impossible, so he turned it over to director David Slade, a veteran of commercials and music videos whose first feature film, the indie thriller Hard Candy, garnered positive buzz at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

The strength of the script and Slade's vision attracted a talented cast as well. Josh Hartnett and Melissa George center the film as estranged couple Eben and Stella, who are forced to examine their broken relationship under the strain of a monthlong vampire siege on their hometown of Barrow, Alaska, during the titular period of darkness. Respected character actors Danny Huston and Ben Foster also lend some weight to the cast in the roles of the leader of the vampire pack and their twisted human accomplice.

SCI FI Weekly had the opportunity to interview Hartnett, George and Slade in New York last week, where they talked about the unique vision of the film and the work that went into making vampires scary again.
Josh Hartnett, are you a fan of this genre in particular?

Hartnett: Yeah. I mean, I grew up watching vampire movies, and I don't think there's been a really interesting look at the vampire genre in a long time. And the biggest reason I wanted to do the film was mostly because of David Slade's vision. He came up to where I'm from, Minnesota, and kind of laid out what he wanted the movie to be like, and it seemed completely different from anything I'd ever heard of before, kind of visceral and dark, but also with something that's artistic. ... If you can trust anybody as far as the genre of horror goes, I think he's read the novel from cover to cover. Yeah. I just thought it would be an interesting project. I mean, all these great actors that came on, too, Melissa and Ben Foster and, of course, Danny Huston. Just good people to work with on something interesting.
How did you prepare for the film before production started?

Hartnett: We actually spent a lot of time talking about what it would be like to be isolated and kind of in the Mutiny on the Bounty sort of isolation. And then maybe some sort of Treasure of the Sierra Madre insanity that may occur. Any other film references I could throw out real quick? But I think that there was actually more in the script about that, and about the way that man turns on man when isolated and stuck together and fearing for their lives, but it got, I think, a little bit too esoteric for a vampire film. But it was a really interesting script, the way that people tended to throw each other in front of the bus.
Did the rehearsal process help you?

Hartnett: Absolutely. I mean, what I really appreciated about working with David is that we did all of this backstory. We worked on all of these scenes that may not have made it into the film, that we knew at the time probably wouldn't make it into the film, because we had extra time to shoot the film. So we wanted to make sure that there was a real life there. It felt like these guys actually lived together. And I think that it worked. I mean, I think that there are relationships that aren't really highlighted in the film that exist in a sort of below-the-surface sort of way on film. It should always be that way in film; subtlety is kind of the key to going back and watching the film again, I think.
There was some talk about the turmoil over your beard in the film. Can you talk about that?

Hartnett: Yeah. The turmoil of the beard really comes down to they wanted me clean-shaven at the beginning of the film. And it would have been a lot easier had I been able to grow as much as I can grow, which is kind of pathetic, and then add pieces as we moved further along. I mean, it is Alaska. It is cold there. And the guy, I thought, should have a beard. But there were just people that just didn't believe that it was a good idea for me to start the movie with a beard. I actually sent a letter to somebody about different people who were in very successful films that had beards. And I tried to explain how much I wanted by pointing out who had how much and where I would fit in that progression. It didn't work.
You were shooting the film at night for many weeks straight. What was that like?

Hartnett: It depends on how well organized it is, really. This film, 30 Days of Night, was really well organized. And so we shot for nights for whatever, 100 weeks, and then days [for] the rest. So we didn't have a bunch of going back and forth. On this last movie I worked on, I Come With the Rain, in Hong Kong, terrible organization. It was like a night and then a day and then a night and then a day. And we were going insane. So yeah, of course. It messes with you. But at the same time, it's a movie about vampires, so you kind of get a certain sense of what it must be like. Very good for method acting.
Were you familiar with the graphic novel before taking this role?

Hartnett: I have a friend who's a graphic-novel and comic-book freak. And he gave me this, and another graphic novel—actually like, five other graphic novels—a few years ago, and this was one of his favorites. So I'd read the novel before. But when I got the script, David Slade also gave me the graphic novel as well. So I reread it and looked at the script and kind of saw what I thought he wanted to do with it. I'd been in one other graphic novel adaptation, Sin City, so I kind of understood that this was something that was supposed to be half-fantasy, half-reality. And I liked the fact that the characters in this film are real characters with real problems so that you can hopefully relate to them, so you can kind of follow them. If you find yourself relating them, you can more easily follow them into the realm of the supernatural. Because this is obviously not your typical everyday story.
In the film, your character, Eben, is separated from his wife, Stella, but that's not the case in the graphic novel. What did you think of the change?

Hartnett: I think when characters are in turmoil, it's fun to have multi-layers of turmoil. I mean, I can't compare this to any other movie, but I would say that if everything was hunky-dory back home, and you've got these vampires chasing you, there's always solace. And the idea of being trapped in this horrible situation, you want to feel like everybody's sort of alone. ... And the conflict, I think, enriches the whole feeling of isolation and the feeing of kind of impending doom. And they have a lot more to get over. I feel it was a good choice, honestly.
Melissa George, how does this film compare with other horror movies you've done?
George: Well, I like to think that 30 Days of Night is beyond horror. I mean, it's vampires. It's an exaggerated horror, which is fantastic. It was one of those things, doing Amityville Horror, that was based on a true story, a real good character piece, I felt. That was a few years ago. And then in between I've been doing a bit of comedy, a bit of drama, and then this came along with Sam Raimi and David Slade and Josh Hartnett, and it was very hard to turn it down. It was one of those jobs that I actually auditioned for really wanting. And I'm a fan of the graphic-novel world, and I really wanted to be part of a vampire film. This beats a lot of them.
Why do you think we're so fascinated with vampires?

George: It's otherworldly. And I think there's a fascination with that. Everyone's seen Nosferatu and all sorts of other vampire films. And it's very curious to see a vampire film, I think, because I don't think it plays on something that could happen to you in real life, you know what I mean? Like Amityville Horror, for example.
Shooting all those night scenes, you must have felt like a vampire yourself.

George: Yeah, I did. It was very difficult, actually. Coming home at seven in the morning, still with blood on your neck, you go for a coffee in the morning. The amount of times I went out for an early-morning breakfast and just was covered [up to] my neck, and I looked at my hands and I went, "Oh, gosh."
Did you read the graphic novel before doing the film?

George: I did not. I read it after. And I was wishing it would look exactly like the graphic novel, just the colors. And I love the fact that [in] most vampire films they just have two little fangs. This is not, you know. You've seen the film. It's not your average vampire. So I'm glad that they made the movie look exactly like the graphic novel. And I love the story, because at the end, you know, like, when I read the graphic novel, I thought, "Oh, I love the ending of that story, the love story between Eben and Stella."
Your character, Stella, is tough. Was it easy to relate to her?

George: Yeah, I mean, I like dynamic, tough roles, going back to the horror thing. In Hollywood you can often get the pretty little wife that doesn't say much. And these roles tend to be very, very strong women and either here or at the end or whatever. And I enjoyed playing those sorts of strong characters.
Horror movies are notorious for portraying women as victims. Was it important to you that your character not be like that?

George: I'm very careful with that. I never pick a script by genre. Ever. Because if you start doing that, you're going to be a mess. ... No, you look within it and see what the character is, and I always want to do a service for women. I don't want to come out like a weak thing on the floor with her clothes ripped up and being eaten alive and lots of blood around. I want to pick roles that are strong. And OK, it's a horror film, but look beyond that and there's a lot more in there.
David Slade had a very clear vision for this film. What was it like working with him?

George: He's my modern-day Hitchcock. He really is. He looks like Hitchcock too, a little bit. And he was wonderful to us. Great energy. Treated us so fantastically. And I don't have to say that, so if it wasn't true, [I wouldn't]. He was wonderful. Wonderful director. Really sort of quietly spoken. Leaning out the window of the car giving great sort of advice on how to play the scene. He's just a fun guy. Never raised his voice. Never lost his cool. And that was a big, big, heavy shoot. He's major. He's the real deal.
David Slade, you've said that your favorite scene in the film is the fight in the attic, which has nothing to do with vampires. So how did you approach that?
Slade: That sequence was really about building character. We treated the film like a drama to begin with, particularly in rehearsals with the actors. There were no real references to film except for some of the necessary conventions of vampire films. So that scene kind of developed over the time we were rehearsing to kind of be just the panic that would be going on, the claustrophobia that would be going on in a space like that. Some vestige of the reality of the space they were stuck in, to try and make it less of a kind of device and more of a real space.

We did a lot of other things, too. Of course, we preview-tested, and people thought that stuff was dull and boring, but I'm really proud of that scene, the scene where Beau wants to leave, because he's used to just going out there. And the rest of the people in the attic, at this point they finally make a connection with him. And it's actually, to me, quite touching, because he's just a loner. He's always been a loner. And this is probably the first time—certainly in a long time, certainly probably in the time he moved to Barrow—that people depend on him. And you can just see it in his eyes. He looked down, and you can actually see he's got tears in his eyes, because everybody's looking to him, because he's the only one left with a gun. And it comes down to that.
How involved were you in the development of the script?

Slade: Brian Nelson, who wrote Hard Candy, came on to do the bulk of the writing. Steve Niles did the first draft of the script; then I believe Stuart Beattie came in. And I wasn't involved in any of that. When I came in there were a couple of drafts around, which I read, and I really liked the graphic novel. And I liked Steve's draft a lot. Steve's draft actually was very different—and he'll probably tell you this—to the graphic novel, because he'd only written like two issues of the comic at this point and was having to finish the whole thing. At this point I think Sam Raimi was looking to direct it. Lucky me.
You've been careful to avoid convention in the film by following the usual heroic moments with something darker.

Slade: One of the things that Brian and I talked about was that we would undercut heroism. Heroism, to us, was a kind of cardinal sin in a place where people are so pragmatic, because they could die if they get lost on the way back from the shops. The weather is so harsh it's going to kill them. So add vampires to the mix and really people are going to be very, very careful. So if someone went out in a blaze of glory, then we would punish that. ... It wasn't necessarily to be against the grain, but it just seemed to make sense in the scheme.

I mean, Josh's character makes tons of mistakes, which are intentional. And Josh is now becoming that character actor I think he always has been, much more and more, and I hope in this film you feel that's that same. I do. I think his performance is fantastic. But what makes him human is not those kind of Hollywood heroic antics, but the cracks in his façade. The fact that Stella has to hold him together.

So heroism and those cheer moments, where there's some fun horror gore, are usually followed by a "oh f--k" horror moment, because we don't want you to cheer. It's horrible. And there is no humor in the film. This wasn't particularly intentional going in, but it just seemed like we were taking this film very seriously. So there was no place for those kind of conventions of horror.
I understand you developed your own language for the vampires in the film. How did you do that?

Slade: There was always this concern from the producers that talking vampires weren't scary, and particularly when snaring Danny Huston, which, I tell you, is a tough one to do. Danny is, as you probably know, and astonishing actor with a great resume of films. And "Come play the hero of a vampire pack" [is] not the first thing on a character actor of that caliber's list. But a couple of meetings and he came down to New Zealand to join us. I remember talking with Danny for two hours about his backstory ... but this brought up a great many, many things he should be saying. But of course, he doesn't. And the way he doesn't say it is, we figured in the end that a certain degree of evolution takes you back to a degree of basic behavior if you're a vampire. So we went and worked with a lady from Auckland University, a linguistics professor, and we designed this really simple language that didn't sound like any particular accent that you would be aware of, that was based around really simple actions, eating, hunting, yes, no, really basic, because that's what vampires to.

They basically gulp things down. These vampires, anyway. I don't know about your Anne Rice vampires, they might want to read a little Rimbaud and make sure their tailor is properly reimbursed. But these vampires kill and eat. So, like the word "kaah," ... means three things. It means blood, it means man—same thing to a vampire—and if you're talking philosophically, which Marlow does, also means God, because God is an extension of man. So there's an example. And then Danny took that language away and we had it phonetically written down. We had lines that we'd written in English that we translated into this language. You can translate the language. And he changed some of the phonetic sounds to make them fit his character more, and we rehearsed a lot with that. And then, of course, he had great, big prosthetic teeth in, which he then had to re-rehearse saying. So Danny really went the extra mile to really make that believable. At a certain point in the cut we had other vampires that talked, too, but we cut those down just because the film was running too long.
The look of the movie is surprisingly close to Ben Templesmith's art. How did you achieve that style?

Slade: I've become very good friends with Ben, and he came down to the set for a while, and I loved Ben's illustrations. It's what drew me to the graphic novel in the very beginning, before the idea of the movie, when I actually picked it up off the newsstand and bought it, actually, from Golden Apple Comics in L.A. And when I was working with my production designers, the first thing I said was "I'm not really interested so much in Barrow, Alaska, but Ben's Barrow."

Now there's a schism here, because Ben's work is incredibly stylized, which, again, goes against what I was saying earlier about the more stylized you are, the less chance you have of scaring people. So there was this really fine line we had to walk between absolute realism wherever possible and Ben's fantastic template, which we were going to use as faithfully as we possibly could. ... [There are] many, many little details that you will see. The details were really important to me, but there was a point at which you couldn't go any further because you would need to get into heavy CGI graphics, which we didn't have the budget for, and didn't want to particularly, because again, it takes you into this fantasy realm. And these kids who play computer games are not scared of computer monsters, because they blow them up all day.

Similarly, there was an issue, which was a definite ... to do with the prosthetics, where I'd look at it and go, "That's a rubber head. And audiences are going to see that. So we can't do it this way." So with Ben's vampires, particularly, now the fantastic premise, which hooked me more than anything, was that at the very end in the graphic novel, there's this deus ex machina of this character who is this Nosferatu, who is the kind of alpha vampire who comes and says, 'We've hidden behind the folklore. We've hidden behind the myths. Now we have to clean up the mess. Because we're not going to be hunted like we used to be. This is the real thing. We are the real thing." Which is great for me, because that's the point. The point is, we're the real thing. So I can just do anything I want to now. I can go, "OK, I don't have to really obey too many conventions. We'll deal with the daylight issues, but that's about all the supernatural. We'll make them stronger. And we'll make them a little bit scary-looking. And we'll make them as close to Ben's illustrations as we possibly can, without it looking like they're not people anymore, without them looking like they've been messed around with or have prosthetics on." We used very minimal prosthetics. We used contact lenses, because it was important to me to have exactly the same dead, shark eyes. And teeth, which Danny Huston would tell you more about, which gave them the sharklike teeth as opposed to the two incisors that you're used to. And the rest was something we're going to refer to as digital makeup, which is kind of a really fast and dirty way of retreating it a little further in the direction of Ben's illustrations without getting into, like, Lord of the Rings-style Gollum replacements and such.
Did you do a lot of preparation before filming?

Slade: I'm a serial storyboarder. I do meticulously storyboard. But what I do believe in is that film is an organism that grows as you work on it. So rehearsals yielded new pages. Scenes where a character's actions or emotions suddenly yielded a different take on the scene yielded rewrites on the scene, which sometimes I'd be doing it with Brian on the set, literally on the set. Danny Huston's wonderful scene, where he looks at the poor girl who's just panicking and picks out two words she's probably not even aware of. And says, "God." And looks up into the heavens, was a scene that expanded because he looked up like this. And I go, "Hang on. That was a great take. Spend more time looking around." I actually remember, I went to Danny and asked, "Are you looking for God?" And he said, "Oh, absolutely." And I said, "Then really look for him. There's a lot of stars up there. It's a clear night in Alaska." And then the second take we used.
The producer of the film, Sam Raimi, is known for mixing humor and horror, but there's not a lot of humor in this.

Slade: The intention was always to make a scary film. And if it becomes a kind of winking film, I think, as Steve's often said, if it becomes a film that does the kind of horror wink to genre, you lose that. If it becomes a fantasy film, you lose that. So we just treated it as a drama. We worked very hard on the performances.