Interview with the vampire
Sean Davidson talks with Willem Dafoe about how the debonair actor transformed into a hideous, churlish old fiend for Shadow of the Vampire, and with director Elias Merhige about why vampires make perfect film subjects

Shadow of the Vampire wasn't even in theatres yet, and Willem Dafoe had already heard the same compliment so many times that he cut me off in mid-sentence.

There's one scene that really..., I start.

"The one in the cave?" he asks. Oh, umm, yes, the one in the cave — the perversely funny exchange between Dafoe, playing a bloodthirsty actor, and his director, in which the pair argue over which crew members the actor is allowed to kill. The cameraman? No. The writer? No. What about the script girl?

A lot of people have said a lot of good things about Shadow since it played at Cannes last spring. And this past September it caused a stir among critics and audiences when it made a stop at the Toronto International Film Festival, bringing Dafoe (Platoon, The English Patient) and director Elias Merhige (Begotten) to town for interviews and schmoozing. Last month, Shadow had a limited release in New York and L.A., in an apparent effort to slip in before the deadline for Oscar consideration, and, this month, it opens in theatres continent-wide.

The film is a fictional re-telling of the making of Nosferatu, the 1922 vampire movie by celebrated director F.W. Murnau. John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) plays Murnau as a reckless zealot who, about to make his masterpiece, casts an unknown and very creepy actor named Max Schreck as the vampire. Schreck, played by Dafoe, is either the most dedicated actor ever — remaining in costume, character and makeup on- and off-set — or he really is a vampire who has struck some kind of Faustian deal with Murnau. British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard (The Avengers) and Catherine McCormack (Braveheart) play the unlucky actors cast alongside Schreck, while Cary Elwes (Cradle Will Rock) and Udo Kier (Breaking the Waves) also star as crew members.

Shadow is the first time Dafoe and Malkovich, both known for appearing in dark and unusual movies, have worked together, and the cave scene is one of many they share. "He's a very charming guy. He's very bright, he's a self-starter," Dafoe says of Malkovich. We're in a small hotel room overlooking Toronto's Bloor Street West and Dafoe, who comes off as a little distant, perks up, and almost gushes, when we talk about his co-star.

"If he was here," Dafoe says, gesturing to the empty half of the couch, "I'd get a little self-conscious, but the truth is I really identify with him and how he's dealt with his career, the choices he's made, his taste in movies. We have similar backgrounds in the theatre, we both come from the Midwest, we're both about the same age. Here's a guy I really didn't know that well, but I felt very comfortable with. He's very..." Dafoe stops and thinks for several seconds for the right words, "pragmatic and whimsical at same time."

Stage experience means a lot to Dafoe, who came up through the world of experimental theatre and remains very active with New York City's Wooster Group, ("I'm still in the ghetto," he remarks) an offbeat theatre company he co-founded with girlfriend Elizabeth LeCompte. "People that don't have that kind of theatre background get annoyed, not only by the interruption, but by the marks and having to deal with camera obligations," he says in that calm, coarse voice of his, "where I embrace it, it defines what I'm trying to do. It makes you able to be more motivated when working in film."

One obligation he embraced for Shadow was spending four hours a day in makeup. Schreck isn't one of those fashion plate Anne Rice-ish vampires, and playing the part required the 45-year-old Wisconsin native to work with several pounds of pasty white makeup and prosthetics glued to his face. "The mask was everything, the makeup was everything. That was the biggest toy I had to play with for this role," he says, adding that four hours of sitting still gave him a unique chance to get into character. "It became part of the working day — to look in the mirror and see myself go away. That's the nice thing when you're working with that kind of makeup, it makes the pretending so much easier. You don't feel like yourself and you don't look like yourself. And when you don't feel like yourself, who do you feel like? That gives you a fast track to the character."

Even under all that latex Dafoe, especially his distinctive mouth, is still easily recognizable. "It's a nice balance between using my face as a base," he comments, "and riffing on the original Schreck." Makeup is just one of a few categories that could earn Shadow Oscar nods later this month, Dafoe's performance is clearly another - but he doesn't want to speculate about that. "I try not to think about it," he says, "if people like the movie, I'm very happy."

A few days later and down the street, director Elias Merhige shares his thoughts on vampires, expressionism and Wittgenstein. Ashen-faced and dressed in black leather, the 36-year-old filmmaker looks oddly out of place in his flowery, pastel-hued hotel room at the Four Seasons. He's friendly and talkative, but it's hard to keep him on topic. Our conversation about Shadow keeps making sharp left turns into the world of art theory and academics.

"Nosferatu is the mother of all vampire films and with Shadow of the Vampire we're out to deconstruct the myth," he explains, in a faint Brooklyn accent. "There are many different vampires in this movie and one of them is the camera — as it fixes its gaze on its subject, it drains it of flesh and blood, it reduces it to shadows. What better medium to explore the nature of vampirism?"

Shadow is Merhige's second movie, following 1991's Begotten — a black-and-white, silent and (to say the least) conceptual film wherein God gives birth by disemboweling himself with a razor. Although not exactly a top renter at Blockbuster, Begotten caught the eye of Nicolas Cage who had just started his production company Saturn Films, and was shopping for directors. The pair joined up to make Shadow, working with a script by Stephen Katz, who had also worked on 1994's Interview with the Vampire.

Early filmmakers like Murnau, as well as many expressionist painters, are a "big influence" on Merhige. "I studied everything from that period — the metaphysics, the poetry, the art — every form of art and thought of the time," he says, all of which informed the look and feel of the movie. Shadow is drenched in deep photo browns and sickly green-whites, and re-produces scenes from the 1922 original in exacting detail.

And yet, he adds emphatically, the movie is not some kind of post-modern re-creation of the Murnau original. "I want to get people back to the year 1921," he says, "You don't do that by repeating the master, or making a documentary."

He's watched Nosferatu almost thirty times.

Dafoe has seen it too, of course, and likes old horror movies that deal with big questions about life and death. His favourite is Bride of Frankenstein. "I'm very fond of the moment where [Dr. Frankenstein] reaches for the lever that's going to destroy the castle. And he looks up at the sky and a single tear goes down his cheek." Here Dafoe sits up, puts his hand on an imaginary lever and runs a finger down his cheek. "And he says, 'We belong dead,' and he blows up the castle. That really appealed to me when I was a child and I've never been able to shake it. I think I recognized the poetry of it."

So was he thinking about mortality when he played Schreck? Surprisingly, no. "Not consciously, I'm just playing the scenes," he says, snapping out of his reverie. "It's on my mind a fair bit of the time, but you can't play ideas. You can't play questions."

January 2001