Friday, October 8, 2010

Talking to "Let Me In" and "Cloverfield" Director Matt Reeves

I guess Jeff Wells and I have at least one thing in common, which is that we are both willing to try and help the awesome-but-financially struggling Let Me In stay alive in theaters a wee bit longer.  So, to that end, here is an interview I did with the film's director Matt Reeves about a month ago, originally for Vulture. Because we wound up running the slideshow of Reeves's favorite movie kills instead, the Q&A part itself wound up getting nuked. So, I'm running it here. Reeves was a fun guy to talk to -- "enthusiastic" is the word that comes to mind -- and I hope some of his energy comes through. Enjoy.

As the understated horror of Let Me In slowly builds and builds, it’s hard to think that the guy who made it is also the guy who directed the hand-held video-camera monster flick Cloverfield, about as hectic and in-your-face a movie as Hollywood has produced in recent years. And director Matt Reeves will freely admit that his latest, a remake of the hit Swedish adolescent vampire thriller Let the Right One In, is a lot closer to his preferred style than his 2008 J.J. Abrams-produced monster hit. Tell that, though, to the legions of fans of the original Swedish film, who are biting their nails in fear, anticipation, and in many cases anger over the fact that an American remake even exists, let alone one made by the Cloverfield guy. But Reeves’s Let Me In remains strikingly faithful to Let the Right One In’s grim, deliberate mood. It also manages to be heartbreaking in its own right – a horror movie that’s more about the painful longings and alienation of adolescence rather than intense kill scenes (though Let Me In definitely has a few of those as well). Reeves spoke to us recently about how he wound up making the movie, about his fears of doing a remake, and working with his remarkably talented young cast.

A lot of people were upset about the idea of an American remake of Let the Right One In. Did you ever have second thoughts?

Yes. Initially, all my better instincts were saying, “Don’t do this movie,” mainly because I loved the film so much. At the same time, it wouldn’t let me go.
Before Cloverfield, I had a passion project, called The Invisible Woman, which was cast, with Naomi Watts in it, and which suddenly fell apart.  After Cloverfield, I went back to trying to find a distributor for The Invisible Woman. But now it turned out to be really bad timing, coinciding with a major contraction in the indie film world, lots of distributors going under, etc. Overture was one of the companies I brought it to. They loved the script, but said it was a very challenging time for them to do it. However, they did want to do something with me, and they told me that they were pursuing the rights to this Swedish film, which at that time hadn’t come out in the U.S. yet. I didn’t know if I wanted to do a remake. They gave me a DVD of Let the Right One In – mind you, this is ten months before the movie came out, so I hadn’t heard anything about it. And I was blown away. Now, The Invisible Woman had started out as a TV pilot. As part of doing Felicity, we had to come up with pilots, and J.J. had come up with Alias and I came up with The Invisible Woman. And the original pilot was from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy whose family was in turmoil. And there was this apartment complex, with an 11-year-old girl from a single parent family. And they would meet in the courtyard, and their relationship would begin to develop. So when I saw Let the Right One In, I was stunned by the similarities, and I was like, “I love this.” This was the emotional terrain I was interested in. And then when it turned into a vampire movie, I was like, “Wow.” They were taking a vampire story, a genre story, and making a movie about the pain of adolescence.

And they really were adolescents, not teenagers.

Yeah. I was told, “You’ll probably want to age the kids up for an American audience.” I came back to them with two responses. “One: I’m not sure you should remake this movie, because it’s fantastic. And two: If you do remake it, I urge you not to age up those kids. If you age them, you destroy the story.” Because that’s what was so brilliant about the metaphor: That’s what it feels like to be going through that time. Your life is like a horror movie. It’s a contrast between the pure innocence of being a kid and those dark thoughts coming up. And if you age those kids, you’ll lose all of that.

Working with kids must pose a bunch of challenges, though, especially for a film like this.

They really need to be able to be kids, outside of the production. That was one thing that was really important to me – I had spoken about this with John Hillcoat, who directed The Road with Kodi [Smit-McPhee]. He said, “I think it’s really important that they be allowed to be kids. We could tell when we weren’t giving Kodi a chance to be a kid.” A lot of what you do when you’re making a movie is play, but it’s not the same kind of play. We needed to make sure they had the time to be kids. You never get to be 12 again. At the same time, Chloe and Kodi developed this great relationship, which is one of the fun things about shooting the movie. The jungle gym scenes, we shot those in the first three weeks of the production, because we didn’t have the resources to shoot chronologically. So, the young actors were getting to know each other while the characters were getting to know each other. And in the three weeks that it took to shoot these scenes, they really became friends.

Abby is such a dark, haunted, intense, supernatural being. How do you go about working with a young actor in a complicated part like that?

You try and find those things that they relate to. Obviously, Chloe has never been a vampire. I’d say to her, “You don’t have to tell me these things, but think of times when you felt like an outsider.” These were things that were private to her, and I let her keep them to herself, but I asked her to think about them. Another thing I asked her to do was to keep a journal, in character, and I told her she could write anything in it. The difficult part was doing the emotional stuff, finding experiences she could relate to. When people see a movie, they think it’s really intense, but the violent sequences, that’s when Chloe and Kodi were really having a ball, squirting fake blood, truly playing, like cops and robbers. The more difficult stuff was finding, in a gentle way, the things that might have caused her pain and difficulty. But it was one of the reasons why I wanted to cast her. It was clear that she was willing and able to access those things.

How so?

When we were casting, I felt we needed a girl who could convey this sense of being a survivor well beyond her 12 years.  All the girls that were coming in were just playing vampires. When Chloe came in, there was something different about her. Earlier, I had brought in these photographs by the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, documenting this homeless family. In the pictures was this girl who had this look of defiance on her face, and you just knew, this poor girl had seen things no 12-year-old should have to. When Chloe came in, she reminded me immediately of this girl. I took the book out, and she was looking at them, sensing that there was something very sad about the images. “These are real?” she asked. Everything sort of changed then. She was unlike everybody else. She had this combination that was so critical: She could be tough, but she also struck me with her vulnerability. Her toughness was covering a wounded quality. And I hadn’t even seen Kick-Ass yet, cause it wasn’t done.

Getting back to the adaptation from the Swedish film, how did you go about deciding what to keep and what to change?

When I was thinking about doing the movie, I read the novel. And the novel was…incredible. It was harrowing, beautiful, even more horrific than the film they made. It had all of the pain this kid goes through. But there were also a lot of point of view changes. It was actually more like a Stephen King book; it could become a 10-part miniseries. But the heart of it was still a coming-of-age story. There’s an early chapter in the book that talks about the town where the story takes place, Blackeberg, which is where the author, John Lindqvist, grew up. It was a planned community, built over a few years, and it had no real history. And the book says, “They had no church, which is why they were so unprepared for what was to come.” Which is a great way to hook a reader! Now, the story takes place in the 1980s, and that made me think back to my own childhood. There’s an interesting parallel in the U.S. with that kind of planned community, in all of our suburban communities, and tract housing. We had our own version of that. In the 80s, it’s what we called Spielbergia.

Except our version did have churches.

Exactly. The American version wouldn’t be a “godless” community. These were communities connected to faith. Especially at that time, in the Reagan era -- right when Reagan was giving his Evil Empire speech. So, at that time, we thought of evil as something that was other – the Soviets -- while Americans were fundamentally good. Now, imagine, what would it be like to be a 12-year-old in this world, a kid bullied so mercilessly that he gets these dark thoughts. Being in that community and having those kinds of feelings: Are you evil? In the book, he’s obsessed with serial killers. So I had to find a way to translate the essence of that story into this place that I remembered. At the same time, I knew I wanted to be really faithful to the story.

Did you talk to the author of the original novel at all?

I got in touch with Jon Lindqvist. I told him why I was interested in this story: Not because it’s a fantastic genre story, but really because I have such a personal path in to this story. And he said, “I was excited when I heard you were getting involved. I really liked Cloverfield, because it was a new spin on a classic story.” And he went on, “Now, I’m even more encouraged, because it’s the story of my childhood.” And I totally got that. It was clear from the book. It was really his childhood; a lot of the people in the story have versions of themselves that actually exist out there in the real world.

But a lot of the film’s fans were still very skeptical…

Now, it’s important to remember that all of this happened way in advance of the movie coming out. So, no one I talked to knew what it was at that time. By October 2008, when it came out, I was already deep, deep into the script. And then the movie got all this acclaim, and suddenly my fears came back. By that point, I was so deeply in it that I decided the best thing to do was just block all of that out. I tried to remember how much I loved that story, all of the things I wanted to do to translate it, to personalize it. These were things I could only do with a passionate commitment to it. And it had already been quite a journey, and the clamor just got louder and louder.

Ironically, you remained very faithful to the feel of the Swedish film, to the point that some people may think your version is unnecessary.

I loved the style of the original film. Now, when you adapt something, you want to find a way to make it your own, but you don’t want to change anything just to change it. The stuff that got you excited is the stuff you have a mission to protect. Lindqvist wrote the screenplay of his book for the movie – he did his own adaptation, and did a great job of condensing this huge book. And the film really focuses in on that relationship between the two kids, which was what I connected to. All of those scenes between them, they’re pretty much verbatim out of the book. And I did use things that were subplots in the original movie that were different in the book. The Richard Jenkins character, Hakan, is huge in the book, in a way that’s very different from both movies. He becomes a very Gothic vampire, he’s a terrifying mess.

But you do actually do some things quite differently. For starters, you use more close-ups, whereas the original relied more on master shots.

What I responded to in the original film, more than the masters, was the restraint. That is critical, because that I felt was more my style -- Cloverfield notwithstanding, ‘cause it’s a crazy Handicam movie. I’m glad you mentioned close-ups. That was specifically what I wanted to do. I wanted to focus it even more on Owen. I wanted to bring the camera closer, because I saw an opportunity to do a Rear Window-esque thing. I wanted to see things through his point of view as much as possible, and to use that to support the suspense of the movie. You see Owen isolated in his room, watching out through his telescope, seeing his neighbors. This world of adults, glimpses of sexuality, seeing adults fighting, which then reminds him of his parents fighting.  There were points when I did shift point of view, though, because it’s important to see what’s going on with Richard Jenkins. You meet him in this way where you think he’s a serial killer, but you find out afterwards that he’s doing it just for her.  You think, “Who is this guy, why is he doing this?”

And then we start to root for him, even though he’s basically trying to kill people.

He’s going out to get blood for Abby, and you see everything go wrong, and you find yourself weirdly rooting for him. That’s not only suspenseful, but it’s very much in tune with the novel, which is all about dark things, but is also incredibly empathetic and compassionate. It’s a real examination of our darkness and what evil is. When Abby is talking to Oscar, she says, “I’m just like you.” And he replies, “I don’t kill people.” She says, “You would, if you were able to.” She says to him, “Be me a little.” She touches him, kisses him, and he begins to literally feel her pain. That message of “Be me,” I didn’t want anyone to appear as a one-note villain. I’d rather put you in the awkward situation of both understanding somebody and realizing that what they’re doing is horrible. That’s the kind of filmmaking I like.

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