As news of Neil Jordan's script for a combined 'Vampire Lestat' and 'Queen of the Damned' film circulates, along with rumours that studio time has been booked for 1999, we take a look at the timeless classic 'Interview with the Vampire'. Five years on, we examine how the film reflects the book, and why this above all others had such a profound effect on all who saw it.
When 'Interview with the Vampire' was being filmed, the one debate fuelling the press hype was the controversial casting choice of Tom Cruise as the passionate, violent, seductive and aristocratic Lestat de Lioncourt. Many felt that Cruise with his background of 'heart-throb' roles in such dramatically empty nonsense as 'Top Gun' was entirely unsuited to the role. True, he had proven himself to a degree in 'Rain Man' and 'Born on the Fourth of July', but many vampire enthusiasts and even the author/screenwriter Anne Rice herself, felt he was a financial choice based on box office takings rather than the ideal aesthetic choice for one of the sexiest, most devilish bloodsuckers ever committed to celluloid.
Not that the alternatives were exactly viable. John Malkovich so Lestat-like in 'Dangerous Liaisons' was simply too old to convincingly portray the debonair young vamp. Jeremy Irons would have been though a consummate actor with one of the most seductively evil voices in film far too English. As for some of the other possibilities John Travolta (oh, per-leaze!), Julian Sands ('Tale of a Vampire') and Sting (yes, maybe) it was never really going to keep the general public happy. The film's massive $60m budget, and huge responsibility to the vamp-hungry fans, demanded a huge star.
They got several: Tom Cruise as Lestat did, in the final analysis, throw off his old image and really become the 200 year old monster; Brad Pitt smouldered and bewailed his way along as the tragic and adorable Louis; Antonio Banderas shook off his Latino gangster image to become the sultry and mesmerising Armand (another controversial choice, but more on this later); Stephen Rea took time out from playing IRA hitmen and werewolves to act as Santiago, the brutal theatre master; and Christian Slater stepped in as the interviewer after the sudden death of River Phoenix, to whom the film was posthumously dedicated.
After so publicly denouncing Cruise, Anne Rice was quick to apologise when she saw the film, and the fans in their millions agreed. After 18 years of waiting, one of the greatest vampire tales of all time was finally available on screen. To Rice's many fans this was the final vindication of her work, and coming just two years after the equally spectacular (but sadly flawed) 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' it was the ultimate acknowledgement that Dracula was not the only literary heavyweight in the vampire world. Louis sums Rice's position on Dracula up perfectly: "The vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman."
'Interview' is as sumptuous as they come: fabulous costumes (Sandy Powell); breathtaking sets (65 of them, designed by Dante Ferretti); fantastic locations (in San Francisco, New Orleans and Paris); terrific plot devices and characterisations; eye-popping special effects (Stan Winston); and a compelling musical score (Elliot Goldenthal). It is a passionate look at the late 18th and 19th centuries through the eyes of a character who perfectly embodies their spirit and essence. As Armand tells Louis: "you reflect its broken heart". From the gentle aerial swoop into modern day San Francisco to the sounds of an angelic choir to the triumphant vampire driving off down the freeway to the sound of Guns 'n' Roses blasting their way through 'Sympathy for the Devil', this is a treat for all the senses which is second to none (at least in the world of vampire films!), spanning 2 continents, 3 major cities, and 5 time periods over 200 years. Despite its phenomenal costs, the film took an incredible £10.5m in the UK, £2.4m of which was in its opening weekend, whilst in the US box office receipts totalled a mindblowing $103m!
My first visit to see it was a late night showing the day after it opened. I went along to my local cinema, dressed and painted up to the eyeballs, complete with Victorian sword-stick and fan. Most of the audience were as fascinated by me as by the film, especially on the way out 122 minutes later as I flashed off my fangs and they weren't quite sure... Such was the eloquence of this film that it touched even the soulless masses of Essex! Indeed this was easily the highest profile vampire film in terms of mainstream cinema audiences that there has ever been. Everybody knew about this film, and most of them went to see it, if only to gawp at the delicious Brad Pitt! (This, I hasten to add, was not my main reason for going three times, though I must confess that it added to the viewing pleasure!)
This if for me a difficult film to review and not because I have little to say about it. It is without a doubt my favourite (many peoples' favourite) vampire film of all time. As an adaptation of the book, 'Interview' is handicapped by lost characters, lost scenes and altered plotlines. A long scene showing Lestat arriving in the Paris theatre, weeping over Claudia's burnt shoe, and arguing with Armand and a badly burned Santiago was consigned to the cutting room floor, as were many other scenes of the Paris coven. But these things do not detract from the film rather they generate a whole new plane of experience for the Anne Rice fan, whilst opening it up for those who have never read a word of her prolific vampire turn-out. The Rice fan can return to the book and visualise the scenes not filmed now the characters have been given real, and thoroughly believable, faces. I have never seen Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in a film made since 'Interview' where a shade of Lestat or Louis could not occasionally be detected such was the conviction they brought to these unusual roles. Kirsten Dunst will be forever Claudia. 'Interview with the Vampire' was in many ways as much a life-changing experience for those who acted in it as for those who saw it and breathed in its intricacies and subtler flavours.
For those not familiar with the book, the film is a decadent feast on the eyes and is easily approachable even if you know nothing whatsoever about any of the characters. I'm still undecided whether knowing the characters from the book helps or hinders the viewing experience one can be blown away by a scene one minute and ruefully shaking one's head the next, when someone does something which doesn't fit with their personality as described in the book. That confessed, I didn't sit there shaking my head half as much to this on its first cinema viewing as I had done to Coppola's 'faithful retelling' of 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' two years earlier! Of course 'Interview' had the advantage of being the only adaptation available, but even so it far outshone anything which had gone before, and it stands the test of time even now. It was the best on its release five years ago, and it still is matchless, perfect, and a more intense experience than any other on film.
I have already mentioned the widespread furore that attended the casting of Lestat, but on first viewing it is perhaps the casting of Armand which perturbs more viewers familiar with Rice's work. The Armand of the book is an androgynous adolescent boy, short of stature, cherubic, auburn haired and almost effeminately fragile. In the film we have Antonio Banderas: mature, tall, rugged, sexually dominant, far from fragile and with a magnificent head of raven hair! The incongruity leaps out visually and smacks the unprepared Rice fan around the face. And yet where would so cherubic a form be found these days amongst the acting profession? Even if such a beautiful androgyne were found, certain practicalities do suggest themselves. There is no visual incongruity when we see Pitt's Louis and Banderas' Armand in intimate discussion; they literally gaze into each other's eyes. The difficulties of shooting such intimate scenes with the tiny Claudia are often resolved by placing the much taller Louis in a seated or supine position towards her or carrying her in his arms. Such devices would not have worked with a boyish Armand, since as anyone familiar with the characters will know Armand is almost always the dominant half of the wary friendship. On the rare occasions Louis and Claudia are seen on screen upright together however such as when they are dancing together in Paris the incongruity is so slight that it does not offend the eye. Much is made in the book of how they are perceived as father and daughter, and this is certainly a theme which works well in the film.
The plot is accented differently in that instead of Louis' melancholy springing from the death of his brother (as in the book) it is the death of his wife and child which are the trigger in the film, thereby enabling the whole pathos with Claudia to become even more tragic and doomed. The mortal child he lost becomes enshrined in Claudia, the child who cannot die. No wonder he is unable to resist her every wish, even at the risk of his own destruction. No wonder he takes Madeleine whose motive for loving Claudia is the same and brings her over to be her guardian, thereby symbolically replacing his dead wife as well as his child. Indeed, Claudia is one of the most complex figures of the story the child who not only cannot die but more significantly can never grow up. Her growing awareness of herself as an adult trapped in a child's body is emphasised by her costumes. In the first years of her vampire life she wears the clothes of a child, and is dressed as a doll, but as she grows intellectually she insists on wearing scaled down versions of adult ball gowns. She rages at her 'parents': "You dress me like a doll, you make my hair like a doll. Do you want me to be a doll forever? Can't I change like everyone else?" It is this anger and frustration that builds in her to such an extent that it consumes her, turning her first to the destruction of her 'family' by the attempted slaughter of Lestat, and finally to self-destruction in the arms of Madeleine.
The reasons for Louis becoming a vampire in the first place are naturally changed by this switch of emphasis from dead brother to dead wife and child. In the book, Louis' obsession with his brother's religious visions causes him in anger to deny his brother the chance to enter a monastery. They argue violently and Paul (the brother) falls down a staircase, leading to his death. Although not directly responsible for the death (he did not push him), Louis convinces himself he is the cause of it, and it is at this point of despair that Lestat enters his life. In the film, his despair over the deaths of his family causes him to develop a kind of malaise or death wish, which leads to him cheating at cards to encourage his opponents to shoot him, and wandering off to deserted parts of towns with whores whose pimps follow close at hand, ready to rob or murder him. It is into one such situation that Lestat breezes, saving him from the pimp's knife but opening up a whole new vista of ways to experience pain and suffering instead. Lestat is Mephistopheles to Louis' Faust, tempting him with an escape from the pain of living but condemning him instead to a life where the pain is even more acute because it cannot fade with age. Lestat's reasoning is clear and practical: "Evil is a point of view. God kills indiscriminately, and so shall we. For no creatures under God are as we are; none so like him as ourselves." But all this theoretical talk of "merciful death" is wasted on his young friend, as is Armand's view that to be a vampire is to be "powerful, beautiful, and without regret". For as Louis plaintively confesses: "There was a hell, and no matter where we moved to I was in it."
Because Louis' brother does not exist in the film the whole doomed love affair with Babette Freniθre the beautiful neighbour Louis looks out for after the death of her brother (for which Louis feels responsible as well!) is also absent, though devices are taken from this episode the duel, the throwing of a burning lamp and used in other contexts. Thus the arena is not altogether unfamiliar to any ardent fan of the book, and spotting the deliberate nod to the novel is an additional treat for those of us who know it well enough.
The film retains the narrative flow of the book by intercutting the longer period scenes with small reaction shots in the modern day with the interviewer becoming noticeably more involved in the story, to the extent that he begs the vampire in the end for his "dark gift". In blind fury Louis attacks the boy for not learning anything from the story he has been told. It was not supposed to make the listener (reader/viewer) want to become a part of the darkness; it was supposed to educate you as to why you should cherish the light. But instead of painting a picture of the tortured, suffering, damned soul Louis obviously believes himself to be, he has projected all the romance, mystery, excitement and decadence of an age which is hopelessly beyond the reach of us today. It is this for which the boy yearns, a yearning we all understand but too well. In the book, the vampire gives in to his hunger and drains the boy, infecting him with a feverish desire to find out other vampires when he wakes in the morning. The film has no bite, just the vampire disappearing and the boy tearing off in his car. Happy endings all round then, or is it? With the obvious relish of a team who would gladly open this film up for a sequel, there is one last surprise in store for the hapless interviewer...!
With all the controversy over castings, and the changes made during the transition from the book to the film, how does it all compare? Cruise may well have not been anyone's first choice to play Lestat, but he sailed through it with consummate ease and made the Brat Prince come alive for millions of vampire fans. Whilst Brad Pitt's sultry elegance was at painful odds with the severe austerity of Louis in the book he certainly added a depth of expression to the character which advanced the depictions of him given by Anne Rice in her first vampire novel, and allowed a greater sense of collusion and understanding between vampire and viewer. Antonio Banderas I have discussed amply enough to prove that, despite his vast dissimilarity to the Armand in the book, the casting choice was proven right in the end. Perhaps the most vital link between the book and the film was the casting of Kirsten Dunst as Claudia. It was plainly impractical to expect a 5 or 6 year old actress to represent Claudia, so an older actress had to be sought. The first one screen-tested was Dunst, and the benchmark was set against which all other hopefuls were cast. No-one could quite compare, and Claudia was reborn. In all her complexities she lives and breathes on the screen as clearly as she ever did in the book. She is child, woman, vampire, demon, hunter, victim and seductress all rolled into one, and Dunst sets the screen alight with her mere presence. If the sequel is filmed, it will be fascinating to see who plays Claudia this time, or whether out of deference to Dunst's portrayal the film-makers will gloss over her appearance and remove her from the story.
If Neil Jordan has written a script, and it is fair to say he will again direct, what of Stephen Rea, who so frequently appears in Jordan's films, and whose character in 'Interview', Santiago, was so violently dispatched by Louis? The suggestion most highly favoured in the Bloodstone office is that he could reappear as Santino, corrupt leader of the Rome coven, and apparent slaughterer of Marius. The similarity of the names would no doubt cause endless confusion, but as Armand's tutor in evil in the early days of the Paris coven he would surely shine with the same mischievous malevolence he brought to the role of the sadistic theatre-master.
At the time of its release, despite its massive hype, there was one big hole in 'Interview's' market saturation. We had the film, we eventually got a video release, and a special box set edition, the (incomplete) soundtrack, and there were posters and pin badges. Those lucky enough to attend the launch of the box set in London's HMV got to meet the lovely Kirsten Dunst. But where was the merchandise? True, there were a number of photographs in circulation, and all kinds of specialist goodies like Japanese press books and crew jackets found their way into the hands of private collectors, but the usual Hollywood marketing machine seemed to have forgotten about the film apart from this small token gesture. The box set of the video had the widescreen print, plus the talking book version of the novel (read by the succulent voice of F Murray Abraham oh, let him play a vampire one day Hollywood, please...!) and three photo cards. The photos were fairly standard shots of Lestat, Louis and Armand, and you had to go a long way to find something exclusive and special.
Now I'm not generally in favour of marketing gimmicks, and there certainly comes a point where it all gets a bit out of hand do we really need plastic action figures and lunch boxes?! but at the time of the film there was little or nothing available to even start a collection. Certain websites now post rare press books, unlicensed shirts and even a Rice-approved Lestat doll (if you've got several hundred dollars going spare!), but none of this is officially to do with the film or its promoters. It is stuff designed and put out by fans (only rarely under the auspices of Rice or Warner) who felt cheated by the lack of official merchandise at the time and decided to cash in on a captive market.
It just seems strange that for a film so high profile, and with such an array of big stars, nothing was really made of this particular avenue. Perhaps it all came back to Anne Rice. Perhaps Warner felt they'd done enough for vampires by that time. Who knows? Perhaps in some ways it is better that we weren't glutted on stuff. Whilst most companies make more money on the licensing and merchandising than they do on the film with the result that one remembers less of the film than of the gumpf you bought after seeing it! 'Interview' has become that rare commodity in this material society: a film that stands on its own merits.
Reference should be made to the 'little' people who put the film together behind the glitz and high profile of its three main, male stars. The lesser stars Domiziana Giordano who sparkles as the briefly vampirised Madeleine, and especially the breathlessly beautiful Kirsten Dunst as Claudia are worthy of the highest praise. Outranked by the massive box office names, they nevertheless set the screen alight with their magick. The most emotionally fraught scenes of the film always centre around Claudia, regardless of the fact that this 'interview' is supposed to be with Louis! There has never been an occasion I have watched this film when I have not been reduced to tears as she is reduced to ashes.
It is clear that everyone involved in this movie put heart and soul into it. Long-time collaborators Neil Jordan (director) and Stephen Woolley (producer) noted for cult fantasy horror flick 'A Company of Wolves' spoke highly of the finished product, and would clearly jump at the chance to do a sequel. Indeed, the latest news from Hollywood is that Jordan has written a script combining the elements of Rice's next two novels 'The Vampire Lestat' and 'Queen of the Damned' which is rumoured to be booked for shooting sometime in 1999. Bloodstone will keep you posted!
The special effects team had a bumper day when they took this on, and Stan Winston also known for his work on 'The Terminator' and 'Predator' was responsible for some truly remarkable pieces of film. Lestat's 'death' at the hands of Claudia, various vamps being beheaded, cut in half, or thrown through the air burning to death, are some of the most spectacular, but the most emotive effect in the entire film must surely be the ash sculpture of Claudia and Madeleine in the oubliette.
The intelligent use of make up effects like different colour contact lenses Louis' green eyes become bright fiery yellow when he angrily destroys the Thιβtre des Vampires and superlative blood (a vital commodity in a vampire film!) all add to the sumptuous attention to detail which sums up the picture. A break from vampire movie tradition and one which is already catching on was to give more physical reality to the vampires by trying to portray their translucent skin and nails. The skin was carefully painted with tattoo ink to suggest veins, and long glassy nails were an indication of how old the vampire was Armand had the longest nails as he was "the oldest living vampire in the world". Indeed, such attention was given to these tiny details that each vampire had a different compound colour for their veins, and a unique pattern of blood flow. Michθle Burke (whose previous credits include 'Bram Stoker's Dracula') wanted the effects to suggest individuals' characters Claudia's veins are pure blue, suggesting her innocence; Lestat's are blue/green in line with his volatility and corruption; whilst Louis' are blue/black, symbolic of his despair and misery.
Double fangs on a small scale replaced the traditional pointy canines, making the vampires look even more human. Rice makes much of the smallness of her creations' fangs in her books, so it made sense to use such teeth, particularly given the difficulty many people find in projecting their lines effectively whilst hissing through invasive incisors and cumbersome canines. Even when they smile directly at humans, these vampires can get away with it, and not one reference is made throughout the film to the old 'what big teeth you've got' scenario played so to death in most other vamp flicks.
Of course no film these days is complete without a soundtrack, and 'Interview' has one of the best. From the sensitive use of classical pieces Hδndel, Soler and Haydn to rousing modern full orchestra pieces to illustrate the various characters and themes of the film, this is a soundtrack and a half (though the released version unfortunately did not include the classical pieces). Delicate piano always indicates Claudia, scratchy harpsichord means Lestat's up to mischief again, and long aching strings suggest Louis' various pains and passions. The piθce de rιsistance for me, on my first visit to the cinema, was the finale. Not only do we get the surviving vampire roaring off into the night a rare enough sight in vampire movies to make the heart of a committed vampirophile soar! but he does it to the sounds of 'Sympathy for the Devil', a track guaranteed to make anyone this side of the grave get up and rock!
There was a very real feeling that, having waited so long to get the film onto the screens, the team responsible for it really had to pull out all the stops to make it the best they possibly could. The final result is superlative, and there really are no words to describe this cinematic treat in all its glory and magnificence. You have to see it to quite believe it.
The bottom line is, this is the undisputed mother of all vampire films. Can it really be five years since it hit our cinemas in the UK? If there is one lesson I would want to preach here it is that 'Interview' is well worth seeing again, over and over again. To celebrate its 5th birthday, it would be worth badgering your cinema to get it re-shown, as on the big screen it gallops across your soul in all its magnificence (though it must be said it is a film which works on a TV screen just as effectively if you set the scene right). If you haven't watched it for some time, dig it out, light some candles, get a goblet of something warm and red, and indulge your senses with another taste of this, the most exquisite morsel of cinematic darkness ever immortalised on celluloid. Let the sheer decadence of this uniquely beautiful film wash over you like silk, and revel in all the awesome majesty projected into your crypt by Messrs Cruise, Pitt and Banderas. Let the tragic, ecstatic, ferociously romantic saga transform your life into an epic tale of transcendent love and eternal longing. Every time you watch this film it is a truly mesmeric experience. Join the mystery, touch the magick. "Drink from me and live forever..."
see also on this site: Anne Rice Buffy & Ricean imagery
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