SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE: An Interview with Steven Katz
March 11th, 2004
SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE: An Interview with Steven Katz
Interview by Christopher Wehner
What was the impetus for you to become a writer?
I always liked writing and reading. I really grew to love theater when I was in high school, and in college, although I always had this incredible interest in film. I acted and wrote plays during this time. I went to graduate school and after that I really started to write in earnest and did a lot of theater jobs to get by. I founded a little theater company and produced some plays off-Broadway. I think the real turning point was seeing THE GODFATHER. There’s something about that movie and it’s direction. It was a story captured in such a beautiful and simple way. I think a lot of people in my generation felt that same way. It really made me want to be a director. But as time went by and I started working with actors, I realized I didn’t want to direct; I just wanted to write and then sit back and let someone else actually do the dirty work.
Do you still write plays today?
I’ve got one play that I want to write, and if I get some free time I’m hoping to get back to it. Strangely, I guess, it’s a play about Hollywood.
I’ve heard actors say that they have to revisit the theater as a way to reconnect to their roots, is it the same for a playwright turned screenwriter, such as yourself?
Well, it’s interesting, because lately I’ve been writing a documentary and it's really been exercising muscles that haven’t been used in a long time. It’s mostly writing prose, as I’m writing a lot of narration. It’s a little bit shocking how hard it’s been. So yeah, it’s been something I’ve been thinking about as I don’t want those muscles to atrophy.
Stage-turned-screen actors, Al Pacino for one, speak of going back to the stage to exercise those certain unique acting muscles. Can you explain what you mean in terms of a writer?
One of the biggest differences between playwriting and screenwriting is how you build a scene. In playwriting, you can do it much more leisurely. You can do a lot more complex things than you can in film writing, which has to be much briefer and right to the point. I miss that. It's the ability to write a complex, tricky, and twisty theater-type scene. Those are the things I love. I’ve tried to stick them in screenplays, but they always seem to get cut out. So I don’t want to lose that ability, and also it’s fun.
I’ve noticed that screenwriters who have a background in playwriting (Alan Ball for example) seem to write better characters in their screenplays than writers without that background.
I think they consider character more. A lot of screenwriters, especially people working in the genres (horror, action, thriller), give their characters 2 or 3 traits and then they move on. I’m not saying they’re bad screenwriters because of this. But they fail to develop characters properly. Take someone like David Koepp (THE PANIC ROOM). Most of his character work lately resembles a balloon. What ends up filling the balloon is the movie stars, who bring so much extra-baggage. Right away it’s a Will Smith part or a Harrison Ford part, whatever. Playwrights don’t traditionally think that way because they don’t know who is going to play what part. And besides, it’s going to be recast a million times over the history of the play. Playwrights can’t just make it a balloon, they have to create a whole architecture that’s going to survive the insertion of any number of actors. So that’s why I think playwrights are better at character.
What got you into writing films?
Well, I always loved film. Though I went into theater first it was a positive detour. I’m glad I did it and my life as a writer is richer because of it. But I think I was always meant to go into film. I was a silent movie buff when I was a child. And at a certain point in my life, I was always coming up with ideas that would make better films than plays. So I started writing screenplays.
My first screenplay was SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, which I wrote in 1987 or 1988. It helped me get an agent in Hollywood, and that was encouragement enough to keep writing. It was my fourth screenplay, MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, that would be the first one I sold. From there I just started getting a lot more jobs, and I’ve always tried to write at least one spec script a year. Because in general, I feel my ideas are better than anything I get from a studio.
Tell me about your experience with INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. You wrote an unused draft.
My MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS screenplay at that time was opening some doors for me, and it was brought to the attention of the people producing INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE. They asked to see some of my other writing, and they read SHADOW. Soon after they approached me about writing a draft, and I was thrilled to do it.
The project was with the Geffen company (before they folded into Dreamworks) and Geffen had first hired Michael Cristofer to do a draft. Michael wrote WITCHES OF EASTWICK and did a really interesting job with it. Geffen owned the first three Anne Rice Vampire books, and poor Michael was given the task of trying to combine the three. From a screenwriting nuts and bolts position, he did a really amazing job. But the movie would have cost an enormous amount of money and would been too long.
They then brought in Anne Rice who ended up combining the first two novels. Anne is a wonderful historical writer, but her dialogue was dreadful, and the script suffered because of that. But they still ended up sending out her draft. Ridley Scott was interested, but said he wanted a better script. He requested that they focus on the interview, and inject more humor. So they came to me and said, "do those things." And on top of that, "do them in five weeks." They didn’t have a director attached and the option was running out. So I churned out the script really fast, and right when I turned it in THE CRYING GAME came out. Geffen really liked that movie, so they approached the director Neil Jordan who he said he would direct. But he wanted to write his own script. So my poor script disappeared at that point. He ended up going to Anne Rice’s draft and just pairing it down, so she received sole credit.
So you had written SHADOW very early on, and before it sold did you go back to it and do any rewriting?
I went back to it once after I had written several more scripts, worked for people who paid me to write, and at which point I had learned a lot. So I went back, reread it, and saw all the incredible first year screenwriter mistakes. I had pages and pages of just pointless junk like describing what the sets looked like, and I cut all that out. My agent was still sending it around. But Hollywood is very weird about Vampire movies. I have this theory that Hollywood is incapable of making a truly great Vampire movie. They always seem to produce really awful ones. I thought INTERVIEW turned out okay, but I don’t think it was as good as it could have been. Bram Stoker’s DRACULA didn’t work for me, though it was promising. I really liked the job Gary Oldman did as Dracula.
You were interested in silent films as a child and this lead to your attraction with NOSFERATU.
Yeah, there’s something very realistic about that movie (NOSFERATU). It was all shot on location, which was extremely rare in the silent era when almost all films were shot on sets. This gave it a weird documentary quality. But most importantly, the individual who played the Vampire was a guy named Max Schreck; which is the German word for fright. It just seemed too unbelievable, and I couldn’t find any other movies that he was in. I did a lot of research on the period and on the director Murnau, whose last film was a documentary called TABU (1931). So I just put all those things together and wrote the story.
So was Max Schreck someone who really believed he was a Vampire, or was he just an exceptional and strange method actor?
I think Schreck just did an amazing job, and he was a strikingly weird looking Vampire character for that time (1920s) when Vampires were seen as more of a romantic figure. So for him to appear as this rat-faced demon added to his character's effectiveness, and realism. Now he’s kind of a cult figure.
Willem Dafoe at Telluride last year said that you had him in mind when you wrote the part. It must have been surreal to have that come true.
It’s an incredible thing being a screenwriter. You write a screenplay on spec, and then one day they make your movie and you get to walk onto the set. It’s about as close in this life as you can get to realizing your dreams. Starting out you’re sitting there in that little room typing away, and I was in a really shitty room when I wrote that screenplay, and then one day I’m on the set and everyone is dressed up in character and there it is; everything I’ve dreamed about and imagined. Dafoe was just incredible. I would see him at the Performing Garage, this was before he became a movie star, and I just kept thinking he would be great as Schreck. His career eventually took off, and later when SHADOW was set up the producers asked me if I had any casting suggestions. I said just one, "you need to ask Dafoe to be the Vampire." And they did.
Tell me about your experiences with the production of SHADOW?
Well it was also a difficult experience in a lot of ways. It was a low budget movie. The whole thing was done for six or seven million dollars. The director, Elias Merhige, came out of doing experimental films and MTV stuff. And he has a very different approach to filmmaking than what I was used to. Elias didn’t really know a lot about Vampire movies, or genre movies. He hadn’t seen a lot of movies period, which was really shocking; though he’s seen a lot of art films. We used to fight like hell when I’d say it was a Vampire movie, and he’d say, "No it’s not." So when they starting shooting it he and producer Nic Cage, with a lot of influence from John Malkovich who plays Murnau, shifted the thrust of the movie. I had originally wanted it to be just a really great Vampire flick, the way THE GODFATHER was a true and great gangster movie. But they stripped away a lot of the layers of Horror I had and made it sort of an art film about the nature of creativity, and the relationship between the director and his film; which I had in the script, but as subtext only. So they made that more the focus of the story. Which I think is a good lesson for all aspiring screenwriters. If you write in a very literary way with layers of meaning and subtext, you can be sure that somebody is going to take pieces away during the development process. I’ve learned not to write like that anymore, and avoid setting myself up for disappointment.
Tell me about the rewriting process, were you involved?
They asked me to do some rewriting that I wouldn’t do. Malkovich did rewrite a monologue in the movie, and the ending is different than what I had written. And there was another character, another Vampire women who they cut out all together. (See end of interview for examples from Katz's original script with his comments.) I think they wanted to streamline it and to bring the focus on the director and his film. As I said, they got rid of a lot of the subtext. But such is the life of a screenwriter -- your favorite scenes are often the ones they take out. It's important for aspiring screenwriters to understand that if the scene is not absolutely essential to the telling of the story, they’ll cut it. So I was on the set for a few days to talk about the rewrites, and then again to just watch.
The funny thing about being on set, and I know the WGA fought really hard for this. But, it’s a little bit like watching that cable television show "The Operation," where they actually show various kinds of real medical procedures. It’s a very disturbing show to watch, emotionally painful, and I felt that way a little while I was on the set. It was also extremely boring as they do a lot of waiting around between shots. That’s not to say I don’t think having writers on the set is a good thing, but only if you use them. They have people there for hair and makeup, so why not for the words, as director Louis Malle (PRETTY BABY) said. And he always had the writer on the set.
Nic Cage was a big fan of NOSFERATU, and he had actually considered playing Max Schreck.
Yeah, Cage was inspired by Max Schreck to become an actor, and he considered playing Schreck and then Murnau. For a brief moment there was even talk of him playing both parts (laughs), which would have been kind of funky. But in the end, he decided to produce it.
Well congratulations on a wonderful script, and we at SU wish you the best in your future endeavors.
Script Sampling - SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, By Steven Katz
Steven Katz Note: Mostly for budgetary reasons, all scenes inside the train from Germany to Czechoslovakia were cut and the information discussed there was moved elsewhere. Here's the monologue, written by Malkovich, that was laid in over exterior shots of the train:
MONTAGE of the train as it races into the dense forests of Eastern Europe. At the same time, we hear: MURNAU (V.O.) Our battle, our struggle, is to create art. Our weapon is the moving picture. Because we have the moving picture, our paintings will grow and recede, our poetry will be shadows that lengthen and conceal, our light will play across living faces that laugh and agonize, and our music will linger and finally overwhelm because it will have a context... as certain as the grave. We are scientists engaged in the creation of memory. But our memory will neither blur nor fade. END MONTAGE
Steven Katz Note: And here's one of the original scenes from inside the train that corresponds thematically to Malkovich's monologue. As you can see, my interest was primarily in the immediacy and truth of film; John's was in its historical longevity:
EXT. TRAIN -- SUNSET The sun sets behind the train as it races into the dense forests of Eastern Europe. INT. TRAIN CORRIDOR -- NIGHT Later. The corridor is packed with sleeping peasants. INT. CREW COMPARTMENT -- NIGHT Everyone is nodding off except for GRAU who casts, on the steamer trunk, tarot cards: the fool, death, the ten of swords. Suddenly the door opens. Enter MURNAU. MURNAU I see we're knee-deep in peasants. MULLER When did you wake up? MURNAU (sitting) The Czech guard woke me at the border. What have you been doing? MULLER Actually we've been talking about you. GALEEN Your previously shot footage, your heretofore unannounced additions to the acting company... GRAU As the producer of this film, Herr Doctor, I feel I have a respon-sibility to ask if there's anything else you've neglected to tell us. MURNAU Why? What do the cards say? GRAU Someone close to us will be going on a long journey. Now answer my question. MURNAU leans forward conspiratorially. MURNAU Look, I confess: there are things I haven't told you about this production. But they'll all be revealed in the course of time. MULLER But how do you expect us to do our jobs when we're kept in the dark? MURNAU looks at them, turns his intense focus on his crew--especially GRAU. They hang on his every word. MURNAU Exactly. Let me explain something to you. I intend ours to be the most realistic movie ever made. And what is realism? The unexpected. That's why I took all of you out of the studio and thrust you into the world. So that you'll be forced to react spontaneously to whatever you encounter there. And because of it, Nosferatu will not be just another filmed stage play. It will be a truthful record of reality. And that is what will make it great. GALEEN But this is a fiction. A movie about a vampire. How can you talk about realism when the subject is so far removed from reality? MURNAU My sense of style is realism. But my sense of art is moral. I want to explore evil with the eye of a scientist.
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