Set Visit: Cirque du Freak
When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city of New Orleans, it left parts of it a barren wasteland, deserted of the people and businesses that once made it thrive. That includes film productions. Before Katrina, people referred to NOLA as Hollywood South, with movies like MILLERS CROSSING, JFK, and RAY having been shot there. After the hurricane, the city and its economy were in shambles, which meant Hollywood stayed away. Thats why when I got the call to head out to the Bayou to visit the set of a major Hollywood production, it was an encouraging sign that things were almost back to normal. Okay, enough with the sentimental history lesson, and on with the show.
The movie is called CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRES ASSISTANT, and before heading to New Orleans, I knew it as the movie with Salma Hayek as a bearded lady. Upon first getting this assignment, obviously my first thought was will Salma be on set? My second thought was, will a room at the Ritz-Carlton be enough to seduce her? Sadly, the second question was never answered, because the answer to the first one was no. But yes, the studio was generous enough to put us in the Ritz, with a per diem so hefty it meant unnecessary fried shrimp po boys being ordered to my hotel room at 3am. I might have not woken up next to Salma Hayek, but waking up next to a half-eaten, stale shrimp sandwich is better than most of swamp donkeys Im used to, so no complaints here.
Lets talk about the movie itself for a second. Its based on a popular series of books called THE DARREN SHAN SAGA, and is directed by Paul Weitz (whose brother Chris is actually directing the TWILIGHT sequel NEW MOON) and was written by Brian Helgeland (MYSTIC RIVER, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL). The film centers on an ordinary kid who stumbles upon a traveling freak show, where he meets a vampire named Larten Crepsley (played by John C. Reilly) who slowly transforms him into a member of the living dead, after he (creepily) fakes his own death. What Darren, doesnt know, is that he accidentally breaks an ancient truce between the vampires, and their evil counterparts the Vampaneze. From there, a complete shit show ensues. The film is being released at a very convenient moment, when vampires are part of the cultural zeitgeist in a way that havent been in a long time. TWILIGHT and TRUE BLOOD have made vampires more popular than Scarlett Johanssons cleavage, and this movie will either benefit from that (which I think it will) or suffer from the effects of overkill. The studio seems to agree with me, since they bumped the release date up to October from next year, in order to take advantage of the publics bloodthirst for all things fangy.
We left for the set bright and early in the morning, hangovers be damned, and traveled on a bus to the studio, which was located about thirty minutes outside the city. On the way we drove through the ninth ward, which was hit hardest by Katrina. Boarded up buildings and dilapidated churches were proof that areas of the city were far from fully recovered. When we got the location, we were ushered in and introduced to executive producer Andrew Miano, who was a very welcoming nice dude, and obviously very psyched about the movie. They were nearing the end of 75-day shoot and you could feel his excitement.
Production designer William Arnold met with us, and based on what he saw next, Arnolds role in the films creation is a pivotal one. Thats because he showed us a massively intricate practical set, which was clearly going act as one of the movies central locations. Right away I was struck by the sheer inventiveness of it all. Ive been on a few movies sets in my day, but Ive never seen anything quite like this. What we saw was the base camp for the traveling side show. It is scattered with the various homes of the traveling freaks, and each home corresponds with its freaks characteristics, in both conception and design. So for instance the Snake Boy (played by Patrick Fugit) lives in a scaly, reptilian abode (which is where we ended up interviewing John C. Reilly a little later on). Other homes we saw included the tent belonging to Mr. Tall, the freakishly tall circus ringleader played by Ken Watanabe and the cage belong to Alexander Ribs, played by Orlando Jones. The whole thing had the surreal feeling of being inside a living cartoon, with its bright colors and off-kilter design. Even though we were indoors, it was set up to look like an outdoor area, with trees surrounding the area, and lanterns strung about.
Later, we sat down for lunch with director Paul Weitz, who managed to shed some light on the production in a way only a director can. Some highlights:
On casting John C. Reilly as a vampire: "I just had a gut feeling that he would be interesting. I knew that in person he was a thoughtful guy, and probably occasionally brooding. Johns done different kind of parts and this is different from what hes done before. But I felt meeting him, that there was a lot of him that I could use, and hes an articulate person, and I wanted the character to be articulate."
On the specific vampire rules" in the film: "The rules are vampires can be killed, not just by a stake in the heart, but they can get stabbed or run over or whatever. Theyre much tougher than normal people. In the books, and in this, they dont live forever, but they do age ten times as slowly as a normal person. So a 40- year-old-vampire, if they were made into a vampire at age 20, they would be two hundred years old, which is Johns character essentially."
On casting a newcomer as Darren: "It was kind of scary because I only care about casting whoevers best it, it doesnt matter to me if theyre known or unknown. In terms of Darren, Chris came in, and I was really excited. It always feels like going down to the wire with casting kids, same with ABOUT A BOY and AMERICAN PIE. Its always this leap of faith that somebody is going to come in that youre going to get really excited about. So dont make the decision too early and dont cast the biggest child star. He just did his audition and I kept him in there for like three hours. He didnt push and he didnt over act, which is the main thing for me with young actors. I always figure I can push them into a bad performance, but its really hard to pull them back from one. Hes really come through for me, hes been really great."
On Willem Defoes surprise appearance: "I feel really lucky to have him in this, or anything. He was nice enough to play Dick Cheney in AMERICAN DREAMZ, and we had a really fun time. So I sent this to him and I kind of twisted his arm, and he thought it would be fun. I still sort of pinch myself and feel very lucky that I get to work with him, because he kicks ass on every take."
On Salma Hayek being hot even with a beard: "The only person who didnt think it was hot was my 16 month old son, who started freaking out and screaming when he saw the beard growing. Other than that, everyones been really into the beard."
Its always cool to be on set and watch a scene being shot from behind the directors chair. On the one hand, it demystifies movie magic, seeing actors perform a scene over and over again, but on the other hand, its a fascinating look inside the magic of movie making, and how something that might seem rather mundane and monotonous in person, can actually be completely engrossing on the big screen. What was so great about the scene we witnessed, was that it featured a surprise appearance from none other than Willem Defoe, who none of us knew was going to be in the film. Defoe plays Gavner Purl, a vampire and ally to John C. Reilly characters. This is the third time Defoe is playing a vampire (he played one in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE and DAYBREAKERS) and with that mug, its not surprising. We couldnt really hear what was being discussed between the two characters, but the matter seemed urgent and it looked like a key conversation in the film.
After leaving the set, I was given a clear view of what this film was going to be like. But when the trailer came out recently, it looks even darker than I imagined, which of course is a great thing. Stay tuned into a JoBlo.com for more Cirque du Freak coverage, including an interview with Crepsley himself, John C. Reilly.
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