It’s September of last year and I’m standing in a hallway at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico, cursing at the door to my room. It’s one of those ubiquitous card key locks, and I’m in no mood for a third trek down the long hall, down the glass elevator, and back to the front desk to admit once again that I’m apparently an idiot who can’t open a door.
It’s a brilliant start to my Fright Night press visit that I’m only a part of due to a scheduling conflict elsewhere on the FSR team, and when combined with my already cynical view of the whole set visit concept it hardly bodes well for the next few days. I just don’t see the appeal of it all for anyone aside from the studio and the writer. The studio gets some relatively cheap marketing, the writer gets a free trip, free hotel, and a chance to hobnob with the talent, and the readers get… what? Interview quotes that will be repeated on a dozen different web sites? A puff piece about how awesome the final movie is going to be? Clearly, I’m the wrong person for this particular assignment.
At least, that’s what I’m thinking as I stand there struggling with the door lock. Just a few hours later though, surrounded by good, fun, knowledgeable people (and with a little alcohol in my belly), I find my cynicism slowly draining away like blood from a vampire victim’s veins. By the time the trip is over I will have experienced my first live set, had the pleasure of witnessing the actual art of filmmaking, managed a quick compliment to an easy on the eyes and ears actress out on a smoke break, shaken hands with Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, walked a dangerous stretch of highway in a godforsaken desert, and maybe even masturbated in a big, fancy shower.
Let’s cut to the chase. I had a fantastic time on my inaugural set visit, and I can see why journalists make a habit of these excursions. But while this is me talking about Fright Night (marketing!) and gushing about the experience (I’m so lucky!), I’d like to do my best by you the readers as well and not simply regurgitate quotes from interviews. That will come later in the week… but until then, consider this a first timer’s look at the experience with a focus on the two biggest highlights that will hopefully entertain and/or enlighten. If you’re lucky it may even titillate.
Fright Night is a remake of the 1985 horror comedy about a teenager named Charley Brewster and the vampire who moves in next door. Jerry, the bloodsucker, makes life miserable for Charley, his friend Ed, his girlfriend Amy, and an over the hill horror icon named Peter Vincent. The new film see these characters played by Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Christopher Mintz Plasse, Imogen Poots, and David Tennant. The core elements have stayed roughly the same for the new film, but quite a bit more has been changed, modified, updated, and tweaked for a new generation.
And that’s nowhere more evident than in the banner hanging in the hotel’s lobby celebrating Peter Vincent’s Las Vegas magic show. This is my first time seeing David Tennant in character, and it’s pretty damn glorious… especially on a three-story tall banner. This is also where I make the very real connection that the film is shooting in a live, working hotel. Visitors in and out of the lobby have been seeing this banner with little to no context as to what it’s for, and that mingling of the real and the unreal continues into the next day when we get to witness a scene being filmed in one of the hotel’s bars.
They’re filming a club scene where Charley and Amy are on the run from Jerry, and the camera tracks the vampire’s determined prowl through the crowd. Chris Sarandon made Jerry threatening in the original thanks in large part to his frightening sweater collection, but the remake forgoes the wardrobe terrors in favor of real menace and attitude in Farrell’s performance. We first get to watch the filming on a monitor outside of the club, and it’s a tantalizing glimpse into an art-form I’ve appreciated for decades.
But it’s nothing compared to the high I feel as a few of us are escorted into the bar itself.
It’s a crowd scene consisting of dozens of extras dancing, chatting, and otherwise acting like they’re clubbing the night away. We’re seated just outside the camera’s line of sight where we can see most of the action before us and the remainder on another bank of monitors. Farrell is supposed to drop into frame from above then work his way through the dancers like a lion stalking its prey through tall blades of African grass. The vampiric twist here comes when we realize the ceiling is one giant mirror. A single shot is conceived to show Jerry pushing his way through the crowd before the camera tilts up to the mirror above reflecting the dancers parting for… nothing.
They practice the shot a few times and shoot multiple takes as well. Each time sees Farrell hoisted just above the camera’s view, his legs lifted out of frame, before dropping down (onto an unseen mat) and skulking forward. Action is called, extras come to life, the scene plays out, and director Craig Gillespie calls cut. This pattern repeats itself several times with slight adjustments between takes to improve crowd movement, camera angles, and the timing of Jerry’s disappearance from view. Even the extras dancing and talking almost close enough for us to touch get subtle (and not-so subtle) directions and corrections to make them seem more natural. The urge to sneak into the crowd and mingle among them is strong, but my khaki shorts and baseball tee would most assuredly give me away amidst these well-dressed extras.
We’re escorted out too soon so the next group can share in the experience, but I take in as much of the atmosphere as I can before exiting. The music, lights, and smoke, the look on Farrell’s face as he repeats the action again and again, the numerous crew members working diligently during takes and scrambling between them to reset it all, the attractive extras in short dresses… I don’t know when I’ll get this chance again, and I’m already addicted to the sensation. It’s a surreal feeling knowing that there’s most likely a shot in the final film featuring club-goers cavorting by a pillar… that I’m seated directly behind. (So there’s already at least one guaranteed Blu-ray purchase. Damn you Disney!)
The second highlight for me comes the following day as we head out to a distant parking lot and are invited into a large, white trailer. We all file in and the room is immediately filled with almost a dozen instantaneous smiles. Legendary makeup/effects wizard Howard Berger (everything from Night Of the Creeps to Splice) sits before us and the walls are lined with body parts, appliances, and heads. As a lifelong horror fan this is a blood spattered nirvana. Berger shares his love for the original film, how much of a joy it is having Farrell in the makeup chair, and his enthusiasm for copious amounts of the red stuff. (The specifics of our interview will be posted tomorrow.)
My jaw is hanging in glee-filled awe of the rubbery, silicone treasures around me, and I’m transported back to my youth and the hours spent poring over the pages of “Fangoria,” “Cinefantastique,” and “Gorezone.” But my mouth isn’t quite as wide open as that of the creature’s head directly behind me. Fans of the original film will remember the scene where a sultry, long-haired Amy turns to Charley with her unnaturally huge, teeth-lined mouth open wide to take a bite. Berger’s design takes the effect even further and explains how it will be complimented by a digitally enhanced row of teeth going all the way down her throat. He makes it sound like vampires meet Shark Week.
The end of the set visit comes too soon (unlike the end of this post), and the next morning we’re off to the airport and our respective homes. And now eleven months later, with the film set to hit screens in less than three weeks, I get to relive the memories again. If you’ve read this far then thank you… I hope you weren’t too bored by my ramblings. My hope is even a tiny bit of my elation and bliss made it through.
The vast majority of film lovers will never get the chance to set foot on a live film set. For better or worse they’ll never get to experience the hectic and frenzied blur of activity, the dull and empty downtime, and the star sightings that can sometimes move quickly from exciting to mundane. But they’re also missing out on the pure joy of being there as cast and crew work together to create magic. And it most assuredly is a kind of magic irregardless of the end result. The wonder and awe of it all happening before your eyes feels like a visit behind the scenes of Santa Claus’ workshop.
Perhaps I’m speaking from a place of naivete because for many film journalists this is all part of their everyday norm. But for me, as someone who’s loved movies since before I learned how to open doors without assistance, this was an unforgettable and humbling experience. I still don’t know if set visit reports are worthwhile for anyone but the writer and the studio, but the opportunity to feel the giddy curiosity of childhood once again is an opportunity worth taking. Always. And if nothing else, I can now say I’ve masturbated in Albuquerque.
Check back this week for more Fright Night coverage including interview highlights with Craig Gillespie, Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Marti Noxon, and more.
Thanks to the folks at Disney for inviting me along, but I’m even more grateful to the other writers who welcomed me into the group and made the experience that much better. So thank you to Jake Dee, Alex Dorn, Chris Eggertsen, Russ Fischer, Don Kaye, Joe McCabe, Melissa Molina, Ryan Turek, Rob Vaux, and Steve Weintraub. Drinks are on me the next time…