Richard LeMay finds originality in remaking Francis Ford Coppola’s infamous first film.
For his first studio film, Richard LeMay finds inspiration in reworking a not-so-classic from the Roger Corman school of filmmaking. The original Dementia 13 is a cobbled together quickie that succeeds on atmosphere and mood. Still, walking in the footsteps of Francis Ford Coppola is not to be taken lightly. Reworking Robocop or – gulp – Aladdin is sacred ground, but Dementia 13? There’s room for adaptation there, right? Us fanatics can give the LeMay a little trust that there is room for improvement, or at least a unique point of view to explore with a new take on the original concept. Lemay spoke with us over the phone to discuss the challenges of adaptation, capturing the perfect horror moment, and the modern mode of VOD distribution.
Dementia 13, the original film, is probably most famous for its production history and the partnership between Francis Ford Coppola and Roger Corman. It seems like an odd film to tackle, to remake.
That’s what everyone says.
Yeah. I bet. What was the inciting thought behind stepping into the frame of this movie anyway?Well, to be quite honest, I had never heard of the original until I was approached by Dan DeFilippo, one of the writers and producers. He called me in and I read the script that him and Justin Smith had written, and I thought it was just fast-paced and it kept me guessing. I was like, “Wow. I have to watch the original.” So I did and I was really impressed with that too. I mean, especially for a first film. It was pretty cool.
For me, personally, I’m a massive fan of Francis Ford Coppola. The guy’s a legend, obviously to everybody, but I’m a really big fan of his. To be mentioned in the same breath as him, I was like, “Yeah. I’ll do it.”
It’s got to be surreal –
Well, yeah, but also it’s a lot of pressure too because as a fan I also don’t want to … I know walking into it I’m never going to outdo Francis Ford Coppola so I think for me I thought my intention was I would be the one who would respect this material, the original material, as much as I could while still putting my stamp on it. I think, in my mind at least, my intention was never to reinvent Dementia 13. Let’s respect the original and try to make it a modernization of this.
Well, in a lot of ways, Dementia 13, the original, it’s not a perfect film. It’s a strange mood piece. In my mind, it lends itself really well to the remake.
Yeah. I think what the original does well is it creates this really dysfunctional family dynamic. I think, for me personally, that’s the most interesting part of it. Yeah. I think ultimately that’s what I focused on is creating the characters and these family members who are actually unlikeable. I think our challenge is to make them likable or at least to have some kind of humanity in them so that audiences wouldn’t hate them completely.
How do you do that? I’m always interested when somebody tells me, “I didn’t like that film. Those people were all jerks.” That can lose an audience pretty quickly.
Well, it’s little things. I think a lot of that is performance. Also, direction, but I think … I really challenged all my actors to find those moments. The character of Rose, for instance, when I read her on the page she was just cold. She was just a bitch from the word go. I said, “You have to find these moments where you’re a human being.” Because we’re all bitches at some time, but we all have compassion at other times. I mean, that’s human. The character Dale, he was just such a bumbling fool, but then he’s kind of the hero in the movie so I was like, “We have to paint him as someone who’s maybe flawed but trying.” I think it’s little choices like that, that can make someone human. They don’t have to be the nicest person, but just to show that they’re thinking about other things besides just being a jerk.
On the horror side of this story, was there an element or a set piece that you knew you had to nail to win over your audience?
Well, because I think the horror element is so much far removed from the original, I think there was a little pressure off of that. I think, in essence, you have to make sure … if you’re turning it into a horror movie you have to respect the horror fans, and I am a horror fan, so I know what I like. One of the things I’m very proud of in this particular movie is that me and my friends always mention when you watch horror movies the girl runs and trips and gets killed. These girls are running for their lives and there’s some great chase scenes in this, and I was really proud of that.
Also, you want to make sure there’s a certain level of gore. You hate to pander to people, but I think that’s one of the fun aspects of it and I think there is a level of gore where the movie isn’t about that. It’s kind of an addition to what the movie is and I think that’s what makes it a little bit more shocking when you see it.
You talk about the horror that you like. What are your inspirations? What movies or stories are you bringing with you into the filmmaking process?
Well, for this particular film or in general?
We could start with this particular film, but I’d be happy to hear in general as well.
Yeah. Well, in general, I love the movies from the ’60s and ’70s, like Rosemary’s Baby. You look at that movie and it reads like a period piece. It doesn’t read like a movie that was done back in ’67. It’s impeccable storytelling and it holds true through time and I think that’s a really good movie. The Believers, from the ’80s, with Martin Sheen, that’s a creepy cult tale with a little supernatural element. More recently, movies like The Witch, that to me was a standout. It Comes at Night, that one’s a really good, creepy atmospheric movie.
For this particular film, for Dementia 13, I was inspired by Burnt Offerings and The Others with Nicole Kidman. I think one of the things that movie did, The Others, was it really showed that house. It was all about that house and I really wanted to make sure that we treated the castle in Dementia 13 as if it was another character. We had to really shoot it as if it was another one of the characters. We had to honor that as well, so there’s a lot of beautiful photography of the castle.
What was your shooting time on this?
We shot this in 20 days. It’s double what they did for the original. I think the original was done in 10 days. Right?
Yeah. That’s nuts. So you’re still in the spirit of the Roger Corman aesthetic?
Yeah. I think that’s probably one of the reasons I got the job because I come from a background of low-budget filmmaking and you have to be able to think on your feet. I think I’m really proud of what we did as a team. My creative team was just amazing. I could make every movie with them. It was just so great. When you’re in the thick of it like that and you’ve got time restraints every single day, it becomes pretty harrowing. There’s a lot of pressure in that, but I think we all handled it well and we created some really beautiful photography.
What was your scariest moment in the process?
The scariest moment as in what was I afraid wasn’t going to work?
Yeah, or when did you know the movie was working for you, basically?
Well, it’s funny. I think I was working really well with … It’s my first film working with my DP, Paul Niccolls. It was an amazing experience because we started dissecting the script months in advance. When you have the time to really see things through and actually contribute to rewrites as a scene, Paul really thinks about storytelling and that’s something I really value. Walking into it, a lot of those shots were actually on paper. I sketch out storyboards and so a lot of these shots are lifted straight from the storyboards.
Walking into it, we knew we were getting some beautiful photography, but I think one moment, in particular, there’s a scene at the beginning in a rowboat and there’s a gun, there’s a fight, someone has to drown. There’s a whole lot going on and it was one of two company moves, so there we were on this lake and there’s a lot of logistical hiccups and I think that was my scariest moment because I think we had to go back and shoot that particular scene three times. We’re always missing something. We’re always running out of time so I was afraid that wasn’t going to work at all. I think we managed to pull it off, but that was scary right til the edit, to be honest.
You weren’t comfortable with what you had gotten until you were in the editing room?
Well, it’s one of those things where … I was comfortable with what I knew we had. It’s what I didn’t know we didn’t have. There’s always something. In every single film you’re editing, you’re like, “Oh, geez. We didn’t get that shot.” I was afraid there was something missing, and there was actually. We managed to work around that. In the end, that was probably the scariest logistical part of the shoot, but I think it ended up working out.
Have you had a chance to watch it with an audience yet?
No. I haven’t. I’m going to go to this open night and I’m excited.
That’s got to be a really nerve-wracking experience.
Well, it’s funny. It can be, but I can honestly say I think all of us did the best we could. I know I did. I think when you walk into a project like that, I don’t know what else I could have done. If people like it that would be great, but I don’t know what I could say at this point if they don’t.
But I’ll say this. Go ahead.
Well, if it hits VOD on the 9th –
On the 10th and it opens in theaters in New York and L.A. on the 6th of October.
How are you feeling about the distribution model?
Well, pretty cool. This is my first studio film so it was all mapped out before I came into the picture. In some regard, it’s kind of nice because I don’t have to think. They’ve been very, very nice to me in regards to letting me have a lot of say into these meetings and marketing calls and whatnot, which we’ve been having every single week. That’s a first for me. I think they’ve been really receptive to the things that I’ve said. I can’t really complain. When you watch something that’s already mapped out unfold in a way because I have to struggle to get my distribution. I’ve sold my last four films and that’s an undertaking, to do it, and get it done worldwide. My last film, Naked As We Came, actually got a theatrical release, and that’s a struggle. You feel like you need cocktails and a week of sleeping after that. To have it all mapped out, it was much more enjoyable I think.
Well, you have a really striking trailer.
I think with the title of Dementia 13, you already have the curiosity of a lot of fans out there, so that should help you stick out amongst all the other films on the market right now. At least their curiosity.
I think so. Is there-
I also know we’re going to get lambasted too. People love the original.
That’s the nature of it, for sure.
Yeah. I think everyone on this project went into it with the utmost of respect for Francis Ford Coppola and what he did originally. I don’t think that’s always the case in a remake. I think sometimes people think, “I can do this better.” I think this is an homage to a legend who made his first movie. For fans, I think that’s something to keep in mind because we really are all fans of Francis Ford Coppola.
Dementia 13 opens in theaters on October 6th and will be available on VOD on October 10th.