27/02/2007

30 DAYS OF NIGHT, 70 MILLION KIWI

Over the next few weeks I'll post some stories I've written over the last few months for S&M magazine. No, it's not some kinky sex mag where amateur bondage enthusiasts send in their pictures and stories! S&M stands for Smoke and Mirrors - it's an Australian film magazine that's devoted to covering the visual effects industry in Australasia and is edited by Rodney Appleyard. It's a great mag and read widely.

But it doesn't get much news stand coverage here, hence the republishing here on the web. THis first story is based on a fascinating visit to the set of the horror movie 30 Days of Night in December and an interview with horror movie producer Robert Tapert, who is married to Lucy Lawless...

WHEN NIGHT SETS IN

Sunny Auckland stands in for snowbound Alaska when Peter Griffin visits the set of the latest epic horror film to be shot down under – 30 Days of Night.

The residents of West Auckland’s Henderson Valley got used to seeing a strange glow in the night sky towards the end of last year.

As they retired to bed, a film crew working on the sprawling site of the Henderson Valley Film Studios would get to work recreating the Alaskan town of Barrow. Bathed in the light of great floodlights and with brilliant white fake snow under foot, they captured the oppressive atmosphere that is central to 30 Days of Night, a film adaptation based on the horror comics of Steven Niles and Australian artist Ben Templesmith.

The premise of the film is simple – the sun sets on Barrow one winter’s night and doesn’t rise again for 30 days. The disorientated townspeople also have to deal with a horde of murderous vampire visitors.

The four slaughtered huskies that greet you when you enter the main soundstage are the creations of Weta Workshop’s creatures department and hint at what’s in store for moviegoers. The prosthetics department seems to specialise in nasty head wounds and bulging eye balls.

30 Days of Night is a bloody vampire movie that takes place in the dark away from the bright lights of civilisation.

It’s familiar territory for seasoned horror film maker Robert Tapert, who has produced Sam Raimi classics such as The Evil Dead and Darkman as well as The Grudge and last year’s surprise hit Boogeyman.

But likely to attract an R rating, 30 Days of Night is darker and more violent than the recent releases of Tapert and Raimi’s production company Ghost House Pictures.

“We’ve done more spooky PG13 stuff,” Tapert admits.

“This has been more affected by the changes in horror.”

The key change has been a swerve towards realism, epitomised by the likes of Wolf Creek and Hostel. That means less in the way of fantastic effects, more gore and the dropping of those tried and tested horror clich├ęs.

Tapert said he was impressed by the graphic novel the film is based on when he came across it a few years ago. But it took extensive development to flesh out a decent script.

“There wasn’t enough material. It was a very stylised graphic novel. We weren’t interested in telling a vampire story,” he said.

30 Days of Night became a love story populated by vampires. The script was in good shape when Tapert went out to casting and found his lead, 28 year old Josh Hartnett (Black Hawk Down, Sin City, The Black Dahlia).

“Josh has had the benefit of working many years of his short life as an actor,” says Tapert, who along with director David Slade (Hard Candy) had to work hard to woo Hartnett.

“Josh is basically in every frame of the movie.”

As a $70 million production, 30 Days of Night goes down as the most expensive horror made in New Zealand and far outstrips the budget of gory blockbusters such as Saw III (US$136 million and counting), which Tapert describes as “popcorn horror”.

“I understand why it works. I respect that the guys who made it know how to make it work,” he says.

Tapert believes the renaissance that was sparked off with successful Japanese horror remakes such as The Ring and The Grudge has come to an end.

“If there’s any lesson, it’s that creepy horror is dead,” he says.

“I think the heyday of the horror film, of over 40 a year is over.”

He says horror films now have to stand alone as more than genre pieces.

“I see myself as a baker. You always need the core ingredients. You’ve still got to come back to story telling that moves the audience.”

Drama and characterisation are the ingredients, he adds, though he’s a fan of the “rollercoaster ride” Dawn of the Dead remake.

Tapert says he never seriously considered shooting the film in Alaska.

“I’ve shot in the cold. There’s nothing more debilitating than when you’re freezing.”

A good deal of external scenes were filmed outside of Queenstown in the South Island where the weather was almost too good – plenty of snow on the ground but little snowfall.

Creating an idealised version of Alaska in the studio also had its challenges. The fake snow managed to get caught behind the contact lenses that give the actors their crazed vampire look, leaving people with sore eyes.

“Every day is an absolute fight to get the material we want,” says Tapert, who spoke to S&M on set as the key cast of 30 Days of Night completed another long day of filming in a cramped attic – the last bastion of Barrow’s residents.

Tapert said there would be a good deal of compositing done for the film, but relatively little use of the blue screen,

“There’ll be a tremendous amount of visual effects, but you won’t see any of it,” he said.

The bulk of effects, which are being handled by Film Effects and Weta Digital, were for more subtle things such as adding breath, falling snow and reshading scenes, says Tapert.

New Zealand actor Manu Bennett (Lantana, The Condemned) plays the key role of Billy Kitka in 30 Days of Night and says the film focuses on how the characters’ reconcile their desire to save their own lives with the need to help others.

“All the characters in the film have to go to this dark place. We totally drift apart,” he says. He was instantly drawn to the material when offered to read for the part.

“I read the script then went down to the comic store and bought the graphic novel. I thought it would be an amazing film if we didn’t destroy it.”

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