E. Elias Merhige’s Power of Unflinching Belief

E. Elias Merhige

E. Elias Merhige on the set of Shadow of the Vampire.

Though his latest film, Shadow of the Vampire,
deals with the undead, director E. Elias Merhige depends on the living
for much of his success. In an interview with MovieMaker, Merhige
discusses working with the Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe, the difficulties
they encountered with costuming and how his parents are adapting to
his newfound fame.

Paula
Schwartz (MM):
Shadow of the Vampire is a rather confusing
film to describe, as it readily mixes truth with fiction. What do
you say the film is about?

Elias Merhige (EM): It’s a
film about the beginnings of cinema and the mad science of it all.
It’s about the art-making process itself and the motion picture
camera as vampire. The actor murders himself to become this fictional
character.

MM: The film is produced by Nicolas Cage,
an actor who is often accused of “going Hollywood” with his acting
choices. Isn’t it strange, then, that he would choose this
film as his first producing venture?

EM:When you know Nic, it’s not weird at
all. He has a great passion for early German Expressionist cinema.
He’s a very thoughtful, intelligent, passionate guy. This is
a way for him to flex his less conventional muscles. He really was,
for me and my mom and dad, a great patron because he really worked
to protect me and allow me to make the film that I had in my head.
He’s very proud of the film and excited about it. He believes
in the film completely.

MM: Shadow was originally slated to be released
in September of 2000. Why was there such a delay in its releasing?

EM: [It] was so well received in Cannes
that Lions Gate decided to release it later for better placement
for Oscar consideration.

MM: Speaking of which, did you call Willem
when his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was announced?

EM: He called me on Tuesday morning. He was
so much of a kid–he was so happy. He said some great things
that I’ve heard him say before about how he was so proud of
me and the film. I couldn’t be prouder for Willem. In my opinion
it’s something that was a long time coming. He’s just
such a fine actor and he deserves the recognition.

MM: When casting the role of Max
Schreck, was Willem Dafoe someone you initially thought of?

EM: Willem was my first choice for the role
of Max Schreck. He is one of those actors who’s able to leap
into this dark abyss most actors are afraid to leap into.

MM: How did he handle all the makeup and
costuming?

EM: Once Willem was in makeup, with the corset
and fangs, a dilemma came up as to how he was going to the bathroom.
The nails were the real clincher. He would be in costume for 12
hours. I didn’t realize we had to budget that into the system.
How to get his food, how to cut it up properly.

MM: And the bathroom part?

EM: Let’s just say there was
an assistant present [laughs]. That is the ultimate
movie star, which is the irony of it. Willem acts with humility
on and off the set. It was strange and funny.

MM: Were there any other unexpected and
memorable incidents while shooting?

EM: It had been raining quite a bit, and we
were in this eleventh century castle in the courtyard. The ground
was very muddy and watery and I wanted a lot of cut grass to absorb
the water, so it wouldn’t splash on the actors’ costumes.
They got this local Luxembourg farmer, and they ended up getting
this tractor. This stuff I thought was cut grass was laid down on
the ground, with four guys from the town helping. I’m standing
there and rehearsing and setting up the camera and not even thinking
about the grass. And then I realize a strange odor coming from the
ground, like vapors. Steam was coming from the ground. There had
been some horrible translation or miscommunication between the assistant
to my art director and these people who spoke Luxembourgian. This
was the first scene where we needed Schreck. The ground that we
were shooting on was horse manure. It added another level of method
acting, more like method filmmaking. We ignored that smell. It added
yet another obstacle of reality to overcome to turn into art.

MM: You’ve talked about your parents
being a great support to you. They’ve traveled to Cannes, Toronto
and the Hamptons film festivals. What do they think of your sudden
success?

EM:Cannes was the first time they had seen
the movie and they had no idea what to expect. After they saw the
film, it was the first time they forgot I had anything to do with
it. They were just so surprised and excited. They are people who
have always believed in me, even when their closest friends and
people around them thought they were fools for believing I was going
off to California to make my dreams come true.

MM: Have your parents always been so supportive?

EM: No one surrounding me understood my first
film, Begotten, a creation myth, which looks like it was
photographed by a Babylonian film crew in 3000 B.C. I would bring
my father, who loves John Ford westerns, into the editing room to
see this silent, black and white, extremely bizarre film, and I
would ask him whether the scene made sense and if it worked. And
he said ‘None of it makes sense to me but if I had a choice
of what made better sense within the edit I would use this edit
over that edit.’ He was very open-minded. My parents are able
to take risks and go into unknown territories. They have that faith
in me that is not questioned.

MM: Now that they’ve been able to share
in your success, do you think your parents could get used to the
whole Hollywood thing?

EM: They are totally not like that at all.
They’re very down to earth people. They would treat Nicolas
Cage the same way as my brother’s friend who wanted to sleep
over.

MM: Have there been any major changes in
your life since the Oscar nominations?

EM: My wife still makes me take out the garbage
and get the laundry out of the drier and then hang them up so they
don’t wrinkle. But I feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction
because I have spent three-and-a-half years totally focused on this
movie. To see the stars and planets aligned in this way, and one
of my favorite actors get recognized in this regard, makes me very
proud. It reaffirms your own vision of what you’re doing. I
feel I can take on more challenges and do even more challenging
work. I want my next film to be 10 times better.

MM: How are your parents taking the news?

EM: (Laughing). They’re
amazing. My brother told me a story the other day about how they
were listening to the Joan Rivers show and she was talking about
the nominations and the actors nominated, but she didn’t talk
about Shadow. My mother was so shocked by that she called Joan Rivers
on the phone and talked to her and said, ‘Why are you talking
about all these other films that don’t need publicity, and
you’re not talking about Shadow?’ My own reaction to that was
I’m caught between embarrassment and admiration of my mother
for taking that initiative. She got right through to Joan. They
had opened up the phone lines and my mother was first on the phone.

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