Film producer Simon Oakes knows the challenges he faces in remaking the cult film Let the Right One In, the 2008 vampire tale about two lonely kids who turn to each other in 1980s Sweden. Fan skepticism aside, his English language remake (titled Let Me In) isn't just aiming to become a successful mainstream genre film – intended, as he says, to make the core story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist more accessible to a wider audience – it will also effectively relaunch the renowned Hammer Films, the iconic British studio once known for '50s Gothic horror classics like The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy that all but disappeared during the '80s.
Speaking with journalists in Los Angeles, Oakes spoke at length about Let Me In, the lead-off film that will inaugurate this new reboot of the genre-focused studio. While he suspects that Let Me In will probably garner an R-rating ("I think this will be an R-rated picture," he said, but also noted that he'd like it to reach the widest possible audience), Oakes emphasized that story, rather than gore, is what's truly key to the Hammer philosophy. Despite Let Me In's mature content and boosted effects and scares, don't expect director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) to go overboard like many modern horror flicks do. "The only thing on my watch that we won't do," Oakes promised, "is we won't make slasher pictures."
So why was Reeves the right director for the job? Which story elements have changed, and which remain the same? What made young actors Chloë Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee right to portray Owen and Abby, the Americanized versions of Let the Right One In's Oskar and Eli? Most importantly for fans of the original, why did anyone need to remake Let the Right One In at all?
Did you feel like the public at large is not familiar with Let the Right One In, and that's why it needed to be remade in an English-language version?
Simon Oakes: That's a very good question, and the right one to ask. We saw [Let the Right One In] very early; I'm English, I'm European, and I see a lot of pictures coming out of Scandinavia, France and Germany as you can imagine. So we saw it very, very early on and we thought it was astonishing because it was a love story -- Stand By Me meets The Exorcist -- and we thought it was just special and wonderful. We never in a million years could have guessed it would get the critical acclaim that it did, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it was actually a hit movie. It did great grosses. But at the same time, the reality is that only 22-23 percent of its entire box office in the U.S. came from one theater.
I was always of the view that this was a beautiful story. I knew the original book, which was a lot harder as you guys would know, a lot more risqué if you like, more controversial. But the story was so great, so beautiful, that it should be seen by a bigger audience. So I was always saying to myself, people in Manhattan have seen it, guys like you [genre journalists/fans] because it's in your wheelhouse, in New York, in Chicago, in Chelsea, in Notting Hill, in London... but no one in Glasgow or Edinburgh or Bristol or Idaho or Pittsburgh have seen this film. It's a story that needs to be seen by a wider audience. Then it came down to [the question], how do you achieve that? By paying homage to the original. Number one, get a very sensitive, smart director -- we got it in Matt [Reeves]. Frankly, [you must] not muck about the basic tenets of the story, which is important. More than anything else, stay true to the imagery and mystique and the mythology of the original, and set it in the right time as well, not update it in terms of its timing. Set it in that [early '80s] era.
So it's still going to have the Rubik's cube?
Simon Oakes: Yes, exactly! [The film will include] the Rubik's cube, which is great. And then, find kids who can stand up to -- and, I hate to say it -- be as good as or better than the wonderful children that were in the original. And we did do that. It's quite interesting; had we not done that, it would have been a very difficult thing. Could two kids pull it off with the sort of knowingness that those two children had, that sort of quiet knowingness that Oskar and [Eli] had? Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee are absolutely amazing.
It was interesting that you found a counterpoint in the Southwest setting in the U.S. to the desolate landscape in the first film. But then, as you mentioned, there's a quietness in the two leads; one thing that's intriguing about Chloe is that she seems to be a different take, because she's known for the screen persona she generates for being a little [bold]...
Simon Oakes: Not when you see her in the film. If you think about her in Kick-Ass, of course you'd think that quite naturally. But she has the same stillness, the same quietness, the same control. When it comes to the setting, the outskirts of Stockholm, we thought about that town from nowhere. Do you remember the scene in E.T. when suddenly this quiet environment has been shattered, when the government guys come in their suits and suddenly this small little house has got this huge white tunnel they're all coming in? It's the juxtaposition of the strangeness of that and the very ordinariness of the home environment that the kids lived in. We wanted to create the same idea that within this very ordinary Southwest situation, extraordinary things are happening. This girl, this vampire, comes into this world and affects a kid and his daily life and relationship with his peers, or his bullies. We tried to find what that match would be; rather than just setting it in some snowy environment somewhere, we'll try and place it in that juxtaposition.
You mentioned the provocative elements of the original. What adjustments did you have to make in adapting it for this version?
Simon Oakes: [We had to do it] without being so pretentious in English, for a start. But frankly, not that much to be honest with you. If you call it a faithful remake, I think that's true to say that's what it is. It's not a re-imagining; the same beats [are there]. Maybe the scares are a little bit more scary. We haven't been able to ramp that up quite a lot, obviously, for budgetary reasons. We've played a little bit with some of the chronology, without giving too much away. Fundamentally, that's what. High production values. [Let the Right One In director] Tomas Alfredson did a phenomenal job; I have actually no idea what his budget was in Sweden, but I can imagine what it was, so go figure. [We had a] longer shooting period, more coverage, more effects.
Was there ever any thought to put back in some of the more challenging elements of the book?
Simon Oakes: I think I know what you mean, and absolutely not. I think in the book it's very disturbing, the implications, and I think they should be left in the book, which is astonishing. John Ajvide Lindqvist is an amazing writer. I don't know if you've read Handling the Undead, which is the book following this; he's an original thinker. But I don't think it actually lends anything to the movie. In fact, it detracts from it. I mean, I think there are implications and suggestions [in the film]; the famous line, "Will you go steady with me?" "I'm not a girl." Well, that could mean a million things. What does she mean? Does she mean she's not a girl, she's a vampire? Does it mean she's not a girl, she was a girl? Or was a boy? I think you leave ambiguity there. I think also, you don't talk down and spoon feed the audience that is going to see this movie. You, in a sense, are the bellwether for fan boys and so forth and you've had a lot of inbound on this film. And I think to start with, a lot of people were sort of quite negative about this happening because they love the movie so much. Gradually, as Matt came onboard, and Kodi and Chloe, people started to move towards the middle saying, you know what, this is good, this is great, let's see what happens. Let's reserve judgment until we see the final product. I think that's what's happening now. There's a bigger audience out there as well who will never see the picture anyway. So I'm not too worried about that.
What made Matt Reeves the right director for Let Me In?
Simon Oakes: Sometimes in the process of making movies and producing and financing movies, you can get what we call in England, "our knickers in a twist" by having 17 options and going round in circles, going back to the person you thought should do it first. We immediately fell in love with Matt and his take; he loved the original, so we felt that he was going to honor it, which is very important. Secondly, I think there's something, and I don't know if he'd like me saying this, quite autobiographical of his own life in the life of Owen, in some respect -- where he came from, and his background and so forth. That was important. We didn't go out to get multiple takes from people because this movie did not need a "take," if you know what I mean. It needed someone to say, I love this film, I want to remake this film now, and I want it to be seen by a bigger audience. And I know how I'm going to do it. I have a feel for the material. He's astonishing. He has a fantastic intellect, a great imagination.
His pedigree, obviously because of Cloverfield, has that sort of found footage aesthetic. Was this an opportunity for him to do something different? Or do you find that the movie has an aesthetically-similar approach?
Simon Oakes: It's a very different aesthetic. At the end of the day, you could make this movie and never use the word "vampire." You could say this is a love story between two kids. I think an understanding of genre helps, because there are obviously some big set piece-genre moments in it. You know that he's got the chops to do it. But really, I think it's because he's a storyteller, he knows how to tell a story. If you think of Cloverfield and you think of the technical difficulty in maintaining the focus of story in a film like that, the way he shot it, that was brilliant – to be able to do that, to keep us there, to keep us watching and engaged. I think one of Matt's great qualities is that he's a genuinely great storyteller.
"Felicity" was about young people in love, and Cloverfield was a thriller. Combining those two elements should work for Let Me In.
Simon Oakes: Truthfully, subliminally, he must have tipped the boxes in my head and my colleagues. But to be honest, we didn't think about it in such a drilled out and rational way. I think he understands the audience for the movie and that sort of thing. I think he has a sort of a natural understanding of what an audience would expect from this film and how to make it accessible to a wider audience.
What is the audience that you are going for?
Simon Oakes: As big as possible, I think. The fan boy base. The people that you guys interact with on a daily and weekly basis, they will all come and see this movie. They will all come with preconceptions --some good, some bad. I think this will be an R-rated picture. I'm thinking it's a pretty young demographic, but we are only at the beginning stage of our marketing, because part of it is marketing it as a love story, a redemptive love story.
Is there still a chance that it might be cut down to a PG-13 rating?
Simon Oakes: I don't know. I mean, we are literally in the first week of post. There are some different rules in the states. It's amazing that they would give Kick-Ass a 12 rating. [Note: Kick-Ass earned a '15' certificate in the UK.] It is unbelievable, where we have a 12-year-old girl using the C-word and cutting people's heads off. How did that happen? Well, that's England for you. I think in this country it slightly more difficult to get the rating that you would like to get, but we'll get there.
When you guys were shooting the action violence and intense stuff, was Matt sort of free to do whatever he wanted or how choreographed was it?
Simon Oakes: He could do what he wanted. I think it is a mistake to sort of manufacturer the scares and stuff. I think the story lends itself to the right type of action in the right type of scares. We have a picture that we are making this year called The Woman in Black, which was a famous novella, and then a play. It's been on forever. Jane Goldman, who did Kick-Ass and so forth, is writing it for us. And when you are dealing with something like that, which is sort of a classic ghost story, and you're dealing with the supernatural in a sense, you can sort of get away with more. You can get a better rating for your movie, because there is the suspension of disbelief. When you are dealing with a story like this, although it is a vampire story in part, it is so realistic. Then you are always going to have a problem with the rating because it just crosses the boundary.
How will you balance Hammer's pedigree of personal, character-driven stories with the spectacle of today's horror?
Simon Oakes: I think that movies find their own feet in a sense, and I think The Resident, for example, is a commercial psychological thriller. I think Let Me In is interesting. I've said it's Stand By Me meets The Exorcist; it's got art house credentials but it's got a commercial filmmaker at the helm, and it's also got a great story. And I don't want to speak for our US distributor, Overture, but I think there will be a wide release -- but it's not going to be three and a half thousand screens. But nor is it necessarily going to be platformed, either. I think it will be a film that will find its feet and I think there will be gradual platform release over time, but I don't really know yet. It's too early to say, but it's story-driven like the Hammer films of old – character-driven, story driven. But with an extraordinary central premise at the heart of it, which is that [Abby] is a vampire. And it's a very touching story as well; do you remember when he says, "What if they do this and what if they do that?" She tries to get him to really look after himself, and he eventually says, "But what if I can't?" And she says, "Well, if you can't, then I'll look after you."
Check back this week for more from our chat with Simon Oakes and the future of Hammer films. Let Me In will be released on October 1, 2010. In the meantime, watch the UK trailer for the original film, Let the Right One In, and tell us what you expect or hope to see in the remake.