I, probably like you, exploded a little inside at the news that someone, anyone, was remaking the brilliant film Let the Right One In less than two years after it was first released in its native Sweden. I have an undying love for Tomas Alfredson's film, which is as fresh a breath of air as one can find from a vampire film, and don't want to see anyone dumb it down for American audiences. Fortunately for fans, it seems like Matt Reeves, the man behind the retitled remake Let Me In, shared those very same concerns.
Cinematical recently sat down with Reeves to chat about remaking what so many already consider to be an untouchable film, and I must say, he won me over. I'm not the only one either. Later in the day, Reeves was a member at the SXSW panel Directing the Dead: Genre Directors Spill Their Guts and you could practically feel the room packed with several hundred horror fans breathe a collective sigh of relief after he echoed much of what he told Cinematical below.
Cinematical: How terrified are you at this point of the horror fans?
Matt Reeves: You know, it's interesting. I totally get why, I would have that reaction and I totally get the cynicism of "I know what's going to happen..." Especially because when I was first getting involved, someone was asking me what I would do with the story and I was talking about Americanizing the story and there's been an idea about what Americanization means. There's an assumption that immediately goes, "Oh, he's going to take it and make it a big, stupid American film and destroy everything that's great about this story!"
But what I was really talking about was an American context for the story and about detail and about taking a story that, in the book and also in the film, is so rooted in Sweden and finding the way the essence of that story works in an American context, in the '80s of America and the idea of the Regan America and the "Evil Empire."
Cinematical: So it is set in the '80s?
Matt Reeves: It is set in the '80s, yeah. There's a great chapter in the book that's just the beginning, the very beginning. Lindqvist grew up in Blackburg where it's set ... you know it's so funny, when I first got involved I wrote to him and said, "I'm so touched by this story and blown away that I just wanted to let you know that I'm getting involved with this and why. It's because I had such a personal reaction to this story. I was bullied when I was younger, it's weird, when I first I saw this story it was way before it came out here. I had just finished Cloverfield and the movie didn't come out for almost another year. Someone showed it to me and -- they didn't even have the rights -- but they said, "Look we're pursuing the rights for this, we think you might be interested in it, take a look at it. The thing you might want to do is consider making the kids older," or some sort of thing, they were just throwing it out to me or whatever.
So I watched the film. Thing is, I've been working in TV for a number of years, and I did a movie before that, and one of the things that I had done was I had created this show we never got to make because it was too dark. But it was a coming of age story from the point of view of this 11 year old boy and he lived in this courtyard apartment complex and there was this girl next door and they had these sort of encounters in the courtyard that were so weirdly reminiscent of what Lindqvist had done. So I'm watching the movie and going, "This is so weird but amazing'" because it had that tone, which was a tone I'd been wanting to do for a long time.
And then when it turned out to be a vampire story, what he had done with it was so brilliant I thought, "This is amazing!" and I was so affected by it I said to the person who gave me the film, "I have two things to say. Number one, if you make those kids older you ruin the story and you shouldn't even make the film, just forget it. And number two, to that point I'm not sure you should remake this film because it is fantastic." And then they said, "Well, you should read the book," so I read the book and again I was so affected by that story and the detail of that story.
So I wrote to Lindqvist and said, "You know, This will not leave me and I'm so connected and drawn to it because of the story, which I so relate to for my own reasons, that I was interested in exploring a similar world with this thing that I had written. So when I saw this, which was so much better than anything that I could have written, it's just incredible." I wrote to him and said, "I just want to let you know why I'm so drawn to it. It's because I think most would think 'Oh, it's a vampire story and this and that' but it's because this story resonates so truthfully about that coming of age."
He wrote back to me and said, "First of all, I loved Cloverfield, I thought that it was a fresh take on an old tale, and so that was the thing that he responded to. And he said "That's what I was hoping I have done and that Tomas and I had done with the film. The thing that makes me more excited is that you're talking about it in a very personal way and this is my autobiography; I grew up in Blackburg and the whole thing." And I thought "Oh my God, that makes total sense that this would be your childhood because that's how vividly it's told."
And so in that book, in reading it, I remember in the first chapter there's this great thing where he talks about the city where he grew up, Blackburg, and he talks about how it was a planned community and that it was one of these sort of places that was built up and then people moved in. And he said you could imagine them building it and then one day all the residents coming in on the same day to move in. And at the end he says, "but the one thing about this place is that there wasn't a single church, which is probably why they weren't prepared for what was about to happen." And you're like "What? I gotta go read -- that's too amazing!"
But that thing was very, very specific to the Swedish context, which was this idea of a community that just sort of sprouts up without history and collides with the idea of this thing that's sort of rooted in primal history, and the idea of not even having religion as a way to deal with it. And I thought well, that whole idea of the planned communities, we have all these levittowns, all the WWII communities that grew up and all the other planned communities after that and I thought, well, that's also a very suburban, America idea, but not a godless one. So what does that context mean and what does the evil empire part of it mean.
So in terms of Americanizing it -- sorry, this is a very long answer -- but it was really about taking specificity and detail and what it meant to be growing up in that age, in that area, under those conditions in an American context so that the essence of that story remained the same but that it would resonate in a context that would be American and that specificity was what was most important. Because to me, the thing that's so powerful about the story is the idea that Oskar is grappling with very, very dark feelings because he's so put upon. His family is tearing apart, he's bullied mercilessly and he has no one to turn to and he's fascinated with these fantasies of revenge because, well, how could you not be; he has no way of expressing himself.
But in an American context, what does that mean when the government is telling you in essence that the evil is other, it's out there, it's not in us, it's over there. So if you're having those feelings does that mean that you are evil, that you are other. And the same thing with the idea of the religiosity of the community; none of these feelings are supposed to be acceptable. What do you do when you're 12 years old and not acceptable and how does that play out.
Cinematical: Sticking with the Americanization, since this is the rebirth of Hammer Films...
Matt Reeves: Which is British!
Cinematical: Exactly. How involved was Hammer in making it a British Hammer Film? I read in an interview the other day that [producer] Simon Oakes was enthusiastic about how much Britain had embraced the film.
Matt Reeves: Yeah, they had. Everywhere it's been loved, but particularly in the UK that film was exceptionally well received, it just caught fire. The problem in the United States is that there are many people who haven't seen it. But the people who have seen it, they are passionate fans, understandably because it's an amazing film. I think what he was referring to was how that film had created such excitement and how Hammer has this history of these classic genre films but in particular vampire films. I'm excited about that, the idea that this will be the first Hammer vampire film in a very, very long time.
That's a really exciting thing and what ended up happening was, amongst all those people who were pursing the rights, they were the ones who got the rights from the Swedish producers, who were involved with the film as well. It's a very interesting process through which this all came together.
Cinematical: Are you familiar with the subtitle ordeal here in the States?
Matt Reeves: You know what, I did hear about that. It's so funny, when we first started putting the movie together I asked all the people if they had seen the film. The directory of photography, this guy Greig Fraser who I hired, he and I just really connected on certain ideas visually. He hadn't seen the film -- he had just finished Jane Campion's film; he's an incredibly talented director of photography -- but we really connected about the sense of naturalism that I think was important for the story. So I asked him to not see the film yet. The essence of this story I want to honor, but we really need to make this our own story. I did the same thing with Kodi and Chloe, who hadn't seen it yet.
But one of the things along the way ... I would talk to people who had seen it. A couple people would say "God, that film was brilliant!" Then some people would say, "Ah, I don't know about that film," and I'd go, "What are you talking about?" And they'd say, '"Well, the acting really wasn't very good." I'd say, "What are you talking about?" I started to realize that they had seen the dubbed version! So I became aware of that through those people. And then I found out about these sort of terrible translations. I don't know what happened but I did hear about it.
Cinematical: Well my question is, even if you weren't aware of those similar problems ahead of production, what was your approach to keeping the nuance of the language, of the dialog? I'm not talking the literal translation, but the lingering moments of "I'm not a girl..."
Matt Reeves: Sure. I don't know what [the new subtitles] said they said, but after I saw the film and was so taken with it -- and I didn't see any dubbed version of the film, I saw the film with subtitles, which I thought was just tremendous. Then I read the book. Obviously I don't read Swedish, so it was already an English translation of the book. You know, it's interesting, because Lindqvist did the adaptation of his book, it's very faithful to it in certain sections, almost word for word.
In adapting it, I tried to make it American as possible in terms of filtering through of what I felt it would be, but I really honored what he had done. In terms of the translation, for much of it I would turn to the book and say, "Okay, what do they say in the book?" I looked at what he had done in the movie and how he would take two scenes and sort of combine them into one. His adaptation was brilliant I thought, so I had the book to constantly refer to for nuance.
There might be something that didn't sound right colloquially, but it was a good translation in the same way the subtitles on the film -- before they did all that dubbing -- were. There was definitely a respect and attention to that and anything that didn't feel quite right we would change. There's stuff that I would go back to the book for often.
When I was making the film, there were a couple points, getting into certain aspects of the film, where I had an idea based on what I had read and also what I had seen in the movie. The cool thing was, and I only did this once or twice, but Lindqvist said, "if you have any questions," and I went "I do have a question!" And so it was a great opportunity to email him and say, "This is how I relate to it, and this is what I think it meant, but what were you intending? What was this?" And he wrote me back a very, very beautiful, articulate answer and it just helped me to know it.
Cinematical: If you had discovered the book ahead of time, do you think you could have gotten an adaptation made in America if the original film did not exist?
Matt Reeves: It depends on how you're asking. If you mean a commercial sense, it's hard. I think if the book had been an American book and if the American book had a bit of a following then the answer is probably yes. It's interesting, when I first got interested, I read the book and ran into a friend from film school who is Swedish. I asked him if he knew the book Let the Right One In and he went, "Do I know the book Let the Right One In?! I love that book!" Because to them, that is a HUGE book in Sweden. It's respected like The Shining, like a Stephen King to them.
So I think if it had been a Stephen King-type book, the answer is yes. If it had been just the Swedish book it would have been challenging because I think there would have been a question of how dark it was. There are times with a lot of these horror remakes where, if a film works well in another culture, it lets American producers know that this is something that can be done. So that's how a lot of things come to pass, I think.
Cinematical: Well looping back to the interview with Simon Oakes, one of the things he said was, "We played a little with the chronology." Can you elaborate on that? Does the story do a sort of Cloverfield jumps back and forth through time?
Matt Reeves: It's definitely a faithful adaptation to the essence of the story. I don't think anyone will think we did anything too radical to the story. The book is a brilliant book and if you were to adapt it in full, you would have to make a ten-hour miniseries the way you would with a Stephen King book. There's an enormous amount of story there and what he did with his adaptation was focus it on essentially the Oskar-Eli story and make that the throughline because it was the potent coming-of-age, Romeo and Juliet story. And I think that is what you have to focus on so the essence of that is exactly what our film is.
The chronology aspect of it ... we're only two weeks into editing so it's too early to say how much of that will stay. But even that, it's not some radical thing, it's much more an approach to storytelling. It's not like the movie is Memento, radically shifting back and forth, it was just a structure thing.
Cinematical: I've also heard the approach this time around is to make it scarier. What is the philosophy there? Did you have an R rating in mind? Are you going to maintain an R?
Matt Reeves: The thing is, I don't know how you do this story and it isn't R. Who knows what it'll be, but there is an expectation that we have that it'll be R. It's weird, Simon told me that he heard Kick-Ass, which got an R here, had gotten a 12+ rating in the UK, so he thought, "Maybe we'll get a PG-13..." I told him that maybe the UK is more accepting of certain aspects of things but that I can tell you that based on what's happening in our story, here I can't imagine it not getting an R.
In terms of the scary thing ... the kind of movies that made me shrink in terror were horror films that were done in a very, very naturalistic, realistic way. When I was young and I saw the Exorcist ... the approach to that film is so horrifying because it's so committed to the believability of that story. As ridiculous as the story is, I tried to do that with Cloverfield too. Most monster movies are silly and fun but the idea was let's imagine that it's totally real and what would happen. The key is to find the reality of it.
When I was working on Chloe I kept saying, it's not about playing a vampire, it's about taking her and making her real and to deal with those darker sides of ourselves, the primal nature. When you think of the Exorcist you think of Linda Blair and pea soup and all this madness, but really if you look at the first half of that film, the stuff between her and Ellen Burstyn is so naturalistic and so real. She's incredible in it! People think "oh, it's the Exorcist and she's just doing crazy," but she's so terrific in it and so believable as this young, 13-year old girl.
That was really what I meant in the approach of trying to get into that tone. To take this story as if it were utterly real, and if it's real, that would be horrifying. The thing about the book that so blows me away, and the movie as well, is that it's such a tender love story but at the same time it's a terrifying story. It's that mixture of tones that gives this story it's unique quality. For them to have those sort of halting, tender interplay and the way they talk to each other and to know that a moment's notice she can turn; it's an absolutely horrifying thought.
Cinematical: Ah, okay, so you're not stocking it with jump scares?
Matt Reeves: No, no, no. It's nothing like that; it's just about treating and honoring the situation that was created and doing it in as realistic a way as possible, which if you think about it would be horrifying. That is definitely what the intention was; just treating it as reality and not "let's scare this up!" It truly honors the story that Lindqvist has created, it doesn't throw in some cool, new scares just to jazz it up.
Again, that's the same thing with what people think when they think Americanization. "Oh, I know what they're going to do, they're going to make this totally over the top," and it's not at all. Again, as with the Exorcist, part of the reason it's scary is because it's done so realistically, but it's also restrained and that's one of the things that I tried to do in working with everyone; in working with the crew and the sets and the actors was to do it as restrained as possible. It's funny, people don't think of Cloverfield as being restrained because it's a handycam movie, but the only reason it's a handycam movie is because that was supposed to be the reality of the situation.
This has nothing like that, but there is an approach to try and do it through his point of view as naturally as possible. It's the restraint of that story that makes it scary. You and I could be having a conversation and then the creepiest thing can happen and it's not in your face. So hopefully no one will think that the film is in your face.
Cinematical: Well I know you're only two weeks into editing, but when can we expect to see our first glimpses and teasers?
Matt Reeves: I don't know. I'm sure you'll be one of the first to know, it'll be soon for sure but I literally just started editing, so there's no date right now.