If I were to draw you a picture that explained my thoughts about an Americanization of 'Let the Right One In' a year ago, it would have been of a stick figure with a speech bubble filled with asterisked-out swear words. I wasn't just skeptical about the idea, I was downright angry about it. But when Cinematical had the opportunity to talk to director Matt Reeves in March, I quickly realized that I could lower my guard a bit. If anyone was up to the task, Reeves was the person.
Now that 'Let Me In' is out in the wild and fans have had an opportunity to see what Reeves was able to do with his version of John Ajvide Lindqvist's darkly beautiful vampire story, Cinematical was given a second opportunity to chat with the director as well as with the star of his film, Kodi Smit-McPhee. The interview was originally supposed to be with Reeves and Smit-McPhee at the same time, but due to scheduling conflicts they ended up being separate.
Below you can find Reeves relating the advice Steven Spielberg gave him about directing child actors, how best to intertwine performances with filmmaking spectacle, and what exactly is going on with 'Cloverfield 2'. Below that is the very talented Smit-McPhee explaining what it's like to be an Australian child actor working in an American industry, as well as his plans to transition from acting to directing and editing.
Matt Reeves: You know why there's no "I told you so!"? Because I am a huge fan of the novel and the original film. I think they're wonderful and, being a fan, I knew what my intentions were, but being on the outside no one else knew. I think that people, understandably, think that most American remakes suck. And the truth is that they do. It doesn't mean they all do -- I've seen great remakes -- but there are so many remakes that are soulless retreads or something that goes and bastardizes the very notions and seeds about the first film that made it great.
So I think people were worried we'd do something like that, so they were protective of the story they loved. I just knew that I loved it and that the thing I had to do was block all of that out in a way and approach it as a labor of love, which it was, and hope that came across. So, I don't say "I told you so," I say, "I understand why you were skeptical and I hope you like this."
One of the biggest triumphs of it is, I think, the understanding of the relationship between Owen and the Bullies. How difficult was it for you as a director to work with child actors and maintain that intensity and intimacy without feeling like you were being manipulative?
I chose the actors I chose because of their ability to be realistic and that was the thing that was most important to me. The thing that appealed to me about Lindqvist's tale is that it's very ironic: It's a fantasy that's very realistic. Even though it's a vampire story, it's very believable and it's very naturalistic about the pain of adolescence and coming of age.
I was worried in casting it because I thought about how we were going to find child actors who could pull off the complexity of an adult story. It's told through the eyes of 12 year olds, and it's about that time of life, but in a very adult way. And they have to be able to play it in a totally realistic way. And then Kodi came in.
The first person I was looking for was Owen. I was getting really worried, but he was so believable that I was immediately relieved. I thought, 'Oh, we can actually make this movie!" We had to cast him immediately, which we did. And the thing about those scenes is that he loved Dylan [Minnette] and those guys. He loved Chloe [Moretz] and they had a great relationship, but these were "the guys". So it was, "Today I get to hang out with the guys!"
It was a cool thing that when we shot those scenes we were staying at a casino and they would race back from the set when we were done so they could play in the video arcade at the Indian casino. In that sense, those scenes were not difficult to do because he loved those kids and they had a great time.
Those scenes are so real because he knew that's what I wanted. And I cast kids that were able to play things in a realistic way. So it wasn't manipulative in that way. I did have to toy with the kids to get the brighter reactions, actually. I would do things off camera to make them smile for that kind of stuff. But when it came to the darker stuff, Kodi and Chloe were really right there.
It's interesting, because people go, "You had all these violent scenes, did you have to shield the kids from that?" But that on the set is like being a kid. You've got all this fake blood and bodies and it's awesome on those days. Kodi literally said to me, "Can I stay longer?" And I said, "we'd have to ask your dad."
I was really fortunate when we started because I spoke with Steven Spielberg. He had seen 'Cloverfield' and he told J.J. [Abrams] that he really liked it. Actually, when we met he said it scared him and I thought that was really cool because Steven Spielberg has scared me many times. 'Jaws' scared the hell out of me!
So when I was doing this I asked J.J. To ask Steven if he would talk to me about directing kids. First off all, I immediately thought of 'E.T.' when I thought of adapting this movie. I thought of Spielbergia and his way of kids in the suburbs, which is where and when this movie takes place. And he got such amazing performances from those kids, so I was thrilled he agreed to talk to me. And what I took away from that talk was that you should never lose the perspective that I may be remembering what it was like to be 12, but these kids are 12. So when you go into a scene, you have to think that.
But Kodi would do that anyway. I'd ask what he'd do and he'd go, "Well, keeping it real, I'd probably go over here and do this," and I'd say let's try that. They would come up with ideas, the kids eye point-of-view, and that was fantastic. And it wasn't just about them, they had perspective on scenes they weren't in. I borrowed a lot from them and I'd play with them. I could throw them things while we were shooting and they wouldn't break character, they'd keep shooting.
I had a remarkable cast is what it comes down to.
The performances are stunning, down to even the smallest characters. Even those without names who don't necessarily have an effect on the step-by-step plot change everything to the point where it's impossible to imagine the movie without them.
I completely agree. It's why I wanted Elias [Koteas], he and I had worked together on a pilot before. In an American story, you couldn't really have these murders taking place in a town and not have there be a reaction without the police getting involved. Plus, it's just in the book. So I thought if I could use that thread to put those two things together and collapse them into one, that character would serve as the inexorable threat that gets closer and closer to the Romeo and Juliet story. Because the whole movie is about dreading what's to come.
So I thought there was an opportunity, for almost like a Tommy Lee Jones character in 'No Country for Old Men' that's sort of seen it all and wonders what is this darkness that is happening now. I thought he could really be the moral eyes of the movie and be looking at the events without any information and be saying, "What could cause this? Who would do this? Who would hang a kid upside down and bleed him?" And yet to be looking at it with a true sense of wondering and morality, but also compassion.
So when Elias decided to do it, I had been hoping he would. I wasn't sure if he would because it's not a big role, but it's a critical role. I was so excited because I knew he'd bring that compassion to it and make it human. Here's this character that, on one hand has no name, but on the other is the moral eyes looking into the events of the film trying to understand how they could have happened. He's incredible in it.
To maintain that pervasive sense of dread you mentioned, were there any particular moments that you set out ahead of time as needing to be bigger or better?
Bigger or better how?
In terms of having more visceral impact. Take the car scene, for example, which is one of the best car crashes I've ever seen. You're a very technically oriented director to begin with --
Ah, yes. To me, the performances and humanity of the movie is critically important, but the other aspect is the actual filmmaking and the way those two interrelate ... the way a brilliant performance in the context of a sequence that has been meticulously constructed can have a particular effect ... I just love movies and when I think of movies I love that they have those qualities, too. So it's very cool that you would say that. It's a great compliment.
Speaking of that brilliant performance and everything leading up to it ... when it comes to the father, you just absolutely ache for this man.
First of all, I was really fortunate that Richard [Jenkins] agreed to play it. I wanted Richard because he's got that soulfulness, that depth in his eyes. And I thought if someone is going to make you empathize with someone who is essentially a serial killer, it's Richard. That's number one.
For number two, I wanted to construct the story cinematically, so that you were dolloped out pieces of information along the way that continually shifted your expectations. If you don't know the story at all, you meet this character and you immediately assume that this is the father. So if he's the father, the power relationship must be that he's in control. But then you see her react and you wonder if she's in control. But then he goes out and kills people and you think he's a serial killer. But then he has this dreary, worn, weary kind of reaction and you're like, "This is affecting him, what's going on?"
And my idea was that you would feel this bitterness and see it and wonder why they snap at each other and what is this relationship. You'd watch as he went out for that last time to get blood for her and you'd have this whole experience where the tables have turned entirely. You had one expectation for what his character is all about; you see him kill someone in a horrifying way and you have questions what that was about; so that scene then becomes when you go through the looking glass. You dread that he's going to kill someone again, but because everything goes wrong in the sort of Hitchcockian, 'Dial M for Murder' way I described at Comic-Con, you begin to identify with him.
So that sequence works in this technical way that using the craft of filmmaking you go through the car crash with him, but because of the right setup narratively, you also find yourself weirdly rooting for him in a situation that you shouldn't be. So then you identify with him. And the last step I wanted was to transform that bitterness you see to her coming to him after that car accident and seeing him in a way that reveals the tenderness that was once there between them. It's the last step to giving that character a tragic dimension.
That's my fantasy, at least. If it worked in the slightest, I don't know, but that's what I was trying to do and a big part of that is Richard and being able to take Lindqvist's story, filter it through this lens and trying to do something craft-wise to construct that narrative and that moment you're talking about.
I think it's a seamless transition. But since we've got to wrap it up, I will catch hell from my editor if I don't ask about 'Cloverfield 2' or any Abrams collaborations.
You know what, I just saw Abrams. We were at Bad Robot and talking right before he went off to go do 'Super 8,' which is going to be awesome. It was the first time ... I hadn't had a chance to go to his offices when they were built because I was in New Mexico shooting and then I was editing. I've been so immersed in this because it's a passion project and despite what people think it was kind of a lower budget movie so we had to work extra hard on it. So it was the first time I had a chance to actually go over there.
I thought it was the greatest place and he kept saying, "Man, you gotta come over and we've got to do another movie together!" And I would love to. We always want to do something together and 'Cloverfield 2' is something we always have our eye on. He's doing 'Super 8' now, though, and I've said this before, but Drew [Goddard], who wrote 'Cloverfield', just directed his first movie, which he wrote with Joss Whedon that I'm really dying to see called 'Cabin in the Woods.'
Oh, I can't wait for that. I've been pulling for it to show up at Fantastic Fest as a Secret Screening, but I highly doubt it will. It really sucks that MGM is having the troubles they are.
I know, I know. I think they're starting to sort that out. That's the cool thing, Richard is in that movie too, so we've talked about it a lot. I actually talked to Drew about working with Richard beforehand and he said I was going to love him. But Richard tells me that the movie is just fantastic and I can't wait to see it.
But we've all been so busy with these things that we haven't really decided what we're going to do with 'Cloverfield 2.' We are really interested in doing it if we can find that right idea. The other project I'm really passionate to do is 'Invisible Woman,' which I originally wanted to do before 'Cloverfield' and then wanted to do after 'Cloverfield' and still want to do now, but we'll see. It's cool reading people's responses to the film. Fortunately they've been really good, so a lot of cool things have suddenly come in.
Do you live in Australia?
Kodi Smit-McPhee: I live mainly in Australia, but right now I'm living in L.A. I have an apartment there and my whole family is there working. My dad got me into acting. He's been acting for over 20 years. And my sister is on HBO's 'Hung.'
Oh, who is she on 'Hung'?
She's the daughter of the guy.
She's great! I didn't realize that was her.
Yeah, she's great. She's a really good actor. My dad is in 'Sons of Anarchy' for eight episodes. He'll be the president of the Belfast chapter.
Since you've seen both aspects of it, do you prefer the American film industry or the Australian?
Definitely American. There's so much more work and this is where it all comes from. Our TV is all American anyway, so I'd much rather work here.
Well Australia at least makes good movies, particularly horror movies.
They do make good movies! My dad was in 'Wolf Creek,' he played the guy at the bar, but I haven't seen that because everyone has been saying don't, that it's too brutal. But I like to go back there to do films sometimes to help me stay grounded.
'Wolf Creek' is pretty rough, so I can understand that. Have you seen 'Let Me In' yet?
I saw 'Let Me In' for the first time as a rough cut. I was much more excited to see the finished one, which I saw in Toronto. I saw it again in California at a cast and crew screening and then on Monday of next week we have the official premiere in L.A. My friends will be going there, so I can't wait for that.
Do you like watching yourself on screen? A lot of actors don't.
Yeah, I know. Elias [Koteas] doesn't like watching himself, but I don't mind it. I like seeing everything come together in the end. It can be weird some times, but I actually like it. I think it's pretty cool.
When you're on set do you do a lot of spectating when you're not working?
Yeah. I watch a lot of stuff when I don't have to rest. I used to help them with some scenes. Not that they needed help, but sometimes they didn't know what shot they should do and some stuff they actually used that I said they should do. The scene when Elias comes in and stands on that toy, that was my idea and they put that in there. Matt [Reeves] just said that he had to do it, so he put on Elias' pants really quickly and did that.
I always do that sometimes. I edit my own films all the time and do different stuff on my computer, so I like that stuff a lot.
Are you planning to move towards directing or writing?
I have a script right now that's going to be done on a RED cam. It's going to be done for an Australian film festival that's all kids stuff. I wrote the script, I've got to do it. I'll do all the editing and stuff, so, yeah, I wouldn't one day mind going into directing. I think it'd be fun.
What's your movie called?
I think it's going to be called 'Nuance.' The whole film has no talking, it's just music. Can't wait for that.