Dread Central sat down recently with actress turned filmmaker Juliet Landau to chat regarding her upcoming documentary A Place Among the Undead over sushi in Hollywood, CA, and the ensuing conversation proved altogether fascinating. Joined by Landau’s co-director/producer (and husband) Deverill Weekes, we delved into the duo’s currently shooting exploration of vampires in cinema, literature, and television.
Landau, who is probably best known to genre fans for her turn as the deranged yet enigmatic vampire “Drusilla” in Joss Whedon’s iconic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel” series (as well as for her memorable portrayal of “Loretta King” in Tim Burton’s celebrated 1994 feature Ed Wood, in which she shared screen time with her father, Martin), and Weekes, a celebrated photographer and cinematographer, dished enthusiastically regarding their exhaustive documentary, whose interview subjects thus far include (take a breath) Whedon, Burton, actor Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), author Anne Rice, Underworld creator Kevin Grevioux, Hammer veterans Caroline Munro and Madeline Smith, Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire), and many, many more.
Landau, quite like her immortal character of Dru on “Buffy,” seems to have not aged a day, although her interest in the subject of vampirism has indeed matured since she first debuted the psychic turned vampire character as an antagonist on the series in 1997.
“It really started when I was extraordinarily fortunate to work with the brilliant Joss Whedon on ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel,’” offered Landau of the inspiration for her documentary over a spicy tuna roll, “and then through the years, whenever I’ve hung out with creators, writers, directors, and actors who’ve lived in the vampire universe, we’ve had the most amazing conversations. I’ve always thought, ‘I wish people could see this.’ The idea for the project percolated for a really long time, and we finally started it. The project grew and grew beyond our wildest expectations. Initially, we were self-funding it.”
Upon announcing A Place Among the Undead, it soon became apparent to Landau, however, that based on the interest expressed by veterans of the genre for inclusion, the project would require a much larger budget, given her and Weekes’ desire to deliver, as she put it, “the ultimate vampire documentary.” A decision was then made to turn to crowdfunding in order to secure the needed monies.
Expounding on the decision, Landau stated, “Part of the reason we ended up going with Indiegogo is because we want to make the film fans want to see. We’d had a number of meetings with production companies who wanted to fund it, but they wanted things like cutting out coverage of the Hammer films. One guy said, and I quote, ‘Those actors don’t have enough of a star meter.’ We said, ‘You can’t make the definitive vampire documentary and not include Hammer in it,’ so we wouldn’t do it. We really want to have partners that not only like what we are doing, but really love and understand it.”
For those whose horror knowledge may only go back a decade or so (for shame), Hammer Films is a British film production company that threw its cape into the vampire ring in 1958 with the classic feature film Horror of Dracula, starring the legendary Christopher Lee in the title role, with Peter Cushing portraying his dogged nemesis, Van Helsing. The film inspired six sequels featuring the two as well as numerous other vampire films, including Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, starring A Place Among the Undead interviewee Caroline Munro, as well as The Vampire Lovers, one entry in the company’s “Karnstein Trilogy” starring actress Madeline Smith, herself a subject of Landau’s doc.
“What’s funny about that,” continued Landau of the production companies who courted her documentary but who showed little interest in the Hammer aspect, “is that when we talked to Tim Burton and Tom Holland and so many other directors, they said that they largely became filmmakers and storytellers because of the Hammer films. When they were young and they saw them, the vibrancy of those films was seared into their conscience. Tom said, in his era, he was so used to watching black and white movies that to see blood in that electric red was an overload of stimuli. He wasn’t used to it, and that made it that much more frightening to him.”
Given the rich tapestry and overwhelming wealth of vampirism in literature and fiction, we queried Landau as to her approach to the matter, a daunting task surely.
“We definitely had a structural arc and concept,” she offered, “and we’ve shot about fifty percent of it, but depending on what happens with our campaign, it could conceivably become a six-part series rather than a feature because the subject matter is so vast. What I think with documentaries, and really with all filmmaking, is that things get revealed to you while you are in the edit bay, and you have to be open to the surprises and the journey and the evolution. It’s important to have a structural idea, but then the movie will tell you what it needs to be.”
“One of the other things that’s been interesting,” Landau continued, “is that you used the word ‘tapestry’ because one of the things about A Place Among the Undead is that it transcends the traditional idea of a documentary, and we’ve been using the word ‘tapestry’ because there will be interlinking narrative films inspired by the conversations we’ve had with our interviewees. One of the things that we believe is that fundamentally vampires have such staying power and have lasted through the ages in every society because the metaphor affords us a mirror to look at the human condition in such a wide myriad of ways. Joss Whedon says he used the metaphor of vampirism for high school as a nightmare, which most people can actually relate to. When we talked to Anne Rice, when she’d written Interview with the Vampire, her child had just died, so she created a child character who would live forever. It was all about loss and grieving, and you can feel that when you read her book. When we talked to Kevin Grevioux, he said that he created Underworld based on his experiences with interracial dating, so he created two species, one of them being vampires who don’t get along [with the other]. When we talked to Tim Burton, he was interested in exploring the dysfunctional family in [his film] Dark Shadows, and for Sookie Stackhouse author Charlaine Harris, it was all about discrimination against homosexuality.”
As for her preferred cinematic vampire, Landau admits to favoring Bela Lugosi (unsurprising, given her father’s masterful turn as the Hungarian actor in his later years in Burton’s biopic Ed Wood, for which the patriarch received an Oscar for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role”).
“Bela Lugosi in Dracula is so iconic,” said Landau, “and Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Those visuals become emblazoned in your consciousness; even for people who haven’t seen those films but have seen that imagery, they never forget them. And I think that Gary Oldman [in Bram Stoker’s Dracula] was phenomenal. I also love The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The thing that’s been incredible about this documentary is that a lot of people have come to us and have said, ‘I heard about your documentary, and I’d love to be interviewed.’ We haven’t approached anyone in those last two films yet, but we are going to. Lance Henriksen was so amazing as ‘Jesse Hooker’ in Near Dark, and Joss said that there’s a lot of Kiefer’s character of ‘David’ from The Lost Boys in ‘Buffy’s’ (character) of ‘Spike.’”
Come back to Dread Central next week for more of our interview, and in the interim check out A Place Among the Undead on Indiegogo for more information and some TRULY one of a kind perks. This is one campaign vampire fans will want to get involved with.