Interview: Mark Waters on Giving Fangs to “Vampire Academy”

On raising hell in high school once more with his brother "Heathers" writer Daniel Waters....Read More
Zoey Deutch and Sarah Hyland in Mark Waters' "Vampire Academy"

It’s hard to believe that in the 25 years since Daniel Waters shot to fame as the writer of “Heathers” followed by the ascension of his brother Mark, who would direct “Mean Girls” in 2004, the duo responsible for two of the defining teen movies of their respective eras have never actually worked together, a tragedy remedied this week with the release of “Vampire Academy.” According to Mark, the film only happened because of that very reason.

“Our financing entity, Reliance, said ‘We want to make this with no movie stars, we want to sell it based on the concept and on you and Danny bringing your thing to it,'” says Waters. “That was one of the reasons why [it’s done now] as opposed to us still developing it this year.”

The fast-tracked production of the adaptation of Richelle Mead’s series of novels about a prep school populated by bloodsuckers is indicative of the tempo with which the Waters boys tackle their return to the teen movie genre, a torrent of one-liners as sharp as the fangs of Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), a princess whose survival of her immediately post-pubescent years is dependent upon her half-human/half-vampire best friend Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch). Yet all the strength training and magic conjuring classes at the Academy can’t prepare the two for the evil seduction of popularity, which just as in the Waters’ previous films has more power to corrupt from within than any external threats they face, even when they include other vampires and werewolves.

Still, that monster movie twist on the genre is simply one more layer of subversion for the Waters to play with –”Yeah, we’re going to subvert it because they’re freakin’ vampires,” says Mark, with a zeal that undoubtedly allows him to continue to connect with a younger generation. On the eve of the release of “Vampire Academy,” Waters spoke about why he keeps coming back to films about teens, how he handled the book’s considerable backstory and finally working on a film with his brother.

Lucy Fry, Zoey Deutch and Sarah Hyland in "Vampire Academy"Why did it take so long for you and your brother to work on something together?

It’s weird. A good testament, I guess, to the fact we were both busy for so long doing other stuff and I was late getting into the filmmaking game. I did lots of other things before I decided I wanted to be a film director. Then it took me a while to get established enough that I could be considered to do some of my brother’s material. He writes a very distinctive way. I always say most of the directors who work on this stuff, including he himself, don’t know how to do his material right.

There’s a stylized quality that dialogue that if you do it wrong, it can be really arch and not very funny. If you do it right, it’s really clever but really grounded in that way that the movies that we adore, like “Network,” really work. But there’s a totally balancing act that I feel like I totally understand with this stuff and we were just waiting for this right opportunity. It was even forced upon us [on “Vampire Academy”] because we developed some things together before they never got off the ground and the weird thing with this was that the producers were savvy — they got my brother working on a screenplay for this, and only then did they show me the book. I read the book, then after I finished I said this is cool, [and they said,] “By the way, Danny is already working on a screenplay.” He totally had hidden it from me! Then I was actually intrigued because I thought Danny can take what’s cool about this book and make it even more interesting.

Is it simply a role you’ve been cast in as a director or is there a reason you keep coming back to stories about teen girls?

Danny has a good quote, which I’ll quote say what I have to say what I have to say about it too. He always says that “When people watch movies not everybody has held a gun before. Not everybody has been forced to go to war. Not everybody has had a great love affair with somebody that they shouldn’t have met before. Everybody has gone to high school.” The idea of doing a movie in high school always feels interesting because it’s something everybody can relate to.

I always find what’s cool about it is you’re always looking for something in movies that has potent drama to it and has high stakes and urgency. I used to be actor and you had this thing we called it the fight or fuck syndrome, where if a scene was dying, you needed to suddenly inject energy, like pick a fight or try to seduce someone, but you needed to do something to give it some potency. The great thing about high school and middle school even is that everything is very very urgent because you don’t have any perspective that it’s finite yet.

The thing I most grabbed onto with “Mean Girls” was that idea that these people are going to play this thing out like it’s a life and death battle because they don’t know better. It’s important for us to do that scene at the end of the movie where it showed after a year, they’ve all forgotten about what they were fighting about in the first place. That was something that I remember Lorne [Michaels] and Tina [Fey] wanted to cut from the script, but I said “No, that’s what the movie is about,” that you can get to the other side of this and look back and say “Yeah, we survived that because now we’ve actually achieved a little bit of maturity.” When you’re in it, it’s really potent and that’s one thing that’s cool about [“Vampire Academy”] is that these people are not always in the middle of dealing with high school, but also dealing with true life and death danger. There’s no messing around with it. You’re taking the natural dynamic of what’s fun about a high school movie and upping the ante with real stakes, pardon the pun.

Sami Gayle in "Vampire Academy"This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s something I actually wound up coming around to enjoy in the film. The first 20 minutes of the film leading up to getting Rose and Lissa to the academy feel pretty rushed as you learn of the whole mythology, but thankfully you don’t bog yourself down in the backstory, which I would assume fans of the book wouldn’t want anyway since they just want to spend time with these characters. Does it change your approach when a certain audience is already familiar with the material like this?

The intention was to drop people like they were a marine being paratrooping down into enemy territory. We want to treat the audience like guess what, you’re the new recruit and we’re going to push you out of a plane and force you to figure it out. At one point, we experimented with doing these scrolls and symbols, a “Lord of the Rings”-type long intro where you explain everything. if you go on iTunes in a couple days, CHVRCHES music video for “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is going to include a version of that intro that we did just for fun. We said let’s put this in there where it explains the different Moroi [the types of vampires in the film]. We found it was so boring and done so many times before that we felt like there’s an eye-rolling, “Oh my God, we really have to sit through one of these creeds and scrolls of intros again” [feeling]. I said, you know what, a virtue of the [“Vampire Academy”] series and a virtue of this movie is that there is no Bella Swan. Frankly, there’s no Harry Potter either. There’s no character that’s an innocent that’s going into this world going, “What?  Magic is real?”

Being able to have that and to say we’re going to plunk you down and make you figure it out.  We want to give you a little bit so you can hang your hat on and go I know there’s a a Moroi, a Stragoi and a Dhampir, at least I know that much, and everything else, hopefully by the end of the movie you understand it all as opposed to you having it all explained up front and then explained again and again. It’s like no, we’re going to have you be a little bit mystified and then slowly, hopefully keep your interest enough that you’re actually interested in finding out more. There’s no question that was one of the big challenges we struggled with while we were editing.

Zoey Deutch and Dominic Sherwood in "Vampire Academy"It seems like “Spiderwick Chronicles” might’ve served as a blueprint for this because it was your first adaptation of a young adult novel, and a real turning point as far as working with special effects and having to build a world. Did that inform this experience?

Certainly, “Spiderwick” was something where I was like the paratrooper being thrown down into combat where I basically had to go to learn visual effects and learn staging action sequences and be able to relate a mythology to people that’s going to be foreign to most people who see the movie.  A lot of the lessons I learned from that experience was something that made me not scared of making a movie like this.

Since I did that movie, there’s nothing that you can throw at me in a visual effects way where it frightens me anymore — “Vampire Academy” included. There was nothing where I didn’t feel like I had a complete handle on how to approach on a technical level, which is good because there’s something about when you’re confident on a technical level, you’re distracted from doing what you should be doing which is working with the actors, making sure you’re getting the script on film right and getting good performances and storytelling. You get bogged down from all of the important stuff of directing and start worrying about where the greenscreen is and that’s not where your head should be at.

“Vampire Academy” is open in wide release on February 7th.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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