Director's Chair: Craig Gillespie - 'Fright Night'
Issue: September 1, 2011

Director's Chair: Craig Gillespie - 'Fright Night'

HOLLYWOOD — Aussie director Craig Gillespie worked as an award-winning commercial director for 15 years before making his feature debut with 2007’s Mr. Woodcock, but the film’s dark comedy didn’t test well and Gillespie ultimately left the project and was replaced by another director. 

Undeterred, he channeled the experience and his love of the absurd into the controversial and critically acclaimed Lars and the Real Girl, the story of a man who falls in love with a sex doll.

His latest film, Fright Night, could hardly be more different. A 3D update of the 1985 cult favorite, it stars Colin Farrell as Jerry, a sinister vampire who moves in next door to a naïve high school student (Anton Yelchin) and his mom (Toni Collette) in suburban Las Vegas. Mayhem — and a lot of blood — soon follows. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, he talks about making the film, his love of post and visual effects, and why he’s next tackling zombies.

POST: Fright Night seems like a very long way from Lars and the Real Girl. Was it?

CRAIG GILLESPIE: “From a visual standpoint, definitely. Tonally, there’s a mix of genres, like Lars, except here it’s horror and comedy, and that’s what attracted me to it. I wasn’t even thinking about doing a vampire movie, but then I read the script by Marti Noxon, who wrote and produced shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it was just too good to resist. I also loved the idea of being able to do something with the camera that’s so specific to horror and thrillers, where it’s like another character. You really manipulate the audience, creeping along dark corridors and going down in basements. So I really enjoyed getting to work that muscle.”

POST: What sort of prep work did you do with DP Javier Aguirresarobe, who’s shot a lot of suspenseful movies, including The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Others?

GILLESPIE: “He’s got a wonderful eye for this sort of material and we shot-listed and then prevized all the action scenes — about 700 frames including the car chase and all the big fight scenes with the vampires. Third Floor in LA did all the previz, and that was a big help to the crew. All the departments get to see exactly what we’re doing, and in a three-minute clip you show what would take 30 minutes to explain. Then Javier and I spent two weeks going through every scene, since we both like to have a ‘roving master’ instead of the traditional wide two-shot singles. You design the shot so the master tells the story, and you go from being a single- to a three-shot and two-shot. Then you pick up whatever other coverage you need. All this helped with the thriller aspect of it, and we also designed all the lighting well in advance, so we knew exactly what we had to do in every scene. We were very well prepared.”

POST: This was basically just your second film, and it’s in 3D. How hard was that leap technically?

GILLESPIE: “It was big but I’ve been doing hundreds of commercials over the years and that was great preparation. So this was a chance to use pretty much all the tools I’ve used in commercials. There’s a lot of basic opinions on what to do and not do in 3D, but you learn more by just doing it. You’re not supposed to shoot dirty singles or have camera flares, and there are all these rules about the depth of field. After the first week, all the stuff Javier and I liked wasn’t following the rules. So we did do dirty singles and shot it all wide open, at a 1.4, so there was a shallow depth of field. We just went with our instincts.”

POST: Do you like the post process? 

GILLESPIE: “I love it. It’s the most fun part of the process for me. The first 10 weeks where you’re finding the film is so much fun. It was very similar to post on Lars in that it came together very quickly, but then we cut 30 minutes out of that first cut, just tightening it all up and really getting the pace right — that was crucial. Then the second big thing was getting the music right and dealing with all the visual effects. That all took quite a bit longer to get right.”

POST: Where did you do the edit? 

GILLESPIE: “We rented offices in Santa Monica and cut it all there.”

POST: It was edited by Tatiana Riegel, who also cut Lars for you. How did that relationship work?

GILLESPIE: “She’s very fast, and the way we shot meant it all came together very quickly. There weren’t tons of angles to choose from, so she got to really focus on the performance. She was down in Albuquerque where we shot, and she’d cut on the Avid as we went, so every day I’d go over and look at her assembly, because getting the right tone was our primary concern — that balance of horror and humor.”

POST: Who did the visual effects and how many visual effects shots are there?

GILLESPIE: “We ended up with around 350 shots. K.N.B Effects Group, who did Predators and work on Transformers, designed five stages of make-up and transformation for Jerry and the other vampires. The first three were all make-up, the fourth was a mix of make-up and CGI, and then the fifth was all CGI. Luma Pictures, who did Captain America and Thor, did most of the VFX shots, everything from explosions to the vampires, and we also farmed various shots out to Pixel Magic, Digital Domain and Shade. They all did a great job.”

POST: What were the most difficult shots to do?

GILLESPIE: (Laughs) “The problem is, everything is more complicated in 3D. The sleight of hand you can do in 2D just doesn’t work well in 3D. The effects have to be totally perfect because of the depth. So it was a very laborious, slow process.”

POST: Do you like working with visual effects?

GILLESPIE: “Yes, I do enjoy it, but the time factor is a killer. Sometimes it can take months to get a shot the way you want it. It’s like watching paint dry. But I love the whole creative process and then getting the end result." 

POST: How important are sound and music to you?

GILLESPIE: “Very, especially in a horror film. We’d throw all kinds of temp music at this, and gradually realized that traditional horror music was just too heavy for it, and too one-dimensional — it wasn’t balancing the genres. So we knew the film just wasn’t going to work until we had the right score, so we met with [composer] Ramin Djawadi, who scored Iron Man. He brought exactly the right tone and blend of gothic orchestral and contemporary electronic sounds to it, and designed specific melodies to go with Jerry and the other characters.” [Todd-AO Hollywood provided the film’s 7.1 mix.)

POST: Did you do a DI?

GILLESPIE:  “Yes, Stefan Sonnenfeld at Company 3 did it. We’ve collaborated for 12 years on commercials so we go way back, and I’m just so used to dealing with DIs. For Lars we just did a chemical, but doing a DI was really important for this film. Obviously you get all the Power Windows you need to do all the anal detail work in a scene, like pulling something down a bit so your eye’s not drawn to it. I just love the efficiency of the process. With the chemical, you have to come back, while this takes just seconds for the same result. On this we wanted to deal with very soft lights, and the DI gives you enormous range to get the contrast exactly where we wanted, and the whites as soft as we wanted.” [Sonnenfeld used a DaVinci Resolve in Company 3’s stereo DI suite, which lets the colorist wear glasses and grade the two streams. Company 3 also did the on-location stereoscopic dailies.]

POST: Hollywood’s gone 3D crazy it seems. Any interest in doing another 3D film?

GILLESPIE: “I really loved shooting this 3D, although there’s a certain way you have to shoot. You can’t be as kinetic with the camera, you can’t do handheld, but the way you’re creeping along and building suspense really lends itself to the format. So as much as you gain from 3D, it also limits your execution in other ways. Yes, I’d do another if it was the right project. You can’t do The Bourne Ultimatum in 3D.”

POST: What did you learn from producing and directing the Showtime series United States of Tara?

GILLESPIE: “I think doing TV and commercials really hones your skills and overall approach to movies, because the schedules are so much tighter. For me, it’s always about the content. I’d do TV in a shot if the right thing comes along.”

POST: Do you plan to keep shooting commercials?

GILLESPIE: “Yes. It’s a nice luxury to have because it’s something you can just jump into for a short project and you get to work with some of the greatest DPs in the whole business and try out different gear. Like TV, it’s going more and more digital now, and a lot are shot using the Alexa or Red or the Canon 5D, or a mix. 

“When I finished Fright Night I did a commercial for Verizon, shooting film, and to be honest, the whole crew was really surprised I wasn’t shooting digital. It’s all changing.”

POST: Is film dead?

GILLESPIE: “I hope not, but it seems like it’s on the way out. It’s not even a cost factor but more of an efficiency thing. The big reason is post — so much of post is now all digital, so it just makes life simpler to go digital the whole way through a project. It doesn’t actually cost that much less, surprisingly, unless you’re shooting a lot of film. But for all those reasons, it’s definitely the future.”

POST: What’s next?

GILLESPIE: “I’m working on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is exactly what it sounds like — another wild mash-up of genres. It’s a period piece and pretty wild in that all the sisters and Darcy are really well-trained in martial arts, so we’ll have some big martial arts sequences.” 

“(Laughs) I wasn’t looking to cross over to zombies after vampires. It was just irresistible. It was a great book, David O. Russell wrote a great script, and I just loved the challenge of pulling off this mix of tones. It’s the classic Pride and Prejudice story and it stays very true to a lot of the story points and dialogue, but it also has zombies, and I want them to be really scary. Right now we’re starting to cast, so I’m hoping to start shooting by early next year.”