E. Elias Merhige’s Power of Unflinching Belief

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An Interview with E. Elias Merhige by Paula Schwartz | Published February 3, 2007


Though his latest film, Shadow of the Vampire, deals with the undead, director E. Elias Merhige depends on the living for much of his success. In an interview with MovieMaker, Merhige discusses working with the Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe, the difficulties they encountered with costuming and how his parents are adapting to his newfound fame.

Paula Schwartz (MM): Shadow of the Vampire is a rather confusing film to describe, as it readily mixes truth with fiction. What do you say the film is about?

Elias Merhige (EM): It's a film about the beginnings of cinema and the mad science of it all. It's about the art-making process itself and the motion picture camera as vampire. The actor murders himself to become this fictional character.

MM: The film is produced by Nicolas Cage, an actor who is often accused of "going Hollywood" with his acting choices. Isn't it strange, then, that he would choose this film as his first producing venture?

EM:When you know Nic, it's not weird at all. He has a great passion for early German Expressionist cinema. He's a very thoughtful, intelligent, passionate guy. This is a way for him to flex his less conventional muscles. He really was, for me and my mom and dad, a great patron because he really worked to protect me and allow me to make the film that I had in my head. He's very proud of the film and excited about it. He believes in the film completely.

MM: Shadow was originally slated to be released in September of 2000. Why was there such a delay in its releasing?

EM: [It] was so well received in Cannes that Lions Gate decided to release it later for better placement for Oscar consideration.

MM: Speaking of which, did you call Willem when his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was announced?

EM: He called me on Tuesday morning. He was so much of a kid--he was so happy. He said some great things that I've heard him say before about how he was so proud of me and the film. I couldn't be prouder for Willem. In my opinion it's something that was a long time coming. He's just such a fine actor and he deserves the recognition.

MM: When casting the role of Max Schreck, was Willem Dafoe someone you initially thought of?

EM: Willem was my first choice for the role of Max Schreck. He is one of those actors who's able to leap into this dark abyss most actors are afraid to leap into.

MM: How did he handle all the makeup and costuming?

EM: Once Willem was in makeup, with the corset and fangs, a dilemma came up as to how he was going to the bathroom. The nails were the real clincher. He would be in costume for 12 hours. I didn't realize we had to budget that into the system. How to get his food, how to cut it up properly.

MM: And the bathroom part?

EM: Let's just say there was an assistant present [laughs]. That is the ultimate movie star, which is the irony of it. Willem acts with humility on and off the set. It was strange and funny.

MM: Were there any other unexpected and memorable incidents while shooting?

EM: It had been raining quite a bit, and we were in this eleventh century castle in the courtyard. The ground was very muddy and watery and I wanted a lot of cut grass to absorb the water, so it wouldn't splash on the actors' costumes. They got this local Luxembourg farmer, and they ended up getting this tractor. This stuff I thought was cut grass was laid down on the ground, with four guys from the town helping. I'm standing there and rehearsing and setting up the camera and not even thinking about the grass. And then I realize a strange odor coming from the ground, like vapors. Steam was coming from the ground. There had been some horrible translation or miscommunication between the assistant to my art director and these people who spoke Luxembourgian. This was the first scene where we needed Schreck. The ground that we were shooting on was horse manure. It added another level of method acting, more like method filmmaking. We ignored that smell. It added yet another obstacle of reality to overcome to turn into art.

MM: You've talked about your parents being a great support to you. They've traveled to Cannes, Toronto and the Hamptons film festivals. What do they think of your sudden success?

EM:Cannes was the first time they had seen the movie and they had no idea what to expect. After they saw the film, it was the first time they forgot I had anything to do with it. They were just so surprised and excited. They are people who have always believed in me, even when their closest friends and people around them thought they were fools for believing I was going off to California to make my dreams come true.

MM: Have your parents always been so supportive?

EM: No one surrounding me understood my first film, Begotten, a creation myth, which looks like it was photographed by a Babylonian film crew in 3000 B.C. I would bring my father, who loves John Ford westerns, into the editing room to see this silent, black and white, extremely bizarre film, and I would ask him whether the scene made sense and if it worked. And he said 'None of it makes sense to me but if I had a choice of what made better sense within the edit I would use this edit over that edit.' He was very open-minded. My parents are able to take risks and go into unknown territories. They have that faith in me that is not questioned.

MM: Now that they've been able to share in your success, do you think your parents could get used to the whole Hollywood thing?

EM: They are totally not like that at all. They're very down to earth people. They would treat Nicolas Cage the same way as my brother's friend who wanted to sleep over.

MM: Have there been any major changes in your life since the Oscar nominations?

EM: My wife still makes me take out the garbage and get the laundry out of the drier and then hang them up so they don't wrinkle. But I feel a deep sense of personal satisfaction because I have spent three-and-a-half years totally focused on this movie. To see the stars and planets aligned in this way, and one of my favorite actors get recognized in this regard, makes me very proud. It reaffirms your own vision of what you're doing. I feel I can take on more challenges and do even more challenging work. I want my next film to be 10 times better.

MM: How are your parents taking the news?

EM: (Laughing). They're amazing. My brother told me a story the other day about how they were listening to the Joan Rivers show and she was talking about the nominations and the actors nominated, but she didn't talk about Shadow. My mother was so shocked by that she called Joan Rivers on the phone and talked to her and said, 'Why are you talking about all these other films that don't need publicity, and you're not talking about Shadow?' My own reaction to that was I'm caught between embarrassment and admiration of my mother for taking that initiative. She got right through to Joan. They had opened up the phone lines and my mother was first on the phone.




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