"I think of it as a comedy, action, thriller, horror. It is all of those things. There are some funny-scary moments, but I am not a huge fan of horror in general. Dead of Night is riding a fine line, which is why I think this film is so unique. It is many things. I don't think you could place it in just one genre. I think it is Ghostbusters for this generation." - Brandon Routh
Things that go bump in the night. Devils, demons, werewolves, and the living dead. An angry vampire and a mummy. These are all minor nuisances to the supernatural private investigator Dylan Dog and his trusting, zombified sidekick Marcus. Clad in his signature red shirt, this challenger of the unknown and his faithful undead companion roam the Louisiana bayou looking to thwart any paranormal oddities out to wreck havoc on our unsuspecting daily lives. In Italy, he is a legend. In the States, he will be soon, as director Kevin Munroe is set to unleash the first ever-big screen adaptation of Tiziano Sclavi's hugely popular Italian comic sometime next year. Dylan Dog made his first illustrated appearance in 1986, and has since wowed audiences worldwide. Now, he is set to storm the local Cineplex in what is sure to be one of the scariest and funniest theatrical experiences of 2010. And he will be arriving in the Dead of Night!
Munroe, most famous for directing 2007's excellent animated film TMNT, is pulling out all the stops in making this one of the most over-the-top action films of next year.
In May of this year, we were invited to participate in a tour of the Dead of Night set. The film takes place in New Orleans, where we set up camp and climbed behind the scenes of this wicked new comic book adaptation. Upon our arrival, we were asked to tour the make-up trailer, where we were given the full zombie treatment. That's right, not only did we get to watch the film being made, we also got to participate in these ghastly shenanigans being captured for a whole new generation of fans. After being smeared with fresh mud and dressed in corpse duds, we were escorted to a chamber in an old warehouse, where Dylan Dog and Marcus were busy fighting a giant mutant zombie that had been injected with (spoiler removed to heighten your anticipation).
Most movie sets are slow rolling playgrounds. They offer the same fun found in leisurely going over a speed bump. It sometimes takes hours to set up one shot, and there is quite a bit of waiting around time associated with creating each new on-screen moment. That is all fine and good in the name of art, but the energy on Dead of Night was far more accelerated than anything I've ever experienced before. Munroe's entire team of filmmakers seemed to be in sync as they quickly breezed through one take after the next. Rehearsed and ready for perfection, it didn't take long for Munroe to lock each scene down. Instead of taking hours, he and his crew were onto the next shot in a matter of minutes. This was one well-oiled machine, and I think that energy level will translate to the screen in beautiful shades of aggressive horror comedy.
In the scene being shot, Dylan is on a scaffolding, fist-fighting one of the ugliest zombies ever rendered for the big screen. Tattooed, angry, and fitted with rows of dangerous shark teeth, this behemoth went after our hero, tire-sized fists swinging. In the process, our monster accidentally knocks Marcus over a railing. That's where we, the zombie nation, come in. After Sam Huntington is attached to a wire, he is to be tossed off the scaffolding above us, where we are going to jump, claw, and bite at his frightened frame. As we eagerly anticipate this moment, we are called into the next room, where director Kevin Munroe stands at a monitor, watching the action as it unfolds in front of him. He decides to continue filming the fight between Dylan and the transformed corpse before turning his cameras on us. Our chance to scratch at Marcus would have to come later. While the shots were quickly rearranged, Munroe took a few precious moments out of his busy shooting schedule to chat with us about his film.
Everyone in attendance is amazed at the practical effects and make-up work that has brought the so-called "Tattooed Zombie" into existence. He is played by creature actor Brian Steele, but you'd never recognize the lanky thespian under all of that rubber. Watching Steele work his magic on the monitor, Munroe smiled, "Everyone that is involved has done such a great job with the particle effects. This is very cool. I know a lot of CGI tricks, but its neat to have a guy come dust a windowpane, so that when the vampire or werewolf goes through it, the glass vaporizes. You could do that with digital effects, but it is so much cooler when you have it on camera. It feels tangible. You buy it. You get someone in a costume, and they are actually there in the room with you."
This is the first time Kevin has worked with flesh and blood actors, and he enjoys having them in costume on set. Though, he doesn't see it as that big of a change from directing the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film from a few years back, "You are always trying to tell a story. You are trying to shoot it as exciting as possible. You are trying to make it look cool. At the end of the day, it comes down to what is on screen. Whether you are drawing it, or you are directing actors, and telling the DP to do certain things. There are a lot of elements that live action and animation share. One of them is lighting. Lighting is always a pain in the ass. Here, it takes three hours to light something. You'll just end up not doing it. Then you have CGI, and you have ten lights in the scene, and you can't render it because it ups the render time. There are always limitations. The great thing about CGI is not having limits, but it's also a little agoraphobic. Everything has to be created, even the sheen on metal. It is neat to have particle collaborators on this. Its is a lot cooler than CG. Because CG is one actor doing the lines, and then you have fifteen people trying to animate that personality. When it works, it works really well. But this is neater, because it is much more intimate. You can sit down with the actors, and craft their performances with them."
The vibe on set is definitely a fun one, and a lot of people have already described Dead of Night as Ghostbusters for a whole new generation. This isn't a straight up horror flick. The tone is light and full of goofy humor. Munroe told us, "The whole movie is a really cool kick back to my favorite things. The script is a really fun buddy action movie that takes place in the middle of all these iconic horror ideas. It's a lot like Men in Black in the sense that there is a world we don't know about. It was our goal to keep it as real as possible. We didn't want it to feel like we were creating something that wasn't there. We want you to walk out of the theater and go, 'Zombies work at that fast food place! Werewolves work at that pizza joint.' The goal was to keep it grounded in reality."
Dylan Dog is sticking pretty close to his comic book roots. Only a few of the details have been changed, "The original comic was set in London. We are not saying he never lived in London. We aren't saying that he could never go back there. What's cool about New Orleans is, if there is one city in the states that most mimicked Dylan's homeland, its here. You can't fake that. The biggest thing is that we've lost the Groucho Marx character. His personality is still in Marcus. But it's our take on his personality. Dylan has left this world, and is now going back into it with our film. It's a great way to do an origin story without having to know how he started out. The dry humor is still intact. There is a lot of Italian influence with the older vampires. We filmed some of their dialogue in Italian. Its neat, and it adds this backstory that comes from the comics. We have a nice, warm scene between the vampires and Dylan."
One of the coolest things about the film is how deep into the world of Dylan Dog Munroe's two leading men are. Both Brandon Routh and Sam Huntington are extremely committed to the material, and have collaborated extensively on the finished product. Both actors were with the film way before Munroe ever signed on to direct, "When I went to pitch my guts out, Brandon was already cast. They had an old tape from a casting session where they had read Sam Huntington separate of all that. Sam just popped off the screen. I didn't know they were such good friends at the time. I knew they were acquaintances from starring in that Superman movie. Seeing them together was neat. I had already hung out with Brandon for a while, working on the script. Then I met Sam. He came to one of our lunches. He just came in and was Sam. Seeing their friendship sealed it. We were under the gun to get this started, and it was to our benefit to have two great friends starring in it. We didn't have to worry about their chemistry. They felt like they had such a long relationship together. I don't think people will think of their other film when they watch it. That was Clark Kent and Jimmy. Sam didn't have a lot of scenes with Brandon as Superman. I wasn't too worried about it. Maybe it will effect future installments of Superman, but that's not my problem."
All three have worked closely together to get the screenplay just right. That's one of the reasons the actual filmmaking process has been so proficient. These guys know this story like the back of their hand. Why did they each have such a vested interest in making the best film possible? Munroe says, "It was all about being true to the property. Brandon didn't want to step into another iconic role and ruin it. We wanted the script to work, and we wanted an arch that was believable. We were always on the same page since day one." Chowing down on a plate of beef, Brandon stepped beside his director, shaking his head, "Yes." The pair seems to be in agreement about most things.
While Sam (aka Marcus) was being fastened to a harness on the scaffolding, Brandon shared some of his thoughts on the process behind making Dead of Night. It sounds like it will be one of the definitive must-see genre flicks of next year, but that wasn't always the case. When first dipping his toe into the role, Routh quickly realized he was following up one iconic figure in pop culture (i.e. Superman), with another that was equally as popular (at least in Dylan Dog's homeland). It's been difficult for Routh to find just the right role to follow-up his 2006 debut, but he saw this as the road less traveled, "This was an opportunity to do something completely different from what I'd done before. Most people have only seen me as Superman and Clark Kent. This is very far removed from those two characters. That was the main draw. I have been attached to this for a long time. I think it's been about a year and a half. I grew to really love Dylan Dog. When Kevin Munroe came on, we were able to be very collaborative. We were able to talk about the story. We formed a great partnership. I felt really included. And I loved the subject matter. It is a fun ride and a great script. It is something we haven't really seen before. Sure, it was already all in those comics, but those comics haven't reached that wide of an audience in the states yet. We have an opportunity to show this relationship between Marcus and Dylan in a new light. That is exciting to me."
Brandon and Sam have been close friends since starring together in Superman Returns, and that off-screen relationship has certainly broken through and seeped into Dead of Night. Routh says of their on and off-screen relationship, "There are some similarities. Sam is very similar to Marcus. They have the same energy level. They both never want to be the bad guy, so they are always apologizing. They are always saying, "I'm sorry." My nature is a little more balanced. I tend to be a little bit drier with my humor. And that is how Dylan is too. It holds everything in nicely. In the comics, my character does have a bit of a dark side. We don't delve into that too much. There is a deep backstory as to why Dylan has left the investigation business. In our story he was a cop at one time. He left that and became the investigator fans all know and love. At the beginning of this film, he is a regular P.I. He is doing husband and wife stuff, cheating spouses, numbing himself just to stay alive. He knows what is out there, but doesn't want to think about it. Dylan is in a funk. He is just getting back into the swing of things, and he doesn't want to take this particular case. Then bad things happen, and he is forced into action. When we go further in future movies, we will be able to look back. Maybe we will do a prequel, or we will reflect on some of Dylan's past in upcoming episodes." Yes. That's right. Munroe, Huntington, Routh, and the rest of the team are planning a trilogy. But there main focus is on making the best film possible at this very moment in time. Without that, there will be no sequels.
Hopefully, fans of the comic will love this American big screen take on the franchise. Routh's intention was to never stray far from the character as it was drawn on the page, but they have taken some liberties, "There are a few differences. One being that we are bringing this to a mass audience that doesn't really know Dylan at all. We have to make him appealing to a lot of people. Unfortunately and fortunately, Dylan has certain quirks that make him unique on paper. When you are trying to bring those to the big screen, and he is your hero, those quirks can confuse the issue. Dylan is a little numb, because he is just coming out of his funk. That is the major difference. We had to do that. It's hard to translate Vertigo, or his being afraid of certain things, to film. While it makes him a great character in the comics, it doesn't make him likable on screen."
With the character never appearing in an American film prior to this, some aspects of his personality were open for interpretation. Routh did have a role model for Dylan, "Han Solo. Indiana Jones, certainly. All those great Harrison Ford characters have been a great starting point. It's in the voice of Dylan, probably from the writers. I have carried that into my performance. There are all of these emotions going on with Dylan. When he has to step up and face the danger, that all goes away. Dylan puts on his game face. The flaws in the character weren't so much about Dylan as they were about overall flow of the story. I didn't get involved with changing the dialogue in the script at all. That sometimes happens on set, because certain things are easier to say in a certain way. You sometimes change a few words. The relationships with Marcus and Elizabeth have changed a little bit. My involvement with the story has made me a little bit more passionate about it. I am proud to bring this to the screen. Maybe it makes me work harder."
While we talked to Brandon, Sam Huntington was busy getting thrown off the scaffolding in the adjoining room. He had a wire attached to a harness on his back, which jutted out from the spine of his leather jacket. In a pageboy cap and striped purple and black t-shirt, Marcus looks like a missing member of the East Side Kids. His living dead make-up is subtle. His skin is just starting to yellow, and rigor mortis hasn't quite set in yet. He is the true definition of "sidekick". During a break between doing his own stunts, Huntington chatted with us about rotting from the inside out, "The make-up is not nearly as fucked up as it could be. I think I am freshly dead. Its mild. We originally thought I would wake up in the morgue, and I would have cataracts. But now, we think it would be cooler if I was walking down the street at the end of the film, and my eyes have just started to turn. I am slowly getting downtrodden. Dylan looks over at me and does a double take. Then, in the next film, I am more decomposed. I have upgraded myself with new limbs."
Sam came to the film before either Routh or Munroe, "I auditioned three months before Brandon even heard about it. It was the craziest thing ever. I auditioned for the movie. I had a great read. This was a year before Kevin came aboard. It was completely obvious. I loved this role. It is a fun, funny role. It is really appealing to me. I got a call from Brandon, and he says, 'I got attached to this movie. Its called Dead of Night. You should check it out.' I said, 'Yeah, man. I know all about it.' At that point, when we realized we were both really into it, it was our mission to make it together. We've been tight ever since Superman, but we were friends before that. It's nice to be on set with a buddy. There is that automatic comfort level. You don't have to worry about anything. We live in the same place here in New Orleans. Its nice to have that kind of relationship bleed into the screen."
When asked what was tougher, dealing with the make-up every morning, or dealing with a stunt like being tossed off scaffolding, Sam replied, "The make-up is a lot of fun. And we've done a lot of cool stunty stuff. I grew up as a gymnast. I grew up doing stuff like I am doing here today. It is all fun, and its natural for me to do the stunts myself. At one point, I had to crawl out from under a crypt that was under a flat slab. It was covered in dirt and spiders. That's the one thing I didn't want to do, and probably the most challenging.".
Though the film is dealing with a lot of iconic movie monsters, each creature of the unknown has a fresh take and update, especially zombies like Marcus, "That's what I love about this movie. I love the take on it. Everybody asks me if I am talking, or if I am the bad guy. But no, that's the thing. I am deteriorating slowly. My brain is still function. I just don't feel pain. I am still me. I am a little sallow. I don't want to reveal anything I am not supposed to. But there are some great things that zombies do in this world. I have a hard times coming to grips with my death. I think Marcus is just learning to deal with this world. We all have that friend that is a couple of years younger than you. They keep you young, and put a smile on your face. For Dylan, Marcus might be his comic relief,. They are old buddies. It's an older brother, younger brother dynamic. I am constantly trying to earn his respect. I can relate to that. I think anyone can. I think Marcus is trying to learn as much as he can from Dylan. There is a huge part of Marcus that wants to do legitimate detective work. He is trying to pull that out of Dylan, because Dylan has fallen into a funk. That's what a lot of the movie is about."
In the original Italian version of the comic book, Dylan's sidekick is Groucho Marx. Because of rights issues with the Marx estate, Groucho's image couldn't be used, but the character still resonates in Marcus, "The comic tried to utilize a lot of different kinds of humor. I think there is a little bit of that in my character. There are little winks to the Groucho Marx character. But this is not Groucho. This is a fresh take on things. There wasn't much research to do because of this. My research including reading the script twenty times. I wanted to get this character right. And I wanted to get Dylan and Marcus' relationship right. Because that aspect is new. It is unique to the script. Whenever I take on a job, I read the script several times. But with this movie in particular, I really wanted to do it justice. It was written so well."
One of the greatest thing about the project is its menagerie of monsters. Before being hoisted off the ground, Sam spoke about this aspect of Dead of Night, "This giant zombie that we are fighting today is one of the coolest things in the film. It is so successfully transferred from one of Kevin's sketches. The make-up and effects guys nailed it. It is amazing. It is one of my favorite beasts that I have ever seen. Then there is a giant beast at the end that is just so awesome. But I am not allowed to talk about that. Then there are the zombies. Taye Diggs plays a vampire. There are a ton of vampires in the movie, but they are all in different stages of vampiredom. He is all vamped-up. He looks awesome. Then we have the zombies, and the werewolves. It is a fresh take on all of these things, while also being a throw back to the werewolves and zombies of olde. It is tremendous. And it is being done really well." With that, Sam was strung back up in the rafters, and we were finally instructed to leap and bite at him as he was dangled down into our zombie camp. It was quite the fun day on this particular movie set.
We will have more with Anita Briem, who plays Elizabeth, and Kurt Angle, who plays the werewolf king Wolfgang, in the coming months. The film is set to open in 2010.