Interview with Michael and Peter Spierig (aka The Spierig Brothers), writers/directors of Daybreakers
Daydreakers is a fiercely innovative revisionist vampire flick from Aussie tag team Michael and Peter Spierig (aka The Spierig Brothers) who burst on the cult film scene with 2003’s zombie mayhem spectacular, Undead. Daybreakers arrives at cinemas as the latest in a recent tidal wave of vampire movies – including Twilight 1 and 2, Lesbian Vampire Killers, the Blade trilogy, Underworld, Night Watch and 30 Days of Night – but the Spierig’s make it clear from the get-go that this will be no garden variety vampire story. Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil and Claudia Karvan, Daybreakers is a jet-black fang fest from two freshly minted Australian exports. The Spierig Brothers take timeout from a busy publicity schedule to chat with Cinetology.
Firstly congrats on the film. What sort of response have you been getting? How have audiences reacted to it?
Michael: It’s been great. We’ve just come back from the States and it’s still in cinemas over there. It’s done great over there. We’ve opened in UK and it’s done great there too. It’s been really really good. We were a little nervous, releasing after this sort of wave of vampire films. We thought oh my god we might be in trouble here but thankfully audiences have been quite receptive and they’ve understood that our film is a very different take on the current vampire trend.
It’s good that you brought up other vampire films because I think that’s certainly on a lot of people’s minds. I wrote in my review that “Daybreakers makes Twilight look like play school.” Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Michael: We’ve got Jay Laga’aia in our film, so there you go! Jay’s in Play School. That’s a fair assessment. No sparkly vampires in our film.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that you guys don’t seem like the kind of people who would be great appreciators of the Twilight series?
Michael: To be honest I’ve seen the first film (but) I haven’t seen the new one with the greased up shirtless werewolves. I haven’t seen that one. I just couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. There is something so wrong about werewolves becoming this sort of cutesy boy band. It really bothers me. I want nothing to do with it.
Peter: Twilight is one of those things where I get why it’s found an audience but I really think, you know, give it ten years it will be like New Kids on the Block. It will be one of those pop culture mistakes. People will look back and go “what the hell were we thinking?” But I don’t think that will happen any time soon, and to be perfectly honest I wish I had a piece of that, because they are making so much money – it’s insane!
Absolutely. By contrast I think Daybreakers is a film that’s going to have a great deal of longevity. One of the reasons is because the film is sprinkled with small, nifty flourishes that combine to form quite an innovative twist on the genre. For example, moments like the car chase scene where bullet holes puncture the car and create streams of light that Ethan Hawke’s character has to dodge. And there is the scene in which we learn that commuters take blood shots in the lattés. How did you arrive at these small, unessential but interesting ideas? Have they been brewing in your heads for a while? Have you been watching horror movies and talking to each other about these kind of innovations? How did they come about?
Michael: Yeah, all of that. We worked on the script for the better part of two years so it was really a matter of coming up with the ideas then playing in the sand box for awhile, talking about every possibility of how the world with work. How do they get to work? How do they look at themselves in the mirror if they don’t cast a reflection? What’s happened to the animals of the world? All of these things were discussed and a lot of it made it into the film. Some of it didn’t. If we ever do another (Daybreakers) film there is a whole world we haven’t fully explored which we would love to do. We spent a long time just playing around asking ourselves “well, what if? How does every bit of this world function?” It’s part of the joy of coming up with these fantasy worlds.
I was one of what I assume to be a relatively small number of critics who really loved Undead. I guess what pushed it over the line for me was the inventiveness of the film’s visual structure. It cost around a million dollars but it looked like it cost at least ten times that amount. Is it fair to say that your creative use of the budget in Undead – a real demonstration of bang for buck – is the main reason you were able to get funding for a much bigger film with a much bigger profile?
Michael: I think it helped. I think it really helped. I think that what we do that helps sell us as filmmakers is that we do our own animatics. We do story boards, we do a lot of visual material. I think that’s the key when you’re making these types of really visual movies – to have that sort of pre-visualisation to sell to the studio. It always comes down to script. If the script is solid they’ll get involved. But for us it was definitely a degree of preparation that we could use to sort of sell the idea. Daybreakers cost 20 million and it certainly looks like it cost more than that. So we know how to stretch a dollar, and a lot of Aussies do. We come from a low budget to no budget school of filmmaking and I don’t think any Aussie filmmaker will tell you that they’ve just come into movies with all the money in the world. Aussies are good at being resourceful.
Peter: The reality is that quite often when you have very limited resources it forces you into a situation where you have to be creative or find creative solutions to problems rather than just throwing money at them. And quite often that is a better way to go – to find a way to deal with things. We wanted to have a car chase in our movie but the reality was that we weren’t going to be able to do something on the level of The Matrix or anything like that. We thought well, what’s great about this car chase is that we’re using light beams, like you said, and cameras and things like that. The thing that was really helpful too was that our cast were shooting in a car with blacked out windows, so we could shoot it all in the studio and shoot it really quickly and nobody had to go out on location. There were a lot of things like that that made the whole process cheaper but also hopefully offered something new.
So how much actual hands-on special effects work did you guys do for the film?
Peter: We did visual effects, computer effects. We did 350 of the shots and there are 500 of them. So we did quite a lot. Some stuff was very simple; some stuff was really complex. The really complicated shots went to a post house in Sydney called Post Modern and a company in Brisbane called Kanooka and everything else Michael and I did. It was a lot of work.
When you get into filmmaking, the more experience you accrue the more you learn the “dos” and “don’ts”. What were some of the “don’ts” you learnt while making Undead? What would you not do again?
Michael: The major don’t I think is don’t overstretch yourself. On Undead we were the writers, directors, producers. We did the visual effects. We did a lot of the art department. We did everything and I’ve learnt not to spread yourself too thin. That’s the big thing. We wrote and directed Daybreakers but we didn’t produce it. We had a great cinematographer and a great production designer. The less I can do and the more I can focus purely on directing, I think the better I will be as a filmmaker and the better the film will turn out because I’m focusing so much on the one thing rather than so many other things.
Is that when it helps to have the two of you on the set?
Peter: Absolutely. When something is really complex it’s great to have two people with exactly the same intentions. Michael could spend some time say in the art department while I go and spend more time with the actors or vice versa. The great thing on Daybreakers is we didn’t really have a second unit director. We had a second unit cinematographer slash director and he was great but when it came to doing important things in second unit Michael would go off and shoot it or I would go off and shoot it. So there was always a director on every unit. That made it very helpful.
I think most people when they see co-directing credits sort of picture two people standing next to each other barking orders at the same time. I guess it means that if you’re able to be in different places at the same time the production would run – theoretically at least – shorter and more efficiently.
Michael: Yes, absolutely, and that’s when it comes down to the pre-production as well. Making sure you’re not going off on two different tangents. It’s really important that doesn’t happen and it didn’t with this film. Splitting up and directing multiple units was something we did out of necessity because we had a short shooting window. This film was shot in 40 days, which in the scheme of Hollywood moviemaking is really fast. For an Aussie film that’s not fast but considering the complexity of this movie, that’s pretty quick…Splitting up, it was useful when we were running out of time because Peter would direct a scene with Ethan and Will and I’d be off shooting something with Isobel Lucas and Sam Neil. It was such a useful way to maximise our time. You have to remember too that you only have actors for a certain window of time. We only had Sam for a couple of weeks so we had to make sure he wasn’t sitting around waiting to go on set.
Talking about actors, you guys went from working with virtual no-name actors in Undead to working with some big names – Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neil and others. How easy or difficult was it to get them to sign on, and had they all seen Undead?
Peter: At the time when we sent them the script no, they hadn’t seen our first film. In fact they kind of read the script just on the basis that it was recommended to them by their agents and they reacted purely to the script to begin with. They really wanted to do it because they felt the ideas were interesting and different. Then Ethan and Sam and Willem and Claudia and everyone else ended up seeing Undead eventually. We were nervous about that. As long as the film is seen in the right light – if it was watched as it was intended to be as a fun, silly movie then great, they should have a good time. And they all did, which was fantastic.
I don’t think you guys should underestimate Undead as a film though…
Michael: Oh I love that movie. I think it was made in the right spirit. I’ve learnt a lot since that film but I look back on that film very fondly.
Peter: Absolutely. Hopefully it will be one of the hardest films we’ll ever make. I’m sure there will be other complexities but I’m very proud of it because it was such an ordeal just to get film rolling through the camera every day…we were all going into it with little to no experience and just doing it because we were all passionate about making movies. It was one of those rare experiences in which people weren’t there to be getting paid, they were there because they just love the idea of making a film.
I assume after Undead was made and released that you guys got offered projects from studios in Hollywood. What sort of offers were there and did you seriously consider any of them?
Michael: You’ve got to remember Undead wasn’t a huge hit but it was a cult hit. What happened was we started to get these offers to direct straight to DVD sequels like Children of the Corn 5. We sat there and thought “oh shit, is this really what we’re going to have to do?” It kind of makes you reassess your career and we were like well the other way we’re going to get to where we want to be is if we write another script. That’s when we came up with the idea of Daybreakers and started writing. While the door did open in Hollywood, it didn’t open very wide. If you generate your own material as a writer/director you really have a lot of control and a lot of power when it comes to dictating what you’re going to make as a filmmaker. If you go in always as a director for hire looking for work I think your opportunities are far more limited and your control is also far more limited.
I assume the studio read the script for Daybreakers and really liked it. Did they ever try to attach a different director to it?
Michael: No, that was never an option. I think if we hadn’t directed Undead and we came up with the script they would have, but that was never an option.
You crammed a lot of ideas into Daybreakers. However I thought that the subplot involving the third breed of people – the disgusting monster bat things – were only briefly touched upon. Was this a matter of time constraints? Did those freaky things have more material in the original script?
Michael and Peter in unison: yes they did.
Michael: There was a big sequence with them towards the end of the second act, going into the third act. There was a big set piece with those creatures. We scouted the location, we started the makeup, we were literally ready to go on it and then the resources and the money just weren’t there to shoot it, because it was such a heavy action sequence.
Peter: There is a piece of it in the film where the army goes into the subway and you see under the grate the two creatures run past the grate. There was a whole action sequence with them and the military. Later on they execute these subsiders in this sort of chain gag; they drag them out in the sun. There was a whole sequence where they captured these creatures, which unfortunately we could never shoot. Bit of a shame, but what can you do?
There’s been some speculation, partly sustained by some of the things both of you have said, that there might be sequels in the works. I even read something about comic books. It might be a bit early for this kind of talk, what with you next film Captain Blood coming up, but I’m curious – what Daybreakers follow-up projects, if any, are you guys most keen to get off the ground?
Peter: I’d definitely be interested in a sequel if the ideas are there. We’ve got a few ideas we’ve had for quite a long time. I’m interested in the idea of exploring the world a bit more, in other forms. There is a graphic novel that Michael and I have outlined. Who knows, there might be a TV series. It is hard to know at this stage because there are so many ideas floating around. I think TV is a great format to explore more of this world – a sort of side story in the world that doesn’t involve our main cast. Who knows? We’ll see. If there’s an audience for these types of things I think Michael and I would be very keen to do something like that.
Michael: Absolutely. I’ve been living with this film for so long so I think that it might be nice to go on and do something else first and then revisit this world. TV is such a great medium now. Some of my favourite stuff is television. I rarely see anything in the movies that I find as compelling as I do a HBO TV show or something like that. Television is an avenue we really wanted to explore.