Buffy star Juliet Landau on her vampiric directing debut
Juliet Landau, star of television phenomenon Buffy The Vampire Slayer, talks to us about directing her debut feature A Place Among The Dead, collaborating with a host of stars such as Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Joss Whedon and even author Anne Rice, plus working with London-based Modern Films to release the film online later this month.
2020 has undoubtedly been the year of all years to catch up on the films and TV shows you never made time for pre-Covid. Whether it's having the time to watch something new, or catch up on something old, lockdown has had home audiences hoovering up all the content they can get their eyes on. For me, it meant finally watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the very first time. Yes, first time. If you haven't fainted, please read on.
So, imagine my delight when the opportunity came up to chat with one of the stars of the show, Juliet Landau, as she embarks on her journey as a director with her debut feature A Place Among The Dead - it's upcoming release one of the blessings this year has offered her.
"Well, it's been such a terrible time. People are sick and dying, it's been really scary. Thankfully, my husband and I have been safe and well, and as far as work goes, we're really looking forward to A Place Among The Dead coming out. It was originally going to be in theaters, but now it's mostly virtual, and we've crafted a release plan with Modern Films that I'm super excited about. It's a movie that I made to provoke conversation and discussion, so we have a way to connect and talk, and have an online community during this time."
The film uses the documentary format to tell the fictional story of filmmaker Jules (played by Landau) shooting a documentary that explores our obsession with the vampire, in literature and pop culture, as well as our real-world fascination with the vampiric lifestyle. It promises to be more shockumentary than mockumentary.
"The movie is about the repercussions of growing up under the sway of narcissism and evil. I chose to make the movie incredibly personal. As they say the more personal, the more universal. I really want to provoke the viewer into becoming a participant, to open up a discussion that gives voice to what has affected many. I do this meld of fact, fiction and the fantastical, to blur the lines and use the vampire genre to make not only an entertaining movie, but also one that lulls the audience into a sense of safety, which allows them to explore unsafe and radical ideas."
The lines between fact and fiction are blurred further still by the inclusion of well known, real-life players in the vampire realm who appear as interview subjects. These include Robert Patrick, Joss Whedon, Lance Henriksen, Ron Perlman, Gary Oldman and even Anne Rice, author of the novel Interview with the Vampire.
"We all play alter ego versions of ourselves and I'm so fortunate to have such an unbelievable cast. All of the actors believed in the message of the movie and my vision, and it was a serendipitous process of asking and people to come on board.
"It was an interesting process because we scripted the interviews to look like they were non-scripted and spontaneous. Everybody was just incredible. It was funny with Gary Oldman because in between takes he would say, 'Do you think that seems real? Do you think that seems like me? Is it very natural?' And I would say, 'Yes, Gary, I think you've got this acting thing down'. That was a lot of fun.
"As for the shoot, we were vampires ourselves! We basically worked from 6pm to 6am for 18 days straight for part of it, then we swapped around and shot the rest of it. Altogether it ended up being about a three-and-a-half-month shoot."
Helming her first feature, and with such a demanding shoot, what experience from her career as an actor prepared her for the role of director? Equally, what aspects of the role presented a learning curve?
"Well, I think I've worked with the best. I've worked with Tim Burton and Joss Whedon, and as an actor you get to be on set and be immersed in the environment that's created. I hoped to emulate what those great auteurs do, which is foster an atmosphere of freedom, collaboration and creativity, with a very pointed focus and vision, so that it's really fun, but also everybody has a common goal.
"It's just been an incredible learning curve. I love both acting and directing, but the interesting thing about directing is that you are taking an idea right from its inception all the way to its conclusion. You are responsible for every aspect, every creative choice. There were so many things that I learned, from raising the finance, finding the investors, creating the investor paperwork to creating a lookbook ahead of time so that all the department heads were on the same page in terms of what we wanted the movie to look and feel like."
"The rehearsal process with the actors was a dream. I have a strong background in theater, so it was great to do that and pull the DP into our rehearsals so that we were really prepared on shoot days. Then I was switching between being subjective and objective by being behind the camera, and then in front of the camera. It's a particularly emotional character, so I was having to be super emotional and then come back and be together while talking to people off camera."
They say when you make a film, you make three films; the one you write, the one you shoot and the one you edit. Moving into post-production, it's a saying that rings true for Landau.
"Absolutely rings true. It's interesting. I feel like there's a certain point in the edit where the picture tells you what it needs to be. It's like any creative process. I think that in my experience with creativity across the board, it's wonderful to be incredibly prepared and then to be open to happy accidents.
"Patrick Sheffield, who edited the BAFTA-nominated Tim's Vermeer, edited A Place Among the Dead. We worked very intimately and closely together. We also found that it worked well for me to cut stuff to show him what I was thinking about in actuality. I even edited the trailer that is out now."
Bringing the conversation back to the subject matter of A Place Among The Dead, and our continued fascination with all things vampire, what was it like being part of one of the most beloved TV series to ever tackle the topic? Landau played the character of Drusilla across 17 episodes of the hit show.
"It's wonderful to be on a show that strikes such a chord, let alone one with the phenomenal writing and the three-dimensional characters that Joss Whedon created. It was funny, I always do this thing at the start of the year where I write down my goals for the year. The year I got Buffy, I actually had written down two things. One was, I'd like to get a role that I can sink my teeth into. The other one was that I wanted to do a period movie. What was interesting about that is that it ended up both became true. While I didn't mean it as literally as sinking my teeth in, there were so many flashback sequences from 1800 and such that it was like doing a period movie."
"The fans of Buffy and Angel are just the best. They follow you from project to project. What's incredible about it is that it's a show you can watch with your whole family. The writing has so many levels and all of the issues still speak to people, but I think the fact that generationally people can re-watch it again with their kids, and even their grandkids, is part of the reason that it holds up so well."
It's at that this point I confess to be watching the show for the very first time, and the great amusement my friends are having when I share my discovery of 20 year old plot points.
"That's wild, I hope you're enjoying the ride!"
Having been a part of a television series that has contributed significantly to the pop-culture canon of vampires, how did this experience impact the exploration and telling of her own vampiric tale?
"The thing that's interesting in the movie is that I use the vampire as the perfect metaphor for the ultimate narcissist. It's a being that drains you, sucks your all energy, you have to invite it in, it often mesmerizes and puts you in its thrall. Really, it's everything's on that creature's terms. That's the thing that I'm using the vampire for. It's interesting because people use it to reflect every different aspect of the human condition.
"For Joss, it was high school as a nightmare. For Charlaine Harris, she was looking at homosexuality. In terms of Kevin Grevioux, who created Underworld, he said it was all about his experiences with interracial dating, so he created two different clans that don't get along. For Anne Rice, she had a child that died of leukaemia, so she created a child vampire who lives forever. It's such a fascinating way to reflect on our own natures."
"A Place Among The Dead really is its own animal, even the construction of it is unique. We finished it just before lockdown and we had these sneak peeks and the response was so powerful and beautiful. Many people came out crying. Everybody stayed afterwards for over two hours, not only to talk about the film but to share intensely personal stories, which is really one of the most exciting things about the movie now coming out."
The film is being distributed and released online later this month by Modern Films, a London-based, female-led film production, distribution and event cinema company, whose previous films include Oscar-nominee Border and Cannes-winner Happy as Lazzaro.
"Modern Films is the perfect fit, it's like finding a kindred spirit, long lost family. You know that feeling when you connect with people immediately? They connected with the movie and it's the first time they're going outside the UK and Ireland with worldwide with distribution, as they feel so strongly that what we're tackling in the movie is incredibly timely.
"One of the reasons we were so excited about working with the company is that they do events and we're going to be doing them online, so we'll be screening the movie and then having a Q&A where we get to interact and talk with people after. I really can't wait for that.
"We're going to be doing our worldwide virtual premiere on October 29, sponsored by MAC cosmetics and New York Comic Con. A lot of our cast will be there. It's all from everyone's living rooms. We're going to be doing a virtual red carpet, which we're calling a 'home carpet', then we're going to screen the movie and have a Q&A. We're also doing virtual preview screening events on October 30th and 31st Halloween weekend, each very different and fantastic. All tickets are available at Modern Films."
And with the release of the film imminent, if there was one piece of advice Landau could go back and give herself art the start of this journey, what would it be?
"I'd say, get some sleep early on! You're not going to get much for a while after that. That would probably be my advice. It's almost like having a baby. It's good to get your sleep and your rest ahead of time. It's been such a phenomenal and exciting ride. I'm thrilled that the movie is coming out and I can't wait for all of the conversations that I'm going to have."
You can follow Juliet on Twitter: @JulietLandau
For screening info about A Place Among The Dead visit Modern Films.