"It's not about what you are— it's about who you are."
The film CIRQUE DU FREAK: THE VAMPIRE'S ASSISTANT, based on the popular series of books by Darren Shan, is a fantasy-adventure about a teenager of the same name who unknowingly becomes entangled in a contentious, centuries-old vampire rivalry teetering on the edge of war. Steve, Darren’s best friend and fellow high school outcast dreams of becoming a vampire, but it is Darren who is pulled into a fantastic life of misunderstood sideshow freaks and grotesque creatures of the night.
“There’s something about starting to become an adult that feels like you’ve entered a moral gray area…where things aren’t good or evil,” says Director/Screenwriter Paul Weitz. “That is what sucked me into this: Darren’s story is a metaphor for growing up.” He vanishes from the safety of a boring existence to fulfill his destiny in a place drawn from nightmares.
Morpheus reigns on many levels
German Expressionism of the 1920s and‘30s inspired the look and feeling of the world that teenager Darren Shan [Chris Massoglia] would enter—a world that vampire Larten Crepsley [John C. Reilly] had been living in for centuries. “Darren discovers a place that's far more visually captivating and ethnically diverse than his pastel-saturated suburban home,” Weitz explains. “The German Expressionist painters’ vision was dark and somewhat humorous, but also incredibly colorful. That was part of the reason I wanted to make the film…to do something that was gothic, but completely packed with color.”
“I felt it was essential to work with people who could jump right in and invent things,” he adds, “many who had collaborated with me before.” Thus, the project was a perfect fit for Set Decorator David Smith SDSA and Production Designer William Arnold, who have teamed with Weitz on several films, including AMERICAN DREAMZ, IN GOOD COMPANY and, currently, THE LITTLE FOCKERS.
The cavalcade of characters comprising the Cirque du Freak presented Smith, Arnold and their teams the opportunity to create amazingly imaginative sets, each revealing not only the peculiarities of the freaks, but also the depth of their humanity. Tents, huts, yurts, cottages, trailers and wagons shelter and define the denizens of the cirque community, such as:
Vampire Larten Crepsley – A coffin bed is not the most unique feature of this Victorian vampire’s domain, which he shares with his oversized poisonous spider, Madame Octa. In fact, the tent is an architectural paean to the gargantuan arachnid.
Madame Truska, the Bearded Lady [Salma Hayek] – Fabrics are lush, sensuous, gorgeous, with smoldering hues evocative of the mystery and passion Madame Truska exudes. Hanging pieces subtly remind of her hirsute nature.
Evra the Snake Boy [Patrick Fugit] – The scaly teenager is a rock musician. All he really wants to do is make music. The snakeskin-like green silk walls, Goth drawings, gigantic terrarium and equally large drum-set telegraph the boy’s dichotomy. Evra is forced to share his dwelling with Darren, whom he eventually befriends.
Merman [Wayne Douglas Morgan] – Of course, a man of the sea would have a fishmobile, complete with shell-covered throne and table, plus a lovely reading lamp, as he sits playing his violin through a wall of water.
Arnold points out thatit was important that the audience could walk with Darren and discover an otherworldly place.
Moss-laden branches of ancient trees, weathered buildings and the almost mystical mist of Louisiana offered the creative team an atmospheric base point. A rundown theater in New Orleans was elaborately restored, then aged again and transformed into the freak show’s clandestine performance venue.
Due to the restrictive filming hours when working with children, the entire, elaborate, self-sustaining cirque encampment [exteriors as well as interiors] had to be built indoors, where lighting could be controlled for day or night. Even the canopy of oaks was re-created onstage.
The nature of vampires requires contact within graveyards and because New Orleans is below sea level, all cemeteries there are comprised of above-ground crypts.This forced the hand of the production, which moved to Baton Rouge to film the cemetery scenes, where they could dig six to eight feet down before water began seeping into the holes!
When the war between the underworld of Vampires and the Vampaneze finally explodes, this parable finds the best friends on opposing sides. Good versus evil lurks even in the darkside.
There’s an underlying current of camp mixed with the darkness in CIRQUE DU FREAK. Humor and color are deftly woven through the film’s tapestry, underscoring the paradox of characterizing good and evil.