Thursday 8 May 2014

interview: Jake West, Eileen Daly and Rob Mercer (1998)

This interview about UK vampire flick Razor Blade Smile was conducted at the 9th Festival of Fantastic Films in September 1998. Present were writer/director Jake West, producer Rob Mercer and star Eileen Daly. I think a few bits of this interview may have appeared in SFX, but frankly I'm not certain.
  • More Jake West interviews: 2005, 2006, 2009
  • More Eileen Daly interviews: 1997
How long is it since Razor Blade Smile started as an idea?
Jake West: "It's coming up to about three years now. By the time it's released it will be virtually three years. I'd been working in the film industry for about three years. I left film school in 1992 and Razor Blade Smile probably started bubbling around 1995. We shot it in 1996, then the post-production took until just a couple of months ago when it was finally finished. So that's been the kind of timeline on it. And the release is on Halloween."

When you started I suppose you weren't envisaging a theatrical release.
JW: "When I started I wasn't sure what was going to happen with it. I shot it on film in the hope that one day, if it was any good, maybe there would at least be the option to have that. So using film was important to me. But at the time I was shooting it, I thought chances were it would probably just end up on video. Therefore I would never get to make a print of it, but as it turned out, that wasn't the case."

Did you make a vampire film because the market's there in the goth/fetish crowd?
JW: "Well, I've always liked vampire movies. I wrote a couple of scripts before I wrote Razor Blade. The problem was just trying to get the money for them. I wrote a zombie film first of all, thinking that would be great to get off the ground. But I budgeted it out and it came to about a quarter of a million because it needed a lot of elaborate effects and things like that. And I thought that was a fairly low budget at the time, being quite naive about it. Because it is a low budget, quarter of a million, but it's impossible to raise when you haven't got a track record. So I then wrote another script, but that was a bit of a non-starter.

"So I specifically wrote Razor Blade because I love vampire movies anyway, but also a vampire movie was a very viable movie to do on a relatively low budget because you don't need mega-amounts of make-up. You just need some good teeth; blood effects are quite simple and easy to do; stuff like that. And I fused that with the action genre which I like; I've been quite influenced by a lot of Hong Kong movies. I wanted to do the kind of movie which hadn't been done in the UK, and the kind of movie which I wanted to see. But yes, I know people who love vampire movies, so vampire movies are always around. It doesn't really matter, because you can always reinvent the vampire story or whatever. It's just very appealing from that point of view as well. But the script just came out of me and I really enjoyed writing it."

How difficult was it to find a new angle on a vampire movie?
JW: "When I was initially doing the notes for the script, just working out all the different ideas, I did a brainstorm where I just wrote out all of my feelings about vampires before I started writing. I was just trying to get into the psychology of what I thought this kind of character would do. Because I wanted to make it a fun character as well. So my reasoning was that basically, if you were a vampire in the modern day, you would have to blend into society. So you would want to earn money. I thought, also you would still have to kill people for their blood and by that point you would probably enjoy killing because you would have transcended any sort of humanity. You would have become a different creature.

“So the idea of a contract killer: yes, that would be good because then the vampire character wouldn't have to worry about who she was going to kill a lot of the time. Or being killed as well. It gives you a great edge on a job like that, and if you enjoy killing it's a bit more of a challenge. I thought that was a great idea and I'd never seen a vampire contract killer. That was just a very appealing idea. Once I'd got that in my mind, the script just sort of took off and the Lilith Silver character evolved around this cool assassin character."

At what stage did you bring Eileen on board?
JW: "I mentioned the script to her when I was writing it because she'd worked on a couple of productions that I did. One was a computer game CD-ROM that we cut scenes for, and Eileen did a couple of pop promos with acting bits in. So I knew Eileen. I also knew of her involvement in Redemption and the whole scene. So when I was casting I was looking for a specific type and Eileen fitted that remit pretty well, but the role wasn't offered straight to her. I did extensive casting, seeing lots of people. I saw about forty people for that part. So Eileen only actually got the role about a week and a half before we started filming. So it wasn't offered her on a plate. The character wasn't written for Eileen, but it was written for the kind of character which Eileen would be good at playing. And she was the best person in the audition. Eileen was involved in the project. Even if she hadn't got the lead, I would have wanted her to be in it. But she did a great reading and got the part."

Does it help that, particularly now, Eileen has become something of a horror icon?
JW: "Oh definitely, yes. At the time I was doing that I already thought she was a bit of an icon anyway because of the Redemption stuff, and I know Nigel Wingrove quite well as well. Eileen's always loved horror and she's never looked down her nose at it like certain actresses do. So that was one of Eileen's strengths as well. To actually be involved in that whole scene, I think Eileen is a very positive person for the genre and has been doing good. A lot of the things that Eileen has done over the past couple of years, her profile has risen. Also because of the kind of coverage that you've done and the fact that Eileen's just got a few groovy parts and stuff, like Archangel Thunderbird and the Redemption Bravo stuff and those kind of things. I think I was just lucky really. So hopefully Razor Blade will be another great thing for Eileen so she can do her next project, so hopefully somebody offers her loads of money to do something else."

How did you get David Warbeck involved in the film?
JW: "I was looking for a cameo star to play the role that his character plays. I wrote that part because it could just be done in a day and it could be done by somebody who was known to the fans. The original idea was to get Christopher Lee for that part, and I tried for months to get him. His agent, Jean Diamond, she's a [expletive deleted - MJS] and she's only interested in money. You can quote that if you want to. I'd love to work with Christopher Lee. I've got no problem with Christopher Lee, but because I didn't know anyone who knew him, I couldn't get past his agent. She wouldn't even take pages of the script for the character. She wouldn't pass them on to him. I approached her the correct route, legitimately. We could only have offered him a very small sum of money for doing it because we just didn't have any money. I understand that he doesn't want to be associated with being a vampire and stuff like that, but the role in that part was quite an affectionate character, just a friendly scientist who doesn't believe in vampires or the supernatural. So I thought that might have appealed to Christopher Lee's sensibilities. I've seen him in interviews and he does like helping film-makers out. I don't think he's got any problem with that, but basically we couldn't get through his agent.

"So I was left in a bit of a problem because I'd been trying for so long to get him and I'd actually started shooting and I still didn't have anybody in that role. So it looked like I might just have to get anybody to do it. But because Eileen had worked with David Warbeck on Pervirella, and also I'm friends with Alex Chandon as well, I asked them both if they thought David would be up for it. I got David's number and gave him a call and he said, 'Yes, let me have a look at the script and I'll let you know.' And a day later, after I got a copy of the script off, he gave me a phone call and he said he'd love to do it. Which was wonderful. Also at that time he was going through a lot of trouble. I don't know if you knew. He was going through a court case and also he was ill. I didn't realise any of that at the time. He had this court case going on."

I believe he was under house arrest for running a brothel.
JW: "That's correct. That was still going through and he actually had cleared his name, so he was a bit worried because that was all coming to a head and he'd had a hearing. So there were a few factors. But he said, 'I'd love to do it.' He came down for the day and it was just wonderful. Working with David Warbeck was phenomenal. I now feel very privileged because at the time nobody expected him to pass away a year later. It was a shock because he was 56 or 57. But it was wonderful to work with him and I feel very lucky. He was such a charming and gracious man and an actor, I hope it inspires other actors so that as they get towards the end of their careers they'll help young film-makers as well. What he did was very positive. He didn't just help me, he helped a whole bunch of young film-makers. He was in Pervirella, he was in Sudden Fury. He's always been on the scene, he went to all the fan conventions. He would always be there for the fans, and for the film-makers as well. I can't sing his praises highly enough really."

What about the rest of your cast?
JW: "The only other known person in the cast is probably Christopher Adamson, the guy with the scar. He was Mean Machine in Judge Dredd and he's been in a lot of stuff. He was in The Fifth Element as one of the airport guards who blasts down the thing. He was in Cutthroat Island, he was in Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves, he did Mad Dogs and Englishmen and he's currently doing a film called Lighthouse which is being made by a friend of mine, Simon Hunter. It's a sort of serial killer, slasher-type movie and he's playing the lead killer in that. So Christopher's been around and he's one of those faces that you sort of know but don't.

“The rest of cast: I put all the casting details in Production Casting Report which is a thing that gets circulated through all of the actors and all of the agents. You put the synopsis and details of all the parts. And for the next couple of weeks, we got literally thousands and thousands of CVs which I had to sift through and look at what people had done. Also there were a couple of parts where there were a few actors I'd worked with before. Like the Jim Pilgrim guy, the American bloke on the internet, he's a guy I've worked with a few times before and I asked him specifically to do that role. But on the whole there was only about seven per cent of people and they were in smaller roles. So that's how that came about really."

How has working on CD-ROMs and pop videos helped?
JW: "I'd been making films since I was about 16 on video and then I went to film school and I had a chance to work on film. So obviously all of that was experience and I made lots of weird stuff which I wanted to do. Film school got a lot of shit out of my system - and I also made a couple of good things as well. When I left, getting a job in the industry is quite hard and my primary skill was as an editor, so I sold that skill, using that to get directing gigs. Then managed to get some pop promos and the CD-ROM stuff. What was good about that was it was giving me the chance to shoot film. Unlike a lot of people, I wasn't just writing a script for three and a half years and having not done anything. I'd done more since I left film school than I'd done at film school, really, in a more professional environment with people who would then help me out with this. So that was just a way of honing my skills really and just keeping on the boil. I was just lucky. Filming anything is good; you always learn stuff when you film."

Rob, you were the producer on this film.
Robert Mercer: "Co-producer with Jake. I came in quite late, basically just before Jake was going to start shooting. Jake had really pre-produced the whole shoot. On the shoot I was more helping out, line production, running around, nuts and bolts. Constantly just running into London and getting more blood basically. Then when it came to the post we both shared responsibilities. I basically post-produced, set up all the deals for that and organised where tape was supposed to go and made sure everything was going right. Then when it came to dealing with Manga, we both again worked together. I was more dealing with the contract side of things with the solicitor and with the American solicitor to get everything right. Generally, that was about it."

You've got an American release?
RM: "We've got an American theatrical release which comes out on 16th October. They've managed to secure in LA, apparently the most prestigious independent theatre over there. As a result, they've decided to bring the American release forward to match that. They're looking probably about a week or a week and a half after that to release in New York and Chicago. Then to release in London on the 30th. And hopefully, fingers crossed, they're thinking is: if it does well in LA then they will spread it out to more towns across the States. They've had a couple of test screenings and everything was very positive for that, so fingers crossed for that one."

Are you going out there to promote it?
RM: "Yes, we'll be going out for the release on 16th October. I'll probably only be going out for the release there. Then these guys hopefully will be going from LA to Chicago, then to New York. But that is still to be confirmed."

Eileen, how was this role first presented to you?
Eileen Daly: "As Jake said before, I knew him through doing a couple of pop promos and bits and pieces like that, that he was doing at the time. He told me at the CD-ROM party that he'd written a script, there were three girls, three sexy babes that he needed. And he was pleased with the script and going ahead with it, and he was excited. I said, 'Can I have a role in it?' He said, 'Well, you'll have to cast for it, but yes, when it's actually finalised I'll give you a ring and tell you when it's on.' So he did. He said it was on, so I went up for a casting."

What was the stuff you'd done with Jake before?
ED: "We'd done a pop promo with me in a cornfield as a butterfly. But bloody thing - it rained and they couldn't get the sun right. So we had to come back the next morning and do a reshoot on that."

I can't see you as a butterfly.
ED: "I was a good butterfly."

JW: "Eileen was wearing a translucent rubber dress, like a condom dress, and she had this full-face make-up like a butterfly's wing across her face. We put her in this chrysalis and she tears her way out of it. So it's all very dramatic. It was for a band called The Rain, a rock band. They never got anywhere, but the video's quite nice. The first day was shit because it rained, but the second day it shined and it was sunny. It was all based around Magritte paintings. Bowler hats and stuff, and sofas in the field. All very silly, but it looked nice."

ED: "So I'd done that, and he said there was a casting going, come in. So I actually asked him to bike over the script because I wanted to have a look at it. I thought the script was fantastic. I looked at the script and I loved Lilith Silver! I wanted Lilith, I didn't want the other babes! I got my audition date. I was the first girl to be auditioned, wasn't I? And I knew there was some action in the movie, so when I was making the coffee, I got Jake in the kitchen and I started showing off. Do you remember me doing my kung fu kicks and everything? I was trying to impress him! Showing him my muscles, because I'd been training a lot then. I'd been training for three years and I was a lot bigger. I'd done kickboxing but mainly weight-training. I was really into weight-training, cardiovascular. I loved it, I ate the right food.

"So anyway, I didn't hear anything for about three weeks and he was obviously seeing loads of other girls. But I was saying to Nigel, 'Oh God, he hasn't rung, you know. He hasn't rung.' Every now and then I'd say, 'Jake rung?' 'No.' Anyway, he phoned up and he said we've now cut it down to about two or three people, so I'd like you to come in again. So I went in again and then waited another week, biting my nails. Because Jake would never jeopardise this; this is his first film, his baby, and he wanted to get it right. Just because he knows me and he likes me, there was no guarantee. With Jake, just because he knows and likes someone and he thinks they might be right for the part, if someone better came along, I know he would take that other person. Because he's put his life on the line, he wants the right person for it. And that worried me! But then Jake phoned up and said, 'I've got some good news. You've got the part of Lilith Silver!'

"So that's how it happened. I was so pleased. I trained out: I got someone in to look at my lines and help me with my lines on each scene. How would one act as a vampire assassin who was from the 18th century and is now in 1996 or whenever it was? All these elements. Do you play it like a Gary Oldman and go, 'A-a-ah, ye-e-es...' or do you play it with some sophistication but always have that element? Here I'm speaking quite fast and I'm quite animated. So I had to chuck all that away and calm right down to the point where I was on two demazapans a day. But I wasn't. My voice had to be a lot richer and a lot slower and a lot sexier. I thought maybe it will go that way rather than going the full monty of vampire stuff. So yes, we were shooting within a week and a half; we were on set and we were ready to go. It was good."

Was it a very intensive shoot? Hard work?
ED: "Terribly hard work. The crew were great. We all slept in the same house together - it was like a commune. Jake's mum did the food. Everything was really, really simple. Jake didn't have a lot of money to play around with all these fineries like we're sitting here now in a hotel, eating breakfast. But everything was really good. It was very, very cold, I remember. And the catsuit was great and it looked great, but after three weeks of wearing a catsuit, the catsuit did become like a second skin. It was becoming cold. I would sweat underneath the catsuit and the sweat would turn to cold, so when I took it off I would be wringing all round the crutch, all under my bust. So it was hard work, because we had to move constantly. We'd rehearse once, shoot, off. Because we didn't have the fineries of having six takes and four weeks' rehearsal pre-shoot. Because we didn't have a lot of film. Another thing was that Jake's parents were moving to Devon and we had to shoot because they were moving within the time-scale that we were shooting. Their house was so wonderful to shoot at, we had to do it there and then."

JW: "There was a lot of location work. We started off in Buckinghamshire, then we came to London and we did a week in London, then we relocated to Kent, so we had to move a whole unit around on a low budget. Normally you're supposed to keep everything isolated in one place. That was difficult, I think, for the actors as well. Eileen was there all the time, because not only was she doing probably the biggest role she's ever, but it was shot completely out of sequence. And Eileen did really well with that."

ED: "One minute we were shooting the beginning of the film, and the next minute you're in a scene that's at the end. that sort of thing. Mentally you had to remember the script and all the middle bits that go through it."

JW: "Plus you're getting worn out by all the milage. Everyone starts off with loads of energy, but a couple of weeks in, after 18-hour days, everyone's really feeling it. When you analyse the film in a cosy environment, everyone talks about, 'Oh, why did you do it like that? You shouldn't really have done that.' But at the time, in those sort of situations, just getting it done is sometimes all you can do. We were very lucky. I think we got very good results for the limitations of what we were under as well. Eileen really got into the character. I think it took a couple of days, but then you really got it. That thing you did at the beginning of the shoot, which isn't your favourite - the Transylvania one - that was about the second or third day."

ED: "It took a while to get into the shoot. It always takes a while to get into knowing people for a start. I knew Jake, but I didn't know the cameraman and the guy who did the lights. On big feature films, the first week's worth of filming they usually reshoot because everyone's warming up to each other. Everyone knows their limitations and their goals. But we couldn't do that. So my first scene was the Transylvania scene. Every time I see that scene, I think it was a great scene, but I would love to have reshot that scene. Why? Only because I can see certain flaws; I could have sort of done it more if I'd digested it and had a couple of rehearsals and then made it more of my scene, rather than just a scene like it was. I would have warmed to it and made it a little bit more gestured and thought about getting up or looking at my watch or talking to Ariana in way that I would talk to her if I was a normal girl."

JW: "One of the good things about doing a film like this, though, because it was such an intensive thing, is that we've learnt so much by doing it. We can look at it now and it's not like we're saying this is the best thing we can ever do. It makes you think, 'God, if it's possible to do that like that, just imagine if we have a bit of time and a bit of money and some space, then we can really do something special.' The learning curve is so steep, doing something like this because it's just crazy. it's not like anything else you can think of. That kind of low-budget shoot is crazy."

In reinventing the vampire myth, it's almost like you're having a dig at people who take this too seriously. Is there a danger of alienating your core audience?
JW: "There's always a danger of alienating an audience, but that's not a reason not to do stuff. Otherwise, if you're just going to keep it the same as always, then there's nothing new about it. I think the kind of things that I was laughing at and having a slight dig at are the things which generally people find funny about vampires anyway. I think the notion of somebody five foot seven turning into a bat which is about half a foot or whatever is a bit ridiculous, or turning into a mist. All those things used to make me laugh about vampires. So I never really believed in those elements anyway. To me, they were the more ludicrous elements of it. The whole idea of somebody who is immortal, who has this kind of regenerative system if they drink blood, they're not really immortal even. Vampires can always get killed. I figured decapitation is the way to kill a vampire, rather than staking, because if your head comes off you're not going to regrow a new head, however good your regenerative powers are. It was just things like that, things that I just thought, 'Well, if it upsets people then I'm sorry but...'

"On the whole, everyone who's seen it out of the goth/vampire audience, these people do have a sense of humour as well. So on the whole they'll have got the joke. If anything they're the people who possibly found it the funniest because they're more into it. The trappings of vampire lore are the kind of things that they actually talk about, whereas the normal Joe Public doesn't necessarily think about that all day."

Are you hopeful that this will get beyond the core audience and be seen as a New British Film?
JW: "Of course, yes. If there's a chance for a crossover audience, because it's a vampire film, then that would be wonderful basically. A vampire film has got a better chance of crossing over than maybe another type of horror movie. Although slasher movies have become very popular all of a sudden with Scream and the like. The bigger the audience the better, obviously."

Some of the mainstream critics are likely to look down at it a bit.
JW: "Oh, I think they will, yes. I've got absolutely no doubt that it will get crucified by a certain faction of the critics because it's just not their thing. But what can you do as a film-maker? If I was worried about what the critics are going to say, I'd never make a film. I am quite nervous about that, at the same time though, because I've been working on it for such a long time. It could be very disheartening to have people laying into you when really you're just trying to help the industry. We're helping the industry, we're not injuring it. If people don't like it, that's fair enough, but there's definitely an audience out there for this movie. How big that audience is remains to be seen."

Eileen, several things you've done have all happened at once. Suddenly Eileen Daly is everywhere. Is that exposure useful?
ED: "Oh, of course. I think any exposure is good. Hopefully it helps me to grow and get different parts. I don't want to be stuck as a vampire, even though I love doing it. I adore horror films and that is my main background; I do like that. But in my art as an actress, I would like to grow and do other things. there's loads of other parts out there apart from being vampires that I would like to challenge. Lady Chatterley would be a smashing one, only because I'm not strong in that. I'm Mellor's wife and I'm quite weak and very lovely. There's loads of things. I've been so unchallenged with my acting that I'd like to stretch a little further and work with other people. I just like to work; it's all I want to do. And it's wonderful that everything's coming out now that I've worked for over the past two years. Now it all seems to be coming together. But I hope it doesn't come together.

"It's like an orgasm really. You have an orgasm and go, 'Aaaah...' and then you have a cigarette and go to sleep! I hope it carries on. I'm doing my best to try and make it carry on, but I can't do it on my own. I have to have other people. Go and see the film. You can't slate this film because if you knew how much it cost and how hard we worked, why slate it? It's so easy to slate this film because it isn't your Godzilla, it's a small, independent film with a very talented director who's got great ideas. And he's a wonderful editor and he's very talented and no doubt one day he'll be picked up and he'll be in Hollywood, doing big things and good things. It's got some good actors and people worked so hard. It's so easy to slate a low-budget movie because we haven't got the money to make special effects and big squibs and car bombs and what everyone wants nowadays. But what this has got is a great little script, and a very tight, fast-moving, MTV-type concentration so the kids will love it. And the adults. It's got all the ingredients to make a beautiful cake, but if we had five million, maybe we may have lost those. If we had too much money, we might have lost that ingredient."

JW: "Hopefully it's got a little bit of charm to it. Often people only realise these things retrospectively. They'll look back at it, after I've made my next film, if I do get a better budget. They'll look back at this and go, 'Oh, it doesn't have the charm of Razor Blade Smile.' But it's hard to say. I don't know what the audience thinks of it yet because we've only screened it a couple of times. This is the second time. So far, the general feedback seems to be positive which is a good indication at this point. But who knows? It needs to enter into history and have the reviews, then see how the fans talk about it. You know how fans are, because they talk about these things for a lot longer than anybody else. So if it stays alive and people are still watching it in a few years' time on video or whatever, then it will be a success. If it's just an ignored little movie, then... It's really hard to say. You've seen enough independent low-budget movies to know: sometimes they just catch on and people really think of them as great things, and other times they just don't."

With a character a strong as Lilith Silver, are you looking, however vaguely, at sequels or model kits or whatever?
JW: "Any merchandising, I won't be doing, but I'd love it to death. I think it would be great and I'd love to have my Lilith Silver mug and stuff like that! Manga are talking about doing that so I don't know how far that will go. It depends how much money they've got to spend if they license it. There is interest in a sequel from Manga. In the contract they've got me, if they want to do a sequel then I've got an option to write that and I've got control if I want to do it. I can say no if I don't want to, but then they can take it off somewhere else. They're interested in a sequel, but I think it very much depends. We've all seen enough crappy sequels to things to know that just because a film has made a little bit of money isn't always the best reason to do a sequel. I think it's got to be because you've got a fresh spin on the character for the new story. I think the Lilith Silver character's great because she's a vampire and she can fit into different time zones and stuff like that. I think there is a lot of meat there. So if there is a sequel, it's got to be because there's a positive audience response and they want that character to be resurrected, not just because somebody wants to make a fast buck on it, really. Because it's too much hassle making a film to just do it like that."

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