Friday, September 2, 2022

Neon Badges: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT

 by Anthony King

"'Come play the hero of a vampire pack' is not the first thing on a character actor of that caliber's list.”

Steve Niles was born in Jackson, NJ on June 21, 1965. Raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C., he became interested in the arts as a kid: music, writing, filmmaking. As a teenager and young adult, Steve worked in comic book stores and played in the punk bands Gray Matter and Three, and released records in the '80s and '90s on Dischord Records. As with so many of us, Steve's local horror host became an early influence and, being in the D.C. area, Steve's guy was Count Gore De Vol on Creature Feature.

In the early '90s, Steve formed his own publishing company called Arcane Comix where he published, edited, and adapted several comics and anthologies. In 1991, he worked on Eclipse Comics' “I Am Legend,'' followed by authoring several books for Fantaco, including “Bad Moon,” “Fly in My Eye,” and a set of lithographs for Clive Barker's “Book of Blood.” Steve worked on Disney's “Toy Story Web Adventures,” wrote several issues of “Spawn” and “Spawn: The Dark Ages'' for Todd McFarlane Productions, and collaborated with illustrator Ashley Wood on “Hellspawn.” On top of his work in the comics world, Steve also wrote for Kiss Magazine where he interviewed members of Kiss.

By this time Steve was living in Minnesota, where he was freelancing by writing little human interest pieces. During research for one such article, he came across a report on the alcohol laws in an Alaskan town where the sun goes down for over a month called Barrow, Alaska. Steve immediately wrote the word “vampires” down after reading that report, and promptly forgot about it for a couple years. He eventually came back to it, though, wrote a screenplay, developed a pitch, and called Hollywood. “Nothing but blank stares,” Steve says. In 1999 a group of comic book managers, including Ted Adams, formed IDW Publishing. Steve sent Adams his list of previously-rejected ideas, one of which was his vampire screenplay called 30 Days of Night. Adams liked what he saw from Niles, but particularly the vampire story, so he “hired” Steve and artist Ben Templesmith to produce the first issue for free. "30 Days of Night” the graphic novel didn't sell well, but surprisingly to Steve, Hollywood came calling.
“I wrote the original film concept over eight years ago and it took doing it as a comic to get any attention,” Steve said. His agent sent Steve and Ted Adams all around town pitching the comic to several different producers. Steve said it all went shockingly well, but one company won out, and he couldn't believe who it was. In July of 2002, a few weeks before the second issue of “30 Days of Night” hit stands, Variety announced that Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures had acquired the screen rights. Raimi called 30 Days “so unlike the horror films of recent years.” Steve was beside himself. Sam Raimi had been one of his heroes since Evil Dead came out, and now Steve was going to be working with him. On top of signing a Hollywood contract, Steve was also excited for the graphic novel medium. "I think it's fantastic,” he said. “I think it shows that comics are a natural source for stories and art in all genres." In 2003 it was announced that Columbia Pictures would partner with Ghost House's parent company, Senator International, to distribute the film worldwide, with Senator's Mike Richardson serving as Executive Producer.

Steve first wrote his original script eight years prior in the mid-'90s. Raimi acquired the rights to the comic in 2002, and the following year Steve turned in his first draft of the screenplay. Skip ahead one more year to 2004 – 10 years after Steve first developed this idea! – and Columbia requests Steve's screenplay to be rewritten in preparation for production. Filming of 30 Days was still at least a year away because Ghost House had three other films on the docket before them, proving just shows how long it takes to make a movie. And not to mention the fact there was no cast and crew yet! That summer it was revealed that Stuart Beattie, co-writer of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Michael Mann's Collateral, was rewriting Steve's initial draft for production which was then submitted in October of 2004. While this isn't exactly how Steve wanted things to go, he was still pleased with Beattie's rewritten script. “I'm having the time of my life,” Steve said. “I'm working with the guy who made the Evil Dead movies for god's sake! Raimi is a dream to work with. He's completely dedicated to the material and his only interest is getting the right story down.” Steve was nearly 20 years into his career at this point. He was a professional and knew how things worked. “I like changing my work,” he said. “Improving it and seeing where one thing can lead to another. The main story has remained completely true to the original idea. It's a simple idea and I think it works best that way. The most surprises have come while fleshing out the characters. They've become a lot more complex than we had time for in the comic. Mostly I feel this amazing sense of breathing space and elbow room.” Now it was time to find their fearless leader and start assembling their cast of bloodsucking freaks.
In September of 2005, it was announced that director David Slade was going to be that fearless leader. Slade was born in 1969 in England where he started his career as a teenager making music videos for local bands. As a lover of film, Slade found inspiration in movies like Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. But the one film that made him want to become a director was Donald Cammell's and Nic Roeg's Performance. His first professional job was directing a commercial for the video game “Silent Hill.” His career in music videos continued, directing for bands like Aphex Twin, Fatboy Slim, P.O.D., Stone Temple Pilots, System of a Down, AFI, and Tori Amos. His first feature, Hard Candy, starring Patrick Wilson and Elliot Page premiered at Sundance in 2005, where it was bought by Lions Gate Entertainment. Having Sam Raimi as one of your producers meant you had a first-tier director in house. And, in fact, Raimi was looking to direct 30 Days himself at first. But his producing partner, Rob Tappert, really liked Slade, calling him “smart and gutsy,” and saying he wasn't afraid to push things a little far. Plus, Raimi really didn't have the time. “Lucky me,” says Slade. He'd read the graphic novel and was sent one of Steve's early drafts of the script and he really liked it. The following March, Slade revealed that Hard Candy screenwriter, Brian Nelson, would be writing a brand new draft of the 30 Days screenplay, ultimately replacing Stuart Beattie's draft. Slade also announced filming would begin in the summer of 2006 in Alaska and New Zealand.

When it came to Nelson's re-write, Slade says the two talked about undercutting the heroism of the story. “Heroism, to us,” says Slade, “was a kind of cardinal sin in a place where people are so pragmatic, because they could die if they get lost on the way back from the shops. The weather is so harsh it's going to kill them. Add vampires to the mix and really people are going to be very, very careful. So if someone went out in a blaze of glory, then we would punish that. It wasn't necessarily to be against the grain, but it just seemed to make sense in the scheme.” Nobody involved wanted to make a traditional horror movie, following standard tropes and delivering yet another forgettable story that fell by the wayside. Slade and Nelson wanted to follow up these “heroic” moments with an “oh fuck” horror moment because, says Slade, “We don't want you to cheer. There is no humor in the film. This wasn't particularly intentional going in, but it just seemed like we were taking this film very seriously.”
Just before filming began, it was announced in June of 2006 that Josh Hartnett was cast as the lead of 30 Days of Night. Some people were critical of the casting choice because in the graphic novel, the sheriff, Eben Olemaun, was Inuit, an indigenous people of Alaska, and the movie would be changing him to a white man with the last name of Oleson. Nevertheless, Hartnett was the big name they needed. Born in Saint Paul, MN, Hartnett moved to New York City after graduating high school, to attend the Conservatory of Theatre Arts & Film at SUNY Purchase. Unfortunately, college didn't go as well as he'd expected, and a year later Hartnett moved out to California. Just before arriving in Los Angeles, Josh had auditioned for and gotten the part of Michael Fitzgerald on the short-lived crime show Cracker: Mind of Matter starring Robert Pastorelli. Life in Hollywood was pretty good for Hartnett, where he performed in plays and booked a few national television commercials. Then he landed the role that would skyrocket his career into being a heartthrob: that of John Tate, Jamie Lee Curtis's son in Steve Miner's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. After that, Hartnett's career took off and he appeared in movies like The Faculty, The Virgin Suicides, Pearl Harbor, Black Hawk Down, Sin City, and The Black Dahlia, among many others. And just as his career was taking off in the early 2000s, Hartnett was approached several times to play the role of Superman for a project originally helmed by Brett Ratner. He always turned it down, though, because he knew it'd turn into a 10-year role. "It just wasn't the kind of movie I wanted to do,” he says.

When he was offered the role of Eben in 30 Days, Hartnett was reluctant at first. He didn't want to do yet another studio movie. But he saw Hard Candy, met with Slade in Minnesota where they watched some of the vampire footage that had already been shot, and Hartnett thought to himself, “It would be stupid not to be a part of this film.” Steve Niles was thrilled to have Josh Hartnett on board. He always saw the character of Eben as a quiet guy, and Hartnett fit that role perfectly. Plus, Hartnett grew up watching vampire movies. Looking at 30 Days as a supernatural western, and seeing how there hadn't been a really interesting look at the vampire genre in a long time really excited him. “The biggest reason I wanted to do the film,” he says, “was mostly because of David Slade's vision. He came up to where I'm from in Minnesota and kind of laid out what he wanted the movie to be like. It seemed completely different from anything I'd ever heard of before; kind of visceral and dark, but also with something that's artistic.”
For Stella – Eben's wife (in the comics) and ex (in the movie) – they turned to Melissa George. She had read the script but never thought she'd get the role. George was born in Perth, Western Australia where, in high school, she developed an interest in dancing. Dance eventually evolved into a passion for roller skating which ended with George winning bronze medals in the National Championships of Australia in 1989 and '90, and a silver medal at the Junior World Championship in 1991. Around this time she had begun modeling, and in 1992 she was named Western Australia's Teenage Model of the Year. In 1993, George auditioned for and was cast in the Australian soap opera Home and Away and held a recurring role for the next three years. In 1997 she left her home in Australia and moved to Hollywood where she appeared in a few television shows, made-for-TV movies, and films including Dark City, The Limey, and Mulholland Drive. Then in 2005 Melissa George got her first starring role in Andrew Douglas's re-make of The Amityville Horror opposite Ryan Reynolds.

Filling out the rest of the cast were some recognizable character actors. David Slade specifically wanted one actor for the role of the Stranger, and that was Ben Foster. Slade also originally wanted Forrest Whitaker in the role of Beau Brower but due to conflicts Mark Boone Jr. was hired instead. Shooting was to take place in New Zealand, which meant most of the cast were native Kiwis. Says Slade, “Casting in New Zealand was really liberating because they have a terrific base of character actors, as well as a great base of creature actors.” And for Marlow, the leader of the vampires, menacing-looking actor Danny Huston was hired. Slade had always thought of Huston for Marlow, saying, “Danny has this tremendous, malevolent presence.” Perfect for the character.
Production Designer Paul Austenberry was tasked with making real the world in which all these characters were trying to survive. Austenberry had a small handful of productions under his belt (including Resident Evil: Apocalypse and the Assault on Precinct 13 remake, which would come in handy in creating an isolated realm) and would go on to win the Oscar in production design for Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water. Using Ben Templesmith's artwork in the graphic novels as his starting ground, Austenberry went to work creating the town of Barrow. He would find pictures in magazines, books, and online, sketch up his own version of what he saw, and then send it to the storyboard artist who would then send it to the model maker. From there the entire town came to life. "There is a degree of responsibility to Ben Templesmith's artwork which will be reflected in the production design," Slade says. “I loved Ben's illustrations. It's what drew me to the graphic novel in the very beginning, before the idea of the movie... And when I was working with my production designers, the first thing I said was 'I'm not really interested so much in Barrow, Alaska, but Ben's Barrow.' Now there's a schism here, because Ben's work is incredibly stylized, which, again, goes against what I was saying earlier about the more stylized you are, the less chance you have of scaring people. So there was this really fine line we had to walk between absolute realism wherever possible and Ben's fantastic template, which we were going to use as faithfully as we possibly could.”

Slade was also concerned about the challenges of making a vampire film that was actually scary. "We're faced with a tremendous task, which is making a scary vampire film. There aren't many of them. You can count them on two fingers (Salem's Lot and Nosferatu). The rest of them fall into all kinds of traps. We're going to try to do our best to make a third one and one of the ways we have to do it is to be more naturalistic than the graphic novel." Slade's plan was to make 30 Days more “visceral than viscous. Viscous is something that is goopy and disgusting and visceral is something that just hits you in the chest." Producers were trepidatious about the vampires themselves. Would talking vampires even be scary? Along with Slade and a linguistics professor from Aukland University, Danny Huston developed the language spoken by the vampires in the film, which they based on tribal sounds from different indigenous peoples from around the world. Talking about Huston, Slade says, “Danny is, as you probably know, an astonishing actor with a great resume of films. And 'Come play the hero of a vampire pack' is not the first thing on a character actor of that caliber's list.” Slade and Huston spent many hours developing the backstory to Marlow and his pack of vamps. Using their created language of sounds, “we figured in the end that a certain degree of evolution takes you back to a degree of basic behavior if you're a vampire... These vampires kill and eat.” For instance, their made up word “Kaah” meant three things: blood, man, and God depending on how it's used. Huston would write the words out phonetically, translated from a list of words they'd written down in English. He would then adapt each word to fit his character of Marlow, and finally add in the prosthetic teeth which would again change the sound of each word. “Danny really went the extra mile to really make that believable,” Slade says.

Trying to tow the line of keeping the movie scary while using rubber heads also became a challenge. “Audiences are going to see that,” Slade said. “We can't do it this way.” So they threw out that idea. Again relying on Templesmith's illustrations, Slade and crew were able to create terrifying-looking creatures by using minimal makeup and prosthetics. His mantra became, “I don't have to really obey too many conventions.” Contact lenses (those dead shark eyes), fake teeth (a mouthful of razor-sharp shark teeth instead of the typical two fangs), and minimal digital makeup in order to get it as close to Templesmith's art as possible without going full-on Andy Serkis; these were the simple elements they would work with. “The intention was always to make a scary film,” says Slade. “And if it becomes a film that does the kind of horror wink to genre, you lose that. If it becomes a fantasy film, you lose that. So we just treated it as a drama. We worked very hard on the performances.”

Josh Hartnett remembers spending days talking about what these people would be feeling being in such isolation on top of being hunted by monsters. That mix of the isolation and insanity in Mutiny on the Bounty and Treasure of the Sierra Madre is what he compared it to. Hartnett loved working out the backstories for all the characters. Scenes were written and storyboarded that they knew wouldn't make it into the final film because of time or budget, but, says Hartnett, “We wanted to make sure that there was a real life there. It felt like these guys actually lived together. There are relationships that aren't really highlighted in the film that exist in a below-the-surface sort of way on film. It should always be that way.” Slade was and is a meticulous storyboarder. “But what I do believe in is that film is an organism that grows as you work on it. So rehearsals yielded new pages. Scenes where a character's actions or emotions suddenly yielded a different take on the scene yielded rewrites, which sometimes I'd be doing with Brian on the set – literally on the set.” The scene where the little girl says “God” and Huston repeats the word and then looks up into the heavens is an example of something created in the moment. The film ended up being full of these types of in-the-spirit-of-the-moment instances.

Next week, production on 30 Days of Night continues, and the film is released in the wild.


  1. I highly recommend the comic. I'm a big fan of the artist

    And the movie has no right to be this good 😜

  2. Maybe my favorite "Vampire" film and I really don't like many films in that subgenre. The atmosphere, setting, build up, sound design and performances are all legit. When this movie dropped, I had zero expectations and was blown away. I've since seen it at least 15 times and will definitely be rewatching again this Oct.