We had the chance to chat with Vampire Academy director Mark Waters over the phone along with a few other Vampire Academy-loving sites, all about how he got involved with the adaptation of Richelle Mead’s amazing series, casting the characters, which scenes made him nervous, and more. The film stars Zoey Deutch as Rose, Lucy Fry as Lissa, and Danila Kozlovsky as Dimitri – it hits theaters on February 14th, 2014.
We’re all very excited about Vampire Academy. There are so many YA movies coming out and there’s the pressure of succeeding or failing. What attracted you to Vampire Academy and what made you put your belief into this project?
It was weird, but I kind of came into it through my brother. My brother was approached to write the screenplay and when he started to talk about the story and talk about this lead character of Rose and the interesting connection he had with Lissa, I found myself getting intrigued. Then, the producer separately came to me and sent me the books and when I read the books I realized, well quite frankly I read a lot of YA fiction myself anyway and when I read Vampire Academy, I was very struck that I liked this lead character. She wasn’t an innocent. Most of the time when you meet these people, they don’t know anything about the supernatural world and they are brought into this world and you learn about it through their eyes. They are basically these virginal innocents and I loved the fact that Rose wasn’t that. Rose was somebody who was already deeply embedded in the world and wasn’t a sweet, naïve, or shy creature. If anything, she was somebody who was rambunctious and pertinent, funny, subversive, and I liked everything about that energy. My brother’s screenplay frankly was the thing that put me over the edge. He was able to stay very loyal to the books, but make something the even amped up the humor and wit that is already there in Richelle’s book. I think he took it and put it on steroids. That also got me very excited by it.
“Rose was somebody who was already deeply embedded in the world and wasn’t a sweet, naïve, or shy creature. If anything, she was somebody who was rambunctious and pertinent, funny, subversive, and I liked everything about that energy.”
When you first read the screenplay, did you have a vision of how you wanted to portray the academy and the characters that are in the story?
It’s an interesting thing, because when you read something, you have this image that comes in your brain of, ok this is what this thing looks like, then you proceed to go about trying to find that thing in your brain. It’s very difficult to do sometimes. We’re making this movie not for a large budget, I mean; this is not a movie where we are given a $100 million tent pole budget. It was made for significantly less than that, so we knew that we had to find a place that was the same location. We scouted all around the United States, around Massachusetts. We had this idea that, the thing in my head was that in the middle of Montana, in the middle of the mountains, there’s this academy that was built more than 200 years ago and existed there and is old world European culture and an older Gothic academy, but its in the middle of present day Montana. Once you kind of get out of the modern world and go behind the gate, it’s almost like you are in a place out of time that doesn’t feel like it’s modern strip mall America. It kind of led to a search all over the place. We scouted Czechoslovakia and a few other countries. We ended up finding a place that was Southwest of London called the Charter House School and an interesting tidbit, it is where Peter Gabriel and Genesis met and formed their band. We found this school and as soon as we drove onto the campus, I thought that this is Vampire Academy. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to it, to the image in my brain of what this place should look like. You know, a large campus with a lot of interesting buildings and connections to a lot of secret passageways to it. It had the feeling of the school sitting right there already, so we were lucky they agreed to let us shoot there.
What was the atmosphere like on the set? It was great for the fans because the cast members were so excited about filming and tweeting. There were fans on Twitter that were changing their whole sleep schedules just to stay up to get pictures from the cast. The fans are so excited about this anyhow and to have the cast be so involved with the fans and excited fed into that.
I’m not on Twitter myself, but I love the fact that all of my cast members are of that age and generation where this is something they do without blinking. Of course they are going to so that, but for me, I have the role of the person who is always working. When you are acting in a movie, you’re not always on set, the focus is not always on you and it varies. Sometimes you are shooting, sometimes you are in makeup, sometimes you are waiting around in your trailer while we’re lighting. I’m the guy who’s always working. I tend to keep a good energy on set just because of the fact that I’m crazily well organized, so things run smoothly and people aren’t kind of rushed or put under pressure. I try to make it so that the actors never feel if I’m feeling pressure, so I can just, with them, have a private space where we get to work together. The tone was always good, and also the fact that my brother’s script has a lot of humor in it made it so that when you’re shooting, you know some days you are shooting deathly serious stuff and doing very elaborate stunts sometimes, but that’s not everyday of shooting. If you were doing a movie that was a much more serious, pure action movie, then I could see everyday getting to be a bit of a drag, cause all your doing everyday is setting up and blowing stuff up and doing action, which gets tiresome. But in this case, because the actors have to do all this really fun, rich dialogue that my brother wrote, I think it made it so that the days on set had a lot of variety to them and they were able to have fun while working hard.
You chose a very eclectic cast in the sense that you have some who are very well-known and then some who are unknown but I would have to guess that in the fandom casting Dimitri and Rose was very anticipated.. I know I was personally was very anxious for those. What made you decide to go with the actors you went with in choosing Zoey and Danila.
Zoey just distanced herself from everybody in an elaborate auditioning process. I saw hundreds of actors for Rose and opened up the search to just about anyone. We saw tapes from all around the world for both Rose and Lissa. There was just something about Zoey as Rose. I felt that Zoey didn’t immediately look the part to me because she is not a big, athletic girl but she has great body sense and was committed to working on her physicality. She ended up spending months and months of physical training and also doing fight training so she very believably inhabits Rose’s guardian body and does some great ass kicking in the movie but that wasn’t the thing she booked it off of. She just has that essence of that attitude that Rose has. I think I said at the very beginning of this conversation that Rose is not an innocent. She is somebody who is aggressive, has a lot of subserviseness to her attitude and sense of humor. That is something that for Zoey just naturally came to her and I think she was able to kind of do my brother’s rather intricate dialoge in a way that was very naturalistic and not like she was at all being forced to do something contrived or stylized and she as able to make it work. When it came down to it and we were retested people, mixing and matching where we would put our top Rose’s and top Lissa’s together for all kinds of pairings she was kind of the best with everyone. It was clear that there was no number two.
“When it came down to it and we were retested people, mixing and matching where we would put our top Roses and top Lissas together for all kinds of pairings [Zoey] was kind of the best with everyone.”
I should probably go on and talk about Dimitri by the way. Dimitri is even more interesting by the way. Once again we auditioned hundreds of actors and found that just about everybody we were reading were kind of embarrassing because it was all these actors from America, England. All over. Even Slavic countries…trying to do a Russian accent and it being kind of embarrassing. It wasn’t that they weren’t good actors. It just didn’t seem real. I remember in frustration asking my casting director – aren’t there any Russian actors who speak English who can do this part? Unfortunately, most Russian actors, even the ones who do speak English, can’t really do this very very complex dialog that my brother writes that is really great and fun to listen to when it’s done right. But it’s hard when you have an actor who really doesn’t have the facility for it. So we came across Danila Kozlovsky who just happens to be the biggest star in Russia. I mean his last two movies were both, in each year, the biggest box office hits in Russia so he was very well-known there but had not really ever done any movie in America as of yet. I auditioned him via Skype and had him in his agent’s office in Moscow looking out the window at the Kremlin outside. We did two different Skype sessions where he did different scenes from the script and I was just immediately excited by him. Even during the first audition when I felt he still was having a little trouble with the language, he just had this soulfulness to him that was really engrossing and every woman I showed the audition tape to just melted, and so I knew this guy had this incredible charisma to him. As we worked harder and kind of got him more to do this verbal dexterity that I required of him I could see that he was going to get there and then once I hired him we had him working with dialect coaches and working with me..I don’t think anyone will even know that this guy doesn’t speak English from the time he was born. He obviously has a Russian accent that is very believably Russian but he definitely stepped up and when we shot the movie he was amazing. Now as I’m editing the movie I’m just thrilled with how his performance is coming together. I think he’s a very special actor and people are going to be very excited getting to know him.
“Even during the first audition when I felt [Danila] still was having a little trouble with the language, he just had this soulfulness to him that was really engrossing and every woman I showed the audition tape to just melted and so I knew this guy had this incredible charisma to him.”
Is there one scene that you felt you were really excited about filming or really nervous about filming?
I am nervous most days. Every day is your only day to shoot a particular scene and you just hope that you get it and you nail it and you get it right. I would say the one thing, and since you guys all know the book – I am not going to spoil it. The large fight scene in the security center with Rose at the end of the movie. The code of the movie where you think everything is relieved because they saved Lissa, but then suddenly the Strogoi threat presents itself, and she has to fight her off. But that scene was one that I viewed very challenging on a performance level, challenging on an action level, but at the same time we did very, very elaborate fight choreography that was extremely challenging. But it all came together beautifully. And even though it took a lot of work to get it done it came out great.
How difficult was it to pick scenes for the trailer. Were you aware of what the fans wanted and what they expected or did you just go off what you felt were the best scenes? Was there that pressure from the fans?
Well you know what, thankfully the trailer was worked on by the Weinstein Company and they kind of presented what they wanted to do. If anything I did ask them to include more. The trailer was shorter, it had less kinda sneak peek images. But I sent them a bunch of stuff from the editing room and said you should really try to work in this shot of Dmitri and you should really try to work in this shot of this piece of action. I wanted to include a few more little seminal images. Not as much for the fans, I would say even the non-fans to let people know this movie has a lot of scope to it, a lot of variety, and like I said, very high stakes at times. But you know a lot of drama and a lot of interesting things going on.
You wanna make a movie that fans are going to love, but you also want to make a movie that general audiences are going to go see. How do you stay true to yourself as a filmmaker while trying to navigate such a fervent fan base?
You know, I used Richelle as my guide. Anything that I felt was moving kind of any degree off from the books I talked to her about it first. She was very supportive. She’s very pleased with the screenplay, and very pleased with what she’s seen of the movie. She came on set and visited and met all the actors and everything. I found pretty much, any small question I have, I would always ask her, saying like “What color should this person’s hair be?” , like if this character was practicing magic, “What magic would it be?”. I found using her as a fountain of information, going to the source was the only thing I had to rely on. Obviously I can’t please all the fans, they all have their own very specific views of the book and that’s what’s great about a book series, it’s something that is very personal to you. Everyone has their own personal vision of how they read the book, which I can’t service either, but I know if I can please Richelle and please myself, at least on that level, hopefully it will be good enough to connect with the fans. And pleasing myself is really the only barometer I have for making movies to please a general audience. Hopefully most of the time in my career its worked, where I try to make a movie that, I, myself, would love to see, and if that’s the case it’s hopefully something that more then just me wants to see. I think we are going to be pleasing the fans of the book definitively, because I think we have done a really good job of translating Richelle’s material and I think by amplifying certain elements of that material and amplifying the humor a little bit and some of the action sequences – putting them on steroids as it were – I think this thing is going to have a grander appeal for a general audience beyond the fan base.