Sundance ’11 Interview: ‘Vampire’ Director Iwai Shunji

Debuting at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival was Japanese director Iwai Shunji’s Vampire (review), a film about a young schoolteacher (Kevin Zegers) who develops a taste for human blood and seeks out suicidal women in online chat rooms in order to quench his unconventional thirst. B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently chatted via email with Shunji about the low-key movie, which veers away from the usual cinematic vampire clichés to give viewers a de-romanticized perspective on the bloodsucker sub-genre. See inside for the full interview.
A director in Japan since the late 1980s, Iwai Shunji has enjoyed a great degree of success in his native country and even garnered some attention Stateside in 1998, when Fine Line acquired U.S. distribution rights to his drama Love Letter. Recently Shunji made his English-language debut with Vampire, a film starring Kevin Zegers (Frozen, Dawn of the Dead) as a schoolteacher who recruits women over a suicide chat room in order to sate his thirst for human blood. I recently interviewed Shunji via email (he writes English much better than he speaks it) to get his a better sense of what he was trying to achieve with his unconventional “vampire” movie – which debuted at Sundance 2011 – which he claims isn’t a horror film at all but rather the character study of a young, “non-undead” man who just so happens to enjoy consuming human blood. In addition, he talks a little about the real-life Japanese case that inspired the movie. Check out the full interview below.

Bloody-Disgusting: First of all, would you describe this as a horror film?

Iwai Shunji: I think I would not. I would describe the film as look into the “life” of certain people.

BD: Talk about directing your first English-language movie. Was it very difficult?

IS: I understand English up to a point, for example I can conduct email interviews like this. But as for dialogue, it’s almost impossible for me to manage as much as I do in Japanese. So I asked the actors to not follow the script too closely and try to be more spontaneous so that the dialogue would be natural.

BD: Simon is not the traditional vampire character in this. He drinks the blood of others but he is not undead, from what I understand. What motivation did you give for the character to pursue this lifestyle?

IS: I love vampire films as a movie goer, however, I’m not interested in typical vampire films as a filmmaker. If I couldn’t come up with the idea of Simon’s character, I would have passed on the theme of Vampire. Simon’s habit is quite unique. Even for me, it’s so hard to understand. And I thought how endless people’s imaginations are. Simon’s character is partly based on the strange habits that we all have.

BD: I’ve heard theories floated that the film is your attempt to strip away the romantic veneer of the vampire mythology often presented in American horror films, and give the audience a more realistic interpretation of what vampirism would really be like. Is that true?

IS: Yes, it is. I don’t think VAMPIRE is the first ever attempt to strip away the romantic idea behind vampirism, but I haven’t seen anything yet that takes on this point of view where the vampire is not a supernatural creature but rather a real human being. I wanted to show this idea to audiences who assume that vampires are all fantasy-like creatures.

BD: Kevin Zegers has a very difficult role to play in this because he must go to some very dark places while also remaining somewhat sympathetic to the audience. What made him the right actor to take on that challenge?

IS: I always thought of Simon as being somewhat geek-like yet relatable for the audience. I think Kevin has that type of appeal of being relevant but also nerdy. This was a good role for Kevin as an actor as well, since it’s so different from his previous roles that we are used to seeing him in. He really understood and took on the role of Simon.

BD: Zegers described shooting the film in a set report I read as extremely taxing and somber. What was the mood like on set as you remember it?

IS: I can see that being true, as we shot in Vancouver, Canada during the spring, so the weather was always gray and rainy, which can bring the mood down. In addition, I gave a lot of freedom to Kevin with his character, Simon, so he really took on the sadness and troubles Simon’s character was going through.

BD: The concept reminds me a bit of a case in Germany where a man named Armin Meiwes put out an ad looking for someone who wanted looking to be eaten, and he actually found someone and killed and ate the other man. He was prosecuted for it and I believe convicted of manslaughter, but the defense’s argument was that because the man wanted to be eaten, it was consensual and therefore the other man shouldn’t be punished for killing him. Is this a case you were familiar with? It bears some similarities to your story.

IS: I’m not familiar with this case – but sounds very similar to the film. When I first started this project, I originally had the idea of creating a serial killer whose victims consented to being murdered, as they want to commit suicide as well. But while I was writing the script and developing this idea in 2005, I read a story in a Japanese newspaper where a local man found his victims on an online suicide chat room, and helped them kill themselves. It was so ironic that this was actually happening after I had the idea for the script. And at that time I had an earlier script I wrote about a vampire, so I just decided to combine the two stories.

BD: What kind of special effects were needed for the film? Does it become very gory?

IS: For one of the most important scenes in the film, at the end when Kevin is running from the police, we used a device that made Kevin appear as he is running through the air. It was very beautiful. As audiences will see, as VAMPIRE is not your typical vampire-horror film, there are not a lot of gory scenes in the film.

BD: What will your next project be after this? Will it be something else in the horror/thriller genre? Another in the English language?

IS: I have a couple projects in mind, but nothing solidified. In any case, for all my projects I always like to portray strange and unique human relationships, and I would like to continue making films in English.