Mark Devendorf is one of two writers/directors deep in post production of the latest adaptation of Le Fanu’s classic vampire tale “Carmilla.” His version, titled “Styria,” stars Stephen Rhea (“Interview With The Vampire” “V for Vendetta”) and Eleanor Tomlinson (“The Illusionist” “Alice in Wonderland”). He very kindly sat down to answer my questions.
Most film adaptations of Carmilla tend to either give Laura a young male romantic love interest or (more rarely) develop the relationship with her father. From the website it seems you’re going with the latter. Is that right? I don’t think we were consciously trying to expand Lara’s character by her relationship with her father, but when you’re talking about religion, lack of telling fairy tales, all that stuff, especially a lack of mother—Lara is completely unprepared You know, she’s almost like a latchkey kid. She doesn’t even recognize the Big Bad Wolf as it were. So what kind of person would be most vulnerable? You know how these sociopaths or psychopaths recognize victims? How does a parasite recognize a potential host? Those were some of the questions we asked about Lara. But with the mother thing–we spent about three years talking about, dissecting vampirism. Specifically the most interesting thing we found is that Carmilla is more a feminine or ethereal kind of vampire. If you think of the vampire not as a single person but as a force, a poisoning of psychic energy, of a town, or a community. These things can become poisoned. And that’s on one level. On the other it operates as this inversion of a mother. Mothers are supposed to be nurturing, as opposed to this dark mother which feeds, which drains. And for us Lara’s mother being absent left her vulnerable to this force, which is what I think Carmilla is.
Basing a film on a well-known story must have all kinds of challenges. A tricky about an adaptation is although its kinda like the ultimate vampire story from which you can always go in and draw stuff from. So it is hard to be surprised when ¾ of the way through you realize she’s a vampire. We kinda tried to find a way to subvert that. You have to go back to the source. What’s really important about this story? What’s really unique? And this relationship between these two girls that’s really in some ways unique. I think he captured something quite accurate about this frenzied friendship between teenagers. Like a teenager will say “Best Friends Forever.” In my high school you’d see on a locker “2 Friends + 2 gether = 4 ever”. When you’re a teenager you have these very quick friendships. The story really kinda captured in a strange way that kind of friendship. You know when you’re a teenager and you look for the person who makes you most feel alive? That’s the person who is probably most dangerous.
In the novella Laura has this very isolated life. Lara—your character—is in an English Board School, sounds like the same kind of confining existence.
Well she’s a very isolated person. Its one of those year-round boarding schools where you don’t have any connection to your parents. You just stay there. All the time.
Nothing like Hogwarts, then. (Laughs) No, nothing! She’s an outsider. Desperately wanting a connection with someone. I mean, there’s not too much time spent in the boarding school but you get a hint that she was alone there. Utterly alone. You know, there’s alone, and then there’s alone and tormented by the world you know. You can still get lonely in a crowd. And suddenly she’s back with her father who she hasn’t seen for ten years. So certainly this wound has been opened up just by coming back with her father and coming to this place. There’s desperation. Lara is desperately lonely, ready to open herself up for a friend coming any day now. Suddenly she has some connection. And then she doesn’t come! In our story this girl is supposed to come and be her friend and suddenly she doesn’t come. In both our movie and in the story there’s this great gaping wound, so great that Lara would almost create Carmilla.
Most versions either set the story in the time it was written, i.e.the 19th century, or in the time of the filming. You relocated the story back to just before the Iron Curtain fell, and put it actually behind the Iron Curtain. It was this repressive regime, and then there’s this whole kind of other. There’s the western State and this other, mysterious side. Repression of the female too, which has some parallels with the original story and our adaptation. So much is left unsaid in that story. I think if you’re trying to do a quick read you can lose everything. You have to really sit there and talk about it. And the more we talked about it, the more onion layers we found. Where’s the mother? There’s hints, tiny bits, but where is the mother? What happened? And in our story there’s the General Spiegl. He’s repressing these kind of feminine and protective things, leaving the town ripe for some kind of antidote. If you repress the feminine, it comes back. Your wife will one day poison you. He’s left the town vulnerable just as Lara is vulnerable. We’re taking a mass trauma and an individual trauma, trying to put them together. And another thing is 1989. I was a teenager then. A walkman and your music…Joy Division, early Punk, Def in June, Dead Can Dance…they’re all really kind of dangerous at that point. Growing up I was familiar with how important the walkman was. Lara has a walkman and it is insulation from the outside world, this place you can just escape to internally. And eternally. But also, 1989 is just before the modern. It was the last time before things became so modern, with cell phones and computers were around and all that stuff. The other thing is 1989 was just before another kind of revolution. We’re really interested in these big signs of change of history. This castle in our story—at this point there’s a single place where revolutions tend to begin and we’re saying Styria is the center place. Also if we start talking about 1989 we have to think back a little bit. It is pre-modern and it is in memory. Its that thing where all those really great kinds of stories are never first person narratives. There’s always that someone told me this, or I’m reading this from some old letter.
The website mentions things about murals in the castle? This castle, it was a mountaintop spa. If you go to the former Czechoslovakia or Hungary, they have these amazing spas that there’s no real equivalent to in America at all. They were built for the wealthiest people to take care of their consumption. Palaces for the wealthy to go and sit in hot water. No better way to spread tuberculosis than warm, moist air. In our story there was this muralist Zukunft Volker. If you speak German there’s a play on words there “Zukunft” means the Future. Volker means People. He was commissioned to go paint this mural in one of the spas. In this baths they’d paint someone enjoying their bath in Ancient Greece. So he goes there and suddenly he has consumption. Its like MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann, where the cousin goes for a visit and has to stay. So Volker keeps painting. He paints a second mural, his retelling of what happened before the 1848 Revolution, when the Castle was burned and hinting at the story of the Karnsteins. A lot darkness. The peasants basically storming the Castle, taking on the aristocracy. And there’s a third mural, that is discovered by Lara that has been painted over. It basically tells how this story keeps being told over and over. It happened before in 1848 and now she’s caught up in the cycle. The eternal return. And as it is uncovered you realize this story that he’s painted is happening now. To Lara. As it becomes uncovered it is happening to her. This third mural, this hidden mural, you basically get the idea that he was put in this room and he just kept painting. There was this Jewish painter kept painting murals for the Nazis. And they liked him so he kept painting to stay alive. Then at some point the Israeli government went into Poland or the Czech Republic or someplace in the cover of night and stole them because they were deteriorating. And that was one of the inspirations for us putting the murals in there. In the story Dr. Hill has to go there and take these murals out because they’re going to knock over this castle. Its going to be destroyed to put up a very practical Communist health spa. There also this bubbling pooling water coming out from the ground. In our story, its kinda like the story of the virgin spring. Virgins being sacrificed to the earth and the water comes forth. Maybe new blood is what’s needed for this to keep happening.
(To be continued… 1 of 3)