Yesterday we brought you Yvonne Villarreal’s snappy Los Angeles Times feature on Ethan Hawke and his new film, “Daybreakers.” Today she’s back with more. This bit of extended coverage is exclusive to the Hero Complex and has Hawke talking about the filmmakers behind “Daybreakers,” costar Willem Dafoe, the peculiar genius of “Twilight” and … Gotham City?
To prepare for his fang duty in “Daybreakers,” actor Ethan Hawke says he studied “the greats” among past cinematic vampire performances, among them the acclaimed 2000 film “Shadow of the Vampire” featuring his “Daybreakers” costar Willem Dafoe.
In the new movie, Dafoe portrays a man who has been cured of the vampire virus that has transformed Earth in a grim future. Hawke, for one, loves seeing the veteran actor return to a bloodsucking territory on the 10th anniversary of “Shadow of the Vampire,” which earned Dafoe an Oscar nomination.
“I really wanted Willem to do the movie because I thought who better to be an ex-vampire than the person who was the last great vampire in the film,” Hawke said. “There’s a subconscious to movies and the parts you’ve played before form the parts you play now. So when Willem says he used to be a vampire, you know that he really used to be a vampire. And that’s exactly who he was. … He was scary. He was a badass.”
Hawke was on Broadway performing a nine-hour stage trilogy of Tom Stoppard’s plays, “The Coast of Utopia,” when the offer came in to make “Daybreakers” with the writer-director tandem of Peter and Michael Spierig. The filmmaking twin brothers are hardly established, but when Dafoe’s name came into the mix, Hawke had confidence that the movie, which arrives in theaters today, could be something special.
“When he agreed to do the movie, I knew we were on our way to doing something special,” Hawke said of Dafoe. “And the fact that [the Spierig brothers] wanted him … a lot of the guys that come into movies now don’t even know enough to have seen ‘Shadow of the Vampire.’ They saw the last Eminem video and they think they have a new idea of a lens they can use.“
The vampire sector of films is in a very different place these days — and a crowded one too. Hawke said it’s impossible to ignore the success of “Twilight” and “True Blood” or the glut of other bloodsucker projects.
“The genius of ‘Twilight’ was tapping into the eroticism of the vampire thing in a gentle way and not making it so scary,” Hawke said. “But this is the opposite of that. This is a throwback to an old-school genre movie that has a real counterculture message underneath it. Does it work as a straight-up horror film on a Friday night while you eat your popcorn? It does. But all the best genre movies have some sort of sociopolitical message. The reason why people fell in love with Batman is because they wanted to know what it was saying about Gotham. What’s going on there?“
In “Daybreakers,” a virus has transformed the majority of the Earth’s population into vampires. With humans on the verge of extinction, the survivors are hunted and farmed for their blood. The sibling duo behind the film made their debut with the low-budget 2003 zombie flick “Undead,” but Hawke said their lack of Hollywood experience was no drawback.
“They are cinemaphiles,” Hawke said. “They are in love with this profession. They are not ‘professionals.’ They want to make a movie so bad they would climb Mt. Everest, if you told them the movie would be good. They’re going to go on and make a lot of movies and you sense that when you’re with them. So to be a part of their learning process … it’s what excites me about making movies; when people don’t take it for granted. And these guys feel it in their blood. That’s what I responded to when I signed on for the role. “
Hawke plays Edward Dalton, a scientist — and a vampire — in search of a blood substitute that will spare the lives of the ever-dwindling population of humans. In the process, he battles his fanged peers and even a “subsider” — that’s a blood-deprived vampire whose hunger devolves it into a nasty rabid bat creature that may remind some viewers of, well, Dafoe’s creepy character in “Shadow.”
“A vampire is supposed to be scary,” Hawke said. “There’s a couple of scenes in this movie that are really frightening. That’s what we were going for. I remember seeing ‘Aliens’ and being scared out of my mind … but it wasn’t stupid. A lot of scary movies out there are stupid. The acting is crap. The script doesn’t make any sense. With ‘Aliens,’ the script was awesome. It was scary as hell. The acting was good. That’s what we were aspiring for.“
The first couple of “Blade” movies were also a source of research. The flicks, starring Wesley Snipes as the superhero vampire hunter, are based on the Marvel Comics character.
“Those were just some incredible movies,” Hawke said. “When Kris Kristofferson dies, it’s just … you get caught up in the whole thing. Wesley needs him. And you care. There’s a scene I found really moving in ‘Daybreakers’ … when they take out the subsiders. They’re these horrible creatures that you’re scared of and yet there’s still something human about them.That’s when the movie gets really complicated and it’s emotional. The bad movies just scare you with no emotion. The good ones make you relate to it with some sort of sociopolitical message tied to it.”
The film, Hawke said, also has an underlying lesson about life. “I love the idea that these vampires faced with immortality are depressed,” Hawke said. “It’s almost too much to bare. They have to chain-smoke. They can’t rest. Whereas, faced with a finite amount of time to live, all this hope comes into it. It’s counterintuitive in a way … but it makes sense. “
– Yvonne Villarreal
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Photos: Top, Ethan Hawke. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times. Bottom, Hawke and Willem Dafoe at the “Daybreakers” premiere this week in New York. Credit: Evan Agostini / Associated Press