vampireacademy-posterThere’s some serious weariness these days about movies that have anything to do with vampires. I share that weariness and gritted my teeth a little going in to Vampire Academy, the new movie based on the books by Richelle Mead. I had pretty low expectations of the film and was therefore gobsmacked by my reaction: I loved it! I found Daniel Waters’ (Heathers, Batman Returns) script to be funny and intelligent and I thought the young, mostly unknown cast was very appealing. It’s absurd to pit this very different film against another vampire-based series, but, ssshhh…between you and me, compared to the hugely popular Twilight films which  made me want to run a silver stake through my own heart, Vampire Academy is a breath of fresh air. The film is directed by Mark Waters, who, having given the world Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, is no stranger to the machinations of teenagers, otherworldly or not.

Vampire Academy, distributed by The Weinstein Company, tells the story of Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) and Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), two 17-year-old girls who attend a hidden boarding school for Moroi (mortal, peaceful Vampires) and Dhampirs (half-vampire/half-human guardians). Rose, a rebellious Guardian-in-training and her best friend, Lissa — a royal vampire Princess — have been on the run when they are captured and returned to St. Vladamir’s Academy, the very place where they believe their lives may be in most jeopardy. Thrust back into the perils of Moroi Society and high school, Lissa struggles to reclaim her status while Rose trains with her mentor Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky), to guarantee her place as Lissa’s guardian. Rose will sacrifice everything to protect Lissa from those who intend to exploit her from within the Academy walls and the Strigoi (immortal, evil vampires) who hunt her kind from outside its sanctuary. Vampire Academy also stars Sarah Hyland, Gabriel Byrne, Dominic Sherwood, Sami Gayle, Olga Kurylenko and Joely Richardson. I sat down with director Mark Waters in Los Angeles.

Danny Miller: Is it flat-out obnoxious if I tell you that I liked this movie so much more than I thought I would?

mark-waters-vampire-academy-directorMark Waters: (Laughs) I’ll take that! We got a lot of that at test previews. People watched the movie and said, “I can’t believe how much I liked it!” It’s something we knew we were up against with the vampire genre and the YA genre in general, I think people are very dubious about both right now because they’ve burned with some bad films.

Do you just roll your eyes at this point with the inevitable comparisons to the Twilight movies?

Yes, but this movie is so clearly different from Twilight. True, it’s in the vampire genre, but there’s no real way you could compare the movies or think that we’re remotely aspiring to be like them.

Don’t worry—if it’s compared with those films, it will come out on top. At least by me!

I watched those movies recently with my daughters, and I totally understand why they’re successful. You can say that the filmmaking isn’t that stellar but Kristen Stewart definitely nailed something about that character. You get why it works. There’s something great about the fact that those characters are really interested in sex but for most of the movies don’t really want to have it! “Gee, I’d love to have sex with my boyfriend, but I can’t — he’s a vampire! And my other one is a werewolf so I can’t have sex with either of them!” That’s an appealing message to a certain age group!

Except for the last two films where she DOES have sex with him and it’s a painful, life-threatening decision. Oy, don’t get me started.

That’s true. It’s not how you want to imagine a young woman’s wedding night to be!

But speaking of movies that hit a nerve with teenaged girls, my daughter can probably recite two-thirds of the dialogue from Mean Girls!

(Laughs.) Just like my cast members in this film! They really surprised me. I guess I didn’t realize how influential that movie was for a certain generation — especially the people who were in middle school or the cusp of middle school when that movie came out. That’s when it seemed the most real to moviegoers. I think middle school is when things are the most brutal. So all of my cast members knew it — Sarah Hyland can quote the entire movie!

Funny! It probably informs their performances in this film. And, of course, a lot of these same people probably loved Heathers, too, which your brother wrote. Had you two been looking for a project to do together?

Danny and I have a lot of similar tastes but we’re both so busy and we rarely found the time where we could logistically work on something together. We did develop a few things. We developed an adaptation of the cult novel, The Dice Man, at Paramount but that never got it off the ground even though Ben Stiller was interested in playing the lead. Then we developed this completely different vampire script that also had more of a comedic tone to it based on Christopher Moore’s You Suck books — very funny cult novels. We developed that with 20th Century Fox but they didn’t want to make the movie unless we could get a certain star so we eventually walked away from that. This was a weird one because the producers were crafty and got my brother working on a screenplay for it and came to me later without telling me that. They asked me to read the books and I said, “This is good but I feel kind of feel weird because I was working on a vampire thing at Fox with my brother.” And they said, “Funny you should mention that, because Danny’s writing the screenplay!”

What was it about these books that you liked?

I read a lot of YA fiction, and I read this, the thing I liked most was the way Rose was so different from other lead characters. I liked her a lot and her relationship with Lissa and I was really intrigued to see what my brother would do with it, to see how he’d inject his humor and wit into it which he did. And one thing people don’t realize about my brother is that he’s a huge action-movie fan, too, he wrote Demolition Man and Batman Returns so he knows how to conceive big set pieces. That’s what Richelle liked most about our script. She said, “It’s very loyal to my story yet you have so many lines that are much funnier than what I wrote and you put the action on steroids in a way that will make it more fun as a movie!”

danila-vaWas it a conscious decision to use actors who were not that well known? 

Very much so. We actually said to ourselves that if somebody is branded to another series we didn’t want to use them. People already have a big chip on their shoulder about the word “vampire” being in the title so we didn’t want to bring any more baggage to the film! When it came to casting Danila’s part, we had a lot of big actors come in who were doing these terrible Russian accents. I thought, why not get a real Russian? This guy is huge over there, he’s like the Russian Tom Cruise — his last two films have broken every box office record in that country! This is his first film in English.

I’m glad you cast Sarah Hyland, though, even though she is more well known.

Yeah, Sarah Hyland was cool because we were going to go off-type with her. She wasn’t playing the hot girl, she’s the geeky girl in our film.

When you start with a book that has a pretty ardent fan base, do you have to worry about veering too far from the original?

To a degree, but because we got Richelle’s approval I felt like we could do our thing. The fans might object to a few things, but since Richelle said it was okay, we always had that defense!

That’s lucky — you can always see when some films get hamstrung by hewing too close to the book. 

Exactly. Beautiful Creatures was a very well made movie, but there was something about it and even the ad campaign that said, “If you haven’t read the books, don’t bother coming!” We knew that Vampire Academy has fans but that we needed to expand beyond that base and try to appeal to lots of people!