Articles Interview: Stephen Sommers

Stephen Sommers, Writer/Director

Q: So you're the man to reinvent all the Universal monsters?

SOMMERS: I guess I am!

Q: How are you going about that - without spoiling the memory of the originals?

SOMMERS: Because I'm using the original movies. Way back when, when I decided to do "The Adventures of Huck Finn", I was just wandering through the library – I was writing something completely different – and I started reading the book. I got halfway through, and I thought, 'This would be a great movie. No one's ever done this before.' They've done a lot of movies, but the key is to use the source material. Like, no one had ever used that book. The previous Huck Finn was done by Ron Howard. He did it the same year he did "American Graffiti". He played Huck Finn. He was 23 or something? The key is to just use the source material. I went back and watched all the original Universal movies, and I thought, 'Why did I love these when I was a kid? What is really great about each of these characters?' and so I used the characters. And that's why even in the marketing – the marketing is, Van Helsing goes after these three monsters – the movie is, hopefully, a little more creative than that.

Q: They made "Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein" –

SOMMERS: I love that movie!

Q: But obviously you didn't want to make that movie.

SOMMERS: No. No. No.

Q: The books are very serious. Will there be a hint of humor and camp in this?

SOMMERS: No, I knew I wanted to make it straight. I didn't want to make a movie that was like – you know, I'd already done "The Mummy", so I didn't want it to be "Mummy 3" just with different monsters. It has a very different tone to it. It's a very different story, and uh, you know, I just love the characters. I went into this thing saying, 'There are no monsters: Just people with really bad problems.' Van Helsing has some bad problems, Princess Anna has some bad problems, this guy Frankenstein, he has real bad problems. The Wolf Man, he's a wreck. So it's people with a lot of bad problems. But they're all humans. Everyone in the movie, they're all – there are no monsters. Even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they're all people. Frankenstein is a man. Well, he's seven men, but he's still human. So it's not like there are any aliens in the movie.

Q: Were there any obstacles in getting this made?

SOMMERS: Yeah. I didn't sell it before I starting writing it, because I didn't think I could write it. I didn't want to spend two years of my life writing a movie about a guy who takes on three monsters and kills them all. So I thought, 'How do I write these three icons and have it so their characters and stories all interweave, perfectly?' You'll understand how all of them could meet and how they all interact and how this one needs this one to pull off this for that one.

And so, I didn't want to pitch it. I knew I could pitch it for Universal and they'd buy it on a one-line pitch. But I wanted to make sure. The only time I've ever pitched a whole movie is with "The Mummy". Everybody always told me: make pitches short and sweet, 10 or 15 minutes. And "The Mummy" pitch was almost two hours long. I wanted to make sure. It's so easy to pitch anybody for the opening 10 pages and make it sound like the greatest movie. I've read scripts like that so many times, where you read the first ten pages and you go, 'This is so exciting!' and then in the rest of it, nothing happens. Or the first thirty pages. It's one long chase scene, it's fantastic, and after page thirty, nothing happens. And there's a lot of those scripts. So I was terrified.

Q: How did you get your start?

SOMMERS: Oh, god. That's a long, sordid tale. I'm from a small town in Minnesota, I ended up being a foreign exchange student just to get out, and it was cheaper to go to school in Spain. So a friend of mine and I went there and I eventually ended up managing rock and roll bands, working street theater groups... it's a long story.

[I worked in] Paris and Dublin and London and eventually I was in Amsterdam, and I worked in this nightclub in Amsterdam and I thought, 'What am I going to do with my life?' I liked to work with actors, I liked to write, so I thought, 'I'll go to Hollywood.' One of my teachers had told me about the USC Film School. I didn't know it was a big deal. I didn't know anyone in California but I thought, 'I'll apply to this film school.' I'd never picked up a camera before going to USC, but I had this eclectic background. I'd worked with a lot of actors, I'd done a lot of writing, and I somehow got accepted. In the first semester, I thought I'd never make it through, because the back-end of a camera.

But what it really is about is story telling. Character, story, character, story and that kind of got me through, and then I just wrote my ass off. Everything I've directed, I've written. So whenever anybody asks me how to become a director, I say 'For me, you've got to write.' Nobody ever offered me anything the first five years, so I just wrote my own.

Q: On the Internet message boards, they're already flaming "Van Helsing" and it hasn't even wrapped yet. How do you respond to that?

SOMMERS: They do that to everybody. It doesn't affect me personally because I've never been on the Internet. I don't have e-mail, I've never received and sent e-mail, never been on the Internet. I just haven't.

I mean, it's like with "The Mummy" movies. There's a certain group of guys – I'll say guys between the ages of 12 and 24 – who are really pissed off that the "Mummy" movies weren't bloody, R-rated genre pics. The studio, for nine years, they tried to develop "The Mummy". They were trying to make a 15 to 18 million dollar movie about a guy wrapped in bandages, it was going to be very bloody, and very genre, and those guys probably would have loved it. But with a cheesy, tacky, $15m guy wrapped in bandages, nobody would have gone to see it. Who wants to see a guy walking about wrapped in bandages after all the Gary Larsen cartoons? You can unwrap him, you can outrun him, you can use them as toilet paper – there's no point. What's the point of making that movie? So my attitude is... So, OK. If you say "The Mummy" has got to be completely computer generated, well, that changes everything. I love "The Mummy". I love the original, and what I did, and I don't really have that much interest in making just a strictly R-rated horror genre movie. That's not what I was going for. That's all you have to say: 'Do you want a guy wrapped in bandages, or do you want him to be computer-generated?' Well, that changes the price tag and you're never going to get it to be an R-rated bloody. So you can't have it both ways.

Q: So when you write a script, you pretty much please yourself first?


Q: Can you talk a little bit about the tone of the film?

SOMMERS: I think still has a lot of fun, but it's more dramatic. When you take Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolf Man, when you take them really seriously... Like, I took them seriously as characters and I thought, 'Oh, these guys have really bad problems.' So you can't be tongue in cheek and you can't be winking, it just got to be inherently more dramatic.

Q: Wasn't the Invisible Man in it at first, and you then took him out?

SOMMERS: Nope. I read somewhere that The Mummy was in this one too in some magazine, and I'm like, 'No. No.'

Q: What was your impetus to write this script?

SOMMERS: My impetus was to write something very small. Two people talking on the beach. I didn't want to do any more special effects, no action. I thought, 'I'm driving myself to an early grave, these moves are way too hard. I can't do this anymore.' Then I thought, I had so much fun with the Mummy movies - and I think I was watching Frankenstein one night, and I just started thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I could do...?' I don't know. It just all kind of... It wasn't planned. The studio didn't come to me. They didn't ask me to do this.

As far as I'm concerned, Coppola made a really good Dracula. It's a fantastic Dracula, and somebody else made a Frankenstein that was good. So I thought, 'I'm not going to make a Dracula movie, I'm not going to make a Frankenstein movie.' But I have this affinity. I just love these sort of movies and I can't get away from it. And then I just started thinking about it. I thought, 'Well, maybe if all three of them could be in a movie together.' And they've done that before. The only one I've ever seen is – there's these monster mash movies from the 50s people talk about.

Q: "House of Frankenstein"?

SOMMERS: See, I've never seen that. I've done two Mummy movies and the only other Mummy movie I've ever seen was the original. I've never seen any of the "House of the Mummy", "The Claw" - I've never seen any of them except the 1932 Boris Karloff one.

Q: On "Van Helsing" it sounds like you went back to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein but you didn't go to Bram Stoker for Dracula.

SOMMERS: It's a combination plate. You know, it's like Van Helsing – I call him Gabriel. My attitude is, he's Van Helsing's younger brother. Because A: I don't like the name Abraham. I can't name my lead character Abraham. Just isn't gonna cut it. No, I use a bit of everything. I read all the books, I watch all the movies and I take what I need and what I like, and what stuck out for me.

Q: The sets look like an homage to James Whale.

SOMMERS: Well, the opening whole big sequence is going to be in black and white, just because I love that. That feel. And I thought this was a perfect movie to do that. You know, start with an old black and white logo because people remember those movies. It's going to have that black and white feel to it.

Q: Can you talk about casting Hugh?

SOMMERS: As soon as I finish a script, I hand it to Bob [Ducsay]. Bob usually says, 'Oh, that's Jason Scott Lee, or that's Brendan Fraser.' Somebody at the studio, once you've turned in the script, gives you a list of 100 people who can play the role, however inappropriate. If it's a male lead, they'll give you every name from the age of 18 to 55. It doesn't matter what race, color, creed, or whatever. It's just like this whole thing and you're like, 'What in the...? How could he possibly play...?'

This role is much darker and more brooding [than Brendan Fraser], I guess a more mysterious character, and there are only a few guys. First of all, it had to be a man. There are a lot of good actors now, that are boys. There's a lot of boys and then there are the older guys. There are very few—there's Ewan McGregor, there's Viggo Mortensen, and there's Hugh—who are great actors who can really pull this sort stuff off, and those other two guys have already done swashbucklers. But also, I've heard so much about Hugh – not that I've heard anything bad about Viggo or Ewan – but I love to work with nice people. I know some people who knew Hugh and they said he was the greatest guy. It's like, I'd love to work with George Clooney because I hear he's the greatest guy. I'm almost more interested in how nice a person is than in how great an actor they are. Some of them happen to have both qualities - like Hugh.

Q: What about Kate?

SOMMERS: We didn't audition anyone for that role except Kate. I mean, we didn't audition Hugh either, we just met him, talked him into doing it and that was it. So he was our only choice for that role. But all the other roles, everybody else, we auditioned like crazy. The studio, they wanted Hugh, and they said, 'Let's try to get an ingénue, you know, somebody we don't know.' I thought, 'Oh, that's fine.' But if we're going to do that, let's scour Europe. I love to find European actors.

I just think, for me personally, unless it's Gwyneth Paltrow, most Americans aren't very good with accents. Like, when I was doing the Mummy movies I said, 'No, no. Let's not get some American guy playing the English guy. Let's go get an English guy.' And so in this movie I was just really determined to find a European. Then it kind of got narrowed down, because at the same time there was something like 11 people who'd have to speak with a Transylvanian accent. You don't want it to be a mish-mash of accents. Audiences don't want to think about accents.

You want to give it a flavor, but this isn't a documentary and it's not a pure drama. So at the auditions we met some really good girls, but at the end of the day you have Hugh Jackman. And he's a really good actor! And he's really good looking! So we had to get someone who was a good counterpart for Hugh and that's really hard to find. As soon as Kate's name came up, it was Kate. I didn't even audition Kate. I called her up and said, 'I'm going to send you a script.'

Q: Were you at all concerned she was going to be in another vampire movie before yours comes out?

SOMMERS: Yeah. In fact, her agent sent me a whole trailer – they were almost done shooting the movie [Underworld] – they sent me a whole trailer because they wanted to show me how much action she could do and that she's a physical gal and that sort of stuff.

Q: There was no hesitation?

SOMMERS: It seems like a very different movie. I guess it's got vampires, it's got... It's like a "Blade" movie, or whatever. It's very contemporary. It's a completely different genre.

Q: Did you write the Igor part with Kevin O'Connor in mind?

SOMMERS: I never write a script with an actor in mind, but by page one I was like, 'Oh yeah, well Kevin's got to be Igor.' He's the only one who I knew was a done deal. He is the only one I write for.

Q: How do you feel about rating blurs?

SOMMERS: It's kind of arbitrary. Did you see "Lord of the Rings"? Is that not clearly an R-rated movie? The scene when Sean Bean dies, the arrows were so thick and how many of them does he get pierced through his chest? By the way, more power to Peter Jackson and those guys. I'm so thrilled for them that they got the PG-13.

Q: Will there be any sex in "Van Helsing"?

SOMMERS: Full frontal nudity. (laughs) Somehow, it's going to be PG-13, but it's full frontal.

Q: How bloody is this?

SOMMERS: Just spewing blood everywhere! (laughs) There is some, but for PG-13 you just have to, uh... I mean, I don't really hold back. It's like, as much as I love the opening of Coppola's "Dracula", that's not what I do.

Q: Do you work to get creative and think ways around the rating restrictions? In the Mummy movies you had some horrific effects that were probably not in violation of the MPAA stuff because they hadn't thought of it yet, so they couldn't condemn it.

SOMMERS: Not really. It's the overall tone of the movie. I rarely think, 'Oh, is this going to be PG-13?' Every once in awhile it comes up, but it's usually on the set. It's not like in advance I say, 'Oh, we can't do this.' The way the script is written and the way we're directing it, it just feels like a PG-13 movie. Do you know what I'm saying? Sometimes you can get away with something that would almost be considered R, if you've got some humor. It's a lot about tone. If something is really dark, dark and depressing, that's more likely to get an R-rating. Even if you look at two movies side-by-side, you go, 'Wait a minute. They have the same amount of blood...' So the MPAA looks at overall tone as well.

Q: Did you have any flood damage problems shooting in Prague?

SOMMERS: No. We were post-flood damage. We got in there afterwards. Part of the movie takes place in Transylvania, and you won't know we shot in Prague. We actually built our own village and we spent some money there. We used exteriors and we did some soundstage work, too. But we built all our own stuff, mainly. [Eastern Europe is] a great filmmaking community.

Q: Why did you shoot in the middle of a freezing winter?

SOMMERS: We wanted it to be overcast and dark. If it was sunny... in fact, that was the only time we went over schedule was when we were in Prague in the middle of winter and we suddenly had a week of pure sunlight. We were dying (groans) because we all know that vampires can't be flying around in sun. I've been where it's pouring rain out, and you can't shoot. And you're sitting there, what can you do? It's pouring rain. So it's really weird to be standing there not shooting when it's a bright, sunny, beautiful day. That drove me crazy.

Q: Can you tell anything about the scene I saw being shot, earlier today?

SOMMERS: Well, probably the most boring 31 seconds of the movie. But that scene, uh, our two heroes have been tracking the Wolf Man, basically. And they track him to this castle. The castle, in the prologue a year earlier, was attacked by the peasantry and a certain grave-robber was killed, along with his creation. Now, our heroes have been tracking this werewolf through the forest and they come upon this castle and they enter it, thinking it's been vacated. Suddenly, they realize somebody is there. And Dwergie are just part of it.

Q: What's that?

SOMMERS: It's a German Gothic troll.

Q: So, it's a real thing?

SOMMERS: Dwerger is singular, Dwergie is plural. So yes, they're as real as I can make them.

Q: Would you rather use an antagonist CGI character, or an actor?

SOMMERS: An actor. I love to work with actors. Unfortunately, I write this stuff. You know, I wish I wrote romantic comedies. I've got to force myself to write a romantic comedy, or something. But I'd rather work with actors. But the CG is kind of fun, too.

Q: So for Dracula's big scenes, is it Richard Roxburgh or a CG bat?

SOMMERS: You have to think of those things. I really hold off on his other persona until the third act. That's one thing you have to think of going in, is you can't suddenly have... I don't think, and there's been a few movies recently, where you have lead guys completely encased in something or other during the climax, you know, in the third act. Most good actors just nix that right away. They're like, 'Ugh, I'm a CG guy! I don't want to do that.' And so I came up with some interesting ways to get them in and out of costume, if you will. But you have to think that way. You don't want to just – I have no interest, also – I love watching two watching two CG creatures fight, but for like, 8 to 10 seconds. And then it's like, 'Come on – let's get on with something. Let's keep it interesting. '

Q: Are you still involved with Jason and the Argonauts?

SOMMERS: Not as a director. I'm just helping produce it.

Q: What about "Mummy 3"?

SOMMERS: I haven't thought about that. I've been too busy on Van Helsing. I'm in touch with most of the actors and I'd love to work with them again, but you know, I've done my Mummy movies for right now and I'm on Van Helsing. And like I said, my next movie is going to be two people chatting on the beach.

Q: Would you do a movie that you didn't write?

SOMMERS: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Do you have other characters ready for the sequel to this?

SOMMERS: No, because I honestly didn't know I could write this. Then when I wrote the script, it turned out really well. I mean, the studio green-lit... that's probably a little disingenuous because even if it was bad they probably would have green-lit it, I mean who knows? But it turned out really well; the story, the characters, and so I just went rolling into this. Even when making the Mummy 1, I never thought I'd do a sequel. I'm sure the studio would love to make a sequel of Van Helsing, but you know what? One thing at a time.

Q: What the most difficult sequence you've had to shoot so far?

SOMMERS: There have been a lot of them. In this kind of movie, it's like playing three dimensional chess because one piece of it is done in Prague. One piece is done on the soundstages here. One piece is in Marin County, up at ILM. It's all these pieces, and also some of the pieces aren't together yet. Like, when the brides started flying, we didn't put wires on them. I wanted this movie to be as real and as organic as possible. This movie takes a lot of preproduction, and we did a lot of pre-visualization. To try and explain to people how these shots were going to work would have just been impossible.

Also, my problem is, I try to make every scene even more complicated. In this set right here, Dracula has to talk to his brides. He walks up and hugs his brides and consoles them. I'm thinking, 'Well, that's kind of boring. What if they were hanging upside down? And what if we did this whole thing?' I make my life as miserable as possible when I'm doing these things.

Q: Why couldn't you just shoot right side up and reverse the shot?

SOMMERS: You can't, because of gravity. You can't fake it. When you see the shots where the brides are hanging upside down, they are so cool-looking because these girls' hair just looks like the Bride of Frankenstein, you know? It's gravity. You could comp it, but it looks like a comp. At one point I thought, 'What if the brides defy gravity?' Even when they are hanging upside down, their hair stays down, their dresses stay flat. We looked at that, and it just looks fake. It looks like a comp, so we said, 'No, we've got to do it for real and we've to hang them upside down.' And they look weird and creepy.

Q: I liked the little twist you added about how the Mummy was afraid of cats. That's funny, in a culture that revered cats. Did you write anything like that into Van Helsing? Did you play with the myth a little?

SOMMERS: Oh, I always do that. What I try to do is, read all the stuff and then once you know all the rules you can break them. One of the things we realized in this movie is that Dracula is the source of all vampires and you can't kill him with a stake in the heart. That's one thing our heroine, when she gets all mad at Van Helsing, she's all, like, 'We've been fighting this guy for 400 years. We've stabbed him, we've sticked him, we've thrown holy water on him, da-da-da-da, but nobody knows how to kill Dracula.' You've got to turn it on its head sometimes. So use all the rules, throw some out the window, and bend a few.