Matt Reeves looks for an American heart in the haunting Swedish tale of a young, bullied boy who befriends a vampire girl in Let Me In.
Written by Rob Feld
It was January 2008 and Matt Reeves was fresh off of directing Cloverfield, trying to get his passion project, The Invisible Woman, off the ground. It had stalled prior to Cloverfield, and he was meeting with distributors in an attempt to get the dark, independent film going again. Enter Overture Films, which was eyeing a remake of a Swedish vampire movie called Let the Right One In [Screenplay and novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist]; during yet another moment of independent film contraction Reeves’ project seemed challenging, but would he consider Americanizing Swedish vampires?
When he took the film home to watch, its story about a young, bullied boy from a troubled family living in an apartment complex, Oskar (adapted to Owen), who bonds with a vampire girl, Eli (Abby in the remake), during haunting, tentative, nighttime encounters in the courtyard, looked an awful lot like a pilot project Reeves had written called The Amazing Selwyns, minus the vampire part. The remake, subsequently titled Let Me In, seemed to call to him.
Can you tell me about the pilot you were working on, The Amazing Selwyns, and how that informed Let Me In and your choice to make it?
Selwyns was sort of a darker Wonder Years, but when it was too dark for the network, I decided to make it as an independent film. The first thing I realized was the huge difference between a TV idea and a film idea; a TV idea is really the first chapter of a novel, and you tell stories over the course of this novel, chapter after chapter, that in aggregate tell the whole story. You want that first chapter to create many, many more; it’s about how all these little events describe that person’s life. With The Amazing Selwyns, I realized that I needed an event and wound up shifting it to the point of view of a mother, and it became The Invisible Woman. Let the Right One In so resonated with me because it was in this similar emotional terrain to something that I was passionately connected to.
Photo: © 2010 Overture Films
Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz in Let Me In.
The fun of genre movies is that you can smuggle in something completely real under the surface of the vampire or monster metaphor, which is obviously what we were trying to do with Cloverfield. Here, Lindqvist was telling this amazing vampire tale that was really a coming-of-age story of the pain of adolescence. I read the book that it was based on, which goes into more detail of the merciless bullying Oskar goes through every day, his fantasies of revenge and his obsession with serial killers. There was some part of me that really didn’t want to do a remake and another part of me that it so personally resonated with, it was hard to turn away. I saw an opportunity to remain true to the spirit of that coming-of-age story but to translate it into an American context and the world that I related to and understood.
Lindqvist describes the town where the story is set as one of those modern, “planned communities” that had virtually no history because it was built all at once. It was so lacking in history that it didn’t have a single church. I wondered what the American version of that town would be; certainly not one of those “godless” communities. Our suburbs are not separated from faith like that. In fact, they are often steeped in it. And that period was the Reagan era; in early 1983, he gave his famous “Evil Empire” speech, in which he essentially described evil as something that was outside of us, something that was other – the Soviets were evil, but Americans were fundamentally good. And I started wondering what it would be like in this context for a 12 year-old who was being brutally bullied and humiliated day after day, and who, out of his helplessness, was having very dark fantasies of revenge... He would find it all very confusing and isolating – he might wonder if he was evil himself for even having such feelings. And that is really how I set about adapting the story, by following that thread.
There are lesser characters in your story, but within the timeframe that you have, you really fleshed them out and made them into people with stories of their own. Along with that, no one is simply evil.
That’s really the idea! Abby is obviously this vicious killer but out of necessity. The characters do very, very dark things, but there’s such a message of empathy to understand how people are driven to do things that you would hope you would never do; Invisible Woman is all about desperation and how this character gets driven to extremes, but the idea is to make you understand how someone would end up in that situation. In this story, the idea was to not depict anyone as just blackly evil because that’s ridiculous. To show humanity is really the idea.
What’s more, in horror films the person being killed frequently deserves it for some moral trespass; the sexual girl, the bully–
Oh, yes, yes, yes! As if they’re getting what’s coming to them. You get to indulge in watching whatever criminal moments they have and then the catharsis of watching them get killed for it.
And that’s a genre standard, but you don’t go near that.
No, in fact, it’s interesting; it was the Romeo and Juliet story of those two kids that really drew me to want to make it, and I tried to take all the other subplots and have them work at the service of that story. Elias Koteas’ character, loosely based on the policeman in the book, is really there because I felt that if these murders were happening in the small community like this there would be an urgency to find out how and why this could be happening. Over the course of the movie he is getting closer and closer which, of course, is the dynamic that makes the Romeo and Juliet story Romeo and Juliet – you know Fate is coming and something will tear them apart. Though he’s a threat to them, I didn’t want him to be a villain.
There is a moment at the end – he is suffering as she sucks his blood; in his last moments, he’s covered with blood and reaches out for Owen’s hand. I wanted that moment to exemplify the pain of those moments; Owen has all these fantasies of violence and revenge against the bullies, but when these things happen in reality it has none of the pleasure of it. That was the idea that I wanted. Even though the policeman is a threat to them and, in that sense, a villain to the story, he’s not a villainous character, and he reaches out for Owen’s hand in a moment of sheer vulnerability. Owen is then confronted with what he’s going to do, and he can’t face it. So, yes, the idea was that none of the people who are killed deserve to be killed. That’s not the way that Lindqvist’s story works.
Did you see a fault line or something that was of particular danger in the telling of this story? Something that you had to avoid at all costs for fear of having it crumble?
The thing that I felt made the story so effective was that despite the fact that it’s a vampire story, it’s very naturalistic. To me the emotional resonance of the story was in trying to make it feel as real as possible. That even came down to what you are saying, making sure nobody was being seen as purely villainous. When we were casting the bully, Kenny [Dylan Minnette], you could depict him as a one-note bully, but I didn’t want you to be able to indulge in the idea that that Oh well, there are just cruel people out there. That wasn’t interesting. Dylan is a very sweet kid, and I thought there was no way he’d be able to do it, but under the surface of his cruelty there was something broken, and you got the sense that somehow he was doing it out of pain. He’s taking it out on this kid in a way that’s really dark, but it doesn’t seem like it’s coming out of nowhere or the sheer pleasure of doing it. So I thought that was the key, to try and make people have as many sides as possible so that you can understand them.
Am I right that in the original you don’t see her caretaker’s childhood picture, and you included it in yours? It hints at Owen’s possible future, and it seems to me you took great pains, perhaps more than the original, to bring the story full circle in that way.
Right, in the original you don’t. That was just a choice. It wasn’t in the film or the novel. In fact, in the novel her caretaker is a much darker but very interesting character who, again, because you’re able to spend time with him you start to understand his pain. I wanted to highlight that idea in this film just a bit more. One thing I never wanted to do was to imply that you knew exactly what Owen’s future was going to be. On the one hand, Owen and Abby found each other, which has its own pleasures – you want them to be together. There are darker implications to that, however, so it leaves you in a place of ambiguity that on some level is hopefully chilling.