"Vampire Academy" director Mark Waters is what you'd call a specialist at movies for and about adolescents. His resume includes the iconic high-school comedy "Mean Girls" as well as "Freaky Friday," "The Spiderwick Chronicles," and the upcoming film adaptation of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (the comic, not the TV show). To direct the adaptation of Richelle Mead's best-selling series (about teen vampires at boarding school), Waters –- who once again collaborated with his screenwriter brother Daniel Waters –- decided to stick with the fundamental truth about teens – they take romance and friendship as seriously as life and death. Here's what Waters had to say about vampires, YA-based movies, and hot Russian actors.
Moviefone: What attracted you to direct "Vampire Academy"?
Mark Waters: It's funny, the whole genre of YA books being adapted has this thing about them that made them all a little tedious to me; they all seemed overly sincere and serious and completely unaware of how melodramatic they were. The thing I liked about Richelle's books was the character of Rose, and the fact that the lead character wasn't a perfect girl. She's kind of difficult and snarky and funny and had lot of interesting complexity to her, and a lot of humor. It set her apart from anything I'd read from any of the other book series.
And I actually love reading these book series, because my daughter and I read them together like a book club. The "Vampire Academy" stuck out for me. It just happened that a friend of mine, Don Murphy, had hired my brother [Daniel] to write the screenplay for it without telling me. Don sent me the books to read and then mentioned "By the way, we hired your brother to write the books." My brother's screenplay raised my interest even more. He captured what Richelle was going for but added his very, very unique vernacular and sensibility and made it interesting and funny and subversive. And that's how I got hooked in.
Richelle Mead mentioned it was hard to get the books optioned at first, because everyone was all about "Twilight." Why do you think audiences are ready for another teen vampire movie?
One could argue that the fatigue has had time to wear off. I don't even remember exactly when "Breaking Dawn Part 2" came out -- 2012? It's been a while, which is good. Also, some of the other book adaptations that have come out in the past year, as you know, have mostly failed, because they all suffer from that dreadful sincerity and taking themselves too seriously. I'm hoping that the combination of the fact that we have a movie that does have a subversive wit to it and also that it's been a while since there has been a vampire movie means that perhaps people are ready for something new and interesting.
So you just mentioned that several YA adaptations have failed but which ones stand out in your mind as well done? Which ones got it right?
The one in particular that I think is kind of interesting, because it does a tonal balancing act is "Warm Bodies," which I really enjoyed. It didn't shatter box-office records, but it did very solid business. It had that thing where it had a whimsical tone, yet at the same time it had very real very high stakes. You're operating in a world where life and death are in play, but it also managed to have a charm and lightness and humor to it that I thought was really, really pleasant. That movie was certainly successful and sticks out in my mind as above the pack.
You can't compare these YA adaptations to say "The Hunger Games," which its own crazy juggernaut. I can't even call that a YA novel, because even though the characters are young, it's a book that even my mother read. It was a huge, all-audiences best seller. Its success seemed more like a fait accompli even before they made the movies.
I love hearing why young adult authors are compelled to write coming-of-age stories. Why are you drawn to depicting that same time period on film?
There's a potency to it. Things matter more to young people. Even movies I produced like "500 Days of Summer," those were still characters in their 20s who hadn't found themselves yet. That age is before any tediousness and lethargy has sunken in in their lives, and they still feel like there's a lot of hopefulness in all the possibilities of what their lives can be. Particularly in these high school-set movies, there's something about being in high school that's like a cauldron, a boiling pot of emotion and joy and heartbreak that you feel so intensely. Because you don't have any awareness yet, you don't realize that it's a finite time and feeling.
Is that what we can expect in "Vampire Academy": urgency meets life-and-death stakes?
Yes, as purely a high-school movie, the movie is turbulent and exciting, even if there was nothing else but the school intrigue. But then you add the extra intrigue of the fact these people are vampires. And there are bad vampires lurking at the gate who want to kill them, and people out to get them -- not in the emotional high-school sense but in the life or death sense. You can have your cake and eat it too with this movie: you have the high-school intrigue and legitimate life or death intrigue on top of that.
EXCLUSIVE: Watch a sneak preview of "Vampire Academy" (interview continues after the video)
According to Richelle, the reason she felt at ease with whatever changes you and Daniel made was that you got the characters and their relationships. You weren't just interested in the action side of the story.
Yeah, that's what we were going for... If you look at the least effective of the "Twilight" movies it was when they brought in an action-movie director, instead of a director who was really a good storyteller. And you can tell the difference.
Did you approach it more as a high-school movie than a vampire thriller then?
We didn't even make the distinction. The key is that the teenagers because they're in it, can't distinguish between which is which. They take it just as seriously that your best friend lied to your boyfriend as they do that somebody is trying to kill you. Those issues are of equal importance to these characters, and we didn't want to give more weight to one than the other or make it seem like the high school stuff was trivial, and the other stuff was legitimately serious, because from the perspective of our main characters, these are all equally as intense and important. That's the key to making this story work.
That's why we really wanted to tell the story from Rose's point of view, so audiences could be with her. And if you're with her, you're taking it all seriously. And with the natural humor that comes from Richelle's writing and my brother's writing, it's a good mash up of humor and high stakes.
With the exception of a few actors, this cast doesn't have as many big or award-winning names as some of the other YA adaptations. Talk to me about the casting. Did you specifically stay away from young actors associated with other franchises?
We were very conscious of not trying to cast anyone who had any other branded series either as a YA-adapted television show or a big movie. If a person was closely identified with another title in our genre, we generally avoided them. Frankly, if one of those people had come in and blown my mind, I might have changed my opinion, but we were hoping that whoever was best didn't come with that sort of established connection.
The fact is that Zoey Deutch came in and blew us away. And she is actually well known compared to the rest of the cast, because she had a TV show on the air, "Ringer," but she is not as well known by most of America. But she nailed the part of Rose, and we didn't think anyone else even came close to her. And her chemistry with Lucy Fry as Lissa was undeniable. They had this great counterpoint and seemed to easily fall into a chemistry and friendship with each other that was great. It was like they became best friends. Even at the audition, Lucy didn't know how to get home, so Zoey gave her a ride! They immediately got close.
What about the guys?
When it came to casting for Dimitri and Christian (the two male love interests) that was strangely more difficult, because you don't know what it's like to sit through a bunch of American, British and Australian actors doing a really bad Russian accent. They were attempting to do it well, but they were falling very very short. And that's when we started entertaining the notion of "hey, is there anyone who is a Russian actor who can speak English for the part of Dimitri?"
And it turns out there's this actor, Danila Kozlovsky, who's kind of as big as Tom Cruise was in the '80s over there -- his last two movies have been the biggest hits in Russian domestic box office history. His English is quite good, so we did a series Skype auditions with him, and he was amazing. So here was another very talented "unknown" which you have to put in quotes, because he's huge in Russia. And he's going to be big here too.
Related: "Vampire Academy" Author Richelle Mead on the Movie Adaptation