Ryûhei Kitamura likes to think that the title of his latest film speaks for itself, or so he espoused when his film debuted at Midnight Madness at TIFF last year. The horror survivalist thriller No One Lives (playing this Thursday as part of Cineplex’s Sinister Cinema series and various dates throughout the remainder of the month at the Cineplex Yonge and Dundas in Toronto) certainly aims to live up to it’s name, and it’s a point that Kitamura stresses in his crowd pleasing and profane introduction to the film.
The morning following the premiere Kitamura is sitting in a room at the Intercontinental Hotel full of really expensive wine, and he’s not as hyper, but certainly gracious and self-effacing about the WWE Films production. No One Lives is the tale of a heist gone horribly wrong, leading to a band of thieves taking a pair of hostages before hiding out in the woods until the heat dies down. After killing the female hostage, they make the mistake of leaving the mysterious Driver (Luke Evans, most recently the baddie in the summer blockbuster Fast & Furious 6) alive. This Driver is one of those seemingly unstoppable men with a special set of skills and a thirst for blood, and they just happened to kill the one person who ever meant anything to him. With the help of a woman Driver had taken hostage, the thieves have to try to band together in an effort to not get picked off one by one. Again, referring to the title, things don’t really go very well for them.
Kitamura, best known for the highly lauded, low budget modernist Samurai fantasy Versus from 2000 and the cult favourite and unjustly slept on Bradley Cooper starring, Clive Barker adapted slasher The Midnight Meat Train, sat down with Dork Shelf to talk about his hesitance to make another horror film, crafting a more character based approach, casting people in scumbag roles, his love of David O. Russell (who name checks Meat Train in Silver Linings Playbook in more ways than one), and opens up about some of the challenges he faced during the release of Midnight Meat Train.
Dork Shelf: Last night you gave one of the best director introductions to a film I had seen in quite some time, and in it you said that the script brought you to doing the film. How did this project come to you?
Ryûhei Kitamura: This was a couple of years ago now when the producer called me, and when I first saw it, I thought it was a movie that was going the wrong way and I almost didn’t want to even look at it. The first ten minutes of the film were always going to be pretty typical, you know?
DS: Plus you know from the title they chose pretty much what you’re in for.
RK: Yeah, yeah. There’s going to be lots of stalking and running around in the woods and there’s this couple travelling and there are these crazy gangsters, and then it was just capturing and the couple are getting tortured, and then one of them survives. And, I mean, that kind of movie is something that I love to watch, but to me, it’s not something that I want to work on. I always want something like that where I can add to that.
When I started reading I was surprised that right from the beginning that the character and the dialogue here was so good. I never find character, emotion, and dialogue this good when I get offered something. I usually have to add it outside of the script, so to read something like this was something I really liked and enjoyed. We reveal pretty quickly that this isn’t some kind of typical “torture porn” movie. It had this irresistible wit to it and real ingenuity to the point where a lot was done for me.
It had this really great central character at the heart of it, and it made me think back to why I wanted to do Midnight Meat Train. It was almost the exact same situation. The producer asked me to do Midnight Meat Train, and at first without reading the script I said “No, I probably don’t want to do it.” (laughs) It was a great Clive Barker story and I didn’t want to mess with that. Again, it took some convincing to get me to look at the script, but that was ultimately an easier job to get, Midnight Meat Train.
On that one, I just walked into an office on a Monday morning and it was just a general meeting, and I met with the producers, and by Friday I had the job. The only thing I ever even said about that script was that this character that Bradley Cooper played – this wannabe photographer with no money or experience – was me ten years ago. (laughs) Right before I was making Versus, I wasn’t making any money and I didn’t have any future. Only through my friends believing me and helping me did I even get to make either of those because I never thought it was good enough. That was the one thing I told to the producer. I said they never had to be worrying about the gore stuff being lacking, because that part was easy, but I never want to do just a graphically violent movie. It always has to be about the characters, and I particularly felt something for that one.
And that was a feeling that carried over to No One Lives, and this and Midnight Meat Train both have this very deeply twisted love story element to them. There’s a very deep motivation and reason for everything to be happening.
DS: When you first start watching No One Lives, there’s definitely a sort of Bonnie and Clyde element that starts off that you think is going to take hold, but then it switches gears about 15 minutes in. And then you have to talk about the absence of love in a situation where across the board there aren’t any characters worthy of audience sympathy. It’s a gang of thieves up against a homicidal maniac. Did that pose a challenge for you?
RK: Yeah, that was the challenge, and at the same time it was the difficulty of it that attracted me. Like, the only character I could really think of as a parallel to the character of Driver was Hannibal Lecter. He’s a very bad man, and he’s killing everybody, but still somehow you’re attracted to that. It’s so attractive and irresistible that it’s hard not to like him. I knew I could do something similar, but it was always going to be a challenge. Yes, he’s an evil character, but towards the end of the movie you want to just give him the free reign to just go and kill everybody. That’s twisted, but I always thought it was really interesting in a character. It was also really clever how it was set up in the script. He was always written as this cool character that could easily stand up to a group of really bad people that may or may not be worse than he is. If he was just out there killing innocent people again and again and again, he would just be like Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers.
DS: And yet, Driver comes from that same tradition of the silent kind of slasher. He doesn’t really say very much. How do you sort of cast a group of villains to work opposite an already kind of dark and evil character?
RK: It’s kind of fun in a way because it’s always a rush to cast scumbags. These people are just human trash with no room for sympathy for anyone around them. Again, it was something I worked hard on because when I was hesitant at first with the producers to agree to come on, I said that I didn’t want just straight, cardboard cut out gangster types to slaughter. It’s so easy to line up a bunch of pieces of shit to get killed, but to create actual humans – even piece of shit humans – is a lot more complicated.
I offered it up that the main and realest villain of the film is this member of the gang named Flynn, played by Derek Magyar, but the rest of the crew is human in sometimes softer ways. They aren’t like Flynn who is always on all the time, and a lot of times Flynn’s actions lead to those around him getting killed. I spent a lot of time building the relationship between the members of the gang, and showing the actual difference between Flynn and the actual leader of the gang. Flynn had to be the guy just below the main guy who was truly evil and who thought the world belongs to him. That’s how I try to somehow still make the audience feel the pain. It was all about creating different levels of evil and what audiences feel like they could excuse. If the audience doesn’t feel at least a little bit of pain or even excitement when someone is getting killed, things aren’t working very well. It’s all about balance.
No One Lives is more of a survival film with a little dash of Last House on the Left. Actually, my greatest point of reference and influence for this one was the original The Hitcher.
DS: And it helps when you have characters that are being caught at a really interesting time where none of the members of this crew at the heart of the film seem to be on the same page anymore. This situation is just the rift that tears everything wide open.
RK: I really wanted to show the intelligence of these people. In the process of rewriting, I even deleted one of the characters, but I wanted to focus on the ones that were more interesting. I ended up combining two characters into one because this is an ensemble movie, and more characters means less lines and stories to tell all around.
DS: I don’t know if you noticed or anyone told you this, but there’s a scene in Silver Linings Playbook that takes place on Halloween where Bradley Cooper walks by a movie theatre that’s showing Midnight Meat Train and he starts having a panic attack in this kind of meta joke, but the camera also starts spinning around him like crazy like you like to do. Did you know that was happening?
RK: (laughs) No! But that’s pretty funny and pretty awesome. I love David O. Russell and I love all his movies, and I still love Bradley and all the stuff that he does, so that’s pretty flattering. I’m curious to see that now. (laughs)
DS: Do you still get a lot of people asking you about Midnight Meat Train because of what happened with the release of it? Did you ever think the ordeal of getting that movie out was ever going to hurt your chances of working again?
RK: Of course. That almost killed me for a full four years. (laughs) But you know, the worst is over and I’ll always survive. There were so many things with that one that were out of our hands and out of our control.
To be very honest, I have no idea what really happened to Midnight Meat Train. Nobody ever explained anything to me and no one ever told me anything. There was never any conversation with me about anything on that one once the film was done. All I remember was I went to see Rambo and there was a trailer for the movie off the top and I was so excited. I remember it was supposed to come out on May 16th back in 2008, and that was always what I was told. From that exact point onward I never know what happened because no one has ever spoken up about it. I only knew that it was having the worst time with the ratings board. At one point I was all about trying to get to the bottom of it, but now I’ve kind of let it go.
I was never asked to come back to work on it, and even though you’re in a shitty situation like that, I’m just glad that the film got out there and it found an audience in the end. As a director, I’m still proud of what I was doing. A lot of people really loved that movie and because of it a lot more opportunities opened up. There are a lot of hardcore movie fans that know me all over the world, particularly because of Versus or Godzilla: Final Wars, but that was the one that really opened me up in the States and in the industry.
I guess I think now because of Midnight Meat Train in a lot of ways people started to think of me only as a horror director, but really that was the ONLY horror movie I did! (laughs) I mostly did action movies, and really, I’m capable of doing anything and you kind of have to be. I was avoiding all of the low budget horror movies and cheap sequels that came my way for such a long time. I had the chance to direct Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, but I even turned that down in the end. But with Midnight Meat Train and this film, they had elements that I thought I could elevate.