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“We Are the Night” And He Is Dennis Gansel

“We Are the Night” And He Is Dennis Gansel (photo)

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There have been a lot of vampire movies on the market lately, but few like “We Are the Night.” It’s about a petty criminal named Lena (Karoline Herfurth) who is spotted by a beautiful, ageless vampire (a ferociously menacing Nina Hoss) and inducted against her will into an all-girl crew of badass vamps. There’s a little bit of lesbian intrigue, some smart world-building around the idea of an all-female vampire society, and an appealing blend of genres: horror, action, and even a little social commentary. The material might seem like a departure for German filmmaker Dennis Gansel, whose two previous works as a director, “Before the Fall” and “The Wave,” were both Nazi-centric stories focused around high schools. But as we discussed during our conversation, there are some very clear and very interesting thematic connections in all of Gansel’s recent work.

People of my generation who went to public school in the 1980s will probably recognize “The Wave,” based on an experiment on the nature of fascism and dictatorships in a California high school, from the classic TV movie starring Bruce Davison it inspired. Gansel’s version ups the production values and style and, simply by setting the story in Germany, significantly ups the ante as well.

With IFC Films bringing both “We Are the Night” and “The Wave” to VOD (“We Are the Night” is available now; “The Wave” premieres next Wednesday, June 8) I had the chance to chat with Gansel about the origins of both project as well as some of the peculiar specifics of making a vampire movie (you’ll never believe how many different kinds of fake blood they have to use).

Where did the idea of a movie about a family of female vampires come from?

When I started this story, back in 1997, I read a lot about vampires and I discovered the novel that was actually the first vampire novel ever written: “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The novel dealt with a female vampire duchess traveling through Austria, in the region of Styria. She falls in love with the daughter of a landlord and she bites her and makes her her companion. This novel was actually the biggest influence on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” so much so that he actually wanted Styria to be his setting too, but his editor said he couldn’t do it. They were frantically searching for another location and that’s when they came up with Transylvania. I thought if female lesbian vampires who don’t bite men is in the very beginnings of vampires’ history, it could be very nice for us. And that’s where the idea came from.

Watching these incredibly wealthy women living these luxurious, decadent lives, and then occasionally drinking blood, it reminded me an awful lot of “Sex in the City” with vampires. I know your original idea predates the show, but was that an influence at all?

I wasn’t a big fan of “Sex and the City,” but I know the show because, oddly, it was a huge hit in Germany. But I don’t think it was an influence on the film. The idea was more from watching women in Berlin in the last five six years and the way they behave, shop, club, and the way they have relationships with men. It’s a very vibrant, almost emancipated way they live their lives. Watching them, and going to some of the wilder clubs in Berlin, the things we saw were so absurd that we thought they would make a good part of our vampire film.

Has the vampire genre been undergoing a renaissance in Germany in recent years, the way it has been in the United States? Are there are lot of modern German vampire films?

“We Are the Night” is a rare film in Germany. It’s more like an experiment. It was really really hard to convince the financiers to believe in the genre again. When the film opened in Germany it didn’t make much money, essentially because everyone in Germany thought it was sort of a German “Twilight.” We had a lot of problems in the communication with the audience. It’s now a huge hit on DVD but in cinemas it was quite disappointing.

When you’re making a movie in such a well-established genre like the vampire film, how do you know what elements to keep and what elements to reinvent?

It really depends on the story. We were making these decisions while we were writing. Actually the one thing we talked about a lot was the fact that they are all female vampires, which raises the question “But what about the male vampires?” And we thought “Okay, if we were female vampires, we would instantly kill every male vampire because they would obviously be much stronger than we are.” We though that the survival rate for female vampires would be much higher because they were less likely to reveal themselves and they wouldn’t kill as many people. And ironically that is what our female vampires do after Lena joins the group; the body count rises because they want to impress her. Ultimately these male aspects may lead to the extinction of our vampires. We thought that was an interesting side effect.

There were two shots in the film that really caught my eye, both close-ups of women’s arms. In one we watch as goosebumps suddenly appear, and in another the hairs on the arm suddenly stand on end. The shots are so simple, but they are so cool. Are those real arms and real goosebumps or is that some computer magic?

It was actually our main actress, Karoline Herfurth, and her arm, but we enhanced it. So we did use visual effects to get the right motion of the hair. We tried everything: ice, even cold air! But it didn’t work out so we had to enhance it a little bit. There’s much more CGI than you would think in the film. We have over 250 CGI shots, which is a lot.

I’m always interested in the practicalities of fantastical movies like yours. For example: what’s the best way to shoot fake blood? Does it need to be lit at a certain way? Do you have to keep it at a certain temperature?

There are actually different sorts of blood for each scene. So for night scenes you need blood that is much more light. For daylight scenes you can use much darker blood. I think we used five different types of blood. And it was actually made so you could drink up to half a liter and nothing would happen. But if you drank more than that — and in one scene they drank a lot — you get, um, problems. You’d get a stomachache and have to run to the bathroom. [laughs] It was very funny.

[laughs] So even vampires have to know their limits. Switching gears here, I wanted to ask a few questions about “The Wave” as well. As a kid, I remember seeing the TV movie that was based on that experiment several times. Did you grow up with the story as well?

I didn’t see the movie but there is a novel based on the movie that, because of our history in German, is required reading for kids in school. I did a movie a few years earlier called “Before the Fall” and it was dealing with Nazi schools where my own grandfather was a student and later a teacher. I made that movie because I wanted to understand why those ideas were so seductive, and to make it possible for the audience to emotionally understand how these schools and the system worked. That film led to more questions: “What about my generation? Is fascism or dictatorship still possible?” In Germany, with our history, everyone always says “No, no, no. We learned our lesson. We learn so much about it in high school and university and daily life.”

So it was quite interesting for us to raise this question. I asked it to [Ron Jones] the original teacher of the Third Wave experiment. And he said, “Dennis, it’s not about the nation or politics. It’s about psychology. And in my opinion, the psychology behind The Wave is so strong it can even work in Germany.”

I got to see the two films back-to-back. And seeing them that way, you realize that even though they have such different subjects — female vampires versus a high school class — they’re basically talking about the same ideas: how badly individuals want to feel like part of a group and how power seduces and corrupts. Are the two films connected in your mind in that way?

Absolutely. And I would say it’s the same with “Before the Fall” too. That and “The Wave” and “We are the Night” are dealing with the same subject: what would I sacrifice to be part of a group and where are my moral standards? At what point would I say enough is enough? That’s something I have found fascinating since I first started making movies.

I’ve read other interviews you’ve given where you talk about wanting to make movies in Hollywood. How’s the transition going so far?

After “Before the Fall,” I got an agent and I flew out to Los Angeles for the first time. And I was surprised because in Germany it’s all about the money. In Germany, they say “Oh you can’t do that as a movie, people won’t like it.” We do comedies all the time and it’s really tough to get on with new ideas. In Hollywood — or the United States — it’s just about ideas. When you go to Los Angeles or New York, all the meetings are just about the story. It’s all about your ideas; what’s fresh, what’s unique. And I did find this very refreshing. That’s the first part; then afterwards it’s about money and actors and it gets really tough. [laughs]



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.