The vampire next door: Matt Reeves follows 'Cloverfield' with U.S. remake of Swedish chiller

Matt Reeves never intended to become a horror-movie director. Sure, he grew up during the genre’s heyday in the ’70s and early ’80s and, like all burgeoning film buffs of that generation, eagerly devoured such classic chillers as The Exorcist and The Shining. But he always watched them with his hands over his eyes.

“As a kid, those were the kinds of movies I had a horrible time watching because I was so afraid of everything [onscreen],” the 44-year-old filmmaker remembers. Reeves’ early Hollywood endeavors were certainly about as far away from the horror genre as one could get. His first major credit was the quirky 1996 comedy The Pallbearer (which he wrote and directed), followed by the intense family drama The Yards (which he co-wrote and co-produced) and the teen-friendly TV show “Felicity” (which he co-created with J.J. Abrams). Then, in 2007, he was talked into directing a little film called Cloverfield, the inventive monster movie produced by Abrams and written by Drew Goddard. Suddenly, Reeves found himself staging scary death scenes and creepy “Boo!” moments—both hallmarks of a genre he had grown up being scared of.

Making Cloverfield clearly gave Reeves a taste for the macabre, because he’s followed up that box-office hit with another creature feature, Let Me In, due in theatres on Oct. 8. A remake of the acclaimed 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In, the movie is an emotional coming-of-age story cloaked in the garb of a bloody vampire tale. The narrative follows a bullied 12-year-old boy named Owen (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee), who falls under the spell of Abby (Chloe Moretz, a.k.a. Hit Girl from Kick-Ass), the strange young girl next door. As their relationship deepens, Owen makes the startling discovery that his new friend is, in fact, a bloodsucker and not the sparkly, angst-ridden kind seen in the Twilight movies either. Abby’s hunger for human hemoglobin forces her to viciously attack and kill several innocent victims. And when she doesn’t have the strength to hunt, she dispatches her kept man (Richard Jenkins) to bring back fresh blood for dinner.

Funnily enough, while preparing to shoot Let Me In, Reeves sought inspiration from the same movies that frightened him all those years ago. “I thought about films like The Shining and The Exorcist, which had a real sense of dread to them and treated the characters and situations as being utterly real,” he explains. “That way you relate to them and connect to them and that makes the scary stuff even more scary because the film has a naturalistic feel. So I was fascinated by the idea of doing a vampire movie that you treated as realistically as possible. It was the same approach I took with Cloverfield—doing a giant monster movie, but grounding the absurdity of that premise in a situation that feels real. That way, you get to use the ridiculousness of it to explore something dramatic going on under the surface that really resonates. That’s the fun of doing a horror movie, at least for me.”

He may describe making horror movies as “fun” now, but Reeves confesses that Let Me In wasn’t his first choice of follow-up projects after finishing Cloverfield. Instead, he hoped to find a backer for his original screenplay The Invisible Woman, a dark, character-driven thriller that revolves around, as Reeves puts it, “a desperate woman in a desperate situation.” In early 2008, he pitched the project to Overture Films, which passed but presented him with another offer. “They said, ‘It’s too challenging an environment to try and make this movie, but we love Cloverfield and we really want to do something with you,’” Reeves remembers. “‘We’re pursuing the rights to this Swedish film and we’d like you to watch it—we think you’d be great for it.’ At that point, I really wanted to make my film and wasn’t sure about doing a remake, but I watched it without knowing what it was about. In fact, no one knew anything about it; the film hadn’t even come out in Sweden yet.”

Five minutes into the mystery movie, Reeves was hooked. “The first half reminded me of a pilot script I wrote for a prospective TV series. It was told from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy whose family was on the verge of a break-up. He lived in an apartment complex and had these halting little encounters with the girl next door who was also the product of a single-parent family. So I loved all the early scenes between the young boy and girl in this film. And then when it became a vampire movie, I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing. These guys found a way to explore the emotional terrain I was interested in through a vampire story.’”

The day after he saw the movie, Reeves called Overture and expressed his enthusiasm for the project, while also cautioning them that remaking such a terrific film might not be a wise choice. After that, he wrote to a filmmaker friend who lived in Sweden and asked him if he had ever heard of a movie entitled Let the Right One In. “He told me, ‘Oh, I wanted to make that film so badly! You don’t understand, that’s one of the most beloved stories here!’”

Through his pal, Reeves learned that the Tomas Alfredson-directed film was based on a best-selling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, a popular Swedish horror author frequently compared to Stephen King. While Overture continued to pursue the rights to an English-language remake of the movie, Reeves tracked down a copy of the book and fell even deeper in love with the material.

“The trick of the book is that Lindqvist used the vampire genre to tell a story about the pain of adolescence. In reading about the characters in more detail, the story really dug under my skin. Specifically, I was interested in the idea of there being a 12-year-old boy who has some very dark thoughts. What does it mean when the world around him is telling him that those are thoughts that only evil people have? How would you deal with that confusion as a kid? I ended up writing to John and told him that I was interested in doing the remake for very personal reasons and that I related to the story. He wrote back and said that he was excited that I had a personal reaction to the book, because it was the story of his childhood—it’s his autobiography in a way.” With the author’s endorsement, Reeves pitched his take on the movie to Hammer Films—which had acquired the rights and subsequently teamed up with Overture to make the movie—and secured the job.

Flash-forward to October 2008. Reeves had just completed the first draft of his adapted screenplay when the original Swedish film finally arrived in American theatres, premiering to terrific reviews and word of mouth. Suddenly, the movie no one knew anything about became the movie that horror fans had to see. “The film started getting all this acclaim, which didn’t surprise me because I thought it was brilliant,” Reeves says. “But on the other hand, it got so much acclaim and became so well-known that people started asking why it was being remade so quickly.”

Skepticism about the remake ran high, which is understandable given Hollywood’s wildly uneven track record with adapting innovative foreign horror movies. (After all, for every The Ring, there’s a Dark Water, Pulse and The Eye.) As the start date for production on Let Me In approached, Reeves did his best to ignore the naysayers. “I tried to focus my thoughts on how connected I felt to the story and important it was to remain faithful to its spirit while also imbuing my own spirit and sensibility on the material. All I knew is that it was a great story and that I had a chance to tell it through a new prism.”

Keenly aware that the movie’s success hinged on finding the right two tweens to play Owen and Abby—particularly after the memorable performances given by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson in the original film—Reeves auditioned a number of pre-teen performers. In the case of Abby, he was specifically looking for an actress that wouldn’t portray the vampire character as…well, a vampire.

“When all the young actresses I saw came in to audition, their first instinct was to play Abby as a gothic vampire, but if you do that, you’re not going to get into the textures of what the story is really about. Even Chloe [Moretz] did that the first time I saw her. We talked about it and I told her, ‘Forget that, don’t even play that at all. Just think about what kind of life this would be. Imagine if your own life was this hard.’ I also showed her some photographs by [American photographer] Mary Ellen Mark that documented a homeless family. One of them was a girl about Abby’s age, and in the pictures she has this look of defiance on her face, but under that she seems wounded and broken. That’s what I wanted to draw out of Chloe; she can obviously be tough—she was Hit Girl, after all—but she has a genuine softness under that and that was something I wanted to explore with her.”

If Abby comes across as slightly softer than her Swedish counterpart, Owen is a more obviously disturbed kid than the boy seen in Alfredson’s movie. In that way, Reeves’ conception of the character hews closer to the novel, which also made his dark thoughts and potential for violence more explicit. “Although it’s never stated directly in the book, it seemed to me that there’s a way to read it whereby she is a manifestation of his inner darkness,” the director explains. “Owen is afraid to act on that because he’s a kid, so Abby gets to do all the things he wishes he could do and it’s as if that side of him is unleashed. You have to portray his darkness onscreen in order for that theme to resonate. But I also didn’t want either character to be one thing or the other—I didn’t want him to be pure innocence and her pure evil. I felt that they needed to be reflections of each other.”

During the casting process, Reeves worried about finding a young actor capable of believably portraying Owen’s mixed-up adolescent mind, so he breathed a sigh of relief when Kodi Smit-McPhee walked through the door. “We were looking for someone who could play the part in a non-Hollywood way and in working with Kodi, it was always about trying to be as real as possible. He had just turned 13, so I’d say to him, ‘What would you do in this scene?’ And he’d say, ‘Well, keeping it real, I think I’d do this.’ Like Chloe, he was wise beyond his years and was able to express that side of himself. If I hadn’t found him, I don’t think I would have been able to make this version of the story.”

Speaking on the phone from his L.A. office in mid-August, Reeves says that he’s less than a week away from delivering to the studio the finished version of Let Me In—complete with special effects and a score by Oscar-winning composer (and the man who wrote the Cloverfield overture) Michael Giacchino. After that, he’s celebrating the end of the movie, as well as the end of a busy summer, by taking a well-deserved vacation. Then the job of promoting the movie begins, kicking off with a star-studded premiere at the Toronto Film Festival followed by a red-carpet screening at Austin’s popular genre festival Fantastic Fest. Somewhere in there, Reeves will also find time to think about his next project, which may or may not be another horror movie. (Rumors of a Cloverfield sequel have been circulating on the web for some time and Reeves has said that he and Abrams are seriously considering the idea.)

“I don’t know what’s next,” he says. “I’ve started reading some things and I’m still trying to get The Invisible Woman off the ground. The truth of the matter is it’s very ironic that I’ve been making the kinds of films I have of late. It’s funny, before making Let Me In, I tried to watch The Exorcist again with my director of photography and I told him, ‘I apologize now for any outbursts I make while we’re watching.’ And he said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And I said, ‘I’m still scared of this movie!’” Apparently, much like vampires, some childhood fears never die.