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The Secret History Of 'Vampire's Kiss,' The Craziest Nicolas Cage Movie Of All Time

Part I: Birth of the Kiss The story begins with a terrible vacation. Or perhaps “terrible” is too obvious— Vampire’s Kiss is not the sort of movie that could have emerged from a jolly seaside honeymoon. It is grim, deranged—a comedy so dark its protagonist, played with wild fervor by Nicolas Cage, literally believes he is allergic to daylight. But these were particularly bad vibes. It was January 1986, and a promising young screenwriter named Joseph Minion was miserably depressed. “It was a very bad time,” Minion says. “It was very cold. I was in a toxic relationship.”Minion’s first film, the night-from-hell classic After Hours , had miraculously caught the eye of Martin Scorsese, who directed it in 1985, bringing Minion’s vision of urban alienation to a mass audience. His second script, a road movie called Motorama , was trapped in development hell—thus one cause of his misery. He and his girlfriend, film producer Barbara Zitwer, decided to leave town. They caught a cheap courier flight to Barbados. Even there, Minion couldn’t shake his tortured mental state. Zitwer intervened. “She said, ‘Listen. I’m going back to New York. You’re in a bad mood. You sit here, write a script,’” Minion recalls. Zitwer, who’d met Minion in film school and then risen up the ranks as a location scout and associate producer for filmmaker Larry Cohen, thought a new script might lift his spirits. “She said, ‘Whatever you write, I promise I’ll get it made,’” Minion recalls.Zitwer remembers the conversation differently: “I told him to write a script that would be set in Barbados. We’ll shoot it there. I love the Caribbean.”A nice idea, but not one Minion heeded. When he met a stranger at the hotel who loved horror movies, inspiration struck: Why not write a low-budget horror film? Minion spent two weeks cooped up in a hotel room overlooking palm trees, writing. “I was just alone with my demons,” he says. “I rented a typewriter. I pounded it out.” One night, he was staring out the open window and saw a group of bats fly out of an opening in the roof. A sign? “It was like, Oh my God. This is the universe speaking to me .”The result was Vampire’s Kiss , a darkly comic story about a mentally disturbed literary agent named Peter Loew, whose empty, unfulfilled romantic exploits cause him to rant to his therapist and torment his poor secretary, Alva. When Peter gets bitten by a vampiric lover named Rachel, he believes he’s turning into a vampire and descends into insanity, ranting and raving and begging for death. The film regards Peter’s spiraling madness with unflinching fascination, as he kills a woman in a nightclub and hallucinates in the streets.1989 publicity still for Vampire’s Kiss. Courtesy of Robert BiermanThe story shared some similarities with After Hours : the buzzing urban anxiety, the sexual alienation, the grim view of Manhattan nightlife. But even more twisted. Minion admits the energy behind the script had to do with “cauterizing this really toxic relationship.” He planned to direct the movie himself. Minion tells me all this three decades later, at a diner on West 57th Street. He is 61, with dark glasses and a tattoo of the word “Fellini” on his right forearm. The diner is overpriced. “This is starting to become a rich man’s town,” he mutters, scanning the menu. It’s hardly the Manhattan he wrote about in After Hours and Vampire’s Kiss , a gritty town populated by Mohawked punks, art studios, and rampant crime. That city was both thrilling and nightmarish. “Darkness is like my middle name,” Minion says. “I have a very dark view. I don’t feel very optimistic about anything.”Minion admits he was nervous about meeting me. When people talk about Vampire’s Kiss , they often treat it as a joke. Several years ago, for instance, he was invited on a podcast to talk about the film. He said yes, but never heard back. Then he realized the podcasters had recorded the episode without him. “For at least an hour, they kept using the word ‘bad.’ ‘This is so baaad !’ ‘This is awful , oh my God!’ These two guys were basically dissing the movie.” He couldn’t understand it. The film is a comedy, but it was never a joke. It’s personal—and dark. Cage understood that. “I always saw the movie as a story of a man whose loneliness and inability to find love literally drives him insane,” the actor said while recording the DVD commentary track. (Cage declined to be interviewed for this story.) Minion is vaguely aware that Vampire’s Kiss has found a new life on the internet—that it has become the forefather of endless debates about whether Cage is a good actor; that it’s deeply beloved among the sort of weirdos who can recite the alphabet in the exact same cadence as Cage’s character; that scenes of Cage bugging his eyes out and terrorizing Alva have inspired endless memes and YouTube clips. He shrugs that off. “It’s not Vampire’s Kiss . Vampire’s Kiss is a movie that starts frame 1 and ends frame 12,722 or whatever. I’m not responsible for this meme stuff. I love films.”Part II: Cage Under PressureWhen Minion completed the screenplay in Barbados, he mailed it to Zitwer. “I was completely horrified,” Zitwer says. “Horrified because I was Joe Minion’s girlfriend and living with him. And I read it and it was like … this is our relationship. To read someone write about this woman he’s in love with who’s like a vampire and destroying him—” Zitwer saw traces of herself in both Rachel, the woman who torments Peter, and Alva, the woman who’s tormented by him. (Later, producers toyed with the idea of casting the same actress in both roles, establishing a subliminal link between the vampire and the secretary. Jennifer Beals, then known for Flashdance , wound up playing the former part and Maria Conchita Alonso the latter.) Jennifer Beals (Rachel) and Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss. Courtesy of Robert BiermanDespite her initial shock, Zitwer and her coproducer, Barry Shils, loved the script and immediately decided to get it made. The two had become close friends while working on Larry Cohen’s movies. Their circle also included Marcia Shulman, a friend of Zitwer’s who quickly became Vampire’s Kiss ’s associate producer and casting director. They were young, hungry, and dying to make a movie of their own. “I basically gave up my entire career for two years to get Vampire’s Kiss made,” Shulman says. Armed with youthful naivete and one degree of separation from Scorsese, they found a willing financier in John Daly, the late British film producer, who was gathering a library of films for his own production company, Hemdale Film Corporation.Casting brought its own drama. Today it’s utterly impossible to imagine Vampire’s Kiss without Cage’s unhinged brand of “Cage”-iness. Not so in 1986, when he was a young actor still finding his voice. Early on, Dennis Quaid was cast as the lead. “We got financing because of Dennis,” Shulman says. The choice makes sense if you think of Vampire’s Kiss as After Hours 2.0, Shulman theorizes. “In some ways, Dennis would have been the Griffin Dunne way to go—the sort of overwhelmed guy.” Instead, Quaid dropped out to star in Innerspace . “And then the scramble began.”As the script circulated around Hollywood, the producers got word that Cage was interested. Shulman says, “I remember sitting with Barbara and Barry and saying, ‘We have no idea what it will be. … But he’ll get the movie made. And he’s always interesting.’” She remembered seeing Valley Girl and thinking, “Who is that guy?” In 1986, Cage was 22 and mostly known for appearing in the films of his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. In Peggy Sue Got Married , his eccentricities became unmistakable. Cage took a highly surrealistic approach, including an oddly nasal voice, much to the annoyance of star Kathleen Turner, who wanted Coppola to fire him.Minion met with Cage at a speakeasy in the West Village and was struck by his enthusiasm for the script: There was “this look in his eyes, like he was gonna really do something.” Cage was offered the role. He accepted. Then Minion decided not to direct the film after all—and everything fell apart. “I just had to move on,” Minion explains. “The darkness of it—I couldn’t inhabit it anymore.” He and Zitwer had broken up. It had been a stormy relationship and a dramatic breakup; the two could barely be in the same room, much less on a film set together for months. Zitwer and her coproducers immediately began searching for a new director. They settled on a British newcomer named Robert Bierman, who had mostly directed commercials but charmed them with his excitement about Vampire’s Kiss . But there was one problem. Cage felt misled when he learned Minion wasn’t directing and dropped out. “I was getting a lot of outside pressure from my agent and people representing me that this was not a good move after Moonstruck , to make a movie of this nature with the vampire fangs and going off like that,” Cage says in the commentary. “I responded to the pressure and I broke.”The scramble for a star began anew. Bierman had dinner with Judd Nelson. “He was very keen, his agent quoted $1 million, we dropped him immediately,” Bierman recalls. Shils swears he once personally handed the script to Steve Martin—“who seemed very interested,” Shils adds, “but his agency did not.” The producers tried to give the part to an unknown named Adam Coleman Howard, who’d auditioned well. “But [Hemdale] wouldn’t finance the movie with him,” Shulman says.Maria Conchita Alonso (Alva) and director Robert Bierman on the New York subway during a shoot. Courtesy of Robert BiermanPerhaps Cage sensed it was his destiny to star in Vampire’s Kiss . The producers heard a rumor that he regretted dropping out. “He was kind of obsessed with the role,” Zitwer says. At lunch with their mentor Larry Cohen, they discussed the dilemma. Zitwer scoffed at the notion of working with Cage after he’d already dropped out. “And Larry looked at her and went, ‘Are you crazy ? He’s gonna be a huge star!’” Shils recalls. Shils left the lunch, found a phone booth, and immediately called Cage. It wasn’t hard to convince him.But it took another year to get his signature on a contract. Cage’s agent, Ed Limato, didn’t want him doing Vampire’s Kiss . “They wanted his next film to be a big Hollywood movie,” Shulman says—not a low-budget art film produced by a team of nobodies. Shils claims he had to sneak onto the set of Moonstruck and confront Cage just to get his agent to return his calls. Cage was ultimately paid $40,000, a reduced fee, and spent the money on his first sports car. In a 1989 Spin profile, he regretted nothing. “I did the movie for no money,” he said, “because I liked the script and I wanted to try something new with my acting.” This was a profound understatement.Part III: Fake Bats and Real Roaches The most famous story from the set of Vampire’s Kiss involves a cockroach. A real one. The script had called for Cage’s character—in the throes of madness—to suck a raw egg. Bierman and Cage thought this was too tame. Cage “said to me, ‘The thing I hate most in the world are cockroaches. They are my Room 101. … So let me eat a cockroach,’” Bierman recalls. “He wanted to eat the most frightening thing for him. I thought, ‘This is terrific!’ I sent my prop people down into the boiler room. … They brought me a box, divided up into little sections with tissue paper. The cockroaches were there lined up for me to cast. I think they’re actually called water bugs—they’re bigger than cockroaches.”What you see on film is all nauseatingly real: Cage snatching a live roach, lifting it tentatively, chewing it like a madman. “I really [wanted] to do something that would shock the audience, something you would never forget,” Cage explained. It’s the only change he made to Minion’s script, which never underwent a single rewrite.Zitwer was furious. She and Cage did not get along. She was frequently in the position of having to say no to his craziest ideas. “I was always infuriated with him but also thought he was completely brilliant,” she says. “Bob calls me and says, ‘Nicolas wants to eat a water bug instead of sucking on the egg.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck him! I’ve had it with him.’ I said, ‘Bob. It’s probably full of germs. He could get sick.’ Bob says, ‘Barbara, I think if Nicolas wants to eat a water bug on film, we should let him.’ I said first let’s call the doctor. I called the doctor. I said, ‘Would he get sick if he eats a water bug?’ And the doctor was like, ‘OK, that’s a weird question.’ But he says, ‘No. But have him drink some whiskey right after.’”In Bierman’s recollection, Cage swigged 100-proof vodka to wash his mouth out afterward. They shot two takes. “The suspense of shooting it was astounding,” says cinematographer Stefan Czapsky. “He actually ingested the cockroach” both times. (When Shils later got a call from an animal rights group, he lied and said the cockroach walked away alive.)Robert Bierman and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky shooting Vampire’s Kiss on the streets of Manhattan. Courtesy of Robert BiermanThat’s the energy Cage brought to the film set: frighteningly devoted to his performance and willing to go to extreme lengths to fulfill his creative vision. Sources say he often remained in character off-camera and was obsessive about the role. “He was a little kooky,” says Kasi Lemmons, who played Peter Loew’s initial love interest. “He was very, very into his character.” “He didn’t have a trailer or anything,” Czapsky adds. “In between scenes, Nic was always by himself. He wasn’t hiding. He was just in isolation and preparation for shooting. I remember hearing through a door that he was listening to some kind of weird chanting music. We’d laugh, like, ‘Nic’s in there, you know.’”“[Bierman] says, ‘Barbara, I think if Nicolas wants to eat a water bug on film, we should let him.’” —Producer Barbara Zitwer Vampire’s Kiss was shot on the streets of New York in seven harried weeks during the fall of 1987. Bierman has described the shoot as “complete chaos, from beginning to end”—but a beautiful and creative chaos. “Around us was chaos,” Bierman tells me. “At that time, Manhattan was full of bums and crazy people and the homeless. When Nic was on the street, we were shooting back on longer lenses. Some people didn’t know who he was. They just thought he was one of the crazy people on the street.” In one harrowing scene, a blood-splattered Cage prowls the streets with a wooden stake, incoherently begging strangers to kill him. Those strangers had no idea they were being filmed, Bierman claims. “Two of them were homeless people, who I think were quite frightened of him and ran away. It was an interesting way of galvanizing his character. He became part of the New York scenery at that time.” “He just put himself into this environment of really pitiful people, dragging the stake down the street,” adds Czapsky. “I just set the camera up across the street and photographed it.”Robert Bierman and Nicolas Cage on set in SoHo. Courtesy of Robert BiermanThe film depicts the city as a nocturnal den of sin and desperation. At one point, a dead body was being removed from a bar in a body bag as the crew prepared to shoot a scene in that bar. Bierman shrewdly used visual metaphors to represent what he viewed as Peter’s descent into hell. For instance, “in the office where he rapes Alva, he descends from his office into the basement. Metaphorically, he’s going down into his underworld. Mentally, he becomes more deranged down there. When he goes into the club, again, he descends into this kind of underworld. And then when he’s being helped—from his psychiatrist—he’s up high.”The film’s budget was low—around $2 million—and producers saved money every way possible. They shot the office scenes for free in an empty city government building, which also became a makeshift production base. They recorded the eerie score in Budapest, because the orchestra was cheaper there, then ran out of cash and had to borrow money from teamsters to pay for a Dolby sound mix. For months on end, Zitwer’s parents were essentially financing the running of the production office. “Nic cost me $10,000 by humming Stravinsky’s Petrushka ,” Bierman recalls. “The Stravinsky estate was still in copyright. So that’s why we didn’t have any money at the end.”Another source of friction was Cage’s dislike of Beals, who’d been cast as the vampire woman a day before shooting. “He hated the idea of Jennifer,” says Shulman. “He just didn’t think she provided proper motivation—creatively, sexually, in any way.” Cage had wanted that role to go to his girlfriend, 19-year-old Patricia Arquette, but Bierman refused. Another young actress got the part, but dropped out right before filming because her fiancé threatened to break up with her if she made love to Cage on screen. When Beals took the role, Cage treated her so coldly that Shulman had to call Beals’s agent and make excuses (“Nicolas is in character”).Cage eventually warmed up to Beals, but his methods remained bizarre. “To get turned on, Nic asked to have hot yogurt poured over his toes while he was doing a love scene with Jennifer,” Shulman recalls. Nobody could comprehend why yogurt got Cage aroused, but the crew obliged. “If you look at the shot, you don’t see his feet,” Shulman says.One significant expense was the bat, which swoops into Peter’s room at the beginning of the film. Producers had hired a special effects designer to transport a mechanical bat from England. Cage hated it. He believed the scene wouldn’t be authentic unless the bat were real. “I kind of went off my rocker,” he admits in the DVD commentary.“Shooting the bat drove him crazy,” Zitwer confirms. “He didn’t understand why we couldn’t get a real bat. I tried to explain to him, they have rabies. You can’t control them. I did everything. I called the head bat specialist at the bat zoo. I was prepared to take him over there, bring the guy to the set.” Cage wouldn’t let go. “There was a young production assistant who was assigned just to Nicolas,” Zitwer says. “His name was Osman. He sent Osman to Central Park with an ice cooler and a broom to try and ca ...Read more

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