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Vampires: A Very Enlightening Panel From Stan Lee’s Comikaze

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Bela Lugosi In 'Dracula'

Without a doubt, when I was looking through the schedule for the first day of STAN LEE’S COMIKAZE, “Vampires In Pop Culture And Myth” stood out as the must-see. This was due not only to my love of monsters, but also to a star-studded panel moderated by BUFFY and ANGEL star Juliet Landau (Drusilla!), who was joined by the masterminds of GRIMM, writers David Greenwalt and Jim Kouf (who also worked on BUFFY and ANGEL), Mariana Klaveno of TRUE BLOOD fame (Lorena to you), musician David J (from the bands Bauhaus, Love and Rockets), Gavin Hignight of FEARnet, and Georges Jeanty, the artist for BUFFY SEASON 8, 9, and for the upcoming FIREFLY series.

The panel came together, in part, due to a feature length documentary in the works from Juliet Landau and Deverill Weekes, a project that will explore many of the themes and topics discussed in the panel. I recently had a chance to chat with Juliet and Deverill about the project, and it sounds fangtastic. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned. Stay tuned!

But where are my manners? It’s time to begin! After introductions, Juliet Landau asked the panel about their first experiences with terror and horror. Landau had first seen PSYCHO when she was 2 years old. Not only can she remember things that far back, it was clearly scarring as well. Her Dad, ED WOOD and Hollywood icon Martin Landau, referred to it (justifiably) as a classic, and from that point on she took that to mean that “classic” meant something scary, and would run away.

Jim Kouf had the stock Monster Kid answer with the monsters of Universal, the classics (cue Juliet running away!).

Mariano Klaveno managed to watch ALIEN when she was 5-6 years old, another indictment of modern parenting. Although, considering where all these kids ended up, perhaps the right route is to scar your kids with horror movies. They’ll end up working in them.

David J grew up on TALES OF MYSTERY, Edgar Allan Poe, and Hammer horror, name-dropping the work by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, the patron saints of horror.

Like the rest of the lot, Georges Jeanty said he had an inappropriate home where he watched 70′s horror and R-rated movies from an early age.

Gavin’s introduction to the weird and creepy was TWILIGHT ZONE, specifying the “Invaders” episode as one that shook him to his core when he was really young.

When it came to vampires, and their first impressions to the fanged foe of folklore, Georges Jeanty pointed to Frank Langella in DRACULA. He hadn’t even seen the film (still), but his older sister’s boyfriend mimicked Langella and his style, and because Jeanty thought the guy was the coolest thing, he made the conclusion that genre and horror was cool because of it. Fair.

Nosferatu

Kouf pointed to Bela Lugosi and NOSFERATU star Max Schreck as his first vampiric influences.

For David Greenwalt, vampires and genre weren’t in his wheelhouse until Joss Whedon handed him the pilot script for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. You may have heard of it. Greenwalt knew immediately this was something he needed to get in on. Clearly a canny move on the part of the subsequent showrunner of ANGEL and GRIMM.

Juliet talked about a childhood memory in which someone in her neighborhood had died, and the popular rumor was that she had been killed by vampires.

Gavin had perhaps one of the most specific, and universal, stories, as he talked about how he and his friends used to walk home through a park with a bloody mattress in it. They soon invented stories about the mattress and tricked themselves into believing that this was where a vampire would bring its victims to drink and kill. They’d terrify themselves, and  would skirt the entire park at night rather than go through it. Smart move.

Richard J reiterated his upbringing with Hammer horror, rightfully labeling Christopher Lee “a suave bastard,” while also pinpointing the creepiness and other-worldliness of Max Schreck in NOSFERATU. All this Nosferatu chatter actually brought David Greenwalt to admit that The Master, BUFFY’s first big bad, was modeled after Nosferatu.

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Greenwalt also mentioned that actor Mark Metcalf, who portrayed the Master, had bad hips and was hobbling around in between takes. Greenwalt made jokes about how “scary” he was as a villain because of it. What goes around comes around Greenwalt sighed: he’s since had a hip replacement.

Mariana had a clever answer: a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which Bugs accidentally travels to Transylvania and tangles with the Count.

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Then, the two actresses who had played vampires on TV got to talking about their process.

Mariana Klaveno went on to talk about her character, Lorena, on TRUE BLOOD, and how she went about portraying her. Despite her immense power, she was broken. Her motivation was that she loved someone that didn’t love her back, a heartbreaking notion. She loved that she never knew who she was gonna be, or what Lorena was gonna do each week.

Landau echoed much of her sentiment, mentioning that she didn’t go into playing Drusilla as a vampire, she just played through the lines and her character.

But how did the writers go about penning a vampire?

For Greenwalt, nothing changed, you still had to focus on character, and substance within that, and then sprinkle on their power.

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The conversation then drifted to artist Georges Jeanty, who is one of the few still embroiled in vampires, as he still works on the BUFFY comic books. The comic began in 2006, two years after the show ended. He cleared up any preconceived notions that the comic book came from anywhere but Joss Whedon’s heart. Jeanty put it beautifully when he said that the comic “is a love letter to this girl he was still in love with.” It was all Joss, and he had more of Buffy inside of him. Fans are desperately hoping that he still does, wishing he’d utilize Kickstarter to bring the series back, even after Whedon himself has debunked the notion.

Interestingly, when Jeanty got offered the job, he hadn’t watched any BUFFY, and started with seasons 6 and 7, because they were the most important for the comics he’d be drawing. After he finished those, THEN he went through the first five seasons. I could never do that on any show, [SPOILERS ahead] then again, he pointed out that the last episode of BUFFY he ever watched, was the one in which she dies, which might be the most powerful way to say goodbye to her and the Scooby Gang.

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Mariano had a similar experience when she got involved with TRUE BLOOD. She hadn’t watched from the beginning when she made her debut on the show, though she rectified that by the time season 2 rolled along and she became a regular. She also studied Charlaine Harris’ books at that point, and Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, among other vampire fiction. She was amazed that she got so much input in the character. She really came up with most of her traits, deciding to run with a Southern-like drawl to pair with Bill’s. She had the freedom to create, as it became abundantly clear that Alan Ball and company had no plan for the show. It’s been a blessing and a curse, for sure, but Klaveno’s creation is certainly one of the pros borne out of that lack of preparation.

Talk then moved on to vampires in myth and folklore, a topic that graduate students could sink many a thesis in. Obviously, society has weaved stories about vampires and similar such creatures since forever, essentially.

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This is when Gavin promoted his comic book MOTOR CITY, which he originally planned as a vampire love story until something called TWILIGHT happened (it turned into a 1950′s biker gang story with ghouls and vamps). He went on a tangent in which he believed that vampires are essentially played out, and harped on the fact that there are so many great monsters out there, and that we need to explore with more creatures. I don’t think anyone disagreed with that notion. He threw out his suggestion: a succubus movie? I dig it, though he could look to TV: I guess he’s not a LOST GIRL fan.

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On the subject of mythology, Jim Kouf talked about how he and David discovered the mythos of GRIMM. It didn’t happen until they were writing the pilot, and writing Monroe’s introductory scene and found his voice. Monroe and his back story as a big bad wolf from Germany opened up the world, as they came up with the term Blutbaden, a mash-up of words from a German dictionary, to describe the wolf side of him. This opened up the universe and helped them find their POV. It has allowed them to explore worlds and the inexplicable, and now Kouf and Greenwalt have created up to 52 different wesen, monstrous characters. It’s crazy to think what kind of show they would’ve come up with if they hadn’t untapped it with Monroe’s character… but goes to show you that you should just write, and think later.

David Greenwalt, on the subject of writing in the realm of the supernatural, talked about how he liked having rules, and that you had to stick by them. Although, he did regret that when it came to ANGEL, because of all the night shoots.

It became abundantly clear very quickly that Mariana and Juliet were kindred spirits, both in real-life and within their character’s perspectives. Both Drusilla and Lorena loved dudes but were subsequently dumped by blondes. Mariana points out that it was a bad call on Bill’s part: Sookie’s ping-ponged between love interests, and Bill has clearly lost his way, whereas she states that she was loyal. You can’t argue with that.

Georges asked if he thought that Dru and Lorena would’ve gotten along if they met, believing they’d fight, but they both agreed that the two of them would be besties and could commiserate over their troubled pasts. They have a lot in common.

Then it became Q&A time when some guy posited a DRACULA movie with Edward G. Robinson. I would’ve fallen out of my chair if I was on the panel, but that’s why I wasn’t (among many reasons). Richard J fielded the question (if it could be called that) with aplomb, agreeing that the idea of a vampire gangster was certainly unique, and hadn’t been done yet. This came after a comment at how many subgenres of horror and vampires there are.

David Greenwalt stepped in to keep up with the crazy and the funny, telling us all of a pitch Whedon had of GRAMPIRE, an assisted living vampire, an idea that brought laughter to the crowded room.

A question that undercut everything was simple: Why are vampires so popular? The answers were many and varied, as panelists pointed to excellent writing, multi-dimensional characters, the fact that they still retain their humanity, and that they’re capable of anything.

This inevitably led to a discussion of BUFFY, because BUFFY is awesome. Greenwalt, Kouf, and Landau pointed to the chemistry on set, the collaborative nature of it, and its wonderful sense of humor as to how it stood out.

Georges was firing bullets (or blanks) today, believing that Drusilla wasn’t a funny character, or not intentionally so, to which Juliet Landau and half the room disagreed immediately.

Around this time was when the sparkly elephant in the room was finally brought up and discussed: TWILIGHT. What were their thoughts on the series? I loved Gavin’s answer: he believes vampires should absolutely be up for interpretation and believes it’s great for the genre, labeling TWILIGHT and other things like it horror-lite, creating interest in the supernatural with the potential to be a sort of gateway drug into the dark, demented, and twisted stuff that us degenerate horror fans adore. He also managed to pimp LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and warn against everyone from seeing Andy Warhol’s DRACULA. Well done, sir.

Klaveno was just thankful that it got kids reading books, a fact that can’t be overstated… though it’s sad that that continues to be a valid point, even after HARRY POTTER and HUNGER GAMES.

Every few years, the genre reinvents itself, and the “diet vampire” is the current trend. Or was. I’m not sure if TWILIGHT’s time has passed now or what.

drusilla

Like Klaveno with Lorena, Juliet Landau shed light into how she captured Drusilla. Unlike Klaveno, who had free reign to create something, it was all on the page. But it was a collaboration with everyone, and Joss was involved with every detail. When Juliet met with Joss, he told her that he had had Spike and Dru running through his head for 10 years, and described Drusilla as a string of opposites: sensual but childish, sweet but diabolical, a mess of contradictions that (obviously) proved to be a wonderful character to play.

Later on in the evening, Juliet gave a fascinating insight into her character. When she played Drusilla, she didn’t think she was crazy, even though that’s one of her defining characteristics, and even how Whedon describes her. Landau remained steadfast until she revisited the show… and was amazed at how nuts she was. It’s a testament to her acting style: she had to justify the bad and embrace her character in order to play it. An actor (or a good one) will always be the biggest defender of their character. Mariana, again, could relate, and backed Juliet up, remarking at how defensive she is about her character.

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The question she’s likely asked in every interview (except for mine, which you should stay tuned for!) then came up: Spike or Angel? Landau’s response: “Both. Why do I have to choose?” Klaveno cheered at that sentiment. Speaking of not having to choose, Landau also talked about the revelation that she had been having three ways with Darla (Julie Benz). Apparently, Benz always knew, pointing to an early publicity still in which Landau’s hand was on her thigh suggestively.

At this point (fresh off lesbian threesome chatter is likely when audience attentiveness is at its peak), Richard J revealed that he’d be releasing a new version of his popular BAUHAUS single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which actually came out the day before on Halloween. Check it out:

Next up, a gentleman (to put it kindly) asked if David Greenwalt or Jim Kouf had ever thought about writing something with Angel and Spike as schoolboys in an all male school with Dru as the headmistress. His pitch perfect response: “Not until this horrible moment right now.”

Discussion turned to what made up the essence of a vampire, and responses included its need for blood, eternal life, desire, addiction, and violence.

Someone asked if vampires were simply serial killers, to which Mariano responded that she didn’t think they were as much of a sociopath, they’re still human, and that they still feel all of their emotions. Another argument? They don’t have a choice, they have to kill to survive. That’s not entirely true as we’ve seen in many incarnations… but a valid point.

What’s your favorite way to defend against vampires? Richard J: “Stake and garlic fries.” No one wanted to try and top that answer.

Then Scott Essman, FM writer and friend of the magazine, stood up to ask a poignant question, demanding answers from the knowledgeable panel. Pointing out that the room was packed on a Friday night (voicing what had merely been the troubling implications of our social lives) to hear about vampires, he asked: Why do we love monsters? Why is Bela Lugosi one of the 10 most recognizable images or characters in the world?

I believe it was Gavin who responded first, calling vampires a “fascinating contradiction,” promising power, beauty, and eternal life while still human.

Greenwalt: “We need it.” Like ourselves, but greater.

Kouf added that the alluring concept of immortality doesn’t hurt. Because of that long life, it also taps into the ability to live in any time period or moment in history, the past, present or future, a factor Landau brings up. Who needs a DeLorean when you’re a vampire? You just need patience, and you’ll see it all.

Jeanty pointed out that vampires are popular because they’re outcasts, and everyone has felt like that at some point in their life.

What do I think? I think they’re all right, but at the same time, there is no right answer. Vampires are so popular because they’re so durable, and malleable, yet timeless. They’re sexy and dangerous, like who we want to be or who we want to be with. Vampires are beautiful monsters, the best of both worlds. As Juliet asked earlier: why do we have to choose? Vampires allow us to have it all. Except for brunch.

On the subject of Lugosi… it was fairly simple. He’s just the living embodiment and face to Dracula, to vampires as a whole, and it will never be forgotten or replaced. Richard J marveled at his civility and regality, transposed against his bestial nature. Vampires: a web of wonderful contradictions.

Before Essman asked the panel to solve life’s greatest mystery, he also mentioned that he believed GRIMM was the best thing NBC had churned out in 30 years, and later, David Greenwalt talked about what it was like to work on his various shows. The truism is that the better the show, the easier it is to work on, which was the case on BUFFY, and not the case for MOONLIGHT. Greenwalt didn’t get the “genre thing” until BUFFY, but quickly realized you “can go to the ends of the Earth” with it, but it’s still human at its core. I think that right there gets at the truth of horror and why we all love it. It allows you to get away with things you couldn’t without allegory or metaphor, by embracing the fantastical. It not only offers an escape, but makes life more bearable.

clee

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