Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.
Near Dark (1987)
Commentator: Kathryn Bigelow (director)
1. The realization that they were going to film a real mosquito interacting with an actor meant they had to grow it from scratch “so that there were no contaminants that he would be exposed to.” It became a six-month process.
2. The opening landscape was filmed outside Phoenix in a small town named Coolidge. “The landscape was both bleak and phenomenally dramatic.” The paradox amazed her.
3. She and co-writer Eric Red (The Hitcher, Bad Moon) wanted to write a Western, but they “realized we needed to graft it onto a more salable element at that time.” Working across genres ended up allowing them to think outside the box, and the result was a highly gratifying experience. Of course, now I want her to make a straight Western. And another horror film.
4. It’s meant to be summer in the opening scenes, but it was shot during the winter time. Poor Jenny Wright in her sleeveless shirt was quite cold.
5. They shot, at least in part, in sequence. She credits that with helping cast and crew stay true to the moment of their developing characters and narratives.
6. Caleb’s (Adrian Pasdar) first reaction to Mae’s (Wright) vampire bite required him to wear a “mobile smoke machine” beneath this clothes.
7. Regarding the traditional vampire mythology in movies, she says they endeavored to “almost invent our own. We eliminated the crosses, the garlic, the stakes, the silver bullets, and tried to keep it understandable, as accessible as possible.” It was the metaphor they were after with “the consequence of love and attraction. Pretty grave consequences.”
8. Each member of the vampire family has “their own quandary, their own private hell that they’re living with.” The exception is Severen (Bill Paxton) who’s “the prototypical vampire, he’s the one without remorse, without guilt, without regret. He’s the perfect vampire.”
9. She loves the look of Adam Greenberg’s cinematography. The railroad track scene where Caleb tries to leave Mae sees her comment, “Obviously this is my opinion, but it’s like looking at a painting. A kind of beautiful, muted Cézanne.”
10. Bigelow says this was “the last film that Adam Greenberg operated and lit.” Per IMDB, he DP’d 25 more films after Near Dark – his final feature being Snakes on a Plane – so I’m assuming she means he stopped doing his own lighting?
11. She draws a comparison between the vampires becoming a believable part of the world to “going into the ocean and seeing a coral reef and realizing this is a whole ecosystem that runs parallel to our own but we’re kind of oblivious to it in our daily lives.”
12. She views Loy (Tim Thomerson) as the “Father of the Day” and Jesse (Lance Henriksen) as the “Father of the Night.”
13. Joshua Miller’s performance in River’s Edge is what landed him the role of Homer. He’s not acting much these days, but he wrote last year’s terrifically fun horror/comedy, The Final Girls.
14. The bar scene was filmed near Magic Mountain at the Newhall Ranch, and they built the bar from scratch knowing they intended to destroy it. It’s the film’s most complicated scene and took the longest to shoot.
15. Paxton ad-libbed both the theft of the sunglasses and the line “I hate it when they ain’t been shaved!” Seriously, why don’t we have True Lies on Blu-ray yet?!
16. She’s a fan of Tangerine Dream’s score for the film. “I just think there’s a provocative, haunting, mercurial quality that just permeated everything that they did and gave the film a patina that really transformed it.” I only had to Google one of those words.
17. They would challenge the actors to create a blackout in various environments (Winnebago, motel room, etc) and time them to help speed up their efforts. “We would treat it like a military maneuver, and we got it down from several minutes… to under two minutes.”
18. The guns in the film are all shooting blanks, but prior to filming Bigelow brought the cast to gun ranges to let them experience the weapons with live ammo and grow more comfortable with the feel.
19. Henriksen prepared for the role by driving cross country to the filming location and picking up hitchhikers along the way. He was already in wardrobe – long nails, hair extension – and he imagined being Jesse. It’s unclear if anyone went on to research missing persons along this route during this time.
20. The idea of curing a vampire via transfusion came from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
21. Keeping the western theme meant featuring a “shootout” in the middle of the street, but since these are vampires the weapon of choice was upgraded to a semi-truck.
22. One of the more intriguing elements of screenwriting for her is “making sure that nothing is extraneous, everything that’s introduced paid off. Nothing should feel arbitrary, everything should feel that it has a purpose.”
23. The sequence where Homer chases after young Sarah (Marcie Leeds) in the daylight was filmed amid strong winds that made the smoking apparatus essentially inoperative. The result was they had to add smoke and flame optically.
24. They contemplated an ending with Sarah walking to see Caleb and Mae only to notice that the skin on her own arm was smoking in the sunlight, “but we abandoned it.”
25. Producers liked the script a lot, but they were hesitant about having Bigelow direct. They had written it on spec though, and its sale was contingent on her directing.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Little does he know that it’s not your average Midwestern girl that he’s just encountered. It’s an encounter with an endangered species.”
“We used to call this the Winnebago from hell.”
“Of course, while all of this is taking place the rotation of the earth has not ceased.”
“Actually, a friend of mine, Oliver Stone, read the script. I wanted his opinion on it, and he called it a kind of script haiku.”
Bigelow’s second feature remains a fantastic genre mashup of horror and western, but her commentary is pretty underwhelming. She leaves lots of gaps and spends too much time stating the obvious – this is where Caleb has to choose, this is where Caleb comes back to the land of the living, this is the scene where the son has to destroy the father, etc. Worse for a casual listener, she manages very few anecdotes or fun asides choosing instead to focus on technical details, cast accolades, and long gaps of silence.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.
Related Topics: Commentary Commentary, Filmmaking, Home Video