Exclusive: Spierig Brothers Talk Vampire Survival and ‘Dark Crystal’

By  · Published on May 13th, 2010

What you might know about the Spierig Brothers is the frustratingly incredible information that they did all of the incredible effects for Daybreakers on their Macbook Pro. What you might not know is that Michael and Peter would encourage anyone interested in filmmaking to go outside with a camera and a few friends to make it happen right this minute.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with the pair and digging deep into the subjects that matter: how do you survive a vampire society when you’re human? Can you be Blacula if you’re really pale? How do you put a fresh spin on old characters? And, of course, what would Jim Henson be doing today if he were still alive?

The answers to these burning questions and more, after the tiny line just below this sentence!

If you were in the world of Daybreakers, would you fold in with the vampires or become the outsider hero trying not to get used for food.

Peter Spierig: I would like to be the corporate leader who would abuse everything.

Michael Spierig: [Laughs]

PS: No, no. I’d be one of the humans for sure. I’d have a very powerful crossbow, and I’d be hiding in a bunker somewhere.

MS: I would have run off to an island somewhere so no one could find me.

So you wanna be Willem Dafoe, and you want to avoid the situation completely.

MS: Yeah ‐ it’s always best to avoid bad situations, isn’t it?

I’m glad we can leave our readers with some powerful life lessons.

PS: [Laughs]

Just avoid your problems.

MS: Run and hide from them. That’s a good lesson for kids.

Bela Lugosi or Chistopher Lee and why?

PS: That’s a hard one….I’d say Christopher Lee. Why? He got hotter women…

MS: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna…


MS: And more of them.

He got bare-breasted women with blood dripping all over them in Satanic rituals.

MS: Very, very read blood.

PS: Bela Lugosi’s women were in black and white.

But are the Satanic women really the kinds you want to attract?

PS: No…I guess not.

MS: Depends on how hot they are.

What if I toss in the option of choosing Blacula.

MS: Blacula was cool. I don’t know if I could pull it off ‐ me being as incredibly pasty white as I am.

They have CGI for that now.

MS: [Laughs]

Speaking of which, can you tell what kind of motivation having no money gives you in making a film like Daybreakers?

PS: Well, it means you have to be resourceful, and you have to be prepared. We spent so much time doing storyboard and animatics so that when we get on set there’s not a lot of moments where you’re trying to figure it out. You have the idea of what you want to do going in, and that maximizes your production days.

I’m sure a lot of it helped that you did your own effects.

PS: Well, yeah, it saves money but it’s not an ideal situation. It saved us money, and it made it possible to get the film to the level we wanted, the look and the scope, and all that kind of stuff. We would have always liked to do more. We had a number of sequences that were in the script and were planned to be shot, but we didn’t do them because the money wasn’t there. It’s a real shame. There’s a few of them that I felt were pretty necessary.

Could you give an example?

PS: There was a sequence that involved the rounding up of all the subsiders. There was a big military versus subsiders battle under the train platform, and it was going to be a big action sequence. We storyboarded it, we location scouted it, it was on the schedule at one point. The make-up team had prepared to build all the suits, and there was a ton of stuff being done for prep for it, but as we got closer to the shoot, it just got pulled because of money.

So what you see in the film is basically just the army approaching and these creatures running past. And that’s it. That wasn’t the intended sequence. It was supposed to be much, much bigger than that. That’s some of the realities of working within budget restraints.

Other than restraints, how is doing the effects yourself not the ideal situation?

PS: It shifts your focus away from other things. It’s easier to be objective when someone else is doing an effects shot, as opposed to you…let’s say if Michael was to say to me, “That’s not right. We need to do another version of it.” It becomes an incredibly frustrating process because you know physically you’re going to have to build it yourself. It’s hard to be objective about your own work because you just want to get it all done on time.

It’s just not an ideal situation. It takes you away from focusing on the editing or the music or the sound design. Mind you, I don’t think that any of that really was lax or not looked after, but it’s a shame that a lot of our days were spent just trying to get the visual effects on track.

I know you’ve worked with zombies and now vampires. How do you feel about Wolfman coming out, Universal promising other properties, or the rise in vampire films? The monsters haven’t gone away necessarily, but there does seem to be a bump in classic characters.

PS: That’s all good and well. That’s fine, and I’m certainly going to go see them. What these studios need to keep in mind is trying to do something new and different. What’s the point of remaking it just because we’ve got the CG technology or whatever it is? It does have to be a new spin on that tale. It needs to be something different and surprise the audience. I think that’s important.

And if they do that with those types of characters, then that’s fine. I’m all for it. But if it’s just a remake for the sake of putting better effects in it, then I don’t have much interest in it.

Is there any character that you’d like to put a new spin on?

PS: You know, I think we’re done with our monsters for a little bit. [Laughs]

Even taking on a character like Captain Blood is in that same world of finding a new spin for an old story.

PS: Yes, yes. That’s true. That’s the intention, but I’m positive that won’t be our next project. That’s something that we may not be involved with.

Oh really?

PS: Our focus, yeah, our focus is on The Power of the Dark Crystal at the moment.

Which is an interesting project. It’s a property that has a cult following, we’re three decades late on a sequel, and there’s a noted style from Henson. Can you sell me on why a sequel needs to happen and if you’ll keep a similar Henson feel?

PS: Firstly, it’s not a remake; it is a sequel, so it’s a continuation of the story. There are the characters that originally existed in The Dark Crystal that are returning for this film. The story really expands the world, and you get a better sense of what the Dark Crystal means to the world of Thra and to the people.

You also get a sense to really explore the creature, the Gelflings and other different creatures that we didn’t really get a lot of time to explore. This is a completely immersive world, too. Because of the technology now we can expand it, and make it the epic that I know Jim Henson wanted to do back then.

The exciting thing is, speaking to Lisa Henson, that her dad was always pushing technology. Constantly trying to do the latest and greatest thing. I asked Lisa, if her dad was alive today, would he be trying to do what we’re trying to do: the combination of puppetry and CG and blending them together in a way that would be seamless, and she said, “He’d be right on the cutting edge of all of that. It’s what he was really all about.”

I think we’re really excited to take the Henson tradition and modern technology, and give audiences something they’ve never seen before with this world. And it’s going to be in 3D. I’m not jumping on the 3D bandwagon because the tickets are more expensive. I think the idea of being in this world, it’s the perfect film for 3D because it’s one of those consuming, immersive environments that you want to go into.

What benefits do you see with 3D? How can you utilize it to add to the film instead of being a gimmick?

PS: In this case, it’s going to a different world in the sense of Pandora or something like that where you feel like you’re there. Our intention is not to use 3D as a gimmick at all. I’m not interested in things flying at you. That’s not what we’re going to do at all. We’re more interested in making you feel like you’re actually there. That’s the idea.

I personally think that fantasy films are the best kind of films for 3D because it’s about building that world and being a part of it. There’s never been a puppet movie like this in 3D.

Does that frighten or excite you in any way? Trying to deliver something new?

PS: Yeah, I mean it’s both. It’s intimidating because what we’re trying to do, you can’t ask a lot of people about to get advice on. It’s a hard one because no one’s really done puppetry like this with CG. Where the Wild Things Are did a little bit of it, but to go as far as what we’re trying to do, it’s a big learning process.

It is a bit nerve-wracking, and Michael and I being such fans of the original, we don’t want to be known as the guys who fucked up the Dark Crystal movies.


PS: Tarnishing the original. That’s the last thing we want. We feel that pressure, absolutely, but at the end of the day, we’re just going to make the best movie we can. That’s really all you can do.

Do you think you’ll do the effects on this one?

PS: Helllll, no.


PS: Hell, no. We can do Book 2 effects. This is like Book 7 effects. The amount of skill and talent it takes to do this stuff is just far beyond Michael and I. We could paint out wires and do things like that. Do some 3D stuff. But this is really on the cutting edge.

MS: Which is a good thing, because it means they won’t be asking us to do stuff.

And you’ll be challenging whoever it is just to see what they can do.

PS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Everybody’s so excited. A lot of the animators that are working on the movie are big fans of the original, so there’s a lot of motivation to get it right and do it to the highest possible standing.

That’s really good to hear. We do, as you may know, have a stock question here for all directors. Were you ever rejected from film school?

PS: I went to film school. Originally when I applied straight out of high school, I was rejected. I was rejected from even the short list straight away. At that point I had won five local film awards, and a whole bunch of stuff. I was rejected because I was lazy in my last year of high school. Then, I applied again, and I was rejected again, and I complained to the lecturer, and she told me to come in for an interview. I got in.

Technically, I was rejected from film school twice, and Michael never went to film school.

He studied graphic design at the school I was going to, and he did a lot of production design on my student films. It got to a point where Michael directed his first student film, and because a lot of students in my class worked on that film, Michael submitted it for grading, and he ended up getting the highest mark in the class. He wasn’t even enrolled in the course.

[Laughs] When did the decision to work as co-directors come about?

PS: It happened right after film school when we started directing TV commercials. We worked together. It was always a collaborative thing. Even when we were making our short films, we’d talk to each other, and it was very collaborative. There was never a line drawn that Michael was the production designer and I was the director. It always crossed over.

It wasn’t until we started doing TV commercials that we put ourselves down as co-directors. Then we started doing more short films out of school, and we were always co-directing. It got to a point where that seemed like the right combination. It would seem weird not to direct together.

Mind you, on Daybreakers we would split up quite a lot. He would direct, and I would do second unit stuff and vice versa. So we never really had a second unit director as such. We had a second unit DP that did the action sequences, but whenever there were actors involved, we’d split up.

That’s a cool way to attack the whole film.

PS: Absolutely, and you don’t have to get a second unit director to figure out what it is you want. It’s coming from the original source. So there’s going to be a consistency with the material.

We’ve essentially learned two lessons from you guys: run away from your problems and work hard in your last year of high school.

PS: Yeah, there you go. Don’t do volleyball as a subject.

What’s your third piece of advice for our readers who might be interested in filmmaking?

MS: [Laughs] Get a real job.


MS: No, I’d say go and make films. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to go and make films. It sounds kind of obvious, but that’s the deal. You don’t become a good filmmaker by watching other people’s films. It definitely helps to know what a good film is about and what a bad film is about, but at the end of the day, the thing that’s going to make you a good filmmaker is being on set, directing actors, trying to tell a story, getting the right coverage. That’s the stuff that makes a director.

If you want to do it, go grab a DV camera and a Macbook Pro, and you can make a film with that. Get some friends together in the backyard and some chocolate sauce for blood and shoot a cheesy zombie movie. Or whatever you want to do.

Just go and make stuff.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.