Writer/director J.S. Cardone's vision for 'Forsaken, The (2001)' was to re-imagine the vampire genre, to free it from its gothic origins and give it a hip, contemporary, erotic spin.
"We don't even think of it as a vampire movie," says Cardone. "There are no fangs, no bullets, no garlic. It isn't a movie in the Bram Stoker tradition."
"Setting the film in the American southwest was deliberate", says producer Scott Einbinder. "Most horror movies take place in confined spaces that get smaller and tighter as the story progresses. The Forsaken opens the action up and adds the crucial element of hot pursuit - red hot. "
"You don't expect to see vampires in the desert", says Einbinder. "Placing these gorgeous young people in this godforsaken terrain creates an amazing contrast and establishes a razor-sharp tension."
The feel of Forsaken, The (2001) has much more in common with the tradition of movies like 'In Cold Blood (1967)' or 'Badlands (1974)' than conventional horror movies.
"I wanted to create a counterpoint of young, beautiful people committing horrible atrocities," says Cardone. "It creates an underlying sense of dread when such attractive, vibrant people can be capable of such great harm."
"The murders are not apparently vampire killings," says producer Carol Kottenbrook. "There are no teeth marks on the neck. The killers don't draw attention to themselves. They appear out of nowhere, in a chaotic, haphazard manner, the kinds of people you never want to meet on the highway. It suggests that vampires could live amongst us and we'd never know."
Not only does the random nature of the killings create a sense of palpable reality in the film, but Cardone uses the bloodletting as a contemporary metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction. He carries the metaphor through by creating protagonists whose motivation doesn't spring from altruism, but rather from an instinct for self-preservation.
"There are no real heroes in the film," says Cardone. "Everyone is infected. The only difference is that some of them fight against their fate and others completely embrace it. The instinct for self-preservation is what separates the characters."
Forsaken, The (2001) cleverly reinterprets another classic film genre, the road movie, creating a relentless forward momentum for the action. As the film's heroes track the killers, they are being stalked as well. The cat-and-mouse aspect is emphasized by another time-honored tradition, the ticking clock.
"The heroes have only a limited time to catch the killers," says Einbinder, "otherwise they will become vampires themselves. This ratchets up the
tension." Cardone's inventive reworking of the genre as a contemporary action film with elements of horror was an irresistible magnet for some of Hollywood's top rising young stars.
"What immediately attracted me," says Kerr Smith (of Dawson's Creek) "was the fact that the action is not plot driven, it's character driven. Sean (his character) and Nick (played by Brendan Fehr) are not vampire hunters. They have to hunt them or die. And even the vampires in the film are not really happy with their fate. They're completely at the mercy of their own blood lust."
For Fehr, a regular on TV's Roswell, it was the chance to work with Cardone that intrigued him. "The way Joe explained the characters and the action and the way he prepared us allowed us a great deal of latitude in how we approached different scenes. He was totally open with us. It was a real pleasure to work in that kind of environment."
For former dancer Izabella Miko, the physicality of the role as Megan allowed her to bring those skills to bear on her character. "What made the whole thing so interesting was Joe's interpretation. These are not cartoonish characters, they're real. My character has very little dialogue, but I was able to use my body in the film to suggest her inner turmoil, her shame, her conflicted emotions about becoming a vampire. And she does most of that through movement. It was a very exciting and fresh way to create a character."
Mindful of the Hitchcock maxim that a thriller is only as good as its villains, Cardone invested as much time and care in the killers as in his heroes.
"I was riveted by the story right from the start," says Johnathon Schaech, who plays the vampire gang's ringleader, Kit. "It's not often that you pick up a script and understand your character so well." Unlike most bad guys, Cardone created a history for Kit. "He's nine hundred years old. He's been around the world for a long time and he made a choice to become one of the forsaken. But by now you can see that he's tired of the constant struggle he's had to stay alive. There's a bit of a death wish in his reckless behavior. And that helped define the character and made him fascinating to play."
Cardone's meticulous preparation inspired the actors to carefully research their roles. "He gave me a book to read about a real incident of teens in Florida who thought they were vampires," says Phina Oruche who plays the diabolical Cym. "That really opened my eyes. It helped me create a character who does bad things, but isn't necessarily evil. She's like any teenager who wants to fit in, to find excitement in her life. Only she goes about it in the wrong way and winds up paying the price."
Cardone worked with actor Simon Rex to create a back story for the character of Pen, who functions as the killers' driver, and is the only central character who is not infected with the blood virus. "Pen comes from a dysfunctional family. The vampires are like his gang. He enjoys hanging out with them and really wants to be one of them, to belong. It was a real challenge for me to play Pen and Joe allowed me to be totally free, to really flesh him out. "
The producers were equally pleased. "The cast was amazing," says Kottenbrook. "The chemistry between them is one of those strokes of luck producers always dream about. They totally bonded and they all became very good friends. That's rare in any movie."
"I'm extremely proud of them all," says Cardone. "They worked very hard under difficult conditions and each of them turned in a terrific performance"
Forsaken, The (2001) was filmed in early summer completely on location on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona. It was a grueling, sweaty shoot. Even for long time Arizona residents like Cardone and producer Carol Kottenbrook, the pervasive 100 degree plus heat was at times punishing. "Though we shot a good deal of the film at night," says producer Scott Einbinder, "temperatures rarely fell below 90 degrees."
For some of the cast members, the heat took some getting used to. Actress Izabella Miko was unused to the American southwestern climate and suffered heat exhaustion at first. But the extreme weather conditions eventually worked to the advantage of the film's action, Kerr Smith says. "The heat made us feel woozy and confused but that was perfect for the way our characters were supposed to be."
"I'm from Canada, so anything over 110 degrees is the same to me," jokes Brendan Fehr.
"The weather brought a sense of great physicality to the film," says Cardone. "Surviving in a desert is difficult. That's real heat, real sweat, real dust."
The contemporary look of Forsaken, The (2001) is a result of the combined efforts of the film's design team, which included director of photography Steven Bernstein, production designer Martina Buckley and costume designer Ernesto Martinez.
In keeping with director Cardone's unique rethinking of the vampire legend and taking advantage of the film's stark location exteriors, a unique creative collaboration was developed to help visually realize his concept. In his attempt to free the genre from its constraints, Cardone and cinematographer picked visual elements from several areas.
"We examined classic horror films like the famous British Hammer series," says Bernstein, "as well as several highly-regarded B thrillers like 'Wicker Man, the (1973).' In addition they earmarked notable chase scenes from movies as varied as "Bullit (1968)" and "Vanishing Point (1971)" as well as Hong Kong action films."
No less important was production designer Buckley's design book, an exhaustive catalog of influences including photography, art and color schemes of what she labels 'self-made environments. ' Buckley, a native Irishwoman, has long been fascinated with the helter-skelter fusion of colors, materials and designs that characterize the periphery of the American open road. An expert colorist, Buckley was fascinated at how various discarded materials are combined to create unique designs. "You'll see a rusty trailer home with a palm tree outside and inside there'll be metallic wallpaper with a pastel palm tree design. It's such an interesting contrast of disparate elements and yet it all fuses together with an eerie harmony. " That eerie harmony turned out to be a perfect atmosphere for Forsaken, The (2001)
The combinations of metal, rust and desert topography are echoed in every aspect of the film's overall design scheme. The clash of soft pastels, sharp primary colors and jarring metallic surfaces permeate the film, creating an unsettling effect that mirrors the dramatic story.
Bernstein added an additional sense of disorientation by shooting stark, sun-drenched landscapes with wide-angle lenses and speeding up crucial moments in the action sequences by shooting them at six frames per second. When projected, this creates spurts of jarring motion, reflecting the chaotic nature of the action.
The wardrobe carries through the design scheme of the film. "The clothes are very cool, contemporary and hip," says Cardone. "We tried to imagine it as Versace if he was designing clothes for his own damnation. "