Being on the set of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant* is almost
enough to cure you of the illusion that filmmaking is glamorous. Tucked
in an old warehouse in New Orleans, the set for the young adult vampire
movie is hot as hell; the humidity is up at something like 270%, and
while the crew is shooting the air conditioning must be turned off.
Constructed on the stage is the trailer park of the titular traveling
circus, and everywhere there are huge lights generating way too much
heat. After a few seconds of the air being turned off you’re sweating,
and after a few minutes you begin to realize death is a real

But then you look at the monitor and you see John C Reilly, wearing an
orange hairdo and long vampire nails, talking to Willem Dafoe, sporting
a thin black mustache. I don’t know the exact relationship between
these two, but there’s an air of fun and menace going between the two
actors. And you watch that and you think to yourself, ‘Yeah, it’s
miserably hot and sticky here, but they’re making a movie! This rules.
More than a little.’

Based on the first three or four books of The Saga of Darren Shan (by
Darren Shan), Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant tells the story
of a young boy named Darren Shan who becomes the assistant to a vampire
by the name of Crepsley, and later a vampire himself. But the vampires
in Shan’s world are not like those of Stephenie Meyer or Anne Rice;
these vampires don’t kill, don’t have fangs (they use their long,
strong, sharp fingernails) and don’t live forever but just age very
slowly. A small group of vampires has broken off; calling themselves
the vampeneze they kill humans and drain all their blood.

Director Paul Weitz and his team have created the traveling wagons of
the Cirque du Freak with oddball specificity. Each freak has his or her
own wagon, and each wagon reflects their personality. There are wagons
with spider legs and wagons with giant mouths and wagons that look like
Egyptian artifacts. Walking through the camp is like walking through a
bizarre amusement park, a place where anything can happen. Some of the
wagons are false fronts while others have complete interiors, with
desks and books and personal items. It’s almost immersive, and if we
had been out at a park it would have looked like an alternate world
circus of surreality had slipped through to our plane.

Usually when you go on a set visit the publicists give the journalists
a list of which talent will be there. That allows us to (supposedly) do
some research and have proper questions for the actors and actresses.
It’s rare when there are any real surprises on these visits, but the
appearance of Dafoe was one for just about everybody. We were standing
about on set (standing about being the main thing one does on these set
visits) when a well appointed man with a very old-fashioned look
sauntered by. ‘Was that?’ we gasped. It was indeed; no one knew – it
hadn’t even hit the trades! – but Dafoe was here playing his latest
vampire role (see Shadow of the Vampire, Daybreakers for the others).
Usually there’s an embargo, but we were allowed to furious iPhone
stories back to home base, alerting our dear readers to the presence of
another excellent actor in this cast.

Later, as we’re again standing around, a rumor breaks out on the web.
Patrick Fugit, who appears in this film as Evra the Snake Boy, has been
cast to play Spider-Man in Spidey 4. Since it just so happens that he’s
like there, on set, we find out the truth. Another internet rumor bites
the dust. It’s kind of fun to be on the front line, making news,
fighting the battles.

Speaking of fighting battles, John C Reilly is excited that he gets to
fight one himself in this film. He’s got that orange hair, which
already makes it hard to take him completely seriously, and then he’s
in this big puffadoodle outfit, with long dirty nails at the ends of
his fingers. He talks about how those nails are his main offensive
weapon, and how he flits through the air slashing at his enemies. While
he tells us this he does some karate type moves and all of a sudden I’m
looking at Chest Rockwell. I don’t know if he’s aware that his karate
moves are sort of silly and sort of recall Boogie Nights, but that’s
what I really like about Reilly’s whole style. He plays it in a way
such that you can’t tell if he’s in on the joke.

He’s in on the fandom, though. Reilly tells us he grew up on Lord of
the Rings
so he understands how fans approach these adaptations. The
movie covers pretty much the first trilogy in a quadrilogy of
trilogies, but Reilly has worked his way up to book 12. It’s important
to him that he understands the whole story, so that he knows who
Crepsley is later and how to play certain scenes. I don’t think I know
anyone who is a huge fanboy for the Saga of Darren Shan (I’m sure such
people exist, otherwise Universal wouldn’t be making this movie), but
if I did this is what I would tell them to calm their certainly
frazzled nerves over their favorite books becoming a movie.

With Paul Weitz it’s another story. He gives us that line about not
wanting to count your chickens until they’re hatched, and about how
he’s taking this potential franchise one movie at a time. The thing is
that he’s probably being honest; he saw first hand what happened with The Golden
, saw how a sure-thing franchise can just get sucked into a
black hole. We talk with Weitz over some lunch, and he’s in good
spirits, despite how ungodly hot and humid it is on set (no joke, when
the takes are over the AC comes back on I run to the giant yellow tube
from which cool air bellows and shove my whole back more or less right
in it). We talk to him about upcoming projects, like Another Bullshit
Night In Suck City
(he thinks they’ll keep the title, just bleep it in
ads on posters) and especially about Elric. His eyes light up when
Elric comes up. This is what he wants, a shot at Michael Moorcock’s
novels. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant is surely scratching a
genre itch for him, but it’s all about Elric. Of course as of now his
next gig is Little Fockers; here’s hoping Elric, which he’s been
talking about for years, is getting closer to reality.

On set that day we also saw some footage, much of which you’ve seen in
the recent trailer. There’s young Darren (played by newcomer Chris
Massoglia) coming into the Cirque for the first time, being told by
misshappen giant Mr. Tall (Ken Watanabe) to say he’s 21. We see
Darren’s funeral (he has to leave his family behind to become a
vampire). We see Salma Hayek as the Bearded Lady; Weitz told us
everyone but his 16 year old son finds the bearded bombshell sexually
attractive in a most disturbing way. We get to meet and talk with more
of the cast and the crew, and we get to gorge our faces on craft
service (this is the thing you do second most on a set visit). And then
we go back to the hotel and spend a night in the French Quarter and
then it’s home again, in my case to lovely humidity-free Los Angeles.

I’ll have more for you from the set, including interviews with Weitz
and Reilly and many others, closer to the film’s release. In the
meantime, enjoy this new images from the film, supplied by Universal.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant opens October 23rd.

* which at the time was only called Cirque du Freak, but the name has
been changed and we’ll be retroactively applying it to this set visit