Just before heading to San Diego for this year’s Comic Con chaos, I had an opportunity to visit the Los Angeles set of Rise, an upcoming horror flick being put together by Mandate Pictures and Sam Raimi’s Ghost House production company.  Considering it stars Lucy Liu and Michael Chiklis and is the brainchild of filmmaker Sebastian Gutierrez (one of the minds behind SNAKES ON A PLANE!), naturally I jumped at, grabbed and molested the chance.

The flick, which should be out some time in early 2006, stars Liu as an investigative reporter who winds up on the wrong side of life.  After waking in a morgue, she goes on a rampage seeking revenge and eventually crossing paths with Chiklis’ haggard investigator, who lost his family to the same “cult”.  Needless to say, we can expect a gritty tone and loads of atmosphere, virtually guaranteed with veteran cinematographer John Toll (The Thin Red Line, The Last Samurai) working on it.

I’ll have some candid and conversational interviews with Lucy, Michael and producer Greg Shapiro coming along shortly, but first up is writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez. An affable Venezuelan-born visionary, Gutierrez took time to chat between shooting a critical scene between Lucy’s vengeful character and Chiklis’ skeptical rogue cop.  We started out talking about big studios’ current PG-13 focus (Rise is expected to be a hard R rating, thank the Old Ones), which led to a discussion about his work on Gothika.

Gutierrez: I wrote this movie Gothika that I was the director until five weeks before shooting. I had what I believe they call “creative differences” with [producer] Joel Silver.  I don’t know if you saw it, but the movie came out and was not very good.  They created all the usual plot holes…

Q: It seems to be a big hit with women, actually.

Gutierrez:  See, that’s what I wanted.  Rise came straight out of the Gothika experience.  The kind of genre that I’m going to get money to do as a director right now is this kind of horror-thriller, so I want to put into the script all the sort of cool things the studio watered down.  Gothika was a really interesting experience because it wasn’t even a matter of art versus commerce – the movie that came out actually created plot holes and took away scares from the original script.  Never again will I look at a movie’s screenplay credit.  I have sole credit on that film, even though two guys came in and rewrote just about everything but the premise, and even that was kind of botched.

Q: So is Rise your first experience where you get to sort of walk your own script through the process?

 Gutierrez: I directed two of my own movies before, She Creature for HBO and a movie called Judas Kiss.  Then there were a couple of other studio things I wrote that got made, Gothika and The Big Bounce, which was even further from what I wrote.  The moral of the story is that I never look at the screenplay credit on a movie and think “That guy sucks!” 

Q: I’ve learned that over the years from CHUD.  It seems like a lot of the feedback we get from people working on movies is from the writers.

Gutierrez: With a screenplay credit, you just really have no idea how many people worked on the thing.

Q: Exactly.  How did Rise come about, you just took the script to Raimi?

Gutierrez:  Yeah, after Gothika, and not to be too pretentious, I thought about how to channel my anger into something artistic, and this is a genre that right now these movies are being made, so I thought about what I could write in that genre — which I love by the way – that has some of the elements that I wanted Gothika to have, namely being a smart, female-driven thriller.  And the female perspective, it’s not from any noble thing, it’s just…  Take a great ghost movie like The Changeling.  It’s George C. Scott in the lead.  It’s fuckin’ Patton, he’s gonna be okay.  You’re not so scared.  If you have a woman in the lead, immediately you have a vulnerable quality.  Most of the scripts I’ve written have female leads, and I don’t think it’s any deep-rooted Freudian thing, I grew up in a household of women in South America, and I just find that as characters in movies, actresses have their emotions so much more available than guys. She can be tough, she can be emotional… you don’t have to explain these things.  Like if you have a guy, if he’s sensitive you have to explain that he’s sensitive but it doesn’t mean he’s wimpy.  With a woman I found you can have them do anything.

Q: And now having a woman in the lead is becoming accepted and feasible to the people writing the checks.  Kill Bill, etc.

Gutierrez:  Right.  And with Rise, it’s a pretty simple revenge tale, not unlike something like Kill Bill.  I wanted to make a movie that was a grown-up movie, that is actually the anti-Crow/Matrix/Underworld type of thing, like that type of comic-booky thing has already been done great.  My idea is, it’s a vampire movie, I love the vampire myth, it’s existed in every culture for thousands of years, but I thought “What’s the last vampire movie I really liked?”  For me, the moment there’s fangs or garlic or flying it becomes campy and I’m not scared anymore.  So what if you made a thriller set in the real world about a cult, you never mention the word vampire – you’re never gonna see the shot of a vampire biting into the neck.  It’s a cult.  Of the undead.  I mean, I don’t believe in vampires.  Unless of course someone came and killed me and I woke up in the morgue… how would you explain that?  So the whole point of the movie is to have it set in a very real Los Angeles.  The great thing about horror is that it’s the most manipulative of genres.  Your job is to scare the audience, to put them in a creepy, suspenseful situation.

Q: Without just doing it with cheap jump-scares.

Gutierrez:  Exactly.  And this movie, there’s no cat jumping out of the cupboard.  And I think if you can keep a tone of dread through the whole movie, and every once in a while there’s graphic bursts of violence, that’s what we’re going after.  More like an early Polanski than some special-effects driven horror.

Q: I notice [in the scene being shot] you’re keeping the reflection part of the vampire mythos.

Yes.Gutierrez: Yeah, there’s a couple of conventions we couldn’t get rid of: the stake through the heart and the reflection.  And it all takes place at night.  We’re not saying she’d melt during the day, but she’d definitely get a pretty bad migraine.

Q: Does the whole movie take place over one night?

Gutierrez:  No, there are a lot of flashbacks, it takes place over a year, but the present tense is over two days.  It’s all out of order, a very non-linear fashion, the notion that it’s this very sort of nightmarish, relentless recurring thing – she keeps waking up in these claustrophobic spaces.  Hopefully it won’t be too confusing, but it should be disorienting.  We want it to all feel like a fever dream.  It’s definitely not one of those movies where none of it happened, though.

Q:  And Lucy’s character looks pretty much the same through the movie?

Gutierrez:  The vampires look exactly like humans.

Q:  Where did this whole concept come from?

Gutierrez:  It’s all autobiographical.  [Laughs]  No, I just wanted to make a vampire movie and couldn’t think of the last one I liked.  It was probably The Hunger or Near Dark, the Kathryn Bigelow picture, neither of which is actually a scary movie but they’re both full of ideas.  So I lifted a couple of things from each one, which will be obvious.  I hope the movie’s scary, but it’s really more of a thriller than a horror movie.

Q: How are you handling the action aspects?

Gutierrez:  The kind of violence I like in movies is sort of sudden, Roman Polanski violence, as opposed to the John Woo or Sam Peckinpah slo-mo stuff, which is great but has its place.  This should almost feel like a movie that’s moving at 30 fps.

Q:  Are you planning to actually do some of that in the editing?

Gutierrez:  Yeah, we’ve been shooting a lot like that already.  I want that sort of slow build and then horrible things happen really fast.

Q:  So the villains of the film are a cult of vampires? 

Gutierrez:  It is a vampire movie, but the word itself is never mentioned.  Lucy plays this character who’s a reporter investigating them, and it’s not even that she went in too deep, it’s more that these guys got the wrong idea and grabbed her.  To me what’s scary is when you can’t talk yourself out of a situation.  She’s saying “I don’t know who you are and I don’t want anything to do with you,” and still they kill her and leave her for dead, or undead.  Not to give too much away.  That’s where the story begins.  At its most basic premise it’s a revenge story, she has a list of people who did it to her and she hunts them down one by one, not unlike Kill Bill.  Which is highly stylized, very fun exploitation type of movie.  Lucy’s persona because of stuff like Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels is already such a tough actress, that this should be the opposite where she’s vulnerable and feminine and scared, but when she has to be tough in the movie she’ll be tough but playing the human side of things.  When we have action in the movie there’s no wire-work martial arts or anything, the violence is very clunky, grounded, messy.

Q: Her and Michael’s stories are sort of running parallel in the movie?

Gutierrez:  His daughter was abducted by this cult so he’s actually gone completely off the deep end, and he’s tracking this killer, who is Lucy.  We basically have a serial killer movie where the protagonist is the serial killer.  He’s following her thinking she’s the one who had something to do with his daughter, but things aren’t exactly what they seem.  He’s completely off the reservation.

Q: One thing I have to ask you about – SNAKES ON A PLANE.

 Gutierrez: [Laughs] Yeah, SNAKES ON A PLANE.  I wrote the American remake of The Eye, the Pang Brothers movie, and one of the producers called me up and said “I’m doing this movie at New Line called SNAKES ON A PLANE,” and I laughed and asked what it was about, and he said “that’s it, snakes on a plane.”  So I read the script, and basically New Line was ready to make the movie, budget was in and director was in, but they asked if I could help out with character and dialogue.  I think it will be a really fun movie, but you definitely have to get past the ridiculousness of the concept.  It’s a movie that isn’t in any way pretentious.  My job was to try and do a dialogue and character pass that was never campy and keep a suspense tone, which is hard because you have a movie called SNAKES ON A PLANE. 

Q: They’ve already changed the movie three or four times, but I think they should go back to the original title.

Gutierrez:  I think at the end of the day, you’re right.  They asked if I could come up with a better title, and I went over a million different things, all sorts of things, but it’s really a movie about snakes on a plane.  But as far as a movie mostly set on a plane that manages to find different story beats with all sorts of clichés and have fun with them, it’s got some really good stuff in there.

Q:  Are there “boss snakes”?

Gutierrez:  The snakes all have different names in the script that were in the script before I started working on it.  It’s a whole bunch of snakes and there’s an explanation why it was a last resort as a means to resolve the issue, it has to do with the security measures and how they could get them onto the plane.  It’s actually pretty cool.  It’s not like the bad guy’s plan is so crazy that he thinks the snakes are going to go bite the right guy, it’s more that they’ll foul up the wiring and stuff and affect the plane itself.

Q:  And what about The Eye?

Gutierrez:  I never read the original draft [by Ryne Pearson].  I love the original movie.  I think the new script tried to vary from the original movie.  I said I loved the original, so I said if they hired me I’d just do the original movie and set it in the States.  The original has this thing where it’s two halves of a movie, the first half is this scary creepy movie and the second half is this investigation, and I said they should just be blended together better.  I tried to keep as much of the original as I could and just translate and Americanize it.