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THE CURTAINS ARE TIGHTLY drawn, a hermetic seal against the daylight, and in the corner of the darkened room, slumped awkwardly on a couch, is a man dressed head to toe in black. His skin is pale, he looks unwell, and from his drawn speech it seems as though he hasn't slept for 200 years. An enthralled lone journalist documents his despondent ramblings as a fascinating tale unfolds of blood-sucking vampires, of a life beyond death, of old New Orleans and of the curious, handsome Lestat who has made him what he is.

Suddenly, a flap of the curtains falls open and a searing shaft of amber sunlight cuts through the gloom like a laser beam, the dust dancing in its path. Temporarily blinded, the man winces in pain shrinking back from the light and holding an arm up to
shield his face.

Neil Jordan has a hangover.

And why not? For after two years of striving to film the unfilmable,
against a backdrop of near-maniacal opposition and press intrusion, the Irish director's ambitious monster mash. Interview With The Vampire, starring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst, has finally made it to the big screen.

Tomorrow night, Friday, here in Los Angeles, the film will open. By Monday morning it will have grossed $38.7 million, making it, officially, the fourth biggest debut in motion picture history the biggest non-holiday opening ever in the States, as it happens and there's an "r" in the month.

A graveyard smash indeed . . .

THE ATTEMPT TO FILM ANNE RICE'S CULT GOTHIC NOVEL IS one of the most tortuous in the annals of cinema.

The eccentric Rice wrote the book in 1976, shortly after her own five-year-old daughter died of leukaemia. Semi-autobiographical, it told the diabolic story of a lost soul Louis De Ponte Du Lac, a 19th Century plantation owner in New Orleans, who, in despair through the death of his family, seeks a release from his earthly suffering. A chance encounter brings him into contact with the charismatic Lestat, who offers him a life beyond what he has known as a vampire.

Dispensing with traditional symbolism garlic, stakes, crucifixes, etc. the blueprint laid by Bram Stoker's Dracula a century before, Rice re-examined her subjects as tortured souls living in a decadent world, uneasy with their lot. Louis is a lonely creature, unhappy with being Lestat's protege, so Lestat turns a small girl, Claudia, into a third vampire so that she might become Louis' permanent companion.

Rice was Louis, her daughter was Claudia.

As a first novel, and an extremely dark one at that, publishers shied away until Knopf Books took a chance. It went on to become a best-seller, spawning a series The Vampire Chronicles with Rice acquiring en route a devoted cult following.

There had been talk of making a film version for 18 years. In fact, even before the book was in print, it was optioned for $150,000. On March 29, 1976, The Hollywood Reporter ran the following   announcement:   "Marry Elfand has signed with Paramount Pictures to produce Interview With The Vampire, screen version of the first novel by Anne Rice . . . Production is slated for next year in the US and Europe."

John  Travolta,   then  the   hot Hollywood actor (first time round), was earmarked for Lestat. More than a dozen scripts floated about, but with other vampire pictures Dracula (starring Frank Langella) and Love At First Bite (with George Hamilton) both in the works, Paramount procrastinated, pending a second novel. That didn't happen until 1985: The Vampire Lestat, with the eponymous hero coming back as a rock star. Paramount declined to option the sequel, and the rights to both books passed to Lorimar Telepictures who very nearly turned "Interview" into a TV mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain.

Other interpretations were mooted, including a musical by Eiton John. Sting (whose song Moon Over Bourbon Street was inspired by the book) and Cher were other names bandied about, along with (according to a 1985 edition of Rolling Stone) "every fucking heavy metal band in the world." 

When, in January 1989, Warner Bros. bought Lorimar, the rights followed and multi-media mogul David Geffen, whose Geffen Pictures had a production deal with that film company, took the project over. Geffen, too, was a big fan of the book.

With such a macabre tale, a hint of a homo-erotic subtext (handsome young men biting each other's necks and acting like a pair of bitchy old queens) and a soupcon of paedophilia (Louis partnering a six-year-old girl) "a fathomless well of metaphor" as Rice herself called it it was still thought to be a difficult nut to crack, even though other vampire films in the ensuing years, particularly 1993's Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, had drawn quite extensively on the imagery of Rice's books. With various      screenwriters having come unstuck, Geffen thus dispensed with   convention and commissioned Rice herself to come up with the script.

The fiercely forthright Rice duly complied, but in return sent Geffen some strong suggestions about who she wanted to direct it David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott or Neil Jordan, whose Company Of Wolves she adored.

Jordan, the Irish director responsible for such delights as The Miracle and Mona Lisa, had only made two Hollywood pictures before - the disastrous comedies High Spirits and We're No Angels. Fortunately, though, in Hollywood you're only as good as your last picture and that was the extraordinarily successful The Crying Game. Thus, in late 1992, Jordan came aboard, bringing with him his old collaborate, British producer Stephen Woolley, who had produced most of Jordan's films.

Unfortunately for Rice, though, an esteemed author does not
necessarily a screenwriter make, and so Jordan rewrote her script, which did not, from the word go, endear him to the Rice camp.

"The story didn't work, you know nobody got the script right so I had to get the script to work, to make it kind of beautiful," explains Jordan, coming over all Californian. "I had to bring the moral dilemma to the forefront 'cause otherwise there wouldn't be a story really Louis' whole question of, you know, is he evil or is he good? Or is he beyond evil? Does he want somebody to punish him or does he not?"

AND SO THE TRAVAILS OF LOUIS BECAME THE MAIN THRUST of his revision. "It's about lonely people," he continues, "and I think everybody can relate to loneliness. There are only so many vampires in the world and they get terribly lonely, because of the awful choice they've made, you know. The main effect it has on them is that their isolation is extreme, I enjoyed the three of them the vampires as a family, with Brad as the mother, Tom as the father and Kirsten as the child, you know, but that's just my own view. It's something I had made more central to it than Anne had done."

In fact, the way it's turned out, the trio are almost like a  dysfunctional family whose vampirism is, at times, merely incidental. The film's credits, though, remain, "Screenplay by Anne Rice. Based on her novel."

"It was put into arbitration with the Writers' Guild and they have rules that if you're a director and a writer, you have to prove that you've written 50 per cent of the original stuff to get the credit," grumbles Jordan. "In the case of this, it was impossible because the way in which I changed the screenplay was by taking bits from her novel."

So does it bother you?

"Not really. It did, but not now. What can I do, you know? It's an idiotic kind of practice . . . an idiotic bunch of people . . ."

UNDETERRED, THE PERSISTENT RICE THEN PRESENTED Geffen with a list of her favourite actors. Her casting suggestions to play the brooding Lestat included Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich and Rutger Hauer (upon whom she had based the image of her Lestat). Jordan, though, felt they needed someone younger, and pursued Daniel Day Lewis, who, reluctant to get involved in another costume drama, declined. Other names cropped up, including (unthinkably) Billy Baldwin, Ralph Fiennes and even Mel Gibson. 

Brad Pitt was immediately cast as Louis ("I saw everything he's done, and he is Just absolutely captivating," says Jordan) but for Rice,  who had had her labour of love plundered for 15 years, her script rewritten and just about all her suggestions ignored, insult was thus added to injury when it was revealed that her bitchy, bisexual, diabolic bloodsucker was to be none other than the squeaky-clean all-American Tom Cruise.

Rice and her fans took up a campaign to publicly discredit the movie and very soon a casting controversy ensued, equal to that of The Bonfire Of The Vanities. Rice's obsessive adorers, who, over the years, had even set up fan clubs for each of her principal characters, protested veheinentiv with demonstrations, petitions and hate mail, and demanded a boycott of a film that, ironically, hadn't even started shooting vet.

Then, in mid-1993, the battle escalated to new heights. In an  interview in The Los Angeles Times' Calendar section of Sunday August 22, 1993, Rice declared her opposition to The Cruiser in no uncertain terms . . .

"I was particularly stunned by the casting of Cruise," she proclaimed. "He is no more my vampire Lestat than Edward G. Robinson is Rhett Butler ...I'm puzzled as to why Cruise would want to take on the role. He's a cute kid, on top of the world and on his way to becoming a great actor, but I'm not sure he knows what he's getting into . . . (He) should do himself a favour and withdraw. "

Geffen, frankly, didn't give a damn. Rice, meanwhile, stepped up the crusade. 

"I wanted to call David Geffen and say, 'How the hell could you do this?"' she told a rally of her fans on Hallowe'en, Hubble bubble would you not agree? toil and trouble. . .

TOM CRUISE, LANK OF HAIR AND ANGULAR OF FACE ("I DON'T cut my hair in between films, so the longer my hair gets, the longer I've been unemployed"), remains, as one would expect, politely diplomatic about the whole affair.

"She was opposed to me being Lestat based on the other characters that I've played," he admits quietly. "She had created Lestat and feels great affinity for this character because of her family, her daughter and what occurred. It was very important to her but it  hurt me."

Rice, though, was not the only sceptic. Industry insiders speculated that this was one part The Cruiser couldn't pull off he had not played anything remotely erotic onscreen for ten years (apart from fumbling with Karina Lombard's thrupenny bits in The Firm) but, more importantly, had never placed a villain.

"I've never really chosen a role based on the merits of being a good or a bad character," explains Cruise. "I found the script very compelling and I found the character to be a real challenge. It was a tricky role because I wanted to imbue it with a lot of humour. In the book it says Lestat has great wit and I worked very hard on it with Neil.

"You've got to look at it from the vampire's point of view. He loved Louis and Claudia, and from a vampire's perspective he is perfection, he's a very good vampire. "

Cruise's   main   detractors, though, seemed to ignore the fact that the word "show" is very much followed by the word "business" and that his name would all but guarantee profits over and above the studio's original investment.

"It's just that the guy is kind of amazing," says Jordan. "After Daniel turned it down I made a list and Tom was at the top. I thought, 'If he goes the distance, if he could go where his character went, it would be really great,' but I had no idea of the kind of energy he brings to a movie, he kind of carries it on his shoulders. It wouldn't have been the same movie, it wouldn't have been one tenth of the movie, with any of those other actors."

In fact, ask any director who's worked with Cruise Tony Scott, Rob Reiner, etc. and beyond the PR-friendly "great to work with" guff, there seems to be a genuine affection for the bloke.

"One very simple thing that Tom does is that the minute you see him onscreen, you immediately identify with where his character is," continues Jordan. "When you see Born On The Fourth Of July, his young face in the middle of Vietnam, you're immediately saying, 'Oh my God, how could they shoot Tom Criuse? Your empathy builds up for the guy. For me to get that guy to play a vampire and to play Lestat makes it a very uneasy experience for an audience because they identify with this guy seriously and he's doing these very evil things. "

"I worked for five months on this character," says Cruise, whose preparation involved watching a pile of videos of lions chewing zebras and suchlike to get into that killing thing. "It was a real challenge, especially as everyone was saying the character was so evil. For an actor, it's very important not to pass judgement on the character you play typecasting him as an 'evil guy' or 'funny guy' or 'a guy in a lot of pain.' I've learned to fight against the labels and the limitations they impose."

Still, the character is a bit of a departure from the cheesy-grinning all-American boy of yore. The kind of bloke who every mother can crust her daughter with.

"I don't think in terms of image," retorts Cruise sharply. "Image is a result of the kinds of characters that I've played and the  perception that other people have of me. For me, I don't think in terms of that when I'm choosing a role. If you look closely at the characters that I've played and the directors I've worked with, the demands are very different. For example, A Few Good Men and The Firm are very different styles of movies with very different performances and very, very different characters."

IT SHOULD BE NOTED THAT BACK IN 1962, IAN FLEMING WAS positively apoplectic when he heard that a relatively unknown Scotsman, Sean Connery, had been cast to play his debonair English superspy, James Bond. But at least it stopped there. Even as the shooting of Interview was about to begin, rumours began circulating, fuelled gleefully by the Rice camp, that, at the behest of Cruise, the homo-erotic content of the film had been toned down.

For someone who made Mona Lisa and The Crying Game (prostitution, lesbianism, the IRA and transvestism) it seems a bit rich to suggest that Jordan would have toned anything down for Cruise or, for that matter, the man on the number 73 to Stoke Newington.

"It happens to be a very sexual movie," insists Jordan. "In terms of the story, once you become a vampire, killing becomes a substitute for sexuality, the vampires are androgynous, sexless creatures. They just seem to get some strange orgasm when they bite someone and when they drink their blood . . ."

"Look, it's a director's movie and a director's set," urges Cruise. "I'm an actor on the set and I want to be directed. The director has the final word. A lot of the controversy in the beginning was about me changing things in the script which really is very false. People were making that up. I think it's erotic on many different levels. David Geffen is gay and he said he found it very homo-erotic but said the women he knew didn 't find it so. It's just very sexy and erotic and it's not something we steered away from . . . "

INTERESTINGLY, THE YOUNG, HUNGRY NAIVE AMERICAN VAMPIRES are in marked contrast to the cynical old European ones (including Stephen Rea's Santiago) who inhabit the catacombs beneath Antonio Banderas' spooky Theatre Des Vampires. And none of the young vampires are as hungry as Kirsten Dunst's Claudia. Soon to be seen in the forthcoming Little Women with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, the remarkable Dunst (who, in contrast to most child actors, actually looks younger in real life than she does onscreen) steals a lot of the scenes. Eleven years old at the time of filming (she's now 12), her part had been written for a six-year-old, but was felt too demanding for one so young. Out of 500 girls who were up for the part, Dunst (who's also appeared in Greedy, The Bonfire Of The Vanities and New York Stories) was, ironically, the first girl Jordan tested.

"I loved it. It was so much fun," she coos, swinging her legs back and forth beneath her on the hotel suite chair, "especially the  ending."

To not only star in a film alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, but to actually have to kiss Pitt as well would have been, one would have thought, every schoolgirl's dream. Wrong.

"Urrrrgh, it was disgusting, horrible," she grimaces. "It was the worst part."

In fact Dunst, whose only previous knowledge of vampires was through having seen Buffy The Vampire Slayer, struck up a quite rapport with her two male leads, with them all killing their offscreen time by taking Polaroid shots of each other pulling faces and sticking them on a notice board "the ugly wall" as Dunst calls it (Pitt, on good authority, "acted more like a 12-year-old than a 32-year-old"). Kirsten, though, won't be able to touch any other well-earned dosh until she's 18.

"I'd probably give a lot of it away to, like, homeless people," she insists when asked what she would do if she could get her mitts on it now. "Or I'd probably buy a dog."

AS IF THE PROBLEMS POSED BY RICE WERE NOT ENOUGH, tragedy struck on an October night in 1993, when River Phoenix, who had been cast as Malloy, the modern day journalist to whom Louis recounts his tale, died. Jordan had only met Phoenix only once ("A lovely man," he says simply) to confirm his availability. There had been no question about his choice.

With Leonardo DiCaprio and Stephen Dorff touted as replacements, it was Christian Slater who was hastily recruited to fill the gap left by Phoenix. His schedule for Murder In The First (released in February) was revamped to allow him the six days shooting he needed on Interview, and Slater very nobly agreed to give his salary to Phoenix's favourite charities as a mark of respect: $250,000 to Earth Save of Santa Cruz and Earth Trust of Malibu.

Thus, with the cast finally in place, principal photography began in New Orleans at the elegant Oak Alley Plantation, moving on subsequently to Paris, Pinewood and San Francisco. In fact, Interview is the first film ever to have been given permission by the  authorities to close down the Golden Gate Bridge (well, two lanes of it, anyway).

Production Designer Dante Ferretti, who'd worked on The Age Of Innocence, was recruited to give the baroque sets an overripe, almost decaying look; Sandy Powell, who had worked on The Crying Game, did the costumes; and Stan Winston, who worked on Jurassic Park (see panel, page 69), did the vampire make-up source of even more trouble at mill, with the British tabloids going to extraordinary lengths (hidden cameras on rooftops, etc.) to stake-out Pinewood Studios and catch a picture of Cruise in his full Lestat get-up.

With further rumours that Cruise (five-nine) was having to wear stacked heels to make him taller than the five-eleven Pitt, and anonymous sources reporting that Cruise's voice had proved too reedy in the early scenes, Jordan had had just about enough. And when a picture of Cruise from a later scene in the film, looking gaunt and with straggly blond hair turned up in the tabloids, he took evasive action. For the remainder of the Pinewood shoot, a tunnel was built to allow Cruise to get to and from the set unnoticed.

"It's not a tunnel, it's a canvas passage," snapped a unit publicist at that time. Extras and crew members had to sign sworn statements that the) wouldn't reveal what they'd seen.

"Everyone was ferried onto the sets through a tunnel: Kirsten, Brad everybody. Everyone who was a vampire," growls Jordan. "Because we didn't want any photographs out of context, we didn't want anyone copying us. Because there was so much negative press against the movie we didn't want anybody to get near it, you know?"

And as for that business with Cruise's stacked heels? What better was to get an honest answer than from a child?

"He came up to here," says young Kirsten Dunst candidly, standing on tip-toe and reaching her hand up above her head as high as she possibly can.


"Somehow all this stuff becomes centred around Tom as if he was a paranoid monster," defends Jordan. "Crazy. Very, very strange..."

WHEREAS MOST STUDIO EXECS WOULD HAVE jumped in at the slightest hint of trouble, Geffen left Jordan to his own devices.

"Yeah, he was brilliant, he really was," says Jordan, who retained final cut. "I said to him I wouldn't do it unless I could do it independently, so he let me bring in Stephen Woolley and Redmond Morris (co-producer) all the people I'd worked with before really, so I never had any notes from any studio person throughout the whole movie, not even comments, you know, on the dailies. I don't even know if they saw them . . . amazing, absolutely amazing. And, when we were preparing the movie it was the most extraordinary situation where they wanted it long and I was saying, 'No, we've got to keep it shorter.' It was like night and day compared with my previous experiences. I wouldn't go through those again for anything."

The ill-conceived High Spirits and We're No Angels, where Jordan was brought in as a director for hire are now, thankfully, just a dim memory of what they call the learning process. 

"Well, I suppose you've got to know what traps you can fall into, so you can protect yourself, don't you?" he muses. "It's like putting a child's hand in the fire so they won't do it again, you know?"

Those two films were both comedies. Jordan had vowed never to do comedy again after that, yet Vampire is not without its moments of humour.

"It's not a comedy," he states, "but there are certain bits that are comedic. I can do very funny things if they come out of black subject matter, but comedy per se is not good for me. Though I do love comedy because it's almost mathematical when it's great. I envy people who can do that."

For a man from a literary background, an author-turned-screenwriter who got into films with a spot as a creative consultant on John Boorman's Excalibur in 1981, he's not adirector you'd normally associate with special effects either in this case put together by the semi-legendary doyen of ketchups, Stan Winston, the man responsible for Aliens and Terminator 2, in addition to Jurassic Park.

"It was fascinating because it's a very exciting time to be involved with effects," says Jordan, "because they're changing the face of movies, almost like when sound first came in. The advent of effects is a huge leap forward."

Nonetheless, the effects on display are pretty subtle cuts that reheal on Cruise's face, veins that shoot back and forth across translucent vampire skin subtle, macabre details like that. Nothing like Winston's usual in-your-face fare.

"No, no. It was a matter of making aesthetic choices and making these things invisible, which is a very difficult thing to get these people to agree to do," explains Jordan. "They all want their work to be seen and to be kind of flamboyant about it. We just had to say, 'Calm down' and bury it in the movie so the audiences are never aware of whether it's an effect or whether it's the real thing."

Although the film got fairly mixed reviews in the US, the box office take so far over $100 million to date is pretty staggering for a horror film. And, as if there hadn't been enough hype already, two further events happened that worked in the film's favour.

One. Anne Rice made a public apology saying that she had seen a tape of the finished film and had been completely wrong about Cruise he was brilliant. (Ironically, another Rice book, Exit To Eden, about sado-masochism, had been turned into an awful comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O'Donnell. Released three weeks before Interview, Rice never commented on it.)

Two. Tom Cruise, who rarely gives interviews, went on the Oprah Winfrey Show three weeks before the film opened. Winfrey had been to a private screening of the film and admitted on prime time TV that she had left the cinema after ten minutes as it was just too disturbing (namely the bit where Pitt and Cruise drink rats' blood). Q.E.D. The American public went to see it in droves. But how much damage had Anne Rice done? Apart from bruising The Cruiser's ego, that is. Is all publicity good publicity?

"I think it damaged the critics' reactions because there had been so much public talk about it," mulls Jordan, "but it won't affect the audiences."

In fact, talk about swallowing pride, Rice even rang Jordan to congratulate him.

"She said the movie was great," he reveals. "She didn't say, 'I'm sorry' though." So, a successful big budget blockbuster made from the first of a series of best-selling books? Only one thing to do make a sequel. Was it always on the cards ? "Of course," says Jordan. "Even without that ending. The actual sequel deals with the earlier life of Lestat. It begins in 18th Century France in the 1720s. There's no deal, no package, but if I could get the script right I would do a sequel."

But speak to Antonio Banderas, who plays European vampire Armand, and he'll let on a bit more than his more cagey director: "I was having dinner with Neil Jordan a couple of nights ago and he was already starting thinking about it, even writing. It's gonna be more about the confrontation between Tom and me, we're gonna go back in time before the Theatre Of Vampires, and it'll be set in Montpellier in France."

Though Brad Pitt would be unlikely to be involved this time ("I hated doing this movie. Hated it. My character is depressed from the beginning to the end. Five and a half months of that is too much"), Christian Slater would once again be back on board. So when Cruise finishes Mission Impossible, his next project, . . watch this space,

You see in Hollywood, when it comes to bloodsuckers, they Just can't get enough.

"People here don't want to die," chuckles Banderas, looking out of the hotel window across the broad sweep of Beverly Hills and beyond that to Hollywood itself, the famous old sign shining brilliant white in the sunshine. "In Los Angeles, if you smoke, it's a sin. Even people who are 60 years old, they want to look 50. Does it happen to you? You are driving down Sunset Boulevard and you see a blonde girl. You say, 'Wow, what a girl,' and you pull the car over and 'Oh shit" she's 70 years old'. It happens a lot." Banderas pauses for thought. "I think Hollywood is a. perfect place for vampires..."