Convincing and Unconvincing VampsComplications Ensue
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Sunday, August 07, 2016

I borrowed THE ORIGINALS series 'cause it got a 7+ on the IMDB, but I had doubts about it literally the moment I saw what the lead actors looked like. They had that look that prime time actors have. They have the stink of Beverly Hills all over them. They're pretty, the boys and the girls, in a well-groomed, not particularly distinctive way.

And, sure enough, the dialog was kinda dumb and expositional, and the lore was ridiculous, and most of all, there was no way I could possibly believe that these three characters are the "original vampires."

It is hard to play a vampire convincingly. You have to seem like someone who's been around for hundreds of years (or, in the case of someone with a claim to being an "original" anything, I'd hope, tens of thousands).

That's why we often portray vamps as noblemen -- courtly, gracious, aristocratic. Gary Oldman's Dracula in Francis Coppola's movie of the book. Catherine Deneuve's Miriam in THE HUNGER. An aristocratic air makes it seem like the owner speaks for his whole house, all of its legacy.

James Marston pulled it off as Spike in BUFFY: THE VAMPIRE SLAYER without falling back on an aristocratic air. He was as sure of himself as someone could be who's killed hundreds of people one on one, who knew his own strength, who rarely has to convince anyone with his words.

Tom Cruise was a surprisingly convincing vampire, because he is so very sure of himself and has an ego the size of a truck.

I bet Grace Jones would make a fine vamp. Wesley Snipes made a superb half-vamp.

But vamps are not invulnerable, only immortal. You want someone who seems like they've been around the block. Like you've seen some horrific things, and done some, and had some done to you. Like you're aware that although you are ageless, you are mortal. The little vampire Eli in Let the Right One In, the old vampire in Cronos: they knew that, while they had super powers, they could die.

The best vampires also seem like a person. Not just "a vampire," but a human being who became a vampire.

Spike was a great vamp character because he was a punk rock star who knew he was no match for his own urges. "If I had to do it all over again -- who am I kidding, I would do it exactly the same." Drusilla was fun because she was crazy.

The characters in THE ORIGINALS were distinct enough that you could tell, barely, who was the roguish, "bad" one, and who was the uptight, "good" one and who was the girl. The series has gone at least two seasons, so I hope the characters developed since then. But if you don't start with the characters being people, it's hard to get there.

If I were casting vampires, I mean, sure, have Antonio Banderas. But have some vamps with traits that have nothing to do with being a vampire.

I mean, as you get older, you get wiser, but you don't stop being yourself. You get more and more yourself as you figure out who you are, and stop trying to be other people. A vampire is someone who's had hundreds of years to figure out what turns him or her on, and doesn't have to care about what doesn't turn him on. A vampire might be devoted to overseeing and protecting his human family. She might be an alcoholic. He might be a compulsion car thief. She might be a drama queen who likes to have multiple human lovers whom she would never feed on.

Have Steve Buscemi. Have Clare Danes, with all her crazy cryface. Have John Goodman.

One last thought about lore:  what prime time TV shows get wrong about lore is shoveling it into the pilot. That's a terrible way to treat lore. You get dialog like, "as you know, Bob, we've been vampires for three hundred years, but until recently I was immobilized by a magic silver dagger."

Obviously, people almost never remind each other of what they both know. But also, people who know deep things rarely talk about them. When they do, they just give a hint. They don't give you the download.

They refer to things elliptically. There are Southerners who refer to the "late, great unpleasantness" when they mean the Civil War.

They refer to things efficiently. You tell a Southerner, "It's Pickett's Charge," and you don't need to say more.

Lore is best used as a hook. Give a hint of something that creates a misty shape in the viewer's mind. Let their imaginations run with it.

In THE SANDMAN, Thessaly is a nerdy, humorless, utterly ruthless witch with big glasses. You get to know her as a witch for a while before someone asks, "How old are you?"

"I was born in the day of longest night," she says, "the year the bear totem was broken." And you suddenly realize that she was born before years had dates. Before days had numbers. She is incredibly old.

(And she's still pissed at Dream for the way their relationship didn't work out. And she probably didn't grow up thinking that forgiveness is a virtue, back on the tundra. And that's why she helps him destroy himself.)

I wasn't really writing this to talk about We Happy Few, just to vent about a terrible show and how it was terrible. But of course we have a great deal of lore in We Happy Few. We have a timeline that breaks off into alternate history in 1933. We have a people who did a Very Bad Thing that they've failed to confront.

And you'll put together what it was from newspaper articles, and old posters, and things crazy people say, and graffiti, and how the people entertain themselves. That's fun, and that's engaging.

If we just gave you a Star Wars-style title crawl, it wouldn't mean anything.


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