The fangs come out next Valentine's Day when Vampire Academy arrives in theaters. We had the opportunity to speak with screenwriter Daniel Waters about his part in adapting the first book in Richelle Mead's popular young adult series. Waters spoke to us about the tone of the book as well as the difference between the things he could alter in the adaptation and the things Mead insisted had to stay the same. Like Christian's hair. What compelled him to adapt Vampire Academy? How does this film stack up next to the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? What changes should fans expect from the adaptation? Waters addresses all of those topics and more.
Daniel Waters is no stranger to teen drama. He penned the script for the 1988 dark comedy Heathers. Armed with some notable experience in getting into the mindset of teenage girls, Waters tackled the screenplay for Vampire Academy, while his brother Mark -- director of Mean Girls -- was at the helm for this adaptation. Mead's novel takes place at an academy for teen vampires. While some of them do appreciate a bloody beverage for sustenance, these "Moroi" vampires aren't immortal. They do age, and they're not without their souls, unlike the vicious Strigoi vampires, who hunt Morois and the Dhampirs (half-human, half vampire supernatural beings).
The story is told from the perspective of Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch), a beautiful and strong young Dhampir with a very close bond with Moroi vampire Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry). While Lissa trains to develop her supernatural abilities, Rose works hard to improve her strength and fighting techniques in order to eventually assume the role of Lissa's guard. While there are obviously some seriously supernatural elements at work in this story, St. Vladimir Academy is still a high school where teens are busy, coming of age, establishing friendships and romances, while also seeking out their own identities. One of the first things Daniel Waters spoke to us about was the multiple themes of the book and the relationship Rose and Lissa have with one another…
What compelled you to do this adaptation? Were you looking for a young adult series to adapt, or was there something about this book in particular that kind of jumped out at you?
It’s funny, only now I’m starting to think about those first days, where I was offered Vampire Academy and I wasn’t aware... Don’t be mad, but I wasn’t even aware of the book and the series until I heard about it, and for a man who’s kind of getting on the old side, to hear the words like, “Ok, hey do you want to adapt this series of books called Vampire Academy?” To me, obviously my brain went to all the wrong places of like, “Oh no, is this a Saturday morning cartoon? Is this Zack and Cody Go To Space?” It took actually reading the books --and once I read one I had to read all of them -- that I realized that this was a much more fertile and complex and interesting -- and I like things that have a lot of different tones, like I love the book Hunger Games, but to me, I’m not the right writer for Hunger Games, because to me, that’s the kind of material you just stand back and do the plot, but to me Vampire Academy is so much more than just the plot or just the mystery, that to me -- I’ve always been fascinated with female characters and female relationships -- even taking away the supernatural elements, just to have two best friend characters where one can read the mind of the other one and knows what she’s thinking and feeling at all times. To me, you can do a movie just like that, in a kitchen without any of the supernatural elements, so I was obviously taken with all material and all the potential the material had.
Well, with that in mind, I’m a huge fan of Heathers I grew up loving that movie and your brother (Mark Waters) directed Mean Girls which is another great movie that I think captured the dark humor of that brutal social hierarchy that can exist for teen girls. Is there anything like that that we can expect tonally, both on the subject of high school and teen girls, but also the humor that was kind of there in those other movies you guys did?
Yeah, my brother had been doing a lot of interviews lately where he says the word comedy. I don’t know. I get scared when I hear the words vampires and comedy. I start to think, “Hey that vampire is a real pain in the neck,” and I start to think of all these bad vampire puns and trust me, it’s never going to be a full comedy, but I do think there just is natural humor in the situation, like I just think the characters are going to be a little more witty and a little more amusing, but we’re not going to go too far with the comedy, but I definitely think it’s going to be an element.
Because to me -- and I know my brother feels the same way -- we’re a little bored of those kind of overly serious, kind of young adult movies, where it seems like -- and it’s not just the young adult movies, it’s like every movie -- It seems like every movie now had the innocent character who comes across this new world and then they start screaming things like, “Oh no, this can’t be happening. This isn’t real. Magic is impossible. There’s no such thing as a vampire,” and what I love about Vampire Academy is we get to jump past all that stuff, get to cut in line almost, like none of our characters are innocents, but even better, they’re all pretty chill. Magic is real, vampires are real, vampires doing magic is real, but that’s just another day at St. Vladimir’s. It’s just another day at high school.
I think by taking these kind of wacky wild elements and treating it like just another day at high school, it makes for, I wouldn’t say laugh-out-loud funny, but it makes for a certain kind of attitude that is really interesting and unique and does make you laugh at some times. Our motto has always been it’s all about playing the supernatural as completely natural. I think that’s fun, but it just makes it different.
Well, I definitely think there’s an audience for that too. I mean Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of captured that a little bit and it also had its own vampire thing, where there’s this dark side that’s kind of off-set a little bit with humor, not to make it a comedy but just to maybe cut the tension…
Yeah, Buffy, I dare not look in the face of the god of Buffy. It was such a great show that to be said in the same sentence would be an honor and I think the great thing is that even Buffy had characters who weren’t in on it and things were happening behind real people’s backs. I like that there’s hardly any real people in Vampire Academy that we had a chance to create a completely different universe, which I think makes it interesting and sets it apart. It’s almost like you’re backstage at the concert, instead of sitting in the 40th row watching a concert.
Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of adapting a novel that’s beloved and there are high expectations. Would you say that you prioritized sticking closely to the source material or making a screenplay that works?
Yeah, I think it’s weird and a lot of times I’m offered things where they say, “Ok, This is a big hit book. We don’t get it, but you know, the title, we’re going to keep the title and you change everything else,” and I’m like why do the movie? To me, that’s ridiculous. The only reason I’m doing Vampire Academy is because I love Vampire Academy. So, why would I cavalierly change it and put in like talking dogs and flying giraffes and just add stuff for no reason? I wouldn’t do that, but that said, early on I made a rule to myself that I would listen to the fans and respect the fans, but not be their bitch, cause there’s a lot of fans out there that want to watch a 4-hour slide show of every page of the book while wearing white gloves and holding a clipboard and testing to make sure every frame is exactly like the book. I think they say that, but if they actually had to watch a 5-hour movie, they’d fall asleep like everybody else. I think a movie is like a bullet and a lot of times the novel is like gunpowder and you have to try to pack as much of that novel into the bullet, but then you’ve also got to put your own silver casing on it, so even though I’m pretty faithfully taking a lot of the elements of the book, I have to kind of make my own kind of transitions, my own way of dealing with things.
The fans sometimes get too hysterical, like for instance, there’s a sight of Rose holding the silver stake in the teaser and, oh my gosh, what have I done. Yes, I’m sorry, put the handcuffs on me, I accelerated Rose’s training from the second book so she now gets trained with the silver stake, and you can’t help making those changes.
I’d say the biggest change I made, just as far as the difference between the movie and the book is that a lot of the book takes place in Rose’s head, which I think works in the novel with Richelle’s writing but you’re really bonded with Rose, but I think in a movie, to me, making sure Rose doesn’t know everything. She knows too much in the book. She’s hiding information from both other characters and us and I wanted to make her have to do a little more detective work in the movie to make it a little more interesting, because I don’t think anybody wants to see a movie, where they come in and the lead characters are narrating every frame of the movie saying this happened, then this happened and this happened. I mean, if you look at the book, there’s a lot of scenes where she talks about something that happened, but there’s actually no dialogue, The scene works in a novel, but you can’t just reproduce it like that in the movie. Sometimes I find myself having to create dialogue and create transitions and consolidations.
How did you handle Rose kind of jumping in Lissa’s head and looking at things through Lissa’s eyes? Is that something that’s going to happen in the movie?
Yeah, I mean I think that’s actually a very cinematic thing and I think we’ve done a lot of interesting camera work and special effects with Rose’s eyes, which are going to be really interesting to the viewer. I mean, I don’t think it complete, like we kind of play it both ways, where if when Rose goes to a scene between Lissa and Christian it’s not just all from her point of view, that we do see Lissa within the scene, so there’s a little cheat that way, because again, you don’t want to see a scene between Christian and just the camera, you do want to see them coming together and have your choice of angles, you know. Believe me, because nothing more scary looking than watching someone kiss a camera rather than kiss an actual person.
So, how closely was Mead involved in the script process with you? Did you confer with her at all?
I think we both thought it was a good idea not to speak before I wrote the first draft because, once you start looking down at the tightrope, I think you start to fall, so immediately I took, I got to do my first draft and then she came in and read it and I think she was very... I think the great thing about Richelle, what was the commercial, I’m not just the president of the hair club for men, I’m also a member. She’s not just the creator of Vampire Academy. She’s also a huge fan. So, I think she read it almost like a fan than more as an author. The best compliment she gave is she was just into reading script, turning pages, like what happens next. What happens next? You created what happens next! But that means she was really into it, which is good.
Of course, I had some ideas for changing Christian’s appearance and I think I wanted to make Jesse Latin and then Richelle, who’s like the sweetest woman in the world, that’s when you heard her raise her voice, “That’s not going to happen.” I learned pretty early on, don’t mess with the way the boys look. You can play with some plot stuff and ok, you moved the ankle scene before the shopping scene and it was the shopping scene before the ankle scene in the book. That’s fine. Don’t make Christian blond. She definitely had her priorities, but it was all after the fact. She is definitely a lot wiser than, you know, I say in the sweetest way, than more of her fans of the difference between a movie and a book.
I guess on the other side, when you finished the script, how involved were you when Mark started filming?
Well, I often know the difference between a screenplay and a movie so it’s like, although we’re in the editing process right now and I am starting to say, “Wait, it was like this in the script,” I try to not be like that actually on the set and I was on the set at the start and finish of the movie. To me, the great thing about me and my brother together is that, I’m the one alone in a room with a notepad and a pen and a computer, alone in my underwear, writing and creating these things with my marked up copy of Vampire Academy, doing all this crazy stuff, but Mark’s got to be the one -- I’m the right brain, he’s the left brain. He’s the one who’s actually got to turn this stuff into cold hard reality of like an actual image. So, it’s actually good, I think we’re a perfect combination. I’m the kind of guy who, I don’t even have driver’s license, because I daydream every time I make a left hand turn and almost get myself killed. So, it’s good that I have like this force of nature, my brother to make sure everything is in line.
Have you guys talked about working together on anything in the future?
Oh yeah. Hey believe me, oh my gosh, I don’t know how much of the books you’ve read, but to me Frostbite and Shadow Kiss are a lot easier to adapt than Vampire Academy, because Vampire Academy you’re just introducing all this crazy stuff and even the mystery plot element is so kind of not even the fifth most important thing of Vampire Academy the book. The material is much more about relationships and friendships and all these other themes. It’s a very difficult book to adapt, let me tell you. The Hunger Games people had it easy.
So, have you started on the sequels?
Sure, I’ve been playing around with ideas but nothing is going to happen until Vampire Academy is a big huge hit that’s made a lot more money than Mortal Instruments or Beautiful Creatures.
Well, here’s hoping then.
Here’s hoping, indeed.
Vampire Academy arrives in theaters February 14, 2014.