Director and Star Talk “THE DARK TOURIST”
Maybe you’re planning a vacation this year. Maybe you’re going to London. And maybe while you’re there, the tourist trail will take you by the London Dungeon and the Tower, sites forever imbued with the psychic echoes of past violence, where we’re nevertheless happy to stop and snap a quick selfie. This, believes SOUTHLAND’s Michael Cudlitz, star of the just-released THE DARK TOURIST, means you have more in common with his character Jim Tahna than you might imagine.
“We go to Ground Zero,” he told the audience at London’s FrightFest earlier this month. “We go to the TCL Chinese Theatre and put our hands in the dead movie stars’ handprints. We go to the theater and watch movies like this one. There’s a grief tourist in all of us.”
Until a recent change, THE GRIEF TOURIST was actually the title—dropped to avoid “the sound of sadness”—of the film, released by Phase 4 Films to VOD, iTunes and select theaters starting last Friday; it opens at New York City’s Village East Cinema today. The epithet refers specifically to Jim, a severely OCD security guard taking his annual vacation to the stalking ground of a famous serial killer. This year, he has chosen to walk in the shoes of (fictional) mass murderer Carl Marznap—played in flashbacks and psychological reveries by a toadlike Pruitt Taylor Vince—but finds himself struggling more than usual with the psychological baggage of his itinerary. There are occasional flashes of dry humor and a touching appearance by Melanie Griffith, but DARK TOURIST is in most respects a tough albeit compelling watch, as Jim fights his inner demons and spirals further into mania and homicidal brutality.
“Frank John Hughes wrote it especially for Michael,” director Suri Krishnamma (pictured above right with Cudlitz, left, and Hughes) tells Fango the day after the FrightFest screening. “They’ve been very close since they acted together in BAND OF BROTHERS, so Frank must know something about Mike! But I think any actor would be happy to take on a part like this. I believe actors are always looking for challenges and to take risks. Mike knew when he took on this project that at least half of the people who saw it would not like it, and half of the other half wouldn’t necessarily get what we were trying to do. The core audience for this is a small percentage of people, there’s no question about that. Mike understood that not everyone would applaud him for this, but in some ways I think actors sometimes like to offend people with their choices. They like to push themselves and expose themselves.” He chuckles, perhaps with a couple of Cudlitz’s especially “brave” scenes in mind…
Krishnamma signed on for the bleak project as soon as he received the screenplay. Something of a tourist in this territory himself, he’s known in the UK as a television director (with credits including the detective series WAKING THE DEAD and COLD BLOOD and the long-running hospital soap CASUALTY), but says he has long been in the market for something stronger. “DARK TOURIST is very atypical of my work,” he notes, “but I’ve enjoyed dark stuff very much, even in the more mainstream TV and films I’ve made. I like psychological horror like ROSEMARY’S BABY and PSYCHO, and even THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. I made a conscious choice three years ago to do more individual pieces of work that I could in some way creatively shape and control as a filmmaker, and also to explore darker stories, and this is a consequence and possibly the peak of that. When I first read the script, I absolutely saw the film we watched at Leicester Square yesterday.”
The director’s only concern was that the writer shared his personal view of the material, which could easily have been presented in a way that played up the potential slasher or quasi-supernatural elements. “I needed to have a conversation with Frank immediately after I’d read it to know that what I had seen in my head was what he intended me to see,” Krishnamma recalls. “It’s always pointless trying to make a film where you’re in conflict with the ambition of the writers or the producers, but we talked for three hours on the phone and it became incredibly clear that we were on the same page. For me, Carl is not a ghost; he’s a conjured image. So in a sense, Carl is Jim. He’s not really how Carl thought or sounded; he’s the guy Jim has created in order to be both helped and destroyed by this dialogue in his own head.”
Cudlitz is in practically every scene, and the punishingly tight shooting schedule allowed for little downtime. When he broke his hand during one of the more violent sequences, he had to continue filming, only finding a moment to visit the hospital on a rare day off sometime later.
It wasn’t just a tough shoot for the star, though. All involved were put through the wringer of production disaster when part of the funding turned out to be missing and the original New Orleans shoot had to be abandoned. After a two-month hiatus and the calling in of some favors, DARK TOURIST was remounted in LA, but not without at least one major casting casualty.
“We now have Pruitt Taylor Vince as Carl, and he’s sensational, but the original casting was Bryan Cranston,” Krishnamma reveals. “Bryan came down to New Orleans, rehearsed and shot tests, and he was passionate about the film. Sadly, when we came back after the plug had been pulled, he’d had another offer and was very conflicted. He had no obligation to us, because the film we’d started had been cancelled, but he sent me a long e-mail agonizing about the decision, and we were delicately trying to persuade him to come back. But in the end, he felt that the other film he’d been offered was too good to turn down. I think it was [Nicholas Winding Refn’s] DRIVE, so you can absolutely understand his decision!”
Happily, the solution to the problem was already at hand. “We’d already given Pruitt the part of the Russian hotel manager,” Krishnamma says. “It was only one scene, but he wanted to be in the film because he loved the script. And it smacked me between the eyes one morning that he was the more-than-perfect Carl. He’s got that body shape and that sensational head shape, like Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW. And he has this twitchy eye, which we just about catch in a couple of places, that can’t stay still and flickers from one side to the other all the time. Brilliant! It just externalises the internal weirdness of the guy. I can’t imagine it with Bryan now.”
Along with Cranston, a couple of scenes were lost on the way to final cut. One was a flashback to a previous road trip in which Jim visits the apartment that was once home to “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz. Berkowitz was shown on the other side of the door to Jim—another mental conjuration like Marznap—but Krishnamma felt this weakened subsequent revelations, and the only reference to the scene now is a photograph Jim shows to a co-worker.
Another lost scene was a casualty of logistics. “There’s a sequence with quite a savage beating,” Krishnamma explains, “which as written was much bigger and longer than what you see on screen. In the script, Jim drags [a character] out of her motel room, puts her over his shoulder and throws her over the balcony; she lands hard on the ground, still alive—it’s grotesquely written—and he then throws her into the trunk of his car, where we can hear her wailing. It was about understanding the horror of what it is to be him, without in any sense wanting to be gratuitous. But in terms of time and also the stuntwork that was required, we couldn’t afford to do it. Things like that got attacked from a financial point of view because of the crisis we entered.”
Nevertheless, despite the difficulties, all involved are immensely proud of the finished work, and while Krishnamma’s next project is likely to be an as-yet unnamed romance, it seems his greatest newfound love is horror. “I’ve enjoyed this hugely,” he says, “and it’s still a genre I’m finding out about. It wouldn’t be something I’d go looking for, but the honest truth is if someone dropped a horror script in my lap tomorrow that was well-told and was about something, I’d find it irresistible!”