Q&A: Writer/Director/Star Onur Tukel on His Brooklyn Vampire Movie “SUMMER OF BLOOD”Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Michael Gingold
Whether evil, seductive or even sparkly, vampires are often presented as handsome and suave. And then there’s Erik Sparrow in SUMMER OF BLOOD, played by the movie’s writer/director Onur Tukel, who talks about creating and playing the role in this FANGORIA interview.
Opening in limited theaters and on VOD tomorrow from Dark Sky Films, SUMMER OF BLOOD begins with Erik, a shlubby, 40something Brooklyn slacker, turning down a marriage proposal from his long-suffering girlfriend Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman). It quickly becomes clear that Erik is too self-centered to be interested in anything resembling commitment—and that doesn’t change after he’s bitten by a vampire one night and subsequently becomes one himself, making him irresistible to women. Can he learn to be a better person now that he has transformed into something else? Fango talked to Tukel—who previously explored the offbeat side of bloodsucking in the 2000 Troma release SERGIO LAPEL’S DRAWING BLOOD—earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, where SUMMER OF BLOOD (whose bloodletting FX were created by Toetag Pictures’ Fred Vogel) had its world premiere, to find out…
FANGORIA: Having first explored the vampire genre over 10 years ago, what led you to come back to the subject so many years later, and in a different setting?
ONUR TUKEL: A very specific reason: I was 28 when I made DRAWING BLOOD, and I’ve made six movies since, and DRAWING BLOOD was the only movie we ever made money on, the only one where we were able to repay our investors very quickly, because it was a genre film. I’m a fan of horror films, and I was making low-budget movies that never made their money back, and I wanted to find a way to mix in my sensibilities and my fears as a 41-year-old now, and also add aspects of filmmakers I love like Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to bring a genre level into what I’m doing to make it more lucrative or viable?”
FANG: How would you compare SUMMER OF BLOOD to DRAWING BLOOD?
TUKEL: Technically, we shot film back then; DRAWING BLOOD was done on 16mm, and we were making more of a craft-oriented movie, trying to do more interesting photography and things like that, rather than exploring the acting aspect. With SUMMER OF BLOOD, we were asking, “How do we approach it from the acting side and get really good performances, as opposed to really good cinema.” We were trying to make something artsy and unique with DRAWING BLOOD, even though we were in our 20s and still learning how to make movies. We wanted to make it stylized, which is why I called it SERGIO LAPEL’S DRAWING BLOOD, because we were trying to make something that seemed like a European auteurist horror film, just in English. SUMMER OF BLOOD, on the other hand, was all about approaching vampires from a neurotic New Yorker’s standpoint—a neurotic 40-year-old who’s at a crossroads of his life, not sure what he’s doing, trying to make a life decision: “Am I going to get married and have kids? Am I going to stay single and be selfish the rest of my life?”
In terms of the vampirism itself, I’ve never been big on following the tropes or the rules, just having fun with that subgenre, and I wasn’t thinking consciously about how to approach it. I did have the idea that there was gonna be a lot of sex in the movie, and the fact that he bites women during sex brings in that aspect of blood transfusion and STDs, which I didn’t have in the first movie—the parallel between vampirism and sexually transmitted disease. There’s a little bit of that, without being too icky about it, because I don’t think a lot of people want to watch a movie and be reminded of how scary that stuff is.
FANG: When the film started, I assumed that Erik, who’s this selfish guy, was going to change once he became a vampire. But he doesn’t; he’s the same person, only now he drinks blood. Was it a conscious choice not to go that route with the story?
TUKEL: Well, you’re right—he’s a selfish person beforehand, and when he becomes a vampire, he becomes even more so. But I think he’s able to realize just how selfish he’s been. He’s unaware of that in the beginning, and when he transforms, he becomes more aware, because he realizes this is not the right way to live. He’s killing people, he’s infecting people, he can have as much sex as he wants and stay a bachelor—the complete opposite of committing to a monogamous relationship. He’s scared of marriage initially, because he wants to be able to live a selfish life, and when he’s confronted with the ability to be as selfish as he wants, and have as much sex as he wants, he realizes a lifetime of that is infinitely more scary than committing to one person.
FANG: Were you concerned at all about audience identification or sympathy, considering he’s such a self-centered, insensitive guy? Were you worried that people might kind of turn off from him?
TUKEL: Absolutely, and in fact, there were originally scenes where Erik did some really horrible things that we had to cut, because when we showed the early cut to people, they were like, “Certain things he did were so despicable that I didn’t want to watch him anymore.” Now, he’s just dislikable enough but maybe just charming enough that people are curious to see what happens.
So I was concerned about that, but at the same time, I’m a big fan of Rick Alverson’s THE COMEDY, and I love that kind of playful misanthropy. I’m not a cynical person, but I think it’s easy for me to be cynical in my work, because I do have that side in me, along with a lot of hope and a lot of positivity. I’ve written and illustrated a couple of children’s books in the past few years that allowed me to play with my softer, more lighthearted, more idealistic side. We all have anger, we all have melancholy, we all have fears, and I can’t put those in the children’s books, so when I make movies, I can express that other aspect of my personality.
Tim Heidecker’s character in THE COMEDY—it’s not that I identify with him, but I identify with his ability to kind of mock everything, because, what is really meaningful in our lives? What are we doing here? What are we supposed to be doing here? We’re all gonna die one day; how can we cope with that? What can we do besides deal with it any way we can? My way has always been through levity and humor. I’ve also been very lucky that I haven’t had a lot of drama or tragedy in my life, and though I didn’t grow up extremely privileged, I didn’t pay for my own college, I don’t have that debt. So it’s easy to mock things, but at the same time, I tried to make the movie hopeful for my character at the end of the day.
FANG: Did you always intend to star in it yourself, or was there ever a thought of someone else playing Erik?
TUKEL: No, I always wrote it for myself to star. I knew I could play this character pretty well, and it would be easier for me to do it than to have to direct someone else. When I cast people as a director, I want to do as little work as possible. I cast actors who are really good and let them be artists and bring a lot to the table, and I don’t want to have to micromanage. We all give each other feedback, so I knew that if I was directing and starring in the movie at the same time, and we had a small group of people, we could all kind of make it together, you know what I mean? I have a problem acting in other people’s work, because I have to read the dialogue, figure out what the character’s intent and backstory are; I’m not an artist that way. It’s too challenging for me, while playing the snarky guy with some one-liners and being able to recite my own dialogue that I’ve written in a loose way is easy for me.
FANG: And you also got to cast yourself opposite a number of beautiful women.
TUKEL: Yeah, and they’re not only beautiful, they’re incredibly talented. Anna Margaret Hollyman, Dakota Goldhor, Melodie Sisk, Juliette Fairley—they’re all just really sweet and really smart. And Melodie is also a producer as well. She produced a really terrific movie called VACATION that Zach Clark did, a weird, bizarre, drug-addled movie about a bunch of friends who have this demented week at the beach. Melodie came on board as a producer, and then she took a role and was really good. She also has ties to horror films and knows Fred Vogel, and got him to do this for a very small amount of money.
FANG: How was it working with Vogel?
TUKEL: We storyboarded out how we wanted the blood scenes to play beforehand, and initially there was supposed to be blood spouting into Erik’s mouth like a fountain. Fred said, “We might be able to pull that off, we might not be able to, so be ready to alter what you want to do with the blood scenes.” That made sense, because when the blood didn’t completely spurt, it was like, “OK, we’ll just fall down together and he’ll bleed right into my mouth.” That was an example of conforming to whatever you have in front of you, which is a great way of making movies, being in the moment and improvising. It was really freeing to do that. We shot DRAWING BLOOD over four months on weekends, and that was exhausting. This was much more exhilarating, because we were more in the moment. I’m proud of DRAWING BLOOD, but SUMMER OF BLOOD means a lot more to me, obviously.
FANG: In addition to Vogel, you had TOAD ROAD director Jason Banker as your DP. Did you know of that film when you selected him to shoot yours?
TUKEL: I actually met Jason a few years ago. I was in a movie called SEPTIEN, and I was leaving a showing of that at the IFC Center with my friend Adam Grant. Jason was walking beside him, and he was like, “Hey, by the way, Onur was in the movie.” Jason had just seen the film, and I was looking for two cinematographers who worked together, because I wanted to shoot my next movie, RICHARD’S WEDDING, that way. Jason told me about TOAD ROAD, which was shot with two cameras in this documentary style that was just amazing, and I was like, “That’s the way I want to make movies right now.” Instead of DRAWING BLOOD, where we had dollies, cranes and that kind of thing, I was like, “I don’t want to think about craft, I want to think about being in the moment.” So Jason and I connected instantly, and he and Jorge Torres-Torres, who shot TOAD ROAD with him, were the cinematographers on RICHARD’S WEDDING.
FANG: I gather a lot of SUMMER OF BLOOD was shot guerrilla-style…
TUKEL: Absolutely, without a doubt. We tried to be pragmatic and practical about the locations, because we shot the movie in nine days, but with two cameras, that’s like doubling the time you have. So it was great, we tried to be really practical about the locations we were shooting in.
FANG: Would you call SUMMER OF BLOOD a mumblecore film about a horrific subject, or a horror film with mumblecore elements?
TUKEL: I think mumblecore with horrific elements, definitely. One of my producers also described it as TRUE BLOOD meets CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, which I liked, though this is such a guerrilla film and those are much bigger productions. In mumblecore, from what I gather, they don’t really use scripts; they work from outlines and improvise everything. SUMMER OF BLOOD was a very scripted movie; we mostly followed the script to a T, and at other times when there were long scenes and we didn’t have the chance to really rehearse, we would say, “Look, we’ve read through it, we know the context, we’re running out of time; let’s just shoot it and see what happens.” We wanted to make it feel very improvisational, even though it was fully scripted. But the guerrilla style we were using and the fact that it’s about relationships and emotions and things like that are certainly elements of mumblecore.