The two filmmakers, with strong San Diego ties, take the world’s greatest female vampire character, Carmilla, to the big screen in their new film titled STYRIA.
By Katherine Sweetman
Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf ‘s new film, STYRIA, is an adaptation of a Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu short story, first published in 1872, about literature’s first female vampire character — a sultry and sexual vampire, named Carmilla, who also just happens to be the the precursor for all the modern-day lesbian vampire characters you know and love.
Mauricio Chernovetzky is a name known around the San Diego film scene. He went to grad school here — twice. He attended SDSU’s Television and Film Department Masters Program (where he met Mark Devendorf) and then UCSD’s Visual Arts Department MFA program, which is where I first met him. Mauricio and I ended up teaching The History of Film at Southwestern College, not together, but at the same time in different classrooms when the class was over enrolled to something like 200% over capacity. My point is I know him. And I’m not presenting that so much for disclosure but more for bragging rights. I am thrilled that a story, born out of conversations and scripts conceived in San Diego, can attract talented big name actors, get funding to make it happen, and go all the way to the big screen. Well, it’s almost there. It’s going there.
Currently STYRIA is in one of the last stages of post production — sound mixing, music composition, and music acquisition. But the film could use your help with its kickstarter campaign to give it that final push to completion.
I had the privileged of interviewing Mauricio Chernovetzky and Mark Devendorf about STYRIA as they were in these final stages of completing the film.
What follows is an interview with Mark Devendorf (MD) and Mauricio Chernovetzky (MC), Interviewer Katherine Sweetman (KS)
KS Mark and Mauricio, you two co-directed and also co-wrote this film that you adapted from a vampire story written in the 1800’s — a story that predates even Bram Stokers Dracula. That sounds challenging, to say the least. Can you tell me a little bit about the story and how you adapted this for the screen?
MC There was something about Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” that really resonated with both of us. We knew we wanted to make a Gothic film about a haunted psyche reminiscent of “The Innocents” (1961), which we both considered to be a masterpiece of the genre. There was something about the repressed Victorian atmosphere in the novella that lent itself to a far more layered approach than any film adaptation we had watched.
MD Yes. Most adaptations simply pounced on the most salacious aspect of the story: Lesbian vampires! But really, the novella is layered, atmospheric, and suffocating, and very Victorian. So even though there have been may adaptations, including one called Vampyros Lesbos, none really have touched on the most interesting dimension of the story. “Carmilla” was written pre-Dracula. So we took it as a challenge to make the film without any obvious vampire references that come from/after Dracula– fangs, bats, stakes, etc. It freed us up to tell a more original story with its own visual language.
MC We knew we wanted to make a film about adolescence, and we wanted to make sure that our characters were genuinely troubled. We wanted to explore the allure of the dark side, which for many teens has an almost mystical pull. Visually, we set out to capture that sense beauty and mystery, but we also wanted to show the real consequences of self-destructive behavior and ultimately the horror of suicide.
MD In reflecting on our own experiences as teenagers, we decided to set our film in 1989. The punk/goth mood and music of the time (Joy Division, The Cure, The Swans, Siouxsie) had a deep influence on us growing up. So this allowed us to merge this “gothic” sensibility with the 19th Century Gothic literature that “Carmilla” had emerged from.
KS Ok. I’m getting a sense of the setting in terms of mood and time, so tell me about the location. You shot this film in some kind of abandoned castle in Budapest? What was that like? How long was your shoot?
MC Setting STYRIA behind “the Iron Curtain” gave us a chance to explore the atmosphere of an authoritarian world on the brink of collapse. For our castle, we imagined a decaying, mysterious structure that would embody the “gothic” qualities of our story.
MD We searched as much as we could remotely, looking at different castles online and in books. Then we traveled to Poland, Austria, and Hungary. In Hungary, we spent a long weekend just driving to different castles. Most of the places we visited were either in too good of shape or completely in ruins. Then we saw Schlossberger Castle in the small town of Tura, about 45-minutes outside of Budapest, and we were blown away! It was this amazing piece of crumbling architecture, which is exactly what we wanted. The place was perfect!
MC It felt like the architect had gone mad. We walked down spiraling stone stairs leading into the castle’s basement and discovered a labyrinth. The mood was so mysterious and palpable, that Mark and I kept taking pictures. We were thrilled!
MD For the film, we only captured about 1/3 of the castle. There are levels and floors we never shot on. It’s an amazing experience just to spend time there. I highly recommend touring it.
MC We shot around 80% of the movie in the castle and the surrounding woods. Principal photography was scheduled for 24 days. As winter approached, it was really cold. All of us were constantly walking around with frozen toes. And then a snowstorm on the 22nd day completely disrupted our shoot. We had to wait a whole year to film a car accident that matched the late autumn look of STYRIA. For logistical reasons, we ended up shooting that scene in Poland.
KS You have some very talented, stand-out actors in this film, including Stephen Rea (of The Crying Game, Citizen X, V for Vendetta, Underworld, and many more). What was it like working with this actor, and how did he come to the project?
MD We submitted the script to his agent, and when we spoke to Stephen, he found the script, “terrifying.” We thought that after all the films he’s done, that was a good sign.
MC When Stephen agreed to play the role, it really set the whole film production in motion. Everyone around us suddenly understood our commitment to making a motion picture meant to be seen in theaters worldwide.
MD Stephen Rea had all the qualities we wanted for Lara’s father. He’s a great actor with a strong on screen presence. He also has a certain gravitas/darkness that lends credibility to our story. He was very particular about his character’s outfits. He also wanted all of his dialogue and actions to feel real. This gives the film a great deal of naturalism. Also, his being so well regarded amongst actors meant that all the other actors wanted to step up their game.
MC Yes, Stephen helped raise the stakes for everyone else. Since, at its core STYRIA tells of the intense and fractured relationship between two teenage girls, the soul of the film rests on Eleanor Tomlinson (Lara Hill) and Julia Pietrucha (Carmilla), who both gave absolutely wonderful performances.
KS I love the idea you mentioned earlier, Mauricio, about (some) teenagers being metaphysically drawn to the dark side– so true. Although Eleanor Tomlinson and Julia Pietrucha are both established actors (Eleanor Tomlinson has been in films such as The Illusionist and Alice in Wonderland and Julia Pietrucha has been a Polish TV actor for many years), they are also teenagers. What’s it like working with teenagers? Were you nervous going into this knowing the filmed hinged on their performances?
MC Obviously there was a risk. But Mark and I were very clear that Lara Hill had to be played by a teenager. There are some things you just can’t cheat.
MD Eleanor was 18 at the time, but she’d been on film sets since she was 9. She was a complete professional, always prepared, flexible, and cheerful. We were looking at hundreds of actresses for Lara, and we thought Eleanor had an interesting look, but every movie clip we saw her in, she played a very cheerful character.
MC Then we found a Youtube clip she did with her brother, where she played a brooding teenager, and we knew we found our Lara. We didn’t even have to audition her. We asked her to play the role after just one phone conversation.
MD Eleanor has this incredible work ethic and this intelligence in knowing how to play to the camera. So we weren’t surprised when she got hired onto Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer (2013)
MC For the role of Carmilla, we looked all over the world, Russia, France, Hungary. It was really challenging to find an actress with the right look– and the acting chops. Luckily, our Director of Photography, Grzegorz Bartoszewicz had recently worked with Julia on a Polish TV series. She was incredibly dedicated. The role of Carmilla gave her a chance to tap into a side she’d never really explored on camera before.
MD On set, Julia was a spark plug, and she really surprised us with her performance. On camera, she was completely present, but off camera, she was a bit mischievous. As the filming continued, she took on more and more of Carmilla’s traits. I, for one, never knew what was going on in her head.
MC Yes. She took the role really seriously! And she wasn’t afraid to challenge us from time to time.
MD She has a real instinct as an actor. I remember when we were rehearsing, she pointed out that the roof scene should have ended earlier. We shot the scene as it was written, but then in the editing room, we realized the emotional beat ended just where she had said it did. So we heeded her advice and cut the scene down.
MC Julia is very passionate. She approached the character with a lot of intensity, providing an emotional compass throughout the film.
MD We put both actresses through the ringer. It was always freezing in the castle, and most of the crew was sick throughout the shoot with a hollow cough that never went away. We were incredibly lucky to work with both girls. They gave everything to the film and it really shows on screen.
KS I’m based out of San Diego, and I know you two have ties to San Diego– because that’s where I met Mauricio, and I know you two went to film school here. Can you talk to me for a minute about Film Production in San Diego. Is it possible? It seems you are doing all your post-production in LA, is that true? What is San Diego missing?
MC You can say that STYRIA is a San Diego native. It was born there, when Mark and I were both finishing our Master’s degrees. Back in the day, we use to spend lot of time walking around North Park, discussing our story.
MD I’ve gone back between Los Angeles and San Diego my whole life, and I much prefer San Diego, but there is more work in Los Angeles, so right now, I’m living in LA. I think because SD is so close to LA, it’s got a second city syndrome. I would love for there to be more of a San Diego identity, with more locally produced television shows, even a dedicated channel, like Chicago has, but I think San Diegans are a little too relaxed to take on this issue. But dammit they should!
MC But we did work with a great San Diego crew to do our pick-up shots. There’s a lot of technical talent coming out of SDSU. And the editors working on our film teasers and trailers, Judd Resnick and Franck Deron are both based in San Diego. I think San Diego would benefit from embracing a completely independent spirit. A major ingredient that gives San Diego its unique character is its proximity to the border with Mexico. For me, the relationship between these two counties still represents a huge untapped potential. The contrasts, the paradoxes, the cultural interactions really offer a very rich source of creativity.
KS So you’ve been thinking of this project since grad school? How long has this process, of creating STYRIA, taken you? From script-start to now, how long has this journey been, and what stage are you in now?
MC It’s taken close to six years. We spent a lot of time researching the story. Then, two years writing the script.
MD We shot the bulk of the film two years ago, and we’ve been working on the cut, pretty much by ourselves. But one thing that feels very satisfying is to know that STYRIA has our hand prints all over it. It’s a genre film, but it’s fueled by complex ideas and it’s visually very charged.
KS You are currently running a Kickstarter pledge to finish the film, could you tell us a little about that, what the money would go towards and what they’d get in return?
MC The film is locked, but we are doing a kickstarter so that we can finish a few things, namely, sound design, score, a few video effects, color correction and music rights.
MD Yes. It’s unbelievable how expensive music rights can be! But we feel strongly about connecting the 80’s Goth sound to the Gothic storyline and we’re going to do everything to keep that vision alive.
MC All of the pledge categories and gifts are listed on our Kickstarter page. So we hope your readers will watch our video, the official movie trailer and then decide to support local independent filmmaking! We invite all of you to join us, and be part of STYRIA.
KS What’s next? What are you thinking about/working on after this film?
MC Interestingly enough both of us have been developing projects connected to San Diego.
MD I’m working on a script called Demon Sands, about the “desert fathers” (saints and prophets from the Bible) and the demons that tormented them as they sought divine revelations about the human soul. I’d like to shoot it out in the desert region of San Diego, Anza Borrego. It’s such a beautiful area, and I don’t feel like I’ve seen much of it on screen.
MC The working title for my script is El Tiburón (The Shark). It’s a psychological thriller about a young couple who take a road trip to Baja and end up in one of those very creepy all-inclusive resorts. It’s a layered story that explores themes of control, manipulation, deception, and ultimately, heartbreak.
But before we get carried away, we’ve got to finish STYRIA!
MD We’ve given this film everything we have, and really want to stay focused and be true to our vision to the very end. It’s really inspiring to realize how close we are to making it happen.