Thursday, July 01, 2010

HUNKS OF HORROR: DARK MOON RISING (aka WOLF MOON)—The Evening Class Interview With Chris DiVecchio

Where would the horror genre be without its libidinal icons? Its scream queens and handsome hunks? Along with gore and jump scares, sex has fueled the horror genre for generations. Just as characters from the vampire and werewolf mythos can "glamour" others—i.e., put a spell on others—so is the glamorous essential to the cinematic spell cast by these denizens of the dark, and nothing spells glamour like sex appeal. Is it any wonder that young breakout actors frequently find their first feature opportunities in independent horror films?

In the first of a series of research interviews, I'll be taking a look at the hunks of horror, starting off with one of the leaders of the pack, so to speak:
Chris DiVecchio. DiVecchio's recent turn as Dan, the werewolf drifter in Dana Mennie's Dark Moon Rising (aka Wolf Moon, 2009) skillfully interprets the sensual tension between strength and vulnerability key to such characters. This is an opportune performance for DiVecchio. Having just been released straight to DVD through Lionsgate Entertainment, and available for viewing on Netflix Instant Play, Wolf Moon matches DiVecchio's chops with newcomer Ginny Weirick, genre royalty Sid Haig and Lin Shaye, and respected talent Max Ryan, Chris Mulkey and Billy Drago.

Though Wolf Moon has been accused of capitalizing on the Twilight Saga in the handful of reviews listed at IMDb, I find such a critique akin to lazily shooting fish in a barrel. Twilight is hardly original nor definitive when it comes to the connection between teenage angst and horror—whether vampires or werewolves (think I Was A Teenage Werewolf)—and I sincerely hope Twilight does not become the standard by which all future vampire/werewolf films will be gauged. Wolf Moon, for starters, does not have the kind of budget that Twilight's sparkling gloss requires, so it's more appropriate to gauge what Wolf Moon has achieved within its limited means. Perhaps the most fair review comes from Talyseon at Epinions whose bottom line is that Wolf Moon "knows its limitations, and succeeds in working inside them. ...This is not the best thing since Brotherhood of the Wolf by any stretch of the imagination, but for a low budget horror movie, it was exceedingly well done. There is a philosophy of use-the-old-tricks-to-build-mood, spend your money where it will do the most good, and don't over reach the technology you have to work with. This delivers lots of thrills and chills for the dollar, making this an enjoyable werewolf movie on the cheap."

I agree. You could do a lot worse than choosing Wolf Moon for a DVD rental or adding it to your Netflix Instant Queue. Then again, there's the subject interest of the film's ample eye candy, not only the lovely Ginny Weirick, but studly Max Ryan (fresh from his erection in Sex & The City 2), and interviewee Chris DiVecchio who as Dan, a drifter who travels through a small town where he picks up work as a grease monkey, puts the hubba hubba back in hubcaps. Chris was generous enough to talk to me by phone.

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Michael Guillén: Many actors have begun their careers doing genre work. Michael Landon was a teenage werewolf. Jack Nicholson started out working with Roger Corman and only later returned to genre roots in Wolf (1994). Johnny Depp had his big screen debut in the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). And, of course, the Twilight Saga has furthered the careers of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, among others. Can you speak to that tradition of young actors working in genre films to kickstart their careers and how you feel about being a part of that?

Chris DiVecchio: It's interesting because it's definitely a pattern that's out there that can be recognized; but, personally, it's never been part of my angle of trying to break into the business. I've always just tried to seek out work that I can connect with and, of course, in this business it doesn't always work out that way. You take the opportunities that are in front of you and—as long as you find a connection to the work—I think that's the most important thing; but, there's definitely a pattern of these types of genre films launching careers for breakout actors.

Guillén: How did this role come to you?

DiVecchio: They say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Fortunately, I got very lucky on this project. I had done a film five years prior down in San Diego and the young woman who was producing that film had graduated from San Diego State University, moved up to Hollywood, and had been working in Hollywood for the last five years. I'd kept in touch with her. We had a really good friendship on set and I had proven myself on that picture. She signed on as a producer for Dark Moon Rising and encouraged Dana Mennie to take a meeting with me. [Lionsgate changed the title to Wolf Moon when they picked the film up for domestic distribution.]

At the time, Dana Mennie was looking at some big names. He read Joseph Gordon-Levitt for the role, among other actors who had significantly stronger resumes than myself, but he didn't find what he was looking for so at that point my producer friend continued to press and Dana agreed to meet with me. Even after our first couple of meetings, he wasn't sold on the idea that I was the guy for the role of Dan. Initially, he didn't see me as Dan. It wasn't that he didn't think I could physically handle the role, he just didn't visually see me as that character. Fortunately his wife Julie Snider-Mennie, who played a big part in casting and handling the production of this project, had seen my demo reel and she felt that I was the guy for the role. In the end she convinced him to give me the opportunity.

It's a great example of never knowing what one project will lead to. Five years ago I had no idea that doing that small student film down in San Diego and building that relationship with that young woman would create this opportunity down the road.

Guillén: You say you didn't fit Dana Mennie's original image for the character of Dan. Do you know what it was he was originally looking for?

DiVecchio: I think he felt I was a little too big. He hadn't pictured Dan as a guy who had more muscle and brawn and I think he felt I had a little more self-assuredness and awareness of who I was. I don't think he originally saw Dan as being this big, this confident, or this charismatic. But, as an actor that's my job to take on different characters and be able to tell the truth under imaginary circumstances. Though the character of Dan and I are two completely different people, therein lay the challenge for what I had to do, and Dana felt confident enough to give me the opportunity to pull that off.

Guillén: I'd say that—though you might not have met the filmmaker's preconceived image of Dan—your strapping good looks had a lot to do with making this film attractive.

DiVecchio: [Laughs.] Again, when you're looking at this type of genre, that's another pattern that you see. You try to find different angles to appeal to different audiences and, yeah, I guess they knew what they were looking for in that regard.

Guillén: I appreciated the review at Epinions where the reviewer noted: "The beast was a beauty as well." What are your thoughts on being one of Hollywood's (let alone horror's) new hunks?

DiVecchio: Hey man, I'm open to it. I don't mind. Taylor Lautner certainly isn't complaining about his exposure in Twilight.

Guillén: Your buffed physique came about as a result of your athletic interests as a younger man. You started out in hockey?

DiVecchio: Yeah, I played hockey in college. I was out the gate since I was three years old. That's been part of my personal conflict. As a child, I had a burning desire to act and perform; but, as an athlete, as a kid, there was a lot of peer group pressure not to be a theater geek, so to speak. So I gravitated more towards my athletics; but, as I grew older and went through high school and college, I started to explore that side of my interests. Hockey turned into a bodybuilding career for a short stint and from there it turned into some fitness modeling in New York, some commercial work back and forth between New York and Boston, which led to my interest in coming out to L.A.

Guillén: No regrets about choosing an acting career over athletics?

DiVecchio: No. I had realized halfway through my college career that I wasn't going to get to the pro level. I got to a point of what you could call "a quarterlife crisis" where I had to make decisions of what was really in store for me and what I really wanted to do. I'm not sure where that came from for me. With most people it doesn't happen until later on in life with a midlife crisis; but, it dawned on me early that there was something bigger that I wanted out of life. I wanted to find a more meaningful purpose to whatever I was doing. I knew that hockey wasn't going to be it and, to be honest, I wasn't much of a student. I've never had much interest in my studies and books and whatnot. Acting felt like something I should start exploring and I've never looked back once I made that choice. It's been the best decision I've ever made.

Guillén: So choosing to learn from acting rather than academics, what would you say you learned with the Wolf Moon project that has helped you as an actor?

DiVecchio: I got an opportunity to work with a lot of veteran actors. What I learned from this particular experience was how important it is to prepare yourself for the role in whatever form you choose to prepare yourself, and fully commit to that, and be okay with the commitment you're making because—at the end of the day—you're looking at critics on both sides of the fence no matter what kind of movie you make. No matter how good a film is, there's always going to be another side finding something wrong with it. I guess what I learned was that I want to be as prepared and do the best work I can possibly do and be as committed to the work as I can possibly be so that when I look back—regardless of whatever the critics say, good or bad—that I feel good about what I've put out there. It's important for me to feel good about the work I do.

Guillén: And, admittedly, the critics of genre films are frequently the worst. They can be whiney, demanding little bitches with no sense of perspective past their personal likes and dislikes.

DiVecchio: They don't have the best reputation.

Guillén: They're also frequently unfair. To compare Wolf Moon, let's say, to Twilight is essentially unfair. The praise I have read for Wolf Moon aligns with my own, which is that—within budget limitations—Wolf Moon made very good use of the money put into it. I didn't feel that Wolf Moon took itself to be anything other than what it was and—for what it was—it proved a well-done genre entertainment. I can honestly say that I enjoyed Wolf Moon a helluva lot more than the remake of The Wolfman. The megabudgets for CGI don't always add up.

DiVecchio: I appreciate your perspective. Wolf Moon was a challenging film to get to completion. Sometimes in these lower budget films you run into all kinds of obstacles, just like you do with big budget films. These days to be able to get a movie into the can and to get distribution through a major studio is a huge feat. And I agree with you, that challenge is often undermined by critics. You have to take Wolf Moon for exactly what it is. Again, I don't get bogged down by critics.

Guillén: Good for you! It was actually amusing to me to read some of the film's dismissive reviews that were countered by readers comments who took the reviewers to task. I still believe that says the most about a movie.

DiVecchio: Absolutely, man, absolutely.

Guillén: You've already mentioned that you're quite different from the character of Dan. How did you prepare your characterization for the role?

DiVecchio: I worked with a great coach,
Carl Ford. His mom is Susan Batson, who's been Nicole Kidman's acting coach for a long time. They work out of Black Nexxus, which is based in New York and L.A. I started studying with them when I came to Los Angeles. We worked for about three months on this character. As I've said, Dan and I are very different people. I spent the first month or so of my preparation stripping away my life as Chris DiVecchio. I come from a family with an incredible amount of support, love and affection. I've got great friends and incredible support all across the board. But Dan is a person who has never known his mother and father; basically, he's been abandoned since birth. He's stricken with this curse, which he has no idea where it's come from or how to control it. He's never had any friends. He's never had a relationship with a girl. He doesn't know what it feels like to have somebody support him or love him. He doesn't know what it feels like to love. So I had to break down and strip away my own life to build up his life of nothing. I did that by telling people in my life that this role was going to be a trying period in my career and I asked them to not tell me that they loved me and not send me notes of endearment or anything like that, literally, because I didn't know how it felt like to be abandoned, to not have anybody be there for me, to not have that cushion of support. It would have been easy for me to go there and fall back into that and become comfortable and I wanted to be as uncomfortable as I possibly could. And it really was. It was actually a scary process and I know I'm not alone as an actor when people talk about taking on characters and becoming confused about who they are; if it's the character or just them coming to the surface, y'know? It was a very scary time for me. I did a lot of journaling and kept extensive notes on my process and what I was going through.

I showed up on set two days early to spend time in this town [Beatty, Nevada] to just walk around the town. I wanted that experience of a kid who comes to a small enough town where he stands out. I'd drive by a neighbor's house and see him working outside his house and I'd just sit there and look at him, [feeling what Dan would feel], maybe wanting to go over and introduce myself but—because I'm so introverted and scared and unsure of myself—I wouldn't do it. All these feelings and emotions were so strange and foreign to me but this was exactly who this guy Dan was. At that moment, though they were scary truths I was experiencing, I felt confident about what I was about to put up on the screen.

Guillén: What you're speaking to is exactly one of the strengths I appreciated about Wolf Moon. It's a character-driven genre piece, which lifts it above the standard fare. I can appreciate the process you went through to achieve an authenticity to the character. In one of your interviews you actually referred to Wolf Moon as a "romantic thriller", which I found an interesting departure from simply describing it as a werewolf movie. Clearly, Wolf Moon isn't just a werewolf movie. It is strengthened by a romantic subplot, complete with power ballads and muscle cars. As the film's byline suggests: "Love is a six-letter word: horror."

DiVecchio: Again, it might have been more of a subconscious choice to throw out that term "romantic thriller" because sometimes horror movies have this certain stigma attached where people presume it's going to be a dice-and-slice slasher and—even though there is a little bit of horror in this film—that isn't the driving catalyst of the plot. You've nailed it. The storyline is really about the love between these two characters who are so oddly matched but who find companionship together.

Coincidentally, Ginny Weirick and I had worked together on that student project down in San Diego that I'd done five years previously. Initially, when Wolf Moon was cast, someone else was cast for Amy's role. But about three months away from filming, Dana and I decided we had to find someone else to play Amy. We had three actresses coming in the next day to interview. I met the first two but then I had to take off and Dana interviewed the third actress on his own. I wasn't there. The next day I got a call from Dana saying, "You're never going to believe who we cast for this role. Ginny Weirick." I said, "I don't know who that is, do I?" So I looked her up on IMDb and I realized, "Holy crap! This is the girl I did a movie with five years ago." At the time I thought her name was Jenny, I didn't realize it was Ginny, so it didn't connect.

Further, six months before we started filming, I had randomly run into Ginny at the gym and we got to talking. She asked me what I was up to now and I told her I had just booked this film. So they end up recasting everybody on Wolf Moon except for me and it ends up that Ginny gets cast as Amy, my female lead, in the movie I had been telling her about six months earlier. It was really strange but something that totally added to the element of the filmmaking process for Dana, for Ginny, for myself; it was really strange how it all came together.

Guillén: Along with preparing the psychological motivation for your character Dan, what did you do to prepare as a werewolf? Did you watch other werewolf movies? Were you a fan of werewolf movies as a young guy? How did you approach that?

DiVecchio: I'd seen Wolf with Jack Nicholson plenty of times. Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can't say enough about Gary Oldman as an actor. But because I knew I had to do a lot of work in a creature suit, it was important for me to understand the embodiment of this animal. I didn't want to imitate. I wanted to make him unique to my own style and to make it something I connected with. I followed up on an idea suggested by my acting coach and drove up to Joshua Tree about three times with my dog. I parked myself in the middle of the desert and let the dog loose. I'd follow my dog around and imitate and mimic everything my dog would do. The reactions of an animal versus the reactions of a human differ because an animal's senses are more heightened.

I also worked with a special effects movement guy who had done all the work with Silver Surfer. I worked with another guy on the team as well to develop my own style and technique of how a wolf would walk and run and move. Then, once I put the suit on, I can't tell you how the transformation alone took over my body.

Guillén: Yet another plus in favor of Wolf Moon is that it didn't excessively rely on CGI and that it worked more with practical effects engineered by the Alahouzos Brothers and their studio. Can you talk about the werewolf suit they created for you?

DiVecchio: Yeah. I flew out to Greece about three months before production for about five days. They started taking body cast moldings. They build this suit around my body. From the body to the teeth to the measurement around my eyes for the contact lenses, they wanted this suit to be molded around my body so that the camera would capture every movement. Because audiences are more easily tricked with CGI, a guy in a suit isn't easy to pull off these days and we had to pull it off. But the Alahouzos Brothers are incredibly talented hardworking guys who worked blood, tooth and nail on this project to get these suits to the level they did. They're great guys in general to work with. Some of the demands that were placed on them in terms of time frame and what they were able to accomplish and come up with is unheard of. That's why, for me, the fact that we got this film finished and were picked up by a major studio for domestic distribution is a major accomplishment and a reflection of the team effort.

Guillén: Wolf Moon's cast is an admirable ensemble composed of newcomers like yourself and Ginny mixed up with genre royalty like Sid Haig and Lin Shaye. Can you speak to working with both of them?

DiVecchio: It was great! Actually, I was very surprised when I found out the cast we had. Obviously, there was a strong interest in people wanting to take on this project and, again, I think it's because it wasn't your typical horror film and it gave great actors the opportunity to bring some character into their roles. I didn't have any scenes in particular with Sid other than the showdown scene so we didn't have much interaction; but, working with Lin was amazing. Lin and I worked quite a lot on the scene where Dan and Amy visit the psychic.

Guillén: Lin Shaye's portrayal of the dreadlocked psychic is an extraordinary supporting turn in Wolf Moon. She did a great job.

DiVecchio: She's incredible. Her commitment level, the places that she goes to, and how from moment to moment she's in the scene with you makes it so easy as an actor to work with her.

Guillén: Her performance exemplies what I fully appreciated about Wolf Moon. A lot of times when I'm watching contemporary genre films I'm put off by a facile reliance on irony, a kind of tongue-in-cheek approach that doesn't work for me as much as actors who believably get into their roles, much as they did in the low-budget Hammer productions of my childhood. Lin threw herself into that role. I completely believed her in that role. And I felt for her.

DiVecchio: That's what I'm saying. The commitment on her end, I can't tell you. I felt very lucky to work with her. She's very giving and supportive.

Guillén: Two more familiar faces were Chris Mulkey and Billy Drago. How was it working with them?

DiVecchio: Oh man, c'mon, Billy Drago as Frank Nitti in The Untouchables (1987)? That guy, it feels like you're working with a legend. Billy is the guy you see in these movies. I gotta be honest, there's not a lot to decipher between him and his role. What an interesting guy to spend some time with off set. I could just sit there for days listening to his stories. There were plenty of times where we'd be in discussion and I'd be called to the set and I would rather sit there and listen to the end of his story, y'know?

And Mulkey? The guy is all heart. He, his wife and I have become very good friends. We spend a lot of time together. Chris took me under his wing and he felt very much like a mentor on set. I get on set and I do what I do and I don't think too much about it, but—damn!—Chris helped me a lot with my confidence. He'd give me a pat after a scene and say, "Hey, man, awesome job." It's nice to hear that from a guy who's been doing this for 30 years, who's a veteran, who I can feel confident I can talk with and knowing I'm going toe-to-toe with these guys who have been doing this for years. It's an honor to work with them and also to get praise from them as well.

Guillén: How about bumping heads with your "dad" Max Ryan?

DiVecchio: [Laughs.] You know, it's funny, those scenes were some of the more difficult scenes because—as close as I got to Chris—I got very close to Max as well. The second I walked on set, I was thinking, "Who's this guy Max? I've only seen pictures of him." I had been on the set for a few days during shooting and—though finally I had a day off—I was always on set no matter what. Even if I wasn't filming, I was right behind Dana in the director's chair watching and studying the other actors and what's going on so I could understand their storylines. Just before Max was getting ready to shoot his first scene, I ran into him right on set. He and I locked eyes and smiled at each other and I yelled, "Dad!" From that moment on, I felt like I had known the guy for years. Again, Max has been in the business for a while now and it felt like he took me under his wing and we spent a lot of quality time off set hanging out like brothers almost. But it made it difficult to get to some of those spaces sometimes because we had so much brotherly bantering off set, sharing jokes, that when it came to these serious scenes, we really had to separate and get away from that.

Working with Max was incredible. We had some of the more powerful scenes and I never felt that I laid down. In the scene where he and I had our first confrontation, where he cuts his hand and leans in and grabs my hand, there was a take that they didn't use where Max was smoking a cigarette and—right before he grabs the knife to cut his hand—he flicks the cigarette away and he actually flicked it and hit me in the eye with the cigarette, even though he wasn't meaning to. Thank God I stayed in character and thank God that Dana didn't yell cut because the scene was incredible. I literally wanted to jump across the table and cut his throat. It was like, "You hit me in the eye with a cigarette?!! Are you out of your fucking mind? Really?" But neither one of us broke. We stayed right in character and kept on rolling with it; but, as soon as they yelled "cut", he jumped across the table and gave me a hug and apologized. Of course he didn't mean to do that; but, we're both professionals, and sometimes your best work can come out of an unexpected moment like that.

Guillén: Finally, to wrap up here, I'm curious about your upcoming projects. IMDb lists that you're working with Dana Mennie again on a film called Lido?

DiVecchio: Yeah, we've got that project coming up. It's a script that's dear to the director. He had written a short story about he and his brother's life with their stepfather. It's a father-son story with a mixed martial arts twist to it. As soon as we get the green light—we're still working out some pre-production; but, it shouldn't be too much longer—I'll be going away to training camp for three months for
Kenpō training.

Guillén: Do you aspire to be an action star?

DiVecchio: That's not really my dream. If that's where certain roles take me, that's fine. My passion for acting is really with characters who have a certain struggle for which they can't find resolution. I'm drawn to those kinds of characters. I like getting dark. I like getting needy. I like, not literally, but peeling open my skin and being able to use my vulnerabilities to take people on a journey and let them connect. That's what draws me to acting.

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