Let Me In interview: director Matt Reeves and star Kodi Smit-McPhee

With Let Me In due out today, Michael caught up with the film’s director Matt Reeves and star Kodi Smit-McPhee about adapting the Swedish novel for a US audience...

Let Me In, the British-American remake of the Swedish vampire drama Let The Right One In, finally receives its UK general release this week. We loved the earlier take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s tale of two children bonding in less than conventional circumstances, so we must admit we approached this new adaptation, directed by Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves and produced by a revamped (ugh) Hammer Film Productions, with a little bit of caution.

Luckily, we had the chance to sit in on a roundtable interview with Reeves, and lead actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who stars as Owen, the lonely boy who befriends the mysterious night walker Abby (Chloe Moretz). We talked about the production, Kodi’s approach to the material and the process of adapting the property for an English-speaking audience, as well as the gruesome deleted scene that has appeared on the Internet, and what it is like carrying the torch for the resurrected (ugh) Hammer studio.

Why change the title?

Matt Reeves: Why change the title? Because, when I was first introduced to the film, it was before the movie ever came out, and I was shown it by a distributor. And I was so fascinated with it that I went and read the novel, and the American novel was called Let Me In. And then, as I started working on it, and I started writing the script, I found out that actually that was a title that the American publisher came up with, because they thought the other title was too, I don’t know, unusual or obscure. And by that time, I felt like, well, wait a minute, maybe there’s something to do with keeping the title, because I had such respect for the original film, I felt like if we differentiated it even by using this title, we’re not saying ‘this is Let The Right One In, again’.

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It was our attempt to do another telling of Lindqvist’s story. So, it started as a mistake – I didn’t really know that that was not the American title, well it is the American title of the first publishing, but ever since then it’s now called Let The Right One In, in all the subsequent editions. But that’s where it came from.

Kodi, there’s a scene in the film where you’re in front of the mirror, and it’s very much like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. What inspires you as an actor?

Kodi Smit-McPhee: I’m not really sure if I have anything that inspires me. I think what goes into my work is everything beforehand that I do with my dad. He teaches me acting, and I think maybe without him it would be pretty hard. I started acting for fun, really, because my dad’s an actor and my sister’s an actor, so I started doing it and it was normal. But it got places really fast, and I started doing feature film auditions and stuff, and I got The Road and Let Me In. I love it.

Your performance feels so genuine. Do you have any experience of bullying that you drew from?

KSM: Well, I haven’t been bullied like him, but I think everyone has been annoyed at school or in their life, that’s a type of bullying. So, you can take those feelings and make them bigger. But I try not to use too much from my real life, because you’ll be stuck with that all day.

So, I really do make it from scratch, and I know the whole character back to front.

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What was it like living in the 80s for the duration of the film?

KSM: It was awesome! I was a nerdy 80s kid, I wanted to be a cool, rock and roll 80s kid… But, Owen’s cool. And at least he knows Ms. Pac-Man. Actually, I’ve just realised, that doesn’t make any sense. Ms. Pac-Man. It should be Ms. Pac-Girl. Anyway…! 80s is cool, I’d like to go back to the 80s.

You say you knew the character back-to-front. How do you prepare for the film? Did you read the book, or watch Let The Right One In?

KSM: Yeah, usually I would read the book, but actually I didn’t know there was a book until halfway through the film. So, I thought, I’ve already started now, so I shouldn’t be bringing that in. But I didn’t see the film either. I didn’t want to copy anything.

I heard that Matt didn’t want anyone to see it either, because we were doing our own take on it. So, me and my dad built it from scratch. He makes me read through the script at least eight times, and then every time you learn something more about your character or other people. And you write down why you’re saying that, why is that person saying that, and acting and reacting. So, when you have the whole backlife of the character, you know what’s going on and you’re in the moment.

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Given that the film really depends on the two lead actors, how did you end up picking Kodi and Chloe?

MR: I went on a search. And Avi Kaufman, who was the casting director, she has a tremendous track record of finding really remarkably talented young actors. She did the Ice Storm, The Sixth Sense, Little Man Tate. And we started looking. And I was really worried, because it was such an adult story, and I thought, would we be able to find young actors who would be able to handle this kind of emotional complexity. And adults have to relate to what’s going on with them, which means that they have to express in a way that’s quite advanced for their age.

And I started hearing about Kodi, and somebody suggested that I see a movie he had done called Romulus, My Father. And I watched it, and I thought that he was remarkable. And it was very similar, in that there was a lot of non-verbal acting going on, where he was very authentic, and that is what I was looking for as the most important quality – someone who could feel real.

Because, although it is a vampire tale, the power of it is that it’s very believable, it’s very naturalistic. The thing is, though, he was nine when he did that movie, and he had an Australian accent. Here I was, trying to do the American version of this film, and I thought – how’s that going to work? And they said, “Well, he does an American accent in The Road.” And I said, “Great! Show me some of The Road!” And nobody could show me anything, because the movie was in post, and the same thing happened with Kick-Ass. Nobody could show me any of Kick-Ass.

But Kodi came in, and there was a scene I was concerned about, the scene where he’s on the phone with his father, which was a very emotional scene which I thought could have gone into melodrama. And he read it in such an understated and authentic way. I was like. “Oh, we can definitely make the movie now.” And we had to cast him immediately.

And the same thing happened with Chloe. I couldn’t see Kick-Ass, but I said, “Please have her come in,” and she came in, and I wanted someone who wouldn’t play a vampire, but someone who would ground it in reality. And she did that, and so the whole thing was finding these two guys.

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You’ve said that when you read the book, you related to the coming-of-age aspect of the story. Could you elaborate on that?

MR: Sure. Well, I was bullied. And I grew up at that time, and my parents went through a very painful divorce. And I identified with that sense of being incredibly confused and the sense of humiliation and the sense of isolation. There’s tremendous shame with being bullied.

I think there’s a level at which you think that there’s a reason that you’re being singled out, that you’re being chosen. As a kid, I was always mistaken for a girl. Before you reach that age where your sexuality starts to display itself, kids can look very androgynous, and I guess I leaned more toward the feminine. All those things were very hard, growing up, because you’re trying to create an identity, and you’re feeling shameful about the one that you’re making. So, I identified with it a lot.

And what brings you out of that?

MR: With me, frankly, it was making 8mm movies. I was obsessed with movies, and it ended up being the tool with which I could make friends. Because I was too painfully shy in other circumstances, I would say, “Hey, do you want to make a movie?” And that’s how I made friends, and it was also my escape.

In the movies, I was James Bond, so it was pretty good.

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Did you cut anything from the film in order to make it less adult? Maybe the so-called ‘rape scene’?

MR: That scene we shot. And I didn’t cut that scene because – you say, to make it more palatable? I cut that scene because it didn’t work in the flow of the movie.

What happened was, the scene where she comes in uninvited and she starts to bleed, in the script… It’s interesting, when you’re shooting something and different things become revealed. And that scene bonded them tremendously. When I was writing it, I was talking to Lindqvist and I was asking about it. And he said, “In that scene, once she’s done that, she’s put herself into Owen’s hands, and once she wins his trust, he’s hers forever.” And I was like, “Oh, I get that.”

But when we shot it, I didn’t realise the power of it until we got to the next scene, the rape scene, which begins with him questioning her again, and saying “Who are you?” Basically putting her on the spot. But it felt completely out of place, because she had just done something that was so enormous, that it was a huge step backwards to discount the emotional place that their characters had reached.

That’s one of the reasons that I put it on the Internet, because I thought they were so great in the scene, that I wanted people to see the scene, but it absolutely was not that it wasn’t palatable to an audience, it was because it just didn’t work in the flow. And part of the thing that I didn’t put on the Internet was part of that scene, where he turns to her, she ends up pulling a knife at him. What happens is, they have this very tender coming together, and he says, “Would you have died?” And she says, “I knew you wouldn’t let me.” And that created a bond between them.

Then, in the next scene, he says, “Who are you?” And then she pulls a knife on him, and she starts saying, “I’m just like you.” And you’re like, wait a minute! Just a second ago, I was in this emotional place – why am I here? It just didn’t work. And I was kind of heartbroken about it, because I love that scene, and I love what they did. But it was no attempt to soften the movie.

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The first great thrill of the film is seeing the Hammer logo. Was Hammer an influence when you were making your 8mm films?

MR: It wasn’t so much on the films themselves, it was on me. As a kid… It’s ironic that I make genre films now, because they scared me. Hammer films, in particular, I remember my relationship with them was that they’d be on late night television, and that I would be peeking through my fingers at them, stealing a look at the lurid scenes with Christopher Lee and bright red blood, and all the stuff that gave me nightmares.

There’s a kind of pleasure in knowing, cyclically, that maybe years from now, there’ll be someone watching through their fingers that goes into films and make movies, but Hammer films definitely affected me in that way.

Did you feel a great weight of expectation, directing the first of the new Hammer films?

MR: I just was honored. I thought it was really cool. Those movies are so stylised, too, and they’re very gothic. This movie is more naturalistic in that sense. I thought it was fun that it was being relaunched with something that was in the tradition of Hammer – it’s a vampire film – but with a tone that was hopefully different. And it really reminded me a lot of the kind of late 70s, 80s horror movies that scared me the most, the American horror movies like The Shining and The Exorcist. Those scared me more than anything.

When working with kids, does it change your approach to the shoot in terms of scheduling, and how far you want to push your cast?

MR: Well, we had shorter days. But it’s still a lot. Especially, Kodi was in almost every scene. And I know that the shoot wore on him tremendously. And I like to do a lot of takes, too. We like to explore, and he loves to play, but sometimes it’s just too exhausting.

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The thing that I tried to do was to be aware that there should be some play time but, frankly, a lot of the movie is just a tremendous amount of work. I mean, it was probably hard at times. What was it like?

KSM: I think once you get to the end of it – and this is with any film – once you get near to the end of it, it’s still fun, but you’re like, “It’s nearly over!” And you know you’re going to have to wait another year to see it. So, I was like “Gah, come on!”

Filming is awesome, and usually when you film something it’s all over the place, but this was kind of on track, and we shot it from start to finish.

And comparing it to The Road, was it a more draining or tiring experience?

KSM: I don’t think so, compared to The Road. The Road was my first American film, my first film in the snow. The first of everything. So, I was jumping into it, and that was pretty gruelling.

Matt and Kodi, thank you for your time!

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Let Me In is released this Friday, November 5th. Read our review of the film here.

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