Vacancy: Nimrod Antal’s Blends Thrills and Horror Frills

A blend of horror film and taut psychological thriller, “Vacancy” tries to transcend both genres with its storyline of loss, love and redemption. Directed by Nimrod Antal from an original screenplay written by Mark L. Smith, “Vacancy” stars Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley and Ethan Embry. (If you wish, you could read a brief synopsis at the end).

The Concept

The concept for “Vacancy” had been percolating in the imagination of Mark L. Smith for almost 8 years before it found its way to the big screen. While driving the back roads of New Mexico with his wife, Smith noticed some small, roadside motels that seemed to exist without any guests. “I wondered how they stayed open, where else they got their money,” recalls Smith. “The idea just kind of stayed with me.”

Smith knew that the key to making his story terrifying and compelling was to create characters audiences would relate to. Taking a cue from master of suspense Hitchcock, Smith realized that taking the time to introduce David and Amy Fox and the nature of their fragile relationship early in the film would pay off later, upping the film’s nail-biting suspense.

Getting to Know the Characters

“The first twenty minutes, nothing terrible happens, but you get to know the characters and care about them,” he says. “You feel like, if it wasn’t them, it could be us. It could be my wife and me, or anyone.”

Dark and Twisted

Smith brought the script to Brian Paschal, director of development at the Sony Pictures-based Hal Lieberman Company. “I was hooked as soon as I heard the log line,” remembers Paschal, who served as executive producer. “It’s one of those scripts where you don’t notice that you’re turning the pages, and then you look up and you’re finished. The film is dark and twisted and the snuff films are creepy, but the story is really about this couple finding the will to live and the desire to be with one another.”

“Sometimes in thrillers or horror movies, you find yourself looking at the screen saying, why don’t they just kill them” Paschal continues. “What I love about this film is that it answers that. The killers are making a movie. And the more they toy with David and Amy, the more that they elicit fear out of these people, the better the movie will be.”

Paschal brought the script to Lieberman, who immediately signed on as the film’s producer. “Mark is a fine writer; somebody we had wanted to work with,” says Lieberman. “Vacancy” is very high concept, very powerful. It never lets up. From the very moment they check in to the motel to the last frame of the film, it’s a hellacious chase, and watching them get through it is exciting.”

Lieberman likens the experience to a theme park thrill ride. “Why do people go on roller coasters They go to be thrilled and to be scared, but they know that when the ride is over that they’ll be fine. With this movie, they can put themselves in the place of the lead characters and ask themselves, if that happened to me, would I get out alive”

Lieberman sent the screenplay to Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, the Sony Pictures specialty division that was recently successful with such horror titles as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “When a Stranger Calls.”
“Clint read it on a Saturday,” recalls the producer. “He called me thirty pages into the script and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is scaring me to death. Let me call you back when I’m done reading it.’ He finished it, fell in love with it and bought the script that weekend.”

Director of Kontroll

With the deal in place, the producers began searching for a director to bring Smith’s script to life. Lieberman suggested Nimrod Antal, a young American who had recently completed his first feature, “Kontroll,” in Hungary. An intense drama set almost entirely in the Budapest subway system, “Kontroll” had earned the Prix de la Jeunesse at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and created enormous buzz for the young filmmaker at festivals throughout Europe and the U.S.

“Kontroll was brilliant and extraordinarily well crafted,” says Lieberman. “It showed Nimrod not only knew what he was doing with the camera, but that he could sustain a unique and entertaining tone in a constricted environment. His take on “Vacancy” was to tell a story about two people and to make it real and make it powerful.”

Like Older Elegant Thrillers

Antal was impressed by the quality of Smith’s script and intrigued by the idea that a couple could rediscover love through an unthinkable ordeal. “It reminded me of older thrillers that were very simple and elegant, but really scared you,” says the director. “Keeping that suspense and holding that tension all the way through was all there on paper. All the beats were written out. Ultimately, the film is about this couple surviving and finding one another once again. That was what really drove the film in my mind.”

The Couple

For the roles of David and Amy Fox, the filmmakers knew they had to find innately appealing actors who possessed the stamina required for the physically challenging roles as well as the acting talent to sustain the high level of emotional intensity required.

Kate Beckinsale

Kate Beckinsale has starred in films that range from acclaimed indie hits including “Laurel Canyon” and “The Golden Bowl” to big budget blockbusters such as “The Aviator” and “Pearl Harbor.” Meanwhile, her role as the powerful vampire Selene in the “Underworld” franchise has made her one of the leading female action stars in Hollywood.

Beckinsale says she was drawn to the role of Amy Fox in “Vacancy” by the complex relationship at the heart of the story. “It seemed fresh to me to start a movie in a marriage that’s going really badly and then throw in a bunch of different circumstances that really test the relationship,” says Beckinsale. “Once the stakes get raised to the point where it’s life and death, you’re left with just that one question of ‘Do I care about this person or not’ It’s not that often in life you have to ask yourself such a stripped-down question.”

But Beckinsale wasn’s fully prepared for the unique challenges “Vacancy” presented. “I’ve had more physically demanding roles, but I got more bruises on this movie than I’ve had on any other movie. It’s very tiring for an actor actually to be spending so much time terrified. If you’re going be authentic, it’s such a heightened state-of-being to be in that much fear.”

Antal was impressed: Beckinsale was always so well-prepared. She would show up and she would hit it in two takes. Just trying to get yourself in that mindset of being scared day in and day out I think was an incredibly difficult challenge, and she just nailed it. I mean, she was really, really incredible.”

Luke Wilson

His role as David Fox posed a new kind of challenge for Luke Wilson, who is best known for his work in hit comedies such as “Old School” and “Legally Blonde.” “His performance is going to surprise a lot of people, I think, because they’re not accustomed to seeing him in these kinds of roles,” says Antal.

Wilson says he was attracted to the role of an ordinary guy who finds himself caught in an extraordinary circumstance. “My character’s not like MacGyver or some Harrison Ford action star,” he says. “He’s just trying to keep his wife alive, trying to keep himself alive by sheer instinct. But as the night progresses, you feel our chances slipping away. So it gets more and more terrifying.”

Like Beckinsale, Wilson says the film was among the most physically taxing he’s been involved in. “When we actually began shooting, I thought, ‘Gosh, I have forty or fifty days of doing this all day long.’ I was more tired than I’ve been on other movies. But, it was really satisfying. I’m not complaining that it’s like working in a coal mine, but I actually felt like I was working hard. Kate was really good at getting up for scenes and keeping the intensity going. It inspired me to try and do the same.”

Producer Lieberman describes Wilson’s character as ” guy trying to figure out a way to bring back his wife. He does it dryly and with some sarcasm, but that’s just a mechanism to try to reconnect. Things often work because there’s chemistry within a couple. And I think the movie shows that these two have a lot of chemistry.”

Although Wilson didn’t know Antal before he started work on the film, actor and director quickly forged a close working relationship. “Every director has their style and way of talking to you,” says Wilson. “With Nimrod, it’s more of a partnership and a friendship, and we have a real rapport. He was very helpful in terms of the arc of the movie.”

Action Scenes

Shooting “Vacancy”‘s action scenes was also a new experience for Wilson. “It gave me a new appreciation for the guys who do action and are really great at it. At first I didn’t feel that comfortable doing those scenes, because it felt foreign to most of the movies I do. But as we got further into it I was able to of relax more and have more fun with it.”

The third major piece of the casting puzzle was the character of Mason, the sadistic hotel manager and criminal mastermind. The filmmakers knew finding the right actor for the role would be crucial to making the story work. “The film could have lost its energy if we didn’t have someone who is believable but at the same time brings something quirky to the role,” says Antal. “The thing about Mason is that he doesn’t appear extraordinary when you first meet him. He seems maybe a little bit odd, but not too terribly odd.”

Frank Whaley

The filmmakers found their Mason in Frank Whaley, an actor whose work Antal had admired since the early 1990s when he appeared as a baby-faced hitman in “Hoffa” and a deranged assistant in “Swimming with Sharks.” “He just played the villain so well in each one,” says the director. “Frank was a gift to our film.

Whaley and Antal put a lot of thought and energy into fine-tuning Mason’s character. “We decided he would just be outward and jovial, and not very creepy, not to tip the hand too early and keep it suspenseful,” says the actor. “So in the beginning he has this very welcoming manner, but it’s just slightly off. David and Amy just think he’s this oddball character. They have no idea what they’re in for.”

Mechanic Ethan Embry

The pivotal role of The Mechanic has dialogue in only one scene, but the character sets the entire nightmare scenario in motion. It required an actor who could win the audience’s trust, while giving them just a whiff of the danger ahead. Ethan Embry, who has been performing since he was a child, had exactly the charm and intensity the filmmakers were looking for.

“He’s very charismatic,” says Paschal. “We needed that, because there’s a little flirtation between him and Kate. It was important that it not be clear if he is involved. There’s always the chance that maybe he’s coming back in the morning and will save them.”

Brief Synopsis

A late night detour leads to an unimaginable nightmare, when an estranged couple’s car breaks down on a remote country road. Finding themselves stranded on a dark and deserted two-lane highway, David Fox (Luke Wilson) and his soon-to-be ex-wife Amy (Kate Beckinsale) are forced to spend the night at a seedy motel run by an odd but seemingly harmless proprietor (Frank Whaley).

In their filthy, threadbare room, the bickering couple finds a cache of homemade slasher films that look disturbingly real. Once they realize the blood-soaked videos were shot in the very room in which they’re staying, David and Amy know they will be the sadistic filmmakers’ next victims unless they put aside their differences and work together to escape.