Vampir is the directorial feature debut and recently released folk horror film by Branko Tomovic, who is the subject of our latest Q&A, answering questions about his inspirations, filming in Serbia, and his transformation into one of the undead!
I've read that the film is inspired by real life vampire cases in Serbia. Can you talk about the research you did into these cases and how they inspired you? What was the most surprising story or fact you encountered during your research?
Yes, Vampir was inspired by the real vampire cases that occurred in Serbia in the early 1700’s. Most people always think of Romania or Transylvania when they hear the word vampire because of Bram Stoker’s novel, but the origin was actually in Serbia, it was medically documented by Austrian doctors back then. I spent my summers as a kid in that part of rural Serbia where my family is originally from. People there are still today extremely superstitious and I was always fascinated by those myths and folk stories that surrounded those killings.
There have been three famous vampire cases in Serbia back then and one of them, Arnaut Pavle, was from the neighbouring village where we shot our film. And one of his victims was this woman from our village, her house is still there today, but nobody dares to go in. So even centuries later there is still that air of mystery and fear around.
With this being your directorial debut, what would you say was the biggest challenge or biggest surprise when filming this feature?
Doing an independent film is never easy, with COVID around even harder! We shot during the pandemic and only had a small window open where we could travel and shoot. And you will always have restrictions because of money and I find that annoying if it limits your creativity. But you work with what you have and do the most out of it. I was also in front of the camera and played the lead because it wasn’t easy to find someone to go to Serbia for three weeks for little money to get attacked, beaten, poisoned, buried alive and bitten. But acting is still my day job so that was fine.
We have the wonderful Eva Ras in our film, she is a Balkan screen legend, a highly respected actress for decades, she has done wonderful films for the past 60 years and is now over 80 years old. She accepted the role right away when we offered it to her. But when she arrived on set she told me she never read the script. And I panicked for a minute because her first scene was very gory, it included an intestine crank and her spitting blood into my mouth. But she enjoyed it, she is a wonderfully brave and fearless actress.
It looks like there are some incredible practical effects. Can you talk about the work that went into transforming you into a vampire?
I am not a huge fan of CGI, I often find them distracting rather than enhancing the story. So this actually wasn’t a budget decision alone. We tried to be inventive and creative with camera positions, editing or production design to create certain illusions.
As for the vampire look, I always had my makeup done to me hanging upside down. Your own veins pop out when the blood rushes to your head and our wonderful makeup designer just painted over the real ones so it has that realistic look. Then there is a thing called eye-blood. We wanted those sick looking blood soaked eyes and the procedure is actually quite disgusting. You pour this stone cold thick liquid into your open eye, again upside down, it colours your entire eyeball red for a little while and you can’t see anything, until your eyes start to tear up and try to flush it out. And there is the teeth of course. Those were done by a dentist from a print of our real teeth. Even if you don’t see the fangs all the time you would notice if they weren’t there. And what is a vampire without his fangs. Especially since I wanted that scene where Arnaut bites his first victim very raw and animalistic. The funny thing though is, once I wore those fake teeth I had this really awful lisp. And it’s hard to be taken seriously when you give very important directions and have this really funny lisp.
Filming on location in Serbia gives the film such authenticity that you can't replicate elsewhere or on a film stage. Can you talk about your time in Serbia and the locations you picked for filming?
I spent every summer as a kid in that village. That’s where my family is from originally. That part of Serbia is very rural, poor and neglected. All the young people try to leave as soon as they can, if they can. So all those locations really exist. I wrote the entire script with those locations in mind. That old rotten cemetery is just so cinematic, but also dangerous as those centuries old gravestones can fall over any minute. And the main house belonged to my grandfather. He died about 10 years ago and it has been empty ever since. The hornet’s nest was really there and very much alive when we arrived.
I was slightly worried about the local’s reception when they heard we are doing a horror film in that village. But they were so sweet and supporting in every way. We were allowed to show the real village sign with its name on it. And when the film came out there they were so proud that they decided to name the main street through the village in my name. There are only two streets in the village.
As a lifelong fan of vampire movies myself, I'm always curious - What was the first vampire film you saw and what are some of your favorites?
The first one I ever saw as a kid was Nosferatu, of course. I grew up in Germany, it’s part of their cultural history. There are so many great ones and I love how each filmmaker has his own interpretation of vampires. Some of my favourites include Let the Right One In, Thirst, The Hunger, Shadow of a Vampire, but I also enjoyed 30 Days of Night and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula for its opulence.
My references for Vampir though would be Dreyer's Vampyr, Carnival of Souls or The Twilight Zone. My intention was to create a certain atmosphere that puts you at unease right away, I wanted the film to feel claustrophobic, very Kafkaesque.