[interviewer] What made you think of making a vampire movie set in Austin?
[Johnny Stranger] Well it started when I noticed that South by Southwest started in the 1980's, and Congress Avenue bridge renovation (which led to the huge bat colony we have today) also happened in the early 1980's, and I just started thinking of them as similar somehow. Huge crowds of mammals, swooping into Austin. Bats got me thinking about vampires, and I was kind of trying to find some association with SXSW. The bats come back to Austin from Mexico in mid to late March, and SXSW happens in March, so I began wondering why bats would swoop into town just in time for SXSW.
It occurred to me that having a lot of rock musicians and rock music festival fans in town, might be an opportunity for some easy pickings if you're a vampire. Most of the bands in SXSW are not well known, and a lot of the people in town for the festival aren't even from the U.S., so it might give vampires an opportunity to do some feeding with a low risk of getting noticed. Plus, what's a few vampires when you've got a million bats flying around?
Also, let's be honest, movie-making is partly just about getting cool visuals, especially when you have no budget for special effects. I thought at first that I could get a cool shot of the bats coming out from Congress Street bridge at night and work it into the movie. It turned out to be harder to shoot than I thought, though, because it happens at dusk (I've learned a lot about film-making since then).
[interviewer] Your movie definitely shows us an Austin in transition, from small town to city. What is your opinion about how it has changed over time?
[Johnny Stranger] (laughs)Yes, it certainly has changed over time. I guess I've seen quite a lot of that by now.
[interviewer] When did you first come to Austin? Was it 1995, to make this movie?
[Johnny Stranger] Well, I had actually been here a while before that, quite a while before. I'd say that as far as how Austin has changed, occasionally I miss the atmosphere of a smaller town that it used to have, but you know, the whole "weird Austin" vibe was itself a change from what came before that. There were people who didn't like their "Athens of Texas" town turning into an alternative culture town for young people, and there were people who didn't like the growth and change that happened when it turned from Waterloo into Austin. All those people coming in with the capital, taking away their dream of a community of yeoman farmers and replacing it with commerce and politics. Things change. If you've been around a while, you've seen that cycle repeat more than once, and it's not as much of a surprise to you. There's always something good lost, but there's also usually something new and good that comes with the changes, as well.
[interviewer] Why the was the movie named after the Violet Crown?
[Johnny Stranger] "City of the Violet Crown" is a name chosen for Austin by O. Henry, in a short story he wrote. For the movie, the idea was that for him it represented the vampire class that ruled the city, and the rest of Austin began using that name without realizing what it really stood for. The Violet Crown was the circle of vampires that sort of sat atop the city's power structure, controlling everything in it.
[interviewer] What attracted you to the idea of making O. Henry into a fictional character?
[Johnny Stranger] Well at the time I was living in New York City, and thinking of coming to Austin. William Porter (better known as O. Henry) began his writing career in Austin, and then later in life moved to New York City. I was kind of doing the opposite, moving back to Austin, so that brought him to mind.
[interviewer] Do you identify with Porter?
[Johnny Stranger] (long silence) I guess most writers can identify with him a little. He's a complex person, with a lot to like but also some problematic aspects to him.
[interviewer] Why did you decide to link him with the Servant Girl Annihilator? Was it because he was the one who gave the killer that nickname?
[Johnny Stranger] (pause)Well, I'm not sure really. It just occurred to me to do that.
[interviewer] Why did you use the Atomic Cafe?
[Johnny Stranger] Well I knew that the building used to be a brothel, back in the early 20th century or maybe before. There's also this long-standing rumor that during Prohibition there was a tunnel between that brothel and the Driskill Hotel. Important visitors from out of town could use it to travel from the best hotel in town to the place where they could indulge their vices, and get back without any risk of being seen by the general public.
Brothels are also an apt metaphor for vampirism, I think. There's a mix of need and exploitation, with the ones who have the need trying to dominate the ones who can satisfy it, but then also afraid of them a bit. Plus having vampires in a goth club at night wasn't such a cliche then as it later became.
[interviewer] Were you aware of the class warfare aspects of the story you were making?
[Johnny Stranger] Well not exactly. I was more into living it than talking about it. (laughs) But when you're making a guerilla film like that, without getting any permits or approvals, there's always a little bit of looking over your shoulder to see if The Man is going to come down on you. It kind of seeped into the movie script, and the attitude of the actors, I think.
[interviewer] What can you tell us about the abortive sequel?
[Johnny Stranger] Well the idea was going to be to follow up on what Porter said at the end of the first movie, that unrestricted vampirism was an unsustainable bubble. I also had an idea of working zombies in there, maybe some kind of vampires vs. zombies angle. Maybe the vampires accidentally create zombies somehow, maybe zombies are people who didn't quite turn into vampires but didn't quite die either, and then the vampires realize that they are going to lose their food source if something isn't done. Since the Mordecai generation of vampires was all about throwing off the limits of the ones who came before them, that would be interesting to see them come around to confronting the same issues with zombies. Plus I had a hunch that zombies were about to become very big, and it seemed like there could be an audience for it.
But then September 11th happened, and it kind of killed the appetite for funding movies that were darkly satirical. The movie-going audience just wasn't in the mood for horror right then, and maybe if the truth be told I wasn't quite as ready to make a horror film then either, so it kind of died partway through the project.
We actually did shoot a few of the scenes, just test shots to help us flesh out the ideas and maybe use to convince some people to give us some funding to finish the rest, but it never happened. I'm not too sure where that film all ended up, maybe it is still out there somewhere. Occasionally I hear stories about someone showing some clip of it somewhere. I guess that film ended up being a sort of zombie itself.