BEVERLY HILLS, California — Tim Burton’s done it. So has Gus Van Sant. Steven Soderbergh enjoyed his biggest commercial success doing it, then essentially doing it again. Steven Spielberg? He did it. Twice.
These filmmakers have all produced big-budget remakes, and director Neil LaBute is joining their ranks. “The Wicker Man,” a reinterpretation of the 1973 original, stars Nicolas Cage as police officer Edward Malus, whose investigation into the unexplained disappearance of a young girl uncovers shocking secrets about an isolated community far off the coast of Washington state.
LaBute, who has previously adapted his own theatrical material for film, sees “The Wicker Man” remake, which hits theaters Friday, as a natural extension of his artistic voice, despite the fact that the story itself has already been told.
“In a lot of other mediums we are very used to interpretations of something that already exists,” he said. “It’s only in movies that we often wonder, ’Now why are you redoing that, going back to that particular source?’ ”
To LaBute, the process of remaking a film is no different than performing a classic play, where each performance is judged not by the standard of every other hypothetical version but by the interpretations and inspirations brought to the text by the artists.
“When we were up shooting the film, we talked about a stage version of ’Dracula,’ ” he remarked. “We all can practically say verbatim some of the speeches. If Nic did that or he did ’Hamlet,’ people wouldn’t think twice about it. Like, ’Oh, thousands of people have done “Hamlet” before you and this is going to be your interpretation of that text.’ ”
LaBute’s extreme makeover included moving the location from Scotland to the United States, downplaying the protagonist’s religious convictions and changing the cult structure to one of matriarchal domination.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the current “Wicker Man” incarnation and its predecessor is the lack of indigenous music in the newer version. The earlier “Wicker Man” contains several choreographed song-and-dance numbers throughout the film, a touch noticeably absent from LaBute’s interpretation.
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Cage credits these changes with updating the story for a contemporary audience. “Neil really re-created much of the story,” he said. “It’s a new slant. We weren’t interested in redoing it just shot by shot; we wanted to extrapolate from the original and find new ways of expressing it, which is what Neil provided.”
Known as much for his interesting and offbeat choices as he is for his prodigious skill as an actor, Cage, a veteran of three previous movie remakes, (“Kiss of Death,” “Gone in 60 Seconds” and “City of Angels”) likened the experience of performing in a remake to that of a musician who’s allowed to improvise on a familiar melody.
“Let me see what I can do using my instrument and other people’s instruments to reinterpret,” Cage observed, drawing a comparison any local tribute band could appreciate. “I’m a musician doing a cover on an old song … trying to find new ways of being inspired by it and lending my own abilities to it.”
Although Cage praised the original “Wicker Man” as being “excellent” with a “great script by Anthony Shaffer,” he believes the cult hit lent itself particularly well to an update because the flick isn’t well-known outside of genre enthusiasts.
“It occurred to me that not a lot of people know about it,” Cage remarked. “There’s only a core base of cult followers who love the movie dearly in England. Many people here in the United States aren’t aware of it. It’s not so famous a film that everyone’s going to just say, ’Well, I’ve already seen that.’ ’Wicker Man,’ I felt, needed to be reintroduced to people.”
In addition to a script that he said left him feeling “inspired,” Cage opted to do “The Wicker Man” because it afforded him the opportunity to take risks by dabbling in a type of film he isn’t generally known for, with the added bonus that he believes it played directly to his strengths as an actor.
“It’s gothic, it’s scary, it enabled me to work in the horror genre in a way that didn’t rely on pop-ups and the cheap thrills, blood and guts that so many of these horror films do,” Cage said. “It was about performance and making it real.”
To LaBute, “making it real” meant not straying too far from public perceptions, including enough cultish eccentricity to make “The Wicker Man” believable.
“You can look at places like that and say there are fanatical little enclaves of people who sometimes get into a spirit that either leads to their own death or the deaths of other people,” LaBute commented on the films’ charismatic cult leaders — Christopher Lee in the original and Ellen Burstyn in the remake. “It’s not crazy, it’s not science fiction we’re talking about. It’s fiction, but it’s something that you can kind of go with, because it’s close enough to reality that you can imagine it happening.”
Co-star Kate Beahan (“Flightplan”), who plays the alluring Sister Willow, says the film’s authenticity is what makes it so contemporary, particularly after post-1973 cult tragedies, including the Jonestown and Waco massacres.
“It’s more relevant today,” Beahan insisted. “It’s an isolated civilization that’s opted out of the modern world, with their own set of beliefs. I think all those cult elements are [what make ’The Wicker Man’] interesting.”
According to Cage, the process of interpretation is an open-ended activity. In fact, he hopes future generations revisit “The Wicker Man.”
“The biggest compliment would be if in 20 years, somebody remakes it again,” he said. “In a sense, we are trying to get the ball rolling here. It is by some definition a lost classic. So we’re bringing it back to you with a new interpretation — and then maybe it’ll happen again.”
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