Drugs, death and that wig:
An oral history of 'Vampire in Brooklyn'
Though Hollywood has always pumped out vampire movies at a fairly steady clip, in 1994 it had been decades since the screen had hosted a black nosferatu. Eddie Murphy, who at the time had starred in nearly every genre of film besides horror, had an opportunity to fill this gap when his brother Charlie Murphy and stepfather Vernon Lynch penned a script for him entitled Vampire In Brooklyn.
James Greene, Jr.
The resulting film, intended to be a Halloween hit, just barely broke even, leaving a tepid impression on viewers. In the intervening 20 years, it’s become a footnote and a punchline. But the story of Vampire In Brooklyn is more than just Eddie Murphy in a terrible wig (though that’s definitely in there). Hopes&Fears talked to screenwriters, stunt performers, special effects directors and others to get the real story behind this ill-fated film.
In 1994, Eddie Murphy had a single film left on his contract with Paramount Pictures—why not this vampire movie, written by his brother? The idea was strong enough to get the immediate interest of Nightmare On Elm Street mastermind Wes Craven, who agreed to direct. As is so often the case in Tinseltown, Charlie and Vernon’s draft of Vampire In Brooklyn was soon put under “fresh eyes.”
MICHAEL LUCKER (SCREENPLAY): I was living in Los Angeles, aspiring to write movies. I teamed up with Chris Parker, whom I met when we both worked at Amblin Entertainment. Chris left Amblin and went to work for Wes Craven’s company in development and had a pretty good time there. Eventually, we both quit our day jobs and moved to the beach to become writers. One day, we read in the trades that Wes Craven had signed on to do a horror movie with Eddie Murphy. “Oh, that’s cool,” we said. Couple days later we got a call and the ID said it was Wes’s office. We joked that they were calling for us to write the Eddie movie. Lo and behold…
CHRIS PARKER (SCREENPLAY): We’d written a script, an action-adventure story about two orphans in the Old West who team up with this outlaw. It was basically Paper Moon as a Western. Eddie’s people gave it to him and he liked it a lot. Eddie wanted to play the outlaw. Paramount, however, wasn’t interested in that. I don’t think anyone at the studio said to Eddie, “We don’t want you to do a cowboy movie, we want you to do a vampire movie!” But…that’s what happened.
ML: Charlie Murphy and Vernon Lynch, they had a full script for Vampire In Brooklyn they had worked on for a year. We got it and thought it needed a lot of work. We told them what we thought it needed, and they said, “Yeah, that’s what we want you to do.” Still, there was some fear on our end. You know, Charlie Murphy is Eddie Murphy’s brother.
CP: Mike and I were two twentysomethings. Our agent impressed upon us how important this was for our burgeoning careers, but we didn’t need much convincing. We were like, “Eddie Murphy? Wes Craven? Vampires? Hell yeah!”
ML: It all happened so fast. We pitched our version to Wes on a Wednesday. He loved it and asked, “Can you pitch it to the Vice President of Paramount?” “Sure, when?” “Tomorrow.” The next day, we pitch the Vice President, he loves it. “Can you pitch it to the President of Paramount?” “Sure, when?” “Tomorrow.” We do that, the President loves it, and he asks us, “Can you pitch it to Eddie?” “Uh, what?” “In New York, on Monday.” So at the crack of dawn on Monday a limo pulls up to our little beach house, takes us to LAX, and we fly to New York to meet Eddie. In less than four weeks, this script was greenlit. Everybody loved it.
CP: During the pitch meeting with Eddie in New York…we fly out there and he’s in this high rise above Central Park. In the middle of our pitch, he gets up, walks over to his piano, and starts playing. Like he’s completely tuned out. It was very strange. Next to the piano, he had a picture of Gil Garcetti, who was the D.A. of Los Angeles at the time. I’m looking at this picture and I say, “He looks like Skeletor.” All of a sudden Eddie stops playing the piano. He looks at the picture and goes, “He does look like Skeletor!” Everything was great between us and Eddie after that. He was so cool to us.
The plot of Vampire In Brooklyn is fairly conventional. In it, a centuries old ghoul (Murphy) travels to a foreign land, searching for a lost love (Angela Bassett). Along the way, he puts a civilian (Kadeem Hardison) under his power to do his bidding. When not tussling with do-gooders or romancing his object of desire away from a suspicious hunk (Allen Payne), the vampire rests in a coffin and avoids garlic and crosses and direct sunlight. Despite the seemingly cut and dry nature of the material and the premiere talents involved, Vampire In Brooklyn struggled to find its footing after filming began in November of 1994. To this day, many are uncertain of the intended tone or what exactly its vaunted director and star envisioned.
MARK IRWIN (CINEMATOGRAPHER): The toughest films I’ve ever shot aren’t horror films or action films—hell, I shot a Jackie Chan movie in Hong Kong, that was easy ‘cause you know exactly what you have to do. Comedy’s the hardest because everyone has a different opinion about what’s funny.
CP: Paramount said to us, in our first meeting about Vampire In Brooklyn, “We want this movie to be funny. Eddie Murphy does not want to be funny. It’s your job to trick him into being funny.” Uh, okay. Somehow they thought we’d be able to do this.
ML: I think what happened is that we wrote a dark comedy, and as time progressed…everybody played their instrument to make this song, but in the end the music is discordant.
MI: What I remember is Wes had a hard time getting Eddie to be serious. Eddie wanted to go for the jokes, go for the lighter touch. That’s a fallback position. I mean, I think this film had the potential to be a turning point for Eddie. As funny as he can be, he can also be dramatic and compelling. Very compelling! Eddie was just…how should I put this? Confused?
CP: I’m not disputing what’s being said [about Eddie pushing for jokes] but I didn’t see that. I got to know Wes very well and that isn’t what he said to me.
ML: Wes kinda wanted Freddy Krueger aspects…Paramount wanted Axel Foley, the “bad brotha,” as a vampire. Eddie thought this could have been his dramatic debut a la Shakespeare. We were trying to streamline all that in our script.
MI: You could only go in so many directions with this stuff. We decided to go urban, which seemed like a good choice. None of the creepy graveyard styles of all the other vampire films.
Like other backstage tales you hear about Eddie Murphy in this period, there were problems with the star on set, one of the most difficult being that he was never there. There were also issues with fake hair and real cars.
ML: There were a few scenes Eddie was uncomfortable with because of his religious beliefs, but he and Wes talked it out and it wasn’t a problem.
CP: I remember we were there when they were shooting the preacher scene, where Eddie is the fat preacher…it was early in production, and Eddie wouldn’t come out of his trailer. He just wouldn’t come out. I thought, wow, this stuff really happens! Actors hide in their trailers! He didn’t like what he was supposed to be saying. He felt it was too sacrilegious. We had to rewrite it right there.
MI: I don’t know if this was his big middle finger to Paramount, but Eddie had this huge trailer that backed up to the door of the studio and we’d just never see him. He’d be in that trailer all day. Eddie had spies wandering the set, and if he saw we weren’t quite ready, they’d tell him and he’d stay in the trailer. For hours. Hours and hours and hours. You think I’m kidding, but one time we waited ten hours for him to come out. He had been watching Leon Spinks fights the whole time on tape.
Angela [Bassett] was unbelievably professional. She had to put up with a lot from Eddie. I won’t say he was cruel, but he was uncaring. Most of the time she had to work opposite Eddie’s stand-in, Roger. Angela would be acting with Roger, who was a professional for sure but not an actor.
CP: I can’t speak fully to the Nutty Professor thing [“The only way I was able to do Nutty Professor and to get out of my Paramount deal, I had to do Vampire in Brooklyn,” Eddie Murphy told Rolling Stone in 2011 ]. I don’t know. I think it’s not that Eddie didn’t want to do the movie, he just wanted to do it on his own terms.
MI: I guess it’s obvious now that Eddie was just fucking with Paramount. He had one picture left on his contract and someone talked him into this one. You know the opening scene, where the ship is coming into harbor, and you see the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Center? We shot that in Long Beach, California. We lit up the whole deal, smoked it up, and we were ready for Eddie. Then we get a call. “Eddie’s still at home.” You mean in Beverly Hills? It would take him two hours to get to Long Beach and another two hours to do his makeup. It was like, what’s the point? And this was the first week of shooting!
At one point, there was an “emergency” with Eddie’s vampire eyes, his contact lenses. One day the lenses just weren’t fitting anymore. Turns out he was smoking so much dope his eyes expanded. It was like trying to get an extra large person into a pair of small jeans.
ML: As the movie evolved, Paramount cut the budget. We had a huge final action scene on the Brooklyn Bridge that had to be scrapped. Suddenly, the end of the movie is at the vampire’s apartment. Which, you know…it may not have the emotional resonance one might be looking for…
MI: We shot one day in Brooklyn and the rest of the time on the Paramount backlot in Los Angeles, and the one complaint I had—the back lot has a lot of T intersections and street setups that are nothing like New York at all, which is a grid layout, and in New York, as I’m sure you know, there are cars everywhere. How many people live there? Twelve million? The streets are lined with cars. We get to the back lot and there are only two cars. We were like, “Seriously? Two cars?"
When asked about Vampire In Brooklyn during a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, Edie Murphy remarked, “You know what ruined that movie? The wig. I walked out in that long-haired wig and people said, ‘Oh, get the fuck out of here! What the hell is this?’”
MI: I’d done a lot of what I call rubber movies, where the special effects are latex and rubber. Like The Fly, which was very difficult to light, but we figured it out. Vampire In Brooklyn, the new challenge was with Eddie’s hair, that wig he wore—which he now blames for the movie failing.
ML: Is that what he says? I hadn’t heard that. No, you know, I don’t remember writing specifics about his character’s hair.
MI: It was really hard to do close ups on Eddie and not show the hairline. That was one of the hardest things. Now we can just CGI it out. And I want to say, I’m married to a black hair stylist, so I know way more than I ever wanted to about black hairstyles! I understand how this stuff is supposed to look!
CP: I’m pretty sure I saw production sketches that included the wig. Even now, you don’t go to an Eddie Murphy movie expecting him to be serious…especially when he’s in a Rick James wig.
MI: First time we saw Eddie in the wig we said to ourselves, “He kinda looks like Nick Ashford.” Then, the first thing Eddie said when he showed up on set in it is, “I kinda look like Nick Ashford!” The wig was all [Makeup Artist] Toy Van Lierop. That’s Toy’s creation.
THAD BEIER (VISUAL EFFECTS): In that era, if you knew a film had a visual effect, we’d done something wrong. Computer effects were still a niche business. I was working out of my kitchen.
LARRY WEISS (ANIMATOR): I can’t even remember what software package we had to use. Some third party thing. A lot of what I had to animate was Eddie’s teeth, his morphing into and out of animal forms, and his glowing eyes.
TB: The most difficult part of Vampire In Brooklyn was managing our financial resources. At one point we had to buy disc drives—each drive was 4 gigabytes, less than what’s on your phone now, and we had to get four of these things. They were $1,400 a piece. That was all the money we had!
A far greater misfortune looms over Vampire In Brooklyn, one that makes other difficulties seem frivolous. On the evening of November 3, 1994, Angela Bassett’s stuntwoman Sonja Davis was critically injured during what was supposed to be a routine fall from a rooftop. Davis languished in a coma for nearly two weeks following the accident, finally succumbing to her injuries on November 14.
ML: We were just horrified and saddened by Sonja’s death.
LAFAYE BAKER (STUNTS): I remember laying on the acupuncture table and getting the call [about Sonja’s death]. Oh my god. I came in to replace her and it was horrible. Just a horrible situation. Especially for me personally, because I had trained with Sonja. It was the worst experience of my life, to be honest, not just of my career.
MI: The first night of shooting was the end of that stunt. She fell eight feet onto the hood of a car that night and it was perfect. The next night was the first part of the stunt, where Sonja had to drop into the alley from the top of the building. The space between the buildings was twelve feet across and the airbag was twelve feet. This airbag was as big as a house, it filled the alley entirely. That’s why there was no ambulance on set. There was an ambulance the first night but not the second, because this airbag was so big. There was no way she could miss it unless she did the stunt wrong. Sonja had done all the moves, she was aware of the scene. Leading up to the fall she was hanging on the side of the building, or it was supposed to look like that. We had something underneath her. Before she fell, the stunt coordinator said, “Don’t push off, just relax and fall back naturally.” Well, she didn’t relax. She pushed so hard her head hit the opposing brick wall and when she fell only the tips of her toes touched the airbag. The rest of her body hit the pavement. She landed at my feet.
Wanda Sapp, the mother of Sonja Davis, and two of her other children were present on set and watching Davis during the accident. In February 12, 1995, Los Angeles Times report, Sapp told staff writer Lisa Respers, “The last words I heard my baby say was when she yelled down to the stunt coordinator, 'Are you sure?’ I could feel Sonja wasn’t comfortable with the stunt.”
Friend and fellow stuntwoman Denise Roberts said in a February 18, 1996 cover story for the Los Angeles Times Magazine that stunt performers are often branded as unreliable if they back out of a set up they aren’t sure about. Sonja Davis had previously been removed from a job on the film Strange Days after having difficulty with a particular car sequence. Her pride wounded, Roberts recalled Davis saying, “No one else will ever do that to me again.”
LB: The stunt community is very small, especially back then, and to be an African American in this business, just getting to the top as Sonja was…and she really was, at that time. She was so well-liked and had such a great personality. It was just so tragic. I thought about quitting stunts completely. I got through it with a lot of prayer.
The family of Sonja Davis filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against Eddie Murphy Productions, Paramount Pictures, Wes Craven, and stunt coordinator Alan Oliney. Attorney Melvin Belli (best known for defending Jack Ruby during Ruby’s trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald) represented the plaintiffs, telling reporters that proper stunt permits had not been filed beforehand and that the airbag had been incorrectly positioned.
MI: Not to be blunt, but it was [Sonja’s] fault. She pushed back. But she was a pro stuntwoman and her death was such a tragedy. And the lawsuit was totally understandable.
LB: I was so disappointed with how the Paramount Studios handled the death of another human being. The whole situation was a messy mess. I felt terrible for the family, especially since they were on the set and witnessed the fall which lead to the death of their family.
MI: Sadly, her brother was the only one filming the accident, on a video camera, and that night he sold it to “American Whatever,” one of those tabloid shows. You know, “Hollywood tragedy caught on tape.” I think that’s what did the family in, legally. I don’t know how the lawsuit turned out, but yeah, it was on TV almost immediately.
[STUNTperson WHO WISHED TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS]: I was hired to replace Sonja before LaFaye, and I didn’t want to take it to begin with because I was working on other things, and I didn’t want to replace a dead girl. I took it but left after a couple days. I didn’t want to sit around in a trailer all day waiting around, even though it was a nice trailer and the money was good. You know, she killed herself. She killed herself.
California’s Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigated the accident and issued four citations against Paramount, fining the studio $29,000. Paramount appealed the citations and denied any culpability. Melvin Belli died in July of 1996, in the midst of the Davis family’s legal proceedings against Vampire in Brooklyn. It is unclear if the case was settled out of court or was not pursued further upon Belli’s death.
ML: [Chris and I] saw bits of the film in the editing suite, and we had an idea it wasn’t shaping up to be what we envisioned. Actually, on the first day we were invited to look at some of the dailies, we saw some of the actors weren’t approaching the material as we had envisioned it. So we kinda knew.
MI: I think Wes had hopes that Vampire in Brooklyn could be a breakthrough. Wes had a rise and plateau with the Nightmare franchise and he was ready to get into the big leagues. The craft that went into it was high. The set design was amazing. We went crazy building all these gothic sets. Everyone brought their game to this thing.
Vampire in Brooklyn was released October 27, 1995. The film managed to place third in the box office gross battle that weekend but reviews were unkind. The San Francisco Chronicle tagged Murphy’s turn as “strangely cumbersome” and said the actor is “the least interesting” aspect of the film. The Washington Post noted a lack of “dramatic pull” and lamented Bassett as “the movie’s great waste.” In The Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert put it bluntly: “To call this a comedy is a sign of optimism; to call it a comeback for Murphy is a sign of blind faith.”
ML: The opening box office was not what anybody had hoped for. It was heartbreaking for Chris and me.
CP: I’m sure we all had delusions of grandeur. We were novice writers and we had Paramount telling us what to do…and we did it. But I don’t want to disparage Vampire in Brooklyn. I love it. I’m so glad it happened.
TB: Vampire in Brooklyn helped get my company Hammerhead off the ground. It was super important to us and we were grateful for the opportunity.
ML: What’s strange is as the years go by, no matter where I go, there are people who love this movie and know lines from it. I live in Atlanta, and whenever it comes up with people in the community it’s met with such a positive response and wide grins. Around the same time—was it after our movie?—the Wesley Snipes movie came out, Blade, and it was very successful. We were happy for them. Truly, we were happy for them. I used to work for Steven Spielberg, and I remember walking to the commissary with him one day and he passed down some great advice I think he received from Jack Warner. He said, “There’s plenty of money for everyone in this business. There’s no need to be jealous of anyone’s success.” And I took that to heart. Because it’s true. So good for anyone who is successful!
Vampire in Brooklyn may have been a lull for Eddie Murphy, but it was not his cinematic nadir. That came in 2002 in the form of The Adventures of Pluto Nash. A futuristic space comedy that had been in development since 1985, Pluto Nash cost $100 million to make yet only grossed $4 million. It’s not just the biggest bomb of Murphy’s career, it’s one of the largest detonated in the history of Hollywood.
Then again, don’t get your hopes up for Vampire in Brooklyn 2.
MI: On the very last day of shooting, Eddie goes back to his trailer to take off his mask, and we get a cake and some champagne to celebrate his wrap on the movie. Three or four hours go by. No Eddie. Then a PA comes running up, yelling, “Eddie’s leaving!” We all go over to his trailer and we see his limo pulling away. I don’t recall if his hand was out of the window with his finger up, but that’s what it felt like.