Two decades before Black Panther, the first black cinematic superhero stormed screens in 1998’s wild vampire-hunter epic Blade. In honor of its 20th anniversary, Wesley Snipes, Stephen Dorff and others break down the blood, the kung fu, and the reinvention of the Marvel universe as we know it.
PETER FRANKFURT (PRODUCER): This is what you need to know. Basically, Blade is a three-legged stool: [David] Goyer wrote the script, Wesley was Blade and also a producer, and Stephen Norrington the director, he was really the guy, the auteur.
WESLEY SNIPES [PRODUCER AND STAR]: It was kind of serendipitous you know? We were talking about doing Black Panther. But that didn’t come to be, and we never lost the appetite to play in that world. So Blade seemed like a pretty good replacement. Fairly good, I mean — I don’t know if you can take vampires and replace Wakanda. But at the time it was a cool thing. [Laughs]
DAVID GOYER [SCREENWRITER]: I’d been kicking around doing Van Damme movies, that kind of stuff. I had heard that New Line wanted to make a lower-budget black superhero film. At the time Marvel was in bankruptcy, and they’d already sold the rights to X-Men and Spider-Man and a few other things, and I knew they were thinking about Luke Cage, Black Panther.
FRANKFURT: The idea was we would come up with a script for an under-10-million-dollar movie that would be tough and street like Juice — kind of a hip-hop Marvel movie.
GOYER: I suggested Blade, as a trilogy. I remember I came in and said “I’m going to pitch you the Star Wars of black vampire films.” So I pitched it as this racial animosity between the purebloods and the turned vampires, the young Turks like Deacon Frost. And at the same time I wanted to talk about race in a subversive way, and it played into this half-breed idea, if you will — to have one foot in each world and not be accepted by either one.
FRANKFURT: We kept adding scenes like the blood club, these big action beats. And when we finally handed it in, it’s not like any superhero movie anybody’s ever seen. It’s got elements of kung fu, it’s vampire, it’s a genre buster. The bad news is, it’s freaking expensive.
GOYER: At one point the [studio] came to us and said “can Blade be white?” and I said “absolutely f—ing not. Like, that is just terrible. You cannot do that.”
[New Line studio head] Mike DeLuca said “I’ll make it for $40 million if you can get Denzel Washington, 35 if you can get Wesley Snipes, and 20 if you can get Laurence Fishburne.” And that was it. We wanted Wesley.
FRANKFURT: I mean, look, we never saw this as a vampire movie, we always saw this as a Marvel superhero movie that just was its own thing. We always knew it was gonna be R[-rated], we knew it was gonna have a really heavy martial arts factor. Wesley was really into that, and we wanted it to be smart and kind of self-aware but not ironic you know?
STEPHEN DORFF (DEACON FROST): It was bad guy versus good guy, that whole mano a mano. And then, you know, a journey into the streets of L.A., into a world where vampires had taken over real estate, the stock market, everything.
FRANKFURT: I knew David Fincher from way before, we were friends. He was finishing Se7en at the time at New Line and he read the script and was like “What’s going on with Blade? This is pretty good, I just have some different ideas about it.”
So I said, “David, look, I would love to have you direct this movie. You’re my favorite director. But I know that you’re not gonna do it.” We were going into a meeting with Mike De Luca and he couldn’t help himself. He started talking about the first act and what he wanted to do and I could see everybody just completely mesmerized and I knew right then we were gonna waste a year, which was basically exactly what happened.
But I’d seen this movie Death Machine that this British guy Stephen Norrington had directed. It’s a little bit incoherent, but it is just nonstop balls-to-the-wall. The action is insane, and he made it for nothing. So I reached out and brought him in and he was absolutely incredible in the room — really, really personable and charismatic. I was like “Oh man, you’ve gotta meet Wesley.”
GOYER: At that time in Hollywood, “vampire” was, you know, Bela Lugosi, it was Coppola’s Dracula, it was Interview with the Vampire — these very romanticized gothic stories.
SNIPES: Blade, he’s like Shaft, but like Kool Moe Dee at the same time.
Part of the look we drew straight from the comic book. I think there were versions where Blade had a long coat on, like a cape, and he had the spikes they were like a bandolier around his chest or around his thigh. So we thought was a good starting point. But how to make it work in reality on set. and, how to make it comfortable enough for the actor to move, recover and not pass out? We had the leather, some other rubbery materials. And oh my god, it was so hot, we couldn’t use that.
Then the problem was, where does the sword go? We didn’t want a katana sticking out the back of the coat — aesthetically, it just wouldn’t look cool [laughs]. So we figured out a compromise. The tattoos, I actually got from a UFC wrestler named Kimo. They were like Maori, Pacific Islander, but with an overlay of Japanese samurai and warrior branding and Shaolin monks that I thought we could modernize.
GOYER: We wanted [Frost] to be almost like a character from a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
DORFF: Frost was written for an older character originally. And I had never done a concept movie before, I was against commercial movies for the most part. Norrington was the one who said, “You know, you can make this your own.” I loved The Lost Boys when I was a kid, and for me Frost is that in a different way, for a new generation.
FRANKFURT: Stephen and Norrington really clicked. There’s a lot of Norrington’s voice in Deacon Frost’s character.
SNIPES: Stephen Dorff! My man. From the protagonist-antagonist perspective, it was important that he grow in his strength and powers. But also he was cunning, so that made him a formidable foe. That made up for the difference in [our] physical stature.
DONAL LOGUE (VAMPIRE SIDEKICK QUINN): It was interesting because back then Stephen [Dorff] was making movies with like, Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel. And at the time I think Leonardo [DiCaprio] and he were the young hot talents of Hollywood. I’m just a character actor, and I’ve been happy in that regard, but I didn’t realize the pressure of being a big leading man and all these decisions you have to make in terms of career trajectory. And I could feel that with Stephen — that he had to be careful.
SANAA LATHAN (VANESSA): It was funny, I was a big fan of Wesley’s, and then I was cast as his mother, even though he was about 10 years older than me. But how cool is it to play a vampire? They’re so sexy and morally corrupt. And like, gleeful about it! That whole scene where she’s trying to get [Blade] to come over to their side and she’s actually hitting on him? It’s pretty gross, but vampires don’t care. [Laughs]
SNIPES: Yeah I put [casting Lathan] out there as well, because I had been trying to work with her for a while. And she had that kind of legendary beauty in the hood.
LOGUE: I had long hair at the time, and my friend braided it kind of Snoop Dogg style. So I went in to audition with this cowboy hat and these braids and there was this waiting area full of guys in polo shirts and Dockers [laughs]. But Stephen Norrington was just like, “Oh yeah!” He was into it.
Honestly the part of Quinn was so negligible at the beginning, but because Stephen Dorff and I got to be so tight and because we found this kind of rhythm, Norrington said, “Just go further, be funny, do this color.”
UDO KEIR (VAMPIRE LORD DRAGONETTI): I was brought on I think partly because I was in Andy Warhol’s 1974 Dracula, and also his Frankenstein. Dragonetti, he was very elegant, an aristocrat. But I liked it very much when I read the script that at the end they take out my so-called evil teeth and I explode, basically, in the sun [laughs].
GOYER: I felt very strongly that if we were going to have this crazy world, we needed somebody who could be the audience’s proxy, a quote-unquote normal person, and that was Karen, that was N’Bushe [Wright]. I was glad that we were able to make it that she was a doctor in her own right, not just some girlfriend character.
FRANKFURT: It’s not surprising that you can’t find her. It was hard for her. [Wright largely left the business following the still-unsolved 2011 murder of her father, jazz musician Stanley Wright]
LATHAN: She was such a beauty. She was fabulous. It wasn’t common back then to see a dark-skinned black woman in a lead, so that was revolutionary for such a big studio movie.
SNIPES: Usually you don’t find an African-American woman cast in a role like that. We thought it would be cool, you know? And sexy. In our own little way, she was an homage to Pam Grier and that whole ‘70s era. The funny thing about N’Bushe is she’s a trained dancer, so getting her to move like a fighter and not a dancer was quite interesting. [Laughs] I think she knocked a couple of people out in those fight scenes. Yeah, she clipped a couple.
FRANKFURT: It was a casting person who suggested Kris Kristofferson for [vampire hunter Abraham] Whistler. We were like, “Oh my God, he’s the coolest person we’ve ever wanted to meet,” and it turned out he was. He was awesome. [The actor and singer, now 82, is still active, though he suffers from the effects of Lyme Disease, including memory loss, and declined participation in this piece.]
LOGUE: Kristofferson was just a personal hero of mine — helicopter pilot, Rhodes scholar, incredible songwriter.
DORFF: I mean, I got to play guitar with him in the trailer.
THE OPENING SCENE: “BLOOD RAVE”
GREG eE (PRODUCTION DESIGNER): We searched for a location forever, and we ended up finding a run-down meatpacking factory — where they’d come in and slaughter these animals, literally. There was a lot of white tile and we sort of aged it a bit, gave it some cool lighting. Then we basically rigged the entire set like you would a modern-day sprinkler system.
LATHAN: When the blood comes down, woooh! I mean who would have thought of that?
THEO VAN DE SANDE (CINEMATOGRAPHER): That scene has become such a cult thing. We shot for three days, and it was pretty gross. We had these yellow, very cheap rain jackets — you shot two minutes of it and your sleeve came off. [Laughs]
SNIPES: The extras, they had to actually sit around in the blood stuff. Especially if you were one of those ones who rushed and raised your hand like, “I’ll be in the front! Take me!” [Laughs] It was a tough gig. They couldn’t change during lunch, they couldn’t wipe it off, for continuity. I applaud them, I applaud them. Thank y’all so much. I mean, we thanked them at the time but I’m doing it again.
Some of them are still traumatized from that experience. The very first take, they knew that something was going to spill on them, but they didn’t know it was gonna be like that. And some of the people freaked out! It wasn’t real blood, it wasn’t Carrie, right? But they freaked out and left, they quit. Like, “No more.”
VAN DE SANDE: Just before the film came out, one of the extras sued New Line because he got a skin disease, he said. Of course it’s not true because otherwise I would be dead by now. [Laughs]
FRANKFURT: There were a lot really fun cool extras around. And Traci Lords was there — she was an incredibly good sport and a lot of fun.
GOYER: I was there when we filmed and it was a mess. Horrible. The whole place was sticky, and the whole crew. And the place smelled! It was so hot. That corn syrup, it was really bad.
LOGUE: I argued to not be in the blood itself. I was just kind of off to the side. [Laughs]
THE VIBE ON SET
VAN DE SANDE: Wesley moved through the production only as a hero, he had this aura. And he always had this posse with him. When he was ready to shoot, the door opens and there are three or four guys there, in totally black outfits.
GREG GRANDE [SET DECORATOR]: The posse, yeah, they were around a lot. So he was really a method actor in this sense. There was this real passion that he had for this project.
SNIPES: There’s an early scene where Blade has the girl and the police are converging on him and they shoot at him. He has his back turned, and then he turns around and he says, “Motherf—ers, are y’all out of your minds?”
And Steve Norrington was like “Wait, wait, cut! Cut! I was like “Yo, it will be good, man. Trust me, it will be funny! People gonna dig it.” That was one of the moments where I had to fight for something that seemed odd, but it was culturally familiar, right? And Steve was from England so he didn’t really get it at the time. You know, an inside-baseball thing. But ultimately, it made the cut.
DORFF: The mood was intense just like any big movie, but it was also really cool. I mean Kristofferson was awesome, Donal Logue is still a buddy of mine, and Arly [Jover, who played Mercury] — she’d never really acted before, she was a Spanish model I think, but she brought a real cool thing.
Norrington was young and intense at that time, and Wesley was intense, really into his role — so much so that he even dressed like Blade when we did press. He went on Letterman as Blade! I did Letterman the week after, just as me [laughs]. But he really committed to it, God bless him…. And we became very good friends.
FRANKFURT: It could be a very fraught set. It was a happy in certain ways — for instance, like the Dorff-Donal-Arly group, right? And that sort of encompassed a lot of other people too. But Norrington is not a hang guy. He would just go home and figure out what in God’s name he was gonna do the next day. And Wesley was not touchy-feely at all, although he threw a couple of really good parties, I have to say.
LOGUE: I think Blade was probably the most fun experience I’ve ever had on a film. Even though it was intense sometimes and there were moments of drama it was just so great. We’d have little dinner parties with Stephen and Arly and N’Bushe, we just really had a great time. Wesley was a big star and he had to carry the movie so he was more in his world, but he was fantastic and so gracious.
VAN DE SANDE: Norrington was always the motor behind it. He had so much knowledge. He had worked with David Fincher on several films and was a super visual-effects maverick. He had some social qualities, yes, but I like to be challenged. And he’s such a genius person. He designed almost everything by himself — storyboards, everything.
FRANKFURT: Ultimately what was shot was in the spirit exactly what Goyer and I had developed and what he had written, it was just even better. It was more antic, more hopped up and crazy and also more epic. And that’s what Norrington is — his cinema’s kind of slightly tweaked but epic, which is a really good way of thinking about Blade.
DORFF: The script was pretty camp and pretty Hollywood but Norrington grounded the movie, he made the film with the tone what it was. Like, when you have two people in a park that just happen to be vampires, that one scene with Wesley and I, he’d shoot it like a Michael Mann movie. He’d say, “Forget about all the fantastical stuff, just play what you know.”
SNIPES: A favorite line? I can’t say I have one. But “Some motherf—ers are always trying to ice-skate uphill” — that’s pretty popular. We were sitting at the dinner table actually, going through the script, and boom! It just came out.
LOGUE: I remember it took about six hours to get into the burn makeup for that early hospital scene, and during shooting I dislocated my jaw. So Peter took me to a [real] hospital in downtown LA, and they were like, “what’s your name and address?” Meanwhile I’m in burn makeup in my underwear with my jaw all off angle… [laughs]. But they gave me enough morphine to wrestle it back in place, and I went back to set.
It was funny because in [the 1998 Terrence Malick war drama] The Thin Red Line I had this scene where my arm gets cut off by this daisy-cutter bomb where I’m kind of losing it, in shock, and Sean Penn is literally trying to slap me back into reality. I remember someone on set saying “We have to get you fitted for your left arm,” and I’m like, “I’ve got the prosthetic from Blade!”
LATHAN: I don’t know that I’ve died a lot on camera — I’ve gotten married a lot. So that’s kind of a number one, the stake through her body. [Laughs]
GRANDE: Everyone really was on their best foot forward. Like, “Let’s see what we can pull off for no money, because we have something really special here.” When we did reshoots and we were recreating that whole end scene — making it a little bit better and stronger and with more impact — we thought, “If they’re spending money on reshoots, they must really think we have something.”
FRANKFURT: I remember we showed it in the New Line executive screening room and Mike De Luca kept kicking the back of my chair, he was so excited. Afterwards, he leaned over and said, “Oh my god. First of all this is rated NC-35, so we’ll deal with that, but it’s incredible.”
We knew we had something, but the issue was, could it cross over? Would it be considered a horror movie, a black action movie like Passenger 57? There were a lot of ways for this movie to get boxed in.
DORFF: They did pretty innovative marketing at the time. We did crazy vampire parties all over America, 15 cities or something.
SNIPES: To have a worldwide hit, it was pretty cool. The amazing thing was that most people didn’t think this movie was gonna happen, and to be really honest neither did we. We didn’t do it for that reason, though. We thought, this will be something that we can always look back and say “Wow that was so fun,” you know? We had a chance to do something really cool. This was our version of Into the Dragon, with vampires.
GRANDE: I was pleasantly surprised how great it was. You never really know what it’s going to be like at the end of the day, but the way it was designed, the way it was decorated, the way it was lit — the costumes looked good, the makeup looked good. And I mean, how many [sequels] have they done since then? [Laughs]
LATHAN: I’m not a film historian, but it felt like the first of it’s kind, where you really were like, “This is not a cartoon type of thing. We’re gonna take this and make it real and make it dark and dystopian.” So I remember being excited to be a part of it once I went to the premiere. I was like, “Oh, this turned out great!”
DORFF: When I went to the premiere I knew it was good for what it was, but I kept thinking it was the end of my career. I just thought I was kind of a sellout. But it definitely popped, you know? I like that Blade was an underdog to begin with, and got to the top kind of on its own in a weird way.
LOGUE: Regardless of what the box office numbers were, I knew that it had made this dent on popular culture that was deeper than the matrix – not the movie The Matrix, but whatever that is, this movie really struck a chord.
GOYER: There’s no question that the Wachowskis [who released the first Matrix film just a year later] and Blade were mining the same kind of science fiction and had a lot of the same reference points.
KEIR: I must say, I do not like very much that vampire movies now are so over the top. Today it’s like the vampires become wolves and they’re flying, and so much technology! But Blade, that is classic.
DORFF: You know, at one point we wanted to do a $20-30 million prequel with Frost, a gangster vampire movie set in New York City that would have been awesome. But there was so much drama between New Line and Marvel about who owned the rights.
FRANKFURT: I think this really does qualify as the first successful Marvel movie. We told a big, fun, serious story without winking at the genre. Like, bad guys are bad and the hero is conflicted and redeemed and we dealt with his origin story. All of the tropes that subsequently became the way that they built out the MCU, we were using that in Blade.
GOYER: It proved to Marvel that you could make a successful franchise using a tertiary or secondary character. So suddenly they weren’t just sitting on a half dozen characters that might be marketable, they were sitting on these treasure troves.
SNIPES: I think we appreciate the recognition of our contribution to the evolution of this kind of new cinema. But we can’t by any means take full responsibility for any of that.
LOGUE: In some ways I think it might have been a blessing and curse for Wesley to have broken through the mold to become really one of the first black action stars, because the guy has unbelievable chops. So in a way a door opened up for him, but he’s also this amazing and thoughtful dramatic actor.
DORFF: It’s a shame Norrington doesn’t do more movies, because he was offered everything under the sun after Blade, from Avengers to The Hulk. He makes all those DC movies look like amateur hour when he gets behind the camera. His framing, his style, his sense of sound design, he’s just a great director, period. But you gotta play the game a little bit.
He cares more about his art and making something he wants to make, which is pretty admirable because a lot of people just take the money and do what they’re told, you know? He’s making a movie at his house right now with miniatures, it’s gonna take him like 10 years I think. He just makes his costumes for Burning Man or whatever, he doesn’t really give a s— about Hollywood. Ultimately you’ll hear about him though, because he’ll create — whether he paints or makes a masterpiece and wins Cannes.
GOYER: Norrington is a mercurial guy. I remember he wouldn’t even come to the premiere.
FRANFURT: He’s just very eccentric. He didn’t go to the premiere of [2003’s famously troubled] League of Extraordinary Gentlemen either.
THE FAN FACTOR
KIER: In America especially, I’m remembered from Blade and Ace Venture Pet Detective, and then maybe Armageddon.
LATHAN: To be honest, people forget that it was me in that part, which I take as a compliment because I do know how big this movie is. Not too long ago on Twitter I saw somebody tag me and say, “Oh my god, just noticed Sanaa is Blade’s mom!” And my followers were like, “Yeah, you didn’t know that? That’s classic!”
LOGUE: It’s weird because physically I change a lot depending on what I’m playing. In Vikings or Sons of Anarchy I kind of look like I did in Blade, but when I’m cleaned up I look like the assistant manager of Circuit City. But far, far and away, Blade remains the number one on the street for me, getting recognized. That and Law and Order: SVU. [Laughs]
GOYER: Look, I mean, there were three Blade movies — I was even involved in a short-lived Blade television spin-off. Blade was a part of my life for a long time. It’s the movie that really catapulted my career, and I got a lot of jobs because of it. It was one of the primary reasons why Chris Nolan wanted me to write Batman Begins.
DORFF: I’m shooting True Detective now, and a friend on the crew came up to me yesterday with a Blade VHS and had me sign it. I was like, “Katie, you have a VHS player?” [Laughs]
SNIPES: Absolutely, I’m proud of Blade. I’m thankful for it. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful opportunity, something that is now considered a part of the urban iconography. And I made some great friends. We learned a lot about the business, and we traveled around the world.
When you think about it, how many people have won an Oscar versus how many have a movie that people from generation after generation after generation dig, remember, and appreciate? I wouldn’t take the Oscar! I mean, if I could take the Oscar for a vampire karate guy though, that’s cool... [Laughs]