Kitamura spent a long time looking for his first American movie project, having read nearly 50 scripts over the last five years. “Most of the scripts I’d received were just B horror movies and B action movies, which doesn’t interest me that much,” the director says. “I already made eight movies in the last five or six years and I think I survived because I always try to put my stamp one each one -- even though I’m making some insane action movie like VERSUS, or a samurai movie like AZUMI, or a Godzilla movie -- I always try to make my world. I didn’t want to mess with my career by doing this just because it’s big budget, or just because it’s a Hollywood movie. So I was very careful about picking the right project.”
Lakeshore Entertainment Chairman/CEO Tom Rosenberg, who also serves as a producer on the film, notes that Lakeshore had the project for almost ten years before all the right pieces fell into place to head into production. The first choice was to find a director who could translate an iconic classic story into a modern, stylish film. “I think when you look at Ryuhei's body of work, you will see this amazing combination. He not only is this incredible action director who knows how to shoot a fight sequence or bring scares to the screen. But what’s really impressive is that there's also a heart to them,” he says. “There's so much of an emotional underpinning to all of his movies, such as LOVEDEATH or AZUMI. There's a wonderful sense of pacing and action, and at the same time a counterbalance of heart and life and love. And when that emotional tone is combined with the action, it's really, really stunning.”
In 2006, Kitamura’s manager set up a meeting with Lakeshore Entertainment’s Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi. Lucchesi told Kitamura they were doing a movie of The Midnight Meat Train and asked if he was familiar with it. “Of course I knew it,” Kitamura says. “It was Clive Barker! I read this original novel exactly twenty years ago, the first Clive Barker book published in Japan, back in 1987. I got the book on the first day it came out and read it. I just loved it.” Kitamura still owns the twenty-year-old Japanese first edition.
The executives at Lakeshore gave the director a copy of the script to read, and asked he let them know what I thought. “So I read the script and thought it was good, very good” enthuses Kitamura. “I’m a big fan of Clive Barker so I couldn’t resist. Clive has an endless, huge imagination inside his mind. I felt this was a great opportunity.”
Kitamura expands, “I think this is one of the most gory, bloodiest movies ever made. It is a scary movie, but it’s not just about death. It’s about the great relationship between Leon and Maya, which is why I’m doing this. I’m not interested in just showing the blood and gore and splatter; there are too many movies like that. I need story and character and relationship, and this script had all that. So I tried to build that unique vision with my crew, my cast, my producers. I think that is how I put a little bit of my own blood into my film. Technically-speaking, since day one we’ve been not to have a single shot in the movie looks like something else. Everything should be something you’ve never seen before -- the angles, the lenses, the camerawork, the look -- everything should be something original.”
With a director on board, the production was all set to move forward. But first the filmmakers had to find the ideal actors to play the pivotal roles of Leon, Mahogany, and Maya.
Kitamura explains that the character of Leon “is a guy who tries to capture the truth, the essence of the city, what the city really is. He’s trying hard to find the truth that lies beneath the surface of the city. He steps into the darkness and discovers, little by little, this secret mystery among the people and by the time he realizes the truth it’s too late for him to go back. He just goes deeper and deeper and in the end he gets on this mysterious train and finds the truth.”
To portray the role of Leon, the filmmakers chose Bradley Cooper, a rugged leading man best known for his performances on the hit television series “Alias” and his supporting role in the comedy smash hit WEDDING CRASHERS.
As a Clive Barker fan and a fan of the genre, Bradley Cooper was thrilled to take on the role of Leon. “The script was a really cool,” he says, “and the chance to work with Vinnie Jones interested me. I'd also seen several of Ryuhei Kitamura’s movies from Japan and thought working with him would be a really good experience. Ryuhei is the reason why the movie might be completely innovative. He has a completely unique, individual take. The shooting style, the way it's shot is very unorthodox for the genre. It's a lot of long lenses and almost FRENCH CONNECTION-looking, which I think is going to be pretty cool.”
Cooper was equally intrigued by the storyline and all its twists and turns. “The thing that's different about this movie than other movies of this type is that usually the protagonist is on the hunt for the antagonist. And in this movie those lines are blurred. It's weird because Leon starts to stalk this guy Mahogany. But then you notice that the guy is almost aware that Leon is stalking him and almost wants him to. I really liked that idea. Leon is initially just tracking this guy and trying to figure out what he's up to. He realizes that this meatpacking plant that Mahogany works at has been around since the 19th century, and that in fact there was a case in the '20s or '30s where cannibalism was going on and this guy was arrested. And he somehow thinks that there's a link between what that guy and Mahogany are doing. But what he doesn't realize is that it's so much bigger than that, and that in fact Leon was ‘chosen,’ perhaps before the movie even starts. It becomes very supernatural as it progresses.”
Lakeshore President of Entertainment and MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN producer Gary Lucchesi says, “I found myself completely intrigued by Bradley Cooper’s performance. I never knew where Bradley was going as Leon, and as a result I discovered Leon through him. He brought a real uniqueness and freshness to a character that I thought I was already familiar with.”
To balance Cooper’s Leon, the filmmakers set the goal of creating a new horror icon. “From day one in developing the script, Clive and I had this drive to create a new personification of horror,” says Kitamura. “I’m a big fan of the genre myself; I have binders and figurines of Michael Myers, Freddie Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Pinhead, Ash from ‘Evil Dead’ – all those great characters from the eighties. Characters like these haven’t been seen for twenty years.”
“I was initially considering casting Mahogany,” continues the director, “with someone from the eighties – maybe like bringing back an eighties superstar or someone like that. But the producers were thinking of an unknown because they felt that if we cast somebody famous it would distract from the movie. Then I heard that Vinnie Jones had read the script and he was interested in the part. I knew right then we had to cast Vinnie.”
“When we considered Vinnie Jones for the role,” says Gary Lucchesi, “not one of us in the room didn't say, “That's it!’ It's just this amazing kind of marriage, because Vinnie is known for so many different things and so many different types of heavy characters that he plays. We immediately imagined Vinnie Jones in that dapper brown suit and the short hair, becoming the embodiment of evil that the character becomes.”