I've been in and out of New Orleans for a few weeks now, working on Seth Rogen's directorial debut, a comedy about the end of the world. Our film is one of about 20 now shooting in New Orleans, which has become a new center for Hollywood productions -- partly because of the Louisiana tax incentive but partly, I assume, because the city is still pretty damn fun. Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford are all said to be in working in New Orleans at the moment. Our driver told us that there are more restaurants in New Orleans now than before Katrina. I don't know what that means exactly, but I guess some business is coming back.
My brother Dave did two consecutive movies in New Orleans, so he's a bit of a specialist on the area. Strangely, he doesn't like staying in the French Quarter, even though he's one of the biggest partiers I know. I ignored his suggestion to stay in the Garden District and found a small apartment complex with an enclosed courtyard off Charters Street for my posse and me. I had great memories of living in the Quarter a decade ago, when I acted in Nicolas Cage's directorial debut, Sonny. I guess New Orleans is the place actors go to direct their first films. We were shooting Sonny when Mardi Gras came around, and Nic was crowned King of Bacchus in the Krewe of Bacchus parade. I was on a different float, but I threw plenty of beads.
Yesterday, Nana (my trusty hair woman, raised in Japan) and Iris (my production consultant, raised in Mexico) took a ghost tour of the French Quarter. We had stupidly missed Jazz Fest the previous weekend and haven't yet been to Frenchmen Street to hear any music, so the ghost tour was a way to engage with New Orleans, if only in a silly, touristy way. We wrapped on set at 7:30 and I left without washing off my makeup so we could make the 8:00 tour. Fortunately, the tour convened at a bar around the corner from our place. We bought our tickets in the back and then, plastic cups in hand, headed outside to meet our tour guide, a large guy with floppy hair that he constantly pushed from his eyes and a cropped beard that traced the contours of his round face. He laid out the rules: we were to stay as a tight pack and never walk in the street, because the locals and police get bitchy about tours obstructing foot and car traffic. Then he introduced himself as a theater and music-school graduate and explained that giving tours was the only way he could find work. He wasn't a local, but he knew a lot about New Orleans history -- the macabre history, at least. He told us that the dead buried in New Orleans outnumber the living 10-to-1 (4 million to 400,000) and that the French Quarter is cursed because it was built on top of a Native burial ground. He told us that New Orleans has recorded the highest number of missing-persons cases since those statistics began being tracked. There was something strange about hearing all this at the start of a walking tour. At a carnival, inside a fun house or around a campfire, the recitation of disturbing information serves to create a certain mood. That's the way many Disney films work. But to use missing persons and murder to set a tone within the environment where those things are still happening confuses entertainment and reality. Basically, New Orleans is an amusement park where you can get killed.
The first few locations were fairly tame: the Andrew Jackson Hotel, followed by an odd green French building from the late 18th century where they filmed a scene from Interview With a Vampire. The Andrew Jackson is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of five boys who were killed in a fire when the building was a boarding school. Our boisterous guide stood before us and described recent incidents in which television sets were mysteriously turned on. Eventually, he said, one of the ghost boys was discovered watching TV. I had a similar experience during the Sonny shoot, when Nic Cage and I purposely took the two haunted rooms in the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, itself a former convent. My room was said to house the spirit of a nun who had leapt from the window. After unpacking my bags, I heard the sound of rushing water and realized that the sink in the bathroom was running full blast. It hadn't been on when I entered the room, and its knob wasn't the least bit loose. I spoke to the empty room and assured whatever spirits resided there that I was on their side. At first I thought it was a gag for tourists, but when I asked the maid, she knew nothing about it. Instead, she told me about the ghost of a Confederate soldier who chased female guests with blond hair. People in New Orleans believe in ghosts.
The Vampire theme continued. There was a corner building where, in the 1930s, two kidnapper brothers strapped their victims to chairs and drained their blood. Finally, a young girl escaped and reported the brothers to the police, who found numerous victims in the apartment. Those that were still alive were dangerously low on blood. After the brothers were put to death, many of their surviving victims had odd ends. Some were murdered by their parents; others became murderers themselves.
We also visited a strange mansion that at one point was owned by Nicolas Cage. It was the site of horrific medical/carnival experiments on slaves in the vein of Human Centipede. About 200 years ago, the mansion belonged to a rich socialite with red hair. A fire broke out during one of her parties, and the fireman who answered the call discovered a chamber that smelled so bad it brought them to their knees, retching. Inside were living and dead victims of a variety of mutilations: amputations, limbs exchanged between people, sexes switched (meaning dicks were sewn onto women), skin flayed in designs to turn the victims into "human caterpillars" and other grotesque monstrosities. The house is still occupied, but it has not had a single owner for more than a five-year period.
Nana was a little disappointed by the tour; she wanted more of a haunted house experience. I told her that stories and building facades are always more frightening than people in sheets and scary masks jumping from the shadows. To me, man's inhumanity to man is scarier than the supernatural. But it's also endlessly fascinating. That's why the film Bully left me with a secret inkling of disappointment that there hadn't been more actual bullying in the film. We go to such a film to side with the victims, but we also want to see some blood. The New Orleans tours make entertainment out of subject matter that would be on the news if it happened today. Then again, don't news stations just cover the stuff that will bring in the ratings?