Queen of the Damned is a movie about a vampire who awakens from a protracted slumber and becomes a rock star. “It sounds like a bad Saturday Night Live skit,” says Richard Gibbs, who wrote the music for the film alongside Korn front man Jonathan Davis. To some, that’s exactly how the movie plays. When it opened in theaters on February 22, 2002, reviews were bloody, and the box-office numbers were only mildly better. Fans of Anne Rice’s novel of the same name — the third in her series about a vampire named Lestat, first portrayed onscreen by Tom Cruise in 1994’s deliciously homoerotic Interview With the Vampire — were disappointed to see her text so heavily altered in movie form. And yet Queen of the Damned developed a cult following, buoyed by Aaliyah’s passionate admirers and the plot’s goth-kitsch absurdity.
Aaliyah is, after all, the highlight of Damned. As the reanimated vampire monarch Akasha, she slinks through her scenes with commanding charisma, outfitted in an ornate headpiece and speaking in an eerie ADR-enhanced gravel voice. Sparked back to life by Lestat’s music, she’s on the hunt for her conjurer, determined to make him her king. The R&B darling was 22 when production wrapped on the movie, and she was subsequently hoisted up by industry executives and producers as the perfect young face to sell many future films. But six months later, en route to Florida after shooting her “Rock the Boat” video in the Bahamas, she died in a plane crash. Queen of the Damned would be the final movie of Aaliyah’s young acting career, which began with Romeo Must Die and was slated to include The Matrix Reloaded and a Sparkle remake opposite Whitney Houston.
Twenty years have passed since Aaliyah’s death. Her legacy is surging now that her music catalogue is finally available on streaming platforms. To commemorate one of her last artistic endeavors, which was meant to feature an end-credits duet between her and Davis (Aaliyah was apparently a big Korn fan), Vulture called up a number of folks from in front of and behind the Queen of the Damned camera. What resulted is a mournful but spirited look at a pop star gone too soon, a movie complicated by adaptation woes and industry hubris, and a thorny slice of recent Hollywood history.
Interview With the Vampire, directed by Neil Jordan, was the tenth-highest-grossing movie of 1994, earning two Oscar nominations and giving us still-famous performances from Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and a young Kirsten Dunst. The Anne Rice novel on which it was based had been published in 1976, followed by two sequels in the ’80s: The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that Cruise, whose Interview casting Rice initially condemned, wouldn’t reprise his role when discussions of another Rice adaptation made their way to the table. Meanwhile, at least one well-known actress was reportedly passed over with that timeless showbiz rationale: “The studio said she wasn’t good-looking enough.”
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, former Warner Bros. executive: We did Interview With the Vampire, and at that point I became aware that we also had control of The Vampire Lestat. I had met Aaliyah. She came into my office for a general meeting that our music guys had set up. After, I called [producer] Joel Silver and I said, “We should do Romeo Must Die with Aaliyah.” She obviously sparked in that movie, and so we were looking to put another one together with her.
Jorge Saralegui, producer: I’d just left Fox, where I’d been an executive, and become a producer at Warner Bros. An executive, Courtenay Valenti, who’s still there now, gave me Queen of the Damned to read as a possible sequel to Interview With the Vampire. I read it, and I go, Okay, now I see why the movie hasn’t been made. It’s because there’s really no movie in that book. You can’t distill it into two hours.
Channing Dungey, former Warner Bros. producer and current Chairman, Warner Bros. Television Group: There were plans for Neil Jordan to do Vampire Lestat as the next film, but that ultimately didn’t come together.
Michael Rymer, director: I made my first film, which is called Angel Baby, and got quite a lot of attention. I was pitching all around town, and people would say to me, “Well, what do you want to do?” If I could do anything in the world, I would like to remake Dune or do The Vampire Lestat. So I got a deal at Warner Bros. to develop it.
Saralegui: I’d read The Vampire Lestat, and I ended up coming up with a proposal that combined it with Queen of the Damned. It was always a fuzzy possibility, discussed by everyone at virtually every stage.
Rymer: One of the things that didn’t go so great, from my point of view, was that basically Courtenay said, “Look, we don’t really want to do The Vampire Lestat. We’d rather just do the Queen of the Damned.” And I went, “How can you do the third book if you haven’t done the second?” These books should be a huge miniseries. They don’t have any meaning if you jam them all together. Anyway, I lost that fight.
Scott Abbott, screenwriter: I got a call that Jorge and his partner, Channing Dungey, and Warner Bros. wanted to send me the Queen of the Damned book to see what I would do with it. I was really taken with the heroine, Jesse, and with the Talamasca, but I thought, What if you put these two books together? So I went in and met with Jorge and Channing and Michael Rymer. When I got home, my wife greeted me at the door and said, “Your agents already called and you got the deal.”
Rymer: [Warner Bros.] flew me to New Orleans to meet with Anne Rice pretty much before we had cast anyone. I’d talked to her on the phone, and she said, “This weekend is the sixth annual vampire ball, and you must come. I’m releasing a new book, and I’ll be signing autographs in a coffin.” I knock on the door, and a very pretty young man answers, wearing a frilly shirt and a waistcoat and angel’s wings, who turned out to be [Anne’s son] Chris Rice. Then, finally, Anne comes in looking, as she did in those days, like a smaller Diane Keaton. She was carrying a tiny cooler, which she kept Tab in. She only drank Tab. She was quite open and just excited that after quite a few years, they were going to do something.
Abbott: Anne Rice wasn’t involved at all with the writing process. I was very aware that I was combining two of her books and turning them into something that they weren’t. I did feel trepidatious about that on a personal level, but adaptation often demands that. Michael Petroni did a beautiful job bringing it home. He and I share credit.
Doug Frank, former president of music operations at Warner Bros.: The studio emphasized the soundtrack. The producers, as well as the studio, were [looking for a rock star to get involved].
Richard Gibbs, composer: One day, my agent calls me up and says, “Hey, do you know the band Korn? The singer from Korn is interested in getting into film scoring. Would you meet with him?” I was immediately taken with his attitude, which wasn’t, I’m a rock star, let me write some music. He was interested in learning the craft of film scoring. We got put up for Gone in 60 Seconds and wrote some demos for it, but we didn’t get the gig.
Jonathan Davis, composer and Korn front man: Then this opportunity for Queen of the Damned came around. I’m always trying to learn new things. They wanted the songs before they even cast the movie. Whatever we came up with for the vibe of the music was going to set the tone for the whole fucking movie.
Gibbs: John and I show up for this meeting on the Warner Bros. lot to pitch our idea. We said, “We don’t want to just write the songs. We want to write the score.” The screenplay called for five songs. We wanted the themes from the songs to be integrated within the score.
Davis: If you listen to my solo record that I put out, it’s kind of that same vibe. I like writing that Middle Eastern, dark vibe. It’s like dark vampire music. Korn’s more heavy. There are no keyboards.
Abbott: My Lestat was probably a little more somewhere between Elvis and George Michael and Led Zeppelin. I guess I’m a much more traditional rock-and-roller. But they took it to more of a ’90s-era grunge.
Rymer: We decided to move forward, but the movie was not green-lit until we figured out the casting. I had a number of meetings with actresses, including Cher. I drove out to her Malibu house and went through this vast series of Spanish Colonial rooms. There she is sitting in this chair, and she really was already quite a viable Akasha. I just had a very strong belief that if we were going to do African queens, we had to have a person of color. I said that to the studio, and we made these long lists — Halle Berry, Regina King, an embarrassment of riches. They happened to have Aaliyah in Vancouver shooting Romeo Must Die. They were very excited about her as a burgeoning actress.
Saralegui: Aaliyah was proposed by the studio as a big name to hang the movie on, given that the movie wasn’t going to be that expensive.
Rymer: I flew to Vancouver and had a lovely time. She was lovely. I said, “Look, I’m very serious about this, but I need to know that you can pull this off, for your sake as well as mine. Will you go through a process with me before I say to the studio that I think it’ll work?” And she said, ”Absolutely.” So I put that poor girl through the wringer. I got her to learn a monologue from Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and then I had her separately working on Egyptian accents. By the end of the process, I had her reciting Oscar Wilde in a very exaggerated Egyptian accent, crawling around on her knees like a calf. I was like, All right, you are such a trooper. You’re gonna go the distance.
Di Bonaventura: There was something about Aaliyah in this material that gave it momentum and a hipness. I got to know Aaliyah really well. She has schoolgirl charm, she has sophistication, she has sexy, she has imposing, she has all these different qualities. When you say, “Okay, who can be the Queen of the Damned?,” that’s a good list of qualities.
Aaliyah, Akasha (on-set interview, 2001): I think everybody has a bit of a fascination with the dark side, and I myself have always loved the dark side as well … It’s fun to just be that mean, evil, and see how far you can really go.
Abbott: When I came onboard, I think it was pretty common knowledge that this was going to be a whole movie that was gonna stand separately from the first one. There was talk about Wes Bentley as Lestat.
Rymer: Sam Mendes invited me in to look at footage before American Beauty was released. We knew that he was going to be very hot off that film. Lee Daniels was his manager at the time. He was very proactive and really wanted this to happen. I think Wes had a bit of a reaction to the stuff that was happening around him and passed, which threw us into disarray.
Saralegui: We met with Ryan Reynolds and Heath Ledger. Heath Ledger actually made sense. He’d been in 10 Things I Hate About You, but the studio decided he wasn’t quite big enough.
Rymer: I’d gone to see Stuart Townsend in Orpheus Descending with Helen Mirren, and he was just riveting. And more important, he had this effect on women. It was quite palpable. That’s something you can’t really manufacture.
Gibbs: He was supposed to be Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, but there was some fallout.
Stuart Townsend, Lestat de Lioncourt (Entertainment Weekly, 2002): I was there rehearsing and training for two months, then was fired the day before filming began. The director wanted me and then apparently thought better of it because he really wanted someone 20 years older than me and completely different.
Di Bonaventura: A lot of us around town in Hollywood were talking about him. We tested him, and he was great.
Townsend (ABC News, 2001): I was never worried about comparisons or intimidated by Tom Cruise doing this, because it’s like the rock-and-roll, tongue-in-cheek version.
Saralegui: With Jesse, we met with a million people — more than we did for Lestat. Tara Reid, Jordana Brewster, Shannyn Sossamon. The one that stands out, that we really wanted, the studio said she wasn’t good-looking enough: Michelle Williams.
Di Bonaventura: If I remembered, I probably wouldn’t tell you, but no, I don’t remember that. I don’t know where that comes from. I mean, Jorge is a very trustworthy guy, so whatever he said is probably true, but it certainly wouldn’t have been my reaction.
Dungey: Because she was on Dawson’s Creek at the time, she was unfairly dismissed for being too much of a “TV teen.” There wasn’t nearly the kind of crossover between movies and television back then as there is today.
Marguerite Moreau, Jesse Reeves: It was one of these really big callbacks where you’re looking around, and everybody in there is at the top of their game. It was after I did this WB pilot with Bradley Cooper, which is how I kind of found my way into the Wet Hot American Summer world. That didn’t get picked up. I had this great friend at the time, and we would roll around in our black clothes and drive a sexy Mustang, and we would take all these great crop-top pictures — you know, we were just coming out of the ’90s. I put all these photos on matte photo paper and sent it to the director, who took it to Warner Bros. and was like, “This chick is it.”
Production on Queen of the Damned began in October 2000, lasting almost five months. Most of the shoot took place in Australia with some scenes filmed in Los Angeles. The budget totaled half that of Interview With the Vampire. Townsend, who after several attempts to schedule an interview declined to participate in this oral history, was tasked with bringing nü-metal swagger to Davis and Gibbs’s songs.
Rymer: I was most fascinated by the idea that a vampire could hide in plain sight as a rock star because a rock star looks like a vampire and behaves like a vampire. I think that’s the part of the movie we got right. I think we got the music right — these musical numbers that Lestat was going to perform at the concert and in videos. All that music had to be conceptualized to be part of the story.
Saralegui: It’s a fairly ambitious movie for $30 million, in terms of the concert and effects. Michael had never done an effects movie before, so it was hard. But it wasn’t brutal.
Di Bonaventura: It went very well.
Rymer: Melbourne — pretty much ever since the days of Nick Cave, when he lived in Melbourne — has been very goth. One might even argue that Melbourne invented it. We put out a casting call and got real goths to show up looking fantastic for Lestat’s climactic concert scene. It was treated as a fairly big mainstream event: “Come be in a real Hollywood movie.” These kids just went crazy. We were in a quarry 20 kilometers from Melbourne. I think we had about 5,000. It was fantastic.
Saralegui: When you were walking around onstage in between shots, you really felt like you were on the stage at a concert. It was a spectacle.
Gibbs: I had to rehearse [the actors who played Lestat’s bandmates]. We’re in this funky, abandoned warehouse outside of Melbourne. And Stuart is supposed to lip-sync along with us while the band is playing along with the tracks. He would go up there, turn his back to the band and to me, and stare out a window. Not once did he stand at the microphone and lip-sync a single word. I was starting to really hate Stuart Townsend. The first day of shooting the concert scene, Stuart’s just kind of standing there hanging on the mic. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And suddenly the vocal kicks in and he starts doing it, and fuck me if it wasn’t Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Little Richard all rolled into one. He fucking killed it. He had all the rock-star moves down. It was actually very smart of him to surprise everybody.
Moreau: The whole shoot was very hard technically. You’ve got flying vampires and scenes with five people shooting in the round. You’ve got crazy makeup, crazy hair, music. I had these knobs on my head that I called my little buttons. I actually wanted them way bigger, but they were like, We can’t reproduce that in continuity.
Aaliyah (on-set interview, 2001): It takes, I would say, about an hour and a half for all the hair and the makeup, putting on the costume, the whole nine yards — the eyes, the teeth, everything.
Saralegui: Stuart Townsend didn’t have blond hair. Anne Rice makes a huge deal out of Lestat having blond hair, and Tom Cruise had blond hair in Interview With the Vampire. We tried the blond hair on Stuart. He hated it. But we also agreed that he didn’t look great, so we let him have his own hair.
Moreau: The best part was just hanging with Lena Olin. I would just follow her around and ask her questions, like, “What skin care do you use?” And she said, “Darling, you don’t rub the lotion in, you push the cream onto the face. Push, push!” She was so classy and incredible.
Gibbs: Aaliyah was very sweet — the first person on set, the last to leave. Zero diva bullshit.
Dungey: I remember being in Melbourne on set and seeing Aaliyah all dressed up as the queen and conveying this really terrifying and commanding presence. And then Michael called cut and she broke character and was just so lovely and charming and warm.
Saralegui: She had come with an entourage that included her family, but she kind of stayed in her own bubble during the production in Melbourne. She was completely professional.
Rymer: Aaliyah was quite a homebody. She threw a party for the crew, but then she left early from the party.
Moreau: I have snatches of memory of us going out dancing. What I wore out dancing and what she wore out dancing was like the difference between Hot Topic and Armani. She has such a generous heart and spirit. I heard she was shooting her album cover with David LaChapelle in Australia, and I was obsessed with David. She kept saying, “Come to the studio, come to the studio! Come hang out!” She let me play the music the whole time.
Gibbs: In Australia, there wasn’t any song for Aaliyah to sing in the movie. We were exactly halfway through the shoot, because they threw a half-wrap party at some club in Melbourne. I hadn’t met Aaliyah. She walks over to me and says, “Richard, we haven’t really ever talked, but I just want to let you know how much I love the songs that you and Jonathan wrote.” She saw the look of puzzlement on my face. I wouldn’t have seen that coming given the style of music that she does. And she goes, “No, no, you don’t understand. I love Korn. Would you guys write a song for me?” Then we reported back, and Warner Bros.’ music department gets wind of this [and says], “Are you kidding me? That’ll be the end-credits song. That’s gonna be amazing.”
Davis: I never got to meet her. I wish I could have.
Gibbs: We finished the shoot. John and I were really excited. We were going to get together with Aaliyah and just kind of pick her brain about what she would like to sing about. I was deep in postproduction. Aaliyah goes off to the Bahamas to shoot a video for one of her own songs. And then we all know what happened. She was due to come back that week. We never got to write that song with her.
Despite not showing up until 50 minutes into the film, Aaliyah was always going to be the anchor of the marketing campaign, according to di Bonaventura and Saralegui. It was also clear to Warner Bros. that the studio wasn’t going to put much emphasis on Damned as an Interview With the Vampire sequel — a decision that might have hindered its success. The movie debuted at No. 1 but topped out at an unimpressive $30.4 million in domestic grosses.
Rymer: It’s not the movie I set out to make. I think it’s fun on its own terms. I think it’s entertaining. I think it’s colorful. There are some original things about it. Most of the acting is good. But we were so busy jamming in all those ancient vampires that show up. It was too busy. The script did not have enough substance to justify all these characters and plot. Basically, Jorge and I were rewriting all the way up until we shot, and that was probably not smart. [The movie] wasn’t scary. I don’t think visually I got quite the world that I was trying to create. It ended up being a bit more glam.
Di Bonaventura: The disappointment was really the box office. We probably made a mistake in not taking advantage of the movie’s connection to Interview With the Vampire.
Rymer: We were dealing with a fairly hostile environment from the fan base: “I can’t believe Akasha is going to be Black. I can’t believe Lestat isn’t blond. This movie is going to suck.”
Christopher Rice, Anne Rice’s son and collaborator: Lestat, one of the most popular bisexual heroes of popular fiction, was given a romantic relationship with a female character with whom he barely interacts in the novel, and all suggestions of his past male lovers were erased.
Abbott: In terms of the bisexuality, that was never discussed or debated.
Rymer: I felt like the relationship between him and Marius [played by Vincent Perez] was quite sexy. I always wanted more of that material, but it was tricky. I apologized to Anne Rice when I went to send a cut of the film to her. I said, “I don’t think I’ve got your book on film at all.” She was a bit shell-shocked by how many changes we’d made to the story.
Rice: The result disappointed the vast majority of the book’s fans and failed to turn them into the kind of self-motivated publicity force you need to launch IP like this on the big or small screen.
Davis: My fucking record label, Sony, wouldn’t sign off the rights to my voice to record for Warner Bros. They said, “Well, he can sing in the movie, but not on the soundtrack.” I go, “Are you fucking kidding?” Then Warner Bros. came up with an idea: “Let’s use our artists and they’ll sing your tunes.” I said fine. That’s when I got to work with all my friends [like Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington and Orgy’s Jay Gordon].
Rymer: We saw the news that Aaliyah’s plane crashed. It happened on a Saturday night. We were going to have dinner on the Sunday, and she was going to record her ADR on Monday. I asked Rashad, her brother, if he would come in and do some of her ADR because Akasha has a powerful voice. She speaks from hundreds of years and hundreds of births. We double-tracked her, and I used different takes of her at the same time so you’ve got the sense that there was a quite ancient creature within her. It was nice to have Rashad be able to help finish the film for her.
Di Bonaventura: I don’t remember Aaliyah’s death having an impact on the marketing strategy. It had a tremendous impact on me personally because I had introduced her to the Wachowskis and she was going to be in the Matrix sequel. She was just that shining star that was on the rise and, and one of those people you just root for.
Saralegui: Aaliyah’s the best thing in the movie, and she’s also the reason why probably almost anybody’s gonna see it now.
Moreau: The thing that really pops for me in the movie is how sexy it is. It’s all innuendo. I really enjoyed that. Where is all that in movies now?
Rymer: I look at shows like Game of Thrones, where they basically fly around and go to all these real places, and I go, “Well, I wanted to do that, if I’d had a lot more money.” But you’re dealing with this megalith-size company with chains of command and layers. There’s just a lot of restrictions about “No, you can’t do it that way.” There’s a director’s cut that I think is marginally better. It’s longer and less fragmented, and there’s a lot less voice-over. It’s more arty.
Davis: Was it a perfect movie? No. I think they pulled it off nicely, and you got a great soundtrack out of it. In the movie, Lestat’s on that crazy couch, and he wipes his mouth off from the blood. I bought that couch. It’s in my studio. I had to ship that fucker all the way from Australia.
Frank: A gold record hangs on my wall, so I would say the album was successful.
Rymer: I got Battlestar Galactica because of Queen of the Damned. The head of SyFy, Bonnie Hammer, was a fan of the film. You can’t regret anything, really. I was lucky to have that experience, and we had a good time making it. You’re just fighting a battle to make a good film every day.
More From This Series
- Vampire Veek Will Never Die
- Against Vampires
- The Greatest Place to Be a Vampire Was New York in the ’90s