Interview with the vampire tortuous 17-year journey from fanatically worshipped cult novel to screen was a labyrinth of wrong turns and bad decisions. And when all the elements finally did gel and Interview got the go-ahead, things got weird: Tom Cruise was cast as Lestat, Anne Rice went on a one-woman rampage, River Phoenix died, Brad Pitt brooded. Rachel Abramowitz reports on the creation of the most eagerly awaited – and eerily erotic – cinema event of the year.

It was the witching hour at Oak Alley plantation near the Louisiana bayou, and the brain trust of The Interview with the Vampire stood scanning the horizon. Around them, the famed plantation showed vestiges of vampirisation: faux mildew covered the outside walls of the Greek Revisal mansion, while ersatz ivy camouflaged its whitewashed fence. Next to it, preparing film, stood Neil Jordan the Irish writer-director with his Caesar-on-a-bad-day haircut and habitual frown; his ponytailed producer, Stephen Wooley; and Oscar-winning, and cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot, who’d already lit the set with Chinese lanterns. Lingering nearby was Brad Pitt, in full vampire regalia, the veins in his face popping out and glistening. The humudity was so intense that every 15 minutes or so a make-up person would run a hairdryer over Pitt’s every wet spott.

“I hated doing this movie. Hated it,” says Pitt more than six months later at Musso & Frank, a seedy but fashionable joint on Hollywood Boulevard. “Loved watching it. Completely. Hated doing it. [My character] is depressed from the beginning to the end. Five-and-a-half months of that is too much.”

As befitted the year’s most anticipated movie, Interview with the Vampire was one of Hollywood’s favorite topics of gossip. Storied raced through town based on sketchy reports of early test-screenings, alternately claiming Interview to be brilliant and problematic. Cocnerns about the film’s excessive violence had already prompted Geffin and Jordon to excise one scene and reshoot the ending, ostensibly more faithful to the book, that would allow for a sequel with Christian Slater. Then there were the tails about Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Did Cruise insist on being as tall as Pitt? (Perhaps.) Did they race in go-carts against each other while shooting in the UK? (Yes; Cruise always won.) Was Pitt concerned scuttlebutt that he and Cruise hated each other? (Yes, very.) Well then, what was their relationship? (It gets complicated)

Rice’s work focuses on sexual licentiousness and a kind of Catholic guilt. Sprawling, gothic, as overripe as a Rubens, Interveiw tells an 18th century story of Louis Pointe du Lac, a New Orleans plantation owner, who is turned into a vampire by the evil Lestat de Lioncourt, who yearns from companionship and a nice place to live. Thereafter, a guilt-ridden Louis bemoans his fate with existential vigour. (Rice has read a lot of Sartre and Camus) To assuage Louis’ loneliness, the Machiavellian Lestat transforme one of Louis’s victims, Claudia, a beautiful five-year-old child, into a vampire.

“I loved her so completely; she was so much the companion of my walking hour, the only companion that I had, other than death,” says Louis of little Claudia. In real life, Claudia was a nickname for Michele, Anne Rice’s daughter, who had once piled her hair on top of her head and spoken in a smoky voice like Italian movie goddess Claudia Cardinale. She was three years old when she developed leukaemia, and five when she died, in 1972. At first, Rice soaked in a stream of alcohol. Then she unleashed her rage on paper, into what became Interview with the Vampire. Michele was reincarnated as Claudia, the raging woman locked in a child’s body, “Louis was me,” says Rice, “That dark, brooding, melancholy person ripped from Catholic faith and tormented with guilt – that was me. I’d love to be Lestat, the wishful me, the active, the dream, the other one. Louis was the more true autobiographical portrait of the conflicted, lost and orphaned person. That’s what the book is about. It’s about being orphaned.”

The simplest questions lead to a kind of panicbutton response. Consider the case of Cruise’s shoes, period boots that added a few inches to his five-foot-nine physique, making him closer in size to his five-foot-eleven-co-star. “You’re not going to get me talk to talk about that,” says costume designer Sandy Powell, who wasn’t allowed to keep any of her sketches from the production. Woolley says Cruise’s height was solely a function of the hystorical costume, though the word during postproduction was that it was preferable for Cruise to be the taller of the two stars. “It’s something people want to make a big deal out of,” says Pitt. “He wanted his character to be more physically dominant. It does make sense – and then it doesn’t.” Pitt compares himself to a day worker who slaves away and then gets ‘oliberated’ on the weekend “to forget about the week that passed and not think about the week to come. I mean, there was one night toward the end of the movie – when I was consumed in thought of the movie – and I wandered into the bathroom and I looked down… and I’m whizzing in the trash can! The toilet’s clear on the other end of the room! I mean, that’s screwy. ‘That’s oh man, I gotta get out of here!’”

The film’s casting would only exacerbate the conflict. “I was very involved with the casting movie,” says Geffen. “I think I’m pretty good at casting, frankly.” Geffen had in fact chosen Pitt before Jordan came on board, the day after he saw him in A River Runs Through It. With Rice’s blessing, Geffen offered Lestat to Daniel Day-Lewis But Day-Lewis refused to read any scripts while he was still filming In The Name Of The Father. Geffen waited patiently for several months, calling Day-Lewis’s agent on an almost daily basis, until the actor finally declined.

The person who suffered the most in all the Sturm und Drang surrounding Interview with the Vampire is Pitt. Of course, this is precisely what his screen alter ego is supposed to be doing. “He’s so damn miserable, it’s funny,” Pitt says and then guffaws loudly. “This is a person in a very reactive role. I understand why women complain a lot about their roles, because that’s it right there.”

Pitt sheard off the bulk he had acquired for Ed Zwick’s family epic Legends of the Fall and cleaned what he calls ‘the hick’ out of his voice, but didn’t do much else to prepare. “I never made it through the book,” he jokes.

At 31, Pitt is a little more than a year younger than Cruise, but has about a decade less experience. “He’s never played a part where he had to deal with a huge amount of speech; he’s very much played himself,” Jordan points out. “Brad has no technique He didn’t come up through the theatre He’s a movie actor par excellence.”

Without the cushion of craft, Pitt just lost himself in Louis’ dilemma, becoming a kind of walking cloud of depression who worried continually about whether he was any good at all. “Louis is a deeply empathic human being, which is what Brad is,” says Jordan. “He identified so strongly with the part that halfway through the film, he was having a lot of trouble with his chracter. He didn’t realise is, but he was eating, drinking, sleeping and living that character. Brad is all emtoion; Tom plays all aggressive and individual all icy. Two different who approaches to life, you know?”

Pitt knows. “You gotta understand, Tom and I are… we walk in different directions,” he explains. “He’s North Pole. I’m South. He’s coming at you with a handshake” Pitt leans forward – Pitt leans forward mimicking Cruise’s hyper-aggressive hello – “where I may bump into you, I may not, you know?” Cruise is a child of the ‘80s, the yuppie movie star, hardworking and ambitious. Pitt is a child of the ‘90s, helterskelter, messy, sweet, ambling his way to superstardom with soulfulness and killer sex appeal.

“I always thought there was this underlying competition that got in the way of any real coversation,” says Pitt. “It wasn’t nasty by any means, not at all. But it was just there and it bugged me a bit. But I’ll tell you, he catches a lot of shit because he’s on top, but he’s a good actor and he advances in the film. He did it. I mean, you have to respect that.”

The buzz in town is that Cruise acquits himself with aplomb, but that Pitt, for all his fretting, shines. Just don’t expect Pitt to stick around for a sequel. “I mean,” he says, “you almost feel like you survived an I Witness Video disaster or something. I’m laughing at it,” – and he is – “but there was defintely something to that.”