“Shadow of the Vampire” is only the second feature from director E. Elias Merhige, but it’s an amazingly accomplished and–especially for film buffs–clever piece of work. The picture suggests that little-known actor Max Schreck (played by Willem Dafoe), whom celebrated German filmmaker F.W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich) cast in the title role of his great vampire film “Nosferatu” in 1921, might actually have been one of the undead and a real threat to his colleagues on the set. The premise is so brilliant that one might expect that a script based on it would have been picked up and filmed immediately, but, as Merhige explained during a recent interview in Dallas (where his picture was the opening-night attraction of the second Deep Ellum Film Festival), that wasn’t the case: Steven Katz in fact had written it more than a decade ago, and it circulated widely before winding up with actor Nicolas Cage, who had established a production company in 1996 to bankroll independent pictures. And it was Cage, who had seen and loved Merhige’s debut “Begotten,” who contacted him about doing “Vampire.”

It’s not surprising that the actor-turned-producer, who’s known for his own offbeat style, should have become interested in the director of “Begotten.” Merhige himself described it as “one of the strangest, freakiest films you’ll see in your entire life. It is a totally unhinged piece of work. It was like a fever dream, making that film. I just had this obsessive need to make the film, and then the need passed after I finished it. I wanted to create a film that was like a creation myth or some kind of cosmological reenactment. It’s a film that polarizes people. It really is like a painting come to life. I never intended it as a piece of entertainment.” In fact, “Begotten” originally was shown as an exhibit in art galleries, and only afterward was put into theatres.

After completing “Begotten” in 1989 (it was 1991 before it was shown), Merhige helmed numerous stage productions, here and abroad, and oversaw the making of several music videos for friends like Marilyn Manson. But it wasn’t until Cage contacted him about “Shadow of the Vampire” that he became really taken with another feature project.

One of the reasons was his admiration for Murnau and the 1922 “Nosferatu.” “It is one of my favorite films,” Merhige said. “It’s a film I saw first when I was eleven years old, and it scared the hell out of me, and it still terrifies me. The way that Schreck moves, he seems deliberate and yet dangerous, he’s almost like a shadow.” He also idolizes Murnau, who died in a car crash in 1931: “Murnau was a master. I think he was one of the few directors that defined the ground that we’re working from today as filmmakers.” Explaining why he chose to make his picture in widescreen format, Merhige once again pointed to Murnau, describing him as “a very progressive, very forward-looking man” always interested in technical advances: “I think he would appreciate [it],” he mused.

Merhige’s enthusiasm for Katz’s screenplay was tempered, however, and so he worked with the writer to refine it. “The script was like an unfinished sculpture,” he observed. “I just worked to hone it and bring certain things out and diminish certain other things. There was a certain danger of campiness in the script that I wanted to sort of extinguish and move into a more serious direction with it, and at the same time maintain the humor as a vehicle to express those serious ideas.” One of the notions that he was at pains to include in the script was an analogy between filmmaking and vampirism: “I wanted to establish the motion picture camera itself as a vampire…. As the camera fixes its gaze on the subject, it drains it of its flesh and blood and reduces it to a sort of shadow. And the shadow outlives the subject. It’s a pretty creepy idea, [but it was] stylistically imperative and important and critical that that was shown and expressed.”

The process of remolding the script caused occasional tensions with Katz, Merhige admitted, but after a time he realized that was unavoidable. “The screenwriter is always going to hold onto something that he wrote in a room alone twelve years ago,” he said. “[But] as a director you’re charged with turning words into a dramatic image that’s going to hold your focus and interest and plant seeds in your imagination. To do that is to evoke things that are not said but are implied somewhere in the text.”

Securing actors like Malkovich and Dafoe to play Murnau and Schreck also meant some reshaping of the script, Merhige said, bringing about what he called “a constant transformational process.” “You don’t get that many opportunities in life to work with phenomenal actors,” he noted, and their signing onto the project, facilitated by Cage’s getting them the script (along with copies of “Begotten”) and helping to set up meetings with Merhige, encouraged him to push himself to the limit. “Meeting these guys,” he recalled, “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, if these guys don’t do this, who can?’ Even if you gave me the full roster of actors on the planet, I just don’t know who the hell I would find, I just don’t know where I would go.” When they took the parts, therefore, Merhige felt real pressure to make the picture the equal of their talent: “It kept me on my toes. I don’t want to let these guys down. It would be to me the biggest humiliation and disaster…to have these two great actors,…and I didn’t want to disappoint these guys. They were giving me everything.”

Merhige described the shoot, entirely on location in Luxembourg, as difficult but gratifying from his perspective. “If you have good people working,” he explained, “what happens is you’re able to create a stable ground where you’re able to allow your actors to move into a sort of blissful place…. Willem and John would dive off these abysses and come back with these great pieces of gold and gems, and you have to know as a director when to interfere in that process and when to stay out and allow that process to germinate and grow and blossom.” It’s apparent from “Shadow of the Vampire” that Merhige made the right calls.

He also gave special attention to putting the audience in the right mood for the picture by constructing an elaborate, almost hallucinatory title sequence to lead into it. “That title sequence was this ambitious idea of creating a palace of the imagination, a sort of meta-theatre…where you’re just going through these corridors and coming out on a title card that says ‘1921,’” Merhige said. The idea was to establish an atmosphere that would make viewers receptive to what followed: “We’re going to take the time to get into a midset, and that mindset is then going to take us into a story, and that story is going to take us into an atmosphere and to a place that will take us to another reality,” he explained. Certainly the painterly, almost ethereal quality of the credit sequence, so reminiscent of the work of such past masters as Saul Bass, acts as a perfect introduction to “Shadow of the Vampire,” and the care that Merhige lavished upon it is a reflection of his attention to all the facets of what is surely one of 2000’s most unusual and memorable films.