Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Interview with Dante Tomaselli

Dante Tomaselli has directed some of the most visually surreal and evocative independent horror films out there. With his debut Desecration, his follow ups Horror and Satan's Playground he's created films that are part fairy tale, part mad abstract painting. I had the pleasure of talking to him about his current projects and the state of independent horror.

Currently you're working on Torture Chamber. Can you give us a short synopsis about what it's about?

Torture Chamber is about a 13-year-old boy possessed by unspeakable evil. It's probably the first serious independent horror film in a long time that's in the vein of The Exorcist. The demon is called Baalberith, which, if you believe in demonology, tempts its host to blasphemy and murder. Jimmy Morgan is a pyromaniac, horribly disfigured from experimentation with drugs. This Catholic boy's family is crawling with religious fanatics. His mother believes he was sent from the Devil to set the world on fire. His older brother is a priest who tries to exorcise him. When Jimmy murders his own father, he burns him to death. Because of this, the troubled boy is sent to an Institution for disturbed youths. While there, Jimmy has a Charles Manson-like hold on the other kids from the burn unit. Together, they escape and Jimmy finds an old abandoned castle for shelter. That's where the burned kids find a secret passage way that leads to a medieval, cobwebbed torture chamber.

How different is it compared to your previous three films?

It's way more sobering and frightening. Torture Chamber is devoted to scaring an audience. After three films, I feel I can better decipher what works and what doesn't. I'm ready to take everything I've learned to a new level.

You compose the scores on all your films. Were you inspired by John Carpenter to compose your scores or was it out necessity?

When I was a little boy, around three years old, I used to play eerie music on an electronic organ. I'd press all the high and low notes while drawing haunted houses and graveyards on a chalk board that was right above the organ. It's instinctual. I can't separate the sound from the picture. I couldn't imagine allowing another composer to take complete control over my film. It wouldn't be my film. I do love to collaborate with musicians though...Kenneth Lampl, Sean Hartter, Alan Jurich, Joseph Bishara and my brother Michael. There are others. I like to have compositions from different composers and mix and match and layer them. I do this as I'm writing the screenplay, in pre-production, shooting the film...and mostly, mainly, during the soundmix in post production. Everything is leading up to the film's soundmix. So by the time that period actually arrives, the film's soundtrack is already practically a demo. I construct the soundtrack like I'm making an album. I crave the sound mix during production. Crave it. I've always said it's my favorite part of creating the movie. Regarding John Carpenter, there's no doubt that I'm influenced by his work. Halloween and The Fog are the cream of the crop in horror sound design and in every way, actually. I watch...and listen...to both movies over and over. I love them. And the climax, the ending...You know the evil is out there...loose, lurking, you feel it in your bones. It's the purest audio-visual experience...Carpenter's Halloween. It's hard to get me to tear but it can even bring a tear to my eye sometimes because it's so powerful and I'm so in awe of its perfection. That same feeling takes hold during a certain sequence in Carpenter's Christine too. When Arnie says to Christine, 'show me.' ...And then the spectral light pierces through the air and we hear that pristine bell and deep, throbbing bass line from hell. We feel it. I see the camera gliding to the car and in that swirling moment, call it audio-visual fireworks...I get teary-eyed (laughs). I'm in awe of its power. I'm drawn to glacial icy stings and rumbling baritones...and that's early John Carpenter. I definitely feel a profound connection with his early work. The trancelike low tones, those moog synths, they create colors in my mind.

How's the score to Torture Chamber coming along? How different is it compared to your previous music?

It's very personal, very intimate. I feel it's my scariest. If it's not making my hair stand on its ends, it's not working. It's dark ambient horror. I'll be 'painting with sounds' when it comes time for the film's soundmix. Naturally I want a very big palette. I mix the soundscapes of all composers including myself to create the unique world of the film.

Is it true that Marc Almond of Soft Cell was Inspired after meeting you and wrote a song dedicated to you?

Yeah, I was 23 or 24, living in NYC. I met him on the streets of the West Village. We went back to my apartment on West 10th and Bleeker and listened to remixes of Memorabilia and talked about horror films. Marc loves horror. He even wrote a song called 'Martin' on Soft Cell's 'The Art of Falling Apart' that's all about Romero's film. Yeah, Marc wrote a song for me called 'Caged.' I was shocked and happy. At the time I met him I was shooting all my early versions of Desecration and I continuously showed him the footage of the demon mother feeding her caged son.

Do you still have plans to remake Alice, Sweet Alice?

Definitely. I can't say anything now, but yes.

You filmed Satan's Playground in Pine Barrens Forest of New Jersey. Anything strange happen when you were there? Any Jersey Devil sightings?

Well, the Pine Barrens encompasses 1.1 million acres of land...pure woods. Definitely some hardcore rednecks around. The guys from Deliverance would feel at home. There were hunters out there...so we'd hear gun shots a lot. That was creepy. People on my crew and neighbors that lived around had some stories about seeing The Jersey Devil but I was too busy shooting the film.

There is a lot of surreal and bizarre imagery in your first two films. How did you come up with some of it, is it from dreams or is it thought out as you write?

It's from nightmares. A spacious dungeon in my mind. I have a history of sleep problems and issues...I was plagued with insomnia. I still am. I understand Michael Jackson...I couldn't sleep! One time at college, it lasted for a full week and I started to hallucinate. I used to pray for a cure. I bought subliminal tapes, nothing worked. In fact there was a period in high school when I didn't know if what was happening was dream or reality. And I didn't take drugs or drink at all. I probably should have (laughs). When I'd go to bed, it was a place of terror. I was scared for what I was about to experience...and I had good reason...my nightmares were endless. I'd wake up with the sheets and covers twisted all around. Plus I was unhappy, inwardly, for the most part, and quiet...so all of my anxieties and fears came screaming to life in my dreamworld. I replicate those sensations now with my films. It's my gateway back to childhood.

And how hard is it to translate from your mind to the written page and then to the screen?

Growing up, night after night, I would leave my physical body and float around. Sometimes I'd end up touching the ceiling, other times I'd glide downstairs in other rooms or even out my window and over my neighborhood. One time, in college, I woke up in a NYC Korean Deli in my underwear (laughs). In my dreams I could fly. My body would start to vibrate and I would flap my arms in slow motion as if I were swimming in a deep pool and trying to get to the top. But were these even dreams? Was I schizophrenic? I'd visit the same places over and over, strange textural landscapes that led to the same doorways that brought me right back to the beginning. Glowing...color saturated visions in wide open space. I think I was visiting hell. I'd draw elaborate mazes in the daytime. Creatively, emotionally, spiritually everything was jumbled. None of this was enjoyable. I didn't appreciate what was happening to me, whatever it was. As an adult I read books on Robert Monroe, a true pioneer in exploring out-of-body- experiences...I'm still trying to make sense of it all and harness this untamed thing. It seems I have been either lucid dreaming or having full-fledged out-of-body-experiences. I also found out recently that I've had something for a long time, for as long as I can remember. I didn't even know there was a name for it but it's called synesthesia.

You've worked with Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Ellen Sandweiss (The Evil Dead), Edwin Neal (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and you're about to work with one of my favorites, Lynn Lowry from Shivers, I Drink Your Blood and The Crazies. Who would you like to work with in the future?

Dee Wallace, Adrienne Barbeau, Marilyn Burns, Margot Kidder, Karen Black, Jessica Harper, Debbie Harry, Piper Laurie, Jessica Walter, Judith Roberts, Zohra Lampert, Judith O'Dea, Daria Nicolodi, Catriona MacColl... I was supposed to work with some of these leading ladies on The Ocean, an apocalyptic chiller that was just too ambitious, financially. The film is on hold but will eventually get made. Torture Chamber should pave the way for The Ocean and Alice, Sweet Alice.

How do you see the current state of independent horror?

Oh independent horror is shriveling up. The economy has been in a slump, as you know, for a while now. It's very rare to find outfits that invest in low budget indie horror these days. Why should they invest when they can just go to film festivals and 'pick up' films? There are scores of horror filmmakers with their independently financed films clamoring just to find distribution. There used to be factions of studios that helped create low budget horror. Not any more. My goal is to get to the point where I can fund my own films.

How difficult is it to film an independent film these days? How do you pull it off?

It's nightmarish, in the worst sense, it really is. You just have to find the strength to move forward and never give up. You find faith in private investors. That's how all real independent films are financed anyway.

What films have had the greatest inspiration for you?

Some of my favorites are Don't Look Now, Halloween, Alice, Sweet Alice, The Exorcist, The Brood, Carrie, The Shining, Burnt Offerings, The Fog, Tourist Trap, The Omen, Meshes of the Afternoon, Let's Scare Jessica to Death, The House with Laughing Windows, Rosemary's Baby, Nosferatu, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Frightmare, Suspiria, Eraserhead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978, The Birds, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Boogeyman, The Changeling, The Sentinel, Shock, Black Sabbath, Phantasm, The Beyond, The Gates of Hell, Alien, The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shivers, Videodrome, Tombs of the Blind Dead, The Sender, At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul...

Where is Torture Chamber now in terms of production and when will we get to see it?

I'm on the brink of shooting the film. It should be finished and ready for release some time next year.

Any advice for inspiring filmmakers?

Never say die.

I want to thank Mr. Tomaselli for taking the time to talk to me. Check out his site here....http://horrorthemovie.com


Unknown said...

Hi Everybody:

This is Agustin Ignacio Agudo from Madrid Spain and I just wanted to thank to this site for its marvelous interview to one of my top favorite horror filmmakers Dante Tomaselli. I hope his next feature film TORTURE CHAMBER come to fruition very soon!!!

Best Always,
Agustin Ignacio

I Like Horror Movies said...

Great interview, I havent seen HORROR since college but I have heard excellent things about SATANS PLAYGROUND! This wins official post of the day

Professor Brian O'Blivion said...

Thank you both very much for the great comments. And thank to
Mr. Tomaselli for doing the interview and providing fantastic answers and pictures.

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