When I last spoke to horror director Dante Tomaselli he'd just wrapped filming on his fourth feature film, Torture Chamber. It's been a privilege to be able to do these interviews with Dante. They've not only shown the progression of Torture Chamber from idea to film, but give insight into Dante's creative process. Hope everyone enjoys the interview!
How did editing and soundmixing go?
Dante Tomaselli: Before I started picture editing, I spent a few months watching all the footage, getting to know every detail. It got to the point where I could go to any sequence in my mind. After a month of editing, I began the sound mix and as you know, I've always placed a strong emphasis on the sound design, I need complete control over it. I wanted the soundtrack to feel like a seance...or incantation, a spell being cast. A place where people feel powerless and dominated by forces they have no control over. I wanted a kind of Black Mass feel. I collected many thousands of layers of sounds. All kinds of sounds, they could come from anywhere, I place no restrictions. I'm a sound hunter. So I purchased these sounds and mixed them like colors of paint on a palette. I divided the sounds into categories like...low tones, glacial, staccato, and suspense. Months earlier, throughout the writing of the screenplay, I was listening to Halloween 3, music by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Just like when I was a kid, I had this album playing constantly....It made me feel younger...and more aligned with the images that I was channeling. I love all those early John Carpenter movies and soundtracks, Halloween, The Fog, Christine... At the same time, the soundtrack to Torture Chamber is personal and it's a continuation of the world I've previously created...a space where picture and sound bleed into each other. You never know what's around the next corner. Colors and sounds are pristine. There are many gates, tunnels, windows, doors, holes. Each portal takes you to the next. For months, I'd go to the post sound studio in NYC and mix Torture Chamber with the engineer, just like making an album. Just me...alone with the engineer...and my sounds. Aside from some dreamy horror piano and subtle strings that I incorporated, tracks composed by Joseph Bishara, I kept this score orchestra free. I'm really getting tired of big budget Hollywood soundtracks. They're so assembly line. Don't get me wrong, I love orchestral music...but I hear the same music in movies, over and over again. It's like an annoying formula. I wanted the sound design on this film to be mostly indecipherable. Subliminal. It's a mixture of moans and breaths and brooding low toned synths and pulses. A witches brew of sounds. I prefer an electronic soundscape. I've always admired composers like Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder.
From first conception, to finished film, how long has Torture Chamber been in your head? And how has it evolved and changed since its beginning?
Dante: Well, I was very depressed when I didn't get to shoot The Ocean, the movie I was planning. I had it all ready-to-go with Adrienne Barbeau as the lead. I was so looking forward to shooting the film in the unique locations I scouted in Puerto Rico. I had Adrienne Barbeau over my apartment in New Jersey and we went over the character; it was a dream come true. I thought the money was there. It wasn't. Some more time passed, too much time...and soon Adrienne was starring in a play about Judy Garland...so she wasn't available for a period. Around this time, I was told that the money was in fact in place and we had to cast someone quickly. I knew that Margot Kidder read the script and was interested in the lead...a psychic haunted by visions of a watery apocalypse. The money turned out not to be there again. I paused and found some new producers. Soon Dee Wallace read the screenplay and came onboard. We were all ready to start production...again. Dee was so committed and loved the script. We had beautiful conversations where I felt her depth of emotional attachment to the project. I was so moved. When the money wasn't there again, I felt like I betrayed her and everyone because in the end it all goes back to me. I'm the one to blame for not getting the film off the ground. Consciously or unconsciously, I create the events that happen in my life. So I was depressed and defeated and angry. I channeled that rage and conjured a new low budget horror film. Torture Chamber. I wrote it throughout 2008. I knew I wanted to create a movie about a demon of blasphemy and murder. Something that returned to the puzzle-like feel of my early films, but faster-paced and more engaging. I wanted to create pure cinema...on a low budget. When I visualized Torture Chamber, it had a kind of epic exuberance. I imagined unspeakable sin...eternal damnation...a family in deep psychic pain. Around the end of 2009, everything started to come together financially...and in early 2010, I was literally planning the shoot. During this time, I was scouting locations non-stop. In late May, I started principle photography. I shot Torture Chamber in 19 days. For the entire rest of the summer, I immersed myself in the footage...and then in September and October I began picture editing...Next was the sound mix. It was December...January...winter...There was so much snow in New York City. So many snow storms. I was in my own little world, constantly hunting for sound fx and previewing all kinds of compositions in my mind, editing layers of audio design in my mind. I was in a trance. It was just me alone with my movie...and my hand-picked sounds. I finished my first cut in the summer of 2011 but it was too long. Once I trimmed, and I trimmed a lot, twenty three minutes, the sound temperature changed. I spent a few more months in the studio, giving the film more of an aggressive, nightmarish vibe.
Working with your actors, where there many rehearsals before filming? How much leeway did they have to ad-lib? How much input did you give them about their characters?
Dante: There was some rehearsal. This was the first time I was working with many child actors and I had a casting agent, Pamela Kramer, who helped me find these performers through her database. With Pamela, we had some rehearsals together in a studio in New York City. Mainly, I believe once on set it all begins to click. Everything falls into place when the actor is in the frame, in the world of the scene. I give pointed input before the camera rolls but once we are shooting I allow for experimentation and ad-libbing...if it feels right. Whatever works. It's an exploration to deliver the best scene. Overall, though, everyone pretty much adhered to the script. We had tutors on set, as required through child labor laws, and those actors could only perform for a limited time. Scheduling was rough. Plus our locations were spread out around New York and New Jersey, in all different locations.
There's a tendency in modern horror films to make characters unlikable and stupid. What steps did you take to make your characters different than the usual horror victim?
Dante: I don't really watch most modern horror films but I know what you're saying. I do believe in the lone disposable victim, though. I've had one character in every film...a random death...that sets the tone. At the core, this is definitely a movie about a family in deep psychic pain. The characters are revealed through dreams, flashbacks and hallucinations. They're revealed though their surroundings. Torture Chamber is about madness, being trapped in childhood. There's a scene in the kitchen during a family dinner. It's the heart and soul of the movie and spotlights the unhealthy family situation. We see that the mother is very religious and conservative and has a special bond with her older priest-son. The Dad is disconnected, drunken, chain-smoking cigarettes, immersed in a sports game that is droning in another room. And there's little Jimmy, without his facial scars, innocent looking, frightened. The food looks intimidating. He just can't eat. Everything around him overwhelms...shapes, feelings. Young Jimmy, a pyromaniac, sees his brutish father as a cloud of smoke. There's emotional violence in the air.
What challenges did you face budget wise?
Dante: Well, the budget on this film was $200, 000 so I really had to plan each and every shot way in advance. Other independent films have been shot in 19 days, it's been done before, but usually when you have a low budget like this and such a small amount of shooting days, you try to consolidate and film all in one main area. I did the opposite on this film. I allowed the locations, and there were many, to be completely spread out, all over New Jersey and New York. The crew had to pick up and move to another site a lot. And there's a lot of artwork and production design in Torture Chamber. So many props and sets for a film of this budget. Plus my crew was fairly large, as usual. I had such a talented, hardworking crew on Torture Chamber. We had crew and some actors...staying in a motel in a small mining town in New Jersey and other crew members were picked up each day in a van or truck that would bring them back and forth to the locations. Many craftsmen I've worked with already were there but there were just as many new entities involved. Prior to the shoot, I spent almost a full year looking for the right settings and I had the NJ Film Commission helping me all the way. NJ Film Commission...invaluable. The locations, the settings, were so specific...and an important part of the fabric of the movie. Scheduling the production was a logistical nightmare. Everyone around me was saying it was impossible...too many locations. How can we ever move the crew around so much? But I stood my ground and made sure, for the most part, that we filmed in the settings that I scouted and fallen in I love with. Before filming, I did a lot of storyboarding...and fantasizing.
Who's been handling those cool posters for the film? They definitely evoke a 70's feel.
Dante: Sean Hartter has been handling most of those posters. For Torture Chamber, I would message him about what I needed. Like for one poster, I said I needed a possessed boy's face on a black page. I supplied him with the tagline, Jimmy is 13-years-old. Possessed by an unholy power...Sean came back with a fantastic poster. He knows that my films are 70's style and he injects that into everything. My favorite poster that he created from scratch, Jimmy is 13-years-old. And he has escaped...It's an outline of grinning boy with a white possessed-looking eye. It's very Italian horror, which matches this film. I think Torture Chamber rides the line between arthouse and grindhouse. Sean's poster of the shadowed boy captures that and makes it very accessible and appealing. Sean also contributed a few sound textures in the movie. I created the smoky poster with Christie Sanford as Mrs. Morgan, burning, singeing. Should all sinners be damned? That's actually a tagline for Desecration that I never used. It fit the world of Torture Chamber.
In many of the stills we've seen so far there's a Gothic feel to the settings. Were you influenced by any of Hammer's films?
Dante: There is definitely a Gothic feel to the entire movie. I'm not influenced by Hammer's films, though. I do love British horror like Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now, Pete Walker's films and Tales from the Crypt. The images in Torture Chamber came from the deep pit of my psyche. The places I conjure are nightmares that I need to replicate. My nightmares, growing up, were extreme. Sometimes I still fear putting my head on the pillow and going to bed. I try to replicate the look and feel of those childhood terrors. Colors and sounds are pristine. I see in my mind a misty image bursting with light, color and design. Glowing, electrified. Usually someone is trapped. In Torture Chamber there are people constantly trapped. We shot a big portion of the film in an actual underground mine in New Jersey. I was so glad because for a while, it seemed that I had to shoot certain sequences on sets. Shooting in the cavy mine perfectly matched the idea of the movie being encased in rock. After a while you begin to feel buried under there and it looks like the caverns of hell.
The world seems to get crazier every day. Do you feel we need the cantharis that horror provides more than ever now?
Dante: Oh definitely. For me, making these films. it's almost like painting. That's exactly how it has always worked for me. Horror films are a form of...art therapy...though it's rarely ever described that way. You can't get to the light without going through shadows. I'm a Scorpio and it's my nature to move through the rocks in shadows. Torture Chamber is encased in stone. That's a repeating image, in all my films. In a past life, or vivid nightmare, I was buried under rocks.
How does this score compare to your previous ones?
Dante: It's very electronic...and satanic. Right from the opening credits theme, which I composed, there is a wall of sound...churning, swirling. It's a bit of a preview of the collection of sounds to come. It's best to experience this film in stereo...loud. Any other way diminishes it. You get the feeling of floating, dreaming, being locked in a...psychedelic dungeon. You won't know where it's leading, suddenly the audio takes a turn. As the movie progresses, sounds trigger colors and patterns and vice-versa. Shapes are emphasized. Shapes of sound. Sometimes it should feel like an out-of-body-experience...or ecstasy trip. Taste color. Touch sound. I had some excellent composers on board like Joseph Bishara, Kenneth Lampl and Allison Piccioni. They never actually viewed the footage. That was my wish. I would give them direction, descriptions of scenes and they had the script. I like to know what's in a composer's imagination. That's more interesting to me. It feels fresh and experimental when it's juxtaposed with the right images. If it doesn't work at least I tried. As the film's main score composer and sound designer and writer and director, it's my job to pull all the details together. In addition to Bishara, Lampl and Piccioni, I had a few other of freelance musicians contribute some devilish sound textures or sound fx that I mixed and edited with other sounds, layers of audio paint that I own. My brother, Michael Tomaselli contributed some twisted aural textures and pulses. He composed the opening and closing themes to my first film, Desecration. As a listening experience, Torture Chamber's ambient tracks are ethereal and brooding. It's a soundtrack for a dark-night-of-the-soul.
Many independent horror directors broke into making studio films by directing for one of the franchises. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween. How would you feel if you were offered the chance at one of these franchises?
Dante: I love every one of those movies, especially Halloween, so I'd be honored and excited.
How close are you to locking down distribution?
Dante: I just finished the film so I really can't answer that yet. I know it's definitely on the horizon.
Have you thought about what your next film will be?
Dante: Alice, Sweet Alice. A re-imagining of my cousin, Alfred Sole's 70's horror movie. Yes, the mask will be back. We've got to keep it in the family. There's something in the blood.