An Interview with Dante Tomaselli By Troy Howarth
Beginning with his startlingly odd feature debut, 1999's Desecration, New Jersey-based composer/writer/director Dante Tomaselli has established an uneasy relationship with fans of the horror genre. Put simply, some love his work and others can't stand it, but the common ground is simple: his love of hallucinatory imagery over intricate plotting has its roots in the hyper-stylized Italian horror films of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci (though, as he revealed to me in the course of our correspondence, their influence on his early work is virtually non-existent: barring early viewings of Fulci's Gates of Hell (1980) and Argento's Suspiria (1976), the work of these seminal filmmakers has eluded him until very recently) and in common with those groundbreaking artists, this is very much a 'love it or hate it' style of storytelling. As one watches the arc of Tomaselli's work - Desecration, Horror (2002) and Satan's Playground (2006) - it is very apparent that the director has little interest in imitating popular trends: his films come from a very personal place and have virtually nothing in common with the style of horror so popular at the contemporary Cineplex. This is not to say that his films are pure art house - far from it. Like the earlier Italian maestri (without putting too much emphasis on this essentially accidental similarity) he has a firm grasp on the notion of 'style as content,' but he's also not afraid to toss in plenty of the red stuff. His work is steeped in deep rooted Catholic guilt and familial disintegration, but it also embroiders on his love of fantasy writers like Lovecraft while making use of local legend: Satan's Playground, for example, utilizes the legendary 'New Jersey Devil' rumored to stalk the forests of that state.
Even more evident to those who have followed his work chronologically is his growing maturity as a stylist and a storyteller. Desecration, despite its very low budget, is distinguished by its utter professionalism, but that said his films keep getting better and better, with an ever-growing sense of confidence in his own abilities to communicate with an admittedly limited audience. With his latest opus, The Ocean, set to film in Puerto Rico, it seems a fine time to sit down for a little talk with Dante Tomaselli, a true horror fan and one of the genre's most interesting contemporary practitioners.
TH: Can you tell us anything about your background?
DT: I was born and raised in north New Jersey. Italian American. Big family. 5 kids. My ancestors are from Napoli...Benevento and Caserta. My one grandfather was a shoemaker and my other grandfather, Dante Ruocco, owned a printing company. In my immediate family, I'm the fourth child, I was born on a Wednesday so that makes me a "Wednesday's Child." Am I cursed? October 29th. 1969. Astrologically, my sun is in Scorpio in the First House so I am a kind of an extreme Scorpio, if you follow that stuff. I think there's something to it. My mother was a horror fan, a homemaker and part time actress. I went to the Drive-ins a lot growing up, and that's where I was exposed to many exciting 70s horror movies. She definitely always supported my love for horror and the macabre. My father didn't...at all. My Dad owned a jewelry store and bridal shop. For some reason, he thought I was bringing the house bad luck with all my horror obsessions. We weren't close. I guess you could say we had a 'damaged' relationship. He died of a fatal heart attack...in front of me...when I was 17. 1987. I've always had a lot of nightmares growing up but I had more than ever during this period. I moved to Brooklyn where I attended Pratt Institute and then I moved to NYC where I was a full time student at School of Visual Arts. I paid rent by selling Ad space, shooting cable TV commercials and being a security guard. All throughout my twenties I lived in NYC and made a series of shorts called 'Desecration.' In 1993 I placed an Ad in the Village Voice Bulletin, the back of the Village Voice, looking for a film crew to create a "hard-core horror" movie. The response was overwhelming. I sort of pretended to have more experience than I really had. But I was trying. I was relentless. All I cared about was making those short experimental films. People around me thought I was insane. I lost a lot of friends. But the 'friends' who were the least supportive were like crabs in a bucket...clutching and stuck.
I knew I had to get out of the bucket. After my shorts finally started getting into festivals, I met my investor for the feature length version at NY Angelika Film Center's IFFM (Independent Feature Film Market). Shot in north New Jersey on Super 16 mm, with a $150,000 budget, Desecration made its world premiere to a standing room only audience at 1999's Fantafestival in Rome, Italy. I was terrified and taken aback. Crowds scare me. I'm not a performer, I'm shy. I have a lot of anxiety about getting up in front of people and presenting my film. Some directors love it and embrace the moment. I recoil. In March 2000, Image Entertainment released the film on DVD and Desecration developed a kind of a cult following among some art house and horror aficionados. Image promoted it nicely. It was reviewed a lot all over the Internet and in the genre magazines. The attention Desecration got allowed me to direct my second feature, Horror. That film was shot in rural Upstate New York, on Super 16 mm, with a budget of $250,000. Elite Entertainment distributed it on DVD in May 2003. Surprisingly, Horror got a positive review in Variety Magazine...and it definitely left its mark on the genre critics. They seemed to love it or really hate it. Somehow, Horror, managed to get into the Top 10 on the IMDb out of all movies for a week in September 2003. Recently, Anchor Bay Entertainment released my third film, Satan's Playground, which was shot in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, on Super 16 mm film, with a budget of $500,000. Another good review in Variety Magazine...and horror fans completely divided.
TH: When did you become interested in film?
DT: Since birth, really. It was something that was always there. The screen was always tugging at me. I saw Don't Look Now when I was 3! 1973. I was attracted to horror films from the get go. Most kids in grammar school were writing on their notebooks rock bands and baseball teams. I had The Omen, in its exact movie poster font, plus The Exorcist, Carrie...all those 70s horror movies. I loved them. Of course I loved my cousin (Alfred Sole)'s film, Alice, Sweet Alice. Huge influence. It's so great to see all the attention it's getting all these years later.
TH: What is it about the horror genre that attracts you?
DT: It's a chemical thing, it's in my DNA. When I was like 3 years-old I'd continually draw haunted houses on rolling hills and graveyards and ghosts. And mazes. My mother will tell you this. I played electronic organ music at that age and instinctively pressed all the extreme low and high notes to create an ominous mood.
TH: Do you prefer visceral horror films or suggestive ones?
DT: Suggestive. But that doesn't mean I don't crave to create an Evil Dead-type splatter punk horror film one of these days. I have to admit, each of my films seems to get gorier. The Ocean will be the grisliest by far. There's an Ebola-like virus spreading along a coastal community in Puerto Rico. A family in deep psychic pain is at the core. I'd say The Ocean will be equally suggestive...and visceral.
TH: Do you feel that suggestive horror is a lost art, or do you think it's still with us?
Well, that's what I want to stand for...ambient horror...psychedelic horror. Demons of the mind. I'm interested in an interior journey.
TH: Could you name some of the specific imagery in your favorite horror films that have inspired you?
DT: Hmmm. I haven't really been inspired by anything specific. I'd say there are subliminal nods to classic horror films in my movies. Many 70s and early 80s horror films, the whole spectrum. Unconscious homage's. I especially love early Carpenter. My new film, The Ocean, will have a Fog-like ambiance.
TH: What is your opinion of the current state of "indie" film production?
DT: I think it's really on an upswing. I loved The Abandoned, it really had its own internal logic, I dug that. You know, the storyline didn't play by the rules. I like for the atmosphere to dominate and the plot to be non linear, kind of floating. You just don't see that too much these days. Everything has to be spelled out. I thought it was really disturbing and well-made. Chris Garetano just created an experimental short called 'Cottonmouth' that is hallucinogenic heaven.
TH: Which currently active filmmakers do you admire?
DT: Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, George Romero, Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski...of course John Carpenter, you know the usual masters. Without a doubt, though, I prefer their earlier works.
TH: You say you're more fond of their earlier films - do you feel they've run out of things to say, or do you believe they still have more great films in them?
DT: Lightening can strike many times unpredictably. I definitely believe they all have more great films in them, absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind. I think, more than ever, they should have something to say, something only each director can conjure, with their unique perspectives. Look at Lucio Fulci in his older years. John Carpenter directed Halloween, The Fog and The Thing. Those films were just awe-inspiring. Top of the top in the field of pop horror. He's not that old. The man has earned his stripes no matter what he does and I believe he will come back just as strong or stronger than ever. I really do. I always felt that way about John Carpenter. He's got that trademark mystique. You can hear his moody synthesizer music in your mind when you think about him. Just his name alone has power. As long as he remains healthy, it will happen. He may not be hungry for it, and that's the problem, if there is a problem. But when the time is right it will happen. I'm really optimistic about Polanski too. I mean, if he can create something like Rosemary's Baby, which is hands down one of the greatest films of all time and The Tenant -- he can create something just as outstanding. It's in him. When the planets are aligned. Same with Dario Argento...The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Suspiria, Inferno, Deep Red, Tenebre, Opera. Those spectacular films came out of one man. The power is inside of him. Ditto George Romero, Wes Craven, the whole gang. That's why it's so nice that Mick Garris is creating these 'Masters of Horror' episodes for us.
TH: Are there any actors or technicians that you'd particularly like to work with?
DT: Wendy Carlos. She scored Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. I listen to her music all the time. Wendy's a true pioneer in electronics and Moog synthesizers. Actors? There are so many. Well, I'll be working with Dee Wallace on The Ocean. That's going to be a dream. She's been in so many great movies. I admire how she channels energy in her performances. Dee knows exactly how to turn on the emotion in a real, raw way. She deeply connected to this script, about a psychic estranged from her family. I can't wait to work with Judith O'Dea. I love working with actors from landmark horror movies, it gives me...a sense of history-in-the-making. Charges me up, just gets me all tingly and inspired. The horror fan boy in me will never die. In The Ocean, Judy O'Dea will play a scuba diver, lost at sea. Her role in the film, in some ways, connects back to her character in Night of the Living Dead. As if she's in a time/space dislocation. You'll see...
TH: Do you have any particular literary or musical influences?
DT: I love a lot of synth artists like Depeche Mode, Jean Michell Jarre, Coil, Kraftwerk, Severed Heads. I like when the beat is like a clock ticking. I love fake drums. I love real drums too, don't get me wrong. But I love fake Christmas trees. I want glowing and blinking noises. I crave glacial sounds and deep throbbing baritones for some reason. And I don't need lyrics. Most of my favorite songs are wordless. Soundscapes. I'm fanatical about The Cars. Ric Ocasek is my hero. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics, his moody soundscapes, they just release serotonin in my brain. I love the mixture of guitars and synths. On the surface, The Cars were sleek and glossy but underneath there was a weird darkness, a mystery, a spiked apple...it's in the lyrics. I especially find that about Depeche Mode. They create pop songs but many times, underneath is a subversive mood, something taboo. I think that's what's missing from most modern horror films...a mysteriousness... I'm a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. The Dunwich Horror is my absolute favorite. Poe is a masterful too, of course, especially 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' I'm a fan of early Stephen King pop horror novels like Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Cujo and Christine. Also John Saul. He sure knew about child horrors with books like Suffer the Children, Comes the Blind Fury and The God Project.
TH: Can you describe your first day directing on set? Was it a nerve-wracking experience, or did it go smoothly for you?
DT: I was paralyzed with fear the day before shooting, nauseous and dizzy, but once I got to the set it actually went pretty smoothly, surprisingly. As soon as I kicked into gear. I was planning Desecration all throughout my twenties, so when it came time to actually shoot the feature length version, I was scared but very very excited, supercharged. A dream was coming true, I was 28...directing my first feature. There was never an awkward debate about what should be done, I just knew. I was planning Desecration in my mind for many years. I think I overreached myself often, there were many scenes I didn't get to shoot...but it was a good lesson on how to manage time. The entire film was storyboarded, though once I got to the set, most of the time I didn't even look at them. I really didn't have to, the images were so clearly etched in my mind.
TH: Do you continue to storyboard your films, or do you prefer to be spontaneous?
DT: Yeah, I storyboard. Sometimes for a visually complex sequence it's something I'll do with an illustrator months before the shoot. Usually, though, I'll storyboard with my cinematographer while we're going over the shot list...or right before we go out on the set. They're more like sketches. It helps my DP...and keeps the both of us on the same page if there's any confusion. Personally, I rarely glance at the storyboards while shooting. I like to get on set and be instinctual...be in the moment...and malleable...because nothing ever really works out exactly how it was originally planned. I'm always open to suggestions. I just hate awkward debates, they stop everything. I like to keep a light set, try to keep things positive, keep the production moving full steam ahead. It's a network and we all have to pull together. It's a group effort. It's only when I go into post production, editing and sound mixing that I become very territorial.
TH: Do you tend to shoot a lot of coverage and sort things out in editing, or are you more of an "in camera editor" filmmaker?
DT: So far, with my budgets and schedules I haven't really been given an opportunity to shoot excessive amounts of coverage. It's been very tight all the time. If I could shoot more takes, I would. I do hate CGI effects. I don't enjoy adding stuff in post production. So I guess maybe I'm an in-camera editor filmmaker overall. I've been avoiding incorporating CGI like the plague. Producers always suggest it. I just think it's so overdone really...and ruining horror movies...making them into cartoons.
TH: Do you have a specific "style" in mind when you set out to do a film, or does it emerge as the film progresses?
DT: It's instinctual. I try to capture the imagery, like a parapsychologist would record a paranormal event. Even though it's fantasy, it's not. The feeling behind it...because I have such a love for the occult, the macabre...it should have the aura of a witch's brew being stirred in a black pot, kind of an incantation. All the ingredients are there and the stars are aligned. When the trance is right, I feel I'm tapping into something else...something celestial...something demonic. I'm allowing the camera to be a vessel. The Kreskin hypnotizing sequence, in my second feature film, Horror, is a perfect example. The Devil was definitely in the church that day! I need to experience a sense of wonder and awe or it's not working. It's about sensations, feelings...not necessarily logic. Some people have said my movies are all style and no substance. My early scripts were skeletal, story wise, yes. I think with my films, the substance is in the style.
For more information on Dante Tomaselli, please check out his webpage here.
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