Since his first feature film in 1999, filmmaker Dante Tomaselli has been working hard to establish a career in the horror realm by creating sometimes impenetrable works which don’t follow the conventional three act template. Sometimes haunting, frustrating, and befuddling in one go, he’s made three films – Desecration (1999), Horror (2002), and Satan’s Playground (2005) – that have augmented his stature as an independent filmmaker whose talent is slowly coalescing into a recognizable name on the horror scene.
Now beginning production on his fourth film, The Ocean, Tomaselli’s career is the result of hard work outside of the studio system: the financing is tougher to come by, you willingly wear several hats to get the film done, and have a more direct relationship with fans and detractors, the latter sometimes vociferously launching verbal salvos with their own level of passion and glee.
This interview reveals a passionate and determined filmmaker with a deep interest in experimental and surreal film, yet with each completed production, he’s a bit wiser to the vagaries of the industry, and realistically addresses the business aspects of the process to ensure each project is followed by another to keep the creative juices flowing, and the career moving full steam ahead.
Mark R. Hasan : One aspect that’s very challenging to filmmakers who want to produce their first effort – admittedly, partly out of necessity — is organizing the financing, because without the funds to back a production, the venture remains a dream.
There are a number of methods filmmakers have used to get their productions going — selling stock, visiting every known dentist and doctor in the family, rich friends, setting up a formal business plan — and I wonder if you could compare the main steps you took to finance your first three films. I imagine Desecration was the toughest, while your second and third films — Horror and Satan’s Playground — were more firmly financed because you had the beginnings of a filmography.
Dante Tomaselli : Well, I was possessed with the idea that before my 30th birthday, my first feature would be completely finished and distributed. So when I graduated from college, I was like a horse let out of the gate. I put all my energies into my short films. There was always the intent of making a feature. I kept my eye on the prize.
Throughout my late teens and my early to mid-20s, I was living in NYC, trying to survive in cockroach infested apartments. I had many degrading telemarketing jobs, I sold ad space, shot cable commercials, I was a security guard, I did anything to pay for film stock… and rent.
I remember after graduating from the New York School of Visual Arts, just feeling completely consumed with creating Desecration, almost to the point of psychosis. The images and sounds were pouring out of me, especially after my visit with an acupuncturist/herbalist in Chinatown who burned my back… along the spine… in three spots, releasing… something.
I had insomnia for weeks, though I didn’t need sleep… I was wide awake! I was surviving on some mysterious energy. No. Not drugs! Over the next few months I made a series of low budget 16mm shorts, and started entering them into film festivals. I sent them out everywhere, figuring something would stick, somewhere, somehow. Nothing. No film festivals wanted them.
I kept on making these shorts, over and over and over, even though most people around me thought I was fucking out of my mind! I lost a lot of friends during this period. I remember, it was me…against the world. You were on my side or not. I saw my future peeking over the horizon, it didn’t matter jealous or judgmental friends couldn’t see it.
I guess they thought I was insane for making films about a caged boy with a deranged mother armed with a baby bottle filled with hallucinogens (laughs). I think eventually the shorts improved in quality because they started to get accepted to some film festivals and, wildly enough, would play at different S&M clubs and bars in NYC. Many times with no sound, just the background imagery. The clubs would loop them.
During this time I was definitely creatively nurtured and inspired by a filmmaker named Cherel Ito. I met by her by chance. We were just magnetically drawn to each other at a post office in the West Village. Incredibly, Cherel was the Executrix of the Maya Deren estate! I couldn’t believe it! Of course I am a huge fan of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Big influence. Maya Deren is the grandmother of surrealism!
Cherel and I became very close and she definitely helped me in many ways. I lived on West 10th and Bleeker and she was just down the street. We had a unique relationship and she kind of guided my career for a while. Cherel said she was psychic… and due to her urgings, in 1996 when I was 26, I attended Angelika Film Center’s Independent Feature Film Market with a trailer for Desecration. At one of the screenings I met Jack Swain, who turned out to be the main investor for the $150, 000 feature length Desecration.
MRH : Did Desecration enjoy an extensive theatrical run, and did that help in getting a home video label interested in distributing the film? And secondly, because this was early into DVD, did you findDesecration benefited in being among the first crop of horror films to be distributed on DVD, since it was a few years later when stores would begin a slow purge of their VHS inventory?
DT : It made its World Premiere at the 1999 Fantafestival in Rome Italy, and then about six months after that it came out on DVD through Image Entertainment, one of the pioneers of laserdisc. While all the other horror films were being released straight to video, straight to VHS, Desecration did benefit from being the first new horror movie to debut on DVD. This was 1999… a different time. Everything that was coming out on DVD at that point was established and already released either theatrically or on VHS. Desecration was a DVD debut, it was a new concept. Now you see it all the time, butDesecration was actually the first.
MRH : During a film’s pre-production phase, do you have a specific marketing plan set up, or do you get your inspiration from the footage, the realized concept, and specific images that resonate after the first assembly edit? (Your first two films used particularly arresting campaign art, and made them stand out.)
DT : So far, with all my movies… it always starts with poster art. With Desecration it was faceless nuns… and the tagline… ”You will burn in Hell”… With Horror, it was a black satanic goat in a priest’s outfit. Satan’s Playground… the image of woods… and dried blood. And the tagline… ”Enter if you Dare.” Of course, you’ve seen the preliminary poster art for The Ocean… it has a child drowning. “A new wave in terror.”
MRH : Have you found over the years it’s been difficult to convince producers and distributors that it’s worth funding projects that strive to go beyond the familiar concepts and stories that assault the horror fan on home video?
I ask this because there’s a number of indie labels catering to the gore market; sub-labels by secondary and major labels wanting to cash-in by making cheap, disposable films; and Hollywood studios who fund incoherent films that use loud sound design and fast editing to get around the problem of badly written scripts in place of striving for anything original.
DT : It’s a complete nightmare out there for independent filmmakers. It’s a swirling mess. I hate film markets. I hate film festivals. Some directors love that stuff. Not me. You just have to be your own riptide, follow your own path. I can’t really complain too much because all of my feature films got made and found distribution. My early films were extremely bizarre and low budget… and the labels … Image… Elite… especially Anchor Bay… they all did great work releasing them.
I’ve been quietly chipping away, making the movies I want to create. I guess I force these films into existence. It’s kind of a do or die mentality. Life is not worth living if I can’t make the film I want. And I’d rather live… so I’m relentless. I’m a slave to the creation of these films. There’s nothing else.
MRH : Did aspects of Deren and Ito’s work influence your approach to realizing your nightmares on film?
DT : Yes, I learned of a kind of trance film. Ever since I was a little boy, I was a starer, always staring. I was kind of out of control sometimes. My mother would have to say, “Stop staring!” My eyes did exactly what they wanted, though. I understood the idea of looking at something, one thing… for an unusually long period of time, becoming fixated on it… hypnotized. I think that’s what I’ve tried to do with my films so far. They’re ambient horror films. Trance films. I want the viewer to stare.
When I met Cherel Ito, she was editing and distributing Deren’s final film, Divine Horseman, a fascinating stream-of-consciousness documentary about Haitian Voodoo. Of course, Maya Deren’s non-linear masterpiece, Meshes of the Afternoon, was a big influence, especially on my first film,Desecration. I loved the idea of a time/space dislocation. I understood it.
MRH : Most horror filmmakers tend to fixate on familiar icons, stylistic conventions, and what’s in vogue (which of late, has been torture and sadism). While mainstream horror fans might regard your interest in and application of surrealism and experimentalism as too demanding, do you feel the genre needs a bit of jostling, and audiences should be accepting of films beyond the predictable studio product?
DT : Oh I definitely felt the wrath of experimental film haters on message boards, so I know.
A large segment of the mainstream audience… they want to be spoon fed, they need to know what’s going on in a movie at all times. I’m the opposite; I like a film to take me by surprise… I love to get lost in a movie; I love to have no idea where it’s taking me, something like Jacob’s Ladder or Don’t Look Now or Alice, Sweet Alice. I love to feel perplexed. I guess that’s why my films tend to operate on a more internal dream logic.
My detractors will always be there, waiting in the wings to pounce on my movies, saying they make no sense. On the other end of the spectrum… there are people who really defend my films, enjoy them… and crave more. Some of these people are pretty fanatical. I know…because I get their emails, letters and gifts. This has been happening steadily since Desecration. This intense love-hate, this extreme polar opposite type energy… it’s the ingredients for a storm. I feel it brewing. I do. I’m like Damien looking in the mirror at my 666 scar. I know my time will come.
MRH With each film, you’ve seen shifts in the way technology has reduced the costs and somewhat simplified the myriad levels post-production. In addition to the obvious — an affordable work station where you can edit, mix, and master a film onto DVD — what are some of the other major advances or trends that have made it possible for you to further realize a vision, and get it to audiences?
DT : Hmmm… Well, stuff like Avid off-line editing definitely helps. When I went to film school in the late 80s and early 90s, we were all cutting and splicing negatives. I never liked that honestly. It seemed so primitive at the time and I knew something better was on the horizon. The fact that it’s all digital now really helps.
Actually, I think it’s the best time ever for a filmmaker to find an audience. The Internet is really the best advance, the best trend. I owe a lot to the information highway. Just do a Google search on my name. From a marketing standpoint, most of the sales of my movies so far have been through the internet, especially Amazon.com. Though with Satan’s Playground, Anchor Bay got it out to all the Walmart stores, Blockbusters and many well-known chains, which was great.
MRH : The aforementioned post-production workstation — usually on a Mac – has given filmmakers the freedom to do many things, including scoring and sound designing their films. Has co-scoring Satan’s Playground been a positive experience, and were you able to keep a balance between your ideas, and those of Kenneth Lampl ?
DT : Well, I tend to have a very specific way I score and sound design my films. I plan it all here at my home studio… and I create a demo. I have an extensive collection of rare samples, thousands and thousands… and I have a Roland Synthesizer.
Basically, I assign a sound to a particular keyboard note and I mix and play that way. Sometimes I’ll employ natural soundscapes, like earthquakes… volcanoes… avalanches… It gives scare sequences an organic feel, I think. There’s just something about the rumbling of an earthquake or the tremors of a landslide… you can feel reverberations of violence, emotional violence.
For Satan’s Playground, Kenneth Lampl supplied some terrific orchestral and synthesizer compositions… and I mixed the pieces where I wanted them, chopped them up, looped them. I also took compositions from other composers and layered them with my own stuff.
I know it’s not the traditional way where one specific composer scores his music to specific scenes. I don’t like that. I like to paint with sounds and compositions… and I need a gigantic palette. I don’t make comedies or dramas or love stories. They’re horror movies. It’s all about mood. A real emphasis has to be placed on the sound. I want it to be 3-D-like, like an out-of-body-experience. [Click HERE for a demo clip.]
To me, the film’s soundscape is 50% of the film’s equation. It’s half of the movie! I like to have it mostly planned out before I shoot. Of course once the picture is being edited, the demo will change. But at least I will have that soundtrack demo as a kind of a road map. And we can build from it… embellish on it. In the end, this saves money and time during the expensive and crucial sound mixing stage.
MRH : Another benefit of having a complete post-production system in the office corner is the time it affords one to refine editorial ideas, but I wonder if you found such a setup can present some unexpected issues, like giving one too much time to fiddle and settle on a final creative choice?
DT : Right. Yes. That sense of immediacy, that sense of urgency… of being with an editor in some expensive editing suite and having a certain amount of time allocated to complete something… It’s different now, because I know now I can just go home and tweak and play even further. Once home, I stare at the footage, try to learn every nook and cranny… just let it gestate in my mind. I plan what should be done the next day, but I like to leave it open a bit.
I cherish that director-editor relationship… that chemistry. Although I have a very clear idea of what I want, it’s collaborative. I’m not an editor, I respect what a good editor can bring to the table. I am, though, a musician… and I should continuously work on the soundtrack at home, anywhere. I’m much more anal about the sound design.
MRH : The most popular fantasies in establishing a film career are selling a million dollar script, making an unforgettable short film, or a trail-blazing feature movie, and while miracles have worked for a few, these aren’t the norm in studio and independent film production. What are the most important things you’ve learned from working your way up?
DT : You can’t skip from A to Z. You have to go through the entire alphabet. For example, some kid in film school says with total confidence, “Oh I’ll be getting $2 million for my first feature.” The kid talks and talks and many years pass and… nothing. So many talkers out there. I hate talking. I hate festivals. I hate the game. I don’t want a spotlight on me. I’m a shy person. It’s not about instant fame. It’s all about the films. With me, this has a been a slow-burn, a real learning process. I’ve gone from $150, 000 to $250, 000 to $500, 000.
MRH : And finally, what personal and professional gains do you hope to realize with your current project, The Ocean?
DT: Well, with all the tools I need, great supportive producers in Kindred Media Group and the most solid script I’ve ever had thanks to co-writer Michael Gingold, I expect for it to be my best movie. The budget is $1.8 million. That’s a giant step up. Also, I have an incredibly loyal creative team that I’ve been working with for years and we’re all set to really deliver on this film… really push the envelope. There’s just A LOT of energy, a tremendous amount… like a tsunami wave building. I definitely believe in the power of positive visualization… that’s how I’ve done all of this so far… and I do see a tidal wave… on the horizon. I see it with my eyes closed. I see it with my eyes opened.
KQEK.com would like to thank Dante Tomaselli for his generous time.
Additional information on the director and his latest film, The Ocean, is available HERE.
A 2014 interview with Dante Tomaselli is also available.
All images remain the property of their copyright holders.
This article and interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan