Dante: "At the very least, it's creepy
Conducted by Phil
July 23rd, 2004
You can read a previous interview with Dante here
I was so excited to have the
chance to talk to Director Dante Tomaselli recently, as he is highly
regarded as a brilliant talent, and is definitely going to be instrumental
in the future successes of the horror genre.
As most of you will no doubt already know, Dante is
hard at work finishing his latest feature 'Satan's Playground' and if you
ask me, it is going to be very frightening indeed.
I must say that I am looking
forward to 'Satan's Playground' as I have heard nothing but good things
and Ellen Sandweiss informed me that it will be "scary as hell". Is that
a good way to describe the film?
It is scary. I think it is. At the very least, it's creepy and unnerving.
It's a horror film, straight-up. I'd say it's "scary as hell," especially
since I've seen that quote being thrown around so much these days. But,
you know, it's hard to scare. Everyone is so jaded. But, to me, this
movie, out of all my films, is the most frightening, because it's about
being lost at night in the woods and coming upon a house of horrors. Real
simple and nightmarish. I used to have nightmares, in fact, just like
that -- that exact scenario. This movie is like a dream you can't wake up
from. I tried to make it very doomy...yet beautiful to look at. Satan's
Playground is like a pretty lady with a knife. Don't trust the texture,
the beauty, the smiles, there's something sinister lurking underneath.
Do you feel that your
education really prepared you for your first feature or was it a complete
Let's see...I had been making shorts all throughout my teens and twenties.
Some shot on video, some on 16 mm. I was usually the cameraman and always
composed the music. They were weird, experimental horror shorts. While I
was living in NYC, I made a series of Desecration shorts as sort of
practice for the feature. But nothing can really ever prepare you for
directing your first feature. It's a humbling, horrifying, exhilarating
experience (laughs). Actually, I had the best time of my life...but it's
scary. It's like popping your virginity, sort of. I'm a firm believer in
the "do it yourself" school of filmmaking. Meaning...I don't believe that
film school should be gospel. Just take some courses...yeah. Plenty of
people go to film school and go nowhere. I mean, it's good to take film
courses, here and there, just to know the basics...but the only real way
to learn how to make films, is to go out and make them. You just have to
have an obsession. You have to be obsessed. As far as my education...I
went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the New York School of Visual
Arts. I graduated with a B. F. A. in Advertising from the School of Visual
Do you feel that you can only
really learn the tricks of the trade once you are on set?
Do you feel that film theory
is an essential part of the learning process?
Um, not really...you just need a unique perspective...a new voice. Film
theory courses? I don't think they can hurt, they're very interesting and
helpful...but I don't think they're essential. Actually, I think it's
refreshing to block out all film theory and just go inside yourself and
pull out whatever is raw and real. Like, I don't know, I'm very interested
in what a girl from the Middle East would have to say. One who wears a
burqua. What are her visions?
I had read that your third
feature would be 'Apparition' what happened?
Well, there's a new title to that film now, it's The Ocean...It's a
shocking and gruesome horror movie about supernatural riptides, the ocean
itself revolting...I decided that Satan's Playground felt right to do as
my third film. Something was telling me...Satan's Playground. Plus, I knew
The Ocean would be a bit expensive, since it involves filming in and
around the ocean. I'd need a 1 million dollar budget, at least, for that
one, to do it right. Satan's Playground felt very organic....like its time
had come. There was always a feeling of destiny behind this movie, for the
actors, for me, for the producers, Millie Stanisic and Milka Stanisic, who
are, appropriately, sisters. I needed to make this film to prove to myself
that I can create movies for other people, not just myself. But I'm not
selling out. Just the opposite...I feel this is helping me grow as an
artist. It's very challenging. In the end, I want Satan's Playground to be
entertaining; it's a ride...a roller coaster in a funhouse.
What stage is the production
at? Are you in post?
Yes, I'm in post...I already wrapped shooting. Right now, I'm finishing up
editing and beginning the sound mix.
The film is set in the Pine
Barrens. Many people will obviously think it must be about the Jersey
Devil. Would this be a good assumption?
Oh yes, but that's not all it's about...the legend is kind of a backdrop,
an undercurrent. This movie is more about the feeling of being lost and
Was any of the film actually
shot in the Pine Barrens?
Practically all of it was...yes. A town called Whitesbog, deep in the
heart of the Pine Barrens region. Very spooky wooded area. It has an aura
of sin. Definitely a perfect place to film a movie called Satan's
Playground. A rep from the New Jersey Motion Picture Commission helped me
find the location. They were very helpful and found me Robert Zappalorti,
an expert on the Pine Barrens, who ended up playing a role in the film.
Dante with his script supervisor Susan Parsons.
The film is said to be
influenced by the horror movies of the late 70's and early 80's. Is this
a particular period in genre history that appeals to you?
Yes, in 1975, I was 5. In 83, I was 13. So, I got to see all these great
horror movies, the "golden age" of true horror, while I was a little kid
growing up. It was an incredible time to be a horror fanatic. I was like
the boy in Romero's Creepshow. My mother actually took me to see these
70's, early 80's movies because she knew how much I loved them. She
enjoyed horror films too, actually. I'd cut out Ads from the newspaper,
for movies like...It Lives Again, Prophecy, Phantasm, Invasion of The Body
Snatchers and just...stare at them. I was in love with all of this stuff
from early on. I'm not really sure why. Horror movie imagery and
sounds...pushed a button. I knew I would one day be making these films;
What are some of your
favourite movies from this period?
Halloween, The Brood, The Shining, The Exorcist, Burnt Offerings,
Phantasm, The Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes,
Creepshow, Rabid, The House That Dripped Blood, Don't Look Now, Suspiria,
The Fog, The Changeling, Tourist Trap, Black Christmas, Rosemary's Baby,
Let's Scare Jessica to Death, there are so many.
What do you think about recent
attempts to recapture the feel of that particular time period through
movies such as 'Wrong Turn', 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Hills Have
Eyes' remakes and the forthcoming 'Mojave'?
Well, I never saw any of those movies so I really can't comment. But I
know there's a renewed hunger...a thirsting for horror, true horror. That
I know. I'm glad - because horror is not a trend for me. I've always loved
horror films, probably since birth.
Your film has an amazing cast
of genre stars. How did they all get involved and what have they been
like to work with?
Thanks. It all happened very naturally. Felissa was always going to be the
lead in Satan's Playground. We met when we worked together on Horror. So
she was set. We were always looking forward to Satan's Playground like it
was this giant ball of energy on the horizon. I love Felissa. I started
writing the part of her sister with Ellen Sandweiss in mind. Of course,
The Evil Dead is one of my favorite films. I contacted her and sent her
the script -- and then after some fun phone conversations I finally met
her...Ellen Sandweiss AKA Cheryl from The Evil Dead! No way! It was at a
Chiller Convention in New Jersey. I was there to meet her for lunch with
the director of marketing at Anchor Bay, Tom Bambard. They both flew from
Michigan. We were all set to meet. Felissa came too. Talk about an energy
ball. After the lunch meeting, it was concrete to me that Felissa and
Ellen could effectively portray sisters. Regarding Edwin Neal...he came on
board after I had a scheduling conflict with Michael Berryman. I just
called him on the phone and asked him. Chris Garetano, the editor of Are
You Going? Magazine gave me his number. Felissa also gave me his number
because they had worked on a project together months earlier. Ed was
terrific on set, always giving his all. Felissa and Ellen are electrifying
in the film. They totally interlocked as sisters. What can I say? I had a
dream cast...it was a very intense, emotional work-out...for all of them.
Do you find that they are
modest about their popularity amongst the horror audience?
Very - yes.
Is it true that Ellen's
daughter has a small part now too?
Yes - she plays an angelic lost teen. And she's in a scene with her
mother. Jessy was great to work with; she's very talented...plus, of
course, it's so interesting knowing that she's the offspring of Ellen.
Jessy will play a possessed girl in an Exorcist-like role I have planned
for her. She'll be in my next movie. I'm writing a role for her in The
Ocean. She'll play Felissa Rose's daughter in the film. Jessy's character
will have echoes of her mother's Evil Dead character. She'll be spinning
in the air and spitting blood, that's for sure! I like the idea of the
passing of the torch...from generation to generation; kind of what my
films are about in a way.
Have you been overwhelmed by
the praise that you and your films have received?
Yeah...well praise can be a double-edged sword -- expectations are
suddenly very high. And some people just love to see you fall
or...fail...so they'll lash out...in a review...or a message board. Praise
is tricky...you really have to trust your inner voice.
I must ask you about Danny
Lopes. How did you find him and what is he like to work with?
It was 1997, I was 27, and I was about to shoot the feature length
Desecration. I had an actor ready to play Bobby; his name was, I think,
Rosario Vigilante. Well, the role was supposed to be a 15 year-old
Catholic Boarding school student. And...Rosario was 26 at the time. That
always bothered me. So I kept an Ad running in Backstage Magazine, and
like three weeks before the shoot, I got Danny's headshot in the mail.
There he was. That's Bobby. I contacted him, set up an audition, he was
just what I was looking for...and it turned out he was 15 years-old and
going to Catholic school. Perfect. As you know, Danny's been the
connective tissue in all my films now. Sort of my projected alter ego. In
Satan's Playground, he plays Sean, an autistic teen with psychic
What are your plans for
I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a Halloween theatrical release.
Chilling evil lurks in 'Satan's Playground'.
Can you tell us what rating
you expect to get and will it provide a good indication of the tone of the
Definitely rated R, even though the visuals are stylized...the subject
matter is grim and dark. It's a pretty violent film. Rated R for sure.
You also compose the scores
for all of your films. Does this really help you to get the scene exactly
as you intended?
Yes, especially as I'm picture editing. It's good for me to mix and
match...experiment with different sound textures. I discover the energy of
the scene, the true essence of it...only when the sounds, musical
compositions and images are merging. I'll always need to design my
soundtracks. I couldn't make a film any other way. I'm collaborating with
an excellent composer on Satan's Playground. His name is Ken Lampl.
You are a hands on Filmmaker.
Do you enjoy all aspects of filmmaking or is it just more cost effective
for you to do it?
Ummm...I mostly enjoy writing the script and post production. I love
editing and sound designing. Even when it's at its best, the actual
production can be, at times, grueling. 17 hours days. Lots of pressure to
bang out each and every scene in a limited amount of time. I'm lucky in
that in all my films, Desecration, Horror and Satan's Playground, I always
ended up with spectacular crews. Tim Naylor...I worked with him on
Horror...he's an excellent cinematographer and he just gets better and
better with each of my movies. I had an incredible Production Designer -
Art Director team in J. T. Camp and Pete Zumba. We totally communicated. I
had the best Assistant Director in the world, Jared Trimble. And no
production would be complete without my Script Supervisor, Susan Parsons.
I need her. The crew I had on Satan's Playground was the ultimate. It's
like we all came together for a reason, again...that sense of destiny.
I hate editing, I would much
rather be outside filming, than stuck in a small suite with no window and
just a computer in front of me. Whilst I am feeling technical, can you
tell us what equipment has been used for shooting and editing?
Let's see...I've been working with an Avid Media Composer. During the
Satan's Playground production, we had a Crane, a Phoenix Crane with a 3
Axis remote head. The cameras Tim used were two Super 16 mm SR 3's...one
was a high-speed SR 3. And some of the special rigs in the film...we had
Condors for night lighting, a Motorcycle rig for a surging camera effect,
a Double Arm rig for floating shots of the Demon chasing Felissa through
What will you be working on
once you have finished the film?
The Ocean...my horror movie about supernatural riptides. I'll also be
creating an audio CD of electronic music called Sex, Death & the
Supernatural. Kind of like Depeche Mode and John Carpenter hallucinating.
Mainly, I want to make one horror movie after another. The idea, the
goal...each time...to make the next one spookier, scarier.
"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."