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Dante Tomaselli

Dante: "At the very least, it's creepy
and unnerving".

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
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 culture shock?
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 Arts.

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 relentlessly stalked.

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; somehow, someway.

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 abilities.

What are your plans for distribution?
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 movie?
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 the woods...

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 Dante.
And we wish you the very best of luck in the future."

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