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In part two of this interview, I talked to Chris Diani about his beginnings as a filmmaker, and the origin of his first feature, CREATURES FROM THE PINK LAGOON. In this third installment, Chris gives me a deliciously detailed account of how the film was made, as well as some insight into the gay horror genre as a whole.
SEAN ABLEY: So you have your screenplay, and Lisa Anne as your producer. How long did it take from writing “Fade to black…” to getting your first shot off? Any major obstacles along the way?
CHRIS DIANI: Were there any obstacles? I’ll say! I shot the first version of CREATURES on Cape Cod with some of the guys from my discussion group. Only one of them was an actor, so most of the characters were written to closely resemble the personalities of the guys who were playing them. We shot the entire film—which was really more of an extended short back then—in one weekend, but I sat on the footage after that, reasoning that I’d be much more skilled at editing once I started film school back in Seattle in the fall.
School kept me busy for a while, but I’d occasionally pull out the footage and start assembling clips. I didn’t get very far, though; early in 2003 my apartment was broken into and burglarized. Strangely, the only items that were taken were my laptop (which had some footage loaded onto it) and my camera bag (which contained all of the CREATURES master tapes). In one fell swoop, my movie was gone.
At first I thought maybe one of my more competitive film school classmates had perpetrated the crime—it just seemed so odd that the only items stolen were related to CREATURES—but now I think it was just some crackhead breaking into an apartment, discovering the resident sleeping in the next room, and quickly snatching whatever he could grab. Oh, did I forget to mention I was home and fast asleep when this happened? Good times.
I was devastated at first; all that hard work and fun footage was lost forever. But the deeper I got into film school, the more I realized how little I’d known when I made that movie. Honestly, CREATURES 1.0 would have been an awful, amateurish mess. Maybe the universe was trying to tell me something with that break-in.
So I finished film school and started thinking about my first feature. I’d written two new scripts while in school, one a romance between a struggling writer and a closeted JFK Jr. type, the other a pitch-black comedy about an aspiring filmmaker who convinces a retired Oscar-winning double-amputee to be in his first movie, then turns to blackmail and murder when that actor dies before they can begin shooting. The title of that one: MR. HOOK HANDS.
Anyway, the script I kept going back to was CREATURES; I really wanted to remake it, especially now that I was back in Seattle, where I had access to a huge pool of professional actors and lots of other resources. But the script needed work; it was too short and not funny enough. So I enlisted my old friend and theatre cohort Basil Harris to help me expand the script and punch up the humor. We finished a new draft early in 2004 and started casting. Principal photography commenced on Labor Day weekend of that year.
There were a few incidents during production as well, but I’m pretty sure I mention those in the commentary and featurettes on our DVD.
ABLEY: How about casting? I’m assuming during the rewrite you wrote some of the roles for actors you knew.
DIANI: Like I mentioned earlier, the original roles were written for my friends from the men’s group back in Massachusetts. When I decided to remake the film in Seattle, a few actors did immediately come to mind: I’d worked with Nick on ZOMBIE PRIDE and knew he’d be perfect for Phillip, and Evan Mosher, who’d been in a sketch comedy group with Basil, was born to play Joseph. I also asked John Kaufmann to come in and read after seeing him play a gay punk rock wrestler in the play PILEDRIVER. The rest of the cast came to us through open auditions, recommendations from other actors… I even found some of my zombies by trolling the chat rooms on gay.com.
Once we had the cast in place, we held a workshop read-through, which helped Basil and I immensely when we went back and wrote our final draft. The character of Billy, in particular, was heavily influenced by this process; I initially imagined him to be more of a loutish goombah, but Vince Kovar brought a different, more appealing quality to the character. Plus those muscles!
ABLEY: I’m not going to say who is the cutest in CREATURES. (But Vince is the cutest!) Were you all living in the location? Or was it just a location?
DIANI: It was just a location; we shot on weekends only. But man, did we luck out! We’d asked the Washington State film office to help us find a beach house we could rent for our primary location, but almost all of the houses they had on file were on islands, which would have been cost-prohibitive and a logistical nightmare. The only file they had for a Seattle house was woefully incomplete; while the other files had multiple photos, color scans, and in some cases floor plans, this one only had two dark polaroids, one of which didn’t even show the house. But it was in West Seattle, so we decided to check it out.
It turned out to be perfect—a small cottage right on the beach, owned by a lonely eccentric who was so excited about having people around he let us use the house for almost no money. I think we paid him $350 for 15 days in that amazing location.
ABLEY: What was your budget? And what was the biggest favor you had to call in to get the film made?
DIANI: Our budget was super-low—under $50K. The entire film was made by calling in favors—the cast and crew worked for free, many of the props and costumes were borrowed or donated, breakfast was often a sack of free day-old bagels, we used my apartment and friends’ homes when we needed interiors, we even shot Billy’s locker room scene in the basement of the hotel I was working at at the time.
ABLEY: They say that you can pay a film cast and crew crap wages if you feed them well. Be honest—how many times did you feed everyone pizza?
DIANI: We ate pizza at least once every weekend. Is that a bad thing?
ABLEY: Only once a weekend is totally cool. My philosophy is: you can get away with pizza once a week, or as many times as you need for second meal. You mention reshoots a lot in your DVD commentary—why so many reshoots? And how could you afford it?
DIANI: Once we’d assembled a rough cut, we realized there were a few scenes we’d rushed through that really deserved more time and care. In addition, the original ending we’d shot wasn’t quite right and there were sound issues in various scenes. It took forever to get everyone’s schedules lined up, so we ended up starting reshoots a full year after we’d begun production, on Labor Day weekend of 2005. We shot eight more days over four weekends, along with several days of ADR at the audio postproduction house we were working with on the final mix.
As for the cost, my assistant director and co-editor Peter Torr stepped up to the plate and became a producer on the project, footing most of the bill. And at about the same time, my close friend Paul Andronik passed away; in his will, he left me some money explicitly earmarked for filmmaking. That money went towards finishing the film, which is dedicated to Paul.
ABLEY: CREATURES came out in 2006, when gay horror as a genre was just getting off the ground. Yes, there was HELLBENT and a few other super-low-budget gay horror flicks, but at the time I remember not being able to escape your dvd! It was everywhere. What are your thoughts about the scene when CREATURES came out?
DIANI: That’s really encouraging to hear, because I was convinced no one knew my movie even existed. It was an exciting time. There was a whole batch of gay horror films that came out around the same time—SCAB, DEAD SERIOUS, THE GAY BED & BREAKFAST OF TERROR, IN THE BLOOD—that were low-budget, sure, but we were putting gay horror on the map!
ABLEY: And how about now? Although I write a gay horror blog, and I have more than enough films and filmmakers to fill column inches, in some ways I really think the gay horror genre is dead, or at least on life support. Am I being too pessimistic?
DIANI: I’d love to say we’re about to see a second wave of indie gay horror films, but here’s the reality: gay horror is a niche within a niche. This makes it much harder to find a large enough audience to make your budget back, let alone make a profit. CREATURES, which as a gay horror comedy is actually a niche within a niche within a niche, probably won’t make a dime. That’s one of the reasons why my next film is going to be a romantic comedy.
But I’m not giving up on gay horror just yet. I think the film distribution game is going to radically change over the next few years. Digital delivery and social networking are making it easier for a filmmaker to find an audience, and devices like the iPad and the newest iPhone are making it easier for that audience to consume our media. We—and by “we” I mean the entire film community, from Hollywood down—just need to choose an industry standard and figure out how best to monetize the digital delivery of our films. Once we do, I’ll be able to get to work on a sequel to CREATURES as well as a FINAL DESTINATION-style horror project I’m currently developing. I might even make that one in 3D.
Meanwhile, I wonder if we’re about to see a new wave of gay subversion in mainstream horror films. FRIGHT NIGHT, one of the gayest horror films of the 80s, is getting a big-budget remake. And this year’s reboot of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was successful enough that they’ve ordered a sequel; here’s hoping the new NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 will be as crazily homoerotic as the original NIGHTMARE 2 was.
One final thing: it turns out Netflix is getting more selective in the films it chooses to offer to its subscribers. One factor in that decision is how many films in a given genre or from a particular distributor show up on subscribers’ rental queues. So if you want to see more gay horror, add gay horror films—even ones you’ve already seen—to your Netflix queue.
ABLEY: Did CREATURES do both the horror and the gay film fest circuit? How would you compare the reception to the film between the two?
DIANI: CREATURES didn’t play in any horror film festivals. In their defense, it’s a really gay film. But since coming out on DVD, we’ve been favorably reviewed by a lot of non-gay horror critics, so maybe horror festival attendees would have enjoyed my gay zombie opus. In the immortal words of Jerri Blank, I guess we’ll never know!
ABLEY: I don’t think most first time filmmakers realize how much of a minefield securing distribution can be. Besides “Have a good lawyer,” is there any advice for those filmmakers out there that are about to send that screener out to distributors?
DIANI: Have a good lawyer is definitely at the top of the list. Never take their first offer; negotiate everything. Don’t be afraid to walk away if the deal isn’t to your liking. Find out what kind of digital delivery they offer, or if they have a solid plan for expanding into the digital market. Find out if their movies are available on iTunes. Ask if they want to give your film a theatrical run—there are tons of smaller cinemas around the country running midnight programs that would love a good gay horror film. Make sure they distribute titles similar to yours; you don’t want your film to be the guinea pig for a newbie who’s looking to branch out. And most importantly, talk to other filmmakers whose films they distribute and find out whether they’re happy or not.
ABLEY: You mention on the commentary for CREATURES that you have an idea for a sequel. Any chance we’ll see it soon?
DIANI: I’d like to make a couple of features before I return to the Pink Lagoon, but CREATURES 2 is definitely going to happen. The plan is to set it in the disco era, at a Studio 54-esque dance club that gets attacked by gay vampires. The cast will include some favorites from the first film along with a bunch of new hotties.
ABLEY: And what about this other film you mention on your Facebook page, “…a screwball comedy about sugar daddies, furries, and lightning strike survivors.” Although those details are delish, what else can you tell us about the film?
DIANI: I love that you think my details are delish! That’s my new feature, LET’S PRETEND WE’RE BUNNY RABBITS—Yes, it’s named after a Magnetic Fields song. It’s a gay take on the sub-genre of screwball known as “the comedy of remarriage,” in which the main thrust of the film is to get the lovers back together after a failed relationship—vs. a traditional screwball or rom-com, in which the film is about the lovers first meeting, resisting their attraction, then admitting they’re made for each other. Classic examples of the comedy of remarriage include HIS GIRL FRIDAY, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, and THE PALM BEACH STORY.
Anyway, BUNNY RABBITS is about a pair of young gay artists—one’s a playwright and the other’s a painter—who are living in near-poverty in New York City. The playwright meets a worldly twink who convinces him he should be using his youth and good looks to snag a sugar daddy, but the rich older man the playwright hooks up with turns out to be a furry, and thinks the playwright is a furry as well. Meanwhile, the painter, along with his lesbian best friend—a new-age author and lightning strike survivor—follows his (now ex-) boyfriend to a hotel on Cape Cod that’s hosting simultaneous conventions of furries and lightning strike survivors. Hilarious complications ensue.
ABLEY: And finally, do you see yourself as a Seattle filmmaker for the duration? Or do you have plans to move to Los Angeles and join the industry rat race down here?
DIANI: As a filmmaker, I live by one golden rule: WWJWD? (What would John Waters do?) He’s found great success while still remaining in Baltimore, so I think I’d like to do the same thing here. Who knows, maybe one of my films will play at Sundance and I’ll be the toast of the town!
ABLEY: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
DIANI: Thank you for the grilling, Debbie Allen!
ABLEY: You want fame? Fame costs…
See the CREATURES FROM THE PINK LAGOON website here.
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