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Bart Mastronardi is part of the East Coast low-budget horror film community that seems to crank out genre features and shorts about once a month, more often than not with him behind the camera as the DP. His first feature as a writer/director, VINDICATION, was anointed by no less than Clive Barker, and the upcoming DVD release from Big Bite Entertainment/R2 Films carries his seal of approval.
SEAN ABLEY: What’s your background? You strike me as a New York City boy through and through.
BART MASTRONARDI: I am a total New York City Italian boy through and through. I was born and raised in Queens, where I still live and work. I am proud to call myself a New Yorker. My family came from Italy and worked on the docks in Brooklyn, and then moved over to Queens. I come from a family of NYC police officers, but where the filmmaking and art love comes from is beyond me. But New York is the best city in the world, hands down. There is something about it that is inspiring. The look and feel of the city has always been inspiring and alive for me, lots of energy. The city has so much life and so many different ethnic groups that everyone and anyone is here. That’s what I appreciate about the city so much. You want anything, you can find it here, but then I like to go out of the city to remind myself how important the city is to me.
When I was filming VINDICATION, I made sure to shoot scenes on the subway and around the city to give the movie a certain feel. I hate when a movie is supposed to be New York City and it’s clearly Canada. I know it’s expensive, but you can tell the difference. VINDICATION was guerrilla filmmaking, which made it a bit nerve-wracking, but I made sure we moved real fast and gave the film a look that you can only get on a New York subway. I spend much of my time between New York and Pennsylvania, and there’s something about driving over the George Washington Bridge back into the city and seeing the skyline—like no other city in the world.
ABLEY: When did you come out? Was that a tough process for you?
MASTRONARDI: Oh, here come the tough questions. I promise I won’t cry like in a Barbara Walters interview. OK. This is tough, because my coming-out experience was not an easy process for me. I have some terrible memories, which is reflected in VINDICATION to a degree. At times, I hid for so long because I felt scared. I’m a Catholic, my parents wouldn’t accept it and what business is it of someone to know if I am gay or not? But today, I feel like I have a sense of responsibility to people who struggle themselves. I wish it were easier for me, as it is for some. It is not a good feeling when you’re uncomfortable within your own skin.
The stereotypical idea of being a gay person is what conflicted me was the most. I would look at the stereotypes and then look at myself and think, “That is not me.” But as I began to research and explore who I was and began searching out positive role models for myself, I started to feel more comfortable within my own skin. Stereotypes are just labels. People are who they are regardless. I value and understand that now.
Coming out for me involved reading The Advocate, cutting college and going to photo galleries that contained gay art or art from gay artists. I would read articles on gay rights and talk to people who were gay. I wanted to be sure of who I was and what I was feeling was true, rather than that silly notion of burning in hell. I believed as a young man struggling that God was going to punish me. How ridiculous was that? Now I believe that all of us are perfect creations. People make judgments out of fear. Knowledge is power. I understand now and valued myself more once I began to accept that my feelings were true to me. Life became so much easier and more rewarding once I understood that.
Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t faced discrimination in some way. I was 25 when I was involved in a gay-bashing with a former ex and it wasn’t pretty…for them. [Laughs] Imagine five 20something-year-olds coming up to my ex and me calling us “faggot” and some stupid queer BS. One of them took a swing at my ex, and all hell broke loose. They thought they had the upper hand, and they had some punches and kicks in there and left us black and blue. But we certainly beat and kicked the shit out of them. To a degree, they were not expecting “faggots” to hit back. Go figure. My kickboxing class came in handy. No holds barred. They left with just as many bruises. I remember the next day I was in so much physical pain, but it felt great to have stuck up for myself. To hell with that.
Being gay is a part of me. It is a part I am proud of, and looking back now, it’s great to see this generation of young people looking past the fears and being accepting of all people even more. I am happy more people are opening up about their sexuality, and by that I mean just being honest. You don’t have to shout it out to the world, but there’s nothing wrong with being who you are. The world will always have its fair share of problems, but it seems to be getting better with each new generation. Plus, now that I am in a relationship, life has only gotten better. My partner David has become my life.
ABLEY: How long have you and David, been together? How did you meet?
MASTRONARDI: David and I met through a mutual friend, Bryan. We e-mailed back and forth, and then Bryan had his annual great NYC Halloween party. I went out and bought a digital camera purposely because I am still a film nut, but I’d be damned if I was going home without instant photos of him. I thought if it didn’t work out, then, well, I took photos with this hot man. When I saw David that night, for me he was it. I knew in my heart. He looked at me and smiled and I melted. God, so corny to tell, but so damn true. We celebrate our anniversary on Halloween.
David and I have been together almost two years now. Still a young relationship, but it only gets better each day. As in all relationships, you have to be honest with what you want in it and make sure you keep it going. Like all couples in a relationship, there are days we argue, but I can sit and look at David from across the room and still it feels like that first day. We have been through a lot during our first year, with people close to us dying, and I feel that has brought us stronger together. Also, this past Christmas was fun because I brought David over to meet the family. My mom still has issues with my sexuality, but she is opening up and taking baby steps. David’s family is great; we have so much fun together.
I’m kind of glad that we have our perks, because it brings us closer together. We value our time together that much more. Love is a small word with a lot of meaning, and it needs to be respected more, and not confused with lust. I laugh because so many straight people, and gays too, in politics do not want gays to get married. But my God, the divorce rate among straight people alone is pathetic. All I want for David and me is to have the same protection as a married couple. Call it marriage, call it whatever you want, but allow me the rights, protection and privileges that other married couples have.
ABLEY: And what a score—you found someone into horror!
MASTRONARDI: I am the luckiest man alive, as is he. [Laughs] FRIDAY THE 13TH is our favorite horror movie! When we’re together, when we’re not busy, we will watch horror movies all night. We love it. We go to the conventions and have so much fun. Our favorite is when we go out with our friend Alan Rowe Kelly: dinner, dessert and bad movies. To sit and listen to Alan and David laugh together all night—I love every moment. Yes, I am blessed. Horror movies have been as much a part of my life as being gay is to me, so to have a life-partner who loves horror movies in the same way is heaven on Earth for me. It makes the relationship so much more compatible. For Valentines’ Day, he gave me a bunch of FANGORIA issues I didn’t have. That is love, baby! I am a blessed man. David is gorgeous and loves horror. Hot damn!
ABLEY: Did you always want to be a filmmaker? Did you have other careers in mind?
MASTRONARDI: I remember always wanting to be a marine biologist and a filmmaker also. I saw JAWS, so I fell in love with the ocean and sharks, but looking back now it was JAWS as a movie that enthralled me. My father always brought my brother and me to the movies on a Saturday or when a big movie opened up. I loved to go out to the theater and see moving pictures, larger than life. I wanted to do what filmmakers did. I would get all my neighborhood friends from the block and we would put on small plays and play the movies I loved to watch, even the horror ones. Parents thought I was a bit sick in the head, but I was having fun. I knew the difference between fake and real. I remember reading FANGORIA at six and collecting it at 12. I would read it cover to cover. I still do. I wanted to make movies, particularly horror movies. FRIDAY THE 13TH scared the shit out me, but I went back for more. STAR WARS and FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER solidified my love for the movies. I knew I wanted to make them, but how?
As I grew up and went to college, I started to lose the dream. It became obvious that the only way to make a movie was to know someone or have lots of money. I had neither. With fear, we stop to go to a much more comfortable place of work. I sat as a pencil pusher behind a desk. What a waste of my time, education and my passion for making movies. I received my BA in Film Studies before digital became the norm, so again, no money for Kodak. Then I decided to use my degree and teach. If I couldn’t make films, I could at least inspire others about them. Then I took my money and took part in the Film and Photographic Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, ME, which still is the best summer of my educational life. I studied with the best ASC cinematographers around, and they showed me all the tricks of the trade. I studied hard and worked my ass off there. I wanted to be a cinematographer and a filmmaker. I was doing just that. I began living my dream. VINDICATION is a result of Maine. They taught me how to do simple tricks on any given camera with a low budget. I was inspired and motivated. Thus, VINDICATION began to form at that point.
ABLEY: You have a background in both film and theater. Do you plan to continue doing both? Or is it film all the way for you now?
MASTRONARDI: I want to do both. From when I was a teenager into my very early 20s, I spent a lot of my time as a member of the Spotlight Players Community troupe in Ozone Park, Queens, where I trained a lot and learned my craft with a limited budget. Today, however, it seems filmmaking is pulling me. Both require a lot of work and focus. Theater is much freer for me, where film can be a bit technical. Both have their differences. My training ground has been the theater, and if you are truly serious about your craft, then you must study there.
It is a wonderful experience to work in the theater. I wouldn’t mind going back and forth between stage and film. VINDICATION derives a lot from theater and it shows, but it also uses cinema as its point of origin. I was happy to be able to connect the two elements together—though my next project, a short piece, will be more cinematic. However, I want to direct the play WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? with Alan Rowe Kelly and Jerry Murdock. That would be an interesting play to direct. Also, I would love to direct CORPUS CHRISTI by Terrence McNally.
ABLEY: How did you find the film community you’re so immersed in now? Or did they find you?
MASTRONARDI: The universe has a funny way of bringing people together in the most unlikely ways and moments. I was doing work as a cinematographer, and VINDICATION’S composer Billy Archiello was doing computer research and saw an ad for a low-budget horror movie that needed promotion—it was MALEVOLENCE by Steven Mena. Billy answered the ad and we went out to promote it. There I met filmmaker Adam Barnick, and we just started talking horror movies. He told me about a genre-meeting event called Mingle Mangle that Susie Adriensen ran. So I went to one, and in walked Alan Rowe Kelly, and he needed a DP—and I was one. To make a long story short, Alan hired me based on my short version of VINDICATION.
By March, we were filming THE BLOOD SHED, and from there I began meeting all these talented people and branching out. Alan knew Michael Gingold from FANGORIA and I shit myself, because I love the magazine. Who knew that a year later a few of us would be the subject of a major article in the magazine, and that FANGORIA would come down to visit my set when I was filming VINDICATION? From there it has been nonstop.
But if you want to keep up with this business, you must keep working hard and getting your work out there. I’m here because I’ve met some of the most generous people in this business, who saw something in my work. I knew that my dreams of being a filmmaker were in the palm of my hands. Together with the talent pool of Alan and his company of filmmakers, along with my company, we all came together and said that if we were going to make movies together, we had to raise the bar. No excuses for low-quality work. We’ve been working together for five years, and still our group is strong and growing. Now we put more money in and draw more talent our way. We are blessed, but we work hard.
ABLEY: I remember when I saw THE BLOOD SHED, I was really impressed with the cinematography, especially all the handheld stuff in the dinner scene. Low-budget films can be deadly when it comes to camera work, but BLOOD SHED looks really great. When Alan and I started talking about doing a project together, I told him, “I want that DP!” How do you approach a freewheeling film like BLOOD SHED? Did you and Alan storyboard stuff out? Wing it? Combo of both?
MASTRONARDI: Thank you for your kind words. I take pride in being a cinematographer. It was a combination of both, actually. Being a cinematographer is the best job on set next to director. You have to read the script and understand that there is a world that exists within it. It has living and breathing characters filled with emotions. When I work on any script, I must focus on that idea, then I begin to make notes and draw images in the margins. Alan and I have a wonderful working relationship where we seem to read each other’s minds. I’ll show him an idea, and if he likes it, we do it. We both love making movies, and BLOOD SHED is proof of that.
I remember the night before we started filming. I wanted to throw up in the toilet. I was so nervous. This was my first feature film on a low-budget scale. I knew Alan had made a movie prior to that, and it was a success. I’LL BURY YOU TOMORROW won major awards and festivals, but I know the ins and outs of indie filmmaking and I wanted to ensure that it would be a smooth ride for him on BLOOD SHED. We had so much fun and laughed so damn much. To get back to the point, it was my job along with the crew to help Alan get his vision across. Storyboarding, shot lists and all the other technical ways of making a movie were somewhat present, but when everyone is in sync with the movie, many times we just shoot.
ABLEY: Just because I love the title, what is DING DONG DATE?
MASTRONARDI: DING DONG DATE is a short movie I shot for director Stolis Hadjicharalambous. It is a hysterical piece about a man’s paranoia about a blind date. I think it was for his college class. Stolis used my house for much of the filming, and it worked out great. I hope Stolis is able to release it. It really is a funny little movie.
ABLEY: One of the things I noticed about your work on Alan’s brutal A FAR CRY FROM HOME is the shots that you wouldn’t normally find in a low-budget film with a lesser DP—good coverage, multiple angles for each scene, insert shots that actually fit within the piece. Knowing that low-budget films have very tight schedules, I imagine you were running your ass off getting all that stuff.
MASTRONARDI: We are all running our asses off, trust me, but more importantly, I was thinking how to make the shots even more interesting for the story. All of FAR CRY was handheld. No tripod. We had no lights except these fluorescent handheld bulbs for $10 from Home Depot and my huge reflector screen. I had three on my crew, and we worked fast. I would see something on location and create the shots. I believe for FAR CRY there was no shot list at all—just Alan knowing what he wanted. Plus, having Stolis on set helped, because he was the editor and would encourage Alan to get more shots if needed. Alan wanted a very edgy story, and we needed to move fast for shooting purposes. The main characters in the script feel it isn’t a safe place for them to be in, and I had to emulate that on the screen. Shooting only handheld made it much more uncomfortable.
I remember a scene when Alan is stuck with Jerry Murdock’s vile character. He pins Alan up against a wall. I made sure to use a tighter lens on that to show a lot more claustrophobia within the scene. It was a tight space to begin with, and it felt that much more real. Then when it was edited with sound and music, it created more tension within the scene.
The subject matter was very personal to me, as it deals with ignorance, homophobia and gay-bashing. I wasn’t out to Alan or my crew at the time, but I understood what Alan’s character felt. I love FAR CRY FROM HOME because we did it in a week, shot on this great location; we lived in hotels and ate the best food on an indie set. Alan fed us very well; never any pizza. That’s filmmaking on a low budget!
ABLEY: I know Tom Savini has said that viewing all the horrible stuff he saw in Vietnam through a camera lens gave him a sort of distance from it, which on some level made it easier. Now, having quoted that, I realize no matter how grueling the experience, shooting a film couldn’t be nearly as harrowing as being a war photographer. But I still wonder—FAR CRY is so brutal and angry. You had to shoot your friends either being gay-bashed mercilessly, or spewing awful, hate-fueled dialogue. Is a DP protected emotionally from that stuff by the camera, or do you take it on like the actors do?
MASTRONARDI: I take it in as a DP also. It is important to get close to the work, because that makes it much more believable. Now, one shouldn’t go overboard with it and live it out, but what any filmmaker or artist understands is that creating something requires a feeling or emotion to convey it to the audience. In FAR CRY’s case, I connected to the movie because of my own experience with my sexuality. I wasn’t out to Alan or to my crew, but I internalized and brought out the emotions through the tools of filmmaking. In this case, the camera, the lens, the choice of color palette, the costumes, the sets, the location, the script, etc… I know when we made THE BLOOD SHED, it was so much fun. Those characters were larger than life and, to a degree, campy, but in FAR CRY this was a serious subject. It can happen. It has happened. It will continue to happen as long as people are ignorant.
I remember when shooting FAR CRY, it wasn’t laughs or humor all day. You felt the emotions of the script and what the actors were bringing to their roles. It was sheer brutality. When we went back to the hotels, it was a somber mood until we went out to eat and relaxed. FAR CRY felt real; we all felt the reality of the story. Horror is what I wanted to convey through the camera. The emotions and reality of the movie had to speak the truth, otherwise it wouldn’t be believable. It is a true horror movie. FAR CRY is certainly one of Alan’s most moving pieces for me.
ABLEY: CROSSED is an action film directed by Stolis, who also works a lot as an editor. Do you find working with an editor/director who’s cutting the footage you’re shooting a challenge?
MASTRONARDI: If you can establish a great working relationship with anyone and not take yourself too seriously, then you open yourself up to better ideas. By listening to those ideas, you can craft your work much more. Teaming with Stolis is great, because he brings a lot to the table of editing. He has a great talent for it. VINDICATION received numerous complements for the editing. Yes, I have my idea and I indicate to Stolis what I want, but he also will see something I’m not and will edit it. All filmmakers should have it so easy and good as I have when editing with Stolis. Having him on set is fun because he is a filmmaker, as I am. He knows his craft, and I trust him on it when making decisions.
I remember the suicide scene in VINDICATION. I said I wanted the main character Nicolas’ suicide attempt to play as if a computer is melting down. I gave him more instructions, and then he just went and edited it. What has been wrought is amazing work. Stolis should be proud of his work on VINDICATION.
(In Part Two of this interview, Bart and I talk in depth about VINDICATION.)
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