Gay of the Dead: Dante Tomaselli, Part Three
In Part Two of my interview with Dante Tomaselli, we chatted about being out, his music and films, and I compared him to an autistic genius (which he took well). In this final of three parts, we talk about his regular cast members (Danny Lopes and Christie Sanford), THE OCEAN (what happened?), more filmmaking, and just what is he doing when he’s not making a film?
FANG: You’ve used Danny Lopes and Christie Sanford in all of your films. In an interview around the release of SATAN’S PLAYGROUND, you mentioned that he was your projected alter ego. Still the case? He’s about ten years younger than you – are his characters you ten years ago?
TOMASELLI: I met Danny when he was 15. I was casting for the lead role of DESECRATION and he came along and swooped up the part easily. He was already going to Catholic school and was overall exactly what I was going for in terms of the character, the lead in DESECRATION. He owned it. Plus, he told me that he’s the son of a Jeweler, just like me. Apparently my parents and his parents even briefly knew each other back in the day. Danny said my Dad helped his Dad with advice in the Jewelry business. It does seem like Danny Lopes is my alter ego in my films. He’s like a younger brother to me and I’m very protective of him. Yes, his roles are probably projections of my forbidden side. Especially his role in HORROR. I don’t want to be contrived so I don’t plan for him to be in my films. If it feels right, and he fits the part, then it happens.
FANG: It seems like Christie is your Mink Stole. (Again, a compliment). What is it about her that drives you to create roles for her?
TOMASELLI: Same with Christie Sanford. I never actually create a part with her in mind. She just always naturally fits a lead role in my projects. God, we’ve worked together since 1993, when I was 23 and living in NYC on West 10th and Bleecker. Every single short and feature of mine she’s starred in. We’re so aligned that I direct her almost telepathically. Christie was the bewitching lady of clay that I was dreaming about when I was a little boy. I used to fantasize about being a horror film director and used to watch films like TOURIST TRAP and THE SHINING and fantasize that I actually directed them. I could only imagine what a big deal that would be, and it gave me a feeling of virtual accomplishment. I always knew I wanted to make horror movies. This path stretches out far.
Anyway, I have VHS tapes of Christie sitting in front of my camera in my old NYC apartment and practically shape shifting. Her facial expressions were so bizarre, contorting to a possessed look very quickly. I always would tell her to open her mouth and smile as widely as possible, show all her teeth. She’s a monster. We’ve been practicing this stuff for years. Christie and I had no idea what was in store for us back then in the mid-90s, but we both sensed some powerful experiences were on the horizon. DESECRATION, HORROR, SATAN’S PLAYGROUND, TORTURE CHAMBER. Those movies were right around the corner. I remember when we finally shot the nursery room scene in DESECRATION, I had a tear in my eye. The flickering lights, the giant toy blocks, the Jack in the Box, the cage. This densely hallucinated image… Here it was. And what an apparitional performance by Christie. She took my breath away.
FANG: As I was putting this interview together, H.R. Giger just died after a fall in his home. He was a huge part of my horror adolescence. How about you? Was he an influence?
TOMASELLI: I’m not as fanatical as some people but yes, I was a fan. His spectacular, epic dreamscapes were perfectly realized in ALIEN. I usually fail to mention that as one of my favorite films of all time, but it is and thank you H.R. Giger for the grotesque and astounding designs. Their depth of beauty is beyond words.
FANG: I assume THE OCEAN isn’t a favorite topic of yours these days, but I ask this because you’ve mentioned in other interviews how angry you were about the film not working out, and how TORTURE CHAMBER is sort of a new start for you as a filmmaker in reaction to that failure. What happened to the film in general? And of course I have to ask, is it still on your plate?
TOMASELLI: Yes, the whole period of not making THE OCEAN, around 2007, 2008 was a very disturbing time for me. I had two of my favorite actresses, Adrienne Barbeau and Dee Wallace interested in the lead character. The character being a psychic haunted by visions of a watery apocalypse. Also attached in other co-starring roles were Judith O’ Dea, Lynn Lowry, a lot of terrific performers who read the screenplay and were ready to be in it. There was positive buzz around the film, as I was scouting locations in Puerto Rico. I even hired a daredevil cameraman, Mike Prickett, to film huge waves as B-roll footage for THE OCEAN. All was flowing…until I discovered that the money was not there. I’m definitely used to delays, but something was wrong. I waited and waited but it never arrived. I was so depressed, practically suicidal, but I eventually picked myself and started writing TORTURE CHAMBER. Put all my rage and frustration into it. To me, it’s a film about the confusion of being alive.
FANG: I don’t know why, but after reading about a dozen interviews with you, I get the impression you’re a fairly serious guy. In what context could you be found completely letting loose and, I don’t know, maybe yelling or acting a fool?
TOMASELLI: [Laughs] I’m really not that serious all the time. There’s a kookiness about me. I love to laugh, I smile a lot. I try not to take myself or any of this too seriously, no matter how it sounds. I’m an unrepentant weirdo. Growing up, I used to read palms and write horoscopes for our school paper. I draw mazes that are shaped like brains or intestines. For me, fun is working on storyboards for my next film. I’m a slave to my films.
FANG: I also think of you solely on a set. Like, Dante Tomaselli doesn’t exist unless he’s shooting something. You seem like such a creature of filmmaking. Other than the obvious (working on the next script), what are you doing when you’re not working on your next film?
TOMASELLI: That’s a very accurate description. I am a creature of filmmaking. I think back on all the years I walked through the Manhattan streets to labs, studios, with rented camera equipment, carrying lights, all the grunt work…walking…walking…for many, many years… Always plotting every move to get me to the set of my next feature film. Everything I say, everything I do. People invite me to events and I almost never go. Thankfully they understand. Some do take it the wrong way and all of a sudden I’m the enemy. I’m like an airplane pilot, when I’m gone…I’m gone. You might catch me at a NYC postproduction studio, picture editing or at a sound studio…mixing.
Other than that, I’m probably no more than a blur on a NYC street. Since I made four movies by being this way, I know it really works. Tenacity is important. I like playing with my dog, Trippy. I enjoy listening to albums by Coil, Depeche Mode, The Cars, Jean Michel Jarre and Laurie Anderson. I go to the beach. I’m right near it. And the woods. I live in South Jersey in Ocean County on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens.
FANG: There’s a shot of you in that previously mentioned EPK digging in the sand at the beach as a child, and you speak of liking the ocean, digging holes, rocks. And your films have a very earth-bound, pagan feel to them despite the Christian imagery. I expect people to be swallowed by the ground at any minute. (Actually, as I recall that happens in SATAN’S PLAYGROUND) Am I reading too much into your work, or do you have an affinity for an “earth as intelligent entity” imagery?
TOMASELLI: My Sun is in Scorpio in the 1st House with Mars in Capricorn. I’ve always been intrigued by Astrology, the constellations. I find it so interesting… The moon controls the ebb and flow of the ocean currents. 70% of our bodies are water. There seems to be something to it. The natural elements…earth…fire…air…water. They’re beautiful to visualize and photograph with rich symbolism. Plus one of the earliest paintings to come searing into my mind was “The Witches Sabbath” by Goya. I was only 7 years old. I was in the school library browsing the category of supernatural and this painting jumped out at me from its pages. My heart started beating so fast and I couldn’t stop staring at it. Everything about the image was so mysterious. It’s like I entered into it.
I’m trying to connect the dots myself. I think it’s about another world poking through…the spirit world. I believe that I experienced the Stendahl Syndrome. (Stendahl syndrome is basically experiencing various mental and physical reactions when observing art or things of great beauty. – Ed.) Or something similar to it. Sometimes, growing up, my nightmares felt practically supernatural with satanic goats, bloodstained nuns, witches’ sabbaths… holes and quicksand. Quicksand, the idea of it, frightens me to the core and I had to include it in SATAN’S PLAYGROUND. I’ll incorporate it in another film for sure. The earth as enemy pushes a button in me. A hole in the ground…I prefer to make it black, a bottomless pit, like in DESECRATION. I incorporate holes in my stories every chance I get.
FANG: I’ve been doing a little searching, and can’t seem to find that documentary about you, THE HORROR OF DANTE TOMASELLI, anywhere. Did it ever get released?
TOMASELLI: There’s a trailer for it on the Anchor Bay SATAN’S PLAYGROUND DVD, a teaser…but it was never actually completed. I’m in touch with the director, Chris Garetano and I’ll ask him. He’s busy gearing up to release his new film, MONTAUK CHRONICLES. For THE HORROR…I believe there are probably a lot of bizarre things in store like a tape recording of me snoring. I was taped sleeping one night because I didn’t believe that I snored. It took me by surprise…It sounded like a cobra hissing. Sounded reptilian.
FANG: Give me a movie to watch that is part of your required viewing list, and tell me why. I’ll watch it, then report back!
TOMASELLI: The House With Laughing Windows. Because I’m deathly afraid of withered old women brandishing butcher knives and it’s a Euro-horror classic. Enjoy.
FANG: And I did! This one had escaped my attention for some reason. I’m not a huge Pupi Avati fan (although SALO which he collaborated, is a favorite), but this was fun and twisted. And involves a church, so I can definitely understand the appeal to your tastes. Great recommendation!
Hungry for more interviews with queer horror creators? Grab a copy of OUT IN THE DARK: INTERVIEWS WITH GAY HORROR FILMMAKERS, ACTORS AND AUTHORS here.