Gay of the Dead: Dante Tomaselli, Part Two
In Part One of this interview with Dante Tomaselli, we talked about his background, complex relationships with his parents and building the perfect funhouse. In this second of three parts, we discuss his personal life, how his synesthesia affects his music and his filmmaking (Yes, he makes music!), and some of the filmmakers of which he is a fan.
FANGORIA: I don’t want to dwell on the gay thing, but humor me with one question. When I reached out to previous interviewees for recommendations for future interviews, two folks mentioned your name. I was a bit stunned, because I have my ear pretty close to the ground when it comes to queer horror filmmakers. Is being out a new development? Or am I just not paying close enough attention?
DANTE TOMASELLI: I’ve been out for a long time to my family, friends and co-workers. And when I shoot a film, I usually don’t discuss my private life, so probably many people don’t know and when they find out maybe they’re a little surprised, but it’s no secret. It’s no big deal. I don’t hide it. No one cares. So I’m not coming out right now. I’ve been out. If someone would ever ask me, I’d tell them. I’m just low key, I’ve never felt the urge to talk about it. Or maybe I was afraid. Plus it’s a part of my life that is private.
It was a long journey to get here… I fought it in the beginning and had girlfriends. It was wrong to be deceitful, wrong on every level and it messes with your aura. But that’s in the distant past; high school and college years. A long time ago.
I’m at the stage where it’s not the slightest issue. I feel aligned with who I really am. I’m a Creator. I’m just more upset about what’s happening in different parts of the planet. And the evil preachers who lead the way. It upsets me. And Scott Lively is running for Governor of Massachusetts?! If religion is going to be some force for something positive, why doesn’t the Pope speak out on the atrocities taking place in certain parts of the world. In Africa… in the Middle East. I’d love to see the day when religions, all religions stopped dividing and tearing people apart. Some religious conservatives in the States are gleeful about the mistreatment of our fellow human beings here and abroad. Gay-bashing all in the name of holiness, righteousness and stomping out the Devil, of course. It’s an insanity that inspires horror films.
FANG: I want to talk about your music, which I’m listening to right this minute. First of all, I love that you did a CD of Halloween music, because when I was a kid, my friends and I used to make cassette recordings of haunted house sounds (which was pretty much us screaming and banging pots and pans). But more importantly, I wanted to know how your synesthesia manifests when you compose.
TOMASELLI: I’m really glad you enjoyed SCREAM IN THE DARK. Growing up, I used to play Funhouse with my friends. I’d have someone enter the basement in the dark on a wheelchair and I’d guide the person through secret passageways.
I used to always love being with my Grandma Rose Ruocco, she was my best buddy and favorite person in the world. I always give her special thanks in the credits of everything I do. If there is a God, then she’s my Guardian Angel. I remember watching thunderstorms out on the front porch with her, feeling so snug and close and something that happened every time that there was a loud thunderclap. The sky…would flash colors but it wasn’t the sky. It was almost like a sparkler or a hologram of a sparkler. The sound of the thunderclap produced it. It’s actually transparent…your hands go right through it. Like a slide being projected. I mainly have sound color synesthesia. Sound triggers colors or sometimes patterns. Like if there’s a low sounding note, something bassy, it will look dark purple or brown. Something high, a high note is white or yellow. For me. It’s in the corner of my eye, a projection of color, like a slide show in the air. Tiny floating dots like fiber optic specks of light. It all depends on the sound.
But this is mostly in the background, waiting to come out. It’s not like I live my life in a video game or anything. Though I have to say when I’m composing and recording hallucinatory soundscapes in the final stages it can look like a freaky scene and I wish I could film it, share it. Sometimes I feel it’s a shame that only I can see it. The soundscapes…I reach out and feel them… I see them, I need to touch them with my hands. I turn out all the lights and they’re like laser lights in the corner of my eye. They’re alive. It’s like when you’re lying on your back on the beach and the sun is over you. It wouldn’t matter if your eyes were closed or opened, you’d see patterns, shapes, like little cells, images that you have no control over. I usually only see lasers, dots or spirals. When the soundscapes are finally right in front of me like a slide show in the air, that’s when I know they’re working. That’s when I knew SCREAM IN THE DARK, my first audio CD was completed, when I could touch all of it.
FANG: And how does it influence your filmmaking?
TOMASELLI: When I’m filming I appear to be in darkness, wearing sunglasses. But that’s not true, it’s the opposite, I see everything brighter…more pristine…I’m wearing special glasses designed to find golf balls. The glasses have the electric blue tint that’s been in all of my movies from the beginning. I’ve worn them on every single film shoot and as my crews always learn, I never take them off.
Having sound color synesthesia influences my sound design, when I create the soundtrack mainly. While I’m shooting, I like to listen to tracks, my demo tracks on my headphones and decide if they click and match up. Usually they don’t, but when they do it’s magical and when that happens I almost always have a scene that remains a favorite. I know the moment I see the image through the viewfinder and hear the soundscape on my headphones. Total alignment. I find it impossible to separate the sound from the visual, that’s why I could never ever give someone full control on my soundtracks. It’s 50% of the film’s equation. I couldn’t relinquish that responsibility. Especially with horror films where mood is everything. I’m obsessed with the soundtrack. Taste color. Touch sound.
FANG: In an interview with Chris Alexander for FANGORIA, you mention you have (or had) hallucinations. So I’m adding up that, your synesthesia, nightmares, plus your various themes and references in your filmmaking and – I swear to God this is a compliment – I think of Carly Fleischmann, a young woman with autism who is nonverbal, but one day she sat in front of a computer and started typing. She found her “voice” and it was revealed she’s actually an advance-placement level student. And now she’s a writer who is able to finally communicate what it’s like to be autistic from the inside. Is filmmaking your way of communicating what it’s like to be Dante Tomaselli from the inside?
TOMASELLI: Yes. My films speak in dream language. The music…feels like sculpture, like I’m sculpting. I only have a need to communicate this way, otherwise I’d be doing mindless industrials non-stop. Whatever comes out of me, it’s got to be very personal and it’s got to be horror. I see it and hear it as one package when I’m creating, it’s always close to my heart, the film project…something that needs to be released or unleashed. The act of creating the film becomes a mission. In all my films, I like to convey the feeling of peeling back layers…an unfolding…almost like waking up from a dream and then being pulled back even deeper into it. It’s a riptide, a loop that I understand.
FANG: Interviewers typically ask you about your nonlinear, dream logic style (of which I am a big fan). You obviously have a voice as a filmmaker that you’re comfortable with, and good at. I wonder what horror filmmakers’ styles you enjoy, but think, “I couldn’t do that”?
TOMASELLI: David Cronenberg. His films are so thoughtful and powerful, he’s such an intellectual filmmaker and some of his movies are among my all-time favorites, like THE BROOD. Pure psychological horror. I love John Carpenter and believe he has some more amazing horror films in store for us. I don’t ever count him out.
As far as nonlinear films, experimental films, there’s Maya Deren at the top of the list and no one can touch her. She’s like the Laurie Anderson or Kate Bush or Wendy Carlos of experimental film. The grandmother of strange cinema. When I first saw MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, in my early twenties at a New York School of Visual Arts film class, I was mesmerized. I related to Deren’s trancelike filmmaking. Wildly, I actually knew the Executrix of the Maya Deren Estate very well. Her name was Cherel Ito. Rest in Peace. We met by chance at a post office in the West Village and she and I became very close friends. Cherel helped all my early DESECRATION shorts get accepted into the Independent Feature Film Market at Angelika Film Center in NYC and other film festivals and markets. She really helped my career. And I miss her.
There are a lot of other filmmakers who are untouchable that I idolize: Kubrick, Bava, Argento, Fulci, Pete Walker. I often bump into Brian De Palma on the elevator in NYC and find myself unable to speak. SISTERS…CARRIE…THE FURY…DRESSED TO KILL. I’m awestruck. My cousin, Alfred Sole, created ALICE, SWEET ALICE in the 1970s, which I feel is one of the greatest horror films of all time. He’s untouchable.
FANG: When I was cutting my film SOCKET down to a 10-minute presentation reel for distributors, I had this really horrible feeling – If I can cut my feature down to ten minutes, all the rest of it must be worthless. Is there a point during the postproduction of your films when you think, “I’ve totally blown it…”?
TOMASELLI: Yes, it’s like a panic attack. After a while, once the air clears, I can see things more clearly. I’ve learned that I should never make snap decisions when it comes to creative stuff. Give it at least one night to absorb and allow the unconscious mind to work on it. Many times, my answers come to me in dreams. Many times, bad moods come on like swirling storms, creating chaos and destruction. I’ve learned, time and time again to think things through carefully and that my first gut, my first instinct is usually always correct. These days I sugar coat things less. Hopefully my filmmaking is improving. I’m at war with two parts…a side of me who’s a people-pleaser, I like to make people happy and another side that is uncompromising.
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.