Gay of the Dead – Michael Varrati, Part One
The very prolific gay auxiliary of the East Coast Indie Horror Factory is making good use of a (currently) West Coast screenwriter and actor named Michael Varrati. Screenwriting work with Bart Mastronardi (TALES OF POE), Alan Rowe Kelly (ditto), and Richard Marr-Griffin (IT CAME FROM THE VCR), plus acting roles in Troma flicks (RETURN TO NUKE ‘EM HIGH VOLUME 2) and Debbie Rochon’s directing debut (MODEL HUNGER) have kept this boy very busy. While keeping up a lively Facebook chat over the past weeks, I subjected him to my gay dog and gay pony show in the form of an email interview.
FANGORIA: Who are you? Where did you come from? Give me all the details immediately!
MICHAEL VARRATI: I’m Michael Varrati, writer, occasional actor, and internet tyrant. Growing up, I had a rather nomadic existence. I was born in a state my parents didn’t even live in, and that just kind of set the bar. I’ve bounced around all over the place, and I don’t really feel like I have a hometown. So, much like Nomi in SHOWGIRLS, I like to say I come from “different places.” Currently, I live in sunny Los Angeles, and before that I was parked in Pittsburgh. I traded in Romero zombies for Bret Easton Ellis nights. I write, and occasionally pop up in, horror movies. But, I suspect, that’s what we’re here to talk about, so I’ll let you get down to business.
FANG: TALES OF POE could not be getting more press if it were a bridge in New Jersey, courtesy of the nonstop publicity machines Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly (both awesome filmmakers in their own rights). How did you find your way to writing your segment, “Dreams,” for them?
VARRATI: The genesis of my involvement with TALES OF POE actually is rooted in the production of Mike Watt’s RAZOR DAYS. I had known Bart and Alan socially, and thought very highly of them both, but we hadn’t worked together until Mike hired us all to be part of his movie. RAZOR DAYS is a very bleak, savage story about survival and the guilt that carries, and most of the film’s narrative is set in remote, isolated locations. As such, we shot in caves and extremely rural places. There was very little outside world interaction during that production, and for the full ten-to-eleven days of principal photography, we all basically had only each other.
During the shoot, some of us were staying at this bed & breakfast, and my room was across the hall from Bart’s. Now, Bart and I both share a common love of literature and arthouse cinema, which led to many nights of us waxing poetic about this author or that obscure French film. During those talks, Bart shared with me his vision of this Poe-themed anthology film, and talked about how he and Alan were mapping it out. Initially, the concept for the film’s construction was a little different, and Bart had wanted me to write the wraparound story. Due to our shared passion for abstract art and surrealism, it was decided that rather than adapt a short story, with a preexisting narrative structure, I would write a piece inspired by a poem. Hence how we settled on “Dreams.” But, unlike how Bart was doing “Tell-Tale Heart” and Alan was doing “Cask Of Amontillado,” this also presented me with a unique challenge. Their stories had an established…well…story. There were characters, situations, and locations that they could riff on. “Dreams” had none of those elements; it merely had mood and theme.
So, with Poe very much in mind, I literally had to build this world from the ground up. It was daunting, but also a gift, because it really gave me a chance to flex my muscles creatively, as well as pay homage to some of the surrealistic artists I admire. Anyway, as the script began to take form, I think we all realized it was a lot bigger than merely a wraparound, and the whole structure of TALES OF POE started to change. We sat down, looked at what I wrote in relation to the other two pieces, and eventually “Dreams” became the third feature piece. Once the three tales were set in stone and we knew what the movie was meant to be, the journey really began, and we’ve been living with Poe ever since.
I have to say, everything about making this movie has been a gift. Not only was I given an incredible cast to bring my script to life (horror icons Adrienne King, Amy Steel, and Caroline Williams among them), but it’s really forged a partnership with Alan and Bart that I value more than words can say. We all just get each other, and TALES OF POE barely scratches the surface of things we’ve dreamed and schemed. Bart and I talk on the phone all the time, and the level of excitement about this project, and art in general, is exactly the same as if it were the very first time we talked. Alan and I also share similar sensibilities, and tend to be a whirlwind when we’re together. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, you’ll get to see a movie as the end result, but for us, it’s so much more. We don’t just work together, we’re family. And we’re definitely not done yet.
But, the long story short, it all started on RAZOR DAYS, and we recognize that as the beginning of our mutual journey together, although we were all friends prior to that project. I also must note that we poached our lead for “Dreams,” Bette Cassatt, from the set of RAZOR DAYS, because we were all so mesmerized by her acting chops. However, I don’t think Mike and Amy [Lynn Best, one of the stars of RAZOR DAYS and filmmaker] were particularly bothered by the fact we absconded with Bette, as they came on board POE as producers, along with Bob Kuiper, who was the producer of their film. It’s that whole indie movie circle of connectedness.
FANG: I’m a huge fan of Joshua Grannell, aka Peaches Christ, and that whole Trannyshack crew in San Francisco. I know you went on the road with his ALL ABOUT EVIL, like an old fashioned roadshow rollout for an exploitation film. I’m dying for details of how that all went down, the more scandalous the better. Maybe a great, juicy story about life on the road with that horrible group of people?
VARRATI: Look at you, trying to get me in trouble. But, really, there’s not much scandal to dish on. Joshua/Peaches is one of the most professional, practical entertainers I know, and he tends to surround himself with people who are really motivated and dedicated to the work. Despite the illusion of wild nights with drag queens, I have to say that we didn’t get into too much trouble while we were on the road. In fact, if there was any great vice during the ALL ABOUT EVIL tour, it was food. Since we were visiting all these different cities, we wanted to try the local delicacies in each. It seems like a good idea, until you’ve had all the carbs in all the states, and then suddenly the real evil in question is all the extra pounds you’ve put on.
But, really, touring with Peaches and the movie was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and was certainly a game changer. When Joshua invited me to San Francisco for the premiere of ALL ABOUT EVIL, I knew the movie was going to be good, but I didn’t really understand how that one event would alter the entire course of what I do. He revealed over that weekend his plan to roll the movie out across the country in this very William Castle-esque style, and he asked me if I’d come along and document it, as well as fill out various roles. It was an offer too good to refuse. We bounced all over the country, often with members of the cast in tow, and we’d do these specialized pre-show events in each city. We adapted it for the venue and what was available, so it was literally a brand new adventure every time we stepped off a plane. In some cities, we’d have Mink Stole and Elvira with us, other times Natasha Lyonne would come. Other cities, it was just our core traveling group and we’d pull from local talent to create something new.
I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but occasionally I was in the shows as well. I played the part of an evil usher often, but in Washington DC and Baltimore, I was a dancing Frankenstein monster. I think the green paint we used to dye my skin stained parts of me so deeply that I didn’t de-greenify for a week. During all of this, I was writing. I documented the whole adventure, and it’s still up there to read on Peaches’ website, where I maintain a regular column.
After the tour ended, I remained part of the Peaches Christ universe. I continue to travel up to San Francisco for shows, and Joshua and I occasionally hatch schemes for the site together. Working with Peaches has introduced me to so many people, and so many opportunities have come from the experience, that I will always be grateful. But more so, from ALL ABOUT EVIL, I’ve really cultivated a group of friends who endure to this day. Speaking of, one of the film’s producers, Darren Stein, just had his movie G.B.F. released to huge acclaim, and I couldn’t be more excited for him. He’s a dear friend, and I owe EVIL for our meeting. He’s just one example of the people who populate and warm my life because of that amazing experience, and when anyone from that group succeeds, my heart swells a bit. I probably sound mushy, especially after proclaiming all this love, but I can’t stress enough how much that tour, and subsequently, those people, mean to me.
…and it’s really all because of Peaches. When we first connected years ago, I knew instantly that we both were kindred spirits. Joshua and I share a huge appetite for horror and sleaze cinema, and I just think what he does is remarkable. I know that, for a good portion of the horror community, a lot of people only know me because of the work I do with Peaches Christ, and I’m totally fine with that. I think, no matter what else I’m working on, I’m always eventually going to be drawn back to the altar of Midnight Mass, because it speaks to me, and it’s just damn fun. I’m happy to work in service of Christ, and even happier still to call Joshua Grannell a friend.
NEXT UP – Part Two, where we talk about Caroline Williams, Stuart Gordon and our own Debbie Rochon!
Wanna buy my book, OUT IN THE DARK: INTERVIEWS WITH GAY HORROR FILMMAKERS, ACTORS AND AUTHORS? Just mosey on over to Amazon.