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Q&A: Ortiz, Ramirez & Valderrama on their time in the “SANITARIUM”

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The anthology film has become somewhat of a boon for up-and-coming horror filmmakers, acting as a way to present short format work as an affordable calling card without the limitation of exposure that hinders short films. Anthologies also give these filmmakers, many of whom are rooted in the independent scene, creative freedom that they normally wouldn’t get in a longer form project with higher budgets and more production scrutiny. Furthermore, the pressure of putting together a feature film is often spread over more than one filmmaker, which in and of itself can allow the director to focus on the necessary aspects of storytelling.

It’s precisely this freedom from financial and creative restriction that allowed SANITARIUM to come together, an independently produced three-part anthology film connected by patients within a mental institution. Directed by Bryan Ramirez, Bryan Ortiz and Kerry Valderrama, SANITARIUM places its bets firmly in psychological horror, allowing its strong cast and creepy, minimalist storytelling to perturb the audience. As the film gears up for its home media release, Ramirez, Ortiz and Valderrama spoke to FANGORIA about how their twisted triptych came to pass…

KERRY VALDERRAMA: Initially, I had come up with the concept of bringing back the TWILIGHT ZONE/ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS/TALES FROM THE CRYPT-type format. Once that was decided upon, myself, Bryan Ramirez and Bryan Ortiz got together, since we’re filmmakers in San Antonio, Texas. I respected them and their work, which I was a fan of for many years, and figured out how to move this script forward.

FANGORIA: Which of the segments was the hardest among the three stories? Which one would you say was the easiest?

VALDERRAMA: They were all pretty difficult.

BRYAN ORTIZ: Each [segment] had their own individual challenges that really brought something to the table. I was the first one out of the gate, so the hard part was getting the crew up-and-running and getting the production moving.

BRYAN RAMIREZ: I had these tiny people that would not do what I asked them to do at all [laughs]! They were wearing this crazy make-up and were scaring everybody everywhere. I had these awesome puppets, but they carried a lot of challenges because they were so fragile. That was my only challenge, and everything else was awesome. I had an awesome cast and an awesome crew. It was great.

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VALDERRAMA: I don’t want to say which segment was the hardest, but I had to build a bunker [laughs]. I came up with, wrote and directed the last segment and I picked the worst possible place to build this bunker. I picked the second story of a warehouse in between a highway and a train station in July, with no air conditioning. That was awesome. I don’t know how I finished [the bunker]. We were finishing it right up until the last minute. That was the biggest challenge. Once it was finished, it was great. Lou Diamond Phillips came in and just rocked it. But as far as my segment was concerned, it was a huge challenge to build that bunker.

FANG: Was it difficult to maintain a proper tonal balance between all three segments or were you all on the same wavelength when it came to executing the concept?

RAMIREZ: I knew I’d be starting it off, but Ortiz, Kerry and myself are totally different types of directors. So what I loved was that we went out there and did our own segments, traded crew and lights and we used the same DP [Philip Roy], and the look of each segment tied them all together. That’s how I took it.

VALDERRAMA: Yeah, our DP, Philip Roy, was quite amazing. He helped unify the look of the film, which is one of the best parts. When you have three directors telling three different stories with three different styles, it’s all being funneled through the eyes of a single individual, which was Philip. That really helped out when it came to unifying the film across the board.

FANG: You guys have some really great talent spread throughout the cast, between Robert Englund, John Glover, Lou Diamond Phillips, Lacey Chabert and Chris Mulkey. Was there any conflict or hesitation about who to get for what role or did everything fall into place with the casting?

VALDERRAMA: The first main actor that we always had in mind for the role of Dr. Stenson was Malcolm McDowell. There just wasn’t anybody else I envisioned playing that role. He was the first person we offered the role to and by some miracle, he said, “Yes.” Because Malcolm McDowell signed on, we were fortunate enough to get the cast that we now have. That really was the start of [casting].

FANG: What’s the balance between tension and gore when developing a project so reliant of psychological thrills?

RAMIREZ: The good thing is, when we very first approached SANITARIUM and we were all talking at the beginning about the stories, we were all in agreement of the tone that we wanted. We weren’t looking to mimic other anthologies that are out there, and there are other gory films that are absolutely fantastic, but that’s not what we wanted to present. So we decided to go in a different direction and just concentrate more on the characters and the plotlines. So the balance was, “Well, this could be a good place for gore, but that doesn’t really serve anything in the story so let’s move on without it.” So, when the three of us talked about the amount of blood and everything: that helped the stories come together.

VALDERRAMA: Yeah, and I remember reading an article about our project, and that [balance] was all something we wanted to talk about but we never really had the vision of it. It’s intelligent horror. It’s not just all blood and guts; it messes with your mind. That’s what I like about it.

FANG: Was it always your intention to keep the atmosphere of each segment grounded to reality in a way that it wouldn’t become overtly comic-esque, a la CREEPSHOW?

VALDERRAMA: What I wanted to do was to keep it grounded and very real so that when you watch SANITARIUM, this could very well be people that you know or people that you know of. So connecting the stories in a place where you have mental patients, and then putting the stories in the mind was always our intention. We wanted SANITARIUM to be a grounded and very real experience for the audience.

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FANG: Did the three of you do any research into the real effects into the mental illnesses presented here to figure out specific ways to present the horror?

VALDERRAMA: When I was looking into the James Silo character, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, I really looked into the “doomsday preppers”, if you will. I looked into their beliefs and just how real they are, especially when you get into Mayan calendars, alien abductions and alien invasions, so my research was to see who they are. They’re doctors, teachers, and lawyers but they really do believe in these types of phenomenon. So I used that as a base for my story.

RAMIREZ: For my segment, John Glover and I did a lot of research into loneliness, drugs and other elements that would make the Gustav character feel this way. Being an artist and having pressure and a whole other world that you don’t want to be a part of take hold of you and make things happen to you is something I know about. I come from a family of artists and some of them have issues, and a lot of the time, drugs are a factor. What’s interesting with Gustav is that these drugs put on him what he doesn’t want on him, and it ends in a really bad outcome.

SANITARIUM is now available on DVD and Digital Download from Image Entertainment.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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