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In this second of two parts (the first can be read here), I talk to writer/director/cinematographer Bart Mastronardi about his feature debut at the helm, VINDICATION (out on DVD April 13 from Big Bite Entertainment/R2 Films).
SEAN ABLEY: VINDICATION is your first movie as a writer/director. Didn’t you tell me that you actually started making a cheap slasher years ago that morphed into this film?
BART MASTRONARDI: Yes, I began to make a bad low-budget slasher movie. Thank God, I didn’t. I am a proud daddy right now. VINDICATION is my first child. Like many first children, this one has been spoiled rotten. You see, I was going for my master’s degree, and I hated everything about graduate school. There was not an ounce of what I wanted there, so I decided if I quit, I was going to invest my money in a movie. By that point, I was already working as a DP, and doing grad school was pulling teeth out of my mouth at the time.
I began to make VINDICATION, and it resembled nothing like what it is today. I still have footage which doesn’t fit, but out of it grew this story that wanted to be told. I began to listen to my teachers and I wanted to work with talent. I knew I had a responsibility to the movie and to myself as a filmmaker. So many times I would walk out of movies feeling like, “I can do that.” Well, now was my time and I had to do it right, otherwise I was the failure. It would all fall on me, and I would have to go back to grad school.
I began to take the craft and art of filmmaking seriously. I went back and watched all the movies that inspired me, and reread all the classics of literature to figure out what made them so damn great. I read contemporaries and plays and all the things that make art so good. I wanted to emulate all that with VINDICATION. I wanted to make a horror movie that I would love to see. The trick was to do it on an extremely low budget. By this point, I was working with Alan Rowe Kelly and Stolis Hadjicharalambous shooting their films, and I shot mine with many of their actors. I would write parts for them and make sure they felt proud of it. I didn’t want a T&A horror movie. I wanted one with depth and emotion that took its time building up to the climax. I know that’s not the norm in today’s movies, but I felt I had to be true to the visions in my head.
VINDICATION pointed me in the right direction and knew itself. I had to explore that as a filmmaker. Yes, the movie talked to me. I saw inspiration everywhere—in books, movies, plays. That’s how I work as a filmmaker, and I’m proud of how the movie has turned out. It has been a long journey, but the film has been speaking for itself on many levels. VINDICATION is very personal to me, and judging from what I’ve heard from other people who have attempted suicide, this movie has struck a chord for them, too. I believe all artists/filmmakers need to do more soul-searching when practicing their craft to make whatever it is that much more believable.
ABLEY: VINDICATION took about three years to finish. How did you manage to keep the actors who appear throughout on board for such a long production period?
MASTRONARDI: Lots of begging! [Laughs] I had a great cast and crew who were dedicated and young and believed in the movie. It also helped that we were all working on each other’s movies. My biggest blessing was Keith Fraser, who plays Nicolas. Without Keith, I didn’t have a Nicolas or a movie; he portrayed the character perfectly. You see it all in his eyes. His performance is subtle, and that’s hard to pull off, because it has to be that much more believable. I felt bad when Keith didn’t receive any acting nominations [at festivals] while other cast members did, but Keith received great reviews from the critics who clearly saw what this young actor did.
As for the others, I would write their parts and we would, if time permitted, get to rehearse and then shoot them. This is why some of them only appear once in the movie. As we shot, Stolis and I would edit. Then I would write more and get more actors on board, and we’d do the same thing. I wanted to work with professionals, and VINDICATION certainly is a stronger movie because of the performances. The cast received three major acting awards: Alan Rowe Kelly, Zoe Daelman Chlanda and Jerry Murdock, all for Best Supporting at the Dark Carnival Film Festival. The movie also won Best Picture and Director’s Choice at Dark Carnival and Texas Blood Bath. I’m extremely proud that this little film climbed that far up the hill.
I must add that Henry Borriello’s makeup is quite believable, too, for a limited budget. Billy Archiello also did the most poetic music score, and we were lucky to have Tom Burns, who does Alan’s sound, come on board to do the whole audio design and mix in stereo. I even made Dominick Sivilli, who did so much work on the movie, an associate producer. Dominick is a great young filmmaker who does the best cinematography right now.
ABLEY: VINDICATION is such a stream-of-consciousness film. Was what we see on screen all on paper in script form? Did you ever sit down and bang out the screenplay in one concentrated effort? Or did it evolve as you shot it?
MASTRONARDI: VINDICATION certainly evolved as time went on. That made the movie stronger, and is due in part to my own insecurity as a scriptwriter. I don’t consider myself to be [a screenwriter], but to film this movie, I had to write it. That’s the hardest part, yet at the same time it is the best part. It’s the last time I’ll be with these characters alone. Once production begins, the cast and crew get them. Since much of it changed once I figured out the full story, the only thing left to do was film it. As the movie was being edited, I would see things in the cut and want to shoot more. Filmmaking, like art, is never finished, but we certainly have to leave it; otherwise we’ll always keep working on it.
My love for literature certainly influenced the writing of VINDICATION. What I did enjoy was sitting and researching the script. I would find the characters’ names and use great lines from other sources to fit it. I was able to rediscover myself as a kid by rereading Clive Barker, Stephen King, Dante’s INFERNO, Shakespeare plays, ANGELS IN AMERICA and other great literary sources. I surrounded myself with it at all times. I would watch my favorite movies from when I was a kid to keep creating VINDICATION. But I would honestly say I had to look at my own life, and go to those dark areas of fear and truth, and place them somewhere in the story. If I didn’t do that, the film would be a mistake to me. I wanted VINDICATION to be personal. It made the film that much easier to write. So by utilizing my love for the classics, theater and film, VINDICATION was born.
ABLEY: Clive Barker loves VINDICATION, and gave you some quotes to use in the promotion of the film. How in the world did this film find its way to Clive?
MASTRONARDI: My partner David Marancik gets all the credit for this one. When David and I began to go out, I was finished with the first cut of VINDICATION. David had modeled for Clive [when he] was shooting his IMAGINING MAN photo book, which is beautiful. However, I never met Clive, I only knew of him as a fan. David was going out to work with Clive and wanted to bring VINDICATION with him. I said not to, because if Clive didn’t like it, it would break my heart. But David knew he would, so he took a copy of VINDICATION with him to LA without my knowledge.
I received a phone call, thinking it was David. I said, “Hello, sexy!” and this raspy voice answered me back, “No, it’s the other sexy.” I had to control myself. Clive said he was going to watch the movie and would speak to me the next day about it, and was that was OK with me? I said, “You’re Clive Barker. You call whenever you want to.” I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Well, the next day, I can tell you this, I kept my phone next to every reliable place of incoming calls. I didn’t want to lose that call. I was at Billy’s birthday party, and Clive called. For over one hour I stood in the rain, soaking wet, as this man spoke to me. He loved the movie and quoted the film. I was on cloud nine. Clive Barker, this brilliant artist, filmmaker and such, wanted to put his name on VINDICATION, my first feature. On top of that, he wanted to work with me.
My life transformed instantly, and that little boy who wanted to be a filmmaker had just taken a giant leap to becoming a solidified filmmaker. I was on my way now. Clive’s name is above the title with this beautiful quote. He wrote an essay, actually, and I had to choose what to place on the [promotional material]. I am blessed having Clive in my life, too. Wow! I never expected that in a million years. My cast and crew were excited when he called us up on opening night and told us how proud he was of us. What an accomplishment for us all. VINDICATION was certainly vindicated.
ABLEY: Let all of us live vicariously through you for a moment, and talk us through the experience of your conversation with Clive when he told you how much he loved the film? Sweaty palms? Racing heartbeat?
MASTRONARDI: When Clive Barker spoke to me that first time, I was doing laundry. [Laughs] I remember my heart raced and I had to sit down. I felt it wasn’t real, but it was. My palms did sweat and I got all choked up. This is my hero of many things. When he announced to the press he was gay, my God, I was ecstatic, because that made my understanding that much easier. I saved every gay interview he gave and read them all the time. I remember being at a Fango convention and I would not meet him, I was so nervous. I wanted to meet him as a filmmaker and feel more accomplished about myself. Sure enough, years later, there we were.
For me, this was Dante meeting Virgil in THE INFERNO: “Thou art my master, my author thou, thou art alone the one from whom I took the beautiful style that has done honor to me” (I.85-7). I still pinch myself, but he is a great man.
ABLEY: Is Clive’s involvement going to lead to work with him? Some mentorship perhaps?
MASTRONARDI: Clive is genuine, and he has done so much for VINDICATION that I don’t want to ever ask him for anything. I love my relationship with him as it is; he offers me advice and I take it. I have worked with him on his IMAGINING MAN book and he is a total professional to work for, and truly a wonderful man.
We do speak of collaborating, and there is a project we’re speaking about, but as with all things, time is a factor. If it happens, it happens. I like that we call one another to talk or receive texts that say “Hello” every once in a while. He certainly is my mentor and a good friend. I keep what I have with him close to my heart. I am honored to have Clive in my life.
ABLEY: After hanging out with you for a weekend, I get the sense that you’re a “good kid.” Very polite, holds doors open, helps old ladies across the street—or, in the case of Betsy Palmer at the New York Weekend of Horrors, to her car with boxes of 8x10s of her being beheaded… I’m dying to know what bad things you do! Give me a good story of you breaking the law, or kicking a puppy or something…
MASTRONARDI: Is being so damn late for this interview and you yelling at me count as doing something bad? I would say so. (Absolutely—Sean)
ABLEY: Now that you’ve made your first feature as a writer/director, is that going to be your main focus? Will you keep shooting other people’s films?
MASTRONARDI: I am aching to go out and be a DP again, trust me! I miss just setting up lights and then going home when all is said and done. Now, with all the new cameras coming out and the technology getting so advanced, I want to get back into the grind of cinematography. Cinematography is writing with lights and lenses for me. I love that any day of the week. Cinematography really is an art I love.
ABLEY: What’s next for you? It seems like all you East Coasters have a billion projects in the works.
MASTRONARDI: Yes, we are always working hard, and proud of it. Time has no patience for anyone, so it is make do. The VINDICATION DVD is coming out soon, and you can buy it from Amazon.com, but go to the R2 website. It has the trailer and cover and information on what you’re getting. Dominick and I made sure we packed the disc [with extras for people who are buying the movie. I hate when companies charge $20 for a DVD and you [only] get a movie. So we added the original VINDICATION short film, two commentary tracks, both moderated by Jeremiah Kipp, by the cast and crew and myself, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes photos and trailers. So it is a great package for your money.
Alan Rowe Kelly and I produced a great piece for director Jeremiah Kipp titled CONTACT. Zoe starred in it, and Dominick shot it. I’m also now helping out other new indie filmmakers as a producer so they can get their material off the ground. Scott Perry is one of them, as is Dominick, who is doing an action short with Jerry Murdock and Jeremiah. We are a collected group of indie filmmakers on low budgets making great work in the horror genre we love. To let others come in and make lazy films is not what we want. We want to raise the bar, go beyond the means, draw an audience and respect them and the craft of filmmaking. Our previous films are helping us do what we want.
For myself as a director, I want to delve into some Edgar Allan Poe and make two shorts. Jeremiah will direct his script BERENICE, and I’m doing TELL-TALE HEART. I have cast the amazing Debbie Rochon, the talented Lesleh Donaldson from HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, the versatile Alan Rowe Kelly and my beautiful partner David. Short, simple and sweet. No feature for a while, but I can say this: When I get to the next feature, it will be epic horror. I will certainly relay more news when we start filming.
ABLEY: And finally, where do you see yourself in five years?
MASTRONARDI: With David on a hot, sunny beach, drinking margaritas, relaxing, thinking of the next film project to work on.
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