Fantasia 2018: Joe Dante, Alejandro Brugués, And More Discuss NIGHTMARE CINEMA
Have you ever been interested in speed dating with a group of four horror film directors? Following the world premiere of the horror anthology Nightmare Cinema, we were able to sit down with four of the film’s five directors to pick their brains about piecing together a massive anthology, amongst other challenges in working with this collage format of filmmaking. Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, and Ryûhei Kitamura each contributed a segment to the Garris produced anthology, and seemed happy to chat about their contributions with us.
Your segment of Nightmare Cinema is essentially a woman’s story. Did you intend to create a political segment?
Joe Dante: I’m always kinda political. I think all movies are political, whether they intend to be or not. I knew that this was going to be one of a series of gruesome horror stories. One of things that the horror genre can represent is a forum for strong woman.I know that the paradigm is “the girl who runs away and falls down with the gown who gets picked up by the monster.” It has a nice fairy tale quality. But I don’t know how modern that is. It seemed to me, that given the subject matter of plastic surgery (and I think we have all seen examples of people who have made mistakes in the zeal to please whomever, usually men), you need to think seriously about it. In this case, it is not someone who is doing it just to make herself look prettier. She is doing it to rid herself of something that bothers her. The only problem is the scrupulousness of the people you hire to do your work can vary. It certainly varies in this one. Although the doctor seems to be fine, and the doctor seems to be ok, the only way that you can read this story is that they are all batshit crazy.
They are batshit crazy, but one of the most disturbing endings to a horror film is when everything goes bad but they are happy with it. Their “new normal” is our horror.
Dante: Listen. There is an awful lot of the “new normal” in my country, and people being ok with it.
Do you think it would be possible to do a version of your segment with the genders swapped?
Dante: I think you could do a gender swapped version, but it would be completely different. The motivations would be different. The only thing in common would be the perpetrators would have to be crazy. It does beg certain questions. How was the doctor able to keep a successful practice if every time he puts someone under the knife, they come out looking like a freak? I chose not to go into that. I thought the best way to tell the story was to just barrel through it, not have people ask a lot of questions. One of the things about horror movies is that they are almost always absurd. If you give people time to ruminate about how prosperous some of the plot turns are, then you lose them. You just go from point A to point Z, and hope people come along for the ride.
How do you go about developing a short plot, versus a feature length film?
Dante: Features are complicated. They have three acts. The middle act is always a difficult one. With shorts, everything is compressed. You can get to the high points right away. In the first segment of Nightmare Cinema, it starts in the middle. Which is a great way to start. Everybody knows what happened. Everybody knows what kind of story this is; let’s just get right to it. When you develop this kind of thing, there is a shorthand. There are things the audience takes for granted that you gloss over. In this case, I actually made it shorter. It was a bit longer in the rough cut. It seemed pointless to belabor it. She saw more terrible things in the hallway, but it seemed off the point, so we took them out. And it turns out there were elements like that in the other stories. We all worked on our segments independently. We didn’t read anybody else’s stories until we were finished and ready to shoot. The preponderance of hospitals is a complete accident.
That’s interesting, because Nightmare Cinema feels cohesive. Did Mick Garris work with you all to make sure it would feel like that?
Dante: We would hang out occasionally, but for the most part we were not on each other's sets, and we were not giving each other advice. How it was going to fit together was up to Mick. He did the wraparound. I’ve done wraparounds, and I know how complicated they can be. The greatest wraparound is in the 1945 Dead of Night. It is the template for these types of movies. We had that in the back of our minds. And the Amicus pictures. The Corman Poe pictures. All of the pictures that had these stories. The trick is how you justify having multiple stories. Do you have a framing story, or do you not have a framing story? And in Nightmare Cinema, the framing story pretty much carries the movie. It’s arbitrary that people go into this empty theater and it is haunted, but it was as good a way as any to tie all these stories together. They otherwise don’t have any connection.
As the person coordinating the entire film, how did you ensure that all of these different segments felt cohesive?
Mick Garris: It felt cohesive? That’s good to know. It wasn’t planned that way. Everybody I went to was my first choice. I didn’t go to multiple people, other than scheduling. We had to shuffle the schedule around a little bit to accommodate. All I wanted was great filmmakers, making films that represented their point of view. Their style. Their take on the genre. I wanted them to be wildly different. But what ties them together is the crew we managed to assemble. I didn’t even think of this until watching it last night. It is very elegantly made. The production values are very high. The music for all of the segments is very high end. Everyone had talented friends and called in favors. This was definitely a passion project; no one is getting rich off this. The cohesion might work too because of the wraparound. That didn’t exist when they made each of their segments. It was something I did to give some links to them. Hopefully that gives it a sense of unity. The personality of the films and the filmmakers are different. Joe’s [Dante] is darkly funny. Alejandro’s [Brugués] is wildly funny. David Slades’s is very serious, and disturbing. Ryûhei Kitamura’s is batshit crazy, and sanguinary. And then mine is “emo horror.”
Starting with funny and then working through the film toward the more emotional horror certainly felt intentional, so it’s interesting to hear that it wasn’t the intent all along.
Garris: I did let them do their own thing, but there was a lot into the order in which they played. Originally, Joe Dante’s was going to be fourth, rather than second. He pointed out that Slade’s has a lot of creepy faces in it, and his has just one. He wanted his to be earlier. I knew we wanted to start with a bang. Any horror fan, from the 1980s, just gets hooked on the slashers, and this turns it on its ass. Then we knew we wanted to go quiet. Then, right in the middle, is the most profane and blood-soaked, and nutty experience. And then it goes into a quiet black and white one. And then we go with something that starts with action, but goes into an emotional ghost story. Once we were doing it, there was a lot of thought that went into the order. That makes a difference. And wrapping it around with the scenes in the theater set the tone, I hope.
As horror fans, we are used to the theater being weaponized. We are gluttons for cinematic punishment! But here, your executioner is the projectionist (played by Mickey Rourke). He’s just the messenger of the films.
Garris: It is really a statement on the dire situation of film. Film doesn’t really exist anymore. The theatrical experience has been disappearing. Though, it is stronger now than it was a few years ago, it has changed so much. Big movie palaces like that have been disappearing. Now we have multiplexes.
Even where those scenes were shot is a closed theater.
Garris: It is a real place that has been closed for a dozen years, but they do special events there occasionally. The line ”One hundred years of nightmares, trapped in a silver screen that never forgets.” Sort of like Clive Barker’s Son of Celluloid. All of these stories really do live in that screen. It has absorbed every one of them. I like the idea of human history, projected into a screen that never forgets.
And to continue your metaphor, this projectionist collects the people in reels. He collects our nightmares, which is not unlike what you do as a filmmaker.
Garris: My job is to dream awake. I don’t remember having dreams, because I write and make movies. I do things to tap into the fears I have, and I hope are universal. So when I sleep, I sleep well.
Joe mentioned that Nightmare Cinema took ten years to be made. What will happen with it next?
Garris: I would love for it to become a series. Or a series of movies. I wanted to do an anthology of international horror filmmakers right after Masters of Horror ended. And that’s how long it has taken to get it off the ground. After many different formats we ended up with an anthology feature, with five stories, this is rather than a weekly series. If we could do a weekly series, with a different great director every week, I’d prefer it to be from different countries and different cultures.
What attracts you so much to international horror?
Garris: I’ve been fortunate enough to be a guest at festivals around the world. I get to see that around the world, horror isn’t just for teenagers. Horror has diversity. Different points of view. Going to festivals in South Korea, and in Switzerland, I am exposed to what I wish more horror fans could see. The diversity of thought and ideas. That’s what I want. I want someone to show me what I can’t think of myself.
Horror is our society’s anxiety projected, and different societies have different anxieties.
Garris: Especially in the genre, a lot of people make movies based on movies they have seen. The more you live, the more you travel, the more you love, the more you have your heart broken, the more people you lose in your life, the deeper a human being you become and the deeper your work as an artist becomes.
Cinema is a language, and your segment of Nightmare Cinema starts with the assumption that your audience is fluent in that language. How did this assumption factor into the construction of your story?
Alejandro Brugués: That’s something I never questioned. I hate writing short films. What comes to me naturally is long form. With shorts it is always too short or too long. With this one I am super happy that I nailed it, and I don’t want to try it again. The first thing I wanted to do was tell the third act of a slasher. We have seen so many, that if you open with a girl running in the woods, covered in blood, being chased by a killer, you already know which movie we are in. You have seen it so many times. I never thought about the way you put it. “Faith in the audience.” Holy shit, I could have missed it. But you are right. In Nightmare Cinema, with all these directors, the audience will know their slashers.
As a horror fan, we are so used to seeing films that are made by people who are obviously not horror fans.
Brugués: I hate it when that happens. I am not only a horror fan, I study monsters. I study the social impact of horror. I’m very serious with my horror. I try to be very careful about that. There is one moment early in my segment, when the policeman arrives, and the other characters are like, “Oh, not him.” There is an exchange there where you feel like something was in the first act of the movie. You have seen so many of these movies, that this moment feels natural. It’s super weird, because they are all talking about something you haven’t actually seen. But the audience acts, because you know that type of movie. You know what happened in the first act between those two.
Absolutely. When you see the officer, you assume he is like Scream’s Officer Dewey. Which is another film that requires slasher knowledge.
Was last night the first time you watched the film as a whole?
Brugués: I had seen it once before. Before that, I didn’t know about the other shorts. I was the one who tried not to know anything. I didn’t read the screenplays. I didn’t want to watch. The last day was mixing, they offered to let me watch it all together.
Your segment is the first up in the anthology. How did you feel your segment did in kicking off the film?
Brugués: I just wanted to open the movie up with a bang. When I wrote it I didn’t know it was going to be the one to open the movie. We wrote the scripts without knowing the order. It was later that Mick figured out what the order would be. He called me and said I was going to open, which added a lot of pressure. It’s not just that I’m doing a movie with these guys, but now I have to open for them. Oh fuck. It felt like I had to do the best thing I have ever done in my life. It had to be a blast. I put a lot of love and care into it. It was the comedy. It was the way it was shot. It was the transitions. I wanted to do something that I felt super proud of. I usually don’t like a lot of my work. I do like certain shots, or certain scenes, but with this one I like it from beginning to end.
When the film first starts with the girl walking into the theater it isn’t straightforward what is happening. But as soon as she slips on the guts, I felt like I knew what to expect.
Brugués: And you saw the serious version of that. Originally it was 40 seconds of her sliding around on the guts. It took forever. It was like a Naked Gun movie.
You always have a bit of comedy in your horror films. Do you ever want to make a straight comedy or straight horror?
Brugués: I don’t want to make a horror comedy, it just came out like this. I love horror comedies, but they are hard. Audiences love them, but people do not know how to sell them. It’s a tricky genre. Some people dismiss them, but they are really fucking hard to do. In this case it was an idea that I loved, and I had to roll with it. And as a part of an anthology, it was good for balance. I love it, but if I do another one I realize there is no way I will get out of that box. So I have straight sci fi, or straight horror coming up.
There are so many elements and facets of horror within your segment. Were there additional types of horror that you wanted to include, but ultimately didn’t make the cut?
Ryûhei Kitamura: Not really. It was very challenging because Sandra [Becerril] wrote it as a feature length originally. To make it fit into 20 to 25 minutes was very challenging. I did my best. The very early version of Mashit had kind of the same idea as Alejandro’s. Instead of the demon possessed, it was a parasite. But because of the Catholic school setting we thought we should just go with that. Even though the movie kind of transforms into a different kind of movie at the end. We still stuck to religion and demons.
What drew you to this story? What made you want to see a religious horror story?
Kitamura: We had many ideas, but this is what grabbed me. Religion can be very dangerous sometimes. This is entertainment; it is a horror movie. So I tried to make it as fun as possible. I don’t have that particular religion, but I do have a lot of religious friends. I do believe in God and the afterlife. I try to be a nice person, even though sometimes I make a mistake. Religion can be dangerous. Just last week, they finally executed this cult leader in Japan. This guy who spread the gas, 23 years ago. Why don’t they just kill this fucker, right away? They finally executed him and seven of his executives, on the same day. The news spread around Japan and it reminds us of this guy. It is easy to forget. We almost forgot about this guy, and he was still in prison. That reminds me that religion can be dangerous. When we came up with this story, and started to design the shots, I tried not to materialize the demon Mashit. When you watch the movie, you see that I did it in subliminal ways. You don’t really know what you believe in. But they believe the kid is a demon. You don’t know what really happened. That was interesting to me. A Mexican writer and Japanese director doing this kind of story was challenging. It brought us into this controversial zone.
Did you go back and revisit a bunch of older Catholic horror films? Visually it can lean towards giallo at times.
Kitamura: I didn’t have to go back and revisit these films because I know them so well. Argento, Fulci, all those guys. Not only the horror, but also Italian B action movies. Those are in me, and I realized I never used that part of me until now. It was a perfect project to unleash that part of me. Even with the music, I really wanted to go Italian prog rock.
I did want to talk to you about the music. Throughout the film the score works well, but during yours in particular it was emotive. Goblin-esque. Did you work closely with the composer to get that feel?
Kitamura: I’ve been working with this genius composer for my last two movies. One was action. He was the guy who had a huge range and feel for the music. I told him I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to do the Italian style, but I don’t want to just copy it. I try not to become a fanboy, and do exactly what sounds like Goblin, or Tangerine Dream. It is my influence, but I have to add my other taste to make it a little bit different. He roughly composed the score. Then we brought in our musician friends to listen to the rough score, and then did a live recording. That was very exciting. At the very last minute producers asked me to take out one minute, and I couldn’t. I didn’t want to chop up the live recording.
Seeing Nightmare Cinema as a whole for the first time, how do you feel your segment fit into the whole?
Kitamura: It was super fun. I trust Mick one hundred percent. He’s the one. He’s my friend. I knew that he would know how to mix this all together. Even when I was working on this, I didn't ask what the other directors were up to. It was fun watching it with the Fantasia audiences.
I was a little surprised to see some humor in your segment, considering the serious subject matter.
Kitamura: I think every single movie I’ve directed so far has this humor element. Life is tough, no matter what, right? [Laughs] I personally like to hang out with people who can laugh at hard times. That’s myself. No matter what I do, this is reflected in my movies. No matter how desperate, there will be some funny part in it. It comes from my personality.