Sunday, May 25, 2014

Interview with filmmaker, David Stagnari: "People going through an emotional conflict and looking for answers really understand the film. It's not for those in denial."

In 2006 I saw Christopher P. Garetano's low budget documentary about low budget filmmakers called, Horror Business.  As an aspiring filmmaker myself I've always found it fascinating how filmmakers struggle to make good, efficient films with little to no budget.  It turns out that one of the directors featured in that film was struggling to complete his own film.  David Stagnari's Catharsis is one of the many films talked about in Horror Business.  Catharsis continues to challenge and inspire me each and every time I watch it.  In order to completely understand Catharsis I had the great opportunity to speak to its maker.  The insight he delivered was more than what I expected.  In the interview we talk about his love of movies, the origins of his idea for Catharsis, and some anticipated projects coming up in the future.

You can purchase Catharsis here:

Another link to an article I published on this blog:

At what age did you realize you wanted to become a filmmaker?

My love of film began around 5 or 6 years old.  But I was 12 years old when it dawned on me I could actually make a movie.

What were some of the films that inspired you as a child?

It's hard to answer that.  Many movies obsessed me.  The triple features at the drive in theater was an amazing place for a film education.  I kept a book of all the movies I saw in the movie theater.  I started writing it when I was very young.  Here is a portion of the first films I saw, in the order and year I saw them.  You can get a sense of the variety.

1969 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
1970 Patton
1971 Bed Knobs and Broomsticks
1971 2001 A Space Odyssey
1971 The Anderson Tapes
1971 The Andromeda Strain
1971 The Beguiled
1971 Mary Queen of Scotts
1971 Evel Knievel
1972 Tales From the Crypt
1972 Pinocchio
1973 Fantasia
1973 Paper Moon
1973 The Mechanic
1973 Live and Let Die
1973 Planet of the Apes
1973 Dillinger
1973 The Neptune Factor
1973 Tora Tora Tora
1973 The Stone Killer
1973 West World
1973 Tales That Witness Madness
1973 Asylum
1973 Soylent Green
1973 Don't Look in the Basement
1973 Last House on the Left
1973 Dirty Harry
1973 Magnum Force
1973 High Plains Drifter
1973 Billy Jack
1973 M.A.S.H
1973 Panic in Needle Park
1973 Dracula vs. Frankenstein
1973 Frankenstein's Bloody Terror
1973 The Day of the Dolphin
1973 Cisco Pike
1973 take The Money and Run
1973 Horror Express
1973 Death Wheelers
1973 The French Connection
1973 The Seven Ups
1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
1974 Blazing Saddles
1974 99 44 100% Dead
1974 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
1974 The Devil's Nightmare
1974 Bambi
1974 Freeble and the Bean
1974 The Super Cops
1974 Bullitt
1974 Papillon
1974 The Laughing Policeman
1974 The Man with The Golden Gun
1974 Mr. Majestik
1974 Badge 373
1974 The Longest Yard
1974 Phantom of the Paradise
1974 The Taking of Pelham 123
1974 The Parallax View
1974 Death Wish
1974 Night of Bloody Terror
1974 Night of the Strangler
1974 Macon County Line
1974 Joe Kidd
1974 Vampyres - Daughters of Dracula
1974 Young Frankenstein
1974 Airport
1974 Earthquake
1974 UFO Target Earth
1974 The Devil's Triangle
1975 The Devil's Rain
1975 The Getaway
1975 Walking Tall
1975 Junior Bonner
1975 Aloha Bobby and Rose
1975 Breakout
1975 White Line Fever
1975 Sleeper
1975 Serpico
1975 Jaws
1975 Vanishing Point

What were your experiences like in film school?

The year I went to SVA was very disappointing.  I felt more productive and inspired before I went to film school.  Teachers constantly cancelled classes, equipment didn't work properly, and there was a feeling that high school was continuing instead of a serious college and artistic study.  But of course I did learn a few things, such as recognizing underlying themes and secrets which I feel are important to good filmmaking.  And I made a few lifelong friends.

What prompted you to make a film?

After years in the music business I realized all my inspiration for music came from film.  I had been away from filmmaking for a long time and wanted to return to it with a maximum effort and see if I could make something interesting.  That's when I wrote Catharsis in 1998.

Speaking of Catharsis, it's been out for many years.  How has the response been to the film so far?

I made the film without intention of anyone seeing it.  I never had an audience in mind.  So getting amazing responses to the film has been beautiful.  I've had some people get violently angry about it and some that called it artsy-fartsy crap.  It's not everyone's cup of tea.  People going through an emotional conflict and looking for answers really understand the film.  It's not for those in denial.

I see your point.  It's a very challenging, yet fulfilling movie.  Can you tell me what inspired the idea for "Catharsis"?

I believe it started with that insecure voice in your head that sabotages your ideas with negativity.  Then I thought about the idea of emotionally running away and the mental journey of where you go to avoid those emotional obstacles.  Then the images of the thing you're running away from following you and making a film about the entire conflict and resolution.  So the final inspiration was to turn a thought process filled with sadness, artistic impedance and loss into a physical journey of confronting fear. Humans are strange in that we run away from traumas we think we can't deal with.  But emotional obstacles are always there and they want to be confronted.  The more we run the more they present themselves in our subconscious or even physically.  The very thing we run away from, when faced, is the thing that frees us.

Dylan Murphy portrays that sadness so impeccably.  Was he your first choice?

No.  A photographer, named Jack Roman, who worked on the production, was my first choice.  But a set of strange occurrences brought Dylan Murphy to the role.  He was not an actor but I think he did a great job.  He understood the character.

How difficult was it to try and tell a story that almost entirely has only one character?

It was challenging.  I looked for answers to the character in his face.  He had to look like a nice, well dressed, together person in complete denial.  His hair and clothes had to look the direct opposite of what he is going through emotionally.  Sometimes when dealing with emotional trauma you feel a sense of isolation.  In the script the character was referred to as THE WANDERER and GOD'S ONLY MAN.

I was going to ask what you called the character.  That's fascinating.  I love that because he does really feel isolated throughout the entire film.  How many drafts of the script were there?

I think there were 30 different drafts.  The script was only 13 pages.

Was the internal dialogue part of the script or was it something that you experimented with in post production?

It was there from the beginning.  It was a poem I wrote when my Mother died in 1994.

It's no secret that Catharsis is a work straight from the heart and it took a few years to complete. First, was finance an issue?  And second, how difficult was it as an artist to stay idle during those periods when the film wasn't in production?

I didn't have a lot of money but I wanted Catharsis to look as polished as possible.  David Lynch said, "You don't have to sacrifice quality because you lack money.  There's always a way."  That became a mantra.  Even when selecting the crew.  You don't have to take the wrong people.  You can find talented people that will work for nothing.  The gaps between shooting can be tough because you feel you don't have any control.  There are shots in Catharsis when the main character is walking and there's a cut and it's a year later.  But those gaps afford you the opportunity to over prepare and perfect upcoming scenes.  When I make my next feature film I want to shoot the whole thing in 45 days!   

What were some films that inspired you during the making of Catharsis?

I remember watching Alexander Nevsky, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Begotten during shooting.  But I don't think there were any particular films that inspired me during that time.

Let's talk about some of the locations because they're beautiful.  My personal favorite is in the cemetery.  It's just our one character filled with nothing but white tombstones all around him.  This is the most loneliness of all the scenes.

Thank you.  All of it was shot on Long Island and Westchester.  The locations were heavily photographed prior to shooting and then every shot was storyboarded.  But I don't think I looked at the storyboards once during the entire shoot.  I left myself opened in case a better shot presented itself.

What are some of your memories working with the director of photography, Stephen Panariello?

We got along great.  He's very talented and a great human spirit.  We inspired each other artistically and still do to this day.  He was the third DP I interviewed.  The first one read the screenplay and threw a chair against the wall in anger.  I learned later that he was in denial over a death in the family and the script touched a nerve.  The second was interested but seemed, in the phone interview, he would be very difficult to work with.  Then, when Steve read the script he threw the script in the garbage pail in anger.  In the middle of the night he pulled it out of the garbage and re-read it.  He called me and said, "I have to do this movie."  He was willing to go on the emotional journey we all were on.  I'm very happy he did.  An early meeting with Steve was on his boat.  He took the time to hang pages from the script all around the boat that inspired him.  I was immediately impressed by the artistic gesture.  He's a dear friend and we both look forward to working with each other again.

The visuals are stunning.  No doubt about it.  The score compliments the visuals beautifully.  

It took an entire summer to score the film and create the sound effects, which, I consider part of the score as well.  I wrote 44 pieces of music on a Roland sequencer and various synthesizers.  Many of the pieces I liked but didn't work properly with the scenes in the film.  I remember watching the final scene with the piece of music that's in the film for the first time.  I welled up with tears.  I knew it was right.

And how long did it take you to cut the entire film?

Principle photography began in October 1999 and was completed in April 2001.  Editing and sound was completed October 11th 2002.  Credits and color correction completed February 7th 2003.

When you saw the final cut was there any fears with the pacing?

The pacing was deliberate.  I was going for a dreamy, mysterious atmosphere and felt the ending wouldn't work without establishing a substantial journey.

I love the final scene of the film where the character is reborn.  That must have been a messy shoot.

I wanted three days to shoot it but the bathroom was located at a Catholic school and the priests only gave me one.  And they had no idea what I was going to film in that bathroom so there was always fear someone would walk in at the worst moment.  So we arrived at 9am and shot until 5am.  the bathroom had to be cleaned and then re-shot four different times.  Those twenty hours went by very fast.  And we left that bathroom cleaner than when we arrived.  It was tense and beautiful.

Christopher P. Garetano's documentary, Horror Business introduced me to Catharsis and yourself.  What was the experience like and how important was that documentary for helping spread the word about your film?

I was happy to be a part of it.  Chris put so much heart and soul into that film.  It was a great success for him.  If it wasn't for Horror Business, many people would not have seen Catharsis.  For that I'm grateful.

Was the final cut of Catharsis what you envisioned?

It was very strange seeing scenes come to life exactly how I imagined them.  There's always moments in the final cut you wish were different.  I haven't watched it in many years but overall I'm happy with the end result.  The film cost $7,000 but most of that money didn't end up on the screen.  Much of it was transportation, food, post production, and equipment rentals.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Challenge your taste.  Watch a variety of films.  Strive for originality and perfection.  Pencil into the schedule that some days you will feel insecure and lack inspiration.  It's part of the process and a temporary feeling.  Don't give up.

Do current films still inspire you?  If so, who are some of your favorite directors working today?

I marvel at Martin Scorsese still making compelling, youthful films in his 70's.  He's the last man standing of his generation of filmmakers.  I'm a fan of Nicholas Refn, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Glazer.

What are some projects that you have in the works?

I've spent years trying to secure a few million dollars for a feature length horror film I wrote.  I came close a few times but it didn't happen.  It's a shame because It was so scary and very deep.  It took a long time to let go of it.

I spent a few years shooting a documentary about an autistic painter taking over an abandoned gas station to create an art school for special needs children and war veterans.  I just showed a portion of it this week at an autism awareness event and the audience loved it.

I have another documentary in the works I might do.  But I'm very excited to start shopping an original screenplay I've been working on over the last 15 years.  It's not a horror film, but all I can say is... it's surreal.

David, it was an honor and thank you for taking the time to chat with me.

The pleasure is mine.  Thank you for your interest and kind words.


1 comment:

  1. Nice post, very interesting and it’s nice to know David Stagnari. I heard a lot of him, very interesting person. You know what I just want you to recognize the beauty of 5401 Olympic in Los Angeles. Hope you can use it in your movie someday. I found this place because of its website which is, I found it amazing and I fell in love with the mansion look house and its most simple yet classy house. God Bless Mr. Stagnari and I’m looking forward for your movies.