Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Interview: Dom Portalla, Writer/Director; Ken Flott, Actor 'The Darkness Within'

To anyone that will listen, I've been saying for the past two years or so that the horror genre is singlehandedly being carried by independent filmmakers. Challenging conventions while not adhering at all to your standard tropes, these fearless filmmakers are giving a much needed shot to the arm to a genre that is rife with unoriginal storytelling. These filmmakers, much like the one in today's featured interview, aren't at all afraid to take risks. And of course, they're here to scare the piss out of you.

About a month or so ago, we featured a film called The Darkness Within. A film simple in set-up: a man and his girlfriend move into a new apartment. Almost immediately, they're creeped out by their next door neighbor. The creep factor is turned up when the boyfriend catches him peering through his bathroom window late one night. But just when we're lead to believe that the neighbor (who is now perceived to be outright harassing them) has ill intentions, the film shifts completely as the lines of reality become blurred. And what you're ultimately left with is a nice slab of psychological horror, well executed and wholly original.

I recently had the opportunity to interview both writer/director Dom Portalla and actor Ken Flott who played the creeptastic neighbor, Mr. Reed. Here is what they had to say about the project, the difficulties independent filmmakers face nowadays, and Dom's hair.

Cortez the Killer: How did the idea for The Darkness Within come about?

Dom Portalla: I had just finished making my first flick, 'Duality' which was basically my own version of film school. I’d spent a year working very closely with this amazing group of people who were both as equally passionate and inexperienced in filmmaking as I was. We all jumped in together and made this movie for just shy of $7,000, which was this bizarre, funny, oddball, gangster/comedy, mistaken identity story that when it was finished, felt very uneven. By the nature of filmmaking, you’re often shooting a movie out of succession (i.e., stuff in the middle is being shot first; the ending scene is filmed before the opener, so-on and so forth). So even though we were learning a lot and improving immensely as we went on, the final product (as much as I still love it) always felt slightly 'off'. Knowing more about the filmmaking process and having way more technical experience, I was really eager to get back out there and make another flick. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that it would need to have some clearly set boundaries. We’d have to set it in a centralized location, we’d have to cap the budget at $3,000, and if possible, we needed to make it really fucking scary.

So one day I’m getting home from work and I bump into one of my neighbors. My girlfriend and I had just moved into this very small basement apartment a few weeks earlier and we were still getting the place settled. I’d just bought this L-shaped desk days earlier so that I could set up both of my computers in my living room. So this neighbor and I are making small talk and out of nowhere he says to me, 'You really like computers, don’t you?' Not really knowing how to take the question I responded with something like 'Yeah, I mean, as much as the next guy, I guess.' To which he replies, 'Yeah, every time I walk by your window, you’re always on your computer.' Now, in hindsight, I realize he probably didn’t mean that to be nearly as creepy as it came off (we did live on a ground level and I still hadn’t bought curtains for the windows yet), but for whatever reason that comment really freaked me out and re-activated some ideas I’d had floating around in my head for a previous project. That night I sat down and wrote the first fifteen pages of the script.

CTK: The employ of a red herring can be a tricky thing. The challenge being that most people, even when there are multiple uses of it, can see right through it. Tell me about the challenge of using this effectively as a filmmaker so as to completely catch your viewer off guard once the ‘grand reveal’ comes.

DP: It’s interesting because I think there is a school of filmmaking that exists that assumes everyone in the audience is an idiot. This is why so many movies feel like they are grabbing you by the hand and leading you to their conclusion. I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think movie audiences are so sophisticated and aware now that to simply remain one step ahead of them as a filmmaker is actually really difficult and challenging. Most people sit down in a theater now already trying to decipher a film’s mystery before they even know there is one. So it’s like you say, when you throw in red herrings a lot of times, they’re sitting there already figuring out where it’s going. There are definitely some red herrings in 'The Darkness Within', but rather than try and figure out devices or obvious diversions I tried to approach the writing of the script with a certain goal in mind. One of my favorite filmmakers, Christopher Nolan, made a flick a few years ago called 'The Prestige'. The first time you see that movie, you’re walking through a maze. You are just trying to get a sense of where you are and figure out where you’re going and it all leads up to an amazing 'grand reveal'. The second time you see that movie, it’s a completely different film, on every level. There’s even a line in the flick that sums it up perfectly. Borden has to show his wife the secret behind the 'bullet-catch trick' otherwise she won’t let him perform it. Once he does she responds with 'Once you know, it’s actually quite obvious'. That’s the entire movie right there perfectly defined in that one line. You watch it the second time seeing all the ways Christopher Nolan was just rubbing your face in it ('Are you watching closely?').

That was the approach I wanted to take with 'Darkness.' I wanted to constantly be peppering in little clues that were sometimes so subtle you wouldn’t even think to notice them, but on a second go-around you’d be wondering how the hell they ever got by you.

The best compliment I got on the film was during the Q&A at the Magnolia Film Festival. The festival director, Joe Evans, made the comment that it was his third time seeing the film and he was still catching hints all throughout that he hadn’t seen before. That really meant a lot to me because that was exactly what I was hoping for.

CTK: The character of Mr. Reed completely steals each scene he’s in, whether he has dialogue or not. Ken, what was your inspiration behind the portrayal of the character? Any character actors in particular that influenced you?

Ken Flott: Thank you for that, don’t let it happen again. The inspiration behind the character was Dom and I just talking through who we thought Reed was and what he was about, then learn the lines and try to make Dom happy. He’s impossible to work with and that hair, I mean really.

Character actors? Uh, well a character Ray Liotta played in a movie called 'Something Wild' from 1986, yeah, way back, was who I was mindful of but a way dialed back incarnation of that. Ray Sinclair was that character’s name and Reed in no way needed to get to that level of fucking loon. Don’t ask Dom about that movie, he’s never seen anything made before 1990. He probably thinks it’s in black and white.

CTK: I’ve heard that you used to be a stand-up comedian. With that, can come a lot of improvisation. Where there any scenes with Mr. Reed that you improvised?

KF: Stand up? Oh yeah I remember that guy. Improvised scenes, none that were included in the movie for me. I guess there’s always some level of that but Dom’s stuff is so tight, I didn’t feel right moving away from the material. However you’ll have to buy the DVD to see the outtakes. I apologize ahead of time for my outtakes. Enough said on that.

CTK: Dom, in today’s climate, talk to me a little bit about the challenges of being an independent filmmaker. And what do you think is the single greatest challenge that an independent filmmaker faces today?

DP: Well first off, what 'independent film' has evolved into is a completely different beast altogether than what it was when I was first learning about it. I always considered movies like 'Clerks', 'Slacker' & 'Stranger Than Paradise' to be touchstones of what true independent cinema was. The directors were like guitarists in a garage band. They were outsiders who came out of nowhere and made movies with minuscule amounts of money and casted actors you’d never heard of. Now, you have big stars like Jennifer Aniston starring in independent films. They’re being green lit with budgets upwards of ten million dollars. Indies used to be an alternative to mainstream cinema; now most indies are essentially just an offshoot of mainstream cinema. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but it does pigeonhole the market a bit and makes it incredibly difficult for guys like me to break in. Every once in a while you’ll get something like a 'Paranormal Activity' (which I really dug incidentally) that will be made for under twenty grand and get a big marketing push, but ultimately those movies are few and far between and they all have to have a very powerful gimmick. So as a traditional independent filmmaker – someone who is operating completely outside of the Hollywood system with a very limited budget and resources – the odds are really already stacked against you just in the way independent film is defined nowadays.

I will say though, horror film fans are probably among the most forgiving in terms of what they are willing to accept. It’s been my experience that the guys and gals who dig on horror movies will overlook budgetary constraints in lieu of a good story. That’s probably because horror film fans 1.) Enjoy and even encourage movies that can be made cheaply and efficiently & 2.) Are far more interested in substance than they are given credit for. Basically, I think it’d be much more difficult to produce and market a $3,000 romantic comedy than a $3,000 horror film. The latter is more likely to find its audience because that audience is out there looking for it.

CTK: Who are some of your filmmaking influences, past and present?

DP: I really got my introduction to independent film with 'Clerks' and Kevin Smith’s other early films, Tarantino as well. The first time I saw 'Reservoir Dogs' in high school, I was completely blown away. I was so impressed with the fact that a movie could be centered around a jewel heist and never actually show it. Scorsese is bar-none my all time favorite director. Kubrick, as well, is maybe one of the most prolific voices in film history. I think that guys like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan are way out in front leading us into a new era. Michel Gondry is completely out of his mind, as is Robert Rodriguez. Mark Romanek’s 'One Hour Photo' is one of the best directed film’s I’ve seen in the past decade. Sam Raimi, The Coens, Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guy Ritchie, John Carpenter, Darren Arronofsky have all been incredibly influential to me. This is really a list that could quite possibly go on forever.

CTK: The way that you shot the ‘grand reveal’ scene as the camera pans around (a certain character) was so brilliantly done. As the viewer, it created anxiety as you desperately wanted to know what it is that is being seen (and realized). Tell me about the idea behind that scene and if it was in fact intended all along.

DP: I’ve always been a fan of 'less-is-more', especially when it comes to these types of flicks. The sequence was always intended to be shot and edited the way it’s seen. My idea was to try and show just enough so that the audience could understand what was being revealed, but also to leave the rest as vague as possible so that their own sick, depraved, maniacal imaginations could fill in the gaps. I honestly believe it is true that what they (the audience) can create in their own minds is always far, far worse than anything that can be shown on screen.

CTK: I loved the genre nod you gave at the end; it was like a film nerd’s wet dream. Tell me about the films that have inspired you.

DP: The stuff that really grabbed my imagination as a kid and began my obsession with film was 'Back To The Future', 'Dick Tracy' & 'Terminator 2.' For horror films, I still think that 'The Shining' (which is the reference to which you’re referring) is the scariest movie of all time (Friedkin’s 'The Exorcist' is not far behind). Brad Anderson made a flick called 'Session 9' which pays a lot of homage to 'The Shining' as well and is just absolutely brilliant. Aside from the obviously great 'Rear Window', I think some of the best voyeuristic films are 'The Lives of Others' and the aforementioned 'One Hour Photo' (which I can say certainly helped shape 'Darkness'). You can’t get much better than 'Evil Dead' for indie/horror inspiration. Mary Harron’s 'American Psycho' is a masterpiece that has always stayed with me. Tim Burton’s 'Ed Wood' is on constant rotation in my film diet and always reminds me of how much I love filmmaking. Gondry’s 'Eternal Sunshine' is the most beautiful film ever made in my book (and probably my generations 'Casablanca' in many ways). 'Goodfellas' absolutely changed my life. 'Fight Club' is and may always be my favorite film ever. These are just off the top of my head. Again, I could go on and on. I worked in video stores all through high school and most of college, I’ve seen so many movies that have had a lasting effect on me and this is just scratching the surface.

CTK: Any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?

DP: The next feature is going to be a comedy called 'Saint Joey', which is a coming-of-age story about guys in their late 20’s. It’s maybe the most personal thing I’ve ever written to date and if I’m doing my job right, the funniest too.

KF: Yeah, 'Saint Joey' our next feature is going to be a great time. From what I've read, it's funny and the characters are already well fleshed out. Dom and I have been talking about it for months. We're also going to do a short film called 'Nicky.' Uh, I guess you could call it a story of redemption. It's based on a short story I wrote a couple years back and Dom is putting the screenplay touches on it that I have no clue how to do and frankly, I wouldn't trust anyone else with it. I mean, he's had a copy of the story in the bathroom for over two years now, really the highest compliment one can give to another. It says, 'When I'm sitting on the toilet, there's nothing I'd rather read than the misguided ramblings of a lonely old man and that man is you Ken.' Very touching sentiment. I think you'll dig it. And I hope you all do too.

Many thanks to Dom and Ken for stopping by the Planet.

You can pre-order a copy of The Darkness Within through the film's website:


Also, be on the lookout for an upcoming post in which you can win your very own copy of the film for free!!

Cortez the Killer

"The Darkness Within" on DVD! from Dom Portalla on Vimeo.


Chris Hallock said...

Excellent interview, James.

I think Mike has this short.
I'd like to check it out.

Theron said...

Great work! Without y'all, I'd not know of...The Darkness Within.

Cortez The Killer said...

@Chris, thanks amigo! Its actually a feature length film. And you might just be able to win your own copy for free very shortly :)

@Theron, gracias senor! Definitely check this one out and be on the lookout for our giveaway.

Geof said...

JC - This film is really my favorite indie flick that I have seen in a ling time and you know I am not BS'ing because I gave this a rave review over the summer. Thanks again for getting the word out for TDW because it deserves the exposure.