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Birth Is Always Painful: An Interview with Vindication Writer-Director Bart Mastronardi

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Birth Is Always Painful: An Interview with Vindication Writer-Director Bart Mastronardi

Though the premise might sound like something out of Jacob’s Ladder, filmmaker Bart Mastronardi’s psychological horror film Vindication owes more to the complex mythologies of Clive Barker novels. When troubled young man Nicolas Bertram (Keith Fraser) attempts suicide by cutting his wrists, some larger force won’t allow him to die—and mysterious benefactors in the form of ghostly shades and blind seers lead him towards his destiny—which takes a turn towards the monstrous. Unlike films where the protagonist discovers he’s a ghost, or has a flash-memory at the moment of his death, Vindication has a prevailing interest in life’s bounty, told in the form of a birth story. In this case, it’s the birth of a monster, with the idea of “monster” standing in for whatever you choose to read into it: something other, something superhuman, something magical, or something uniquely alone in the universe.

Made over the course of three years, Vindication is a labor of love project that reshuffles the traditional ideas of the horror film. Mastronardi’s influences range from Greek tragedy to 1980s slasher flicks, but he never treats the film as a highbrow/lowbrow pastiche. There’s a genuine interest in the horrors drawn from classical texts and the epic qualities found in low-budget gore films. His painterly visual sensibility, composing images with bold impressionistic color schemes and unfamiliar angles, gives a poetic touch to a film made for almost no money in a genre most audiences don’t look to for substance, only shock. That said, the horror audience has embraced Vindication because its emotion-driven terror hasn’t been seen a million times before—making it reminiscent of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, which was made under similar circumstances and whose bizarre, otherworldly and borderline surreal imaginative qualities spawned a loyal cult audience.

Would you describe Vindication as a journey film?

It didn’t start out that way. At first, I was planning to make a typical slasher movie. I had no anticipation of it ever really getting out there. After I shot Alan Rowe Kelly’s The Blood Shed and saw the talented people he had on board, I realized that it was time to do my homework. I put serious thought into what I wanted from my horror film. Being an English teacher [as a day job], I was researching the role of the hero in Greek tragedy who has to take a journey. The first thing that people discover is who they are, and wouldn’t it be interesting if this journey led him to understand he was meant to be a serial killer?

Life is a journey; there’s a beginning, middle and an end. I was reading books by motivational speakers such as Tony Robbins and Wayne Dyer. They discuss what truth is, and truth in the beginning of a journey is totally ridiculed, in the middle stage is violently opposed, and in the final stage is totally accepted. That was the story of Vindication’s main character, Nicolas Bertram. I was drawing from Dante’s Inferno, where the hero takes a journey to be with Beatrice, who he loves. Along the way he has this mentor, Virgil, who carries him through all of these experiences, throughout Inferno, Purgatory and Paradisio.

The whole point is to understand that yes, he loves who he loves—but how much is he willing to go through to achieve that? In the beginning, he literally goes through hell, and then he begins to understand in Purgatory and accepts it in Paradisio where he finally discovers true love, and that it goes way beyond two people. When we truly feel love, everything is euphoric, it’s paradise. And while I manipulated that idea with Nicolas, we can all relate to that process.

Every step along the way, there seems a physical toll as well. When you discuss the evolution of Nicolas, it seems very much tied in with pain as awareness.

His whole life—his whole process is of pain. His mother Cassandra (played by Zoe Daelman Chlanda) even says, “I knew something was wrong.” When he is born, she dies, and the relationship that he has with his father (Jerry Murdock) is filled with a sense of loss and disconnection. The only person he gets along with is his roommate, Miguel (Miguel Lopez), who happens to be gay. That was purposefully done. Even when he’s on the path of suicide, the fact that he survives becomes even more painful. What was discovered during the writing process was that all of the pain he endures eventually becomes pleasurable, and when he starts inflicting pain upon others, he realizes, “This is who I am. It makes me feel good. I’m not going to stop repressing my emotions any more.” When he does, that starts to affect other people—and even his father says, “You have the Midas touch, son, but it ain’t gold.” Nicolas’ own touch is that of pain.

The mother is named after Cassandra, from Greek tragedy.

In classical mythology, Cassandra is the seer who is loved by Apollo. When she rejects his love, her punishment is that she can see the future and no one will believe her. When I wrote Cassandra in Vindication, I thought, “What would it have been like to have been Adolf Hitler’s mother? We all know about Hitler, but what would go through his mother’s head if he knew she would become what he was later in life?”

When you shot the monologue Nicolas’s mother shares with him about his birth, you chose to hold on a close-up of actress Zoe Daelman Chandla for a significant amount of time.

It’s the only time that Cassandra ever holds her child. She never holds him at birth; he’s taken away. I wanted that moment to be significant. Her close-up represents all that emotion. I felt that the only time I should cut away from her is to show Nicolas starting to fall asleep. It’s the only time he’s being nurtured. The scene isn’t about him; it’s about her talking to him. Therefore the editing choice was to stay on her, and Zoe is just a fantastic actress. I could have shot that a hundred different ways, but the simplicity of the scene spoke more about who she is. I also wanted to make sure when we did cut, it was a [plunge] into the moment where she’s giving birth to him, because her memory of it is jarring and violent. But I wanted that emotional aspect to the movie between mother and son. One element I wish the Friday the 13th movies had was to see a moment between Mrs. Voorhees, the mother, and her son Jason—the emotional attachment, where she’s plagued with pain. She’d rather die than allow harm to come to her son. That is the same with Cassandra.

There is frequent use of mirrors throughout Vindication. For example, when Nicolas confronts his father, you shoot the father in a medium close-up, but when you cut to Nicolas’s response, he’s framed as a reflection in the mirror.

The mirror is a refection of truth. It shows us our soul from inside out and no one can escape that reflection. You can lie until you’re blue in the face, but when you look in the mirror you cannot escape who you are. When he looks at himself, he realizes that he is the cause of pain, and he doesn’t want to accept that, but then when we see him in the bathroom, he realizes he has also caused himself so much pain. At the end however he is accepting of himself and the mirror again reflects the truth for Nicolas.

You also have images of blindness in the film.

We can have our sight and still be totally blind; but in Greek tragedies the characters who are blind are the ones who can truly see. It was a play on that. There’s something about the eyes. Characters like the Time Keeper, Kon’Shens, Urbane and even Nicolas at one point are all blind physically but can clearly see—how we see people, how we view people, but it’s horrific when those eyes are taken away. The character of the Blind Seer, Urbane, came about when I was searching for words to define him. Alan Rowe Kelly [who plays the role] said, “Oh, you mean he’s like an urban prophet?” I decided to check out that word, urban—there was something about it. When I found the word ’Urbane,’ I knew I had found the name. It’s another play on words—what is urban, what is urbane, the city as a dark and creepy place, yet the word means smooth, alluring.

The script evolved as shooting evolved?

I get so tired of watching horror films that are all surface. I’m interested in what’s beneath that surface. It goes back to being a kid, reading Fangoria and watching horror films, always walking out of the movies satisfied, but wanting something more. Nicolas Bertram, I began to realize, was actually me. This comes back to truth. Nicolas Bertram is everybody—to a degree we’re all lonely, we’re all feeling pain, and when we gravitate towards who we are or what we want, we can feel a little hesitant. Even myself—when I was writing it, I was afraid of it, because I am putting myself into this and people will read it however it might be. As the script evolved, it actually became stronger. I would do drafts and drafts of it. It would be funny to sit here and say I would do two rewrites. I did 15 or 20 rewrites on a particular scene, just to make sure it was right—and I’d sit there with the dictionary and Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare and the Thesaurus. Clive Barker was there. Stephen King was there. Friday the 13th was playing in the background. These were the elements I grew up loving so you pour them into the film. That’s how the script began to evolve, when I began to personalize it.

Didn’t you shoot the scene with Nicolas under a tree seeing the young couple in the park (Raine Brown and Joe Zazo) toward the end of production? It’d odd that was a last minute revision, since it feels like a key moment.

We were shooting right up to the end. This is probably the joy of independent filmmaking. It is totally my money, there are no investors, and I had complete, absolute control. I could still be making the movie if I chose to, but there does come a time when the child is done and we need to send him off to college. It was getting to a point where I said, “I am getting tired.” But I was watching our cut of the film and felt something was missing. It wasn’t even a scare, just a moment of understanding, but with a touch of horror. I wanted Raine and Joe to represent the mother and father. Nicolas sees her tell her husband about being pregnant, but we don’t even hear them—we see them from a distance. He puts a hand on the belly, and we understand this is what Nicolas’ father and mother were like before they had him. It was a happy moment. But there’s something not right, and after they leave, he feels drops of blood fall on him. That came from Dante’s Inferno. When people commit suicide they become trees in hell, and if you break a piece of them, they still bleed. The blood represented the subconscious world and the conscious world now starting to merge. Nicolas’ world was falling apart. Vindication spoke through me I listened to it.

You have characters who adopt various guises, such as Urbane appearing as a doctor, a casting director (or really more of a judge during Nicolas’s audition) and finally as the blind seer. Why this conceit?

I wanted the elements of Nicolas’s life to be understood—there are bigger elements that control him, and they are around us all the time. Alan, who plays Urbane, is not just Urbane—but somehow this idea of Alan’s character is present through all of Nicolas’s life, right from his birth, right into “we are auditioning you” and Kon’Shens appears as Dante, playing a model playing the Devil. The Timekeeper is the guy at the audition looking at the clock, and he appears throughout the film. Is this a figment of his imagination, or do they really exist? Nobody sees Kon’Shens but Nicolas, because nobody can see anyone else’s conscience. That idea came from Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, where he had actors playing multiple roles. The audience can wonder why this is happening—I don’t like to give answers; I prefer raising the questions.

The roommate Miguel asks Nicolas, “What is your color?” Were you conscious of the use of color throughout your movie?

The one thing I understood when I wrote Miguel was he was not to be a stereotypical gay character. Here’s Nicolas trying to accept who he is, and here’s Miguel, who has come to accept his own sexuality. I began to understand that he was an artist. Most artists are not understood. He goes into the whole monologue about blue. And I’m like, “Why is he telling me blue? Why am I writing about blue?” I began to do research on blue and red, and they are complete contrasts—like black is to white, blue is to red. He tells Nicolas he needs to find his color, and when he does, the color is red. Red light is such a strong color; in fact it’s the first color we usually see. It represents life itself—but also anger and awareness, whereas blue is tranquil and calm.

You don’t jump right into the horror mythology of the movie. In many ways, it starts out like a drama about this kid struggling with his feelings of otherness.

I did introduce Kon’Shens at the very beginning to say to horror fans and audiences, “Trust me, there’s something here for you. Just follow me for a few more minutes and I’ll get you there.” Until then, I held off as much as I could, and allowed for a slow buildup. Taxi Driver doesn’t jump right into the violent world of Travis Bickle, and neither does Pi. But we do get the sense that something’s not right. There’s actually no music in the film until Nicolas attempts suicide and makes that first slice—and in our world, that’s how life is. There’s no music playing around us. And in ours, once the unreality starts pouring in, it becomes the rollercoaster ride. You see so many movies where you watch the opening and I can already tell you the ending. I didn’t want that. I wanted you to wonder where we were going.

You go on an entire journey with Nicolas, and when he becomes the monster, we have complicated feelings about him.

That’s why I kept the beginning a little long. I want you to like him, to feel bad for this kid, and when he becomes this monster, you’re like, “I don’t know how I feel about him anymore. I sympathize, but my God, what happened with you?”

You mentioned the music—was your composer William Archiello working on the score as you were shooting, or did that start once you were in the editing room?

I’m happy you bring it up, since I’m so proud of Billy’s work. Most people want to talk about the make-up and special effects, but few people want to discuss the score. The movie was edited first, then Billy came in, and we sat together, and we would go over each scene, talking about what I wanted. My direction to him was the visual should tell you what the music is. This is an emotional movie, not traditional horror. Not to throw names around, but Clive Barker was very impressed with the score—it’s haunting, poetic, so beautiful and horrific, all in one. We’d sit in Billy’s basement eating chips, and he’d sit there with his Garage Band and his little keyboard Casio piano and we put this all in and that’s how it was born. Billy is a complete musician and composer. He understood it perfectly. The suicide scene is not even music, just sound—BOOM, BOOM—and he was like, on every cut, let’s make that noise, and the music shatters us into this new world. His music reflected the emotional horror the character was going through, and the hauntingly poetic quality of his journey.

How did Keith Fraser respond to your very personal style of directing?

What I love about working with Keith is there’s no limit. From the suicide scene where he is completely naked, which is a lot to ask from somebody for no pay, to sticking with it for three years of making the film, the more emotionally attached he became to this character. I don’t think there’s any other person that could play Nicolas. All I saw while writing was Keith—he has such a baby face, so innocent to look at. One of my favorite scenes with Keith is not even a horrific moment. In the close-up during his final scene with his father, we see something in his eyes. He knows what he has to do. And he gently lays his father down. As an actor, he read so deep into it. In the horror genre, most people don’t usually go there.

It’s quite moving when he says he’s “not good, not bad—only different.” You feel complex feelings towards this kid and monster, and a weird admiration that he knows who he is.

And then a new journey begins. A new journey, which is neither good nor bad, just different. How we react to the journey is what will define ourselves. Nicolas reacted the way he felt most truthful to himself—it just happens to be told in the horror genre.

What does the title Vindication mean to you?

I was looking for a single, horrific word that stood out. I would always use a thesaurus, moving from little words that led to big words—and eventually I found the word ’vindication.’ It means “justify.” Nicolas justifies his life through becoming who he becomes. He vindicates truth. There’s a sense of punishment. It’s a very strong word. When I think of “vindication,” I think of strength, power—justification. Certain words have that sense of awareness.

What are you working on now?

It’s about getting Vindication out there. The next thing I’ve been thinking about is a horror version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I’d love to take some of the elements of Vindication and manipulate them into Shakespeare’s play, maybe not with his language, I’d probably do what Akira Kurosawa did with Throne of Blood, only within the horror genre. Keith actually emailed me saying he’s growing out his hair for this role. I said that’s great. For now let’s seek a distributor for Vindication, and then I’ll focus on the next project.

You have a sense of responsibility to your cast and crew, making the film and getting it out there into the world.

When I was making Vindication, with all these great actors and crew, you feel that strong sense of responsibility. That’s when I came to understand what it means to be a filmmaker. I have a responsibility to let these people shine, and to let their talent through, and to allow the audience to take this journey and feel something. Whether you like or dislike the film, there is something about it that will resonate. Having worked with all these talented people, asking them to come out for the day, for no money, I understood my sense of responsibility. It was never about exploitation, it was about revelation.

Vindication was just invited over to “Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors” in Chicago. I went with my partner David and Alan Rowe Kelly and William Archiello. It was amazing as I have been going to the conventions since I was kid and now I was there representing Vindication, which is now becoming a part of the horror genre—the same genre I love and want to see have more respect toward it. It was fun and certainly and honor to sit up on the stage and share it with Alan to be interviewed by Fango editor Tony Timpone, all for this small independent movie. What I found most interesting is that I wasn’t the fan boy at that moment. I looked into the audience and saw David smiling at me taking pictures, my brother and his girlfriend, and Billy with his girlfriend. But I also saw these new faces looking back at me listening to what I had to say about the movie. Then they wanted to take pictures with us and have our autographs on Vindication posters. Wow, it is a bit surreal—and now I’m getting the movie ready for the June “Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors” at the Jacob Javits Center in my home town of NYC. Yes, I have a responsibility to Vindication because honestly the movie is made for everyone who wants to listen and watch it. Why this story chose me, I have no idea—but once you’re chosen, you have a sense of responsibility.

The House Next Door will continue the God’s Land production diaries when shooting continues in May 2009. Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.