An Interview with Dave Wascavage – By Duane L. Martin

Dave Wascavage is one of a special brand of film makers that are always growing, adapting and changing. I’ve had the privilege to watch him grow and develop progressively throughout his last five films, and with two more in the hopper, there seems to be no limit to his vision or his devotion to becoming the best at what he does.

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 I’ve interviewed you a few times before, but let’s have you start by reminding everyone who you are and give them a little background info on yourself.

Well thanks mucho for having me back there, pal! Either you keep interviewing me for filler material or you guys at Rogue Cinema just think I’m a great interviewee. I’ll wait while you answer that. Go on. But while we’re all waiting, yep, I’m the guy behind the Revenge of the Alien, Fungicide, Suburban Sasquatch, Tartarus and now my latest, Zombies By Design.

Zombies by Design is your fifth film. When you look back at your earlier films, what do you think have been some of the most significant improvements in your skills as a writer / film maker?

Mary (my wife/co-producer/co-writer) and I have hit our stride for our collaborations for writing; we think along the same lines easily enough, so the effort between writing and revision has been minimized. There’s a great forum for ideas that we can throw back and forth, and deciding on the fates and voices for the characters becomes very easy. Several parts of ZBD (Zombies by Design) were written by us just acting out the characters, talking as if we were in that situation ourselves, then we just write down that dialog. Otherwise I’ve seen definite improvements in my effects, music and editing. We’ll get to music in minute, but with editing, I’ve really learned how to break shots up better, ramp up the pace, that sort of thing. That means I can move on to new challenges, such as props, effects, makeup.

You didn’t use a lot of special make up in your previous films, yet in this one you had to create a whole bunch of real life (so to speak) zombies. Did you have to do a lot of experimentation with the make up before you shot the film, or did you have a pretty good idea going in of what you were doing with the make up and how you wanted everything to look? Also, how much of a dent in your filming schedule did all the make up effects cause?

Oh man it was so much work but I had way too much fun! I tested all the effects with Mary before shooting began. We’d do scars, bruises, bite marks, zombies. I was like a kid in the candy store trying out a variety of looks! I was excited because an earlier draft of ZBD had corpses coming out of the graves (you’ll note the house in the film is next to a graveyard for this reason) so I could do both desiccated corpses, and fresh ones. Well, we scrapped the grave zombie” idea because we felt it took away from the story, so that left us with “fresh corpses” – people who literally went from being alive, to dead, to being a zombie in a matter of minutes. So that meant the makeup couldn’t have eyeballs missing, rotting jaws, etc etc. You know, all the sort of things that endear you to some of the zombie films out there. I was sad at that limitation, but I didn’t want to rob any zombie fans in that respect. During filming I was doing the makeup, which really cramped my schedule. It just means I had to run faster between the makeup area and filming areas! Fortunately, all the zombies were able to help me out and apply their base makeup, allowing me to come in for the details afterward.

ZBD saw the return of a variety of your usual cast of regulars including your wife Mary, your father Ed, Juan Fernandez, and others. You also picked up some new people. How do you go about the casting process when you’re casting each film, and do you think any of the new people in ZBD might join your group of regulars?

There’s actually a huge amount of talent in the tri-state area around me, and a lot of people from areas such as NY, Boston and Maryland wanting to get involved as well. It really boils down to eagerness/interest/ability and the desire to make the project work for everyone. A lot of indie filmmakers stay with a group of regulars, and that’s a good thing because you learn to know what each expects without stating it. I want to keep getting new and fresh talent, but its hard to pass working with some of the people I’ve been working with. You have to think of who can fit the characters best. It’s not just whether you want regulars to return; they have to be interested as well. Fortunately, a good crop of talent likes to keep coming back. I’m working with Juan Fernandez, Bill Ushler and Dave Sitbon again, as well as Bill McCue for my next film, Infinities Lock. But I’m also bringing in new talent such as Anthony Spadduccini and Anthony Mecca, two really good actors from Delaware that really round out the new film.

How difficult do you find it to schedule your shoots around the availability of your actors? Does it really put a crimp in the shooting schedule or does it typically work out ok? Also, have you ever had to drop an actor from a film simply because of their lack of availability after they accepted the role?

Scheduling is the hobgoblin for any project, be it film or business, and its no fun because your always battling peoples personal time. Oh hell yeah I’ve dropped people due to scheduling, and had to do last minute casting in the past. You can’t control everything that happens. You have to be as flexible as possible when problems arise. And problems will arise! However, its all in how you respond to those difficulties that define how you are. If you complain and wail and fall apart, the film will never get done. Learn to allow the script to adapt to the schedules and be as flexible as possible.

 As with all your films, you used a good amount of CGI in this one, though this one had some new things that we haven’t seen in your previous films. Talk a little about the process, how you go about shooting the footage and adding in the CGI and how you feel your CGI work has progressed over the last couple of years.

I took a very radical approach to this film: I shot a lot of footage that I knew wouldn’t work unless I had specific capabilities and tools that would fix and enhance the scenes. I figured that I could shoot it, then figured I’d learn how to do the CGI/special effects, and by the time editing rolled around I could implement. Fortunately my experiments paid off. The entire cop scene was visualized that way, but in the script it’s basically a three line description. I had the images in my mind, and even told the actors when I shot it that there was no guarantee it was going to be kept or get axed, depending on my skills. It took 6 months of learning/editing/CGI/fixing to get it to work. The CGI saves me a lot of money and effort, and allows me to expand the story quite a bit. Some people are so put off by CGI in a film that they turn away or cant watch it. That kind of cynicism sounds like you cant put yourself outside of reality for the length of a film? As a kid, I was thrilled to have my parents read my fairy tales that had minimum black and white illustrations – I was forced into using my imagination. That’s what I use my CGI in films for – allowing me to get as close as I can to simulating what the story needs. It’s just another method to help engage an audience in a story.

How much has the whole film making process streamlined for you over the course of the last few films? Do you find that things are going faster now as things become more automatic and / or automated in some ways, or are you still spending about the same amount of time with the films because as some things become automatic, you find yourself pushing the envelope in other areas?

A few things have gotten more automatic in response such as logistics, but you can’t let anything slide, since that will show in the end product. What does move faster is the reduction of repetitive shots, easy set up and planning for direction. I employed a lot of tao philosophy for directing in this film, and that gave it a natural pace/directing feeling that I was really happy with. To me that was the biggest gamble; letting the environment and script mold the directing as opposed to having it story-boarded.

What were some of the most technically difficult scenes for you to assemble and did you have any scenes that you actually had to drop because they just didn’t work out the way you had originally envisioned them? Also, were there any scenes that you thought wouldn’t work out or that you were unsure about that in the end worked out rather well?

The first scene was a major hurdle. Rob and Nick (the zombie and victim that opened the film) were very patient with me as I labored over the setup of that scene. But that patience was coupled with eagerness. Both were ready and capable of picking up all the actions needed. I really wanted that first scene to shine. It was technically challenging due to the makeup, dolly, props, weather, time for filming, effects. It’s a little different than how Mary and I first wrote it, but we wanted to ramp up the energy quick so we augmented a few of the details. The rolling dolly shot for Nick (ie the shot where we move from right to left across screen as Nick runs for the liquor bottle) was tough because we had Mary, Dave Sitbon, myself and my dad all operating the dolly. It’s kind heavy and after each shot there’d be this period of silence as they waited for me to say if it was good or do it again. I think after the fourth take they were all ready to strangle me! Coordination is the key, and as in that scene, can pay off big time.

You do your own music for your films and you indicated to me that you just recently got a new synth as well. What equipment / software are you currently using to do your scoring, and could you walk us through a bit of the scoring process?

I decided to go with Reason with an Oxygen 8 keyboard for scoring. In my research I found it to be very flexible and powerful for the cost. Since I’m no musician, it was a matter of buying scores of books, mostly on classical compositions, to get to understand the nature of music. Not “how to teach Dave how to make music”, but on what actually comprises good music. Why do we know what sounds good based on what we hear? We don’t need to be told that a particular note is “off”. Its not a learned trait, its inherent in us from birth. Why? What constitutes an “eerie” sound? What does kindness sound like? I knew if I approached it from that angle, my music would be much more emotional and carry a bigger impact than I’d done before. So most of the pieces came from a lot of time of emotional angles with tweaking, adding, removing. As I created more pieces, I found that the best music came without force. That is, I’d literally turn off all the lights in the room, start the recording, turn away from the monitors, and just…compose. Let it flow…Those pieces turned out to be my best, in my opinion.

 You’re currently scheduling shooting for your next film. What can we look forward to with that one, and then you have another one you’re planning to work on shortly afterwards. Give us a bit of a teaser about that one as well.

I’m currently shooting “Infinities Lock”, which I’m hoping to have out in 2007. There’s a lot of special effects in this one so I’m not guaranteeing the date. All I can say is the film is serious in tone, like Tartarus, and will probe the question of sacrifice. There’s going to be a subversive angle with this story, much like ZBD, and its going to be subtle enough so that it doesn’t become overbearing to the audience. Better to watch a film 3 times and pick up a observance than be hit over the head with it. I’m more of a “oooh after watching this a few times I think that character X represents…” than “LOOK AT MY MOVIE I’M MAKING A POLITICAL STATEMENT!” I have another film after that, that Mary and I scripted. We may get to shoot it this year, maybe not. If it gets made it will be like ZBD or Fungicide, in that vein of comedy/horror. I’ve got the cast and props ready, its just a matter of getting the time if I can get to it. I wont reveal anything about it except that it’s been in the works since 2004 and it will be my final comedy/horror film.

Comedy can be a difficult thing to write. Sometimes, what sounds funny on paper isn’t always a laugh riot when it translates into a real life scene. You had indicated to me in a past conversation that one of the funniest little scenes in this film was almost dropped because you questioned whether it actually worked or not. Do you find it difficult to gague how people are going to react to any given comedic moment or are you generally pretty confident in your sense of what the viewer will find funny?

I really don’t think about what an audience will find funny, since I’m laughing at many things in life that people don’t find funny. That means I write from the same vein; I’m really writing stuff that makes me laugh. You find it funny too? Well that’s cool, glad I could make you laugh! Its more that what can make you chuckle. A film with 2 hours of jokes is nothing more than being strapped in to a chair and watching each joke roll by. I want my characters to develop, be challenged, have the plot force them to decide or react – and that all takes time. I need to balance the humor with all the other zaniness, and for me it’s still a guessing game as to what will work or not. The nearly dropped scene you’re referring to was in question because it was all a part of striking that balance – what side of the fence was it going to push the film over to?

Is there anything about ZBD you’d go back and do differently if you had the chance?

No, after 2 years of working on it I’d say I’m done for now. Like all projects, I do look back after some time and wonder or question whether or not some choices were the best. And like any piece of art it lives and breathes and then becomes abandoned, so you truly never let go. You can never recreate the emotional/artistic decisions and actions that go along with a film years later, so its hard to question whether or not certain choices were right and warrant any reconstruction for the film.

Do you have any plans to submit ZBD to any film festivals?

That’s not really something I do for my films. I typically send them off to one or two, just for the enjoyment of having them out there. I was very happy that “Suburban Sasquatch” reached the Cherokee Film Festival, and "Tartarus" was able to debut as t
e lone feature film at Balticon, The Baltimore Science Fiction Convention in 2005. I’m sure I’ll find one or two fests that would be appealing and see what happens. I’m much more interested in the creativity side than in the showmanship side, which means I’m more focused on creating the films than getting them “out there”. In fact the photos you have of me for this interview are from my next film!

Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?

I’m really glad you flew me out to your place for this interview. I’ll bet you didn’t extend that same gratitude to Kevin Smith, huh? Next time I’d recommend more food in the green room, though. Heya just kiddin there – seriously, thanks and a blessing to you for taking the time to listen!