Let’s start off with the standard introductions. Tell us about yourself and your background.
I’m a Connecticut Yankee. Started off as an actor when I was 12- joined a children’s repertory theater and I figured acting is what I was going to do forever amen. But round about this time I started playing with a camera- which happened to be a Kodak 8mm windup. I made many short films with my friends- mostly horror or…just plain bizarre. In fact my first short film was called “Miss Bizarre” which starred my NOT very enthusiastic kid sister in pasty white makeup and a black graduating gown. OOOOooooo. Then senior year in high school I got my sound super 8 camera- a Sankyo. That was very exciting. I made a few “talkies” with that including my favorite called “In Loving Memory”. I wrote the script based on a short story “Donovan’s Drop” by horror writer Ian Fellows Gordon. After college I came to New York City and was a professional actor for several years- did stage, tv, film (among other tings I actually played the criminal of the week on “NY’s Most Wanted) and spent a lot of time mailing out pictures and auditioning. But over time I felt more interested in the creative process rather than just acting.
Taffy Was Born was your first feature film. What made you decide it was time to do your first feature, and what other things had you done up to this point that led you to doing the feature?
Taffy Was Born was kind of my first feature. It was specifically the first feature where I was the Writer/Director/Producer and intending it to be made for commercial distribution from the start. I had collaborated on a feature film called “House of Monsters” which I co-wrote, co-produced, directed, starred in, shot, did lighting, sound, props, costumes, locations, edited- in other words my head was spinning. It was an homage to the famous Universal movie monsters that I’ve always loved. We didn’t really intend this f or commercial release – we just loved the classic monsters and wanted to do a movie about them (we crammed 9 of them in it). We did end up taking it to Universal studios in Hollywood to interest them in buying the story idea and making a big screen version of it (they actually own the rights to many of the monster characters we used). They said “Thanks, but no thanks. We’ll never use those characters again in a big screen movie”. But that didn’t stop them from coming out soon after with “Mars Attacks”, “The Mummy”, “The Mummy Returns” and “Van Helsing” all of which took whole ideas and characters from our film. It was a crash course in the seedy side of the film industry. Next I was the Assistant Director on a feature called “Messenger” by award-winning Director Norman Loftis. That was re-make of the classic Italian film “Bicycle Thief” (why anyone would think to re-make a classic like this is beyond me!). That film was released and is available at Block Buster. I then decided to go it alone with my next feature, which was based on a pulp adventure novel from 1912. I made a valiant but ill-fated attempt to produce it. What a nightmare that was- plagued with problems from the start. I wasn’t crazy about the script (which I wrote) but I was anxious to start production ASAP and so I compromised and ultimately attracted some horrific actors and some hellacious crew members and then backers started backing out and things started spinning out of control and by the time I bought the film stock (this was just before the digital revolution) I was in de bt for almost 30 thousand bucks. Thank God for supportive parents, which I’m happy to say I have.
There were a large number of people in this film. Where did you find them all and what kinds of problems did you have in casting this film, and did you have any problems with people pulling out after committing to do it?
I auditioned many many people for each part- big and small. I posted notices on countless casting sites online and also went to acting academies here i n NYC. As you might know, there are a LOT of actors in the city- but you have to take the time find the good ones. The main character, Verid, is in virtually every shot so it’s important that the audience is with him from start to finish. Scott Mitchell Kelly was the best actor I had auditioned- he is method trained and appropriately naturalistic. Our leading lady Madalyn McKay is an operatically trained singer and character actress who had never had a lead before this film. Also, she was thrown into the part 3 days before shooting started so her performance as Aunt Min is quite impressive given the challenges. Our cast virtually remained unchanged throughout the shoot. There were a few actors who weirded out (it’s inevitable unfortunately) but thankfully it was early on before we shot their scenes so I was able to replace them with better actors. For scenes where we needed a large group of extras, I again put ads online and people actually were bused in from PA and NJ to be in the scenes. Remember, when making a movie, actors and production people are your family- so it is VERY important to take time to audition, interview, and screen people carefully and make sure they are not closet schizos, manic depressives or just plain bad news. If you do find you have someone like this onboard- get rid of them asap as they have a tendency to sour the morale of the whole company.
Many of the locations in this film are really beautiful. Where was the film shot and did any of the locations present any specific difficulties you had to overcome?
The film was shot primarily in Connecticut with some scenes being shot in New York City, New Jersey and Upstate New York. I wrote the film with very specific locations in mind – especially those in CT where I grew up. People in CT were generally so cooperative with us- the shops where we filmed, the police etc. We were very lucky to find that beautiful-but-creepy Victorian mansion where the main characters live. We really took over that place. The owners were sure glad to get rid of us!
The religious practices of the secret society in this film is referred to as Raefism. I looked around to see if that was actually based on anything in real life, and I couldn’t find anything about it. Was it just something you made up for the film or is it something that actually exists or existed? If it’s made up, was it actually based on something in particular or was it just something you created?
Well, this whole topic is really “spoiler” territory for those who haven’t seen the movie – so I can’t really comment too much on it!
One of the things I liked about this film was how the main character often said the wrong things to the wrong people, not realizing that they were all involved in this conspiracy. It lent a sense of reality to the film and to the character. Was this something you planned, or was it just the way it came out as you were writing?
Again, I risk spoiling many plot points for those who haven’t seen the film – and being that we’re on the verge of being commercially distributed I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. But I can tell you a bit about the process I went through. For a few years I had this vague idea in my head for a story involving a guy returning to his small town after many years. His family goes way back historically and is very prominent in the town. Something bad has happened in the town and in some way the guy was involve d with it. I kept seeing images in my head day after day until finally one day I decided it was time to write the screenplay. I had no idea where it was going aside from the above plot points and images. Every morning I would write 3 pages and not read them. I did this for about 3 months until I felt I had got ten out on paper what I wanted. The story, characters and dialogue seemed to flow pretty easily from me- often surprising me at the directions they took because I was not censoring myself by mulling over it and reading it as I wrote. Once I finished writing the first draft I then went back and read everything I had written for the first time- and I’ll tell you I actually found myself saying “This is pretty cool I’d go to see a movie like this”. I then had 3 staged readings over that year. This really gave me a fantastic opportunity to step back and hear the characters’ voices and gauge the audience’s reactions to the story.
What were some of the most difficult aspects for you in creating this film, and what did you learn from i t that will help your next one go smoother?
The most difficult thing for me was the beginning- dealing with some touchy scheduling issues and some troublesome production people and actors. L ike anything else, when we first start off on a project we have to find our feet and this can be a bit challenging/daunting but we forged ahead we got into a groove and the whole group of us became a very tight, efficient team- cast, crew- I was even lucky enough to get a former Broadway and TV designer, the late Rolf Beyer, to work on our set pieces. And of course I was also lucky to get our music composer Igor Dymkov who added so much with his moody, elaborate score.
How long did it take to get the film made, and what kind of a budget did you have? Did you have any backers or was it mostly self funded?
Budget? Hahaha. The movie was shot only on weekends over 5 ½ months. The whole production took about 2 years from the shooting to the final edit. Since we only shot on weekends this allowed me to budget as I went along. I wo uld plot out exactly what I’d need for the coming weekend’s shoot. I was able to fund the shooting week by week. I also had a fundraising party and some friends an d family chipped in which enabled me to start post production soon after shooting was done. In all I think the movie cost about $40,000.
Were there any nightmare days during production where absolutely nothing went right?
Finding the right Director of Photography was rather a nightmare. I’d say that was the main nightmare. We went through 4 DP’s (including myself) before being blessed with our 5th and actual one, Keith Andrews. To make a long story short the first 3 DP’s were not very stable…nuff said. I hurriedly put more notices online and in the meantime I jumped in as DP for a few shoot days. Thankfully, again, this was very early on. When Keith came on board he re-shot much of what had been done and then shot the remaining 3/4 of the shooting. He was skilled, sane and FAST. 3 good qualities you want in a DP!
The film has been shown at film festivals. What kind of reaction have you received to it?
We premiered the film in Hollywood at the NY International Independent Film Festival where it won Best Director (I can live with that!). At the NYC sector of this festival it won Audience Choice for Best Feature. We also won Honorable Mention for Best Feature at the Genesis Media Group Competition. In May I went to Cannes with “Taffy Was Born” and screened it there. That was very interesting. Cannes is a completely big name media blitz event and thus not really my scene, b ut it was a great experience to go. Then in June the film was screened at the brand new Forest Grove International Film Festival in Oregon. Very beautiful country by the way. In general, the audience and critical reaction to “Taffy Was Born” has been very positive.
Now that it’s all said and done, is there anything you’d go back and do differently if you had the chance ?
Don’t ask me that! Ohhhhh- there’s always so much we’d change no matter what. It’s hard not to be picky with one’s work. There are many little changes I’d make – maybe in the sound design mostly- but nothing major. I’m pretty happy with the movie and I feel detached enough from it now that I can just sit and watc h it and enjoy it as if it’s someone else’s movie.
What do you have planned for the future? Do you have another film in the works, or are you still dealing with getting this one out and shown?
I have a whole string of films all vying for my attention to produce them. Right now I’m working on a documentary (my first) with author Matthew Grace. The subject is the American Medical Association and the pharmaceutical companies and how they lie in order to sell their poisons. Very light hearted fare. Hahahaha.
What’s the single most important piece of advice you could give to an aspiring independent filmmaker?
I have two words of advice to start with: Don’t worry. Embrace what you want to do fully. Don’t feel you HAVE to do anything. There are truly no obligations with anything. If making a movie is what you really want to do- the n do it. Your earnestness and focus will drive you forward and draw to you all that is necessary to manifest your vision. REMEMBER- whenever any well-meaning person says to you “Oh- what a tough field you’ve chosen” to say to them- “No, it chose ME. And it would be far tougher for me NOT do what I truly enjoy”.