|Trapped Ashes: A New Twisted Horror Movie -- An Interview with Dennis Bartok|
|conducted by Sandy Auden|
If you're a fan of classic horror anthology movies like Tales from the Crypt and Creepshow, then you should check
out new movie Trapped Ashes. It features seven strangers, locked inside an infamous House of Horror during a Hollywood movie
studio tour, who are forced to tell their most terrifying personal stories to get out alive. But nothing is ever what it seems…
Some intriguing names are linked with Trapped Ashes. For starters, there's well known directors Joe Dante (Gremlins, The Howling) and Ken Russell (Altered States, Tommy, The Devils); and then there are stars like John Saxon (Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter The Dragon) and Henry Gibson (The Wedding Crasher, Gremlins II) who were clearly impressed enough with the script to jump onboard.
So what attracted such a quality cast and crew and how did the project evolve? Trapped Ashes' scriptwriter and co-producer, Dennis Bartok tells all...
When did the story first come to you?
That's another aspect of Hollywood, a place where people bring their strange stories and ghostly baggage along with them from other places. I've always loved collections of supernatural short stories by writers like M.R. James and Sheridan Le Fanu, so Trapped Ashes has a bit of that feeling as well, like a gathering together of odd and unnerving tales. Or opening a medieval cabinet of wonders, stocked with sinister and poisonous objects.
The wonders in that cabinet are a varied and colorful collection. There's a woman whose breast implants came from a human cadaver and have a hungry desire of their own; an evil spirit who seduces a middle-aged woman in Japan; two ambitious young filmmakers captivated by the same mysterious beatnik girl; and a daughter who becomes symbiotically linked to the tape-worm that developed alongside her in her mother's womb. And like all movie stories, the plotlines developed over time…
The other major change is that the second episode, "Jibaku," was initially a completely different story called "Amber Beads," but involving the same lead characters of Henry and Julia -- it's almost like, wherever these people go they keep running into weird and unholy creatures! We're hoping to make "Amber Beads" as an extra story for the DVD release of the film, with Monte Hellman directing -- he loves that segment and was very sorry when we had to drop it from the script in favor of "Jibaku."
What was it about the stories that made you want to make them into a movie?
You mean the woman you knew had a real worm growing in her womb?
How did you go about casting such strange stories?
Each of the five directors had cast approval over the actors who appeared in their episodes, but as producers my partners, Yoshifumi Hosoya and Yuko Yoshikawa and I also had a lot of input, making suggestions about who we thought might work. I give huge credit and thanks to our casting directors Susan Shopmaker (U.S. casting) and Candice Elzinga (Canadian casting), who both did brilliant work in finding some great actors who were willing to tackle such bizarre material.
We were also looking for someone who had the right amount of gravitas and intensity for the role of Leo the screenwriter in "Stanley's Girlfriend" -- he's a guy who has been haunted for nearly 45 years by the memory of a woman he loved-and-lost in 50s Hollywood, and by guilt over the best friend (Stanley) who he thinks he's betrayed.
Well you can't get much more intense than John Saxon, he just walks on set and carries a kind of force field around him! I'd met John several times through my former job programming at the American Cinematheque and had shown some of his classic films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Enter The Dragon and Bava's The Evil Eye over the years. He'd been at the top of a wish-list of actors for that part for a while, but I never thought we'd actually get him to do it.
The fact that John was a star in Hollywood in the 50s also added another layer to the character: there's a great throwaway line he added (which we sadly had to cut for time reasons) early in the movie, when a character mentions "Oh, I was named after Natalie Wood," and John (as Leo) responds, "Yeah? I dated Natalie Wood once." It's a terrific moment, we'll have to put it on the DVD as an extra.
Joe Dante was particularly thrilled at the opportunity to work with John, he's an enormous admirer of his work as an actor. In fact, nearly every member of the cast came up to me at one point or another and said, "I can't believe I'm working with John Saxon!" He's really a legendary guy, and gives a flat-out amazing performance in the film.
Director Joe Dante heads up an impressive list of directors involved with Trapped Ashes, but he wasn't the first to get involved was he?
It's really about sexual obsession, how that can blind us to everything else even betrayal of a best friend -- although in this story, it's not clear until the very end who actually betrayed who. It's also about the movies, the way they can fix the image of beauty on screen and it lingers there forever, even as the viewers grow older. In this case it's Nina, the object of their obsession who's forever fixed, eternally young and voracious.
The movie would never have gotten off the ground if Monte hadn't given it his blessing and support, he really validated the project at a time when it just me going around town with this twisted little screenplay, and people kept saying "you'll never EVER get this made in Hollywood." Well Monte believed in it, and God bless him. We had dozens of dinners at a great family-style Mexican restaurant in Glendale, Barragan's, talking about the movie. Then when the first day of production came on Monte's episode I had to say "No more Barragan's -- now we gotta make this movie!" I honestly think Monte is one of the greatest living American filmmakers -- it's hard to believe but this is his first new film project in nearly seventeen years.
Like any project, Trapped Ashes went through various permutations with directors coming on board and dropping off. For nearly a year Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper were both attached to direct episodes and then as we got closer to production, they both bowed out. I think Dario woke up one day and simply realized it wasn't the right kind of material for him: "It's more like Mario Bava and I Tre Volti Della Paura (Black Sabbath), it's maybe not so much for me," he told me. With Tobe we just couldn't agree on terms, and he's incredibly busy with projects lined up like planes waiting to land at LAX, so we amicably parted ways.
In the end I think we had a pretty incredible and eclectic line-up of directors: a friend of mine, Adam Gierasch (who wrote Toolbox Murders and Mortuary) had a great quote after seeing an early screening of Trapped Ashes -- he said, "It's like a studio hired a bunch of directors back in the late 1960's to make a horror movie, and they all went out and dropped acid, and made something incredible that only vaguely resembles a horror film!"
So why do you think they all came onboard?
You mentioned it was a low-budget horror movie. How did you get the financial backing to make the film?
What was the next step once you'd got the financial backing?
Were the individual stories filmed in parallel?
Were you on location with each shoot?
What enduring memories do you have of the whole movie making experience?
The easiest part was just sitting back and watching filmmakers like Joe Dante, Ken Russell, Monte Hellman, Sean Cunningham work with the cast.
I'd also like to mention how thrilled I was to work with John Gaeta who directed the "My Twin, The Worm" segment -- this is actually John's feature directing debut, and he did a spectacular job with his segment. It's this dark, beautiful and disturbing little fairy tale about a young girl and her phantom "twin," the tapeworm. John really did killer, killer work on the segment, a lot of people have seen it and say it's their favorite of all the episodes.
Since I wrote and produced the movie I don't really have a personal favorite -- the whole thing is my favorite!
Trapped Ashes, will have its World Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12th 2006, as part of the Midnight Madness horror/genre showcase.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent book reviews editor for Interzone magazine and a combination interviewer/reviewer for SFSite.com and TheAlienOnline.net. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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