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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?

I spent thirteen and a half years as head of film programming for the American Cinematheque in L.A., so this film really grew out of that experience, showing horror films by great masters like Mario Bava, Georges Franju, Terence Fisher, Dario Argento. We had a lot of wonderful guests -- directors, actors, writers -- come to the Egyptian Theatre over the years, some famous, some very obscure. And audience members would come up and say, "I can't believe this actress is still alive, I thought she died forty years ago!"

© 2006 -- Trapped Ashes LLC
Stanley's Girlfriend
That seemed to me to be the essence of Hollywood, a place where people exist halfway between living and dying, being famous and forgotten. Not all the stories in Trapped Ashes are set in Hollywood -- the second episode, "Jibaku" (Evil Spirit), takes place completely in Japan -- but they're all told in a Hollywood movie studio, by a group of tourists trapped inside a decaying set straight out of an old Roger Corman or William Castle film.

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…

I wrote the initial drafts of the script over three years ago and it went through a number of major changes: initially the four stories were all told by guests at a dinner party at director Curtis Harrington's house here in Hollywood. Curtis and his films were another major inspiration for this movie, and I've always loved his house which is like something out of a Mario Bava film, filled with phrenologists' heads and sinister masks and props from his movies. But in the end that setting just didn't work, it didn't really trap the characters in one space like I needed -- so the wraparound (which Joe Dante directed, brilliantly) was switched to a movie studio tour and the crumbling set from an old horror flick.

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?
© 2006 -- Trapped Ashes LLC
My Twin The Worm

There's a core kernel of truth in all of the stories, some aspect of real life that got mutated, twisted around, perverted. The final episode, "My Twin The Worm," is the closest to reality, it's based on the story of one of my friends from the Cinematheque and follows the relationship of a human fetus and a large intestinal parasite as they grow side by side in the mother's womb. I like the idea that horror can intersect with the real world in unexpected ways, you can turn an odd corner and bump into something you've never imagined before.

You mean the woman you knew had a real worm growing in her womb?

Actually, my friend was the fetus growing alongside a giant tapeworm lodged in her mother's body. This was in France in the early 70s -- her mom had been infected with the worm after eating undercooked pork -- and the only treatment at the time was giving the mother massive doses of iron pills, which would cause her to spontaneously abort the fetus as well. So the only solution, as the good doctor in our movie says, "is to let the worm grow -- with your baby." It's possibly the most surreal and twisted of all the episodes in Trapped Ashes -- and yet ironically the one closest to real life!

How did you go about casting such strange stories?

I'll admit that the first actor who came onboard was my younger brother, Jayce. He plays the character of Andy, boyfriend of Phoebe, "The Girl With Golden Breasts." Jayce is younger than me but he has had a much longer career in film and TV: he's starred in movies like Richard Linklater's Suburbia, The Station Agent, Red Doors, John Frankenheimer's Civil War mini-series Andersonville, etc. And as someone pointed out, "you wrote the character of Andy for him." Well, I hadn't realized it at the time, but afterwards I stepped back and said, "yeah, I guess I did write it for Jayce!"

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?

No, Monte Hellman was the first director to sign on. He really responded to it, especially that third episode with John, "Stanley's Girlfriend." It's set in Hollywood in 1957 and revolves around the friendship between a soon-to-be-famous director, his B-movie screenwriting friend, and the mysterious beauty they both become obsessed with. Monte started making movies in Hollywood in the late 50s -- before that, he actually directed the very first West Coast stage production of Waiting For Godot! -- so I think he felt very comfortable with the setting and the characters and the theme of the story.

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.

© 2006 -- Trapped Ashes LLC
The Girl With Golden Breasts
Joe Dante and Ken Russell both confirmed at the same time -- what a day! I've known them both as friends for years, again through the American Cinematheque, but I never really dreamed I get a chance to work with either one, let alone both of them.

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?

Well, the energy surrounding the movie was incredibly positive -- we really encouraged all of the main crew and cast members to bring their own creative ideas to the project, to contribute things we'd never think of. I think that's how we attracted some serious heavy-hitters to work on this bizarre, low-budget horror movie, including our production designer Robb Wilson King who did Scary Movie and Rush Hour, and our Visual F/X Supervisor Robert Skotak, who won Academy Awards for Aliens and Terminator 2.

You mentioned it was a low-budget horror movie. How did you get the financial backing to make the film?

The film was entirely financed out of Japan by the Cinema Investment Fund (CINV), Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) and Asmik Ace Entertainment. My producing partners Yoshifumi Hosoya and Yuko Yoshikawa and I were able to raise the financing by bringing the script to the investors with name directors on board -- it was really a director-driven project, as opposed to many movies which are star-driven.

What was the next step once you'd got the financial backing?

I actually thought the hard part would be over once we got the directors on board and the financing confirmed -- hah! What did I know! The physical production was actually much, much harder: we shot in three counties -- Canada, the U.S. and Japan -- with five different directors and almost entirely different crews for the Canada/U.S. and Japan shoots. Given all that, it's really amazing how consistently creepy and coherent the film turned out to be.

Were the individual stories filmed in parallel?

No, the episodes were all filmed one after the other. In Vancouver we shot Ken Russell's "The Girl With Golden Breasts," followed by Monte Hellman's "Stanley's Girlfriend," John Gaeta's "My Twin The Worm" and the first parts of Joe Dante's "Wraparound" story segments. Then we came down to Los Angeles and finished up Dante's segments at Universal Studios. We took a break of three weeks, and filmed the last episode, Sean Cunningham's "Jibaku" in Japan.

Were you on location with each shoot?

Yes, I was on set basically the whole time with my producing partners Yuko and Yoshi, in Vancouver, L.A. and in Japan. In order to keep that sense of continuity between all the episodes we had the same Visual F/X Supervisor, Robert Skotak, the same Creature/Make-Up F/X Supervisor, Roy Knyrim of SOTA F/X, and the same Director of Photography, Zoran Popovic -- they were with us for the entire shoot. We also had one editor, Marcus Manton, and one composer, Kenji Kawai -- again, to help unify the five separate elements of the film into one movie.

What enduring memories do you have of the whole movie making experience?
© 2006 -- Trapped Ashes LLC
Jibaku (Evil Spirit)

The physical challenge of shooting in Japan in the winter! The temperature was bitterly cold while we were shooting outdoors in the cemetery of the Buddhist Temple in Izu province (there was a running joke among the Japanese crew members about the portable heaters called "gangans," that translates basically as "the gangan is your best friend!")

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.

Copyright © 2006 by Sandy Auden

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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