Quantcast John Torrani interview

John Torrani -
director 'Alpha Dead'
Filmmaker John Torrani's is the man behind the short film 'Alpha Dead' - a movie in which a sorority house at a local campus gets zombified! His witty & unique sense of humor is evident in his films and it's what makes his current short an absolute blast! Already knowing John personally, we knew we had to feature him here this month for our salute to local independent horror filmmaking and introduce you to New York's Ultimate horror film fanatic! Enjoy! - by Robg. 8/05

What are the earliest recollections you have of the horror genre?

My first horror memories were from this woman from Houston, Texas who used to babysit me. When I was about 7 years old, she had a 13 year old son who was very into Freddy Krueger. This had to be around 1988. At that time, the Freddy films were coming out fairly frequently, because I remember being in the movie theater for Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and seeing a trailer for Nightmare 5. I remember the trailer really scared me.

Did this kid show you any of the Freddy movies, or would he just talk to you about them?

Both of them would always talk about Freddy, and she had this little Freddy doll that hung from her rear view mirror. So, at 7, I was pretty scared of Freddy. I mean, they never forced me to sit down and watch a Nightmare film, but the next big memory would be that around the same time, the 'Tales From The Crypt' show had started on HBO. And there was a making-of feature that they would show quite frequently, I assume to build a hype for the show. And it was hosted by Bobcat Goldthwait. I was home with my grandmother and I couldn't help but watch it. I was so into how they did all the special effects and everything. My grandma later told my mom how enthralled I was by this special & I remember them being upset by that. They both told me, "That's garbage!" That's the usual response to the horror genre in general from parents. It's funny because my mom tells me that when she was about 21, she saw 'Night Of The Living Dead' and she claims to still have nightmares of that film. The first film I sat thru from start to finish was our mutual friend Adam's favorite, 'House Of Frankenstein'. It had I believe Frankenstein and Dracula. A few different monsters and an Igor character. That always stuck out.

When do you think your interest in filmmaking really began? Was it with that 'Tales From The Crypt' special?


I was always interested in the behind-the-scenes making of shows since I was 4 or 5. To prove I'm not making this up, there was a show on Nickelodeon called 'Lights, Camera, Action' hosted by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy back in the mid 80's. They'd go behind the scenes of whatever popular movies were out but they'd always be about a year behind. A few years later I remember a show on Discovery Channel called 'Movie Magic'.

It wasn't until I was in high school that I thought I could make my own movies. I tried to make a film in high school but when you first start, you really don't know anything. There's no behind the scenes making of that explains how to break down a scene - shot for shot or how to edit something. It was always about the special effects or the flashy actor involved. They never tell you how to make something, so when you first start out and try to do it yourself, you're hit by how difficult it is. And you think 'How am I going to edit this!?' (laughs)

Was it along the lines of breaking out the old camcorder and trying to connect two VCR's? (laughs)

Ya know, it didn't even get that far. (laughs) I was 17 and 'Titanic' had just come out and I went to see it with my entire family. And I hated it. I absolutely hated it. The whole time I was sitting there watching it, I kept thinking of ways to spoof it. And my first attempt at moviemaking (which has since been destroyed) was a film I called 'Titanic: The Cheapest Movie Ever Made'. Where I was going to try to make the movie Titanic with no money. (laughs)

Because the one thing I learned early on is that you need money to make a movie. I was going to have this one kid wear a T-shirt that said "Ice Berg" and this other kid wear a T-shirt that said "Titanic" and they would just stand in a kiddie pool. And the "Ice Berg" kid was going to beat up the "Titanic" kid while I was going to play the Billy Zane character. Various other kids from my improv group were going to play some other characters but it didn't pan out. We shot I think a dinner scene... which sucked! When you're in high school and you say "I'm making a movie", everyone gets very excited and wants to help you but once they get there and realize that they have to listen to you & do things you say and realize it's not very fun, people lose interest.

Did you make a conscience decision to go to school for film? Or was there at least a video work shop in high school?


My high school didn't have a video workshop, but they did have a high school play, which was a pretty big deal. And they had an improvisation group. The teacher who ran that group went on to make appearances on the 'Upright Citizens Brigade' show on Comedy Central. I was very involved in the improvisation group, where I thought I'd be more involved with the acting and I'd be in front of the camera. But the great thing about improv is that you have to make up the things as you go along, so I would be making up these scenes and my vast movie & television knowledge gave me a leg up on some of the other people, which made my stuff a little bit better. (Or at least so I thought at the time.)

My junior year in high school, I started working in a little indie video store, which I loved so much. I was really upset when it ended up closing. But the summer I started working there, I would just watch every weird thing they had. From that, I decided that that's what I wanted to do. I applied to Emerson, which has a film program. I also applied to NYU, Hofstra, North Western & Loyola and I got accepted into all of them except NYU. So, I ended up going to Hofstra.

Before 'Alpha Dead', how much experience did you have working on shorts?


Thankfully at Hofstra, they let you shoot on film. All the film classes they have all shoot on 16 mm film. When you shoot 16 you get a real understanding of how a scene comes together. Because you really have to plan out what you're going to do. You can't rewind. Something like budgetary constraints, you start to understand quickly, because you have to pay to have your film and processing. At NYU, they get an allotment where they get a certain amount of money for both film & development. We didn't have that at Hofstra, so we'd always be buying our own film & developing it ourselves. You realize how difficult it is to make a film. So, when you go back to video, it's suddenly a lot easier.

Would you consider it a crash course in how to put together a film?

It's not a "crash course". You really go thru every step of the way. You learn all about photography and etc. They don't offer classes in lighting or sound production, but you learn basic photography & lighting. And you get a better understanding of it as you do exercises, because the professor would always give different exercises to do with the camera before he gave you the assignment to shoot the film yourself. A lot of times my exercises ended up being better then the films. (laughs)

When did you decide to make 'Alpha Dead'? Was this after you'd finished school?


I graduated Hofstra and I made a short that did pretty well for a student short, where it ended up placing 3rd in the overall student festival, right after my friend Steve's film. And this other kid who'd already graduated. Which by the way, kind of upset me. I felt that was unfair. But I got a $500 gift certificate for a film lab, and ended up winning best screenplay for my film, and got another $500 gift certificate for that. Which was great. It's a lot more then most get for a short student film, so I was thankful. After that, it ended up in the Long Island Film Expo, which to me at the time, I thought was a big deal but now in retrospect probably wasn't.

What was the name of this award winning film?


The name of this film was 'Actually, I Never Made Out Before' or AINMOB as Steve calls it. It's an ok film. I'd like to go back and re-cut it. Because when I was cutting it, I was making decisions based on what I thought would win and not what I thought would be best overall. I should take another look at it now. It was all shot on 16 with sync sound, which is no minor accomplishment! Whereas today everyone's doing video.  A year or so after that film played, I decided to shoot 'Alpha Dead'.

There's some wild stuff in 'Alpha Dead'. Where'd the idea for 'Alpha Dead' come from?

The summer after I graduated, I knew a few guys who were living in a sorority house, so I went to visit them and the whole sorority house lifestyle is just so bizarre. You could just tell these people really don't like each other. There's something about it where they are there & are friends out of necessity. And they need some sort of social interaction. Whether you actually like these people is secondary then fulfilling the need for social interaction.

So, essentially, you already saw them as zombies. (laughs)

Yea! It's kind of weird. I wasn't even thinking about making some sort of commentary, if I even did make any. (laughs) After witnessing these girls, I remember going to work and telling everyone I had this idea about a sorority house that gets zombified and everyone thought it was a pretty good idea, so I asked my friend Steve to help me write it.

Now, was this the first thing you and Steve had collaborated on, or had you done stuff together in the past?

It was the first thing we wrote together, but we had worked on each other's senior films. Steve came in and wrote it with me. I had wrote the basic story structure but he came in and wrote a lot of the dialogue. Steve and I have different writing styles. I like to have the whole skeleton of the story established before I write any dialogue, whereas I think Steve likes to write line for line as it goes. Which is fine. There's no right or wrong way to writing a script. Is 'Alpha Dead' great? It's OK. It's better then a lot of other things out there. (laughs)

Well, the impression I got is that you guys were just having a lot of fun with this. Now, the real question is was it a fun film to make?

Absolutely. It was definitely a fun film to make. At times it was painful & embarrassing, but for the most part, it was a lot of fun. We had some great guys come out from the Tom Savini school in Pittsburgh. Sean Klinger, Ben Bornstein and Josh Cameron were 3 top notch guys from there. They worked the entire time, they were fun guys, the crew loved them and they did a great job. For me, it was stressful. We were shooting in a real sorority house and by the end of the 6 day shoot, the sorority hated us. And we hated them. (laughs)

Did you have a set budget or parameters set up for the 6 day shoot?


I didn't really have a set budget. Or a schedule, but it all went hand in hand, because I could only afford to pay the Savini kids to be out here for a certain amount of time. We could only shoot the movie while they were out here. So, we were locked into doing it then. The longer a shoot goes, the more money it's going to cost. We ended up shooting an extra day. But, for the most part everyone enjoyed it. No one ever said "I'm never working with that jackass again!" (laughs) So, that's good. It's had a few screenings that have gone over really well. And it may get a DVD release, so that's more then I could ever ask for.

What'd you shoot 'Alpha Dead' on?


I shot it on the Canon XL1, which is mini DVD, which was the first time I really shot on video, not counting the high school days. I opted to shoot on video only because it would be cheaper. I had a great film director of photographer named Tom Holtzer, whom I met in college. He works for Panavision where they make lenses & he came in and shot the movie & did a great job.

How did you find the actor's in 'Alpha Dead'? Were a lot of them from previous short films or did you do a casting call?

We did do a casting call. We tried to find some new people, but we only ended up finding one person from the casting call. Her name was Zoe Hunter. She played one of the zombies. Well, the main character Gwen was our friend Charleen whom we knew from school & who also happened to be an actress. Ginger Currens was in there. She was top notch and didn't complain once. There was Lars Stevans, who's another great actor we found a few years ago. He was in a friend's short called 'Professor Rocks Your Socks Off'. The pizza guy, Joe Coburn... I found him on Hofstra TV. He was on 'Thursday Night Live'. I only saw one episode of the show, but I thought he was the funniest part of the show, so I knew I wanted to work with him. I'll probably end up working with a lot of these people again because they're all great and reliable.

I love Joe Coburn, the pizza guy! My favorite character in your film. Where'd the pizza guy character come from anyways?


I don't remember if it was mine or Steve's idea. Steve can take credit for it if he says it's him. I don't remember. We wrote it 2 years ago.

Tell us about the first screening? I'm pretty sure I was there and we did a write-up for it.

The first screening was last December (2004) about 10 months after we initially started shooting it.

The interesting thing about that screening was along with a few other shorts and some trailers, you were able to put together an old-school 'grind house' type screening. Where'd the idea come from that this was the way you wanted to present your film for the first time?

The movie is only about 20 minutes long, and I realized if I was going to ask people to pay, that'd I'd have to give them more then a 20 minute movie! So, I got together a few more shorts and it ended up building from there. We needed something to put between the shorts, so I used a lot of those 'Something Weird Video' trailers. It was basically a way for us to fill as much time as possible.

How'd you go about finding the other shorts? For the most part, everything about that screening was so entertaining!

Beaster was my friend Vin's film. We shot that about a year and a half ago in upstate New York and I was the assistant director on that. That was a tough project to shoot. Because everyone was in period costumes. And not only was it a period piece, but a period zombie movie? It was very trying. But the product is really tight and fun. I'm really impressed with the way it came out. Everytime I watch it.

There was a film also from NYU called 'Big Foot Lives', no?


I was working on an NYU student film. And my friend Conner is the only person who could convince me to help on an NYU film. (laughs) Scott, the director, was the sound mixer on my friend's sister's film and we hit it off. I asked to see his film called 'Big Foot Lives' and I thought it was absolutely hilarious. So, he was part of the screening. I haven't heard of it screening since, which is a shame because it's a really great little film. You actually put me in touch with Jeff Hayes to include his short 'Grandma's Secret Recipe' and then Dante Tomaselli sent us a trailer for 'Satan's Playground'.

Looking back now, how'd you feel about that premiere?


I thought it went pretty well. I was happy to have everyone there who was there, but I don't think it was the right audience for that kind of stuff. That's just the way it is on Long Island. In the city, I felt it would've been a different crowd and vibe would have been different. We actually did screen 'Alpha Dead' in the city and it got a really good reaction and really changed the way I felt about the film. So, I'm going to try to do more screenings in the city. Not to put down a Long Island audience, it's just that people in the city tend to be more accepting of the type of movie that 'Alpha Dead' is.

You used a variety of different recognizable music in 'Alpha Dead'. How'd you go about picking music to compliment your film?

All that stuff is temp music. I was actually looking into having it re-scored. There's the 'Suspiria' theme and the theme from 'Assault on Precinct 13'. There's Scarecrow Man by Graves' Misfits. There's Hybrid Moments by Danzig's Misfits. I just put that all in for screening purposes & because it was stuff I liked. But I have to change it anyways for any kind of distribution. I'd like to go back and tweak it anyways. Some of the audio we put together fast, so I can fix that.

What's the next project you have lined up? I recall a teaser at the end of 'Alpha Dead'...


The next thing I have lined up, I'm VERY excited for. I'm a little upset that it's taking so long to get off the ground! What I have coming up next is a parody of Ilsa She Wolf of the SS, which Steve wrote, and which I added a few things too and am directing. It should be really funny because no one is brave enough to touch the nazi exploitation genre, except me apparently! (laughs) Recently in 2004, I think they put out a She Wolf of the SS box set, with 3 out of the 4 Ilsa movies. I can't see why no one wants to touch that genre. It's screaming to be brought back...

What's the full title for this?


'Charleen She Wolf Of My Heart OR Why Is It Every Nice Girl I Meet Is Into Weird Nazi Things'. I think that's too much but it's Steve's title.

Has there been anything in the horror genre lately that's stood out to you?

I'll say from last year, 'Seed Of Chucky'. It was fantastic. I don't know why more people don't love that film. Jennifer Tilly is great. And out of all the slasher movies, for whatever reason, I think that Chucky is the only one that seems to get consistently better. My least favorite is the first one, but the 2nd one is great because of the doll factory ending. 3 is great because it's in military school & that's horrifying.  By 4, they had the bride, I think everyone likes that one. 'Seed' blows them all away! (laughs)

(laughs) Any film with a John Waters cameo is cool in my book!

It was a funny, self reflexive film & much smarter then people give it credit for. And from this year, and I HATE to admit it is 'The Devil's Rejects'. Because I hated 'House Of 1000 Corpses'. I thought it was a mess. It didn't have good transitions, it didn't flow right, it was not a consistent storyline, the characters didn't go well with each other. The Dr. Satan character didn't go with the Otis character. It was two completely different types of characters. BUT the new movie is just... it feels like a Sam Peckinpah film. It's very tight, editing-wise. The transitions are done really well. The soundtrack is amazing. There's not one Rob Zombie song on the soundtrack. It was a period soundtrack. So, I have to say it was a huge leap as a director for Rob Zombie. All the characters and cameos were great. The ending (not to spoil) is something that I was taken a back by. It was the way a Peckinpah film would've ended and it blew me away.

Hey, you were actually on IFC's Ultimate Film Fanatics, right?

Yes. I was on Season Two and believe it or not, Steve was actually on Season One. I was jealous that he got on the show, so I applied for Season Two. I felt I had to get farther on the show then he did. (laughs) It's amazing, because for the first season 70,000 people try out and Steve gets on. The second, I think even more tried out, 140,000 or something. And somehow thru all this, I get picked to go on the show. (laughs) It was amazing to me that these two guys who know each other ended up on both seasons. The show has since been canceled, which I'm fine with because now none of our other friends can go on it. (laughs)

What was the most interesting thing about taking part in that show?

It was great to be on TV. As sick as it sounds, I'll be standing around the city, and someone will stop me and ask if I was on Ultimate Film Fanatic and I get a kick out of that. It was great meeting the celebrities. Henry Rollins, Keith David, & Tatum O'Neal. Chris Gore was a great guy. The show makes him seem like a film snob but he's really not. He was a great, approachable guy. I really can't complain about not winning because I got none of the questions wrong.

Didn't you bring in some movie memorabilia to show off? What'd you bring to show?

I brought my Jason bust from Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter, which ended up losing to memorabilia from the movie 'Gotcha'. Then, I brought my Leatherface standee from 1986, which ended up beating a collection of cold war themed video tapes. Then my two autographed 8 x 10's; one of the late Brian James and one of Tim Thomerson, and a witty, funny story of how I ended up meeting those 2 guys lost to a 'Snatch' poster from the Chez republic. I wouldn't rule out the producers just wanting a girl to win.


I'm looking around, and it seems you have an extensive collection of movie memorabilia, posters, toys, autographs, etc. How long have you been collecting this stuff? I assume you attend a lot of conventions?


Sadly, I do. I started collecting a lot of things when I turned 17 and started bringing in a real income. I had always been into comic books since I was really young. But ya know, comic books aren't really for kids, because you can't get your parents to drive you to the comic store every Wednesday! So, unless you live close by and you can walk or ride your bike, you can't follow comics until you're old enough to go yourself and afford them yourself.

Listen, pal. I used to walk 5 towns over on the train tracks just to get to the comic store! Where there's a will, there's a way!

Oh yea, I know! But at this point, you can't deny they're for adults. They cost $3 each. So, if you're a kid who wants to buy 3 comic books, you're already at $10. What kid can spend $10 every week on comic books? You need to have a job to collect comics! (laughs) After comics, I moved to action figures. I hate to admit this, but I started by collecting everything Star Wars leading up the release of Episode 1. And Episode 1 came out and dealt a blow to my Star Wars fandom. By Episode 2, I wanted nothing more to do with Star Wars and began selling all my Star Wars stuff. So... if anyone out there still collects Star Wars stuff, drop me an email. I've got plenty of stuff I'd like to get rid of.

What would you consider one of the prizes of your horror collection?

The Jason bust is pretty cool. But what I love the most are my 3 Media video store light boxes. I have inserts for Nightmare On Elm Street 2, 3, and 4, as well as a Texas Chainsaw 2 insert. They used to have these light boxes at video stores and every month, they'd get a new insert from Media Home Entertainment, which you'd slide into the light box.

Last time we got together, we were talking about the state of conventions. You and I are from the old-school Fangoria conventions. Now, as an adult, how do you feel about the way conventions are now?


They're still doing the Fango conventions where most autograph stuff is free. Which is great. For those of you out there that don't know. You pay an admission to get into a convention. Which is usually over $10. Between $10 and $25 dollars just to get in.Once you get in, there's the dealers room, which there always has been. And they now have "celebrities" whom all have tables and they sell 8 x 10's of themselves & they charge you just to get their autograph. The way it used to work is, you'd go up to them and they'd sign your item for free. Or you could by an 8 x 10 from them between $5 and $10 dollars. The way it is now, you meet someone and they charge you a minimum of $20 to sign YOUR item. And sometimes even more for an 8 x 10. Which is absurd. I can understand paying 20 bucks and then signing as many things as you have because their only signing their name!

You're more interested in meeting director's nowadays, aren't you?


Yes. The first director I met was Kevin Smith... which looking back now, I think... Who cares? (laughs) But I've met John Waters, Tobe Hooper, Clive Barker. Most are really nice. I've never been charged for an autograph by a director. They are the reason I like the movie more so then whatever actor is in it.

Amen!


Read our 'Alpha Dead' premiere review here!!!

Email John Torrani to say hi or for Star Wars stuff at: cultheroproductions@hotmail.com.
Visit: CultHeroProductions.com



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