From his debut feature Dread (2009) to his follow-up Cassadaga (2011) and now Missionary (2013), Anthony DiBlasi has fast established himself as an intelligent, uncompromising genre filmmaker never afraid to ask uneasy questions about the darker sides of humanity. Having just screened Missionary at Canada’s Fantasia Film Festival, and with the film’s European première taking place at Film4 FrightFest this August, we caught up with the director and sometime writer to see what makes his horror tick.
GFW: You executive-produced The Midnight Meat Train and Book of Blood, and your own directorial debut was the intelligent, reflexive psychothriller Dread (2009) – which is to say that the beginnings of your filmmaking career seem bound up in the fiction of Clive Barker (Hellraiser). What is his particular appeal to you?
Anthony DiBlasi: Clive’s work has always appealed to me because his horror is elevated. All his work deals with what’s considered taboo in our society, and lends itself very well to thoughtful storytelling, regardless of what genre it’s playing in. With Dread it was about the nuggets of trauma that form our psychology, our fears that we grow up with are caused by something very personal, from a death in the family to small humiliations, these things stick with us forever and they mold our fears.
Are you still hoping to adapt Barker’s Pig Blood Blues?
I’m very much hoping we can still adapt Pig Blood Blues. It’s a strange tale, and not the most commercial work, so it’s been hard to get off the ground, but those kinds of stories are ones that often turn out to be the most interesting.
Your third feature Missionary is having its European première at this year’s FrightFest. How did you become involved in the film?
Missionary was a product of the team I made Cassadaga with. We wanted to jump into something quickly, and I really pushed them to do something that was tonally more dramatic. We chose Missionary because it created a lot of dynamics that I wanted to explore, and it was an honest story because one half of the writing team of Poiley and Wood grew up Mormon.
Missionary takes the ‘insidious interloper’ tropes familiar from Fatal Attraction and Single White Female, and gives them a special spin. What were your strategies for preventing Missionary from becoming just another ‘bunny boiler’ movie?
Missionary was unique to me because it took an image the world sees often – two Mormon Missionaries walking up to your doorstep – and turned it on its head. I hope that when the audience leaves the film, they’ll never look at that image the same way again. But my intention was to never demonize a religion, which we don’t, this story is about the action of a man, but that man is very dedicated to his cause, so I was careful not to embellish anything about Mormonism, just lay out the facts and let them dictate the story.
While making Missionary, were you sensitive to the dangers of antagonising a religious group? And have you had any feedback from the Church before, during or after production?
I think antagonizing a religious group is always a good thing. Religion should never be taken at face value, and if religion is ever used as a form of oppression, which all faiths are guilty of at one time or another, then they should be called out on it.
Bruce Wood was raised Mormon and everything in the story was inspired by things that he witnessed in one degree or another. A two-year mission for these guys can be a pot waiting to boil over, similar to when people join the military, some people are pushed too far under the rules of what they’ve just signed up for and that can often turn into aggression. But I wanted to make sure the facts of the story held up so we had three Mormons on set, two of them who had each served a mission, and they were extremely helpful in keeping me true to the rules of the faith.
Missionary is, I think, the first feature that you have edited as well as directed, and some of the editing decisions you have taken are very striking – especially the first sex scene between Katherine and Kevin, shown only in flashback, and from their two different points of view. Has the editing process altered your approach to filmmaking?
I love editing, I think it’s where a movie really comes to life, and you can make a lot of decisions on the fly that you had not planned on while you were shooting. The movie becomes a different beast when you get it into the editing room, and I approach it with fresh eyes. One thing I’m always mindful of, which was said to me from an editor I worked with in the past named Ed Marx, is to always cut for the emotion not the match. And it’s something I really took to heart. Cutting for feeling is much more important to me than making sure continuity is working. Which means while I’m shooting I’ll often change things up if I feel the actors are playing something a way that’s more interesting. “Continuity be damned” is something I yell a lot on set, because at the end of the day, I know that everything is usable as long as you are connecting with the emotions of the audience.
Your debut Dread, your second feature the serial killer/ghost story hybrid Cassadaga, and now Missionary and your forthcoming Paymon are all more or less horror films – but recently you also directed and edited a short film entitled The Test, which I understand is more a relationship dramedy. Is this just a one night stand in a career otherwise fully committed to genre, or are you consciously trying to play the field and escape horror’s shackles?
I guess I don’t really identify myself as a horror filmmaker. It’s something I love, but my horror always ends up being very dramatic, which is intentional. So I would say I don’t tend to make films for the hack and slash crowd, though I do love those kinds of movies as well. I could definitely see myself doing more dramedy/comedy in the future and more drama as well. In college all I did was dark comedy so I guess the bottom line is I just love movies, and love working with actors, so doing other genres allows me to explore a different range of emotions with actors. I see my end game as playing in territory like scifi/thriller slash action/adventure. Basically I want to make a Batman film.
How do you regard the state and health of the horror genre today?
I’d say the state of the horror genre is strong in content but questionable in distribution. With the digital platforms on the rise like Netflix, VOD, iTunes, etc., indies are getting played less and less in theaters. I definitely feel like there is more content being made, but I don’t know if it’s being seen as much. I think it’s harder to make a stamp now than it was for the masters of the genre, like John Carpenter with Halloween, Tobe Hooper with Texas Chain Saw and Clive with Hellraiser.
Lastly, what should we expect from Paymon?
Paymon [released as Last Shift, 2014] was made for big audiences! For the thrill-seekers who hunt down the late night horror pic hoping for one thing… to be scared. It’s meant to be a joyous and frightening ride, just like the haunted house at a seedy carnival.