Taking over a decade to release his first feature film and many long hours, days and more to create the “Alice in Wonderland” influenced world of VOODOO, Filmmaker Tom Costabile pulled influences for VOODOO from different decades, styles and sub-genres of horror as well as science fiction to craft a tale of a young woman named Dani who arrives in Los Angeles to visit her cousin Stacy. Innocent at first, Dani is running from a dark secret and indiscretion that delves deep into the black art of magic and perhaps Hell itself. Sensory, heinous, disturbing and practical, VOODOO is shot in a POV format but takes the voyeur into a world that will push even the most harden horror fan. Taking critics, film festivals and fans by shock and surprise, Tom took time to speak with the Cinema Chords writer Jay Kay about the layers of hell influenced from classic literature, casting, budget, set design, fear, the reality of making a film and more.
CC: Thank you Tom for taking the time out to talk VOODOO. First, how does it feel to see VOODOO out for viewing and the response it has gotten?
Tom Costabile – Thank you for having me! It’s incredible! You start with an idea and fast forward years later and it’s a distributed feature film. That’s the goal for everyone in this town and it’s something that is always talked about but rarely done. It takes a lot of perseverance and tenacity but the end result is so incredible it’s surreal.
CC: Why create a film like this? What does underground and exploitive horror offer you as a creator?
TC – At the time I was writing this, the found-footage genre was so repetitive. Everyone was just duplicating BLAIR WITCH and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. I was a fan of the genre, as well as those films, and felt that a change of pace could do it good. To have a camera go to Hell and back to see what the protagonist goes through in that world is fantasy, which has never really been done in found footage, but somehow works, I believe. Everyone is so used to found-footage and reality TV and everyone knows now it’s all fake so ‘why not have a fantasy situation?’ was how I looked at it from the beginning. And the content it contains is a throwback to a lot of the B horror movies I loved when I was young. I always wanted horror to be my first feature because it’s my favorite genre, and the films VOODOO pays homage to were the films that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place as a young child in the ’80s.
CC:Where did the idea come from for VOODOO, Tom? How important was it to have substance and story to balance out the visual and practical side of the film?
TC – It was originally going to be a film for Nollywood which is the Nigerian film market. Originally, the protagonist was a girl from Nigeria visiting LA. That evolved into what it is today which is a girl from New Orleans. However, despite where she was from, the character always remained this wide-eyed innocent young girl in a big, seedy city trying to escape her past. The story was always in that. By the time we go to Hell, if there wasn’t an emotional anchor with this character, the audience wouldn’t have cared about what happened to her in the end. The first half of the film was crucial in creating that emotional reaction. Sam (Stewart) and Ruth (Reynolds) did such an amazing job creating a relationship with the audience that it all worked somehow.
CC: Did ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s themes or surreal visuals play any role in the overall film? What influences played into, not only the story, but the visual style of the film?
TC – Nice, man! I don’t think to date anyone’s picked up on that. Alice and the WIZARD OF OZ were the fantastical structures that the film emulated for sure. When creating fantasy of any kind, the structural backbones are generally the same in regard to heros. Someone looks to the horizon for a bigger and better life, then go through Hell to obtain their goal, wanting to return home, only to realize that they could never mentally go back. Alice, Wizard, LORD OF THE RINGS, and STAR WARS, all somehow follow this structure. Dani goes through this in a horror setting. She goes to LA to get away from her home, in the end wants to return, thinks she does, realizes she can’t, and that creates the sad, horror twist to the story. Combining these fantasy films with classic horror stories such as THE EXORCIST, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and DANTE’S INFERNO was exactly what it was, including the visual style we were going after. WIZARD OF OZ a little more so than the others. Even when she’s at the Rainbow on Sunset, she’s surrounded by the cast that played the demons in Hell and Ron Jeremy was supposed to be the Devil.
CC: VOODOO is a tale of two films. How much did budget and schedule play into the final project we witness?
TC – A lot. We shot the first half of the film in 6 days straight and then I put everyone on stand-by. I went into editing right after with Justin (Henderson) and cut the first half. If I didn’t fall in love with the girls in that first half I was going to shelve it and not shoot Hell. Hell was the movie. That’s where all the budget went, 100%. It’s not easy at all for an indie horror on a shoestring budget with a skeleton crew to create another world. It’s almost impossible. But we went after it and we did it. We were constantly being rushed and I was never able to get exactly what I had in my head, but it’s very close.
CC: Could you talk about the casting for this film, especially actress Samantha Stewart who plays Dani? She is an interesting character who is beautiful on the outside but on the inside, she is vulnerable, guilty and a bit manipulative. What was the audition and discussion like when casting her for this lead role? What was the conversation like about her torment and treatment in hell?
TC – Sam is incredible. She’s a star. We interviewed over 400 girls and she just stood out. I had already cast Dani in, a girl from New Orleans, and Sam was interviewing for the role of Stacy. Then Ruth interviewed and I loved them both. I had to let the original Dani go and had Sam and Ruth come back to read to each other. They both read for Dani and Stacy and in that reading you could sense that Sam was picking up on a dark side to the character, when there was zero evidence of that on the page. It was in her eyes and her expressions. Her talent was very obvious so I knew she could do the other elements (crying, screaming, running, fighting, etc). When that was complete, I was convinced they were the leads. Me and Dom (Matteucci) brought them aside and explained what the film was. They only had sides from the first 3 pages of the script. They had no idea what we were doing. We told them to go home and think about it before saying ‘yes’ because once they said ‘yes’ they had to stick to their word. There couldn’t be any backing out. After a day or so they both agreed and the rest was history.
CC: For me, I think it is so smart and I loved how you made LA the backdrop for the first act of the film. It’s such a city of dark secrets, glamour and tragedy for a young woman to escape to. Beyond the fact of voodoo and black magic, why has Dani come from New Orleans and escaped to Los Angeles?
TC – Thanks man! Glad you dug it! And there it is. You got it again. LA could ruin your life if you let it. People from all the world come to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams with wide eyes and 99% leave without “making it” in whatever field they’re chasing. It just is what it is. To go back to the WIZARD OF OZ element, it’s just that. The land somewhere over the rainbow where blue birds fly is a façade, foreshadowing her fate.
CC: How much experience did the crew and creative minds have with haunted houses? What did Set Decorator and Art Director Adam Rettino bring to this production? How much of this vision of Hell reflects what you envisioned it to be?
TC – He’s the Architect of Hell man J Adam became my brother over this film. I owe him more than he could ever ask. On a shoestring, he created 170’x12’ of rocky walls from paper, chicken wire, and paint. The ground was made up of 7 tons of dirt. It was supposed to be a one take, 40-minute movie and we were initially needing floating walls, which he created. Me, him, and his crew (8 people) worked day and night for over 45 days to make this happen. We slept at the stage and in our cars, all the time. Especially in the last 2 weeks, we slept there every night, tops 3-4 hours a night. It was Hell! But the set was incredible. I wanted this film to be very dark, to the point where you couldn’t see anything ever except Sam and a torch in the distance. But the set was so incredible. I had to brighten it up, so in the end I used a red tint to compensate for the brightness. He deserves all the credit. The man’s a genius. In regards to the actors who played the Demons in Hell, they were all actors from UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HORROR NIGHTS and BLACKOUT.
CC: Why handheld POV? Was it a challenge to justify the camera being on all the time? How did Cinematographer David M. Brewer’s perspective, framing, movement and ability to set the shot up create VOODOO style, feel and impact?
TC – As I was kind of saying in the previous question, I don’t believe audiences truly need to feel the camera being on should be justified anymore. I think we just accept it as a sub-genre and move on at this point. 10 years ago, I would’ve answered this differently. But in 2017, I don’t think it’s that big of a thing. In my opinion regarding the shots, there were so many things we had to overcome to create the feeling of a 1 take shot, and make it look interesting after 10 minutes. To be constantly weary of the camera movement always being different, to break lines where we could, to use tilts and pans in a way you felt that was a new shot when it wasn’t. Those little variances help greatly in building the anxiety and suspense in the audience so we were very conscience of it.
CC: The character of Dani is naked in the final act. As crazy as this sounds, it fits the very exploitative and harsh sequence. Can you talk about saving everything that is dirty, sexual and taboo for the final 45 minutes and not using any sort of this aspect of horror before?
TC – The story is in Dani’s past, present, and future, and each one has to happen at a certain time. The film feeling like 2 very different movies wasn’t accidental. I wanted everyone to feel comfortable and relaxed before the horror elements started. It’s when you’re saying to yourself ‘I forgot I was watching a horror movie for a second’ that I think you could be the most affected. As in THE EXORCIST, for example. That story was about a mom dealing with something happening to her daughter that she couldn’t figure out (which took a good 45 minutes of the story), and there isn’t a father around to help (so she’s on her own), except a Priest (Father 2), and her daughter tells him his mother sucks cock in Hell, so that doesn’t work either, and it keeps going and going. It’s these non-horror, psychological elements that make an audience vested in these characters, and make it possible to become scared when things get crazy, because you care about them. The more it doesn’t happen, the more it’s shocking when it does I believe.
CC: Where did you draw influence for the different levels of hell? What were you looking for in the makeup and FX artists that you brought on to this film?
TC – DANTE’S INFERNO was the influence for having 9 rooms. The things that happen in this Hell are of a Christian Hell, which was the character’s background. I was brought up Catholic so I just resonated on the stories I remembered of Hell, as well as the tips and hints great movies like THE EXORCIST taught us about it, that I focused on when creating what Dani witnesses. For the makeup, our inspiration was the Demon face in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON when David’s on a hospital bed in the middle of the forest. The artists were the contestants on FACE/OFF which was more focused on fantastical creations, however the work they did on the show was incredible, and I was completely confident in their ability to turn 40 actors into Demons.
CC: How detailed were the drawings and storyboards for the crew to follow?
TC – Not very much at all. The film required heavy blocking before each take to show the actors what they were doing. Storyboards wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this efficiently. So, we had a rehearsal day prior to shooting, just to block out what we could before filming. That made more sense to me than tons of pictures for this particular picture.
CC:How crucial was sound on this production? Was it difficult to do so much outdoor filming and sound recording on the streets of LA? What was essential to do ADR on?
TC – Sound is very crucial, especially in Hell. But for the first half we didn’t get a lot of good takes on set/streets. We had to ADR probably 75% of the lines in the movie. In Hell we didn’t get anything but Sam’s screams that were usable. The sound design to the film is very intense. We didn’t have music to help cheat, so foley and design had to be 100% of what you hear in that world.
CC:What was the toughest segment of this production?
TC – Nothing was easy J.
CC:Why did you decide to edit VOODOO instead of an outsider? What impact did post-production and sound editing play on the film?
TC – There were a lot of 1 take shots in the movie so it was really a matter of just choosing the best takes/performances and laying them down. Opposed to the standard way of editing where an editor gets to tell their side of the story. That’s how we wrapped so fast. The film was shot entirely in 14 days and it took over 2 years to finish. That’s the dramatic difference when recreating another world, and that was all VFX and sound design/editing.
CC: VOODOO has been called “terrifying… disturbing… heinous…”. Can you talk about the promotion on a film like this and how you were able to garner such a grass roots amount of support for it?
TC –That was really our PR firm October Coast. They’re incredible. Clint Morris is our rep there. He really believed in the film and kind of went all out in getting it out there. Little B horrors don’t get LA Times and RogerEbert.com to review their films. It’s so rare. I owe October Coast everything for that. Reviewing it positive was on the films merits but they wouldn’t have even seen it without Clint. He’s amazing. When it comes to the audience reviews I just become emotional. It’s so hard to get anything out there at all and if and when it is released you never believe in a million years someone would actually like it. It’s the plague of being an artist. You never believe people actually like your work. I’m still trying to let it all sink in.
CC:In your opinion, what is truly scary about VOODOO? Did this film draw any bad mojo since it revolves around hell, black magic and more?
TC – Just tonight our TV turned on by itself and our baby’s monitor fell off the wall by itself. Black magic or more I don’t know it’s still pretty scary J. I think what is truly scary about VOODOO is the level it takes you to. Newborn babies being devoured, priests getting their chopped off penis shoved in their mouth, a molesting uncle who died years ago ready for more, rape by Satan, these are all things you think about when thinking of Hell but you’ve never seen it in film. It’s kind of like someone’s worst fears being unraveled before their unsuspecting eyes. Especially if you’re a person of faith, because then you believe these things exist long before watching it. If you give VOODOO an honest chance, it could affect you. It’s been pretty intense for a lot of people.
CC: Being your first feature as a writer/director, what have you pulled out of this experience?
TC – You can’t hone your craft unless you’re out there doing it. Most indie filmmakers have to score a studio job to write and direct a film with as much set design, wardrobe, props, sound design, VFX, etc that I had on VOODOO. That’s from the craft point of view. From my personal point of view, it’s just been a dream come true on every level.