Interview with Buddy Giovinazzo: Spend a Night in His Nightmares
Throughout his career, fiercely independent filmmaker and author Buddy Giovinazzo hasn’t sugar-coated a thing. He’s the creator of the films Combat Shock (a.k.a. American Nightmares) and Life is Hot in Cracktown, as well as published work Potsdamer Platz and Poetry & Purgatory. Buddy G, as he’s affectionately known, doesn’t filter his view of the world, but rather, pushes life’s ugliness right in the face of anyone hoping for mindless escape. With sardonic wit and visceral power, Buddy G simply won’t allow anyone to escape the very real terrors lurking outside their doors.
Witnessing the decline of his hometown in Staten Island has no doubt shaped his perspective. His art is a reflection of poverty, addiction, abuse, and murder. And, whereas one may think he wants to depress his audience, he has described his work as “truth in advertising”.
The character-driven tragedy has always been Giovinazzo’s calling card. The inner conflicts of folks on the fringes are the driving force of his work. Rather than feel scorn, or worse, pity, for his heinous representations, we find ourselves rooting for them. The dichotomy of predator vs. prey, and the human frailty residing within that spectrum is where Buddy G likes to toil.
Giovinazzo’s latest work, A Night of Nightmares, is the director’s first foray into a true supernatural horror film. The occult overtones push this character-driven love story into the genre unlike anything else in his filmography. Additionally, the film utilizes more overt humor than his other films’ subtle, tragic irony. This is also the first film in which he shares the writing credit with another screenwriter, Greg Chandler; however, Giovinazzo’s fingerprints still can be found in the dialogue, sudden violence, and tender moments of fleeting love. That last component – love in the midst of tragedy – has always been his secret weapon.
I caught up with Mr. Giovinazzo after the world premiere screening of his film at Fantasia Film Festival. I spoke with him about his experience at the festival and the audience reaction to a decidedly different style of film for him. We also discussed the importance of humor as a pressure release for particularly intense films. Though he confides that he’s made some changes to appeal to a larger audience, A Night of Nightmares is every bit as twisted, original, and terrifying as any project bearing his name.
The story involves a young music blogger named Mark (Marc Senter) who travels to a rental house in the middle of nowhere to interview aspiring singer-songwriter Ginger (Elissa Dowling). The two hit it off with great rapport and enjoy one another’s company. A series of inexplicable events follows seemingly innocuous phone calls from Ginger’s landlord. As the calls get weirder, so do incidents of paranormal activity around the house. Mark and Ginger – their cars inoperable – are stranded in an apparently haunted house. Pragmatic Mark looks for rational explanations for the phenomenon, while Ginger embraces otherworldly theories. The dichotomy of the characters, as well as the ambiguous nature of the story makes for compelling viewing.
DIABOLIQUE: You had the world premiere of A Night of Nightmares last night. It’s not the first film you’ve screened here (at Fantasia). Life is Hot in Cracktown screened here a few years ago, and you had a segment in The Theater Bizarre last year. How has the audience reaction been for the new film?
BUDDY GIOVINAZZO: It’s very different. Cracktown played at the bigger theater. The difference between this theater and the small theater is that it’s so much more intimate. I think things like humor come across much easier in the smaller theater. It was good for me to see that the humor really works. In the bigger theater, I don’t know if it would work the same. It’s not as intimate. I don’t think this film requires the bigger theater; this film could get lost in the bigger theater.
DIABOLIQUE: I could tell in the beginning there was restraint from laughter even though it felt like this is an intentionally funny movie. As the film progressed, I could tell people were getting into it. The film had a momentum where it started getting more and more outrageous which I felt helped everyone loosen up. Based on the two screenings, could you tell if people were getting the humor?
BG: I think they were. I mean, I wrote it humorous. I try to put humor in all my films. Even Combat Shock, to me, has humor. Sure, it’s black humor. I’m just glad the audience got that. Sometimes you see a horror film and you’re not sure if you should laugh. Sometimes when it’s so absurd, the things the characters say are so crazy you just have to laugh.
DIABOLIQUE: There are a lot of things your audience expects of your films, and here, you break the mold of a Buddy G film. You do so with the outright humor. The film has a supernatural element that pushes it directly into the horror genre. Off the bat, you break the fourth wall by having Marc [Senter] and Elissa [Dowling] speak directly to the camera right from the opening moments. Were these deliberate decisions to break down expectations?
BG: I wanted to do that. I can’t really continue to make Life is Hot in Cracktown and Combat Shock and No Way Home because there’s not a big enough audience to support those films. The reason it took ten years between Combat Shock and my next feature was that reason, because they were so extreme and they were so hard, people were afraid to work with me. I wanted to just broaden my audience and I wanted to still do something that was twisted. I tried to make this film as twisted and psychotic as I could, but I was also aware that I couldn’t keep doing Cracktown. Cracktown was a labor of love. The first scene in Cracktown is a gang rape, and it turned off so many people against the entire film. It didn’t matter how good the film was because after that scene, they weren’t coming back.
DIABOLIQUE: Did people walk out of that film?
BG: [A Night of Nightmares] is the only film people didn’t walk out of. People always walk out.
DIABOLIQUE: In an interview with Gene Gregorits (in Midnight Mavericks), you allude to resisting placing the rape scene in the beginning because you were worried about people walking out. Did a producer suggest putting it there at the beginning?
BG: A good friend of mine said that. He saw the first cut and it started in the bodega with the guy working and it was really long and boring. You couldn’t get into the film. About 20 minutes in, the rape scene comes on. So my friend who is a director said “why don’t you put the rape scene up front?” I asked if he was crazy; I said that would be ridiculous, it would destroy the film. He said “Whoever walks out of that rape scene is going to walk out if it’s 20 minutes in or the first scene in. At least in the first scene you’re telling everybody this is where it is, sit back”. And I thought about it and realized he was right. If you’re gonna walk out, you’re gonna walk out. So, I put it up front and for me, the film was better. Right off the bat, it grabs you by the throat. After that, when it cuts to the bodega, it’s almost like a relief. It wasn’t boring anymore.
DIABOLIQUE: Would you say it’s important to you, right off the bat, for your audience to know exactly what they’re going to get from those opening moments?
BG: It’s different, every film is different. In The Theater Bizarre it was something completely different. In this film, we didn’t have the opening the way it was in the (final) cut. It opened up with Mark’s show on the blog. People weren’t getting Mark. They were thinking this guy is so awkward, this guy’s just so uncomfortable. I realized they weren’t getting that he was playing a guy who’s uncomfortable in front of the camera. These blog guys generally aren’t performers; they’re not actors. They’re normal guys like us. Put a camera in front of them, and they’re not going to be the most comfortable. I realized I had to find a way to let the audience know this is not who the actor is, this is the character. Then I put this piece in the front and in the first scene he says “I killed Phil in self-defense”. You immediately know — regardless of how nerdy this guy is at his computer — you know already this guy killed somebody. It changed everything. Marc’s performance just took off.
DIABOLIQUE: Being someone who does a lot of character-driven pieces that you’ve written yourself, was it tougher starting with someone else’s screenplay – one in which you didn’t have a hand in creating the characters?
BG: It’s easier, in some ways. I already liked [Elissa Dowling's character] Ginger. It was just a caution of working with Marc, and just making a story out of it. I really liked Ginger, so it was easier for me. I don’t know if I could have created Ginger, myself, with nothing. I liked her very much.
DIABOLIQUE: She was almost like a muse for you.
BG: She was a muse for me, and I was able to tailor it for my tastes. Things like the story of the teacher – that wasn’t there, what the teacher did to her. And Mark’s story about his dad leaving him and his mom. Just creating that dynamic. I had the basis of the character and just went in and added the details.
DIABOLIQUE: I could pick up on the nuances, the Buddy G voice coming through in these characters…
BG: That’s what attracted me to the project. I felt I could bring my voice into this project. We didn’t have the money to do anything monumental, but I thought we could do something creepy and strange.
DIABOLIQUE: Marc and Elissa played off each other really well. Marc’s character represents science, the rational, practical person. Elissa’s character “Ginger” represents the faith side of humanity looking for otherworldly explanations. How much of that is bringing yourself into these characters?
BG: Mark is me in many ways. Mark voices my view of life. Ginger is closer to my wife. My wife is a spiritual person – not like Ginger — but my wife believes in other forces of nature. I’m pretty much like Mark. Marc Senter is pretty much like me. We were really together on our beliefs. We didn’t have to talk about what he believes in or what he doesn’t, it was so natural in the dialogue when he says the lines. It’s pretty much my views. We have these two creatures that don’t see eye-to-eye and don’t see the world in the same way. In the end he says “now we have proof there’s life after death” and she says “do you believe me” and he says “yes”. I think in that moment they fall in love.
DIABOLIQUE: A lot of your work is a love story wrapped up in the horribleness of life. It’s something that’s obviously important to you and comes across in your work.
BG: I find that subject in a film to be just wonderful, it’s so unique, the way couples come together. How do people find each other? Just trying to survive in love, it’s an amazing subject.
DIABOLIQUE: What are your plans for the film? Are you traveling in the festival circuit?
BG: That’s our initial plan. We’re going to try doing the major festivals. My producer, of course, wants to sell it to make his money back and maybe make another film. I don’t know. I’m looking for a project now, I don’t know what I’m going to do next. I would love to find another situation like this, a script that I can find and like and I can rework, add my own fingerprint. That’s pretty much my goal, to be looking for something.
DIABOLIQUE: It must be attractive to producers to see the time frame you had to work with this film, knowing you only had this much money to accomplish this, and doing a great job.
BG: I don’t think I could do it again. I think it’s time to move on and try to do something bigger. I felt like we could do this. I could never do Cracktown like this. If they came to me and said, “We want you to shoot Cracktown in twelve days,” I would have said, “No. I just can’t.” It’s just really hard [to make a film at this level].
DIABOLIQUE: I know you’re a fan of Scorsese and David Lynch. Can you name some films that you appreciate?
BG: I really like Jason Eisener’s Hobo With A Shotgun. I really like Ti West’s The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil. I like the young guys. I love the way they work with actors. I think that’s what they’re bringing into the genre. The acting level is much better than when I was growing up, when I was watching films. I like what they’re doing today.
DIABOLIQUE: Anything in the pipeline?
BG: No. Looking for something. I’m searching, looking for inspiration. I’m hoping something hits.
A Night of Nightmares is Buddy Giovinazzo’s fifth feature made in the US. The film will be traveling to various film festivals throughout the world. The producers are currently seeking distribution. For more information, click here.
Photo by King-Wei Chu (From L-R, Director Buddy Giovinazzo, Fantasia Co-Director Mitch Davis)
By Chris Hallock