Friday, November 18, 2016

Chris LaMartina: King of Dark Humor Filmmaking (in Baltimore)

Any bona fide horror film fan knows it can be a tough road to ride. We sift through lots of schlock in hopes of finding a gem. Every so often, the treasure hunt pays off. In this case it did for me with the unique, funny and over-the-top films of Chris LaMartina. Chris has been cool enough to visit Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley, so let’s find out a bit about Chris.

SRW: Welcome Chris! As your films are set in Baltimore (it’d be hard to miss the posters for The Wire and The Corner in a movie lobby in one of your earliest films), I’m assuming you hang your hat there as well. Why Baltimore? Luck of the draw or are you drawn to Baltimore’s quaint setting, crime rate and crab-cakes? 

CL: People always ask if it’s like “The Wire”… and I think that’s parrrrrrrt of it… but really, if you take the casts of Don Dohler flicks, John Waters  movies, and sprinkle in some of that David Simon grit… melt ‘em all together… that’s a decent portrayal of what this city is. It’s a truly bizarre mix, but there’s something incredibly charming in there. It’s weird and eclectic in a way that’s hard to describe unless you see it from multiple angles… every ten minutes in every direction is a different feel yet somehow that incongruence is what makes it even more compelling… even in its grossest, most worrisome moments. 

The best part, however, is that the art scene here is driven by pure passion and not dollar signs. Even when the neighborhoods are gentrifying, the culture creators are still making work that’s fueled by pure creativity and bat-shit crazy ideas. There are opportunities to try new things here that few other places have. 

SRW: Most of your horror films are low-budget wonders. In them, you manage a lot of nice set-ups and shots, giving the films a more expensive appearance than most other low-budget flicks accomplish. Did you have formal film schooling? Or did you graduate from the kamikaze school of trial by fire?

CL: I went to Towson University and graduated with a BS (n’yuk, n’yuk) in Film. Now, I teach screenwriting there. At Towson, I learned a lot more about theory than production (partly due to the fact that film was on the way out and digital video wasn’t “there” yet- this is on the cusp of DSLRs) and it was those trial-by-fire style war stories of micro budget film-making where I really honed my craft. When I made my first feature, I was the crew. That was it. Then, it was Jimmy George, myself and whoever we could get for boom operator for my second flick. Then, with each feature, the army got bigger… as we finished projects, people started seeing us as folks who could/would finish films and they believed in what we were doing. Every movie we learned crucial lessons that I probably should have figured out much earlier. ;) hahah.

SRW: Your films strike a nice balance between horror and comedy, rarely veering into over-kill parody (a tough task I’m finding out in my horror/ dark comedy books). Did you always set out to make them this way? Or did budgetary brain-storming force you into a comedic corner?

CL: It is exceedingly rare that a horror film scares me… and I don’t say that as a cocky bastard… but rather—they are cinematic comfort food to me. I’ve always loved when horror flicks embrace dark humor and awkward moments so I’ve set out to re-create that type of feel within my own work. Sometimes budget dictates approach with regard to a joke, but not often. To be honest, I HATE breaking the fourth wall and I despise most films that do… and ad-libs, outside of a few pieces of dialogue here and there, are very rare for us. We’re slaves to the script for sure.

SRW: Now I’m gonna ignore your early films, Faces of Schlock (the less said about that foot in the arse scene, the better off we’ll all be!) and Dead Teenagers. Mostly because I felt you were learning, experimenting. And they’re not quite as good as your later films. Anyway, Book of Lore was your first film that grabbed my attention. The movie’s unusual for you in that it’s more serious, less reliant on comic moments. It’s an effective, Lovecraftian horror-tainted film. Tell everyone what it’s about.
 CL: It’s funny. I actually just re-watched “Book of Lore” for the first time in years with my screenwriting class to discuss how we could have re-written it to be stronger and less-convoluted. Some kids enjoyed it. Some kids laughed all the way through (and mostly at the “serious” parts). With “BoL”, we tried to make a more intricate, mystery-thriller with a novel-like approach to character and theme… the problem was… there are enormous plot holes and our skills as writers weren’t as developed as our ambitions. There are still plenty of cool ideas in it and if time/money were no object, I’d love to re-visit the themes again one day. However, watching “BoL” struggle for an audience, specifically- distribution wise was pretty heartbreaking. We learned an incredibly valuable lesson about what exactly marketing can do and how crucial it is to a micro budget flick.
SRW: I really appreciate your ongoing battle against clichés. In Book of Lore, there’s a stand-out do-rag wearing sheriff, quite different than the usual stereotype. And how ‘bout the weird pumpkin-carving wheelchair-bound Christian (you have to see it, folks)? In fact, most of the characters are quite off-kilter in a refreshing manner. At times, the flick plays out like a surreal fever dream. When you write, do you set out to avoid clichés? (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to your frequent writing and producing partner, Jimmy George. Surely he should shoulder some of the kudos/blame.)

CL: Most horror films at our budget level treat characters like pure cannon fodder. We’ve tried NOT to do that because empathy with our protagonists is what elevate movies with low/no budgets. As the small “g” gods of a screenplay, why bother with character clichés? Why not have some fun and make it weirder? Great storytelling is about reversing expectation and that’s what we try to do any chance we get. 

SRW: Speaking of writing, the printed word seems to be a recurring motif in some of your films. The protagonist of Book of Lore is experiencing writing rejection. In Grave Mistakes, a character has writer block. Chris…autobiographical?

CL: Haha. I don’t think so actually. Writers as characters have a tendency to be more self-reflective in works on fiction and it seemed to work great in those two premises (“Book of Lore” and the “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” segment of “Grave Mistakes”)

SRW: I picked up on some other recurring motifs: fingernails in the eyes; creepy drawings of violent monsters; television commercials; slackers; George friggin’ Stover. Are you displaying Chris’ personal book of nightmares?

CL: Hahaha. If it was about my personal nightmares, I’d probably make movies about the diabetes-related body horrors and terrifying healthcare costs. 

SRW: Okay, about George Stover… What’s up with him? For those not in the know, George is a pseudo-legendary actor from low-budget independent horror films dating back to the ‘80’s. He was Don (another almost-legendary independent horror director) Dohler’s go-to guy. But, as much as I love seeing George, at times he sorta takes me out of your films. He tends to play it broader than a lot of your younger (some very good) actors. (Although I thought his President’s Day performance worked). Intentional?

CL: George is basically my third Grandpa. We’ve been working with him since we’ve met him (during “Grave Mistakes”) and he’s been a stalwart supporter of our work. He’s a figure of legacy here in the Baltimore film community and he’s a huge fan of horror as well. George would say he’s not the best actor, but I think he’s far better than people give him credit for… and when he’s actually directed, I believe he’s turned in some fantastic performances. I wrote the role of Mr. Wright for him in “President’s Day” and I think he nails it. 

SRW: Grave Mistakes is an anthology, something you’re apparently fond of. Do your inspirations include the great ‘70’s Brit anthologies from Amicus (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, The House that Dripped Blood, etc.)? They, too, share an equally perverse sense of black humor.

CL: Absolutely. I love anthologies… yet, ironically, I hate short films. I just don’t see the point in them. I wish I could understand what the dividing line is for me. Even though most anthologies are uneven, I think it’s really exciting to see how you can play around with storylines or simple ideas without binding time length requirements like a 90 minute feature.

SRW: I really liked the stylish credits of Grave Mistakes, very Dia de los Muertos colorful. Also, the music was cool. I thought it sounded similar to Gogol Bordello, a great gypsy/punk band. Okay, you do everything in your movies, Samuel Fuller journalistic-style (or maybe Jess Franco bargain basement). Music as well. Does this encompass the surfabilly” opening theme, incidental dramatic stings and other background drama-enhancing sounds?

CL: It depends. So, I animated the title sequence to “GM” (poorly), but the theme is by a band called Skeletonbreath. I’ve composed the musical score for every film since “GM” as well… but usually if the song has lyrics, it’s soundtrack and not score. Although, sometimes I do sneak in some instrumentals that aren’t mine. I just love writing music and editing to it or vice versa. Typically before I start editing a feature, I spend a month writing “theme tracks” that I use for temp scores before I tweak the tunes to fit the final edit. I’m definitely big on the John Carpenter/Robert Rodriguez approach to filmmaker/composer.

Alright that's part #1 of "My Dinner with Chris." Return in two weeks for the two-fisted (drinking), no holds barred (except rasslin' holds), hard-hitting conclusion! In the meantime, get caught up with Chris LaMartina's fun films from Amazon and other retailers.

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