If you want to chat about the independent movie business, especially horror, the man to see is Vito Trabucco. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he was exposed to a variety of horror films from a young age thanks to terrible parenting (or wonderful parenting, depending on your point of view).
Over the last decade, he has expanded from short films to feature films, both narrative and documentary. He has worked primarily in horror, but has no qualms about venturing into other areas. (He jokingly says he doesn’t want to make a romantic comedy, but I bet he could be convinced otherwise.) He has directed, written, produced, acted and everything in between.
Horror fans who hadn’t noticed him sooner really became aware of Vito’s work through “Bloody Bloody Bible Camp”. Intended as an 80s-style slasher, it starred genre regulars Reggie Bannister (“Phantasm”) and Tim Sullivan (“2001 Maniacs”). He also walked the line of blasphemy by casting none other than Ron Jeremy in the role of Jesus. (I’d say “adult film star” Ron Jeremy, but these days he may be better known for his work with Troma and other low budget ventures.)
The latest from Vito Trabucco is “Never Open the Door”, a throwback to the classic horror and sci-fi anthologies of the 50s and 60s. Vito was kind enough to chat with me on December 19, 2016 about this and his other projects. Say what you will about the man, he certainly keeps busy.
GS: From scanning the notoriously unreliable IMDb, I see you’re acquainted with another indie director I know, Jill Sixx. Is there a network of independent horror creators out there?
VT: I first met Jill a few years ago while screening a feature at a film festival and we became friends after that. There are definitely cliques within the independent horror world. You have the people who go to the conventions, and they seem to all know each other. Some are more connected than others, there are different levels. But, yeah, there’s definitely something like a network. And with Jill, I live in LA and she’s in Missouri, so we’ve only hung out in person 2 or 3 times. But I’ve known her for years. Small world, you know.
GS: You’ve been an independent director for a while now. What lessons have you learned regarding financing, distribution and so on that you could pass on to the next generation?
VT: Financing and distribution are really the name of the game. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no “safe zone”. People think with the horror genre, you can sell it and make a lot of money. Traditionally they were the least expensive films to make and were popular sellers. But it doesn’t work like that anymore, unfortunately. It’s not a “safe” bet. You’re going to have to hustle in order to get distribution.
Another lesson is that the game changes constantly. I made my first real feature in 2011-2012, and at that time they said the key was to have one star actor. But that doesn’t guarantee anything anymore. Yu can put whoever you want in your movie and it doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s a hustle. One day the name of the game might be getting on Netflix streaming if you want the biggest payout. This could change literally every week.
The first feature we made was called “Bloody Bloody Bible Camp”. And then it wasn’t about Netflix streaming, it was about getting physical copies into Redbox. That was the biggest payout. But a month later, iTunes was the way to go if you wanted people to buy your movie VOD. So you really have to just keep up on it. You’re not going to make a shitload of money, like some first-time directors think they’re going to make. It’s just about making the best product you can make.
It’s nothing new. The profit really comes from getting paid up front. If you’re making independent movies, the money you’re going to make is coming from someone who’s not a movie person. They’re an investor who just has money. A mistake first-time directors make is that they think an investor will give you money, you make a movie, you pay the investor back , and then you see a profit. That’s probably not going to happen. You’ll probably pay the investor back, but then you’ll be lucky to see a couple hundred dollars here or there. If your goal is to get paid, you have to be paid up front or you’re not going to make much. That’s how it goes.
GS: Your latest film is “Never Open the Door”. The first thing people will notice is the poster art, as it really grabs you. Can you talk about that and who made it?
VT: I love it, too. The artists are friends of ours in New York that our producer knew. Victor Melton and Begona Lopez Melton, a husband-and-wife team. They also made the opening credits. Anything effects related, they were responsible for. The poster came to us and it was in that Saul Bass style, and I loved it. It’s great. I liked all the poster ideas they had, but that’s the one we picked. We didn’t want to have the same poster everyone else has. It’s kind of funny, because we wanted this great poster and box art, but for the home release it’s only on the DVD. The Blu-ray is your more typical image of a girl you might see on a horror movie.
GS: The PR folks are comparing “Never Open the Door” and classic “Twilight Zone” episodes, but I believe there’s also an actual family connection there, as well.
VT: Yeah! It’s cool. Chris Maltauro produced “Bloody Bloody Bible Camp” with me, and now he produced this movie. His grandfather, John Brahm (1893-1982), actually directed 12 episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, 10 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and a couple episodes of “Outer Limits”. He also did several features before transitioning to television. (Editor’s note: One of those features was “Mad Magician”, starring Vincent Price!) The first day Chris and I met many years ago, we talked about his grandfather. So it’s always something we wanted to do as sort of a tribute to John Brahm. Also, I love black and white; I find it preferable to color in many ways, actually. So, we just kind of went with it. We knew our film wasn’t going to be as good as the work he did, but the goal was to have fun and make a black and white feature. The best part about doing “cheap” movies is that you can do whatever you want. If you’re making a T&A bloodbath movie, you should probably do it in color, but even while writing it we were very excited about the prospect of working in black and white.
GS: I’d be a bit concerned about the commercial viability of a black and white feature, but so far it seems the reviews have been favorable.
VT: Yeah! And to be honest, I was a little shocked. I expected people to just tear it apart, but it’s been alright so far. So that’s cool.
GS: Another movie you’ve recently made is a documentary called “Henchman: The Al Leong Story”. I am very, very excited about that one.
VT: Oh, nice, thanks. Basically, I came on to that project as a producer and along the way ended up inheriting it as director. Al Leong and I started on that a couple years ago and we’re just finishing it up now. I’m super excited. There was a “Die Hard” screening recently (December 8 in North Hollywood) and I attended with Al. He got to introduce the film and got a standing ovation. And I’m very pumped about the documentary format. I think documentaries are really in their golden age right now. All documentaries, but even horror documentaries, are really at their best right now. I probably watch more documentaries than anything else and now I’ve made one.
GS: One of the interviewees is the legendary John Carpenter…
VT: Al set that up, actually. One of the first things Al and I talked about was “Big Trouble in Little China” and how great it would be to talk with John. So Al set that up, and actually it was the first interview we did. I think within a week of talking about it, we were already filming. And it was a blast, I wish I could go back and talk to John again.
GS: I’m really looking forward to what Carpenter has to say. In my limited experience with him, he is a guy who does not give a damn what he says or who he offends.
VT: (laughs) It’s true. Generally, I like to level with people. But I’ve noticed that people who have been in the business a while are very careful about what they say and how they say it. And John Carpenter isn’t one of those, so I think people will get a kick out of it.
GS: Yet another project you’re connected to is the remake of Al Adamson’s “Psycho a Go-Go” (1965).
VT: Yeah, it’s written. I think it’s started. I realized it would take me too long to get going, so I’m no longer the director and just the writer, so I couldn’t say exactly what the status is on it. I think it started filming. As far as I know, it’s moving ahead, but I’m not in the loop.
There is another project, though, with Deborah Venegas, who was the lead actress in both of my features. Debbie and I just wrapped up on a web series called “Watch the Pretty Girls Suffer”. That should be coming out in February, and I think it’ll be cool. It was fun to shoot and is really graphic and crazy. We have a lot of good people attached to that one.
GS: I actually had a nitpick with “Pretty Girls”. I saw the tagline for the series was “It’s My Party and I’ll Die if I want to”. I assume you must know this is already the title of a movie from the great director Tony Wash, featuring Tom Savini?
VT: No, I didn’t know. It wasn’t my tagline, actually. But the reason for the tagline is kind of comical. Originally, the series revolved around girls’ birthdays, so the promo art had balloons and birthday cake and the tagline you’re referencing. Along the way, the birthday angle got dropped. The tagline is still out there, but it’s not really relevant anymore and won’t be used.
GS: Well, we look forward to “Henchman”, “Pretty Girls” and everything else. Thank you so much for your time, Vito.
VT: Thanks, Gavin. I appreciate it.