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Jeffrey Arsenault
Horror Interview by The Gravedigger


Q: Tell us about yourself

JEFFREY: I moved from Rhode Island to NYC in the early 80's to study film at NYU. I made a ton of Super 8 and 16mm films while there. After graduating, my first jobs were in television, working at various NBC studios around the city. I almost immediately began planning my first feature, which would eventually be NIGHT OWL. Before NIGHT OWL started shooting, I still shot a few Super 8 shorts. At some point, I worked jobs in casting and in personal management, but got out of all of that as soon as NIGHT OWL started rolling. A few months after NIGHT OWL was finished, a got a job in London editing a 35mm feature. Returning to New York city after living in London for six months was rough. I really fell into sort of "down-on-New York" funk for a while. I started planning my second feature, which was going to be a film about Jeffrey Dahmer, but somehow morphed into something almost entirely different called DOMESTIC STRANGERS. When DOMESTIC STRANGERS ran into some trouble during post-production, I put it aside for a while. After about a year of doing nothing I picked up my Super 8 camera for the first time in years, and made quite a few Super 8 shorts and one feature shot & edited entirely on Super 8 called ROME '98. I also started experimenting with video tape at this time, which lead me to where I am today

Q: . Tell us about your recent vampire movies

JEFFREY: I produced a series of five made-for-video horror movies over the past two years. The first was CRIMSON NIGHTS (note: available through Alternative Cinema), which marked my long-awaited dip into the DV world. Everything I had done prior was on film, and I was hesitant to give DV a try. But it was totally appropriate for this project. CRIMSON NIGHTS was inspired by the rash of "lesbian vampire" videos which has popped up in recent years, and I thought I would give it my take. It was tougher than I thought. To this day, I scratch my head in amazement how these things are cast. Previously, I had never had a problem casting a project. I have been placing ads in Backstage since 1982 (which gives you an idea how far I go back) and I have never had less than a glut of submissions. I guess "lesbian" must be a bad word in the acting world, or maybe it was the "nudity required" part that kept them away. The film had a cast of seven women and three men, and casting those seven women took months. I ended up with a great cast: Tina Krause, Sasha Graham, among others. Scooter McCrae of SHATTER DEAD fame was the d.p. on that, and he taught me a lot about how to work with video. On the shoot, he would constantly encourage me to hold the camera in my hands, operate it, use it to frame shots, etc. I have to credit Scooter and his approach to help "de-mystify" the whole video thing for me. We shot on the Canon XL. Since that project, I have felt comfortable working in video... with one exception... ..

DATE WITH A VAMPIRE was the second DV project, and maybe I jumped into it a little too quickly. The problem I had is I did everything myself on this project, including the camera, which I am very reluctant to do on any shoot. I shot with the Sony VX1000, and I just didn¹t feel comfortable with it. I didn¹t allow myself enough time to become familiar with the camera before the shoot. I felt a lot of strain trying to do the camera along with everything else, but I am very happy with the end result. DATE WITH A VAMPIRE represents something I have wanted to do for along time: basically, a two-character movie. There are only two speaking parts in the film. Working from Kevin Lindenmuth¹s script, and shooting in a big old house in Brooklyn, the results are moody and atmospheric. Lori Thomas plays a bisexual vampire who lures Robin Macklin into her home, but he turns out to be more than she bargained for.

CRIMSON KISSES was up next. I waited a while before I shot this one, because I really did not want to go forward with it until I found the right leading actress. I got lucky with Jenny Isaacs. To this day, she remains the best actress I have every worked with for this type of genre. And that is saying a lot, because I have worked with many good ones. She was just the right combination of talent, good look, and was totally at ease with the nudity required for the role. Jenny plays "Vulnavia," yet another bisexual vampire on the prowl for new blood. She and her friend Vicky place personal ads on phone sex lines to attract fresh meat. I wish I could do a sequel, but Jenny seems to have abandoned her brief interest in acting. Anyone out there want to be in a movie? Get in touch me with.

CRIMSON DESIRES was up next, and this one was long in the making. It is a trilogy of three unrelated shorts, all about aggressive female vampires and how they entrap their prey. One of the segments, "Vampire¹s Prisoner," was supposed to be a feature on its own, but it came up too short. So I decided to add two more short stories and make my first trilogy. I was never a big fan of the "trilogy" type of film, as there have been so many in the past from Amicus, and other companies, but I am very satisfied with the results. In fact, this tape seems to sell better than most of my titles. Vera VanGuard, Cynthia Polakovich and Michele Berg star as the three vampire ladies. One of the stories features a nice little S&M twist on the vampire theme, and customers have really responded to that. In fact, one of the actresses told me she wishes she was in that segment! I smell a sequel...

VAMPIRE PLAYMATES is my most recent title, and this represents my first custom-produced video. I shot it based on someone else¹s story concept, and budget, and he was very specific about what he wanted. The costumes cost a big chunk of the budget! He was very thrilled with the tape, and I would like to do more of this kind of work.

All of the above titles, except CRIMSON NIGHTS, are available from After Midnight Entertainment Inc., PO Box 6112, Astoria, NY 11106. Tapes are $19.95 each, plus $3.50 shipping. New York residents must add sales tax. Write to me about custom video projects at aftermidnight@earthlink.net.

Q: You are a writer, director and a producer. Which do you prefer?

JEFFREY: Director. I would be very happy if I never produced again. I never wanted to produce, I have just had to do it out of necessity. It is unfortunate, because I think my films and my career have suffered because of it. I would rather not do another large-scale feature without a producer. Then again, if it comes down to making it without a producer or not making it at all, I tend to just go out and make it. I have to admit, I am really a control freak, and I think I have a big problem letting go of responsibility. I wonder what kind of experience I would have if I was just directing and not producing. I really want to have that experience; I really need to find out how it would work out.

Q: What does your typical budget look like?

JEFFREY: The budgets are all over the place. DOMESTIC STRANGERS was $75,000; NIGHT OWL was $50,000, and all the others were about $1500-$5000. I think CRIMSON NIGHTS was at the high end of the scale, at least $5,000 or more. All the others were near the low end of that scale, or about $1,500. I think one or two of the shorts were done for about $1,000.

Q: Do you ever feel restricted by your budget?

JEFFREY: Always. It has severely hampered what I really wanted to do. I think the best way to look at it is you have to work within your resources. I know so many people who have never made a film who say "I have this great script but I won¹t do it for less than 20 mil" and they never make the movie. Not even their first step. So, at least I am making movies. I just work within what I can raise.

Q: What do you find to be the most costly portion of your movies?

JEFFREY: For the film projects, it was certainly the post-production. It always cost more to finish a film than to shoot it; at least in my experience. NIGHT OWL was about $20,000 production/$30,000 post. DOMESTIC STRANGERS was more like $25,000 production/$50,000 post. For the DV projects, the highest cost is the actors. I pay people. I don¹t feel comfortable asking actors to work for free. Sometimes I will, for a special circumstance, like a short, experimental project. Paying people really eats up the budget. Even when I was shooting on film, most of the money went to salaries. On NIGHT OWL, I would say three quarters of the production budget was salaries; the rest was film stock and lab costs. On DOMESTIC STRANGERS, most of the production expenses went to rentals so I could get better cameras, better sound equipment, etc.

Q: What is the most important part of the movie-making process for you?

JEFFREY: Well, that¹s a tough one. In terms of my own personal enjoyment of the process, I have to be surrounded by good people. I want to work with people who have a professional attitude, and are interested in the kind of work I am doing. I will not work with anyone who is difficult or gives me an attitude, because that will be magnified ten times on the set. One bad egg brings down the who production. I had that experience on DOMESTIC STRANGERS, twice, and had to fire both people involved. I will not hesitate at replacing someone who is not giving their all. On any film project, regardless of the budget, you need to work who people who share your sense of commitment. Otherwise, why do it?

Q: You've recently used a pseudonym on some of your movies, particularly the CRIMSON series. What is the reason for this?

JEFFREY: I only did that for the DV projects, because I was wearing so many hats. My name is in the credits of them somewhere, either as producer, writer, etc. But I don¹t want to look really pretentious and have my name down there for everything like editing, camera, etc. I remember when Spike Lee released one of his films, his name was on the poster SIX times. Give me a break.

Q: What is your favorite and least favorite movie you've worked on?

JEFFREY: When I think of my favorite and least favorite projects, I tend to think of projects I have edited rather than directed. TO DIE FOR was my best experience as an editor, because I was working on 35mm film, cutting on a Steenbeck, and I was entirely responsible for just one job. And I got to live in London for six months! My worst experience as an editor was on a film I have virtually forgotten about. I don¹t remember the title, I don¹t even remember the name of the director. It was a 16mm film and the script was the worst piece of crap I have ever read. I learned a very valuable lesson from that job: NEVER take a job just for the money. If I thought the script sucked, what I did I think I was going to be looking at twelve hours a day, six days a week for five weeks?

Q: What was the weirdest thing you ever had happen during the shooting of a movie?

JEFFREY: Most of my films have, knock on wood, been free of the horror stories you always hear about on the independent level. I have never been arrested, never been formally evicted, etc. The weirdest thing relates to an experience I had on NIGHT OWL. I think I might have told you this story before. I was behind on my rent, like about four months, and my landlord called me up to his office. He is a very prominent doctor in New York City, with some very high profile patients. I was renting his co-op from him, and I went to see him thinking I was going to get thrown out. He explained to me that while I was behind on the rent, he still had to pay the maintenance on the co-op. He got very angry, and his face turned red, and he was pounding his fist on his desk. When he finished, he said "what do you have to say for yourself?" I blurted out the whole, long story of NIGHT OWL, how it was my first feature, how I was shooting it a couple of days at a time, etc. I could see as I was talking (and I talked for a while) he was slowly calming down, and he was really listening to what I was saying. When I finished my sob story, he said that was fascinating. He asked me, "How did you do it, how did you raise the money?" I told him I asked everyone I know. He said "You know me, and you didn¹t ask me". Then he reached his desk, pulled out his checkbook, and said "How much?" This is a true story. No one really believes it, but how could I make something like that up?

Q: Are there any specific directors or films that influence you and your work?

JEFFREY: I could easily sit here for hours and take up all your time answering this one, because I am influence by so many things. I will try to be brief... As a child, DARK SHADOWS was most definitely the earliest influence; I can remember watching it when I was barely out of diapers. I also watch a lot of horror films on Saturday afternoons on my parents Black and White TV. Titles which are seared into my memory include SLAUGHTER OF THE VAMPIRES, DRACULA¹S DAUGHTER, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, PSYCHO, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, FRANKENSTEIN¹S DAUGHTER, and so many more.

As I got older, into my teens, I was very influenced by Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, and George Romero. I saw a lot of stuff in the local theaters in my Rhode Island rural community, including DON¹T OPEN THE WINDOW, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, DIE MONSTER DIE, SUSPIRIA, HALLOWEEN, CARRIE, MARTIN and dozens and dozens more. The first horror film I saw in a theater was DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE. It was rated G and shown at Children¹s Matinee! That film blew my mind. I didn¹t see it again for over twenty years, then caught it on cable. I was shocked what you could get away with in a G rated film in those days! Today, it would never pass.

Today, I am inspired by the DOGME 95 movement. I can¹t wait to shoot my first DOGME film. Some people dismiss it as a gimmick, but I see it as a challenge. The DOGME 95 manifesto requires your film to conform to certain rules: no music, no dubbed dialog, no added sound effects, no genre films (I said it was a challenge, didn¹t I?), no lighting other than available light, no flashbacks, no added props, no building sets, no filters, no special effects, hand-held camera only, no superficial action (such as murders), etc. It is filmmaking in its most pure and raw state. I am working on a couple of scripts now, and I can¹t wait to step up to the challenge. Recent DOGME 95 releases include THE CELEBRATION, MIFUNE and THE KING IS ALIVE.

Q: Anything you want to add?

JEFFREY: I want to add a few thoughts about the so-called "digital revolution." I have read many obnoxious articles about how it has changed the face of filmmaking, how film is dead, how hundreds or thousands of films are being made by people who never would make a movie otherwise, etc. Um... excuse me for asking... but where are these films gonna be shown? While the production of filmmaking is booming, exhibition is actually shrinking. Genre films on a low budget no longer get released to theaters. Rates cable TV stations pay for non-studio releases has dropped dramatically. The home video stores are dying (unless they are one of two major empires). Where are these films being shown? Who is seeing them? Who is writing about them? I think everything in the genre has sort of sunk to this bottom level, where more and more filmmakers are forced to self-distribute their films. This is not in itself a bad thing, but most filmmakers are not in the distribution business. It is a full time job in itself, and it distracts from being in production on your next project. I would really like to hear from other filmmakers on this subject.

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