In a rather perfect representation of his films, interviewing Joe Castro was a unique and sometimes surreal experience. It should come as no surprise that most of my interviews for this column are performed via e-mail, so Joe’s suggestion to provide responses via video took me by surprise, and meant an entire day of near-constant e-mail attachments from Joe, where he answered the following questions while sitting at home, visiting his doctor, traveling, or even eating at a restaurant. I’ll admit to not thoroughly enjoying Joe’s breakthrough film TERROR TOONS, but after hearing from him extensively I can certainly appreciate his enthusiasm and drive, and THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE shows a filmmaker who is ready to fully embrace the technology and tools that are available to him in increasingly unique ways. He’s also had some amazing experiences, from working on William Lustig’s UNCLE SAM, to befriending gore legend Herschell Gordon Lewis, to working on Bruce LaBruce’s pornographic horror film L.A. ZOMBIE. Thanks to Joe for taking some time out to talk to Daily Grindhouse.
Sweetback (SB): Let’s start with some of your formative influences. Your films have a unique, other-worldly style – I’d go as far as to call it experimental. What films helped mold your film-making style?
Joe Castro (JC): I think it is experimental in the fact that it doesn’t follow a formulated storyline and a formulated look that most hollywood or – I call them pop, top-40 – big studio films follow.
So the films that influenced me. A good one would be BLOOD FEAST; the original film directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. Now, at the time I saw the film I didn’t realize how greatly it influenced me, until I worked with Herschell and discovered that he actually wrote, produced, directed, wrote all the music, created all the special effects for that motion picture. You know, as a young man at the age of 12 when I first saw this film I didn’t realize how important the credits of a motion picture would become to me as far as the knoweldge I would be able to acquire from how a film is constructed and made.
And now knowing what Herschell did in the making of that film I realized that I was following in his footsteps, long before I even realized that that was what I was trying to do. And I’m happy to say that Herschell Gordon Lewis is my friend today. And I treat him as such.
Another one would be the color remake of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI that was produced and released in 1991, I believe. This film is an incredible work of art by an adult video director named Rinse Dream and what he did was a color remake of the original avant garde black and white film. I think they had three million dollars to make the film, and it’s truly an incredible piece of art. And the reason why this film was so influential was that it was at a technical level that I could break down and actually study and recognize where I, myself, could achieve the same look and style they were doing. And what that was was there were no boundries, there were no rules and there were no regulations for anything about the film. And that attracted me greatly.
Another film would be.. I worked on a film back in Austin, Texas in the late 90s called ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTERS. And that film was not a horror film at all. It was a dramatic reenactment of what it would be like to make a motion picture in the 1950s. Like a b&w science-fiction horror film. And I created the special effects for this motion picture and it was directed by a gentleman named Kelly Greene. At the time he had been working nearly 20/30 years to get the film produced. He ended up paying for the film himself. So I was very humbled when I was given the opportunity to create the bat monster for the film. And not only that but my partner Steven J. Escobar, who I had just met at the time, and I both have a small, minor role in the film as these roman soldiers who come in and basically take over this set where this microbudget film was being shot back in the 1950s, and almost ruin their chance at making the film.
Anyhow, it’s a great film. I don’t think it’s ever been released. But it did screen here in Los Angeles, and what that film taught me was.. they were already making films for two or three thousand dollars in the 1950s. And they were shooting it on film, and they were doing it in three days! And I realized that if they can do it, then I can do it. So just being a part of Kelly Greene’s film, it was like being in a classroom learning what he already knew to be true. I realized that I could do it myself.
SB: I’m also interested in your professional development. You began working in special effects and make-up for films like Jim Kaufman’s NIGHT OF THE DEMONS III and William Lustig’s UNCLE SAM. How did you end up pursuing special effects and make-up, and what were those early experiences on horror films like?
JC: Now, as far as working on these other gentleman’s films like UNCLE SAM and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS III, when you’re working on a film of that caliber – even though they were considered very low budget – you work with a team of other special effects artists. Everybody has a place in the film. For UNCLE SAM, to be honest with you, the only thing I did for that film was I removed the burn make-up. I helped Jerry Macaluso apply the burn make-up on the side of a young man’s face and then I removed that make-up. He was a child, like.. ten years old.
I remember they had a lot of difficulty working with the actor because he was so sensitive around his eyes. Jerry asked me to do this because I had a child-like aura about me and I could communicate with him very well, and I put him at ease when I talked with him while I was applying and taking the make-up off. I would chit-chat with him about STAR WARS – he was a big STAR WARS freak, and I was too – and we could rattle off the names of all the characters. That was my place on the crew.
I also create the HALLOWEEN-like mask that the Uncle Sam character makes. I didn’t sculpt it. I painted it and put it together to look like it was a factory produced mask. Jerry put me on that to do.
For the other film NIGHT OF THE DEMONS III I was very good at producing human flesh out of new materials being introduced in the special effects world at that time. One of them – though it had been used quite a bit already – was hot pour vinyl and I produced all the flesh and skin of things that were torn and ripped. There’s a scene where a heart gets ripped out. I did that. I produced the heart and the chest-piece. I did all of Angela’s skin at the end of the film where her skin comes off and she’s the demon underneath, or the skeletal demon underneath. I made these full hollow arm skin pieces that they push the skeleton arm through and had these razor blades properly mounted onto the skeletal armature so they would push through the hot pour vinyl skins I had made that were actually painted inside and out. The outside was painted like the exterior of human flesh, while the inside was painted like it was muscle. So I was trying to develop new techniques at that time as well.
It was a free for all, no holds barred, completely experimental time in my life. And a lot of what I did is greatly seen in what I do as a director.
SB: Even before looking at your credits, I could sense a strong influence from the Herschell Gordon Lewis/David Friedman “Blood Trilogy”. Like those earlier movies, your work is unpretentious, and willing to give the audiences exactly what they want – even to the point of excess. I have to ask about the experience of working with Herschell on BLOOD FEAST 2, and in the tribute film HUNTING FOR HERSCHELL. I’d have to think that the opportunity must have been a dream for a genre movie fan.
JC: Yes. You’re completely and absolutely right. It was a dream, and it has impacted my entire career. Not only has Herschell become a major influence in how I go about creating blood and gore on the movie screen but he’s also influenced me as a father, as a brother and as a best friend. In everything that I do throughout my life. He teaches me how to look at others in a kind and respectful way. He teaches me how to design my films in such a way that they will become more presentable to a bigger audience.
SB: Your first credited directorial effort is 1994’s CEREMONY, but then there’s a large gap between that and your second film – from which you’ve been directing steadily since. Can you talk a little bit about developing CEREMONY, and why there was such a gap between your first and second features? Did you prefer to focus yourself entirely on special effects?
JC: The reason there was such a gap between CEREMONY and my second feature is because CEREMONY was shot on 35mm Panavision on the gold camera. Which is a huge accomplishment in my book for an independent filmmaker. And it was a grueling effort for me, because to edit a 35mm feature length motion picture and to complete it with sound, opening and end credits that are shot on film, as well as completing all second unit visual effects by one person.. I basically did the entire thing myself. It takes that long. It just takes what it takes, sometimes.
And I never made a motion picture before this, so I was educating myself in the process. Just from my first cut of the film to my second cut of my film to my final release of the film, there is a huge gap of six months where all I did was watch motion pictures in my tiny little apartment in Panorama City, California on VHS. I watched hordes of films to get ideas for editing styles, to get ideas for how I could go about cutting my film together, because I had very little footage. I was shooting one to one shooting ratio in some cases and I just didn’t have the money to shoot a second take. It was 35mm Panavision, for God’s sake.
I finished the film and it got picked up for distribution and I went home to Texas to live with my family because, basically, L.A. had eaten me alive during this entire process of making CEREMONY. And I was there and the film came out on home video. It was a success, I got great reviews, and reality television was becoming popular. Back in the early 90s. And I came up with the idea to make THE LEGEND OF THE CHUPACABRA, which is my second feature. Now, this is long before BLAIR WITCH was made. In fact, two and a half years before BLAIR WITCH was shot, we shot THE LEGEND OF THE CHUPACABRA.
And I came up with this idea to make a very inexpensive film, shot on video. So I went to a local video post-production house that actually specialized in making home videos, shot on professional quality video of people’s weddings. And a gentleman named Alejandro Maya believed in me enough – he was the owner of this company called Sprocket Productions – he believed in me enough to actually let me use all of his cameras, equipment, lighting and his editing facility to produce LEGEND OF THE CHUPACABRA for free. The only money that was spent on the film was spent paying for food for the cast and crew, and for building the chupacabra suit and special effects.
SB: Now the first time I encountered your directorial work was 2002’s TERROR TOONS, which mixed extreme violence with your trademark mix of practical and computer generated FX. We’ve actually goofed on TERROR TOONS a bit in the past here at Daily Grindhouse, but it seemed to be your breakthrough directorial effort in a lot of ways. How did the idea for TERROR TOONS come about, and – looking back – what are some of your feelings on that film?
JC: Well, TERROR TOONS came about when a good friend of mine named Mark Villalobos and I were traveling up off the 14 highway to a movie set where we were both going to put some special effects on an actor to become Jesus Christ during the crucifixion. And Mark was driving and I was the passenger, and this car in front of us had this bumper sticker on it with this evil, insane cartoon cat and Mark was like “have they ever made a movie about cartoons that kill people?” And I was like “In crazy cartoon ways! That would be cool.” And Mark was like “Yeah, yeah! Really insane gore with crazy cartoon characters” And I was like “With gigantic axes. Just like you see in cartoons, but when you die you die for real instead of when they get back up like Wile E. Coyote or something.”
And I turned to Mark and said “I want to do it. If you don’t want to be part of it, that’s fine. But I’m gonna do it. And I’m going to make a movie about cartoons that kill people for real.” And he said “Ok! Let’s do it! All I want to do is I want to sculpt the characters. And all I want is a credit that says ‘Creepy characters designed and created by Mark Villalobos’.” And I said “Whatever you want, buddy. But I’m gonna do it ”
So I developed a story and a script with my good friend Rudy Balli, and Rudy wrote the script and the two lead villains are actually based on myself and my partner Steven Escobar. Steven actually came up with the idea of having the cartoon characters come out of the tv from a dvd and that was the key element that tied the entire story together. If you look carefully, Dr. Carnage has my nose and my evil grin, and the character of Maxx Assassin is based on Steve’s face. So Mark sculpted these two characters to represent Steve and I.
And I did everything. I picked the colors, I picked all the details. I produced them all within a month, and Mark executed that into sculptures and the design and meanwhile I was making all the gore stuff. I was putting together all the crazy props – these oversized props – and casting the film and my friend Jerry Macaluso, who I approached about the idea of making this film, I said “Jerry, are you interested in Executive Producing it and paying for it?”. I wanted to make it for nothing if I could. And he said how much are you going to need? And I literally took a piece of paper and I typed up this bare bones minimum of what it would cost to shoot this thing in three days. Because in that film ATTACK OF THE BAT MONSTER they were trying to make a film that was shot in three days. If Roger Corman could do it – and Roger Corman has done it – then I can do it. And that’s how TERROR TOONS 1 came about. I showed Jerry a piece of paper that said $2500. Jerry made that in an afternoon. He said “sure” and I said “Can I shoot it in your house?” Jerry was painting his house, and it looked like this crazy cartoon comic book environment at the time. Marcy Blasgen was painting the house, and that’s where the set came from. They were actually painted walls in someone’s house, and it was my executive producer’s house, and there you go.
Well, I have amazingly positive feelings about that film. And some bad ones. But the positive ones would be that it’s a direct offspring of my childhood and that would be that in my childhood when I was making films – because I had a video camera at the age of 12 – running around the countryside making short little horror films. I didn’t have any limitations or anyone to judge me or tell me that my work wasn’t good enough, wasn’t serious enough, wasn’t professional enough. No-one to judge sound quality, or why I chose who I chose to be what characters, no matter what their age was. Y’know, they could play a doctor, scientist, man or woman. Whatever. TERROR TOONS is a direct result of that.
There are no boundries. The mother is a drag queen. The father is a very handsome young man. The youngest sister has a boob job way beyond what a little girl the age of her character should have. That kind of thing.
Then of course the bad ones. Things that happened that severed me from some relationships I had in the course of making that film. And fortunately for me, I have made my peace with those relationships. And others may not have the same tools that I had – or have learned over the years – to cope with that. And still hang on to grudges and things that may take away from the time they wer eactually meant to embellish in being an artist on this planet.
SB: I asked J.T. Seaton about melding gay characters and themes with horror films – and the resistance he met from the horror community. Your own work has delved rather deep into sexuality – whether it be providing make-up effects for adult films – including Canadian underground icon Bruce La Bruce’s L.A. ZOMBIE – or directing your own non-horror comedy film THE YOUNG, THE GAY AND THE RESTLESS. Has it been a struggle introducing these sort of perspectives in a genre like horror which is notoriously resistant to change?
JC: Has it been a struggle? No, it hasn’t been. I’ve always been very open about my sexuality, and I make films that I like to watch. At the end of the day, as a filmmaker, if I can’t sit down and watch my own movies and be thorougly entertained by it, then something is wrong. And that’s my take on that.
There’s always going to be naysayers and haters. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t have a challenge. I wouldn’t have a reason. It would be bland if there weren’t, so I welcome it. And in our films gay characters are a part of – they are not just stuck in for the sake of it.
SB: Let’s jump right into THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE. It advertises itself as having the most on-screen deaths of any horror film; which is quite an achievement. Was it always envisioned as revolving around massive amounts of gore? And what made you want to tackle the anthology format?
JC: Well, I was actually considering doing another genre of film. And then I knew also that I was going to begin going to school to learn computer generated effects. And that was going to be the venue behind making this new genre of film. And I had a lot of ideas for different films, but the thing that struck me most about doing an anthology film, and doing a slasher film, and doing everything that encompassed this one particular film, was the fact that there was a change in the way I viewed selling media online. That was the fact that the attention span of the average viewer was becoming shorter and shorter and shorter. And what became popular were very short snippets of entertainment.
And my partner and I recognized this and thought we could take an accumulation of my ideas, make an anthology film that would hold the attention span of an ant – which is basically the attention span of anybody that uses an iPhone – and make THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE. Why go see a movie that advertises the 13 goriest kills in 2 1/2 hours, a la the remake of FRIDAY THE 13TH when you can see a movie that has 155 kills in under two hours, right? More bang for your buck, and that’s how it came about. So, yes, it always began in envisioning just massive amounts of gore, but done in a very candy coated world so it could be presented to a much larger audience than people – and I hate to say this – that are stuck in the 80s.
SB: I mentioned earlier that your films are so FX heavy and visually dense that they almost resemble an experimental film – and that’s definitely the case with THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE. It seems there’s barely a shot without some form of visual trickery, and some scenes have dozens of separate elements all onscreen at once. As someone with a lot of experience with special effects and make-up, how did you go about developing this visual style? Do you storyboard extensively, or do you rely on developing much of the look in post-production?
JC: I basically write a script, and then I read it once. And then I never look at it again. I don’t storyboard unless I have to explain in detail some sort of technical aspect to another portion of the cast or crew in order to execute what I need done on set. I can literally file everything away in my head, like a picture perfect drawing. And, so, I don’t need to storyboard it. And then I execute it in post production by putting elements together, and as many layers – like my first love of art, which is paper mache. And paper mache is french for a layering effect – layer upon layer. And I do the same thing with my work. It’s a layer upon layer upon layer of imagery and as many techniques as I can in order to give this candy coated look and I just don’t want to leave anybody out. Not that I’m trying to please everyone, but I want to make sure I can throw in everything – including the kitchen sink if I get the chance – and I remember when I was growing up there was never enough blood or gore. Even if we may have liked the movie, there was never enough. Just like in Godzilla, I never wanted it to end. So, I do the same thing with my shots if I can.
The best part of working in a computer generated world is that if I miss a shot on set, 4 months after production being finished I can create something we never even shot just be using the back of someone’s head or someone saying a line. Even four or five frames of someone turning their head. I can slow down and repeat umpteen times and have them look one way, look another, and look back in this direction and THEN get their head cut off if I want to.
And even if though there’s a lot of haters and naysayers about computer generated technology, it truly is a tool that is so powerful and when used correctly can be more impactful than a physical effect.
SB: Some horror and exploitation film fans have difficulty accepting the mix of CG-imagery and practical effects when it comes to on-screen violence. Considering you have extensive experience with both, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of leaning so heavily on digital assistance?
JC: Well, I think some of the disadvantages are the fact that the technology is just not completely there for me in terms of the knowledge that I have acquired to produce them in the past year and a half since I’ve been out of school. Now, give me a few more years and I’ll be closer. Much closer. But it took me twenty years just to get me to where I was with gore. And the technology with CGI changes so rapidly, I’m running just to catch up. But I’m catching up very quickly. So the disadvantages would definitely be that I just can’t capture the same “ick” I had at the end of simply using physical gore right now. Today. With CGI.
I’m trying to use a generous combination of both, but definitely my computer generated gore still captures the same impact as far as storytelling and allows the viewer to see a much wider shot of the victim than what I was doing with a tight shot of a fake head, or a tight shot of a person’s stomach when they’re pulling out the guts or what-not. I like to see the pesron’s face if they’re getting their foot cut off, in the same shot. And that’s not something you can do really easily in a low-budget film. That’s something you just don’t do. With a computer generated effect, you can show their entire body, they can lift their leg without the foot on the end of it and wave their leg around. It’s just much more impactful. So for those viewers who are already desensitized with massive consumptions of gore – just like drug addicts – they’re never going to be happy with another hit of gore. They are never going to be happy with another hit of CGI. No matter how great it is. They’re always going to want more. So I’m not trying to make the films for them. I’m trying to make films for people who want to experience the story I’m trying to tell with the impact of computer generated gore, and are able to watch it responsibly. Like drinking a beer.
SB: How difficult was it to find distribution for THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE? You’ve obviously been touring it around to a variety of genre festivals – how have the audiences been responding?
JC: How difficult was it? It wasn’t difficult at all. But I will say that one of the vendors we sent it to, which is a big horror genre distrubtion company – Lionsgate – and their intermediate distributor told us that the movie was too gory. Ultimately we went with a distributor that was very well known in the arthouse and gay community, and knew and had a great eye for originality and films that make a difference. And ultimately that goes much further for a filmmaker than someone who is strictly – or a distribution that is strictly – putting their film out in the market to make a buck. No matter how big their rolodexes reach.
SB: Can you talk a little about what you’re working on currently? Are we likely to see TERROR TOONS 3 in the future?
JC: I can say that we are in the process of shooting TERROR TOONS 3, and just like THE SUMMER OF MASSACRE it’ll hopefully break many boundries and all the stereotypes about independent films and my work. I hope that all of the secrecy that surrounds TERROR TOONS 3 will remain intact by the time we speak again. I plan on introducting some new elements into TERROR TOONS 3 that I’ve never seen before in filmmaking. And hopefully a couple that will even surprise myself.
SB: And for fans who want to keep up on your current work, and follow what you’re doing in the future, what’s the best way to do so?
JC: The best way to reach me is at Facebook and you can also see how my physical gore and past career includes strictly the world of physical makeup effects at my Myspace account. And all my contact information is readily available on my Facebook page. Also, TERROR TOONS 3 should have a Facebook page once principal photography is complete and we go near the end of post production, which will happen sometime in early January of next year. Between the two of us – Steven and I – making a motion picture takes the same amount of time it takes for a real motion picture to be made. From development to pre-production, casting, post-production, principal photography, second unit photography, all of post production, scoring it, credits, sound mix, mastering, duplication and distribution. About three years.
SB: Thanks so much for taking the time, Joe.
JC: Peace and love, and thanks again for your interest in our work.
- [NO-BUDGET NIGHTMARES] PODCAST #80: PLAGA ZOMBIE (1997) - July 25, 2016