©Tales of Poe
Editor's Note: Signature caught up with Michael Varrati, whose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem Dreams was included in the new Kickstarted film, "Tales of Poe," to talk about his contribution and more. Read on!
Signature: In an interview with Fangoria, you discussed how your contribution to "Tales of Poe" evolved from a wraparound story to a full-fledged short in its own right. What kind of story did you find in Dreams?
Michael Varrati: Adapting Dreams was both a completely freeing experience and a nerve-wracking one. With The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, Bart [Mastronardi] and Alan [Rowe Kelly] respectively had the benefit of working with a preexisting story structure, whereas Dreams is just a poem with an abstract narrative. I created the characters and the story from the ground up, which added to my anxiety. I didn't want to just presume I had the wit and wile to add to Poe. However, I really spent time with the poet's voice. I immersed myself into the prose, and from there, the story revealed itself. Dreams is a poem about the reality we construct for ourselves, and the beauty that we choose to let into our hearts. I began to envision a girl on the brink of death, and the places she chooses to go mentally to cope with her mortality. It's a theme that's rather common in Poe stories, and one that I chose to massage for the benefit of the piece. We see the protagonist, the Dreamer, if you will, descend into the world of Dreams ... a place of her own construct, and become witness to her bliss ... and her nightmares. It's definitely a surrealist piece, and is very much influenced by the work of Cocteau, Derek Jarman, and David Lynch. There are elements of Lewis Carroll there, too ... but, at the end of the day, the imagery is still homage to Poe. It's a world born out of my own phobias and desires, but certainly shaped by the stories of Poe I admire. It's very atypical of my usual work. Everyone who knows me and my brand of storytelling is aware that I'm someone who really looks to dialogue to shape the world of my characters, but "Dreams" is a silent piece. It was decided from the beginning that the story had to be told via the dream itself, and because of that, it occupies a unique place in my personal oeuvre. But I'm extremely proud of "Dreams." As a director, Bart really brought my vision to life, and also took it places I didn't even imagine. He gave me the opportunity to give life to my existential crisis film, and I'm super grateful for that fact.
SIG: If you had started out with one of Poe's stories in mind, which do you think you'd have chosen?
MV: If I hadn't done Dreams, I think I would probably have been inclined to do one of Poe's detective stories. I'm a fan of the garish combined with the logical, and with the exception of Arthur Conan Doyle, few were able to combine the two quite like Poe. The Murders in the Rue Morgue strikes a chord with me, as does the lesser known The Mystery of Marie Roget. In a perfect world with a perfect budget, I think I'd like to reimagine one of those stories as a film noir, with a gruesome, Lynchian twist.
SIG: There's a sort of proud tradition of Poe's work being adapted into indie and underground features -- perhaps partly since he's in the public domain. As a devotee of "horror and sleaze cinema," have any of these left a mark on you? Did you watch any other Poe anthologies, such as "Spirits of the Dead" or "Requiem for the Damned"?
MV: I simply adore "Spirits of the Dead," and not just because of the Poe elements. For fans of auteurs and experimental cinema, it's such a curiosity of a motion picture. Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Fellini ... all on one project? If you're a movie nerd, that's a lineup that seems almost too good to be true. Furthermore, I read that in an early stage of production, Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles were also both attached to adapt Poe stories. I'm not sure what Bergman's deal was, but I do know that Welles was set to do the Masque of the Red Death, only to flake out early on. He was such an audacious filmmaker, I can only imagine what his vision of Poe might have been. I think we get glimpses of his preoccupation with madness and paranoia in flicks like "The Lady from Shanghai" and "Mister Arkadin," but I think seeing Welles tackle Poe would have taken it to the next level. Still, the movie as it stands is pretty phenomenal. Outside of Barbarella, Jane Fonda's costuming (in Vadim's adaptation of Metzengerstein) has never been more outrageous, and Fellini's adaptation of the Toby Dammit story is the kind of surrealism that I could only aspire to with "Dreams." I think, as they are both anthologies, "Tales of Poe" shares a certain kinship with "Spirits of the Dead," especially in the way they are structured -- but I would never be so presumptuous as to compare ourselves to those masters of the silver screen. At least, not yet. Ha!
As far as other Poe screen adaptations, the impact of Roger Corman's work is undeniable. There's an entire generation of filmgoers whose point of reference for Poe lies in the Vincent Price films that Corman directed. Those of us with an appetite for modern horror would be remiss to not recognize their influence. Although I don't think we intentionally looked to Price/Corman in the creation of "Tales of Poe," there are still traces of them to be found. Their work is just too omnipresent to deny.
SIG: Anthology films seem to be almost exclusively the domain of the horror genre. Do you think that the prevalence of short stories in horror fiction set the pace for this, or is there perhaps some other explanation?
MV: Certainly there are short form stories in every medium, but there is something to be said about genre fiction exploiting the "get in, get out" tactic of a quick scare. I think the notion of horror working cinematically in the short form tends to harken back to budgetary constraints. It's well known that horror is the most flexible medium for low-budget filmmakers, as there is always an audience for a certain brand of underground, cultish cinema. That being said, there's also just something delicious about the bite-size fright that works in a way that short form romance does not. Audiences have always had an appetite for small tales of terror. It's why "Twilight Zone" endures and why Stephen King carries a lot of weight as a short story author, beyond his usual novels. I think it is due, in large part, to the fact that we all never really exit that stage of our lives where campfire ghost stories cease to be delicious. We love the idea of sitting around and telling a ghost tale that is easily digested, but that also haunts us long after its few sentences have passed through our ears.
SIG: Somehow your "Dreams" short became a who's-who of female horror icons. Had you met these women before, and did you get a chance to pester them with questions about their careers?
MV: As a horror devotee and film nerd, I am beyond honored by the cast "Dreams" managed to accrue. I always admired Adrienne King and Amy Steel for their work in the "Friday the 13th" movies, and I certainly knew Caroline Williams was a force of nature because of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2." The only one I had met prior to shooting was Adrienne, actually. We had both been booked at a horror convention in Burbank in 2010, and I helped her hang a sign at her table. It wasn't a particularly deep interaction, and I certainly didn't know that we would be bonded as writer and muse within six months. Bart and Alan knew Caroline, and I had always admired her, and when I started writing the script, Bart suggested to me to keep Caroline in mind when I was writing. Of course, I love her work, and he didn't need to tell me twice. But, that was kind of the mode of writing the script for everyone, really. I've been very open about the fact that when I was constructing these characters, I wrote them specifically for these three horror dynamos. The part Caroline plays, the part Amy plays, the part Adrienne plays -- those were all written with each actress in mind. Honestly, I'm astounded they all agreed, and can't really say what we would have done if any of them had passed. They truly bring life to the script beyond the words on the page. They are each, in their way, a talent beyond words, and watching the final cut of the film, I'm not ashamed to say that I openly wept at the gift they each gave me. These women brought the story to life in a way beyond anything I could have ever dreamed. They didn't just perform the work; they dug in and lived the work, and that's the greatest gift any writer could receive. As for discussing their prior credits, I think, going into "Tales of Poe," we all sort of knew what everyone was bringing to the table. Adrienne, Amy, and Caroline have respectively discussed Friday and TCM so much over the years that we didn't want it to be about that; we wanted it to be about them and the next phase. And, as far as I'm concerned, they transcended. When people look at them, I hope they realize these just aren't the final girls they know from those cherished movies; these are actors with an incredible talent who brought whole new life to the work of Poe.
I also would be remiss in this discussion if I didn't offer praise to our fourth female lead, and the protagonist of the film, Bette Cassatt. Bette plays "The Dreamer" of the story, and, like the other women, it was a part particularly written for her. We had previously worked together on a film called "Razor Days," and I saw in Bette an amazing quality. Her emotive strength yet quiet fragility move the story forward ... and "Dreams" wouldn't be what it was without her.
SIG: What's next for the Poe crew?
MV: Bart and Alan worked tirelessly to put this movie together, and it's been four years of each of our lives. I think, before anything else, we all are just looking forward to a nap. However, I will tell you, in a bit of an exclusive, we've been talking quite a bit about Poe and all the stories of his we still feel we want to explore. We had a great dinner the other night where we each hashed out which story we would do next, and I'm happy to say, by night's end, "Tales of Poe: Volume Two" was officially planned. We each agreed which stories we'd like to adapt, and discussed the intricacies of each ... and I think people will be surprised what we have cooking. I won't reveal too much, but I will say this: We know what's next, and we hope you like the first volume, because you ain't seen nothin' yet.