Despite the restrictions put on horror creatives due to the coronavirus pandemic some have found innovative ways to keep busy.
One of those in question is, actor/director/writer/producer Michael Varrati, who wrote and directed this creative short using the theme of video chat with deadly consequences.
We caught up with Michael to discuss this project, plus his segment in the mammoth Christmas anthology ‘Deathcember’ entitled ‘All Sales Fatal’.
Can you tell us how you got involved in Deathcember?
I was introduced to the producers of Deathcember by filmmaker Chelsea Stardust. At one point in the process of putting the anthology together, Chelsea was attached to participate, and Dominic Saxl (Deathcember producer and one of its contributing filmmakers) had asked her to recommend other folks for the project. In addition to my work in horror, I’ve written a handful of Christmas movies for American television, but up to that point had never crossed the genres. With my holiday movie background in mind, Chelsea thought I might be a good addition to their line-up and connected us via email. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Where did the inspiration come from for All Sales Fatal?
I knew if I was going to make a Christmas horror project, I didn’t want to it to be about a killer Santa or a Krampus. It occurred to me that one of the things I find the scariest and most stressful during the holidays is shopping. When I was in college, I worked at a mall…and the Christmas season was an absolute nightmare. People would use the stress of the season to become unnecessarily cruel and downright nasty…and often took it out on shop employees. For a time of a year that people are supposed to have “good will,” it’s usually when they’re on their worst behavior. The inspiration for All Sales Fatal came from that and how that bad behavior, given the right circumstances, could easily escalate into true horror.
You have Jeffrey Reddick, Tiffany Shepis and Ryan Fisher involved, how did they become part of the project? Did you write All Sales Fatal with this cast in mind?
Pretty much. Tiffany Shepis and I have a long history together and I love working with her. She just gets the tone I’m going for and always elevates the material. I think I started writing the character with her in mind before I even talked to her about it. Luckily, she said yes. Ha ha. Ryan I had worked with a few times previously as well, having directed some sketches for his queer comedy troupe, Enemies of Dorothy. I like how he handles humor and knew it would be a great foil for Tiffany’s character. And in the case of Jeffrey, we’d been friends for a while and I just love his energy. When the idea occurred to me to cast him as the only virtuous character in a film full of ill-behaved folks, I couldn’t not ask. I was stoked that he game to play.
How long was the shoot for the film?
Believe it or not, because we had a limited time with the store location we used in the segment, the bulk of All Sales Fatal was shot in one day. However, there was definitely a lot more preparation that went into it than that. A day was spent rehearsing, as well as creating the fight choreography for Tiffany and Ryan’s characters. Something my production partner, Brandon Kirby, and I really pride ourselves in is a commitment to preparedness. We know film sets often have unforeseen issues, so we like to plan for as much as possible. Even for this 5 minute short shot in one day, I’d say there was several weeks of planning.
The scope of Deathcember is huge with 24 short films put together to form this anthology, what sort of guidelines were you given in terms of format, budget and themes?
The guidelines were made rather clear from jump: Each filmmaker was given the exact same budget and asked to keep their segment’s runtime to 5 min or less. Thematically, the producers never dictated what our segments could or could not be about. We were given the freedom to explore the holiday our way. Of course, we did have to communicate the plot of our stories to the producers to ensure none of us were accidentally making the same thing, but that was really it. We did have to stick to certain tech guidelines to make sure there was some uniformity in quality, but that just makes sense. Otherwise, we were given free reign to execute our visions our way. If we could do it in the time allowed for the budget allowed, we were given Santa’s blessing to do so.
We seem to be getting a few Halloween-themed anthologies over the past few years, do you think there is definitely scope for Deathcember to become its own franchise of sorts?
I think there’s always potential. People love Christmas and holiday horror movies. Every December, we see horror fans and sites breaking out their favorite thematic films in celebration. There’s definitely a world where this could become part of some viewer’s own annual traditions…and if enough people make it so, there’s always a chance for more.
Have you managed to see the completed Deathcember yet?
Yes! I was quite fortunate to see the full film when I was brought to Germany by Deathcember’s producers for Fantasy Filmfest. I attended two screenings of the movie while I was there (in Frankfurt and Cologne, respectively), and it was a truly great experience. The anthology itself is quite a big undertaking, bringing that many voices together from all over the world under one banner. It’s awesome to see how each filmmaker approached the material and put their own spin on the holidays. Some of the segments are outright shocking, others are darkly funny, plenty are gross. There’s a little something for everyone in the movie.
Was there any temptation to star in All Sales Fatal as well as direct?
No. Despite what my resume may have you believe, I don’t really actively seek out acting. While I have had some great roles in some really fun films, my heart has always been in the storytelling itself. Writing and directing is where I feel most comfortable. I like the curation and creation of a story, from its foundations on a page to the bringing it to life on set. When I wrote All Sales Fatal, I don’t think I even considered being in it once.
How would you describe your segment in one sentence to viewers?
When a woman tries to return a Christmas present with no receipt, she gets more than she bargained for when she encounters a sales clerk who will go to ANY lengths to follow store policy.
You are getting rave reviews online for the Unusual Attachment short, tell us about the nucleus of this project?
Unusual Attachment was literally born out of the need to keep creating even as the world outside had ground to a halt. Right before Covid-19 and the stay at home orders, I had been in the midst of shooting another project when everything got postponed. Like everyone, that first week or two really felt listless. Usually, my inclination when I feel that way is to make something, but I wasn’t even sure how I could do that if we were stuck inside. When the idea occurred to me that we might be able to use the technology at our fingertips to create a story, I called my production partner Brandon Kirby and frequent cinematographer/visual effects wizard Andrew J. Ceperley to see if this was something we should even attempt…and they were immediately on board. From there, I started writing…and thinking about the ways we could use the constraints of being stuck at home to our advantage. It was a fun challenge. I started really thinking about how we obsess over technology and how, especially in times like this, it’s our window to the world…and how maybe that overreliance can be dangerous. All the apps and sites people use for sex and love like Grindr or those video roulette sites. I saw the beauty, tragedy, comedy, and…yes…horror…of it all…and that’s what this story is about. That sometimes when you’re looking for something…something else might be looking for you. It’s a reminder to be careful who you get attached to out there.
I’m really proud of the final result. We had a phenomenal cast and crew join us on this little adventure in at home filmmaking. It’s something we’ll always have as a document of this time. When the world stopped, we still made something.
As a champion of queer horror, with your work and podcast, what areas of the LGBT community would you like to see explored in future horror projects?
Pretty much all of my personal film projects are queer. It’s very important to me to have that representation and make the kind of films I didn’t have/wanted to see when I was growing up. Through my company, June Gloom Production, that’s a primary goal of ours: To create and curate queer horror and queer social commentary cinema. Another function of June Gloom is helping other artists do the same. It’s not just about my work or Brandon’s work, it’s about helping get other voices out there. What do I want to see explored? Well, horror hasn’t done exactly right by the trans community yet, for example…and I’d love a good trans horror project to get out into the world, but as a cis gay man, that’s not my story to tell…but if we can help a trans artist make it happen, we’re definitely down. In the meantime, for me, just more queer content in general. There’s never enough.
What can you tell us about the Holidays of Horror project?
Oh! I honestly don’t have a lot of information about that project. I know it’s an anthology horror film put together by filmmaker Wesley Alley where each segment takes place on a different holiday. I was on set one day a few years ago when they were shooting the Christmas segment. I have a little role as a party guest. I was invited to come participate by Sarah Nicklin, who’s quite the celebrated horror movie alum and a dear friend. She was producing and also starring in the segment in question and asked if I wanted to come play. I can’t pass up a chance to hang out with Sarah and cause some mayhem. Beyond that, I don’t know much about it…I can’t wait to see it myself!
What do you enjoy most about directing?
The collaboration. Writing has been my main gig for such a long time, and I love it, but unless I’m co-writing a piece, it’s also very solitary. I love the coming together of various artists to execute a vision. My job as a director is to lead that vision, yes, but it’s also to foster the excitement and talents of the artists I bring to my set. I like seeing my cinematographer get stoked for a shot. I love knowing the actor is really feeling the scene. It’s exciting.
Are there any films you have watched recently that you feel should have a larger audience?
I really recommend people check out Yann Gonzalez’s first film You and the Night. A lot of people discovered him because of Knife + Heart, which is unquestionably a masterpiece, but I think folks would do well to check out this one too. It’s like a sexual, queer Breakfast Club fever dream. I love it and want more people to see it so we can discuss.
What is the writing process like for you, is it more spontaneous or do you lock yourself away when inspiration strikes to get ideas on paper (so to speak)?
It’s a bit of both. No two scripts are the same. Some projects are long and laborious. Others literally fly from my brain to the page. I recently wrote a feature that took me two months of tinkering to finish. Alternatively, A Halloween Trick I wrote in a day. It just depends. I love all my movies, but like kids, they each require their own kind of fostering and attention. And some are definitely crankier than others. Haha.