By ROBERTO E. D’ONOFRIO
The vampire myth in modern films is often treated through romance and these creatures have become less and less terrifying and deadly and are just seen as desirable, mysterious, and seductive supernatural beings. Actor and filmmaker Roberto D’Antona, after the previous fantasy/horror The Last Heros (2019) returns behind and in front of the camera with CALEB, a throwback to the golden age of the Hammer productions with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Inspired by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, D’Antona, who also wrote the screenplay and produced the film, takes us to the secluded Timere, a remote village in the Alps that does not appear on any map and where mysterious dark forces lurk at night. Rebecca (Annamaria Lorusso) arrives there searching for her sister, a young journalist who went missing while investigating a series of unfortunate events. The villagers, distrustful and hostiles, seem to be devoted to Caleb, a charming, rich, and elegant man whose dark gaze hides a chilling secret.
Italy, with a few exceptions, didn’t produce many Horror movies about vampires and even Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D received mixed reviews, in a time where the creatures of the night are more interested in building a romantic love story than feeding themselves with human blood, CALEB presented itself as a risky challenge for D’Antona who admits, “in Italy the horror movies that have treated these creatures can be counted on the fingers of a hand. But I have always been fascinated by them and I wanted to do a story about Vampires that would scare and move the audience at the same time”.
CALEB is a stylish and atmospheric homage to the myth of Dracula, filled with eroticism, blood, and romance that is reminiscent of the vampire films from the ’70s as The Vampire Lovers, Scars of Dracula, or Twins of Evil. The effective cinematography by Stefano Pollastro makes Timere look timelessly evocative, a disturbing and frightening place from another dimension, where time slows down and evil lurks in the dark corners of the town. Composer Aurora Rochez opts for an orchestral musical score instead of the overused synthesizer soundtrack and, taking inspiration from Wojciech Kilar’s powerful music for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, enriches the movie with a theme that provides a chilling and tense atmosphere.
Though not without flaws, like an excessive length of 155 minutes and the amateurish acting of some characters, CALEB is the most mature work of D’Antona, who at only 28 already has a fan-film, TV series, and four movies (all released in theatres) in his filmography and he is a candidate to play a leading role in the resurgence of Italian “Genre” Cinema.
You share your love for movies with all your family, what fascinates you about Cinema?
Roberto D’Antona: In my family art has always been an important part of our lives, my grandfather Pietro imparted in us a passion for films, he was also a cartoonist and loved the movies of Sergio Leone, Bruce Lee, Bud Spencer, and Terence Hill. When I was a kid I looked at his drawings, which he was proud of, and I was ecstatic, not only for his passion but also because he was amazingly good. In my family, everyone in his own way, we love Cinema and arts and we all collaborate in the projects of “L/D Production”, the company founded by Annamaria Lorusso and me in 2016.
Why do you love so much Horror and Fantasy?
Actually I watch everything, from Ninja Turtles to A Clockwork Orange. John Carpenter and Sam Raimi are among my favorite filmmakers and the ones that made me fall in love with Cinema and my favorite film of all time is Big Trouble in Little China. I grew up watching horror movies like The Evil Dead and The Exorcist, then Cemetery Man and Bram Stoker’s Dracula entered my personal Top Ten of the best horror films and made me love the genre more and more. Regarding fantasy, I became a fan after watching The Lord of The Rings trilogy, I know it by heart and I have bought all the DVD and BluRay editions and the action figures. These films transported me to another world, made me cry, laugh and the bloody Nazgul even scared the Hell out of me in the first chapter. Is an amazing movie that I never get tired of watching.
How did you begin making movies and acting?
When I was eleven years old I began shooting shorts with a cassette camera, then at fourteen I started acting in theaters and I kept doing it for seven years. I was working and studying at the same time and managed to get small parts as an extra in a few important music videos and TV series; thanks to these jobs I was able to work behind the scenes as a production assistant, cameraman, and editor. It was an important introduction to professional movie making and the chance to learn on the job. After some years of apprenticeship, in 2011 there was the breakthrough in my career when I decided to try my hand at making movies, so in addition to acting, I shot the fan-film Dylan Dog: The Devil’s. From that point onward I became more ambitious and determined about fulfilling my dreams.
All your films are strongly influenced by the movies from the seventies and the eighties, why? Which titles inspired you the most?
Thanks to my three older brothers, my parents, and my grandfather, I grew up watching 70s, 80s, and 90s movies. I like their handcrafted staging; you can feel the love and passion for cinema in every single frame. They were able to terrify you without many special effects – they were disturbing and real at the same time… and the music? It was amazing and an integral part of the picture, today we still whistle those tunes that have made the history of cinema. The titles that have inspired me the most are too many to list, but surely, in addition to those that I have already mentioned: The Thing, Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, Back To The Future, Batman, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Jurassic Park and Michele Soavi’ The Church are among those I love the most.
You have started your director career with web series, was it challenging the transition to do a picture? What made you decide to do that?
Web series and fan-films were a training-ground and an important experience; they gave me the chance to grow up, to improve, and learn from my mistakes. I have always set the bar high in my life and every web series I have done, even if amateur, has always been broadcast on major television channels as RAI 3 (RAI is the Italian national network) and “Horror Channel.” Cinema has been my goal since I was very young – it’s always been my dream – and having accomplished it on my own, with a great partner as Annamaria Lorusso, is an exceptional result that makes me proud of the hard work I did. Every drop of sweat, any sacrifice I have made, led me to reach very important milestones and it was worth it. Now I would like to touch people’s hearts through emotions, telling stories.
With Annamaria Lorusso, you have set up an efficient and long-lasting partnership and you are also great friends. How did you meet, and what made you decide to start L/D Production Company?
We contacted each other through Facebook in 2013 and then we met on a short movie set, shot between the town of Monza and the Brianza area. From that day we became great friends, we shared the same passions and we happened to meet again on some movie sets as actors. Then in 2015, we decided to make the leap realizing the TV Series The Reaping, which was later released worldwide by Amazon Prime Video. The Reaping was an opportunity for me to be again behind the camera, something that I had set aside for three years. As we shared the same love for cinema and its genres, we decided to take a risk and found our own production and distribution company.
I know that “The Reaping” has been quite a challenge for you…
Yes, I have to admit that it psychologically wrecked me, with that series we have achieved the impossible, we had a very low budget and a small crew, with some first-time technicians, but we’ve been able to create a quality TV series, a crime story composed of seven one hour episodes. Obviously, it has some limits, due to the small budget, but in my opinion, it’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever written.
Today we can say that your company is well-tried and since 2017 you have been producing and directing one movie every year, how did you manage to do it, despite the difficult times experienced by the Italian market?
Well, the success of The Reaping and of our first picture, The Wicked Gift, which was a co-production and was released in Italy in theaters, helped us a lot. From that point, thanks to the good sales of our films, with L/D Studios, the production division of our company, and with outside funds, we have been able to finance a new movie each year. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year we have decided not to produce any new film, focusing on the promotion of our previous titles and on the pre-production of the script that we will shoot next year.
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought the movie industry to its knees, do you think it will make it out of this crisis? How will the pandemic affect the way of making movies?
I believe and strongly hope that we will get out of this current situation of crisis in the best possible way. Strong changes had already taken place this year, both in the production and in the distribution fields, both for the major Studios or the small ones. I very much hope that next year everything will return to normal and we will still be able to shoot.
The logo of the L/D Production, a wolf and a cat, suggests that you and Annamaria Lorusso have two different souls and identities. Have you ever had any arguments or different ideas about which project to produce?
We had our differences and there were some disagreements, but all of our discussions have always been constructive. As I said, we both share a love for the same kind of films and we always think about what is best for the company. It’s true that the L/D Production logo depicts a wolf and my kitten (her name is Kitana) and this may seem like a provocation, as if we are fighting like cats and dogs, but actually we get along really well and the logo has a wolf and a cat because we love animals and they are present in all our movies, as well as in our lives.
CALEB can be considered as a modern interpretation of “Dracula”, the novel written by Bram Stoker. What fascinates you about this character?
I like his elegance, his power, and his ability to charm his victims. I’ve read and loved not only Dracula, but also the real-life history of Vlad III, ruler of Wallachia, who inspired Bram Stoker for the Count Dracula character. The Transylvania Gothic locations described in the novel have always fascinated me, but it was fundamental watching the Francis Ford Coppola film that – even if different from the book – being visionary and distressful, made me fall in love even more with the Prince of Darkness.
How did you create the character of Caleb?
I consider vampires as the representation of elegance and charm, but at the same time, they are capable of arousing fear and anxiety. The stories about them, especially the ones on Dracula, are among the most loved by horror fans all around the world. Unfortunately in Italy there are not many horror films dealing with these creatures of the night therefore, as me and Annamaria Lorusso care for these beings, our intention was to realize in our country a terrifying vampire movie, which would scare and deeply move the audience. We both worked on the script and we wrote CALEB, which was inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, but it’s based on an original story. Set in present-day in the fictitious village of Timere, in the heart of the Italian Alps, CALEB refers to the classic vampire, who uses his sex appeal, intelligence, and his skill to manipulate the minds of his victims and capture them. When I started writing the screenplay I kept telling myself: “This film must be full of anguish!”. My vampire had to be scary and create a sense of uneasiness in the audience, but at the same time, I wanted to suggest his sophistication and his charm, which he uses as a weapon. Right from the beginning, I wanted a strong and brave woman as the lead character, that fights for her principles but above all for love and would do anything to find her sister, wherever she is, and take her back home. But also Caleb, in his own way, defends his principles, he commits those atrocities because, in his view, is the right thing to do in order to protect the balance of his world.
The representation of blood as the elixir of eternal life, the high level of eroticism, and the orgies of sex and blood reminded me of the Gothic Horror films made back in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular the glorious Hammer productions. How did you come up with those scenes? Have they been difficult to film?
I love Hammer and all the movies they produced, that unquestionably have shaped the myth of vampires on the big screen, but those scenes are the fruit of my imagination, knowing that the figure of the vampire is associated with sensuality and eroticism. With regard to the difficulty of shooting some sequences, since my first feature film I have put together a team of trusted collaborators, both actors and technicians. It is important that on the set there is always the utmost professionalism and any cast member is treated with respect. I am very strict about that; it’s important that every actor and actress feels comfortable. I think that in order to deliver a good picture you need to have a professional team behind you. At L/D Production Company it is very important to be a united and close-knit team because these are the essential ingredients to always give the best of ourselves, even when there are unforeseen problems.
Which Vampire movies inspired you the most while writing the screenplay of “Caleb”?
As I said, the film that impressed me the most is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, then: Interview with the Vampire, From Dusk Till Dawn, Fright Night directed by Tom Holland, and last but not least John Carpenter’s Vampires. There are also other titles that I like, as David Slade’s 30 Days of Night, but with his movie, he created a completely new kind of night creatures, which resemble zombies and are very different from the classic vampires that we can find in ancient folk tales.
I have really appreciated the work of Stefano Pollastro, your cinematographer, the photography of CALEB is suggestive and sinister at the same time…
Stefano is my trusted DoP for five years now and there’s a great harmony between us. With CALEB we decided the look of the movie together, which for me it was very important to have a dark and grim atmosphere, with strong black contrasts to create that disturbing, evocative power of vampires. We filmed with a Canon C300 Mark II camera, as I am a longtime estimator of that brand.
You took great care in the choice of the locations, the village of Timere and its castle are really spooky and seem as a place out of this world, like another dimension. Where did you shoot the movie?
I am very picky and a perfectionist, I want everything to be carefully planned so we had 9 months of pre-production and during that time we went location scouting. CALEB was shot in 48 days, the town of Vogogna, in the north of Italy (that has been selected among the most beautiful Italian small centers) and the exterior of the castle, served as the village of Timere, while the interiors have been built inside the very elegant “Emotional Grand Motel” in Fontaneto d’Agogna, near Novara. The theatre of Timere is actually the Civic Theatre of Oleggio. I have to thank the municipalities of all the locations which fully supported the movie and helped us in several problematic situations.
The soundtracks filmmakers tend to use in modern horror movies are usually minimalist analog synthesizers music or Hard Rock and Heavy Metal anthems. You and musician Aurora Rochez chose instead an orchestral soundtrack…
To me music is the most integral part of making a film, it’s really the greatest tool a director has to help guide the viewing experience. The soundtrack is the pillar on which the emotional aspect of the story rests. Together with Aurora, who is also executive producer and she’s like a sister to me, we opted for an orchestral score, using mainly piano, cello, and violins. When we completed the post-production, after weeks of hard work, and we screened the movie, I must admit I was fully satisfied with our choice. The music helped to establish the mood of the story, built tension, and made it even more terrific. Aurora is an amazing and talented composer, she was inspired by the great work of Wojciech Kilar for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and by the soundtrack of Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir for Joker.
In all of your movies you are both behind and in front of the camera, how do you balance directing with acting? Do you ever criticize yourself?
Yes, when it comes to judging myself I’m the most severe critic. Sometimes the actor in me hates the director in me because I am constantly demanding the best from myself. I must fully immerse into my stories, looking at every aspect of the film, in front and behind the camera, to make sure that everything works as expected. I am never satisfied, and I keep studying both jobs to improve my acting and as a director because I want to do better and better films.
Actor, director, writer, producer, editor…Which role do you like the most?
I love all the process of movie-making and all the cinema professions. Since the beginning I have studied everything, directing, acting, editing…It would be difficult for me to leave one of these jobs. Besides, you need to know everyone’s job to craft your film exactly as you imagined it.
In your past pictures you have often worked alongside your brother Eros, who is also a director, Was it difficult working with another filmmaker?
I have collaborated and still work with Eros, it’s really a professional growth for both of us, we have different skills, and we can learn from each other, this brought us together and made us stronger. Working with Eros helped me a lot to become a better actor; the character of Condom that he tailored for me in his film Insane is one of the best roles I have ever had and it will remain forever in my heart.
For many years in Italy, we are mainly producing comedies or dramas, while “genre” films, for which we were appreciated all around the world, have been left to few independent filmmakers and struggle to find distribution on the big screen. What your opinion about it?
I think that distributors are afraid to invest money in the distribution of Italian genre films like horror and science fiction in cinemas, as they believe they won’t make their money back because the Italian audience is a bit biased against these kinds of movies when they are directed by Italian filmmakers. I do hope that this situation will change soon and more producers will fund Italian directors, as I know we have many young good directors and writers. With L/D Production we’ll be selecting pictures to help distribute.
You have done action, comedy, fantasy, horror, gothic… what will be the next “genre” you will take into consideration?
My next project will be a more authorial picture, a thriller/drama. For the first time, I will be dealing with a current topic inspired by true crime events. I am already working on it and I can’t wait to start filming.