Christopher Garetano (BFA Directing 2000) speaks to us about his new docudrama, The Dark Files – which premieres on The History Channel September 8th.
Before I yammer on and on about my recent success I’d like to tell you where I’m coming from first:
What good would the following words be if, while my fingertips are pounding this keyboard, I refuse to be honest with you? I just can’t be antiseptic about this. The unveiled life of a movie maker isn’t too pretty. My soul needs to speak the truth to you. A simple witty anecdote about my current production is not profound enough and would equate to pure spiritual malnourishment. That would be selfish, vacant and quite pompous of me and that’s just not my style. Don’t get me wrong, I truly love how my new TV show turned out. It was a challenge to make, but I’m not going to bore you with the set-life-monotony and technical ramifications behind the scenes of The Dark Files. There are plenty of narcotics out there to put you to sleep and you don’t need any help from me.
I’ll get to some of that fun production stuff anyway, the good stuff: The stuff that you’ll remember. There’s also a gargantuan amount of those stories available on the internet about me. Just search for it and you’ll find it. This is different and just for you. The best of what I can lend is the story of what got me here and that’s infinitely more interesting and valuable. I sincerely wanted to write this thing to you fine people in an honest way, both subjectively and objectively, for the sole reason of giving the straight dope to my own movie making kind: a genuine perspective of what’s ahead or what might be ahead for you. Hopefully, I can shed some light on a few things, because more importantly than what’s happening for me right now is that I fought through the proverbial jungle, sword and fist, for the better part of seventeen years. It’s a jungle that I now know quite well – its primeval DNA lives in the deep tissue of my battle scars – and I also know how to survive and maneuver through this bastard like a Special Forces assassin.
Like most of you I don’t have, and never had, the privilege of a trust fund, Uncle Francis owning a production company, or Momma being best friends with Meryl Streep. It was my sheer will, fortitude and imagination that got me through. I first entered the Jungle just after graduating from SVA. It was instantaneous as the ink was still fresh on my BFA in film. It was just after the diploma ceremony; I exited out into the smoky arms of the city that never sleeps and a revealing light crashed through my retinas. Only moments after I took an inevitable “final-walk” through the East 23rd street hallways, theater, class rooms – the institution that I spent so much time in during four profound years of my life. I was like a Dickensian disembodied spirit moving on to the next plane: a momentary purgatory before the next existence – heaven or hell- the next chapter of my life. I was reflecting back on the previous years with specters and echoes of the past haunting their way through my heart and mind. It took five years in total for my life to be comfortably established in New York City, four of them as a film school student, and then it was gone. What was it that Martin Luther King said about comfort? Anyway, I dreaded that final walk in advance, because The School of Visual Arts was my home and the city was my identity, and it was about to drastically shatter. It was an existence that I grew quite comfortable with indeed, but comfort is not the life of a movie maker, and perhaps it should never be. King said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” That is the battle word philosophy that has pulled me out of hell many times.
When I was attending SVA I resided at the gorgeous George Washington Hotel (luxury apartments) on the corner of 23rd and Lexington, I worked at Palmer Video on Park Ave (no longer there), and I lived an infinite catalogue of unforgettable experiences (a novel of pure madness) on my city campus. I grew up there and then some. Ok, here’s a good one – so, one afternoon I just finished loading a Bolex 16mm camera with a 100 ft. roll of black and white reversal Kodak (TRI-X) stock and I was shooting footage for one of my first short films. My buddy Anthony was playing a strung-out heroine junkie ( I was discovering William S. Burroughs and naively romancing his dangerous literary edge) and we were intense about everything. It was New York City, somewhere near Alphabet City and we were renegades making movies with absolutely no permit. We weren’t going to ask for one either, that shit was for squares and “professionals” and we were “artists.” So Anthony was totally in character, about to mock shoot-up, the composition was perfect, the light was perfect, Anthony looked brightly but junky enough, just enough to burn a proper exposure to the silver halide crystals. Suddenly Anthony breaks character and I naturally said “What the fuck are you doing?!” Raw stock was expensive. Anthony points behind me, I turn around and Robert effing De Niro was watching us bums film. I looked at him, frozen in time for a moment, and said “Mr. De n”…. He was gone. He disappeared into the city like the fleeting apparition of Travis Bickle. I have so many of these. I think it comes with the spirit and territory of being a guerilla movie maker in New York City.
When it all ended it was time to enter the vast dark continent of the unknown. It was Dante’s territory: the Inferno, book one of my own divine comedy. Guess what? All of you, no matter how much you might not want accept it at this moment, will certainly be thrust into the belly of the Inferno as well. Some of you might turn the other way, in a state of pure horror, after walking mere yards past the threshold and into the dark mist. You might feel too insecure and too uncertain about this movie thing. Others might change the dream a bit and become part of the greater whole as a valuable production crew member or creative collaborator. But a few of you will fight for that indigenous dream with every last drop of your soul. You’ll burn for it. It will be do or die. This jungle is bleak, voracious and mean and is susceptible to no subterfuge. It will swallow you whole and it will eat you alive. It’s all knowing but it can be the most generous teacher, if you survive its digestive system. It’s like some ancient Amazonian ritual of willingly crawling into the mouth of a giant anaconda to test your existential worth. If you’re still alive when it shits you out then you’re ready to really make movies. Somebody said to me recently “You made it, man.” That sounds like, “It’s time to retire you asshole” or something like that. That is NOT how I feel right now. I just got shat out of the anaconda, and still, I’m breathing. I feel like SVA graduation was yesterday. I’m ready to take on the world. I’m going to make this count. I feel more alive and determined as ever and I’m about to push myself artistically and creatively in indescribable ways. I’ll push myself with every new project until I’m dust. By the way – all of the above needs to be your mantra if you really want this. I was working for the film industry right after SVA graduation as a Camera-Tech for Panavision and as a production assistant for a few studio pictures. But it was about a year after graduation that I realized that I had to make a serious choice. It was either a career in the life of the crew, which is wonderful thing and a crucial necessity not only to the industry but to every production, or it was time to personally seize the wheel and make my own damn movie.
There was no other choice because my dream was fixed and locked at eight years old when I first stole my dad’s camcorder to make horror pictures, with the local kids. My dream was, and is, to direct, to write, to create and get all of that crazy stuff that’s in my head out for an audience. So just before I was about to graduate from Panavison (it’s kind of a gateway into the industry) I hit a serious crossroads, and I left. One thing is not the other. Please always remember that. If you want to direct then you must get started and make a movie. Just make a movie with what you have. Write it around what’s available to you. It’s your best shot and most likely it’s your only shot. The film industry is like the military, it’s quite compartmentalized and rarely will they want even their best P.A. or A.D. or A.C. to direct a motion picture or a TV show. There’s really no ladder to work your way up. It’s a myth. The directing job is for directors and for self-made men and women. No one’s just going to hand you that position, you have to take it. And the best way that you take it is to make something that will catch their attention. Create it unbeknownst to them and without their permission. Permission is for squares and for “professionals” and you’re neither, you’re an artist. Do you think I’m wrong? Ask Orson Welles, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Darren Aronofsky, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Lynch, George Romero, Martin Scorsese, Wes Craven, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Brian De Palma… the list is endless and the names are immortal.
Complacency and rules are not the ancient spirit of Fritz Lang and Georges Melies. They weren’t flaccid little followers. That’s not how this works.
On September 8th, my first TV show The Dark Files (as Executive Producer, Director of recreations, and Host) premieres on The History Channel.
I have another show (a TV movie) in active development, and I’m working on my first feature-length horror movie, as I write this. I got here by making a completely independent motion picture. To date, I’ve successfully completed two independent docudramas, but it was my second movie, Montauk Chronicles, that caught their attention. Montauk Chronicles was sourced from my ten-year investigation into the bizarre paranormal legends and government conspiracy surrounding the Camp Hero Air Force station, in Montauk, New York. Tales of kidnapping, mind control, time travel, extra-terrestrials are all part of the lore. I couldn’t wait to speak to the old men who were telling this tale for years, and that’s where it all started. It’s the same legend that later (after my movie was released) was the inspiration for the hit Netflix show Stranger Things. I had absolutely no connections in the industry, no stars in my pictures, and I made my movies with my own cash, with minimal equipment, and by the skin of my cinema loving teeth. My first picture Horror Business found a distributor (Image Entertainment), but for the second, I avoided the middle man and I self-distributed. I creatively marketed Montauk Chronicles, selling thousands of copies around the world. I had no money for advertising so I promoted it using a variety of free social networks and guerilla advertising. I shot most of the cinematic scenes in two rooms not much larger than your “luxury apartment” at the George Washington Hotel. Montauk Chronicles was made with a ton of meticulous love, concentration, knowledge of our craft, and plenty of imagination. One way or another I made it work. I stayed hungry the whole time. The first two hour premiere of The Dark Files (airing on The History Channel, September 8th at 10:00 PM EST) is in many ways a sequel to Montauk Chronicles. I’m now linked with a fantastic TV network and a production company (Texas Crew Productions) and we had more resources than ever. We were able to truly investigate with the latest technology and experts and we actually found something. I’m not going to tell you what it is right now but it’s significant enough to allow me to naturally feel entirely happy with the finished program. It’s a quality program and I’m damn lucky to have this as my first show. So now I’m here. Out of the anaconda’s ass and I’m ready for more. I’m about to make my first feature length narrative. It’s a horror picture but I’m not going to pull any punches. I’m remaining hungry. We all need to remain hungry otherwise we’re as good as dead. That hunger place is a risky place, and it’s that risky place that we must go to join the ranks of that amazing list of movie makers above. Here are two crucial mantras: Money does not make a great movie, It’s not even required to make a good one. Also: Movie stars do not make or break a movie. That’s an industry joke played on us. It’s designed to keep us from making something that will change the monopolized studio and distributor-based movie machine forever. We’re a threat to them. You have the most incredible, unbeatable cinema weapon in your hands. It’s comprised of two major elements: total freedom, wonderful new technology and a blank page. It’s that hunger place where you must remain to use those weapons properly. Regardless of the differences in equipment and budget, it’s the very same place that Francis Coppola journeyed to while intensely and physically depleting to a waif, traveling through the mad jungles of the Philippines, while making Apocalypse Now. Or into that urban cerebral madness of male angst, social awkwardness and obsession that Martin Scorsese almost psychologically drowned in for his masterpiece called Taxi Driver. So, I think it’s our job to be the fresh air and our souls to become deep waters.
To paraphrase or play a little havoc with Friedrich Nietzsche, we can’t muddy shallow waters to appear deep, but we must truly become depth, and the only way to do that is to allow your life to unfold. You must experience a full life to make incredible art.
This is a time when everyone is copying, remaking, imitating, adapting, aping and even worse, franchising. All of the above would be just fine if the cinema attached to it actually inspired us. Forget about what the next idiot thinks you should do, or how you should shoot, or how you should write. You should explode into your work and take a risk with your true voice. It will certainly change and evolve through the years but you must give it a chance without anyone’s interference. If your first instinct is to like it then don’t seek “constructive criticism”. Allow yourself to be your hardest critic. I literally made Montauk Chronicles twice. I threw out the first version, after six years of working on it, and started all over again from scratch. It sounds nuts but it made me a better movie maker. Learn to be the best judge of your work. Be critical but let things fly so you can grow with each movie.
It’s regular people are who you’re all making these movies for. It’s not for the cowardly critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not for your film professor. It’s certainly not for some unqualified film snob on your favorite website or a group of disenchanted IMDB trolls. It’s for the people. It’s for the people, baby, and no one else. It’s for everyone from the single mom who loves horror movies, to the sixty-seven year-old grandfather who still works as a muscle car mechanic and has a taste for Jodorowsky films. Trust me, they’re out there. Do not fall victim to tall tales of demographics, core audience, fan base, that’s a large in part invented by arrogance, inexperience, and ignorance – and certainly by snobbish types whose mom’s best friend got him or her the job. Here’s an example to prove me right. So the original 1973 William Friedkin motion picture The Exorcist, (This was before pop culture swallowed its uniqueness up with sequels, remakes and parodies) was a pitch black horror film unlike anyone had ever seen. It was new, deep and dangerous. Lines formed around the blocks of theaters all over the world, everyone from the rebel youth culture to the old churchgoing spinsters gathered to see that picture, and they were blown away. It sent a shudder down the spine of our culture that’s lasted over forty years. Today The Exorcist would be made by a committee of “expert analysts” and lawyers and we would all forget it as soon as we walked out of the theater. That’s film history for you.
Film history is one of the most important elements that I learned at SVA. It got me through so many situations. The reality is that EVERYTHING that I learned at SVA remained part of my crucial foundation and I’m grateful for it. I’m lucky.
You have the world in your hands. The technology today is a gift to you from the movie gods. There’s absolutely nothing profane about breaking “the rules.” You must do it. These rules aren’t sacred, they were meant to be broken. Please understand how beautiful you have it; Orson Welles would have killed to be you right now, to be us. He might rise from the grave and start making movies again. I wouldn’t be surprised. So be patient, learn as much as you can, be open, and be raw. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t, don’t give up, rage against the dying of the light always. Check out my movie and my show if you can. If you ever see me, say hello. I love you all and I don’t even know you. I can’t wait to see your movies.