Monday, March 31, 2008

10 Questions for... Bart Mastronardi

When he's not teaching, the inimitable Bart Mastronardi can usually be found behind the camera on some of the most recognized independent horror films currently hitting the scene. From Alan Rowe Kelly's The Blood Shed to his upcoming masterpiece, Vindication, Bart's talent is evident in every scene. I was recently granted an interview with this up-and-coming multi-talent so without further ado, here is 10 Questions for…Bart Mastronardi!

1.) Dave: You have quite an impressive cinematographer's resume with numerous credits working on independent horror films to the Bravo TV Network. How did you get your start behind the camera?

Bart: Thank you Dave for giving me this opportunity. I really appreciate it.

To start, my dad always brought my brother and me to the movies when he was off from work: the Elmwood movie theater on Queens blvd. in Queens, NY was my favorite movie theater unfortunately, it is now some bingo hall/religious church. However, I grew up loving the movies: Jaws, Star Wars, Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter and James Whales’ Frankenstein are the major movies that influenced me. I grew up reading Fangoria magazine, more than I read my school books, I still collect Fangoria. I always did small theater shows with my friends and re-enacted scenes with my Star Wars figures, too as a kid. As I got older I worked and acted for the Spotlight Players Community Theater in Ozone Park as I was studying for my B.A. in Film Studies at Hunter College in NYC, but college was so boring to me I would always cut to go see a movie or explore the city (laughs). I then worked for an eye glass magazine; after I had enough of the cubicle farm job for a year, I put my head back on straight and became a teacher.

Teaching changed my life because it pointed me in all the right directions, plus I give share with students what I have learned. I teach English, film, photography and drama for HS students and I also teach at New York Film Academy. Along the way I taught a great bunch of students who wanted to be a part of this business too, so they worked hard and they are in their twenties now. They have gone on to become a part of the film business with me, which helps ease the nerves at times. We all work along side each other on different projects while working with other professionals. I studied with Horacio Marquinez a great DP and mentor. However, the best thing I did was I attended a whole summer at the Maine Film/Photographic Institute in Rockport, Maine where I studied with some of the best cinematographers in Hollywood: Michael Goi, ASC; Mark Raker; and Jaskus Laskus, ASC to name a few. Rockport was a far better education than my uneventful college years.

I also met director Alan Rowe Kelly who gave me my first break as a cinematographer on his movies The Blood Shed and Far Cry From Home. I have worked with Bravo TV for Shear Genius (NYC Casting), I shot a documentary for Vidal Sasson and Behind the to help raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims and the list is endless. Now I shoot lots of independent horror movies with the best team of crew guys assembled, I just wrapped up my own first feature horror movie, Vindication, shot Stolis Hadjicharalambous’ action thriller Crossed and numerous shorts for Stolis, and I have appeared in Fangoria magazine issue 267 (laughs). I still pinch myself. I am very fortunate for what I have and there is more to come now that editing Vindication will be complete by this summer. Knowing I can continue to work as a filmmaker while teaching is what keeps me going. We all have to start somewhere but how we keep going is up to us.

2.) Dave: For those readers who don't understand what the art of cinematography is, can you explain what it is you do?

Bart: Simply look at life through your eyes and then change it up. Every movie I film is very different from the last one, so I have to go into each movie with a different frame of mind. Basically, a cinematographer (A.K.A. Director of Photography or DP) writes or paints with lights through particular lenses to set a visual mood for the story. You must train your eye to see light and re-shape it to reflect the image you desire. Look at great paintings like Rembrandt, watch great movies with brilliant cinematography, like Taxi Driver, Blade Runner or Half Nelson, even Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi is brilliant. Watch how light is playing in the movie. Look how light comes through a window or how a small candle in a dark room makes a huge statement.

Cinematographers use light to create a space, which molds the world of the movie visually. We set the mood to the story through the lighting and choice of lenses selected and our film stocks then put that all together and we get to play all day. Not a bad gig (laughs). It’s the best job to have on set next to the director. You do have to work along side the director to capture their vision and tell the story as visually as possible. Knowing when to move a camera or just hold still. You have to read the script, make notes and ask questions. It is not simply putting a camera on a tripod for no reason. There is an art to the craft. Cinematography helps the audience understand why the camera is doing what it is doing for the sake of the story without being to obtrusive to the audience. Making a movie is collaboration and with a great talented crew it worth everything. Let go of the ego; surrounding yourself with great, and yes, fun talent which makes the process much easier. With the crew we laugh all day while working hard.

Two great documentaries to watch are Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography and Cinematographer’s Style. These are the visual bibles of cinematography about movies and cinematographers. Also, I listed some of my personal favorite cinematography for horror movies: The Devil’s Rejects (Phil Parmet); The Universal classics of the 1930’s; John Carpenter’s Halloween and The Thing (both by Dean Cundy, ASC); The Exorcist (Owen Roizman, ASC); Seven (Darius Khondji, ASC); Friday the 13th VI-Jason Lives (Jon Kranhouse); and of course my personal favorite, the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Daniel Pearl, ASC).

Some of my great cinematographers: Ellen Kuras, ASC; Vittorio Storarro, ASC; Daniel Pearl, ASC; Rodrigo Prietro, ASC; Dion Beebe, ASC; Greg Toland, ASC, Matthew Libatique, ASC. Janus Kaminski, ASC. My list is endless as they are great craftspeople in capturing light. ASC stands for American Society of Cinematographers.

3.) Dave: Many films claim to hearken a return to "old school horror," but the cinematography in Alan Rowe Kelly's The Blood Shed (especially the shots from and around the property) invoke memories of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Did you try for that effect or is that just the way it turned out?

Bart: The Blood Shed is a combination of “effect” and “the way it turned out.” I am very much inspired by Daniel Pearl’s work on TCM, but I of course as a DP I really wanted to add my own look and style into The Blood Shed. When I read the script it had that Chainsaw feel to it and Alan had stated this before hand, too. But as I read the script I felt The Blood Shed has much more of a twisted sense of humor, almost like a crazy carnival, but TCM is a much more serious movie with hidden dark humor to it. As I photographed The Blood Shed I purposely created three distinct looks for it: using color temperature, certain lenses and of course the great acting, costumes and sets to work within. It is over the top and that is how I saw best to film it. One look for the camera was for the Bullion family, the camera was always handheld or on a steddie-pod. It was never really static. I put Dutch angles to it and used a very wide lens to distort character expressions so I could create certain moods at times. This was important in conveying who these characters are, crazy backwoods folks. The Bullion family’s lighting was always very warm in color temperature with a colorful palette and a soft look to it with lots of Christmas lights for the disturbing horror of what the family does.

The second look was the model agency, which to me was a grid-like structure always on tripod and very straight on like models on a photo shoot. I also put a touch of blue for coldness. The last section was the suburban neighbors which combined the other two looks when necessary. On The Blood Shed I needed to tell the story in the most visual distinctive way possible while using the budget we had for it, so the audience can feel what it is like to live within the world of The Blood Shed. When you watch Stolis’ Crossed it is filmed as an independent gritty action thriller, deeper colors, more of an objective point of view, which looks nothing like The Blood Shed. Crossed has a unique visceral style that accompanies the action of the story, and then there is my own work on Vindication, which has separate look from all the movies I have shot. Vindication is the point of view of its main character, which means the audience experiences only what Nicolas Bertram (the protagonist) experiences at the moment; it is very subjective in storytelling. Nicolas is in every scene because it is his story and his experience, just like the way we each live life. The cinematographer’s role basically is to ensure the movie’s visuals have a particular look and feel, which reflects the elements of the story.

4.) Dave: Your current project is the psychological horror film, Vindication. As the film's writer, director, producer, cinematographer and co-star, what was the most difficult process in the film's creation and how did you overcome it?

Bart: Vindication is a huge labor of love. The primary knowing is that the cast and crew make Vindication what it is because without them this horror movie is nothing more than all crazy ideas inside my head. It’s my first born child and the cast and crew is the surrogate family. Raising an actual child is much more difficult, but making a movie is never easy especially one on such a low budget. Yes, things do get tedious, but I am usually a person who never sees a problem, I’d rather look at things and say, “OK. Just deal with it and go for it.” I have a team of people who don’t bullshit me either. They tell me what I need to hear for the movie, not what I want to hear to stroke my ego. I trust them as they do me. Perhaps the most difficult process in the film’s creation has actually been just coordinating everyone’s schedules together. Scheduling is more cumbersome than anything else, or even worse having a location cancel at the last minute. The way to handle it is to go take a deep breathe and go to plan B, C, D, or E in case plan A falls. Money has also been a matter, but I would schedule the film shoot around my paycheck days, so I can spend more for Henry Borriello who does an amazing job with the makeup or get more breakaway glass. SAG was interesting because it is the actor’s union but that was just a lot of paper work for actor Patrick Cronen and Patrick delivers a fine performance. What always concerned me was feeding the cast and crew. They must be feed. I’m Italian so food is necessary (laughs).

Living upstate for a week with a cast and crew of six can be expensive, but so many people have given so much to Vindication that it has made the process of making this movie much easier. Rich Wenzel and his family gave me the cabin upstate for nothing, Alan Rowe Kelly and so many cast members opened up there homes to us. Stolis’ dad owns a deli, Hilltop Deli, in Long Island so he catered for us when I had huge cast and crew days. But my God I am blessed with Henry Borriello and his involvement with C W Post College for the use of their theaters and their lights. Now, Billy Archiello is doing an amazing score for the movie late May/early June, Javier Rodriguez is mixing my sound, Stolis is editing, Chris Otis plays a mean Time Keeper; and Dominic Sivilli is the best assistant I can have. Keith Fraser, the lead actor, god bless him, he is very dedicated and willing to go beyond the means of the movie. He has always been there since the short movie. Alan Rowe has introduced me to his company of talent: SAG actor Patrick Cronen, Jerry Murdock and ZoĆ« Daelman-Chlanda. Henry Borriello and C W Post introduced me the talented Jessie May Laumann and Talia Morrero; also Vindication’s talented costume designer Brittany R. Jones-Pugh. And Dom introduced me Miguel Lopez. I wish I could pay them all more than they get. I can name all of them, but the way I have overcome any problem is simple, if you haven’t already figured it out: I have surrounded myself with the most dedicated, generous and talented group of individual people who trust and believe in Vindication and my vision for it.

Kind of funny but Vindication is a horror movie, but it has been made with so much fun you never would guess it is horror movie when we are on set. You know 4,000 of our American troops were killed in Iraq, so for me there are much bigger problems in the world than making a movie like Vindication. During the filming of this movie I have seen parents and friends die, so if the key light isn’t working or someone is late just fix the issue and move on. Laughter is key to overcome many problems when making a movie!

5.) Dave: Can you give us a glimpse into what your writing process was like while you were writing Vindication?

Bart: Vindication writes itself, I am just the stenographer to the movie (laughs). Writing for me is a lot like method acting. From the setting, to the mood, to creating certain characters, Vindication tells me what to write. For example, Nicolas roommate, Michel, is an UN-stereo typical gay character, played genuinely by Miguel Lopez. I never set out to write a gay character, but Michel was there. I do research for the story by reading books, plays, essay, monologues; I also have tons of images from paintings, photography and commercial shoots, I dive into my own private life, and just looking at life in general. All of this helps me to understand the world I am writing about, thus creating Vindication.

With writing it is also the only time I have alone with these characters, so I have to be very intimate with them. Afterwards the actors get them, then production, and then Stolis (the editor) has his fair share, too. While I write I act out the scenes to listen to the characters playing off one another. Nicolas was difficult to write because Nicolas represents many people who feel alone or lost in the world, so there is this responsibility to ensure Nicolas is believable. Also, Nicolas never spoke much. His actions and visuals speak for him. The characters around him help guide him with their spoken words. I do get attached to my characters too. I remember writing Nicolas’ suicide attempt and it was very painful to write. I really felt bad for this kid. Here is a twenty-year old kid, lonely, guilty of so much who then strips down to bare himself; he has all these cuts on his naked body, he is a cutter, and then he grabs a razor while he gets into the tub. The hardest part was where it was leading up to. Why is that so hard to write? Because Nicolas is in such emotional pain and he truly believes if he escape the pain of life through death all will be better. However, personally, asking the actor, Keith, to go nude for the scene was a bit odd (laughs), but Keith is a total professional of an actor and he believed in who Nicolas represents; Keith trusted my direction, so Keith did the scene nude. I am in debt to him.

Now, I knew Nicolas was going to attempt suicide but I just can’t sit down and write that scene from beginning to end. It doesn’t work that way for me. It is a process. Scenes come to me and I write them down: napkins, pizza box, paper, in a coffee shop, at home, the shower is the best place oddly, and NYC subways, wherever. When I sit to write it in script form I have a dictionary, a thesaurus, and all the material that are inspiring to the story. I just write Vindication as it is told to me. Then I put the scenes together the way Vindication tells me to. It sounds crazy but writing Vindication, as hard as it is to write at times, was as truthful I have ever been as a filmmaker. If writing, visually or verbally, is the communication of ideas and expressing those ideas was very scary then all filmmakers must expose themselves in their work somehow; otherwise, the audience does not believe it. Vindication is a simple story: a young man dealing with who he really is in life, just within the horror genre.

6.)Dave: Along with Alan Rowe Kelly, Joshua Nelson and Stolis Hadjicharalambous, you were recently featured in Fangoria Magazine about independent filmmakers. How has your life changed since that fantastic article hit the newsstands?

Bart: I am still on cloud nine still after Fangoria issue 267 hit newsstands. I have been reading Fangoria since I was six years old and have every issue since 1987. To be a part of the Fangoria history is a dream come true. I remember the night I got the issue, it was at The Blood Shed premiere and all four of us were like kids in a candy shop. Joshua Nelson and I more so as we are the same age growing up with the magazine. My knees were shaking as I looked through the magazine. My friends and family were all there to share in that magazine, so I am very grateful and blessed for Alan Rowe Kelly and Michael Gingold for believing in my work. I can say the issue has solidified me as a filmmaker so it has helped me to talk to people who are like me trying to get a break in the film business. I get some recognition and work has stemmed out of it, so I am not complaining. But since I have been in Fangoria I now know I am responsible for working hard to deliver a great horror piece; not just simple blood and guts storytelling.

Vindication has been given a chance within the horror community, so the responsibility to deliver a movie that does more than just slice and dice characters for celluloid is important to me. It’s like the new Friday the 13th movie coming out in ’09. I know some people are moaning, but I will be first in line for this one. Jason is my favorite villain. Yes, Marcus Niespal and his team have a responsibility to make not just another Jason movie, but a great movie in general. Marcus is a great director so I am hoping this Jason will blow me out of the water. If not give me the money I know exactly what to do for a Jason story. Fangoria magazine has high expectations for filmmakers in the horror genre and just like audiences there are expectations when watching Vindication. If not Fangoria suffers and so does the genre. Look at the westerns, dead. Since Fangoria gave me a nod I now have to acknowledge back by ensuring Vindication is done right. So pressure is how Fangoria changed my life. Thanks Fangoria (laughs)!

7.) Dave: What sparks your creativity?

Bart: Oh, man, so many things spark my creativity. There is a great mystic from India his name is Pantajali, he lived around the third century B.C. and he talks about inspiration. Pantajali says when a person is inspired by some great purpose the mind begins to break boundaries and the consciousness expands and that person can then begin to discover he or she is a greater person than they ever dreamed themselves to be. So for me it may be a single image I see or a piece of music I hear that could start off my creative juices. I am very much inspired by life itself, even when tragedy is happening. When I am on a set I can start to see what the actors are bringing to the movie and it’s like the creative flow is racing through my system. The cast and crew laugh because I get all excited about what they are bringing to the project. Also, anything from a sunset, to museums, to sensuality, to even go whale watching off the coat of Long Island is all inspiring to me for creativity.

I love going to the theater, Off-Broadway has such talent, even photo galleries, just to see what the photographer is saying through visuals images. Dancers spark energy in me. They way they move and use dance to express themselves. It’s about the visual image; filmmakers have to be aware of it in the world around them; it is life that we are telling stories about. Now what I also feel helps me to continue to be creative is I love to physically work out and be try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but a great cheeseburger from Paul’s Burger Joint on 2nd Ave. and St. Mark’s Place is inspiring, too (laughs). Staying physically fit just keeps me fresh and wanting to do more. It’s sad when I see people so tired and sleepy and negative all the time. Like many people, I too have seen and experienced a lot of unfortunate happenings in my life; I buried my dad after a two year battle with brain cancer. After his death I understood I have no time to wait around for things to come my way. Life really is too short. I put myself out there to experience life, take risks, which helps me to be creative in my work. Plus, I am a lucky S.O.B. I live in NYC the greatest city for all creative energy!

8.) Dave: What projects are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in the upcoming months?

Bart: I am finishing up cinematography work on Stolis’ Crossed, which I have seen a rough cut of the movie and I am blown away by how it is coming out as an action thriller. Then Stolis, the crew and I are then filming his thesis film for SVA this fall. Alan Rowe Kelly and I are working on a new short titled Down the Drain for a trilogy series he has worked on with Anthony Sumner (By Her Hands.). This would be the final piece to an anthology movie: By Her Hands and Far Cry from Home are the other two pieces. We all get started this June on Down the Drain so it will nice be working with Alan and Anthony again.

Besides all of that I am currently with Vindication in post production as Stolis is editing, Billy Archiello begins scoring for the movie in late May/early June and I have already heard some of it. Billy is creating a dramatic piece of music which uses horror, drama, and all these other emotions to add to the mood of the movie. Javier Rodriguez is going to soon be working on sound and then it is off to final sound mix with Tom Burns, who does Alan Rowe Kelly’s movies. Needless to say I am a very happy filmmaker right now. After post I then promote Vindication into film festivals and other venues plus distribution. Besides teaching high school seniors, I’m also teaching at the New York Film Academy in NYC where I teach camera and lighting to film students, which I am very excited about. I get to spread the good word of filmmaking even more (laughs), but I enjoy just helping and teaching people about helping them to study their craft. I seriously have to put myself out in the film world because I enjoy the work. Your work and your work ethics will define you, so just keep setting up goals and making sure you accomplish them. As for my own next big project, I just want to ensure that Vindication gets out there to find its audience.

9.) Dave: With online streaming video becoming such a hot commodity, do you think that the future of independent cinema is going to be online-based and if so, how do you feel about that?

Bart: I just came home from watching Jaws and Back to the Future at the Zeigfeld movie theater in Manhattan. I can’t begin to explain how big the screen is and how amazing it is to watch a movie up on the big screen. It is an event. I am in awe by the theater for motion pictures. How the lights dim the theater, to the projector emitting this huge source of light that flickers onto the screen and at 24 frames per second (normal speed) these images move an audience. That is church for me.

I am also of the generation between the movie theater and the on-line streaming, so both are a great way for filmmakers to get their work out there. Just watch Jaws, Star Wars, or Friday the 13th on the big screen and you will know why I love movies. I am not a fan of people capturing fifteen minutes of fame or watching movies on screens the size of my palm, that is ridiculous, but this new type of venue is the where the film community is also heading, so I have become a part of this new process. That doesn’t mean my work should suffer. If anything this knowledge now forces me to realize I can now promote my own work easier and still show it to mass audiences, right from the comfort of my own home. With online streaming there is much more competition so the market will flood making it even harder for not only independent filmmakers, but Hollywood, too. The world is changing radically through technology so are the audiences. If independent filmmakers want to thrive then they must become a part of this process. There will always be venues to get our work out there: Film festivals, conventions, midnight screenings, your own web site, even setting up your own makeshift theater to promote your movie. Plain and simple, we have to learn how to play the business game. Right now, Hollywood and even the music industry is learning like many of us are. They may have more money, but that doesn’t mean they have better stories to tell. I think Francis Ford Coppola said when he was making Apocalypse Now the future of filmmaking will be strapped onto a kid’s back. He was so right. If anything on-line streaming is just another outlet for independent filmmakers to showcase their work, BUT the artist must still maintain artistic integrity when creating work for all venues, including on-line streaming.

10.) Dave: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the independent film industry?

Bart: Michelangelo said of his beautiful statue of David that David has always been in the marble, “I just had to chip away at it to get to him.” Be open-minded towards all art forms. Responsibility for making better movies is vital! Persistence! Determination! Believability within Self! Art and vision is what you will bring to the project, but remember this is an entertainment business that thrives on dollars and cents. You need to understand contracts and financial needs so don’t short change yourself in that regard. Outside of the business aspect, filmmakers have so much great equipment out there to tell stories. Making a movie can be an expensive at times and can be a tedious process, but the great independent filmmaker John Cassavetes proved that making an independent movie is very accessible. NO EXCUSES!


There is no room in this business for lazy people, especially lazy filmmakers. Sorry, but the bottom line is get UP off your ass, get the equipment to go out and shoot something special. Be creative! Think outside the box. Know your resources to learn how to utilize them. The more you keep making movies and learning about the equipment – whether animation, documentaries, shorts, avant-garde, commercials, genre pictures or even feature films - the more you will see your work improve with the next project. If you need money to make a movie – get a job, save up, sell a screenplay, and then go out and make the movie. Trust me this business thrives on talk, so shut up and make your vision a reality. Filmmakers shouldn’t get caught up in the “should I shoot it on film or video?” nonsense! It’s like great painters arguing over water color or pastels. It is up to you. Just get started. If you do great work that is all they need to see. Build YOUR reel. Filmmaker’s go out to film! Start to capture life the way you see then let that light shine through the lens of your choice. Figure it out! All the answers are out there. There are over one-hundred ways to become involved creatively. Overall, you already know you are the catalysts for your own life; therefore you are responsible for how you live and how you film. Filmmaking isn’t an easy way of making a living, but when you are involved it is great feeling.

Who knows what the future holds, but as you have read this interview it is clearly obvious the people I have surrounded myself with have helped me to get to this point, it is impossible to do it alone, but without the persistence of believing in oneself then nothing would have happened. Being a filmmaker and my love for movies has changed my life and to a major extent it has also saved it. Aristotle in his book Poetics states, “Action defines character.” Well then dear reader, take action to define you as a filmmaker! Vindication was made with a simple thought in my mind, which now has transformed reality into action, “I too am a filmmaker.”

Bart’ Favorite Thirteen Horror Movies (or creepy ass movies)
(No order and it the list changes every week)
Friday the 13th pts: 1- 4, 6, Freddy VS. Jason are the best of the series
Halloween – John Carpenter
Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein
Nightmare on Elm Street: 1, 3 and New nightmare are the best.
Psycho – Hitchcock’s of course
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1975 ( re-make was well done)
Requiem for a Dream
Grindhouse by Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino
The Last Winter – Larry Fessenden
The Mist – Frank Darabont
Taxi Driver

Thank you so much, Dave, for this opportunity to share some words with other fellow filmmakers, especially the horror crowd. I encourage all filmmakers to please let me know what they are doing. Contact me for any comments or questions. I welcome it.

I want to thank Bart Mastronardi for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions and for his extreme patience in waiting for them! A teacher, a filmmaker and a great guy on top of that, Bart's star is just beginning to fully shine and I appreciate getting to interview him before his talent turns into a supernova. Be on the lookout for this fantastic filmmaker and be sure to check out Vindication when it becomes available in the fall of ’08, but go the movie’s myspace for further details, too:
For more information on Bart, visit his myspace page at

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