Instinctively finding ways to fight the menacing evil that’s harrowingly invading your life, particularly by lurking in your home at night and disturbing your sleep, can be a terrifying experience for many people. However, such intuitively motivated characters, who willingly embrace the challenge of fighting back against their terrifying intruders, are grippingly featured in two of producer Ross Dinerstein’s latest movies, the horror thriller narrative, ‘The Diabolical,’ and the sci-fi horror documentary, ‘The Nightmare.’ From a mother who’s determined to protect her young children from a threatening presence in ‘The Diabolical,’ to people around the world who are forced to face the daunting prospect of stopping malevolent beings from interrupting their sleep in ‘The Nightmare,’ the producer enthrallingly isn’t afraid to explore viewers’ darkest fears of contending with, and fighting back against, anyone or anything that wishes to cause them harm.
‘The Diabolical,’ which was co-written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker, Alistair Legrand, follows Madison (Ali Larter), the divorced mother of two children who are awoken nightly in their quiet suburban home by an increasingly strange and threatening presence. She desperately seeks help from her scientist boyfriend who begins a hunt to destroy the violent spirit that paranormal experts are too frightened to undertake.
Gravitas Ventures is set to release ‘The Nightmare’ in Northh America in theaters and on VOD on June 5. The documentary, which was was directed by ‘Room 237’ helmer, Rodney Ascher, follows people who suffer from sleep paralysis, a condition which leaves them paralyzed as they hear voices and see presences in the room with them. Approximately 6.2 percent of the population suffers from sleep paralysis, during which malevolent beings grow increasingly aggressive the longer the condition occurs. Ascher, who reports having experienced sleep paralysis, offers insight into the harrowing experiences people experience as they contend with the condition.
Dinerstein generously sat down to talk about ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare’ during an exclusive interview while attending SXSW 2015 at the Sheraton Austin Hotel at the Capitol, on the afternoon of the former’s World Premiere during the festival’s Midnighters Section. Among other things, the producer discussed how he appreciates that both films, which he spent most of 2014 working on, were selected to play at this year’s SXSW; how he regularly works with his friends, filmmakers he previously collaborated with and writer-directors who were referred to him and his newly launched production company, Campfire, to make frightening films that feature experienced actors like Larter and promising up-and-comers like Caity Lotz from ‘The Pact’ series; and how shooting on location is very beneficial to horror films, as the key to the genre’s success is to make the projects feel as authentic and relatable to the audience as possible, including filming in a house that anyone could live in.
ShockYa (SY): What was your reaction when you found out that two of your latest films, ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare,’ would be playing here at SXSW?
Ross Dinerstein (RD): Well, I’m from Houston, so having been born and raised here in Texas, it’s a dream come true to have any one of my films play at SXSW. But it’s hard to understand how great it is to have two of my movies play during the festival during the same year. I’ve had movies play here in the past, and it’s always been a fun experience. But these two specific movies are the ones I focused the majority of 2014 on. So it’s great to begin the distribution phase for both of them by having them screen here at SXSW.
SY: Over the past few years, you have mainly focused your producing efforts in the horror genre, having worked on such films as ‘The Pact’ and its sequel, ‘The Pact II,’ as well as ‘Mr. Jones’ and ‘The Divide.’ What is it about the genre that you enjoy working on so much?
RD: I grew up always loving movies and television, and watched as much as I could. I still continue to consume as much as I can. The movies I’ve always gravitated towards are the ones that really affected me. The two types of movies that leave me continuously thinking about them, and lead me to do research on them, are horror films and documentaries.
I remember the first time I saw ‘Jaws’ I was 11-years-old, and it led me to never want to go back in the water, and I’m now 35. That effect happened because of the tension Steven Spielberg built with the shark. So I strive to include that type of tension and suspense in a lot of my movies now, as I believe less is more.
SY: How has your previous work in the horror genre, such as on ‘The Pact’ series and ‘Mr. Jones,’ influenced your work on your latest projects? Does your experience from your earlier films influence the way you approach making such films as ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare?’
RD: Absolutely-every single thing I’ve done has influenced my new projects. Mistakes are always made, and lessons are always learned from each film. ‘The Pact’ was an unbelievable experience, and it was really my first venture into the lower budget genre. We made a lot of mistakes, and learned a lot of things, in the process, and we try not to repeat those mistakes. A lot of the great things that came out of ‘The Pact’ are evident in ‘The Diabolical.’ A lot of the crew members who worked on ‘The Pact’ returned for ‘The Diabolical,’ even though it was five or six movies later.
SY: While you’re mainly known for producing horror projects, are you interested in working in other genres in the future?
RD: Right now, I’m pretty happy working on horror, sci-fi and thriller projects, but I’m interested in expanding more into the sci-fi genre. ‘The Diabolical’ was really my first venture into it, and I had such a fun time with it. I’m not really interested in working on comedies and dramas; I love watching them, but I’m not the best producer for those genres. I’ve worked on comedies and dramas in the past, but I feel like other people could have done a better job on them. I’ve found my groove in the horror and thriller genres, and I want to improve on what I’ve already done.
SY: You recently launched your new production company, Campfire, which will focus on film, TV, digital content and commercial production, as well as postproduction. What was the process of starting Campfire, particularly since you have worked as an independent producer for over a decade?
RD: Well, I’ve been an independent producer over the past 13 years. I’ve always had partners in my company, but I was at a point in my career where I was ready to go out on my own. My business partner, Kevin Iwashina, is also my mentor, and we began talking about what my next venture would be in my career. He was very supportive when I said, “I think it’s time for me to go out on my own,” and he agreed with me.
So I then went to Content Media, a company I have pretty much worked with exclusively since 2007, and asked if they were interested in partnering on a new venture. They said yes right away, and I couldn’t be more lucky.
As far as what I’m doing going forward, I’m trying to create a collaborative atmosphere for all the filmmakers and talent that we work with, and that process all starts with me. It’s all about treating people with respect, and us working on projects we’re interested in and love as fans.
SY: What’s the process like of finding directors who you want to work with on upcoming projects at Campfire?
RD: Well, it’s very much a relationship-driven business. So a lot of times, we develop relationships through a friend of a friend, or having a general meeting with someone. ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare’ are two examples of that idea.
Rodney Ascher, the director of ‘The Nightmare,’ is very good friends with Nicholas McCarthy, who directed ‘The Pact,’ which I also produced. Rodney was nice enough to do graphic and visual work on ‘The Pact.’ Another friend of mine was working with Rodney on ‘The Nightmare.’ He was nice enough to say, “I can handle the documentary side,” because he’s an Oscar-winning documentarian. But he also said, “I need help with the horror genre side.” So the three of us got together, and Rodney having already met me, and knowing I was a good producer, created the team.
For ‘The Diabolical,’ I had a general meeting with the filmmaker, Alistair Legrand, who was actually out shopping another script. He then pitched the idea for ‘The Diabolical,’ and I pre-optioned the idea before he even wrote the script. He worked on three drafts of the script throughout a three-month period, and now it’s premiering. It took less than six months from the general meeting to the first day of production.
SY: ‘The Nightmare’ received positive reviews from Sundance following its world premiere there. What does it mean to you that audiences are not only embracing that film, but all of the movies you produce in general?
RD: There’s absolutely no better feeling than having a critic you respect say, “It’s the scariest documentary ever made.” That’s what we set out to make, and we become so close to the material that we’re no longer objective. So to have a third party give you that sort of acknowledgment is really special and exciting for us, because we worked so hard on these films.
So when the reviews are positive, there isn’t a better feeling in the world, and when the reviews are negative, it’s hard. But I never fault anyone, because if you don’t like my movie, you don’t like it, and that’s fine.
SY: ‘The Nightmare’ received a distribution deal before it premiered here at SXSW, and is set to be released on June 5 in theaters and on VOD across North America. What are your thoughts on the changing methods of distribution for independent films like this one, particularly with the On Demand platform?
RD: We were very fortunate that ‘The Nightmare’ was accepted into Sundance, and had its world premiere there in January. We had just finished the film days before its premiere, so we had never screened it for an audience before that festival.
But the movie ended up working, as it’s a very odd, interesting and unique documentary. A lot of buyers were at that screening, so we received a lot of interest. We heard a lot of pitches from the distributors about why we should go with them. The timing and economics of the deal we made worked. They understood what we were trying to do, and they’re supportive of the film.
SY: What has the process of showing ‘The Diabolical’ on the festival circuit been like, as well?
RD: Well, I’m a fan of SXSW in general, particularly the Midnighters Section they have here. I always knew ‘The Diabolical’ was more of a SXSW Midnight movie, and less of a Sundance or Tribeca Midnight movie. It’s a very commercial and glossy film, so it doesn’t have the typical gritty nature of a Sundance movie, much like ‘The Pact’ did. So when we finished the film in November, I sent it to one of the head programers here at SXSW, and they immediately responded to it. So I immediately pulled it from contention from all of the other festivals.
SY: What’s the process of not only filming ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare,’ but all of your movies, independently? Does that process pose any challenges, or does it help with the creativity on the projects?
RD: Making films independently does always pose challenges. We operate under the radar, and try to put all the money on screen, to make sure the movies are interesting. So we don’t have a lot of cooks in the kitchen, which is usually a good thing. But sometimes you do need help, and have to have someone say, “That does sound cool in concept, but it’s not going to translate as well on screen.”
So on independent films, there really isn’t any margin for error, and or to have someone always looking over your shoulder. But at the same time, that also gives us the creative freedom to do what we want. We trust our instincts, and we prep and plan a lot of it, so everything’s a calculated risk. Those risks are working out for us right now.
SY: Ali Larter plays the lead role of Madison in ‘The Diabolical,’ which also features Patrick Fischler, who also starred in last fall’s ‘The Pact II.’ On the narrative features you work on, how much input do you and your fellow producers have in the casting process?
RD: I’m involved in all of the casting decisions on the narratives I produce. With ‘The Diabolical,’ we were extremely fortunate that we developed the script with Ali in mind. She was the first actress we made an offer to for the part, and she accepted it. It’s usually never that easy, but I think she’s as perfectly cast in the lead role for this film as any movie I’ve been involved in. She’s heroic and has an amazing stage presence, and she was our true partner in crime as we made this film. From the beginning to the end, she’s been with us the whole way. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to attend the premiere of the film here at the festival.
SY: Also speaking of casting Ali in ‘The Diabolical,’ how it important is it to cast established actors who are known for their experience in the horror genre? Or do you agree with the idea that horror is the main genre that thrives on casting up-and-coming performers, as the main attraction for these films are the scares?
RD: Well, Ali had an amazing insight into her character and the story. She knows her fanbase and what they want, and it was really important to her point-of-view. Between ‘Final Destination,’ ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘Heroes,’ she has listened to her fans over the years, so she was able to offer input of what her fans expect from her.
But it’s also great to discover actors like Caity Lotz, who appeared in ‘The Pact’ films. She has now gone onto larger fame, because of her role (of Sara Lance/The Canary) on ‘Arrow,’ and is now moving onto her own spin-off show. It was great of her to say in our first meeting for ‘The Pact,’ “I don’t like, or get, horror movies, so I don’t watch them.” That way, she was able to bring a whole new look, feel and attitude to the role.
SY: What was the process of working with ‘The Diabolical’s director, Alistair Legrand, who co-wrote the film’s script with Luke Harvis?
RD: Alistair’s a producer’s dream. He’s been 100 percent respectful of my job and my opinions. He understood the resources we had and never complained, and he made the best out of what we had available to him. I can’t say nice enough things about Alistair. He’s going to be a big star, and one day when he’s directing his own ‘The Fast and the Furious’ franchise, I just hope he remembers me.
SY: What’s the process of creating the stunts for narrative films like ‘The Diabolical,’ particularly since you shoot them independently? Do you prefer using practical stunts over CGI, or vice-versa?
RD: Our intention is to do everything practically. I’m very fortunate to have a good friend who helps us set up the stunts practically, and do as much in camera as possible. I’m fortunate that one of the bigger stunt coordinators in Hollywood, T.J. White, helps us on our films. He’s very creative, and understands the constraints we have on our projects, as it’s really more about time than budget. His team is so talented, so I’m lucky to have T.J. as not only part of my team, but also a part of my life. He’s an amazing guy, and a good friend, too.
SY: While making independent films, how beneficial is it to film on location-does it help with the project’s overall creativity? Do you prefer working on location, as opposed to a soundstage?
RD: Shooting on location is very beneficial. I think the key to making these types of films is to make them feel as authentic and relatable to the audience as possible. There’s nothing more relatable than a house that any member of the audience could live in.
Most of the houses we shoot in are actually haunted themselves. We always find interesting stories that have happened at each house. If you spend four weeks shooting at a house, you’re going to find all the interesting secrets that lie within it. But I think that just adds a whole other dimension, and becomes another character, in the film.
SY: With all of the films you have worked on, from the features like ‘The Diabolical’ to the documetaries like ‘The Nightmare,’ do you take part in the research process at all?
RD: Absolutely-I love the research aspect of filmmaking, as well as trying to route as much of the stories, even for the fictional projects, in as much reality as possible. I’ve seen several documentaries here at SXSW so far, and stayed up way to late doing research on them after the fact. So I want people to see my movies and want to do the same thing.
I want to be as versed in the subject matter as possible, because I want my movies to be authentic. I want people who have sleep paralysis to watch ‘The Nightmare’ and then say, “You guys didn’t get this aspect right.” Unfortunately, a lot of people involved in the marking of the film have pretty horrible sleep paralysis, but that meant we had a lot of experts on set. Some of the people who suffer from it who were involved in the film included the director, the DP (Director of Photography) and my assistant.
SY: Speaking of the cinematography, how closely do you work with the DPs on the narratives and documentaries you work on? How involved are you with that aspect of your films’ visuals?
RD: Surprisingly, a lot of the DPs who I have worked with on the documentaries are the same one I have worked with on the narrative side. I want the movies to look beautiful and interesting, and also be well composed. I also want my films to have interesting camera movements; it’s not just about putting the camera on a Tripod.
A prime example is the DP who worked on ‘The Pact,’ Bridger Nielson, who’s a genius and a good friend of mine, also shot ‘The Nightmare.’ If you look at the sit-down interviews in ‘The Nightmare,’ they’re very different than those that are featured in a traditional documentary. I think that’s what makes the film more special and interesting for audiences.
SY: Speaking of ‘The Pact,’ it’s follow-up, ‘The Pact 2,’ was released last year. Is making more sequels in the future something you’re interested in continuing throughout your career?
RD: Absolutely-I love sequels, and I enjoyed making ‘The Pact 2.’ We had a great team involved, including Dallas Hallam and Patrick Horvath, who were a blast to work with. It was very surreal to get back into the world of ‘The Pact,’ especially having Caity Lotz reprise her role of Annie from the original film. It was also great to further explore the impact of the Judas serial killer.
I think there are so many things you can creatively do with sequels. We become so involved with these projects, making ‘The Pact 2’ was like going back to the first day of school again. We had a lot of the same crew from ‘The Pact’ return for the sequel, and it was really fun. I’m always up for making a sequel, as long as it’s good.
I think there are a lot of great sequels out there that are better than the original. Rodney Ascher actually said on the plane ride here that ‘Bad Boys II’ is a masterpiece, and I can’t argue with that.
SY: With a lot of current films, especially in the horror genre, being sequels, prequels, remakes and reboots, has it become more difficult for you as a producer to find original projects?
RD: The process has become difficult, but it is also more motivating to find those original stories. I have no interest in making something that’s already been done. So I think it keeps us in check, to make sure we’re doing something different. As a result, a lot of the projects we’re working on are being developed in house.
SY: Another great horror thriller you produced was ‘Mr. Jones,’ which had its world debut at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and was the feature film writing and directorial debut of Karl Mueller. What was the process of developing and releasing that movie since its premiere?
RD: Karl and I are actually developing a new project together, and he’s an amazing, talented guy. At the time we made that movie, found footage was a popular horror subgenre. So I was advised that I needed to make a found footage movie, but I must admit it’s not my favorite subgenre. So Karl and I decided to make a very different found footage movie, and I think we were successful in that process.
We were then lucky enough to be accepted into Tribeca, and then Anchor Bay picked it up. But it didn’t get much of an audience until it was released on Netflix last October. The day it was released on Netflix, we got 1,000 new Facebook friends.
SY: Also speaking of the fact that ‘Mr. Jones’ was Karl’s first feature film, do you enjoy working with first-time filmmakers?
RD: I absolutely enjoy the process. I really enjoy working with my friends, and Karl’s one of my best friends. We’ve developed a bunch of projects together since we made ‘Mr. Jones,’ and a lot of things were focused more on his writing career. The new project we’re working on together is the next film he’ll be directing. I can’t wait to get back in the trenches with him, because it’s so fun, and he’s so talented. He’s respectful of what I bring to the table, and I’m respectful of what he brings to the project.
SY: Also speaking of the found-footage subgenre in horror, are there any other techniques, plot elements or genres that you’re interested in trying on your next projects?
RD: Yes, what I think was interesting with ‘The Nightmare’ is that it came out of the result of found footage. That subgenre really did well, because the audience liked being in the point-of-view of the characters. But we actually made the audience the characters in ‘The Nightmare.’ So I think there’s going to be more reality-based horror in the near future. I also think there’s going to be more ripped-from-the-headlines films, like with ‘The Jinx’ (the HBO documentary about Robert Durst, who was arrested on first degree murder charges on March 14, the day before the miniseries’ finale aired, and two days before this interview).
SY: Speaking of Netflix, like you mentioned earlier, do you do think the overall On Demand platform is beneficial for independent films like ‘The Diabolical’ and ‘The Nightmare?’
RD: I think Netflix is essential to the continuation of what’s happening with indie films. Such On Demand platforms as Netflix can suggest movies to audiences who would have never otherwise have known about them. I have two kids, so I don’t get to go the theater as much anymore. But with Netflix, I don’t have to miss anything anymore.
I’m extremely proud of ‘Mr. Jones,’ and I loved making it. It’s a really good film, but I don’t think a lot of people saw it until it was released on Netflix. We make these movies for people to see them, and Netflix is going audiences the chance to see them.
SY: Besides reuniting with Karl on his next movie, are there any other filmmakers you’re interested in working with on your upcoming projects?
RD: Well, I have something on my slate with every filmmaker I’ve worked with in the past, including Xavier Gens from ‘The Divide,’ Nic McCarthy from ‘The Pact’ and Dallas and Patrick from ‘The Pact II.’ I’m also talking with Rodney about his next project. Karl wrote ‘The Divide’ and wrote and directed ‘Mr. Jones,’ and now we’re working on his next film. Alistar’s been working out of my office since we finished ‘The Diabolical,’ and we’re working on something new to work on with him. So my slate is probably a little too crowded with my friends who I’ve already worked with, and I need to branch out a little bit, but I’m working on it.
SY: Besides producing films, Campfire is also dedicated to producing television. What has the process of developing TV series through the company been like so far?
RD: I am also actively involved in developing television, and I made a pilot for Amazon a couple years ago. TV is also a big part of what we’re doing with Campfire in the future.
Some of the best TV is on streaming services like Amazon and Netflix. Shows like ‘House of Cards’ and the new comedy, ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’ are incredible. They’re giving the creative forces so much control and freedom, even on normal-sized budgets, which is forcing the networks and cable channels to keep up with the streaming services.
SY: A lot of television series in the past few years, including ‘True Detective,’ ‘Fargo’ and ‘American Horror Story,’ that are utilizing the anthology format are generating acclaim with critics and audiences. Is that style something you’re interested in pursuing?
RD: Absolutely-a lot of the things we’ll be working on in the television world will be in that limited series style. I think it’s a really interesting way to tell a story-you can tell the story within five or six hour-long episodes, and then wrap it up and start over.
The first season of ‘True Detective’ is pure genius and brilliant. But if they had to sustain that story over the normal 22 episode order for a television series, or worry about expanding it into Season 2, I don’t think they’d be able to successfully pull it off. I can’t wait for ‘True Detective’ Season 2, as it’s going to be a completely different story. The limited series like ‘True Detective’ serve as a long six-hour movie, in a way.
Written by: Karen Benardello