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An Interview with Frank S Petrilli, Director of Play Hooky

by Mike Haberfelner

October 2014

Films directed by Frank S Petrilli on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Play Hooky - in a few words, what is it about?

 

“Somehow our devils are never quite what we expect when we meet them face to face.” - Nelson DeMille

 

What were your inspirations when writing Play Hooky?

 

An individual whom I have high regard for, and respect as a mentor, made an off-hand comment to me, encouraging me to make a better, low-budget horror film than what was out there. I took him at his word, which I always did. Then, via another mentor, I met Vincent Kulish, who introduced me to his filmmaking partner, Jason Chester. I loved their prior work on YouTube, and was charged by the chemistry between the three of us when we put our minds together. I put them together with actors Becky Byers, Kim Kleemichen, Tom Petrone, Theresa Davis and Bob Waters, and, as they say in New York, “That was that.”

 

What can you tell us about your co-writers, and what was your collaboration like?

 

First, we all love and respect films, and we’ve collectively seen a lot of movies from silent films through contemporary films. We can quote dialogue from a variety of genres and recall shots, angles and camera movements, as reference, with ease. Each one of us brought our own expertise to the table, our own tastes in films, and our own perspective fueling the story. Mind. Body. Soul. Vincent was a great foil for me, as well as a sounding board. He has insight, foresight and a terrific sense of character development and exposition. Jason’s blunt honesty was also a good fail-safe system. None of us were ever hesitant nor afraid to say to each other “Where am I going wrong?” or “Tell me if that doesn’t work.”

 

With Play Hooky being a slasher movie - is that a genre at all dear to you, and some of your genre favourites?

 

Hmm. I never thought of Play Hooky as a “slasher” movie. Originally, we did have a fire ax that was going to be used at the end confrontation, but the ending changed. As we sat through hours of “story brain-storming” we discovered that we all agreed, together, that we couldn’t bear to see another blade, blood and guts scene, nor repeat one. So, we intentionally did not bring a knife or blade or spike or ax into the story at all. We chose another method of murder. But, to answer your question: the grandfather of all “slasher” movies is Psycho, and of that genre, to me, there is no better film. In other genres, I also feel the same about The Exorcist, there is no better demonic genre film. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a favorite. I also like the original The Thing as well. Rosemary's Baby has a soft spot in my heart. The remake of Last House on the Left I really favor, except for the microwave ending. The 2002 award winning film May really appeals to me, too. Then there are a handful of 1950’s black and white science fiction films…

 

For Play Hooky, you chose the "found footage"-approach. In a nutshell, why, and what are the advantages and challenges of filming that way?

 

The challenge is in the planning, preparation and design of each shot. As a director, I was fortunate to have Jason Chester as a DP. Aside from his training at the SVA, Jason is instinctive with the camera and intuitive with images. He has a wonderful ability to discern action and capture moments that are fleeting to the eye. Basically, it’s old fashioned neo-realism amped up by him to satisfy today’s taste-buds, and he really caught that realism and pulse.

The advantage we had was not within the accepted tried-and-true convention of the “found footage” film, but the fact that the camera, itself (in the story) was an objective observer or another character. I insisted that the camera be mounted inside a character’s old-man hat, or as I called it, the “Frank Sinatra” hat. As the character moved his head in the scene, the camera went that way. What he sees, the camera sees, hence the viewer sees. Simple. Natural. Real. Spontaneous. Jason chose a Flip Cam over a Go pro, and he used it as if it was an Arriflex or a Red.

 

What can you tell us about your key cast, and why exactly these people?

 

I picked these actors because I trusted them completely. I was confident they’d develop real characters that were solid and deliver honest performances. I also picked them because they had the chops to handle the risks of real improvisation, intense directorial demands and rigorous cinematic requests put on them for 6 to 8 minute shots; take after take after take, for a seamless “found footage” film. Some actors came from the theater, such as Becky Byers, an accomplished stage actress with strong camera training and superb cinematic instincts. Others, like Kim Kleemichen and Theresa Davis were intuitive on-camera actors only. I had previously directed Tom Petrone and Bob Waters and found them to be multi-faceted and dependable in their craft.

These key people were cast because they do what they do best. Let’s face it; New York City has more actors than waiters in it, and just not good actors but excellent actors. I said “spontaneous” earlier; as with director/writers Mike Leigh and John Cassavetes, my improvisational approach to filmmaking (it drives editors insane) requires rock solid actors. One never truly knows, from take to take, which way the actors will take the scene as they discover it. As a director, you never know what’s really gonna happen to as the actors capture the moment, as with a scripted piece; with improv, you just have an idea. It never ceases to amaze me how much farther the actors will go as they create their own world through improv. It ain’t easy, but such creative liberty and artistic collaboration is very rewarding when it works.

 

You of course also have to talk about your main location, and what was it like filming there? And how did you find it even?

 

Not too far from us is Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown, CT where they shot Sleepers, and it was the ideal location for us. But rumor has it that after Ghost Adventures filmed in there, the powers that be chose to never let a camera crew on the premises ever again. So Jason and Vincent moved on to other closed/abandoned Connecticut Hospitals, including Norwich State Hospital in Norwich, Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, Seaside Sanitarium in Waterford and Undercliff State Hospital in Meriden. All they got was “No,” “No thank you,” “No way,” and “Go away!” Money was not a factor, either. Vincent and Jason even looked at Cedar Grove and Overbrook in New Jersey, as well as Pennhurst in Pennsylvania. It’s funny, only filmmakers and photographers can find beauty, grace and charisma in such dilapidated places.

Early on in the location scouting, I mentioned the Hunt Center, closed by the city of Stamford and 3 miles from our production space. It was rejected, as it was a small carriage house in the early 1900s, before becoming a fire station, then a Museum and it later morphed into the Hunt Center for Stamford’s Recreation Department. It was hard for Jason, as a DP, to turn away from the majestic architecture and faded, decimated grandeur that was once these massive institutions for an old, broken down museum/carriage house, but, out of desperation we acquired a filming permit from the city, and it became our Oakhurst Sanitarium. Deep down, I had faith that with our cast and Jason’s keen camera eye, we could make the thing work. I think it did.

 

What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

We like to laugh. We like to tease each other. We like to work hard. We like to work smart. We like to tell stories. We are vulgar; we cuss and swear. We smoke, spit and pass gas. We are not socially correct. We are x-rated. We like to laugh. We are focused, creative, bull-headed, stubborn, sensitive, moody, artistic and touchy. We fight, bark, bite and hiss. We are risk takers. We fear failure; we want better on the next take. We are tough-love. We like to laugh. We eat together. We drink together. Even though we went to camera early in the morning and wrapped late at night, we don’t want to go home. We are indie filmmakers (cast & crew alike) doing it because we love it; it’s all from the heart and not from the wallet.

 

A few words about audience and critical reception of your movie so far?

 

If they get it, folks really like it and they tell me so in depth and detail. If they don’t get it, they simply have nothing to say.

 

As far as I know, Play Hooky has already spawned a sequel, Play Hooky: Innocence Lost - now what can you tell us about that one, and how does it compare to the first movie? And will there ever be a third entry in the series?

 

Without being a spoiler, all I can say is Play Hooky: Innocence Lost picks up where Play Hooky left off. It’s in the same horror/thriller genre, but it’s not a crime story anymore, it’s a drama. It’s not found footage anymore; it’s a different type of film that can stand alone all by itself.

If there is a demand for a third Play Hooky in the series, something is already in place. We do have other films on the back burner, at the moment, waiting to be made; three, in fact.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

We (Derelict Films) just started production on CAL·12, a kind of “Alice in Hellish-land” story featuring Play Hooky’s Kim Kleemichen, Tom Petrone, Bob Waters and Jessica DiGirolamo.

Here’s the short summary for CAL·12:

“Gretta Woolf, a young police detective; clumsy, awkward, shunned and fresh out of uniform, tracks a kidnapper who leads her down a vile path towards a morbid, underground world populated by psychopaths that have truly brought their own brand of hell-on-earth.”

 

What got you into filmmaking to begin with, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

I love films. A few years after high school, and after I knocked around New York’s off-off Broadway theater world, I became a cinema student at the University of Bridgeport. I studied with professors Michael Kerbel and Warren Bass who brought in industry professionals, Richard Neubert and Anton Wilson. The track I was part of, back then, included today’s film professionals, such as G. Mac Brown, producer of such notable films as The Departed, and Lee Harry, writer/director of the infamous Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. Lee Harry taught me how to laugh behind a camera while filming a take.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Play Hooky?

 

Play Hooky: Innocence Lost

I worked in a boutique advertising company, where we produced local & regional TV commercials, corporate video and industrial how-to’s, point of purchase display videos and convention videos, as well as magazine print ads. I sat at the post-production consultant team of Isaac Mizrahi’s Unzipped. I was the managing editor for Indie magazine, a bi-monthly publication about independent filmmaking from the publisher of Premiere magazine, the New York City based film magazine (1987 -2010).

During this time, I created several personal short-subject films which are still locked up. I concentrated more on writing spec screenplays. There were several larger budget features financed to go to camera that never got the green light, particularly a $10M picture that had a wonderful foreign and domestic distribution deal, to be shot in October of 2008 under the State of Connecticut Tax Incentive Program, until the stock market collapsed and took it all down with it.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Demanding. Confident. Adaptable. Mindful. Tenacious, and a general pain-in-the-ass.

 

Frank directing Becky Byers

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

Fincher, Lumet, Wilder, Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks and Houston inspire me. Capra, Coppola and Scorsese feed me. Spielberg, Ron Howard and Martin McDonagh entertain me. Orson Welles lights my path.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Aside from the standard, usual, and customary big Hollywood titles from my favorite filmmakers, some of the smaller films I favor are Boys Don’t Cry, The Professional, Alpha Dog, In Bruges, Little Children, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Wackness, Kill the Irishman, May, Kalifornia, The Hi-Lo Country, Sideways, An Education, Ponette and Big Night.

I have said Schindler’s List is probably THE most important American film since Citizen Kane – and did got a lotta shit for it – but history will tell.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

I recognize, but do not favor Hook, The English Patient, Godfather III, Jumanji, A.I. and Pleasantville. I have an issue with Saving Private Ryan once they get to Matt Damon (but the first 18 minutes hitting the beach, though, is worth the price of admission, and typical of Spielberg’s brilliance - IMHO).

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00LXDQ8VI/researmytras-20 

https://www.facebook.com/pages/PLAY-HOOKY/104700976248116

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2288886/combined

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

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Yes. I recently read in our review, by wickedchannel.com, the following:

“The biggest positive to this film is that I hope Wild Eye and Chad {PollyGrind} are doing future releases together and giving us loaded DVDs like this.” - wickedchannel.com

I agree, and more so for the small, low-budget/no-budget filmmakers like us, as Chad and Rob from Wild Eye Releasing encourage and cheer the films we make. Yeah, sure! I may be in the “lucky seat” with Play Hooky right now, but I know one thing; we did not have a film in PollyGrind 2013, and yet we all went to the festival. We do not have a film entered for 2014, either, and more of our folks, in our little film company, are going to PollyGrind this year. Albeit, it’s exciting to celebrate Play Hooky’s release, but, once again, we have nothing new in the festival to brag about. Why are we going? Because PollyGrind is exactly that: a festival. Others may see PollyGrind as a competition. We see it – I see it… as a celebration; a celebration of film and filmmaking from novice to veteran.

Francis Ford Coppola once said, at a bleak moment while making The Godfather, “I sure could’ve used the encouragement.” We get the encouragement at PollyGrind – and not only from the festival-keepers. This comradery permeates the festival so deeply that I have maintained acquaintances with other filmmakers across the country and the globe. So, we all keep making movies, cheer each other on and route for each other’s films. Now, with the addition of Wild Eye, and I understand Hacked, it doesn’t matter how big or small nor how lean or fat the budget is; we just keep working. We just “keep on grinding.”

Finally, Michael, thank you for this opportunity.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

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directed by
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written by
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starring
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