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An Interview with Frank S Petrilli, Director of Catatonia

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2018

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


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


Lemme quote the plot summary: “The lone survivor of the brutal Oakhurst Asylum Murders suffers from severe post-traumatic dissociative disorder in a state run mental health facility. Budget-cuts lead to the transfer of the criminally-insane killer she escaped right to her hospital…” So, yeah, there’s a monster in the house, but the movie’s about WHO is the monster?


Catatonia is a direct sequel to Play Hooky, but differs considerably in approach - so how does the new movie compare to the earlier one, and was the different approach intended from the get-go or did it just develop during dreaming up the story?


Play Hooky was a found film; very realistic and cinéma vérité. Catatonia is a traditional narrative format, told on different levels through Rosie’s post-traumatic dissociative disordered brain’s point-of-view, you know -- what she actually sees, what she imagines she sees, and what her sub-conscience thinks she sees. This is all offset with a closed circuit camera in the mental health ward, along with the ugly reality of the narrative story. Both films deal with evil, but evil, as we know in movie-land, manifests itself in different ways, and evil’s victims usually lose their innocence.


What were your sources of inspiration when writing Catatonia?


I heard on the hourly news of a local radio station that cuz of budget cuts, a recidivist-rapist had been taken from his state mental facility for criminals and placed into the exact same state mental hospital where his kidnapped-victim was being treated. I immediately thought of the Play Hooky characters of Rosie and Buddy (Charles DeWitt) and the story ran from there. We also talked about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Snake Pit (1948), Girl, Interrupted and Awakenings.


To what degree could you identify with the movie's key characters Rosie and Charles - or any of the other characters really?


I identify with the characters of Coral and Dr. Meadows, and on a couple levels, Dr. Rivera. Good hearted people trapped in a nightmare reality with nightmarish people, like Rosie is. They all suffer that old expressions: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and “No good deed goes unpunished.”


Do talk about your co-writers Vincent Kulish, Jason Chester and Kim Kleemichen, and what was your collaboration like?


To me, we are all a family of creative derelicts; a team with one heart. We’re movie tramps. Jason is the “Mind” of the group, Vincent’s the “Soul,” I’ve been called the “Heart.” All three of us know that we can look to Kim as the “Muse.” Kim, as an actor, is a source of insight; as a writer (particularly for me) she has reliable perception. All of us together know we are lucky to be with each other during the filmmaking process. We have faith and trust in each other’s background, instincts and ideas. Like a family, we’ll spat and bicker and piss and moan (particularly me) but most times we’re laughing or trying not to break-up (particularly in the middle of a shoot) which makes the situation funnier. We are an odd bunch and as different as night and day, but we seem to think in the same way about filmmaking. That’s what counts.


What can you tell us about Catatonia's approach to horror?


We lean towards “Art House meets Grind House” type of work. We do more crime/psycho-thriller work rather than the typical blood & guts & boobs films. We seem to lean more to Kubrick and Hitchcock; Jason and Vincent more Kubrick, and me, more Hitchcock. For a no-budget/low-budget film-group, and we just like to roll that way.


A few words about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?


Trust your actors and crew to do what they do best, hold on tight, keep your heels down, keep your head up and don’t fall off, cuz it’s gonna be a hell of a ride!


Do talk about your key cast, and why exactly these people?


Unlike theater, where the character is well-defined in the play, I believe a good actor breathes its own life into the character of the film. Why exactly “these” people? Cuz as a director, I can trust them, and as actors, they trust me.


With the whole movie being set in a mental institution, where was Catatonia filmed, actually, and what was it like shooting there?


We were lucky to have an actual medical building that was pretty much empty of tenants to become Nutmeg Valley State Mental Hospital. We also went back to our original location, as the Oakwood Asylum, for Play Hooky, which had been neglected and deteriorated tremendously in three years. It was cool to go back to the original location for Rosie’s hallucination scenes.


A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?


We commit to each other to film on weekends. Friday night, Saturday and Sunday to midnight, usually, or until the job is done. It’s an efficient atmosphere. Spartan. Guerilla-style filmmaking. We like to laugh a lot. We usually just enjoy being together. The core group always looks forward to watching midnight rushes with a few cold ones. We don’t like to go home (unless we have a 7AM call to look forward to) and look forward to getting back together the next day. At least I do.


What can you tell us about audience and critical reception of Catatonia?


As with Play Hooky, either you like it or hate it. Catatonia has so many levels that if you don’t start connecting the dots between the reality, the hallucination, the fantasy and the nightmare, the film will piss you off or confuse you. I was told by filmmaker Amy Hesketh [Amy Hesketh interview - click here] that sometimes it’s not bad thing to be polemic. I guess disagreement leads an audience to good debate over a pizza after the film is over. And, as usual, there are raging complaints about not enough blood, guts, violence and nudity – but that’s not what we do.


With Catatonia being a sequel to Play Hooky, will there ever be a sequel to Catatonia, and will it again try a totally new approach to the material? And/or other future projects you'd like to share?


To me, Catatonia is more of a “spin-off” of Play Hooky; it was never meant to be a sequel. We hoped it could stand-alone as a film all by itself. On the flip-side, a few people have suggested to watch Catatonia, first, and then immediately afterwards, watch Play Hooky. They said it would be like watching the “police evidence video,” or a found-film, at the scene of the original crime. Maybe both films on one DVD or a stream should be presented that way. I dunno.


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


Yes. An important character in the movie is La Llorona (pronounced “LAH yoh ROH nah”), Spanish for the Weeping Woman. Rosie encounters her. La Llorona’s been a part of Hispanic culture since the 16th century. La Llorona is a taller, thin specter with long flowing black hair. She wears white and stalks the night searching for children to drag, screaming, to a horrible death. Our La Llorona wept blood. I’ve been told that some Latino mothers & fathers notoriously threatened their kids with La Llorona, to be good, clean their rooms and behave. So, the question is: in the movie, is La Llorona the devil in disguise doing what evil does, or just the Hispanic version of the Big Bad Wolf?


Thanks for the interview!


Thank you for this opportunity!


© by Mike Haberfelner

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