Interview with Daniel Robert Epstein

Jeremy Kasten and I go way back. If it wasn’t for me and my two weeks working on The Attic Expeditions they wouldn’t have had 12 cases of water to drink during their shoot. That’s right, water, God’s fruit juice. So Seth Green, Jeffrey Combs and Andras Jones all would have shriveled up and died without my help. The Attic Expeditions received a lot of acclaim for being a very ambitious horror film and it was that film which led Kasten to direct his latest feature, All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos. This Mexican zombie flick is written by CFQ publisher/editorial director Mark Altman and starring Danny Trejo, David Keith and Jeffrey Combs.

All Souls Day is about the Mexican ghost town of Santa Bonita. A young couple, Joss [Travis Wester] and Alicia [Marisa Ramirez] get stranded there and discover the town’s secret history. The only way to save themselves from the zombies is to put all the dead to rest.

Daniel Robert Epstein: All Souls Day is fun a movie.

Kasten: That’s definitely true, that’s what you can definitely say about All Souls Day.

DRE:How did it come together?

JK:I had edited The Specials for Mark [Altman] about seven or eight years ago. It was a while ago and I was not the first editor on it. I had come on to do a cleanup job and ended up re-cutting the movie. It was a good experience for both of us in because they were great to work for and I knew Mark as this genre guy in Hollywood. Horror and sci-fi geeks run in small circles and I respected the hell out of Mark because of Sci-Fi Universe magazine. I don’t know when he saw The Attic Expeditions but he did at some point. He called me in to talk to me about All Souls Day and was really full of praise about the camera work in The Attic Expeditions. He liked that the camera was always moving and the low budget nature of the film.

DRE:I didn’t realize that you got All Souls Day because of The Attic Expeditions. That’s great.

JK:Yeah, it makes you realize that each thing really is a stepping stone to the next thing. That, more than anything, informs your choices in making movies because sometimes because you’ve got your eye on the prize of where you want to be. I don’t play chess or other games like that but I imagine that the psychology is very much like that. That’s probably why I don’t gamble because in show business your career is a gamble.

DRE:I forgot that you edited The Specials. I liked that movie a lot. I heard it was a really difficult shoot.

JK:I wasn’t aware of the difficult shoot at all. I worked with the director and [screenwriter] James Gunn on that. James is doing Slither right now.

DRE:Yeah, I worked with James on Tromeo and Juliet.

JK:Right! He’s a great guy and again, everything happens for a reason and in the grand scheme of things I’d like to think that’s why I came into The Specials. I came on maybe two months after they’d wrapped and they still hadn’t delivered a cut of the movie. The editor was a friend of the director’s and the two of them were meticulously doing it, but the editor had come out of commercials so he was able to do scenes in 30 second chunks but not for the big picture. That’s where I came in.

DRE:Did you help rewrite All Souls Day?

JK:Even though I’m a horror fan I never thought of Dia de los Muertos as a cool backdrop for a horror movie. I loved that culture and I became fascinated with that spirit of joy surrounding death, which is really what that holiday is, much more so than Halloween. So that was all I needed to hear. Mark had a script that he had written so it was a fluid thing for him. He had stuff he loved about it and I gave him a set of notes and he did a rewrite. Then right before we shot I got nervous about what every horror filmmaker should be nervous about, the fans and the internal logic of the script. So we tried to shore that stuff up so we did a major new pass to it. That was the extent of my writing.

DRE:You have some great people in All Souls Day like Danny Trejo and David Keith. Did you get them in the usual way?

JK:No, Danny Trejo was everybody’s first thought for the role because he’s the Mexican bad guy and there aren’t a lot of people with that kind of recognizability. I was worried about him because the scenes he is in are the period part of the film and he has a lot of dialogue. But I think he was excited about the opportunity to play something different than the cholo thug.

David was cast maybe two days before he started. That was a role that we had a really hard time filling. The character needed to be older. Sometimes you get into a place where you have to have a name to fill the obligations of the film for the financiers and there are only so many people that were available and David was the guy. He was great and to work with. He has that cowboy thing down pat. It was great for me to have someone around that really got into the role like he did.

Read the rest of the interview at

<!–DRE:He seems like the kind of guy that has seen and done it all in this business.

JK:Very much so and he comes ready to work, very prepared but at the end of the day he better be able watch his games in his trailer because he’s a sports nut.DRE:Is that football?JK:I think it is. I don’t fucking know. I’m so not a sports guy.

DRE:[laughs] Me either. How was it working with Jeffrey Combs again?

JK:It was such a pleasure and delight. This is going to sound really lame but when I’m around Jeffrey I think of the relationship between Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood but not that sad and desperate on either of our parts. I think Jeffrey is an underappreciated and brilliant actor. I love working with him and hopefully will continue to put him in as many of my films as possible. It’s fun for us because we get each other and I still get a peculiar thrill out of being pals with Jeffrey Combs.

DRE:Was it as simple as you having a role that would work for him?

JK:Sort of, he did All Souls Day as a favor. It being my second film and an important film for me to get my next film going. Sometimes you can make a movie and you can get a movie released but getting your next movie going can often be incredibly difficult unless your first movie was Blair Witch even if you meet with moderate success like The Attic Expeditions did. Jeffrey recognized that and he was always very encouraging about helping me find my path to get another movie made. When All Souls Day came up I had originally suggested him as the sheriff but the producers felt strongly against that, so finally I said “Look, if I can get him to come in and play Mr. White for a couple days, how’d you feel about that?” They were over the moon about that and it turns out that it was the right call anyway because it allowed the sheriff to be a bit more mysterious. Also it gave Jeffrey the chance to just play a dad.

DRE:A horny dad. Why was it so much trouble to get a second movie going?

JK:There are certainly projects that I’d love to get made and things that I’ve been pushing to get going for a long time. But the key to getting a movie made is financing. It’s really difficult to find. It sounds so ridiculous to say “Well you just got to find a million and a half dollars.” Luckily CFQ Films was in a great position to raise money because they have the tie into the magazines, Femme Fatales and CFQ. Therefore it was a natural fit for the financier, IDT, to give them an opportunity to make a bunch of films. I found myself in the incredibly rare position of being hooked up with people who were actually getting movies made. There are so few films made in Hollywood for under 20 million dollars anymore. Both Syriana and Brokeback Mountain are both being hailed as brilliant independent films so they’re sitting in arthouses taking up screen space that truly independent films could be playing in. There are a lot of reasons why it’s really hard trying to get your next movie going but primarily it’s that it’s really hard to find financing. Most movies that are low budget movies are made by companies that are cranking them out and really don’t give a shit or it’s made by somebody who just paid for it themselves.

DRE:What’s interesting is that low budget horror films are the only real independent films left. Big movie stars will do low budget dramas but for horror you have to go with people that aren’t as big names therefore the studios and their boutique houses won’t really buy them.

JK:I absolutely agree. It’s funny too because oftentimes producers want to get some WB kids in movies. But we’re competing with studio horror movies that are going for those same WB kids. Actors generally see horror films as stepping into something that could be potentially embarrassing or crappy or something that comes up 15 years from now and they get made fun of. So it’s not respected. It’s not the same as being in a crappy movie about AIDS or homelessness or some supposed socially conscious issue.

DRE:Yeah if they are going to do a horror movie they’d rather take a much bigger paycheck for a high profile PG-13 horror remake like The Fog. If they’re going to take the fall, they’re going to do it for Sony, not for a low budget horror filmmaker.

JK:Exactly. We’re all being fooled into feeling like we’re going to see indie films because actors took a pay cut to do the movie but they’re making huge back ends. Believe me when George Clooney does Syriana, he is doing just fine. [laughs] He’s not suffering to do that film.

DRE:Since you had nude scenes in All Souls Day, did women come in and drop their tops during the audition?

JK:No, sometimes that does happen but not for All Souls Day. Actually I think we may have done that for the Mexican girl who’s character gets her tongue cut out. She dropped out of the movie a day before she was supposed to shoot her scenes. In the audition we had to have her take her top off, not so much because you want to check out their breasts, but because you want to find out if they are comfortable being nude in a front of film crew. She did it in the audition but freaked out on set anyway so I don’t know if it is much of a test. We replaced her with Danielle Burgio, who’s a really big stuntwoman. So she came in and did the nudity sight unseen and was fabulous. Mircea Monroe had a nude scene as well but I never auditioned her naked. She was just a lovely actress and the moment she walked in the door everyone was smitten with her because she’s really sweet but smart and capable.

DRE:How did you come to cast Travis Wester?

JK:He came in and auditioned. It’s interesting about Travis in the movie because a lot of people find his character to be the most annoying thing in the movie. I’ve been to festivals with the film and I’ve heard good and bad comments on the movie so I understand why people say that they find him annoying but I think that it’s a great thing in the movie. It’s a choice that I probably wouldn’t make again, but I like it that the lead character is so specific. He’s not just a jock or a good looking regular guy with a good personality. He’s kind of an annoying guy but he’s funny and sharp so it was interesting pairing him with Marisa [Ramirez]. Originally Mark had written a very, almost abrasive male lead that was funny and quick but also was sort of xenophobic about going down to Mexico and meeting his girlfriend’s family. He’s not real cultured and had never probably left Orange County. Travis is, in some ways, very much that guy. There’s definitely moments where he’s over the top but I like that it’s something different. He’s not a hero from the beginning and the way he becomes heroic is by being shut up and spending the last third of the movie in bed.

DRE:Do you consider this a straight up B movie?

JK:I think Mark has said that this is very much the kind of thing that you would see on a double bill at a drive in and I think that’s pretty accurate. It is a B horror movie with an almost nostalgic perspective on zombies and that’s cool in this day and age. The thing that the movie does successfully is that’s it is fish out of water horror movie and that’s something we haven’t seen for a while. I love Don’t Look Now which has a foreign couple in Venice Italy. It has that sense of “I don’t belong here, it’s wrong.”

Also I wanted to both be respectful to the Mexican tradition of the Dia de Los Muertos and also make a horror movie about it, which is seemingly at odds. But in this film we express something beautiful about the cultural heritage of Dia de Los Muertos. That the dead rise to visit their loved ones and that they need to be put at peace. The ultimate test for me was taking the movie to a horror film festival in Mexico City and seeing how they reacted. That put me at ease a lot because the reaction to American Jew like me making a movie about a Mexican holiday could have gone either way.

DRE:[laughs] How do you deal with the fact that people will be saying that the guy who wrote House of the Dead wrote All Souls Day?

JK:To Mark’s credit, if you listen to the commentary for the first House of the Dead, he starts out by saying, “Everybody starts off making movies with the best of intentions. I’m going to explain what went wrong on this film and why this film did not end up very good.” He’s very forthright about the fact that it’s not a good movie. I think it pained him the whole time. While House of the Dead was being shot and becoming a runaway train, he started conceiving of All Souls Day by thinking “I got to make a good zombie film.” So this is his answer to what’s broken about House of the Dead.

DRE:What can you tell me about your latest film, Thirst?

JK:Thirst is a vampire movie that I’m so excited about it. Its got Adam Baldwin, Jeremy Sisto, Serena Scott-Thomas, Matt Keesler, Clare Kramer, a really great cast. It’s a script that Mark picked up and gave to me. It had this germ of an idea that I thought was so brilliant. It’s about a girl who’s dying and her boyfriend has to find real vampires to keep her alive. I wanted to do something with the vampire addiction parallel to drug addition. We’ve seen things like it such as The Addiction but I wanted to make a movie about people who are in 12 step programs, who then become vampires and then basically everything that was dysfunctional about their relationship in life is dysfunctional about their relationship in death. But rather than having to go rob a 7-11 to get drugs, they have to go kill people and exploring that is brutal. I’d like to think that it will be legendarily one of the most bloody vampire films of all times.

DRE:Is it too soon to ask whether The Thirst is going to be in the theaters or go straight to DVD?

JK:I don’t know. I see a domestic DVD release at least the size of All Souls Day, but I think we’re holding out for something much bigger for The Thirst. We’ll see what happens.

DRE:How is the remake of The Wizard of Gore going?

JK:I don’t want to say who is in the cast until everybody’s contracts are signed but it’s an amazing cast. It’s a dream project. It’s a film that I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to remake the H.G. Lewis films in an interesting way and this is certainly that. These movies are classics but terrible films so we’re remaking Wizard as a good movie. The studio model is taking well known genre films and remaking them poorly, we’re taking crappy well known horror movies and remaking them in a good way. But the reason that the H.G. Lewis films are so beloved is not because they’re good movies but that they were really cutting edge. He was the first guy to have people die with their eyes open, to have butcher shop rejects spread all over and barely clothed ladies with bright red blood. Nobody had ever done that before. He was beating the studios at their game of making B movies for the drive-in circuit. Even though they were all slow and poorly made, each one had something clever about the story. We’re taking that clever idea and expanding it into a really interesting, dark and nasty movie.

DRE:Have you spoken to H.G. Lewis?

JK:No, not yet, I can’t wait to. I met him at the Fangoria Convention in New York when I was in the middle of making Attic and he was one of the most commanding presences I’ve ever met. He is an amazing guy with tons of personality, charisma and charm. I told him what a huge fan I was and he said in his booming voice, “Well thank you very much. I’m sure sometime you’ll have the pleasure of being at a convention someday when you’re my age and someone will say that to you.” That was the sweetest thing.

DRE:Is he too old to have a cameo?

JK:He might be. He also lives in Florida so I don’t know if he’ll be coming out to LA to visit the set.

DRE:You’re casting SuicideGirls for some roles.

JK:Yes, the original movie is about a stage magician who does magic tricks and it’s always some lovely young woman who’s called up on stage and then is eviscerated in some hideous way with a chainsaw or whatever. The audience freaks out but she’s fine. Then the next day whatever he did to her happens, like she’s sitting in a restaurant and her guts spill out. In our film the magician is an underground guy doing a cross between Penn and Teller and early Iggy and The Stooges. He’s in this downtown LA Goth, punk rock, post punk kind of world. It is in this underground scene where he does his shows. It is a great fit for SuicideGirls to play the girls called up on stage. What I said to the producers very early on was “I see this as very much akin to making a genre film in 1959 and being able to say something like starring the centerfolds from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine.”–>

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