Dark Waters director Mariano Baino talks Lovecraftian horror
Italian filmmaker Mariano Baino made an auspicious debut with 1993’s Dark Waters, a stylish, Lovecraftian horror film about a woman who travels to an island monestary where some unholy business has been transpiring. Loosely inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Dark Waters is a gorgeous film that is less nunsploitation and more artsploitation, and showed a great deal of promise. Since then Baino has only directed a handful of shorts and written a few screenplays for films like Wings of Fear and Hidden 3D. However, Baino is about to be rediscovered thanks to a well-produced Dark Waters Blu-ray from Severin Films which features a terrific new transfer as well as several behind-the-scenes featurettes, an audio commentary and several of Baino’s short films. We had the chance to talk to Baino 1-on-1 about the Lovecraftian influence, revealing the monster and shooting near Chernobyl!
ComingSoon.net: Is it fun to be sort of reviving interest in the film?
Mariano Baino: Absolutely. I know it’s a cliché, but absolutely, everything I do is very personal to me. So in a way, you want your children to be seen by everyone. Or you want them to say, “Oh look, it’s his child.” I’m ecstatic that the film keeps being rediscovered, it keeps surviving. I realized all the privilege it takes because since cinema started the films are really lost. It’s a rare thing. It’s not like every film automatically lasts many years. Many films, even when they’re successful, after a year, they’re forgotten and no one even knows they exist. So for me to have this film that still exists and is still very current, in a way, by being not current. It’s a great film.
CS: Honestly, I’d never heard of the movie, and then I just saw some kind of key words like “gothic” and “Bava-esque.” I was like, “Oh yeah. I’m into that.” It was so beautiful and atmospheric. It didn’t feel like an exploitation movie. It felt more in line with your contemporaries of the early ’90s like Michele Soavi or Guillermo del Toro.
Baino: Oh absolutely, that definitely fits. Yeah, I’m a great admirer of both of them. I mean, I actually have come to this conclusion that every film that ever gets made is a miracle. So anyone who makes a film gets a big applause from me, independent from what I think of the film. It doesn’t matter. “Okay, great. You made a film.” I’m also very happy about people making films, because I love the whole magic of the movies so much, that if everyone made film, I would be the happiest man in the world. So absolutely. But I’m glad you’re saying that, because you told me, right, it fits much more into that kind of filmmaking. I realize that people are going to put labels on stuff, but to be honest, it’s like the furthest thing from exploitation that you will ever get, because it definitely was never intended as exploiting anything. It was definitely not designed to titillate and to thrill people into liking it. Certain things that have scared me I’ve tried to put them there because they scared me, and I hoped they scared other people.
And that’s it. In a way, there was no conscious effort to reference anything. You can’t help but absorb all this stuff, right? But I never sit there and think, “I’ll do this shot the way I saw it in another film.” In fact, when I’m doing any film work or anything, for at least a month before I shoot it, I stop watching anything. I never watch anything while I’m making the film because whatever influences are in my brain, I want them to be there, and then re-elaborate and come out from my brain the way they come out, but without the rational brain coming in and thinking, “Oh I’ll make this shot exactly the same.” To me, in a way, it’s a futile exercise. It doesn’t make any sense. That shot is great in that movie, the same way that note is great in Bach. It doesn’t mean I take it away and put it in and all of a sudden it becomes a great note. It can be crap in there.
CS: Exactly. Well, and on the flipside, too, I realized, especially toward the end, how much you were inspired by “Shadow Over Innsmouth.” It seems like Stuart Gordon’s “Dagon” owes a debt to this movie, because they have a very similar visual scheme.
Baino: Yeah. I mean, obviously. I know chronologically, it came after.
CS: Way after, yeah.
Baino: People tell me sometimes, “Oh I know, you’ve been influenced by this film.” Wait a second. That came out years after I made—no, no, no. We were doing a screening at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and this guy came up to me and said, “Is this the English version?” I said, “No, there’s only an English version. The film was never made in Italian.” But he was convinced. People are convinced that basically this film was an Italian movie, was made in Italian, this is a dubbed version. No. It’s like, that’s the way it was made.
CS: But it does have that kind of Bava vibe, yeah.
Baino: Yeah, absolutely.
CS: Can you talk a little bit about Lovecraft and that feeling of dread that permeates his stories and permeates yours as well?
Baino: Of course. Once again, it’s a feeling of dread, that this work gave me. It just came out that way because he was the first writer that really gave me that feeling of dread on the page. He was the first horror writer I read. I got to there through reading adventure, Tarzan, science fiction, and then at 14 years old I discovered Lovecraft. The moment I discovered Lovecraft was like a whole universe opened up to me. I discovered this world, this world that can grip. It’s not an easy read. It’s not audience friendly, but if you get gripped, that’s it. You can not escape. In a way, at that point, once again, there is no conscious effort to actually make this a Lovecraftian anything. It wasn’t directly based on any Lovecraft story. So whatever Lovecraft is in there, it’s because obviously Lovecraft had influenced me and also my cowriter, who’s a big fan of Lovecraft. So in a way, he was there. He just came out everywhere, because also the setting, the moment you have the remote island. In fact, there was some Lovecraftian elements, which in the original script, were more prominent. There’s little snippets that are left from when the island was populated by mutants, and now it’s not there anymore.
CS: For budgetary reasons.
Baino: Yeah, it was for budgetary reasons, and also, because at a certain point the film started changing and we are writing for the Ukraine, and it was like a completely different universe. It’s a miracle that we actually made any film at all. It was really a question of getting to the set, and all of a sudden, inventing things as we were going along, you know?
CS: Well, the way you introduce the creature in the third act is very much in the spirit of Lovecraft, to not show the whole monster. You only kind of get a fleeting idea of it, and that’s a very difficult thing to do on film. Film is very literal.
Baino: Yeah, absolutely.
CS: But I liked showing it just through the crack in the wall and just having little glimpses of it.
Baino: Yeah. And that’s where, in a way, design and necessity combine into a perfect symbiosis. It was obviously a necessity, because obviously, the creature didn’t work as well as we thought it was going to work, and partly, designed to try and keep the thing hidden once again. There’s “Alien” and then there’s “Aliens,” and I’m a great admirer of both films. I actually think “Aliens” is a brilliant film, but it’s not a horror film in that sense. It’s a different kind of film. Unfortunately, there’s this tendency to show too much too early, because people are always worried the audience will lose interest. No. It’s not true. I mean, it’s a construct of the people who basically finance the movies that come up with this idea that, oh my god, these things are not fast enough. It’s not true. I’ve seen it in my own life all the time. We made a short film called “Lady M 5.1,” which we just finished. We debuted it at the Modern Contemporary Museum. We made a whole installation around it. It’s 23 minutes, based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” Act V, Scene I, in a weirdly science fiction, surreal bizarre way. All of a sudden, one day, we got some children coming in. They’re sitting there and they watched that film for 23 minutes. They were glued to the thing. And I’m thinking, okay, this film, if you actually went to anyone, they would tell you, children, after two minutes, two seconds, they would turn away and get bored. No. They were totally fine. They wanted to go back in there. That’s the proof to me.
Like, for example, “Twilight,” right? “Twilight” was the proof that what they say about what teenagers like. It wasn’t true, because teenagers are supposed to like fast. That film was two-and-a-half hours long. It was very slow and everyone loved it because what people want from films is not how fast the shot is or how loud the music is. They want emotion. Sometimes emotion, and atmosphere. Atmosphere is the enemy of speed. You can have a fast film, it will not have any atmosphere. You can have atmosphere, it cannot be fast. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s just a mechanical thing. You need the time to build the atmosphere. And if you don’t have the patience, there’s an audience for everything, right? What I’m saying, it’s not that you’re wrong, you’re totally right. Absolutely. You’re totally right not to like it. You’re totally right to be bored, but it doesn’t mean that I need to change the film, because otherwise, no one will be happy. You’ll get a fast film that doesn’t have anything, and I’ll get a film that doesn’t even have the atmosphere, so what’s the point?
CS: Is it true that you shot near Chernobyl?
CS: Oh my god. What was that like?
Baino: Well, first of all, we did not know that I was near it until we arrived, because what had happened, because most of the film, what most people don’t realize, most of what you see in the film is built. They think it’s all locations. The town knows, but even there, there’s pieces of the only real location. Everything else, it’s built. It didn’t exist. The village you see on the beach was built. The column that you see on top of the hill doesn’t exist. It was like a trick. It wasn’t real. It was actually like a façade.
CS: Was it full-sized?
Baino: Full-sized, but it was only flat. There was nothing there. And the perspective was the side. The side had been built in perspective to look like if there was depth, and no, there was no depth. We went to the studios in Kiev, because the studios, our own production manager sold the space to another production to make money. So we find ourselves two weeks before finishing the film with no studio space. So they said, okay. The only way is to actually go to another studio and build there. So while we were finishing shooting they were building in Kiev. When we arrived in Kiev, we discovered it’s like 17 kilometers from Chernobyl. But the best part of it was that in the main square in Kiev, brilliant. They sold pins with like, a big nuclear thing and Chernobyl, with a smiley face. And I can’t believe it. They actually managed to make an industry out of a tragedy. So that was like, a brilliant thing.