The Unseen: Dead Waters and an Interview with Mariano Baino

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Back in 1994, Italian filmmaker Mariano Baino crafted a tense and turbulent little feature called Dead Waters or sometimes Dark Waters. Stuffed full of Lovecraftian terror, the film hit the sweet spot of many horror fans that still champion it as one of the great genre indies. Yet, this film was overlooked by many horror fans, and I still see Dead Waters getting constant mentions of “rare must-see horror gem” lists.

Elizabeth’s father has just died, and while going through his legal papers she discovers Dad had been sending money to a convent located on the Black Sea. Elizabeth knows she was born in that convent and that her mother died during her birth. Unsure of why her father was constantly sending them large amounts of money, Elizabeth travels to the convent for answers. She discovers evil nuns, occultism, and more religious symbolism than you can shake a cross at all of which seem to lead back to her own forgotten past.

Most filmmakers encounter problems ranging from financial woes to creative differences. But in the case of Dead Waters, the biggest obstacle was the political upheaval in Russia. Baino had originally planned to shoot his feature film in England using American actors. In order to get financing, scriptwriter Andy Barker published a letter about the film in a magazine dedicated to the band The Stranglers. Surprisingly, he was contacted by a fellow Stranglers fan and Soviet businessman who agree to finance the film, but wanted them to shoot in Ukraine. Dead Waters was one of the first Western films to be shot in the Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and production problems included repeated coup outbreaks and tanks and gunfire in Moscow.

All the tanks and tribulations aside, Dead Waters is a beautiful film filled to the brim with imagery, symbolism, and some of the best use of water on screen ever. Plus there are huge amounts of evil nuns, brutal murders, and endless beaches full of dead fish. Though the plot is centered on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, it does not follow any story specifically, though it does resemble “Shadow Over Innsmouth”. The plot of Dead Waters is a bit manic and at times makes little sense, but it will all work itself out in climax and tone.

I had the chance to sit down with director Mariano Baino to discuss Dead Waters.

dead5SHOCK: Where did the idea for the script come from? What was you inspiration?

BAINO: I co-wrote the script with Andrew Bark, who had served as my film editor on Caruncula, the short I made before embarking on Dead Waters. It was a combination of an idea I’d had since adolescence about pieces of a sacred statue that had been hidden at the bottom of the ocean to prevent the statue ever being put together again as that would have precipitated the end of the world, and an idea Andrew had about a girl who visits a remote seaside town in Scotland and finds out she’s walked right into a Lovecraftian hell. Those two ideas were the seeds from which the script for Dead Waters was born.

SHOCK: I read that this was the first Western film to be shot in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could you talk a little about some of the problems you encountered?

BAINO: It was definitely the first western film to be shot in the Ukraine, which at the time had become newly independent, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We faced problems from the very first day, and it’s a miracle the film was ever finished. Our cameras arrived two weeks late. We ran out of film several times because someone was selling the film behind our back on the black market. We had to stop for days at a time while we waited for our executive producer to buy the film back from the same people who’d stolen it in the first place! Although candles feature prominently in the movie, we never had enough candles and had to cut each candle into three pieces; problem was that there was only two of us to light all the candles and by the time the last candle was lit some of the candles had already gone out. The burning crosses were another big problem. The tunnels would fill with smoke from the candles and the burning crosses after just a few seconds. We would have to stop and wait for the smoke to dissipate. Some days we had to wait for hours between set-ups to wait for the smoke to clear. Half our sets were not completed until two weeks before the end of shooting because our production manager had sold our studio space to another production! We were forced to relocate from Odessa to Kiev… only to discover that Kiev was only a few miles away from Chernobyl and that the area was still highly radioactive! I could go on and on…

SHOCK: The setting and location are so stark and beautiful. Can you talk a little about location scouting and how you found the selected location?

BAINO: I drew some sketches of what the locations should look like so the Ukranian location manager could get an idea of what to look for. Then, a couple of months before we started shooting, I went to the Ukraine for two weeks to find the right locations. We were also lucky in that we could build some sets and make them look exactly how I wanted them. Even the village on the beach was totally built for the film! The beach was only accessible via a steep flight of over 200 steps and was totally deserted. All the “huts” you see in the movie were purpose-built.

SHOCK: So much of the movie is filmed in water or surrounded by dampness. Were there any problem with the film equipment or damp conditions??

dead2BAINO: Water and the presence of water was crucial for the atmosphere of the movie, and I always envisioned this world as a place of perennial rain. More than problems with the film equipment we had the problem of trying to create this epic rainfall using just a couple of hoses! You would never guess it looking at the finished result, but we didn’t have one single rain machine on that set! All the rain you see was just created with a couple of hoses and careful framing.? ?

SHOCK:  From start to finish, how long was the shoot??

BAINO: Our shoot was supposed to last for 8 weeks… I say “supposed to last” because in the end it ended up being more like 4 weeks. We started 2 weeks late because the cameras had disappeared. Shooting days would only last 3 or 4 hours because the local crew would show up late and be terribly slow. On the first day of shooting, I was on set at 8 am and we couldn’t do the first shot until 7pm! To top it all, our studio space was double booked by a corrupt production manager, so, halfway through the shoot, half of our sets were not ready. We had to move from Odessa to Kiev to a completely different studio to finish the film. In the end, we had very little time to actually shoot the movie.

SHOCK: Because of the many nations involved, did you have problems distributing the film?

?BAINO: I wouldn’t say we had problems but I definitely learnt the hard way that making the film is only a small part of the process, and that once you’ve made the film there’s still a long and arduous road ahead.

Dead Waters is available on DVD through NoShame. The release contains some wonderful bonus material that will only add to this twisting tale. So embrace your evil gods and submerge into Dead Waters