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Speculations… S. Torriano Berry interview

stberry_776Steven Torriano Berry is an American film producer, writer and director. He directed Noh Matta Wat!, the first Belizean dramatic television series, which first aired on 28 November 2005.

A native of Kansas City, Kansas, Berry was raised in Des Moines, Iowa. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, he entered the Master’s program at UCLA’s prestigious film school. While at UCLA, Berry worked on numerous film and video projects including an award-winning short, Rich, in which he wrote, produced and directed as well as starred.

Berry is currently an associate professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he directed the indie horror film, Embalmer in 1996. He is also the author of two books on black film. Embalmer is available for purchase here. The Embalmer trailer.

MAD: How and when did you become interested in film and filmmaking?

TOR: I started in still photography after my sophomore year in high school, motivated after my older sister set up a dark room in our garage. She put this plain white sheet of paper under this light and put it in some water looking stuff and when the image appeared I was hooked. This was before instant Polaroid photography when you still had to wait 60 seconds to pull the backing off, after the image had already formed, so I truly thought it was magic. I stayed in that darkroom all summer long and when I returned to school for my junior year I had a photography class on my schedule that to this day I do not remember signing up for. I figured it was destiny.

MAD: Talk about your experience at film school at UCLA, alma mater of many, future Hollywood talents?

TOR: Going to UCLA was like throwing gasoline on a smoldering flame. My dad used to take home movies with his 8mm camera when I was a kid and I always enjoyed seeing the excitement that watching them would bring to family and friends. I started playing around with making super-8mm movies while majoring in art & photography at Arizona State University and began to like it. I worked full time my senior year at the AiResearch Manufacturing plant photo lab in Phoenix and realized I was not ready to punch a time clock after graduation, so I started seriously considering graduate school in Film. I was so into lighting, camera angles, and plot lines that I would try to “talk film” with my friends and movie dates, but they would look at me like I was crazy. In film school, I found other people who thought and dreamed and talked about film like I did, so it was like a breath of fresh air.

MAD: Who are some of your influences, filmmaker or other that motivate you as a filmmaker?

TOR: I got to UCLA in 1981, pre-Spike, pre-Townsend, pre-Singleton, etc, so there was no one black that I knew of at that time doing what I wanted to do. But this was cool because I figured I would be the first. Of course, in time, I learned about Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Jr., and that even Sidney Poitier had directed films. There were also the independents, St. Clair Bourne, Haile Gerima, and Charles Burnett. Still, in Hollywood, there were not many black folk being credited with doing anything behind the camera back then, which was very daunting. I wondered why this was so? Were we not good enough, lucky enough, talented enough? Or was it blatant racism…Duh?

I spent a great deal of my time trying to figure out how I was going to tell the stories I wanted to tell when it was obvious the system was not interested in my perspective. Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola were blowing up around that time and I envied them and what all they were doing, especially, at the box office. I decided to be as well-rounded as I could be to accept and excel at any opportunity that arose. I learned to write, produce, direct, light and shoot, edit, do sound, push a dolly, and even act in my own productions. I am also a musician so I often did my own music. I worked crew on as many other student productions as I could to learn and grow in the craft. You can learn so much from watching other people, what to do and what not to do.

UCLA had a two-year, MFA program with 72 credits, and I could have graduated in two years, but when the time came I felt I still had more to learn, so I took two extra years and came out with 143 credits and a lot more experience. That extra time, experience and additional classes taken has helped in my personal work because the more you can do yourself, the fewer people you have to pay, and there are fewer things holding you back.

MAD: You’ve made several short films throughout your career, a few in the SF genre. Would you talk a little about your short SF films, specifically “Deathly Realities” 1985, “The Connection” 1985, “The Coming of the Saturnites” 1986 and “Money’ll Eat You Up” 1992. What were the subject matters, themes, genre devices of these films?

TOR: A major breakthrough for me was discovering video. I had to pull the plug after one day of shooting on what was to be my thesis film project after I realized I could not raise the rest of the budget to do it. That was a crushing experience. It was a 16mm feature-length gospel musical titled “Light of the World,” and dealt with a new sound of contemporary gospel music, much like what Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin are doing today…but this was back in the early 1980’s. I’ve been told I was before my time, maybe so…go figure. Anyway, one day I was complaining to a T.A. about my money troubles stopping me from making movies and he told me about shooting on video for much less.

My thesis project ended up being the pilot for a sci-fi anthology series shot on ¾ inch video called “The Black Beyond.” I had noticed that every year they would run a 24-hour “Twilight Zone” marathon that was quite popular. There were no anthology programs on TV at that time or anything dealing with science fiction at all, so I figured it was a fresh concept, especially, if I did it from a black perspective.

The show was to consist of two parts, a short 3-5 minute teaser project, followed by a longer 15-20 minute project. The pilot included “In the Hole,” as the short. It’s about a man’s first day in prison for killing his lover in a jealous rage. He soon learns his cellmate is incarcerated for a similar crime only the slain love of his life was another man. Now they must share the same jail cell, along with something the new guy had never anticipated. “Deathly Realities” is the feature, and co-starred Tommy Ford, who went on to costar in the TV series “Martin” with Martin Lawrence. It is about a serial killer who finally meets his match, ends up in the after life, and finds his previous victims waiting for him, armed and anxious to seek their revenge. I sent the finished pilot to several studios including Spielberg’s company, but they all turned it down. About a year or so later they came out with “Amazing Stories,” somebody else did “Monsters,” “The Dark Side,” and even a revamped “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” After telling me “No,” they just lit up the TV with science fiction based anthology series…go figure.

Not to be out done, I kept on going on my own. Episode 2 of “The Black Beyond” was “The Connection” and “The Coming of the Saturnites.” I shot “The Connection” after graduation while I was home in Des Moines, Iowa working for MCTV (Multi-Cultural Television). The story is about a guy and girl that end up in bed one night after meeting at a nightclub. During a bit of pillow talk, they begin to argue over whether there is other intelligent life in the galaxy. She says there isn’t, he says there is and proves it. “The Coming of the Saturnites” was produced after I returned to Los Angeles to work as an Access Coordinator for Group W Cable in Gardenia, CA. While tracking the flight pattern of the Saturn 5 Satellite, an astrophysicist and his assistant transport a magnetic man from Saturn into their laboratory. He takes on human form and insists his visit is peaceful. He only needs to find the satellite that has recorded several thousand of his magnetic counterparts from the Rings of Saturn and return them to home. The smitten female lab assistant believes the spaceman, but the scientist fears a magnetic invasion of the earth.

I took on “Money’ll Eat You Up!!!” for Episode 3 of “The Black Beyond.” This was shortly after I came to Howard University to teach. It is about a wealthy man who proclaims that money is “the root of all evil,” then gives up his lavish lifestyle to live homeless in a park. He is arrested after people begin to disappear and claims that a $20 bill that has been blowing through his park has been eating people up. He says they see it, they pick it up, and they vanish. Anyway, that’s his story and it’s the truth. We later learn that aliens in a spaceship are fishing for food using money as bait.

I have storylines for 13 episodes and written scripts for the first seven. I sent the competed trilogy and a couple scripts to the “Outer Limits” people in Canada, thinking I might get the hook-up, or get hired onto something they were doing, but again, they were not interested.

MAD: Your first feature length project is a horror film entitled, Embalmer. It is a teen slasher film about four friends who encounter the “real life” urban legend of a maniacal embalmer looking to resuscitate his wife and daughter by using the body fluids of the living in an African American urban neighborhood. Talk a little about where the idea of this film originated and how long it took to complete?

TOR: For years I told myself I had to do a feature and shoot it in film. I had a nice body of work that had won festival awards and accolades, but I constantly received the comment from the industry that the work was done on video, which made It something less, as if my talents and skill could not be transferred to the more expensive medium of film. Anyway, I read an article somewhere that said there has never been a horror film produced that has not made money, no matter how bad it was.

With this in mind, I conceived “The House Where Nobody lived,” and the hook was going to be: “Nobody believed that something lived in the house where nobody lived.” I then had to figure out what was going to live there, and I came up with the Undertaker Zach character, quickly followed by four run away kids seeking someplace to hide. Eventually, the Undertaker Zach character over powered the house and it became EMBALMER.

I wanted to explore the concept that these kids were actually dealing with the real, everyday horrors of drugs, sexual abuse and neglect, and peer pressure without flinching, and yet, they were afraid of this neighborhood myth. We shot over a 3 month period with post-production and arranging for distribution lasting a couple years.

MAD: Embalmer appears to be truly a labor of love. You were the producer, director, writer, cinematographer, editor and composer. Technically how did you balance wearing so many hats on one project?

TOR: It was difficult, but I was used to working that way. I shed a tear or two at a couple of difficult times during the production because it is a lot of pressure to have the whole project resting on your shoulders alone, especially, during the times when you think you just might not make it work after all. You have the cast and crew that have committed their time and talents and you do not want to waste their efforts and fail. I had a core student crew of four of my best Howard students that were always there and about another half dozen or so that came and went. I had the creative vision and the production experience and the students were right there working with me. We usually shot weeknights, Tues. thru Thurs., 6:00-12:00am or later, which is not much time for production. The grad students had priority over the use of the cameras and equipment and they mostly shot weekends. We were in production from October thru December 1995, broke for X-mas break, and finished principle photography in January 1996. Post-production went on for the next couple years and went through several versions, with four or five additional scenes that I wrote and did pick-up shoots as needed to spruce up the story line and fill in the gaps.

MAD: The budget of Embalmer was reportedly $50,000. Is this true and if so how was the money was used, e.g., on talent, locations, production design, film stock and processing, post production, etc.? Also how did you finance the project, personal savings, credit cards, loans, etc.?

TOR: It was actually more like $25,000 or $30,000. The biggest expenses were film stock, processing and video transfers, and catering. I did not have a huge cast and crew, but I kept them well fed while on the set. I tell my students all the time, “A hungry cast and crew will revolt and kill you!” Not literally, but they will mutiny. For financing, I took out a home equity line of credit on my house for most of the budget, and had a bit saved up from a couple industrial projects I had done. I wrote the script to be shot on a low to no budget as well. The script only had 8 main characters and three main locations. I added a few scenes while in the editing process, such as the sacrificial bum that was actually suggested by a student after an early rough-cut screening. I was told I needed more blood, more sex and nudity, too.

MAD: Where did you find your actors and what was it like working with first time, non-professionals on a feature length genre film that included not only murder scenes, but sex scenes too?

TOR: I did an open casting call, but got most of the cast from Howard students. I initially wanted to cast Archie and Cindy as Caucasian, but none showed up. I also had another actor I had worked with before in another project in mind for Undertaker Zach, and had even cast him, but the night we shot his first scene something came up. There was a student on set that I had seen in a few student projects, so I asked if he wanted to play a killer? He said sure, and did a good job, but in retrospect, I probably should have held off because he really wasn’t old enough for the role. I figured since his face would be hidden behind the surgical mask we could make it work, but the eyes were important, and he didn’t have the mean and evil eyes that I originally had in mind. I’m often impatient like that. I’d rather get it done and try to make it work rather than wait and lose the momentum.

MAD: I love Embalmer’s theme song, “Undertaker Zach Rap” a rap song about the embalmer because it brought me into the mood and action of the story. Talk about the process of writing a rap song for the film. Where did you find the group to perform the song? Where did the rest of the music for the film originate?

TOR: I wrote the Undertaker Zach Rap hoping to bring in the Hip-Hop crowd, and I wanted the film to have a really hip soundtrack. I did a rough audiotape of how the rap went, and along with a few other songs I wrote for the film, including “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” and sent it to the music supervisor in Philadelphia. Music producer Andre Epps had heard about what I was doing with the film and expressed an interest in working with me on the soundtrack. He was representing several local Philly musicians and he produced the songs for me. He would also send me music that I would fit it in wherever I could, but a lot of it had beats that didn’t fit well with some of the more tense and scary scenes, so for a few creepy segments I actual scored them myself using a KORG 264 keyboard with 16 track sequencer. A few other musicians I knew also provided a few tracks.

MAD: Your directing style is very inspired. The camera angles and movements were fluid and transitional, the use of lighting was motivated and artistically used, your compositions were interestingly framed, etc. All in all, you consistently used the techniques available to you as a director in a genre work to lift the film from its meager budget into something that respected its art form. How did you plan out your directing style for the film? Do you storyboard, plan on the set or something in between?

TOR: I usually see the scenes in my head before I shoot and only storyboard if it’s a complicated scene or an action scene. The fight scene was story boarded and shot with two cameras. Everything else was shot single camera and 90% was purposely shot hand held. Setting up the tripod for each shot takes time and is cumbersome, plus I wanted the subtle, unsettling camera movement to help keep the audience a bit on edge. Composition is also important to me, especial, since I started out as a still photographer, and I like to try to tell the story visually. I went to FESPACO in Burkina Faso West Africa years ago and realized how important this is after watching films shot in Portuguese with French subtitles, or shot in Amharic with Spanish titles. Some such films I could still follow, while with others that I could not read or understand the language, I was totally lost. The ones that let the pictures tell the story were so much more universal.

MAD: What kind of response did you receive for Embalmer from audiences, festivals, other filmmakers, etc.? Where have you screened the film and what festivals did have you attended with it?

TOR: A 30 min version of EMBAMER was a finalist in the Showtime 1998 Black Short Film Showcase, which was very exciting. It was also very disappointing because they were never even interested in looking at the feature version for possible acquisition and distribution. In fact, finding distribution was a major headache that eventually turned into a pain in the ass. “The Blair Witch Project” came out while I was seeking distribution for EMBALMER, and when I went to see it, I was very disappointed. At the time, I didn’t feel it was any better than what I had done, but I guess $100 million at the box office says different. Eventually, Urban Entertainment picked up Cable and Internet rights for a small advance. They gave it a short pay-per-view run, but that was about it. Spectrum Films out of Mesa, Arizona picked up theatrical and home video rights for free with a 50/50 net split, which didn’t matter because they went out of business and stiffed me anyway. EMBALMER grossed over $100,000 in VHS and DVD sales and I never saw a dime. So, the article I read was right, my horror film did make a profit, but I didn’t.

MAD: Embalmer is a rare find, in a sense, a horror film from the perspective of African American culture. Would you say that your interest in the genre drove your work or the lack of “black SF films” drove you into the genre or is it something else entirely?

TOR: I had always been fascinated by science fiction and space movies as a kid and was always disappointed that nobody who looked like me was ever flying spaceships and exploring the stars. I mean, “This Island Earth,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and even “The Green Slime.” I recall while I was living in Philadelphia back in the late 1980’s, I got a call from Warrington Hudlin with the Black Film Foundation about doing a Black Horror, Fantasy, Sci-Fi program in New York. I said, “Sure,” and drove up for the event with my Black Beyond series, thinking there would be other black sci-fi projects screened as well. I got there to learn that I was the only black independent filmmaker working in science fiction at that time, which I found surprising. I thought it might give me an edge on my career, but it never did.

MAD: What SF genre projects do you plan on working on in the near or distant future?

TOR: I have actually made a conscious decision to back away from production and concentrate more on writing books and novels. I have two film resource books I’ve co-written with my sister, Venise Berry, who is a published fiction author as well. “The 50 Most Influential Black Films,” Citadel Press, 2001, and “Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema,” Scarecrow Press, 2007, is on bookshelves now, and available through I have as completed two fiction novels that I am still trying to get out. TEARS, is based on a feature-length script I wrote about how racism is indoctrinated into children here in America, and THE HONEYMAN’S SON, is a period piece coming of age story about a young man who wants to do more with his life than taking over his father’s business emptying outhouses.

For a long time I wanted to do the Hollywood thing, but I don’t feel I have the energy anymore and I’m tired of bouncing off the walls. Hollywood is such a tightly secured industry that is difficult to penetrate it from the outside. However, for the past two years I’ve been involved as director and co-creator of the first dramatic TV series of Belize. “Noh Matta Wat!” is a dramatic series about the wants, dreams and desires of the Diegos, a Belizean family struggling to live, love and survive in the heart of Belize City. It’s been a great experience and we’ve completed three short seasons since August of 2005, but I couldn’t imagine doing something on that scale on my own anymore. Production work used to thrill me, such as when I was doing EMBALMER. I used to wake up ready to go, it now tires me out.

Denvor Fairweather of 13 Productions in Belize is producer and co-creator of “Noh Matta Wat” and we worked well together, along with the hardworking cast and skeleton crew. It’s had a major positive impact on the people of Belize and I am very proud to be a part of that history-making event. Still, I no longer have the desire to embark upon a major production of my own.

MAD: What advice would you give to a young filmmaker embarking on a career in film, and specifically in SF genre film?

TOR: Filmmaking is so difficult and often heartbreaking that I think you have to be bitten by the ‘film bug’ and really love it to maintain as a struggling independent. I can only assume that it is a bit easier for those who have ‘made it,’ but I’m sure that they have an everyday struggle on their hands as well. Film has the power to motivate, educate, inspire and influence the way people think, act and feel, which is an awesome challenge. I have learned that in many cases it’s not really about who you know, but it’s more about who in a position of power knows you. When you have a production problem, or are in need of something to help get you to the next level, and you can’t pick up the phone and get the help or resources you need, it’s hard to take that next step. If you don’t have the money, the contacts, or all that you need in your own hands, it all comes down to how well you are able to cajole, motivate, impress, convince, threaten or manipulate whoever has what you need to give it up. Some people are good at making a way out of no way, and I’ve done that too, just not on a large enough scale.

A lot of people who have made it say you should never give up, and that’s valid, but I say only a fool with a death wish would row his canoe under a sinking ship! That’s a bit convoluted, perhaps, but it’s a metaphor I often see when contemplating my future career moves. You constantly look, and think, and plan and try, and run and hit the wall and bounce off, and hurt and recover, and try again and again, with no one in power and control even noticing your efforts. People who can’t help pat you on the back and tell you how talented you are (which is good to hear), and might even offer friendly advice, but that’s as far as it goes. Those that can help you either don’t or just won’t.

MAD: What do you think is the future of “Black SF?”

TOR: We are now included in many of the mainstream science fiction films being made like “Aliens,” “The Matrix Trilogy,” and Sanaa Lathan as lead in that “Alien/Predator” movie was a major coup. We recently lost sci-fi author Octavia Butler a while ago, and there has been talk of doing one of her books as a movie for years, perhaps one day a Will Smith, Denzel, Halle or even Oprah might still do it, that would be a good thing. Who knows?

MAD: Thank you for your time, Mr. Berry. We look forward to your next film!