Writer, reporter, actor, guy with super cool hair… Michael Varrati is absolutely one of my favorite people working in the independent horror film industry, which is why I’m so pleased that he agreed to an interview with me. Mr. Varrati has been working in film and media for years, but recently he’s starting making it to the big time after penning a segment in the multi-award winning Tales of Poe anthology, writing a film for ION Media Networks and being a major player in one of the year’s most hotly anticipated horror films, Flesh for the Inferno. Michael is kind of a jack of all trades; hiding incredibly creative talents behind a friendly and charming demeanor. I think you’ll be able to see some of his charm and wit in our interview where we discuss his career and the upcoming flick Flesh for the Inferno, which officially hits DVD on March 8 through Scorpio Film Releasing. Check it out below!
H: Anyone can write, but all of the films you’ve penned scripts for have reached distribution deals and you even wrote a Denise Richards movie. Obviously your writing is high quality, but how did you start getting your talent out there to achieve notoriety?
M: You know, for as long as I can remember I’ve been telling stories and writing. Even as a kid, I used to write these little one page tales that I would give to my parents. As far as widespread readership goes, in college I started writing essays for publications and for the local paper. I was always interested in cult movies and horror cinema, and I knew at some point I wanted to gear my work toward that kind of content. When I graduated, I got involved with Ultra Violent Magazine, and that’s really when people started taking notice. I traveled to conventions with those guys, and it really helped cement my identity in the horror community. From there I did writing with the now defunct Fatally-Yours.com, and eventually landed a column on Peaches Christ’s website. A lot of the articles I wrote for Peaches would get routinely featured on the main page of IMDB when they still did that, and because of that visibility, I started getting attention outside of the genre. From there, I got gigs with Huffington Post, VideoInk, and Tubefilter, among others. Of course, I wasn’t really satisfied just writing about other people’s movies, I eventually wanted to parlay the work into writing my own. So, I did. That being said, I still am pretty tight with Peaches, and I’ll always be part of the Ultra Violent Family. Gotta stay true to your roots.
H: Looking over your resume, you’re actually somewhat new to the world of film, but you’ve already achieved so much… And you’ve appeared on “The Talk” and “TRL?” What’s that about?
M: From a release standpoint, it definitely looks like I’m new to film, but from a production standpoint, some of those early credits were legitimately years in the making. Like a lot of low budget, independent filmmakers some of those first movies took ages to make, because we’d wait months and sometimes years to gather what was needed to continue. But, I’m happy it’s all sort of been coming out within the last five years. It’s a fun reveal to the world. As for the “The Talk,” my friend was working as a producer on the show, and they were doing a segment where they had “social media guests” on, and they had tapped me to be one of them. I shot SO many segments before one made it to air. I discussed, of all things, Joe Jonas with the ladies on the panel and I remember Julie Chen said, and I quote, “I agree with Michael.” This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but a lot of the crew was stoked that she singled out my comments. It must not happen often.
As for “TRL”, it was kind of a great fluke. I had just graduated high school and went to NYC. The show was HUGE at the time, so I was keen on checking out the scene. I went the day before the episode I was on, and though nothing happened, I got a distinct feeling I needed to come back. The next day, I returned with a sign that said, “Carson, I need a summer job!” and before the episode even started shooting, I was cornered by a PA who asked me if I would be willing to be part of that episode’s “plot.” Of course I agreed. In the episode, Carson came to the window, brought me up from outside, we did an interview in the MTV studio, and then he sent me out in Time Square to wash Mariah Carey’s car as my summer “job” (I didn’t actually wash it, all staged). I remained for the rest of the episode, doing bits with Carson and the kids on the street who were waiting to see Mariah. It was a blast.
H: Although you have appeared on such shows like “The Talk” and “TRL,” you’re actually a professional actor, too. Did you ever pursue formal training in the past or did you just go out there and kickstart that part of your career?
M: Like most in our field, I did the requisite acting in high school, but took it beyond school plays and did some community theater stuff, too. However, I didn’t get any formal training until I was in college. Since I was into film, rather than go the theater training route, I specifically studied acting for the camera. Coincidentally, the guy who taught me on camera technique, Rohn Thomas, had a background in horror himself. Rohn had significant roles in John Landis’ Innocent Blood and George Romero’s adaptation of The Dark Half. That always tickled me. I learned a lot from him and still consider his advice when choosing roles.
H: Since acting and writing are both considered creative mediums, do you ever feel burnt out trying to juggle both?
M: Not really. Writing is definitely my main passion and priority. I always have a project or two cooking at any given time, as well as a few on the back burner waiting to go. I love the process, and am very enthusiastic about crafting new stories and pieces. That being said, I certainly enjoy acting as well, I just don’t actively pursue it as often. I’m definitely always game to take on a new role, if it fits, and have had some really great experiences in front of the camera. But writing and acting rarely have conflicted with each other, which has really allowed me the opportunity to do both.
H: You write columns, periodicals and scripts, but do you ever write short stories? Would you ever consider publishing a book/novel?
M: Absolutely! I actually have written a number of short stories, some of which have been published in literary publications, and others I’m saving for a collection in the future. As for a novel, I don’t want to get too ahead of myself… but… you may be hearing more about that in the near future.
H: The biggest reason I wanted to book this interview with you is because a new horror film, Flesh for the Inferno, is hitting DVD on March 8. It was directed by one of your frequent collaborators, Richard Griffin. Who approached who about writing this one?
M: Richard was in the midst of shooting a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie of his, Future Justice, and one of the locations he was shooting in was an abandoned Catholic school. As I recall, he had rented the location for longer than the actual shoot was going to take… and not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, he asked if I had any scripts lying around that might fit the setting and get the most out of his time there. Honestly, I didn’t have anything at the time. But, I started thinking about it, and the fact that it was an old Catholic School stuck with me, and I thought to myself, “Well, what if that’s exactly what it was?”
Slowly I developed an original story about a school that was haunted by the tormented souls of demon nuns. I pitched the idea to Richard, and he was all about it. I ended up writing the first version of the script, known at the time as “The Sisters of Perdition,” in about a week. As it turns out though, we ended up wanting to take our time making the film, so rather than shoot it on the tail end of Future Justice, he saved the script… and ended up making it about a year and a half later. In fact, if my timeline is correct, we actually made The Sins of Dracula – another film I wrote and Richard directed – in between the time I wrote the script for Flesh for the Inferno and it actually being shot.
H: Any inspiration from Night of the Demons 2 or The Convent there?
M: I love Night of the Demons 2, so I’m sure a little bit of that seeped into the work. Honestly, though, I’ve always just loved nunsploitation as a drive-in subgenre, and have seen WAY more of those movies than I care to admit: Sister Emanuelle, The Other Hell, Ken Russell’s The Devils. They’re all so delicious. You don’t even really need to add the supernatural element to make nuns scary. Just watch The Magdalene Sisters. That movie just makes my blood boil…and it’s 100% true. Beyond that, my parents both went to Catholic school in the 50s and early 60s, and they both have horror stories of the nuns. More than anything, my mom telling me about this one nun who terrorized her when she was a little girl served as a primary influence on the script. I think the things that scare us as kids have the potential to morph into the scariest monsters,
H: Speaking of particular writing influences for another second, the nuns in Flesh for the Inferno are walled into the basement. Previously you wrote one of the segments in Tales of Poe, a wildly successful anthology of Poe short stories turned into modern adaptions. Though you did not write “The Cask” segment, it shares a similar synopsis with Flesh for the Inferno. Is Poe one of your inspirations, too?
M: Oh, absolutely. I think most people who are interested in the literary side of horror have an affinity for Poe. His influence can be seen in everyone from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King… and though I don’t claim to be even anywhere NEAR those guys’ level, I totally get the Poe love. Edgar Allan Poe basically laid the blueprint for the modern gothic horror story. Furthermore, he had such a grasp on the things that people fear… his stories still have the ability to send chills down your spine nearly two centuries later. The term “Master of Horror” is bandied about quite a bit in the modern era, but Poe is the literal real deal. I can sit down with a collection of Poe stories at any time and be completely satisfied with the experience. He’s the best.
H: Back to Flesh… Neighborhood youths go to the church to spruce it up and bad things happen. I take it they won’t be remixing gospel with Whoopi Goldberg… How big a group are we talking about and what age group do they fall into? This can be a deal breaker sometimes!
M: Ha! Now I’m imagining a Sister Act sequel where Whoopi goes to battle with demon nuns… but only can defeat them through song. I’d watch that. As for the group of “kids” in the movie, they are supposed to be a Church Youth Group of late teens and early-20s. It’s just a small handful of them, and most were based on people I actually know. Granted, the fates of the people in the movie are a bit more grisly.
H: Q: You also act in Flesh for the Inferno? How big a role is Ethan the Police Dispatch? Cameo? Voice Over?
M: Ethan’s actually just a vocal role. He pops up on the other end of the police radio once the action gets going. That being said, we hear from him more than a few times and he has a repartee with both the police officer’s and Sarah Nicklin’s character… you just never see him. I’ve always been fond of characters in movies you know about but never see. Ethan’s part in the script was also meant as a subtle homage to a horror movie that I love from the 70s, but it’s up to the audience to figure out which one.
H: Why do you think horror fans should pick up Flesh for the Inferno more than any other movie on March 8th?
M: For horror fans who enjoy the madness of 70s and 80s Italian horror, I think people will see this movie for the love letter it’s intended to be. There’s a “teenager under siege” plot, but also a lot of surrealistic insanity and fever dream stuff going on. I also think, as far as my collaborations with Richard go, it’s one of the most unforgiving films we’ve done. No spoilers, but a lot of people who have seen it tell me the ending really unnerved them. Basically, we just set out to deliver a wild, blasphemous ride. It’s up to fans to tell us whether we achieved that or not, but we had a hell of a fun time in the process.
H: If you had to fight one of the vengeful demon nuns in the movie, could you win as you are today?
M: I mean, I’m not even sure I could defeat a regular nun. They tend to have a lot of pent up rage… and knuckle cracking rulers!
H: Don’t get beat up too bad, I see you have a lot on your plate for 2016. Nuke ‘Em, Yetis and Models who are Hungry.
M: Yes! Coincidentally, each of those movies is already done shooting, they just all, by sheer virtue of film production, are coming out at once. I legit had a blast on each of those. In Model Hunger, I’m a creepy hairdresser. In Yeti, Lloyd Kaufman and I play book publishers in a very silly way. And in Nuke Em, Lloyd blows me up in a car. So, no one can say I don’t have a good time.
H: And writing? You got any good stories for 2016 and beyond?
M: Oh yes, I’m always working on new scripts and actually have a lot of things currently cooking. For fans of A Christmas Reunion, which is the movie I wrote starring Denise Richards that you mentioned earlier, I recently finished a new script for the same company that is heading into production in a few weeks. I can’t really say much about it at the moment, but I will tell you that it’s being directed by a filmmaker whose work I enthusiastically followed when I was an avid watcher of USA Up All Night and still adore. Keep your eyes on the TV for more news about that soon.
As for genre projects, I’ve been working on series of horror shorts with filmmaker JT Seaton, and at least one of which, A Canadian Haunting, I plan on directing myself. JT and I are also working on a feature, On Darker Shores, which we hope to shoot in Ireland sometime in the next year. I’ve also been chatting with Richard Griffin about something new as well. Plus a few other horror projects that are in progress but haven’t found a proper home. So, needless to say…I stay busy. Oh! I almost forgot! While all that’s going on, I’m also working with Channel Frederator, creators of “Adventure Time” and “Fairly Odd Parents,” and writing a series of new videos for them. So, yes…I’m branching out into new territory.
H: Speaking of branching out, is there anything else you’d like to do in this industry outside of writing and acting?
M: I do think I’d like to try my hand at directing. As I mentioned, I’ll be stepping into that territory a little bit with the shorts I’m working on with JT. prior to that, I’m using that project to feel out my skills in that arena. I do have a few feature scripts I’ve written that I’ve been saving for myself, so ultimately that’s the next big goal. That being said, I love to write so much, even if I take a regular turn as a director, I’ll still want to write scripts for other filmmakers too. I just love the collaborative process too much. It’s fun to see what we, as artists, can create when working together.
H: I know we’ve mentioned a lot already, but I always try to cap off my interviews with one final question: favorite horror film of all time?
M: Oh gosh. It’s always so hard to just pick one, as I have a few that really I could just watch over and over again. That being said, I think it really comes down to two, both of which appeal to different aspects of my personality. I love Night of the Creeps. It is the epitome of great 80s horror, is endlessly charming and funny, and has this whole “what if John Hughes had made an alien zombie movie” vibe going for it. I could watch that flick anytime. I’m also really fond of Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man) because it’s just gorgeous and atmospheric horror. The shot at the end where Rupert Everett is standing on the edge of the broken road, looking out over the Italian valleys/mountains is one of my favorite frames in cinema history. That movie is a masterclass in beautiful filmmaking, but also really damn good genre fare.