Interview by Dan Kinem
Michael Raso on the set of The Basement
In 1989 Tim O’Rawe wrote and directed a horror film called The Basement, a horror anthology (similar to Tales from the Crypt). Michael Raso was the Director of Photography and shot on Super 8 Kodachrome and Ektachrome. The project was shot in 22 days in May 1989 and was abandoned almost as quickly.
In 1991, before moving to Los Angeles, Tim gave Raso all of the film and said, “Good luck.” The film has been in storage with Michael all these 21 years. He finally pulled all of it together (storage units, garage, basement), cleaned and prepped the film for digital film-to-tape at DuArt Film in New York with the intention of releasing the film on VHS and DVD in the year 2011. That time is now.
Q & A with Producer and Director of Photography Michael Raso
VHShitfest: How did you get involved in the film business and was The Basement the first film you worked on?
Michael Raso: In my early 20s I aspired to be a director of photography/motion picture cameraman so I enrolled in the art department at local William Paterson University. They had a small motion picture film department with a good teaching staff. I received my BA in 1986 and immediately starting shooting short horror films with fellow classmates Tim O’Rawe, John Fedele and Jeff Faoro. Our dream was to produce a horror feature film. I was up for anything! After a long string of short films we started production on The Basement, our first feature film.
VHShitfest: Were you into horror movies before you started working on them? If so, what were some that inspired you or made you want to start making them?
Michael Raso: I was exposed to horror films at a very early age by our local television stations in New York. Local independent stations ran the Universal horror films as well as such (at that time) modern films as Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Count Yorga and the one film that really inspired…Night of the Living Dead. Night of the Living Dead ran as a late night movie on our local ABC affiliate. I remember it so clearly because during the scenes where the newscaster is warning of the zombie invasion, ABC-TV ran a disclaimer on the screen claiming that “This is a dramatization”! By [that] time Dawn of the Dead was released. In 1989, I was determined to make a career making monster movies!
VHShitfest: What was the process of making The Basement and what exactly did you do on the movie?
Michael Raso: The Basement was the mastermind of Timothy O’Rawe. We met in film class and immediately began working together. It was a natural pairing since he raised the money, wrote, [and] directed while I did all the technical work (cinematography, editing). The process of shooting a feature film is grueling but we were young with unlimited energy. After viewing J.R. Bookwalter’s Dead Next Door, Tim was convinced that Super 8 was the way to go and embarked upon the production. The production was funded by Tim’s wife Kathleen and was shot in May of 1989. Tim’s plan – shoot and edit The Basement and then secure a VHS Distribution deal with Camp Video. (Note: this is the original West Coast Camp Video and not the current Camp Motion Pictures owned by yours truly). The Basement production was a major production disaster. Tim decided to borrow J.R. Bookwalter’s camera for the production. This is the camera that shot Dead Next Door so all the footage will be great, right? – Wrong. It was suggested by Dead Next Door director J.R. Bookwalter that I shoot with the camera in “Full Automatic” mode so that the scenes shot would be properly exposed by the camera. Me, knowing better, decided to shoot in “full manual mode.” Being a professional commercial producer for Comcast with lots of experience, nothing could go wrong, right? – Wrong! Most of the night and indoor footage was shot too dark. The fatal error occurred when the undeveloped footage was stockpiled for processing AFTER the entire feature was shot. Normally, footage goes to the processing lab daily. This way, you can immediately see if there are any errors and scenes could quickly be re-shot. We didn’t see the footage until the entire production was over! Ouch!
Michael Raso, Adab Rosa and director Tim O’Rawe on the set of The Basement.
VHShitfest: Why was it lost for all these years and how did you go from that not getting a release to making Ghoul School which ended up on VHS?
Michael Raso: The Basement was shelved because most of the original film that was shot was very underexposed. On many scenes everything on screen was just too dark. After the The Basement, Tim wasted no time on the footage disaster and instead forged forward with a short film/promo reel called Ghoul School. Tim’s idea was that we’d shoot a short film with amazing special effects and use that short film to raise money for a feature film. We decided to shoot on 16mm as opposed to the 8mm (that was used on The Basement). With a premium camera package, Tim’s never-ending energy and the amazing special effects of Scott Hart created an awesome promo that landed Tim a budget for the feature film Ghoul School! Please keep in mind that all this happened (The Basement, Ghoul School promo, Ghoul School feature) within a nine month period (May 1989 – January 1990)!
The super 8 film used to shoot The Basement.
VHShitfest: Any behind the scenes stories on the making of Ghoul School? How did that come about and what all did you do on that movie? Was it easier or harder than The Basement and did you have any part in the release of the movie?
Michael Raso: Shooting Ghoul School was twenty days of living hell. To be fair, most low-budget feature films are very, very difficult. I was on the set of Mic Cribben’s Warning, Children at Play (Troma) and I can tell you, the cast and crew weren’t exactly having a party! Our job duties were the same on Ghoul School as on the previous feature – Tim produced, wrote and directed while I handled the camerawork. With David DeCoteau putting up the cash for Ghoul School, I took no chances of having another technical disaster. I brought in friend Timothy Healy to rig, handle and design the lighting. Tim O’Rawe is a very loyal guy. Even though most of The Basement’s failure was technically my fault, he still called on me to head up the cinematography on Ghoul School. Each day our camera footage was FedExed to Mr. DeCoteau in Hollywood for processing. What if the producer didn’t like the footage? What if my camerawork was bad? Will I get fired?! Luckily, the footage was good and we continued our “grind.”
Ghoul School was released on VHS by Cinema Home Video in late 1990. I didn’t have an opportunity to be involved in a release of this film until 2007 – when my company Camp Motion Pictures released the Ghoul School “Spatter University Edition.” I highly recommend that folks reading this seek it out. It contains all the short films that Tim and I shot together, including the infamous Ghoul School promo reel!
VHShitfest: What did you do after Ghoul School? How did you get involved in the next production you worked on?
Michael Raso: During both The Basement and Ghoul School I was employed by cable TV giant Comcast (as a commercial producer). I took my vacation time to shoot the two features. After the grueling schedule of Ghoul School, I vowed never to shoot a feature film again. I started a regional TV show with John Fedele called Meadowlands Showcase. It was a showcase of local artists, musicians and filmmakers wrapped around skit comedy that John and I produced. It was aired on cable in the New York Tri-State area from 1989 – 1994. In ‘94 I discovered a small magazine called Alternative Cinema and was amazed to find that indie filmmakers were shooting horror features on video instead of film. I had never been involved with home video distribution and was fascinated by the concept of distributing your own VHS via a mail-order catalog. Alternative Cinema was owned and published by none other than J.R. Bookwalter.
VHShitfest: When did you decide to revisit The Basement and try to release it? What had to be done to get it ready for release? Was it your idea or did someone approach you about re-working on it?
Michael Raso: In 1991 Tim O’Rawe moved to Hollywood to pursue a career writing scripts. Before he left he showed up at Comcast and handed me a box of Super 8 film. “Here you go,” he said. “Good Luck, it’s yours.” Tim put The Basement in the past and gave me all the film footage. I put the film in storage and there it sat for 21 years. In the mid-1990s I purchased Alternative Cinema and started my own VHS releasing business. In 2007 I started Camp Motion Pictures and started releasing such classic 1980s movies as Video Violence, Splatter Farm, Cannibal Campout and many others. The timing seemed right and I started looking for The Basement film elements with the idea of officially releasing it. Amazingly, all the film was accounted for with little to no damage from storage.
VHShitfest: Was it a long and hard process to get it ready for video release or was mostly everything there and ready to go?
Michael Raso: It was a long and expensive process to revive The Basement and get it to a releasable form. The only thing that existed was the film footage. No script, no notes, nothing. Except for the film, it’s like The Basement never existed. Number one question I’m asked often is why Tim O’Rawe didn’t contribute liner notes or an interview. Tim has no memory of the events that took place during The Basement shoot and frankly, I think it was such a difficult experience that he has put it all firmly behind him.
With no script and no sound recordings it would have been nearly impossible to construct a feature film from The Basement film reels if it weren’t for one very important technical factor. In the 1970s and 80s some Super8 film was manufactured with a magnetic sound strip on the film. Unlike video, most films are shot with sound being recorded on a separate sound recorder (Nagra or DAT recorder). For The Basement, the sound was recorded right onto the film allowing us (in 2008) to have a scratch track of the entire dialog. It was all very rough sound but good enough for us to make sense of the scenes and edit the film in the proper order. None of the original sound was used for the final presentation of The Basement. Every piece of sound is newly recorded. Every creak, scream or footstep was recreated from scratch by editor Joe Kolbek. The music was scored by filmmaker Chris La Martina.
VHShitfest: What was your relationship with Timothy O’Rawe? Do you still talk to him now? Any reason he wasn’t involved in this release (or was he?)?
Michael Raso: Tim along with John Fedele and Jeff Faoro are my closest friends from college. After Tim made the move to California we didn’t speak as much as we’d like but have been in touch every few years. Tim wasn’t involved for the reasons mentioned above. This project is a personal labor of love for me. I have personally financed the release myself and am happy that there appears to be an excited audience for this odd piece of lost cinema.
VHShitfest: Did you have any say in the packaging and the deciding to release the film in a big box VHS (honestly how it should have been released all along!)? I love big box VHS!
Michael Raso: The packaging and release were handled by Camp Motion Picture’s Paige Davis. She hired the artist and put together the marketing campaign for the film. Frankly, none of us can remember who originally suggested the VHS big box…but once suggested, we were all on board!
VHShitfest: As a VHS-focused blog we must ask your thoughts on the format and what it did for you working in the horror business? How has going into DVD helped or hindered the horror industry?
Michael Raso: When I started my home video labels there was no such thing as a DVD. The VHS tape was a real “workhouse” format that ruled for 30 plus years! I was the first kid on the block to have a VCR in 1977 and know that VHS revolutionized the home entertainment business. Before 1977, the concept of owning and playing a movie in your home was mind blowing! Today, we take many of our home entertainment devices for granted. The only way to see a movie at home pre-1977 was to scour the TV Guide and pray that your favorite movie was be played on commercial television! Likewise, the DVD was also a revolution. The amazing picture quality, the opportunity to include DVD extras…all just amazing. If it weren’t for the DVD format I would not experienced the successes with my home video companies!
VHShitfest: Did you ever go and rent any movies you were involved with? How did it feel to see a movie you worked on the shelves of a video store?
Michael Raso: In the early 2000s most of the films I produced were widely distributed at DVD stores both nation-wide and abroad. It’s very satisfying to see your film in a big chain store and especially at the famous Blockbuster Video rental chains. It was a golden time for independent producers. People were hungry for new movies on DVD and big chain stores took chances by buying indie releases!
VHShitfest: You’ve had a long and plentiful career in the horror/exploitation business. It’s quite inspiring. How have you managed to keep it going all these years?
Michael Raso: Running my own home video labels has and will always be hard, hard work. It isn’t a job where you “punch out” at 5 p.m.. Owning any independent business is all-consuming and never ending. If one does not keep a balance (financial, personal, spiritual), you can easily go quite mad or worse, bankrupt! I managed to keep it all going over the past 15 plus years by remaining honest to myself, my company and to all my business associates. That honesty means keeping one’s ego in check, being financially responsible and being thankful for every opportunity (even if that opportunity ends in failure).
VHShitfest: What do you have coming up? Promote yourself and your movies!
Michael Raso: Recent changes in the industry have resulted in an “old” new way of thinking around POPcinema/Alternative Cinema, and moving forward we are embracing the ‘retro revolution’ in more ways than the release of The Basement VHS/DVD collection (as awesome as that is)! We’re shortly to begin production of old-school audio and video commercials for our various imprints (podcast, youtube channel, e-commerce store), sponsoring and partnering in amazing events like the VHS Event Series at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn (founded by Wild Eye Releasing, Lunchmeat, Horrorboobs, etc) and we may even team up with an old colleague for a seriously ‘80s flavored program that will air on internet and local broadcast channels…I’ll let you know more as we finalize the details, but the concept is to not only embrace the fun we all once had – our motivation for getting into this industry in the first place – but to integrate it into the very fabric of my home entertainment labels.
Specific films and projects for 2011 / 2012 include:
A screening of The Basement at Severed Sinema in Stroudsburg PA sometime this November.
The December 6 release of the 1960s sexploitation double feature Platinum Pussycat/The Sexploiters (a really fun psychotronic double feature)
Other films scheduled for late 2011 / early 2012 release are:
STIFFED – a crime heist with zombies! - feature starring Billy Garberina (Feeding the Masses, Psycho Holocaust)
Porkchop – an ‘80s-homage slasher film that will blow your mind!
Zombie Allegiance – a post-apocalyptic satire directed by Tony Nunes
And TRIPPIN’, the first feature film by director Devi Snively, whose body of short films have won numerous festival awards and will be included in the release
Thanks again to Michael Raso for providing a great, fascinating interview and the amazing behind the scenes photos! Check out AlternativeCinema.com for all the latest with Michael (and to order The Basement!] and go read our review of The Basement.