Like most filmmakers, Santo has been making movies since grade school, starting with the tried-and-true battleground of Super-8, before moving on to bigger formats and honing his skills further. In 2002, he formed Mindscape Pictures with longtime friend Roman Berman, Santo’s (now-wife) Sheri Carter, and business partners Brian Costello and Jay Sun. “Over time, we’ve all grown into a cool family and all of them put up with my various insane ideas and probably often-annoying frenetic energy. Sheri and Roman do a lot of work behind-the-scenes while Jay and Brian are always keeping their eyes on new outlets where we can get our movies shown. It’s a great partnership.”
Using new digital formats suddenly available to them, they were able to increase their film output, but they never let the ease get in the way of careful planning and tight scripting. And while the company can and should be praised for their movies, Santo admits there were other motivations beyond “just telling a good story”.
“To be honest, the real driving force behind the “Bent” series was to put Mindscape Pictures on the map. I had spent five years building up momentum with another movie group (‘which I will decline to name’) and when that imploded and I basically lost the rights to the majority of my movies. I was starting over from scratch and had one decent short movie, “Marisa”, and a bunch of unfinished ones to my name. The first half of 2002 was all about shooting. It seemed like every weekend I was cobbling together re-shoots of older movies while writing new ones. Ultimately, “Bent” is like a brief history of my moviemaking career because some movies were brand new, like “Here Comes Your Man”, “The Dinner” and “Haunted”, while so many others were re-makes or movies that were carried over from that other group after re-shoots. “Bent” basically includes everything that we made as a company through 2002 and into the beginning of 2003. New series like “Mindscape Pictures Presents” and “Single Serving Cinema” offer the latest work.”
Santo continues, “But what’s cool is that as “Bent” came together, I started seeing that I liked myself as a moviemaker. Writing the analogies that precede each movie (the water “chapters”) made me see what each movie was really about, and I was happy to discover each picture carried some nifty themes to them that I didn’t consider during their writing. It was also my hope that someone would see “Bent” and the next time they saw a waterfall, a snow-blanketed tree branch, or a drop of water running down a windowpane, they would think of the movie that corresponded with that imagery. Those images are so universal and beautiful, y’know? Maybe someday someone will see a rain puddle that’s drying out on concrete and think of “In a Sky With No Angels”. That became a secondary goal.”
While “Bent” fans have gotten to know reoccurring members of his company, particularly Berman and Carter, there was one face familiar to most hardcore fans of indie horror right off the bat: Tina Krause (“Witchouse 3”, “Bloodletting”). The multi-talented actress and director appears in two “Bent” stories, “The Dinner” (Volume Two) and “More Than Money’s Worth” (Volume Three).
“My friends and I used to do “Cheesy Movie Nights” and one time I picked up “Titanic 2000” from Seduction Cinema,” Santo says. “The movie was a hilarious no-budget production with some genuine talents onscreen, including Tina who I felt was absolutely stunning and extremely charismatic. After looking her up on the web I wrote to Fracture Films, Tina’s movie company, and introduced myself. Tina herself wrote back and over time we corresponded about collaborating at some point. At first we discussed “The Dinner”, but after speaking with Tina on the phone, I suddenly realized she was perfect for another movie idea I had, the romantic comedy “More Than Money’s Worth”. She loved the script and so we made the movie. Once that was done, we collaborated again on “The Dinner”, as originally planned, and then worked on a short called “A Chance Connection” that will be coming out this year from Mindscape Pictures. Tina is an unbelievable talent and a terrific friend. She’s got this great, giggly personality, but beneath that she’s got this frighteningly accurate ability to portray emotion. Acting comes so very naturally to her and there have been times when I was behind the camera with my jaw on the floor. She’s the real deal, and I’m beholden to her for her continuing support of our moviemaking endeavors.”
As they continued to put out quality work, more people became attracted to the Mindscape way of working. In 2003, the Mindscape creative team grew to include writer/directors Frank Parker and Patrick Hines. “I’m always on the lookout for new talent, so I’d love to pick up some more people and put equipment in their hands. Also in 2003, Lucien Desar, a local musician and the music score composer for several Mindscape Pictures movies, joined onto the company as the Music Supervisor. He maintains contracts with various composers and songwriters and has assembled a library of approximately seven hundred CD’s we’ve been sent to pull music from. This year, actor and producer Neil O’Callaghan decided to put his journalism training to further use and signed on to help Mindscape Pictures get a little more press.”
It’s readily apparent that Santo is uncomfortable with the level of praise his films have generated. While reviews are often a mixed bag—particularly those reviewed by viewers who have come to expect gore and nudity with their indie shorts—the strong points of the movies (direction, editing, production value) cannot be ignored. Like many artists, looking back at his body of work, Santo reveals that it’s difficult for him to feel satisfied with much of the results. “If you ask me what I like out of my own stuff, I’m not sure. I’m really finicky and picky when it comes to what I’ve done and often wear quite the fitted hairshirt when I talk about it all. They’re all so different and each has good and bad stuff in them. I guess as an overall piece, I’d go with “More Than Money’s Worth”, although I think “The Dinner” is pretty neat.”
More than just the variety of storytelling and genre, the Mindscape attention to detail helps the films to stand out from the crowd. Careful lighting and sound design make the movies look and feel like they were made with thousands—if not at least a million—dollars in backing. Santo and company admittedly spend plenty of time setting up a shot, working hard to capture the results they’re after. This extra time shows on screen, and makes one wonder why other filmmakers with so much to prove aren’t as careful. What hampers the indie industry from being taken seriously in Santo’s view, however, is not care, but something else entirely:
“I believe what’s most lacking is honesty. Many ‘moviemakers’ do not want to admit how low a level they are at. People puff up like peacocks at mating time when they are talking about their no-budget movies that are shot with little effort, and they want others to worship the ground they walk on. The stories are derivative and uninspired, the camerawork is lacking, the performances are mind shatteringly vapid and cardboard and yet people act like they’ve just reinvented the art form. Some are maddeningly pretentious because they hide under the ‘there are no rules’ in micro-budget production. I think there’s a difference between ‘not being Hollywood’ and doing something without any real effort; something with little to no story, character or skill behind the camera. [The independent films] ‘Tom Hits His Head’ or ‘Red Cockroaches’ are not like Hollywood, but there’s artistry in the work. They’re entertaining, original and well made. And while I believe no-budget land is a land for learning how to make movies, I have an issue with the egos that develop when crap camcorder nonsense is what’s being peddled. I catch a lot of flack for being outspoken about the total lack of care and finesse in the Microcinema Scene, but it’s there and I see it all the time.”
As for people Santo feels are doing it right: “I’m a big fan of this young guy named Bobby Miller of Rigged Productions who makes some fantastic, offbeat stuff you can see right on his website (www.riggedproductions.com.) Also there’s Evan Mather who is terrific as well. His movie ‘Bodybags’ is great. I like ‘The Road To’ by Gary Lumpp, and I think Las Vegas-based director Mike Conway had some decent stuff included on his ‘Terrarium’ DVD. There is a great short movie on iFilm that I saw recently called ‘Home Base’ that is fantastically funny and offensive. Love it completely. And I like Brian Clement’s various short movies that are included in his ‘Exhumed’ collection, although technically that’s a pseudo-feature. And though I generally don’t like stuff that seems perfectly-made for Film festivals, I really did love ‘Tom Hits His Head’ by Tom Putnam. I greatly admire people like Mike Amato, Miguel Coyula, Brian Clement, and anyone else who puts their money where their mouths are. These are guys who shut up and make movies, and they do good work. One of things I can’t stand about myself is that I talk too damn much. I wish I could just shut-up and make movies and not worry about websites or promotion or the Micro-budget scene as a whole. I think people who are singular in their vision and who strive to better their work as they proceed in the craft are the people I most admire to be like. Someday I’ll shut my gaping maw, stop dolling out advice and just concentrate on making my own movies better and more entertaining. That’ll be a good day, not only for me, but no doubt for everyone else who is sick of hearing me bitch about how crappy the no-budget world is.”
Santo takes a breath, then continues, “Recently, a moviemaker I know named Warren Ebb/Blythe (of Oregon’s Funeral Home Entertainment and Bravado Entertainment) wrote me this insanely long diatribe about the state of no-budget cinema and why it’s boring and unfocused. One of his most key points was that there’s not enough people treating it like a business and that the fact that it’s all being created under the excuse that it’s ‘art for art’s’ sake. This makes it impossible for the scene to grow because no one can really be held accountable for what they create and they can’t be critiqued effectively because everything is so subjective. Everyone immediately hides under the ‘well, I wasn’t trying to do what you thought I was trying to do,’ or they say ‘you just don’t get it’ and not many admit to the deficiencies in the work because there are no criteria in place. The point was that this nebulous ‘scene’ of no-budget moviemaking probably would never advance unless money gets infused into it somehow and it becomes business oriented. I found it a very intriguing point as it boils down to the only way moviemaking leaves ‘being a hobby’ and morphs into ‘a career’ is through money and business. And when money comes into play – even a small amount – there is this sense of ‘this is a reality’ and not just kids screwing around with video cameras. People are held accountable for the quality of the work and the whole category can start to advance because there’s common definition of what is and isn’t good. Or at least that’s the theory. Something to chew on, anyhow…”
Visit Jason at the Mindscape Pictures website.