Interview: A.D. Calvo Discusses Being a Director, Hispanics in Movies, and his indie horror movie, “House of Dust”

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Alejandro Daniel Calvo – professionally known as A.D. Calvo – lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil until his family moved to the United States in 1974.  A lifelong lover of film, his first professional credit came in 2004 from editing the music video for Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” using archival 8mm footage from his childhood days in Brazil. 2004 would also see Calvo produce his first narrative short called Sitter.  After a few more shorts and documentaries, Calvo made the jump to features by writing and directing 2008’s The Other Side of the Tracks.  Following this ghost story, he directed, wrote, and produced The Melancholy Fantastic – which received a limited release in 2011.

In 2013, Calvo completed two more back-to-back thrillers, House of Dust and The Midnight Game — both set to be released in early 2014. House of Dust stars Teen Wolf’s Holland Roden, and is a supernatural thriller set in an abandoned insane asylum.  You can learn more about the film by visiting its homepage here.

Nicholas Yanes:  Growing up, what were some movies that left an impression on you?

A.D. Calvo:  Lots of 70’s low-budget horror films, and 80’s too—anything with zombies or ghosts, really anything that opened the door to life after death. But I always connected more with atmosphere rather than gore. Films like The Changeling, Burnt Offerings, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and campy stuff like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Phantasm, and that damn Zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror (which scared the piss out of me), these all immediately spring to mind. Oh, and, of course, the classics like 2001, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining—a personal favorite.

Yanes:  As a Cuban-American, I’m happy to see more and more Hispanics on television and in film.  What are your thoughts on popular representations of Hispanics in movies and TV?

Calvo:  Sadly, the current representation of Latino culture in American films is not great. But it’s not as simple as just saying let’s make more Latino-friendly movies. It’s just as hard to land a well-known Latino actor as it is an American one and chances are the investor base, here in the USA, is more likely to connect with what’s familiar to them. So the stories I’m currently telling happen to be more representative of my American experience. That said, I feel a constant tug to return to my Latino roots. For one thing, I share a deep affinity for atmospheric ghost stories and magical realism—so that might be one way I can eventually cycle back to Buenos Aires.

Yanes:  Lots of people dream of making movies.  How did you get initially get involved in the film industry?

Calvo:  Given my technology background–I was a software designer for over 15 years–digital cinema and acquisition inspired me. I saw an opportunity opening up with digital cinema tools becoming readily available, back in 2004—long before DSLR and RED ever existed. So I jumped on the bandwagon as an early adopter of digital. At the time, there weren’t many digital films out there, but a few were standing out—Monsoon Wedding, Tadpole, etc.

Yanes:  On this note, what are some suggestions for surviving the film industry you wish someone would have told you a long time ago?

Calvo:  There’s that saying, “fake it till you make it.” And I certainly did that! I really didn’t know much about anything—having no prior film background or experience and zero connections. I just jumped in, read a few books, and arrogantly reached out to lots of veteran industry folks (and probably pissed off a few of them in the process). I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, and learned the hard way, largely by trial and error. I’m a better person and filmmaker now and feel humbled by my prior shortcomings. This has been a wonderful journey full of lessons in sincerity—perhaps the most important lesson when it comes to making movies—getting in touch with who you really are, and stripping away any BS layers.

Yanes:  The concept behind House of Dust is fantastic.  What was your inspiration for it?

Calvo:  A friend sent me a link to a macabre NY Times article featuring the demolition of an old psychiatric hospital in Oregon (see here). Stored inside this collection of old copper canisters were the eerie cremated remains of former mental patients — the unclaimed “cremains” of poor disturbed souls. This was so sad (and eerie) to me. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the canisters were disturbed during the demolition and somehow fell off the shelves and spilled onto the ground — or, even worse, what if someone inhaled the dusty ashes that would fill the air? Would they somehow become possessed by the souls contained within? I certainly hope not, but that’s what the story is about and where the inspiration came from. I’m thankful my friend shared that story with me.
I wrote the original screenplay, but it was a bit more character-driven and deliberately paced. Personally, I like a brooding kind of build up, but knowing most moviegoers don’t, we decided it might be better to have my story rewritten with an eye towards more action and thriller moments. While I must admit, I sometimes miss my writer’s voice in the final film, I trust it made for a more entertaining movie. The rewrite was penned by Nevada Grey and Alyssa Alexandria.

Yanes:  Coming up with a film idea is hard, but getting it completed is an entirely different beast.  So, how were you able to get the film green lit?

Calvo:  This was not just another urban spelunking film and the concept seemed fresh and original so that certainly helped. I knew I wanted to produce a ghost story that would appeal to 12 to 18 year olds without going overboard on the violence. As I said, I’m more interested in the psychological aspects of fear, rather than being overly visceral with gore. This was part of a two picture deal I struck with my finance partner and business mentor. Our follow-up film is called The Midnight Game — it’s not related to House of Dust but it’s driven by some of those very same goals.

Yanes:  There are a lot of horror films out there.  How did you strive to make House of Dust unique?

Calvo:  It might have been easier to go the found-footage route (think Grave Encounters and those kinds of films), but instead we opted to create a more visually striking look inspired by classic cinematography and lighting design, coupled with some very atmospheric locations and strong production design. I think folks will find the film interesting from a character point of view mainly because we see these characters completely morph over the course of the film — as they become possessed — or do they really?

Yanes:  What are some long term goals you have this film?  Would you like to see it become a franchise?

Calvo:  Despite an obvious and deliberate sequel hook at the end, I’d be more inclined to consider a prequel at some point. In the beginning of the film there’s a period flashback to the 1950′s – a bizarre insane asylum scene. This is one of my favorite moments in the movie. And it was a real honor to have worked with an award-winning actor like Stephen Spinella (Rubber, Lincoln) and John Lee Ames was also just amazing and pivotal to the tone of this film. This is certainly something I’ll be discussing at some point with Raven Banner Entertainment, our sales agent on the film. Those guys have some exciting things lined up for the official release of this and The Midnight Game in early 2014. Stay tuned for details.

Yanes:  Finally, outside of House of Dust, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Calvo:  I currently have two feature projects in development—both a departure from the young-adult horror/thriller genre. The first, which I wrote, is more of a mystery-dramedy inspired by comic book themed films like American Splendor, Ghost World, and High Fidelity featuring quirky characters, but with the dark dramatic tone of early Coen Brothers. The second is a time-travel sci-fi thriller penned for me by a couple of brilliant Film Studies grads from Yale University—“The Sharnasky Brothers.” I read one of their screenplays and was so impressed with their writing skills, so this is something we’re collaborating on. I’m excited about it. Lastly, I just started developing my first TV episodic series—something supernatural, of course.

To learn more about Calvo, you can visit his homepage here

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