Last week, I had the pleasure of viewing the live-action short, Boy in the Dark, and then sit down with writer/director/DP Jason Ragosta. His story begins in the familiar territory of a young boy dealing with the imaginary monster in the closet, but expands its themes to include schoolyard bullying, the loss of a parent, and the retreat into art – in this case drawing – to deal with it all. It’s a very elegant piece of work with top-notch production values, beautiful camera work, and a solid performance by juvenile actor, TonyBoy Marin. Jason unwraps his themes gracefully and holds our attention for what turns out to be a very brief 13 minutes.
I’m looking forward to seeing more feature work from Mr. Ragosta – he has a great eye and good command of his visions…in the meantime, here is a bit of our conversation about his short and his plans.
SS: I watched Boy in the Dark and the music video, Uh Oh, both very polished – high production values. For how long have you been a filmmaker?
JR: Thank you. Wow, I started in ’back in 99 or 2000, like 18 years, maybe?
SS: Two things that stood out, especially in Boy in the Dark, were the camera work and the artwork at the opening. I noticed that you did both. Do you have an art background?
JR: I don’t frankly like to shoot my own stuff if I can help it but I was the best DP I could afford on that one – which was not paying myself anything. On the music video we had a fantastic DP named Pascal Combes-Knoke. I got spoiled on that one after hauling the camera around and doing everything myself on Boy in the Dark. We shot that in two days on a very tight budget but my producer Marissa Garay and I felt it was the best way to show our current capabilities with the new team we were building and everything that we were aiming to make features with, which is our next thing we’re going to gear up for.
SS: What made you move into film?
JR: Um, it was funny. I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore for illustration and I found that when I was drawing, I was really telling stories with the drawings. I started tinkering around with doing comic books back then, but with oil paints and it was completely insane. I wasn’t at a level or as disciplined back then, or as experienced as an actual writer to pull it off, but I’ve come a long way on that front now and concentrated on my writing in the last 18 years. That’s really been my focus aside from the actual filmmaking part.
SS: Is there anybody’s work that inspired you to make the move? – other than (Guillermo) del Toro? (both of us laugh – watch the short at the end)
JR: Del Toro, of course, is one of my greatest loves and to see him succeed so well this year with a genre film, The Shape of Water, just brought me so much joy because normally genre gets pushed out when it comes to Academy Awards. It was really fantastic to see him break through that. And he’s been working at it a long while. Pan’s Labyrinth got him close.
SS: It should have gotten him closer, in my opinion.
JR: Yeah, right?! It’s crazy. I think being a foreign language film makes it trickier. Crouching Tiger was another foreign language film that did well at the Oscars, but it’s difficult to break into the main categories. Amelie, I think was another one that did well, but it’s pretty rare. But yeah, as far as my influences go, initially I think it was very much the same people as anyone would say– Ridley Scott, Kubrick, Spielberg were huge for me. Obviously Star Wars was a huge influence on me, so I’ll add George Lucas. And then when I began my career I started in stop motion animation as a storyboard artist, so Henry Selick. And Tim Burton. The Nightmare Before Xmas just blew my mind. I was lucky enough to meet Selick once and I was like “thank you so much!” It was like he had infected me with something in my brain when I saw that movie.
SS: … and probably about the old late show staples like The Lost World and the original King Kong?
JR: Yes! And all the old Harryhausen stuff – all that stuff is so fascinating to me.
SS: The Sinbad films, the fighting skeletons….
JR: Yes, and then Clash of the Titans was just mind-blowing. And what’s cool, is for a couple years I was doing animated stop motion shorts for LEGO through a site called Tongal, which are competition-based assignments where you get money if you win the pitch phase and then you get more money if you place with a final video. I was able to make that work for a while. CGI animation kind of pushed me out of that and I had to hang up my stop motion spurs for a little while. I hope to return to it someday.
SS: Stop motion will be like “black & white” film. It will make an appearance every so often just to remind us of what we are missing.
JR: Well, what great is that films like Kubo and the Two Strings and Isle of Dogs are really helping to keep that medium alive. I haven’t managed to get out an see Isle of Dogs yet. but I’m really excited to see that one because I love what Wes Anderson did with The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Plus, I love the behind the scenes videos on all those films.
SS: Let’s talk about Boy in the Dark. I have to say that you neatly packed a number of themes into fewer that 15 minutes: kids and their nightmares, bullying, a boys affection for monsters. Were any of these drawn from your own history?
JR: Thank you, yes, all of it. It’s interesting. Awhile back I was fortunate enough to do a TedX talk. The opening for the TedX Talk was a story about my childhood, how I had this crazy imagination and was an insomniac, so I used to just lay in bed at night, staring at the walls, and shapes would start coming at me out of the darkness, giving me night terrors. For like most of my childhood. And so I made a deal with the monsters, when I was a little kid, “I will draw you, I will give you flesh if you will protect me.” I started drawing them and covering my walls with them, and I wasn’t scared anymore because they were with me. They were my creations.
SS: Yeah, I used to have the Famous Monster models – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, all around my bedroom.
JR: They were awesome, I mean, the cool thing about all those classic horror icons is that they’ve lasted. Look at The Shape of Water, right, it’s because of Creature from the Black Lagoon. And then of course Lovecraft and the Deep Ones and all that, which I have a love for as well. The first two features I was working on – ZTV that I’m working on now is the third one – I keep having to make them lower and lower budget so that I can actually do them. But the first two were Lovecraft inspired/related, kind of art from a shared universe.
Getting back to Boy in the Dark, a friend said, “you should make a short film out of that,” and I thought yes, I probably should. I took that part of my childhood and mixed it with the bullying I suffered through as a kid and it was weird. Even my artwork was tied into the bullying. I remembered kids would rip up my drawings, or I would draw in the mist on the window and the kid who liked to bully me would wipe his hand over it. So I felt, as a kid, that my drawings weren’t safe, you know what I mean? I got to the point where I had to stand up for myself and just claim ownership of my own work , where these people weren’t able to destroy it. It was just kind of a weird thing but I think that’s definitely where the film comes from.
SS: For Jake, it almost seems like reality is more frightening than his nighttime monster. I guess he expects the monster in the closet at night, but doesn’t know when the bullying will occur.
JR: Well, I think part of it, too, is you seem him when the monster comes out, that anxiety he feels, and the fear that he feels at night is a manifestation of what he’s going through in the day. He’s just kind of re-packaging it. His brain’s repackaging it at night and giving it flesh. It’s that same sort of thing that he feels when the bullies terrify him, he freezes up around them too.
SS: I have to say that you really caught me by surprise at the end. I was expecting a “Richard Parker” kind of turnabout where Jake uses the strength of the closet monster to help him deal with the bullies. But you have a bit of a twist that addresses another theme – lack of a maternal character. Where did that come from?
JR: Originally, there were early drafts, like A Monster Calls, where the kid uses the monster to go after the bullies, but I felt I was so close to reality that I decided, at a certain point, that’s not how he would resolve his problems. It isn’t that simple. In real life you can’t make your monsters attack people. Also, if she attacked those kids I’d hate to think what would happen.
JR: We didn’t have the budget for it, but you know she has a spider body – she’s a spider queen, Diana. In some of the drawings, you can see her with her spider body. There’s actually a whole backstory for her, where he’s telling her story and it ties into his mother dying in a car crash. This was his way of resurrecting her, in this underworld he created. He gives her the necklace his Mom wore that he still had. He created this maternal protector to have his mom back.
SS: You managed to communicate exactly that simply by having her appear at the end, which I think is quite amazing.
JR: Well, I’m glad it gets across. What I found when we were bringing it to festivals is that some people really got it, it really resonated, and I was happy that people felt it and that they understood it, because for some people, they just think its weird. They are like, “Oh there are these weird creatures and stuff,” but people who are creative and people who have been, maybe, bullied – or that are really paying attention – seem to understand it, which I think is really fantastic. I was trying for something subtler than where I could have gone with it (laughs)
SS: It’s an impressive piece of work, Jason. How has it been received?
JR: Great! We premiered at the Dances With Film festival down in LA at the TCL Chinese Theatre, which was very exciting because Star Wars premiered there! I was like, Dear God! And then we played at the Holly Shorts festival and we were nominated for an Apollo Award at the Connect Festival, which was really cool. That was pretty much our festival run on this. I didn’t send it to too many festivals because I really just wanted do that one film from beginning to end, go through the festival process and learn as much as I could. I went to all the panels at the festivals as if it was a job and learned as much as I could. The producer and I, Marissa, went to AFM (American Film Market) because we were using this as a launchpad to get to going on the feature films as we’re just going full steam on that now. I’m really excited about it – we met a lot of great people and there’s a bunch of people that want to work with us that we met at festivals. It’s just a really positive experience. The community of filmmakers was warm and welcoming and it was really the one of the best parts of the experience for me. I recommend to anyone, if they’re lucky enough to get a film into a festival, to talk to the other filmmakers, get to hang out with, get to know them, go to the panels. It just adds so much more to the experience than just showing up when your film screens. Also, see as many of the others’ films while you’re there – within reason. You’re basically living in a movie theatre for a week, so it’s interesting.
Time got away from us as we continued to chat about Jason’s next project – ZTV – a post-apocalyptic zombie film. He’s aiming for best quality possible and having it presented in documentary style. Once his proof of concept pitch trailer is ready, he’ll take stock of his budget and determine in what direction he should take – streaming? Limited theatrical indie run? He has also, smartly, begun work a prequel comic to generate interest.
Jason Ragosta not only knows what he wants to do in the future, he’s become proficient in pulling it off at every level. Filmotomy will stalk his career with big expectations – watch Boy in the Dark here and see if you don’t agree. Jason has especially provided Filmotomy readers with the Vimeo password for the short: Diana