When a body vanishes from a morgue, it's only the beginning of morbid things to come in The Dead Center. The latest film from Billy Senese, The Dead Center is out in select US theaters and on digital HD today and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray October 15th, and we had a chance to catch up with director Billy Senese to talk about his latest film.
I understand that THE DEAD CENTER was born from a short film you wrote called The Suicide Tapes. Can you talk about transforming that idea into what it is now?
Billy Senese: At the heart of the Suicide Tapes were the psychiatric interview sessions. And as I started to develop it into a feature, I knew they were going to be the heart of THE DEAD CENTER, too. I find sessions like these so interesting. Healing the mind is a tricky thing. And the therapists or psychiatrists that can actually maneuver through the mine fields of people’s emotions and traumas, and actually help someone, are heroes to me. So I went deeper into this world of psychiatric care and what it takes to deal with trauma.
Can you talk about the road to getting this film into production? What were some of your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Billy Senese: Finding the money is always the biggest challenge. But then once you find it, you’re like, shoot, don’t we need more? In independent film, it feels like you are constantly against the ropes. Someone told me once that Hollywood films reshoot 40% of the time. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not, but even if it’s half that, what a privilege. The hardest thing about making films is trying to get it right the first time around. No matter how prepared you are, and how much you know what you want, it never works out the way you think. The biggest challenge for me is getting it right on set so you don’t have to try and save it in post-production or reshoot the scene.
This is a film that deals with some tough subjects, like suicide and mental health. What kind of research did you do and/or who did you consult with to make sure this felt grounded in reality?
Billy Senese: I started with this book called “Danger to Self,” by Dr. Paul Linde. This book went into real accounts of the Dr. Linde’s work in an emergency psychiatric unit in San Francisco. After reading it, I knew I wanted the story to take place in this world. There was something about the band-aid nature of it that felt right to me. So I actually reached out to him to see if he would come on board as a consultant. Luckily for me, he did. Paul was great. He would read through the script and give me notes on the technical material, as well as dialogue notes – he helped so much with making everything more authentic.
Can you talk about how and when Shane Carruth got involved and your experience working with him on set?
Billy Senese: I think it was a few months before I got funding. I was sitting at home re-watching UPSTREAM COLOR and thought to myself, man, he would make a great psychiatrist. Shane has such a natural quality and a seriousness that I thought were absolutely perfect for this character. So we figured out a way to send him the script. And I was thrilled that he connected to material immediately.
It was great working with him. Sure we would butt heads here and there, but he always respected my decisions, even when we disagreed. For him, this was an experiment. He is a director who stars in his own films. This is the first time he’s ever starred in a feature film that wasn’t his. I think he had to get used to the idea of letting all the details of the process go and just focusing on his character.
Shane also came on as a producer on this film. He was someone I could confer with regarding the script, on-set choices, and in the edit room. He fully understands independent filmmaking. The man is a true artist, and it was a privilege to have worked with him and gotten to know him. I know I’m a better filmmaker because of it.
What's your favorite behind-the-scenes that always comes to mind when you look back at the making of this movie?
Billy Senese: Shane’s obsession with food. Not him eating it personally, but him always wanting the character to be eating, drinking, or consuming something.
Can you talk about your experience taking this movie on the road to different festivals? Has anything surprised you when it came to audience reaction to this film?
Billy Senese: The festival circuit was a great experience. A lot of them were genre fests. And I admit, I was a little concerned how audiences might receive this as a horror film, since it doesn’t have much blood and guts in it. I would say THE DEAD CENTER is more of a thriller, like a supernatural True Detective, or something with a horrific elements and themes. But they loved it everywhere I took it. I had incredible responses and engagement. I think they really responded to how well-grounded in reality the film feels, even with the supernatural side to it.
With THE DEAD CENTER coming to theaters this week and Blu-ray later in the month, what do you have coming up next?
Billy Senese: I’m collaborating on a couple of projects right now. One is an Iranian spy adaptation that I was commissioned to write. The other is hopefully my next directing project. It’s a little too early to talk about the details, but it’s an American thriller in the vein of STRAW DOGS and DELIVERANCE.