Actor Robert DiTillio is perhaps best known for the 2003 Dean Cain sci-fi B-movie “Dragon Fighter,” in which he supplies most of the comic relief and suffers the goriest death. (It also happens to be his favorite film experience).
But during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as an up-and-coming New York City actor, DiTillio was cast in a plethora of bit roles (some of whom also met imaginatively grisly ends). Ranging from quirky romantic comedies to pointed satires to schlocky horror outings, these films were helmed by such unique local visionaries as Temístocles López; Warhol Factory extraordinaire (and notorious conservative crank) Paul Morrissey; Tim Kincaid (also known for shooting gay porno under the alias Joe Gage); and Gorman Bechard (who started in low-budget horror comedy but has more recently directed acclaimed documentaries, including on two of my favorite bands: The Replacements and Hüsker Dü). In many of these films, the city of New York, in all its pre-Giuliani-era grit and grunge, plays a central role.
DiTillio moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and has since remained a busy television and film actor, playing an impressive variety of roles–large and small. He recently branched out into screenwriting; his comedy horror short, “Easy to Scare,” was one of four finalists at last year’s We Make Movies competition and is slated to shoot in the fall. He also played the lead role in a quirky short called “The Book Club,” penned by his wife, Christine, which wrapped earlier this year.
DiTillio was one of the nicest interviewees yet for Hidden Films. Not only did he share rare promotional materials for such cult horror films he appeared in as “Cemetery High” and “The Occultist”; he also dug up and transferred VHS copies of several films that are virtually impossible to find. (Two films featuring DiTillio, which neither of us could find, are not even on the IMDB; I am still searching for them). Below are excerpts from our conversations.
Sam Weisberg: What got you into acting?
Robert DiTillio: I went to business school at NYU. Everyone said to go to business school because it’d give me a lot of opportunities. I didn’t really like it much. And the day I graduated, next to me [at the ceremony] was the [Tisch] School of the Arts, and I was like, “I’m in the wrong section.” That was a little disheartening. I was 21. For a few years, I kind of just knocked around. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to go into corporate America.
So I went back to NYU to study filmmaking. And the first night I took a [production] class, even though it was just a lecture class, I thought: “This is what I want to do.” I was in that program for two years and I wound up getting a certificate. But in the meantime, a friend of mine, Pete Papageorgiou, started taking acting classes with Stephen Strimpell [star of the 1960s CBS TV series “Mister Terrific”] at HB Studio, in Greenwich Village. I [joined] the class, and [again] I thought: “This is what I wanna do. Not only filmmaking, but this.” It felt like my calling in life.
I was about 24. I started to do production work, working as a P.A., lighting, gaffer, grip, whatever they needed. This was 1985 to 1987. But then I started to get auditions. And everything would start to conflict. I’d be on a film two weeks as a P.A. and then I couldn’t do the auditions. So I had to make a decision. And I liked the acting better. So I started auditioning more. And I think I booked my first paying job in 1986, which was this horror film, “The Occultist.” I played the security guard in that and I got killed right away.
SW: Any movie shot in New York during that period, I like by default. It was back when you couldn’t take a subway without wall-to-wall graffiti.
RDT: Someone has a Facebook page called Dirty Old 1970s New York City. I used to hang around Times Square, it was all seedy and stuff, but I loved it. I never felt like I was in danger. And no one ever bothered me. I used to go all around the Village and the Lower East Side. I liked the energy. I was born in Manhattan and then lived in Queens, in Ozone Park, and then I moved to Astoria when I got my own apartment. I lived right next to the Triborough Bridge, by Astoria Park.
SW: I lived there, too, from 2004 to 2016. What was Astoria like during the ‘80s?
RDT: It was terrific. It had such a great culture. I would have loved to live in Manhattan but I couldn’t afford it even then.
SW: Did you go with the method acting approach when you were learning?
RDT: When I studied with Stephen, his attitude was more like, “Whatever works for you.” I’ve tried a lot of techniques from different people like Meisner and Stanislavski. But everyone grows and changes as they get older.
SW: Tell me about the set of “The Occultist.”
RDT: I did a scene as a security guard. I get my throat cut on a pizza box. That was one of the first times I had a prosthetic done, an appliance attached to my neck. It hardens and it felt like it was crunching in on my throat. It really felt weird. I think you see me in the booth watching the screens and then you see me with my throat cut. I think that was a budget thing.
I also remember being on the set, in this big warehouse, with a lot of neon colors, and a lot of people dressed in crazy voodoo costumes and girls scantily clad, and I think someone was attached to a rack and they were whipping him. They used me as a background extra because I was in the darkness and you couldn’t see me, so no one was gonna make the connection that I was a security guard in another scene. The director on that, Tim Kincaid, had been a porn director. This was his breakout movie to do something serious.
The alternate title was, I think, “Maximum Thrust.” And before that, it was something like “Waldo Warren, Private Dick.”
SW: I know Charles Band produced “The Occultist” as well as your next film, “Cemetery High.” How did you get the second film? Were you on his roster?
RDT: I never met Charles. I didn’t work with [Band’s production company] Empire Films again, though I did audition for other Empire stuff.
“Cemetery High” was supposed to be called “Assault of the Killer Bimbos.” What happened was, Charles hired Gorman Bechard to direct it. As is often the case with low-budget exploitation movies, Empire created much of the marketing materials before the film was even shot. After it was completed, Band hated the movie and wanted Bechard to re-shoot a lot of it. I don’t know if he did or not, but Band continued to hate it so much that he decided to make another movie called “Assault of the Killer Bimbos” and release it using the already created promo material. However, he didn’t want to lose the money he gave Bechard, so he also released “Cemetery High,” but not under that title! He renamed it “Hack ‘Em High,” and I think it was briefly released as that before it finally settled in as “Cemetery High.” I think Charles stole this [strategy] from Roger Corman.
I know “Bimbos” became a B-movie cult classic for a while. Sadly, “Cemetery High” never got the cult following that “Bimbos” had.
[NOTE: DiTillio kindly sent me Gorman Bechard’s September 1987 letter to “Cemetery’s” cast and crew, more or less telling them his version of DiTillio’s account above. The letter included some hilarious–and heartbreaking–anecdotes. Charles Band complained that Bechard’s cut was “too evil,” adding: “We wanted ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and you gave us ‘Mean Streets.'” The print was cut from 100 minutes to a mere 47; Bechard was ordered to do reshoots; and–easily the biggest insult of all–Band confessed that he had just read the script, months after the film wrapped! “They even cut the swizzle stick out of the swizzle stick scene, but kept in the reference to it later,” Bechard lamented. “This is shit, and I don’t blame the editor. I blame Band — 100 percent!”
Bechard also mentioned, in the same letter, a making-of documentary called “B-Movie” that had been shot alongside “Cemetery High.” When I wrote to Bechard to ask if this doc still existed, he replied that sadly the footage was lost years ago. Bechard has not softened on Band, 32 years after the “Cemetery High” debacle. “Charlie Band is a fucking piece of shit, and yes, you can quote me on that,” he wrote.]
SW: What did you think of those types of exploitation films at the time?
RDT: Horror/sci-fi is my favorite genre. I’ve done a few pictures with blood and gore and prosthetic makeup. I love doing them. Some of them are hard to watch because the plots don’t make any sense. Sometimes one more scene would clarify things, but they don’t have the money. But of course that is what makes B-movies fun, because you’ve gotta come up with ways to shoot stuff cheap.
It was a fun [shoot]. We shot in Connecticut, and they put all six of us playing the hitmen in this hotel, and we had a ball. We had smaller supporting roles so we didn’t have to carry the film, so it was party time.
The final shoot-out was cool. They asked us for some of our own ideas, on how we should march into the place. We had this stupid scene where we’re marching in tandem down the stairs. And then there were a lot of special effects. They cut to the girl shooting the shotgun, and then I had to pop backwards, and then there’s a huge hole in my stomach. But that never made it into the cut.
It was a little bit my fault. At that time, I was wearing contact lenses, I was getting used to them, and they were bothering me. They’d done this whole makeup effect, and I had fake blood on my hands. That fake blood—it’s sticky, man. It doesn’t come off easy. So I did a dumb thing. I took out my contacts and put them back in, and the lens had absorbed the fake blood. It was very uncomfortable, it was starting to burn. And then we had to shoot this scene on the ground. They were trying to get a shot of me and they said, “This guy’s eyes are moving like crazy!” I felt bad, like I was ruining the scene, but I couldn’t just relax and do the scene. I was supposed to be dead and it was obvious I wasn’t dead! I think that’s why they didn’t use it. And I didn’t want to take them out again because I was worried I’d get more blood in my eyes. I never wore contacts after that.
SW: Your next film was “Spike of Bensonhurst.” I interviewed the director Paul Morrissey about eight years ago, and he yelled at me the whole time. I was wondering what he was like to work with back then.
RDT: I only worked on that one day, and all I did was make out with this girl all day. The scene is, they’re in prison visiting this mobster guy, and this convict is making out with his girlfriend on visitor day, and that’s me, in the background. And the girl was real sexy, real cute. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. And I thought, “Wow, being an actor is great.”
Paul Morrissey was definitely an odd guy. He seemed like he was high the whole time. I used to smoke pot and everything, so I wasn’t anti-drugs, but I never thought I’d be on a set where the director seemed to be high. However, in hindsight, I don’t think he was high. I think that was just his energy. He had this very Timothy Leary, “Everything is flowing and flowers”—he just seemed very loose. He let me kiss this girl for a few hours. He didn’t think it was a distraction.
I was non-union at the time and thought maybe I could get into SAG on this film. I felt like I had enough screen time. I contacted the producers to find out, but nothing ever came of that. So they kept me as an extra.
SW: The next movie on your IMDB repertoire is Temístocles López’s “Exquisite Corpses,” which featured the late Zoë Lund, known for Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45” and later for “Bad Lieutenant.” Were you an Abel Ferrara fan?
RDT: I’m not a big fan. I auditioned for him once–it was more of an interview, I think for “China Girl”— and I was not feeling good. And he asked me a question I wasn’t prepared to answer and I kind of flubbed it, and I think he thought I was bullshitting. I never heard from him again.
I had hundreds of auditions over the years, but the ones you remember are the ones you really mess up. That was a learning experience. That taught me that I need to prepare to talk about anything. You never know what they’re gonna ask you! You might have a film on your resume where they know everyone on that film. Which is why it’s not a good idea to lie on your resume. Everyone knows everyone else, especially in genres like horror.
SW: What were some of your memorable auditions where you did get the part?
RDT: “Small Time” [released in 1991] was pretty interesting. This director Norman Loftis [who made one more film, 1994’s “Messenger,” before becoming an adjunct English professor at CUNY’s Medgar Evers College] had the auditions at a college on the lower west side of Manhattan. They were in a huge auditorium, and everyone was watching everyone else, and he had people doing monologues. That was nerve-racking for a lot of people, because usually auditions are private. But I had done some theater, and I was able to use that situation to talk to the audience. I think my monologue was from “Midnight Express,” it was Billy’s closing statement in the trial.
My one scene [playing a principal] was shot at a national school in Brooklyn, and it had an early call time, and I think it was eight to ten hours before I shot that scene. I think I slurred one of the lines, and they only did one take. These low-budget movies, man!
Norman was behind all the time, on that picture. He was a little bit in his own time. It was non-union, so he didn’t have to pay for overtime. I don’t think he took advantage on purpose; he just wanted to take his time shooting the scenes. He didn’t really tell me anything. He liked what I did in the audition. A lot of directors do that, they kind of let you go. I thought I was kind of young to be the principal!
SW: I liked how a lot of it was shot, with the long-shots of these very tense scenes: the rape, the beatdown of the cab driver.
RDT: I thought the film came out good. It’s a quality low-budget film. It’s one of the better films I made in that time period.
SW: Getting back to “Exquisite Corpses,” that must have been a crazy shoot. Lots of guerilla NYC filmmaking and the interiors are all cabaret-esque. It starts like a parody of “Midnight Cowboy,” and then it becomes this whole other homoerotic film noir thing. How did you react when you read that script?
RDT: I don’t know if I read the whole script before we shot, but I saw the film, down in Greenwich Village, with all my friends. It was a wild picture. I didn’t quite know how to process it at the time. I was like, “What is this about?” I think I got high when I saw it, too, so I had a real bizarre reaction to it.
SW: Did you get to know Temístocles López well?
RDT: He was excited about everything. He was thrilled to be doing this. It was his first foray into film.
They hired me to play this cop. I had an NYPD uniform which I got from a friend of mine, who wanted to be a cop, he had worn it in the academy. We were shooting in the winter, in SoHo, in front of the art galleries. It was really cold. I didn’t have a coat, just a parka, like they wore in “The Thing.” And [the director] said “Go ahead, wear that!” I’m like, “What!? This is not a police jacket! I would never be wearing this thing!” There was fur around the hood. And they didn’t care. So I’m this cop wearing a parka! I thought it was ridiculous. I always wanted to be authentic. But I guess it fit in with the bizarreness of the film. It was either that, or freeze!
SW: There was another film where you played a cop, “The Puerto Rican Mambo (Not a Musical).” [NOTE: It received a small theatrical release in 1992 and is available on VHS. It was the sole directing effort of Ben Model, who kindly sent me a more polished version of the film; he is now a silent film accompanist. A standalone post about “Puerto Rican Mambo” will appear on Hidden Films soon.] It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, where you order the protagonist [comic Luis Caballero] to drop his sandwich and kick it over.
RDT: John Leguizamo was in that movie, one of his early pictures. [NOTE: he plays several characters, all hilarious, and is billed as Johnny Leggs.] That one got a bit of press because it was a Latino story, which at that time was [rare].
We shot [my scene] at Gramercy Park. I had my own police uniform, and I bought all kinds of insignia for it, precinct numbers and stuff like that. So I bought Precinct #13, because 13 was my softball team number. For the scene, I’m at one end of the park and I see an altercation happening at the other end, and I start running over. I was sitting there waiting [for my cue], by myself; it was like guerrilla shooting, you can’t tell it’s a film. And everyone was asking me things like you’d ask a real cop. People are asking me for directions, telling me they have a problem with their roommate, or something. I said, “Look, I’m not a real cop, I’m shooting this film.” That was kind of funny.
Then I see a police car driving around and the cops are looking at me, and what I didn’t know was—Gramercy Park is in the 13th precinct, and I had the 13th insignia on! So I even fooled the cops! They didn’t think I was impersonating a cop—they thought I was a cop…but they didn’t know who I was! Eventually they talked to me, I told them we were shooting a film, and they were cool about it. But it was a little scary, because it shows you how easy it is to gain someone’s trust.
SW: Another bizarre movie from that period that I liked, it’s got great music in it, was “Punch the Clock.” It’s got Dead Milkmen, early They Might Be Giants, a bunch of great bands from the Hoboken label Bar/None Records…
RDT: [Director] Eric Schlagman was a nice guy, very personable, not a big ego. He was hands-off, he let me do my character. I was a police interviewer. There was a young girl doing the makeup, maybe college-age, and she didn’t know how to do makeup! I looked like I was doing Kabuki theater, my face just turned white. She was powdering me over and over again. So she redid the whole makeup, but she didn’t really take off the [original] makeup. She just covered it. She was using stage makeup, which is a little heavier than film, because people need to see you from far away. And with that much makeup, your eyes start to burn. So when I was shooting that scene, I was so uncomfortable.
SW: I know one of the actors in that, James Lorinz, was also in “Street Trash,” one of my favorites. He’s in the funniest scene in that film, the “Kiss your prick?” closing scene.
RDT: Yeah, some of my friends are in that. I tried out for it. And he’s in “Frankenhooker.” He’s also in “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” which I was an extra in. I did extra work all the time in New York. They tell you not to do it in L.A., so I haven’t done it since about 1996.
SW: Did you make any long-term friends on these sets?
RDT: Not so much on the set, but I did this one movie “All I Know Is.” I was very briefly in it. The star is Michael Albala, and we were in the same theater company out here in L.A. for five years, and it was years before I realized he was the star of that film! He’s a great guy.
I didn’t have any lines. I’m a mobster getting into a car and I look menacing and these kids have the [mafia] trading card with my still photo on it.
SW: That movie is totally impossible to find. What’d you think of it?
RDT: It’s good. It has that “Christmas Story” feel, with the narration, and Michael’s a really good actor. [NOTE: I contacted the director of “All I Know Is,” Richard Mauro, who is in the process of touching up and eventually distributing the film. The version I watched is a very sweet story–set in late 1960s New York City–about two adolescents who befriend an eccentric, irascible record collector (played by the late David Coughlin, who also appeared in “Cemetery High.”) With his fair hair, incensed expression and Coke-bottle glasses, Coughlin’s character registers like a predecessor to Bubbles, from the popular and hilarious Canadian mockumentary series “Trailer Park Boys.”]
SW: Speaking of Los Angeles, what led to your relocation there?
RDT: I was getting frustrated. I did like nine independent films in New York. I worked on soap operas. I was on “Loving” like six times, and they never let me join SAG. The casting director liked me. I was in AFTRA, and the rules were if you were in AFTRA and got one line on an AFTRA show, you automatically became SAG-eligible. But I asked her to give me a line, and they didn’t want to pay for me to have a fricking line! I’ll never forget this, this was one of the most frustrating things. I did a scene with the lead actor, and he’s directly asking me questions about one of the other characters, and they wouldn’t let me say a line to answer the question! They said, “Just nod your head to answer the question.” It was so stupid for the scene. I worked on that show so often, you’d think someone would throw me a line.
But the most frustrating thing was, I was actually hired to be an Italian mobster/gang member in “New Jack City.” That was a pretty big picture at the time. They hired me on a Monday, they said they were gonna shoot that Friday. I was on the phone with them every day going over wardrobe and where I was supposed to be. Thursday night, I’m getting ready for the shoot, I already had a call time for Friday morning, and they called me again and said, “By the way, are you in SAG?” They caught me off guard. I said, “No, I thought you guys were gonna Taft-Hartley me in.” [Taft-Hartley is a form to allow non-SAG members to work on a SAG production]. And they said, “I’m sorry, we can’t use you.” I swear to God, it was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my career. I was like, “What the fuck is wrong with these people? Why didn’t you ask me that in the beginning?” I was in tears over that.
A few days later, they called me and asked if I wanted to do some extra work on the movie, and I did it. I just wanted to be involved. But it was nothing. I was just in the background of a bar scene.
One day, I was taking the train to my temp job in Manhattan. It just hit me, like a bolt of lightning: “I gotta move to Los Angeles.” That was in August or September, and I decided to stay in New York for the holidays and then move in February , and that’s exactly what I did. My [late] brother, Larry DiTillio, had already been living here, since 1969, he was a lot older than me and was a successful television writer. I stayed with him for a little while. And six weeks after I was here, I had my first audition and I got into SAG. I submitted for an audition through Dramalogue, they called me in for a TV series called “Hard Copy.” They used to do re-enactments, and they did a four-episode series on Elvis Presley, his whole life. They called me in, because guess what? I looked just like Bill Black, Elvis’ bass player. They were using archival footage and they wanted to match it. It was really just an interview, and I got it. I had to fake playing upright bass, and I had one line: “Hey, Elvis: that’s us!” And that line got me into SAG.
That was a validation that I’d made the right decision. It was not easy to leave and start a whole new life, but I don’t regret it. I think New York is the greatest city in the world, but I love Los Angeles too. And there wasn’t a whole lot being shot in New York at that time.
SW: Your first feature in Los Angeles was “Ill Met By Moonlight” [a low-budget adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” shot in a lot of private homes around Thousand Oaks. It is impossible to find, and DiTillio kindly sent me a copy. The best known actor in it is Timothy Bottoms of “The Paper Chase” fame]. I know the director [Somtow Sucharitkul] has done some horror pictures but is mainly a music composer. What was your experience of working with him?
RDT: He’s a very eccentric guy. He did the music himself. My brother knew Somtow, and I think that’s how I met him, at a party or something, and he told me about doing this project. He wanted everything to be edgy, which is kind of the way he made the film. He had the whole goth thing going on.
SW: Had you done Shakespeare at that point?
RDT: No, not really. Here and there I’d done monologues for auditions, but I’d never done a play. And then I had a very big part [as Demetrius]. It was loads of fun.
SW: Was it difficult learning the lines?
RDT: Just slightly more, just because I wasn’t used to it. It wasn’t that bad. I wanted to get everything just right. I’ve always been pretty good at memorizing. I just did a monologue for a showcase from “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
SW: I’m always fascinated with what individual actors do to make sense of every line, because so many of the lines are cryptic, or have multiple meanings.
RDT: One teacher I had said that one of the traps people fall into is, they make it very presentational, that it has to be some kind of grand expression. And he said just to be natural with it as you would with anything. The dialogue comes across better and is easier to understand. When people think they have to be an upper class British king, that’s when it’s harder to understand.
SW: The film is quite erotic. I forgot how dirty the play is!
RDT: Yes, Shakespeare had a ribald sense of humor. I remember reading all this flowery dialogue, and then I realized: “He’s talking about going down on a woman!” When you’re young, you always think Shakespeare’s a very high-brow thing, for very intellectual people. But then you read it and realize he’s as dirty as anyone else. He got really low sometimes. The monologue I just did from “Verona” is about how he’s got this dog he can’t control and he brings the dog into the duke’s dining chamber, and the dog is stealing food and peeing on people’s legs. It’s hilarious.
SW: Did “Ill Met” play any festivals, or was there a theatrical screening?
RDT: The only screening I remember was for the cast and crew and invited friends, at Raleigh Studios in the Charlie Chaplin Theater. It’s too bad. IFC was just getting started at this time and it just kind of missed out on that wave. Somtow probably had a hard time getting distribution.
That was my first union picture, and everything’s been union since, except “Dragon Fighter.” What happened with that was, because it was shot in Bulgaria, at the time I wasn’t in violation of SAG. I would be now, because they instituted this global rule, where anywhere you shoot you have to be in SAG. But back in 2001, it wasn’t a violation.
“Dragon Fighter” was a great experience. It satisfied a lot of my dreams of what I wanted to do as an actor—going to a different country to shoot a film, and I had a major part in it. I had also always wanted to climb through an air vent, because of “Alien” and “Die Hard,” and I got to. My other goal is to shoot a car chase in the L.A. river. I haven’t done that yet.
I was in Bulgaria for two weeks. I remember a couple of days after we got there, me and Dean Cain and Kristine Byers went to a Chinese restaurant, and I’m thinking, “I’m in Bulgaria eating at a Chinese restaurant with Dean Cain!” He was a really nice guy. Most of my scenes were with him. I had a wonderful time shooting that thing, they had great sets, very high production values.
The director on that one, Phillip J. Roth, he was a nice guy and he had been in Bulgaria shooting films like this for a couple of years. He just loved Bulgaria. You’re like a king over there—the money goes a long way. I remember eating lunch one day and it cost like fifty cents. The first week I was there—we were working six days a week, off Sunday— he took the entire cast and crew out to eat, on a Saturday. We went to this really nice outdoor restaurant in Sofia, the drinks and food were flowing, and then we went to a club all night, dancing into the wee hours. It was just a wild time. Because he was a rich American, there were lots of beautiful girls around all the time.
I had a very good, emotional scene with Dean Cain. I had a bad nervous breakdown in the scene, and after I did it, people on the crew asked if I was OK! And then, ach—they cut that scene out of the movie! It was simply for time. They were making the movie for the SciFi Channel and it had to be in the 90-minute time slot. I had some other really good scenes on the cutting room floor, and unfortunately it wasn’t a big enough film to have a “Deleted Scenes” [section] on the DVD. But I had a lot of good scenes. I was basically the Hudson character from “Aliens,” the guy who doesn’t want to be there, basically a slob.
The only bad thing was, the final film wasn’t as good as it could have been. I think they hurt it in the editing. There were plot elements lost because they just wanted one action scene after another. So some of the movie doesn’t make as much sense as it could have. And in order to keep the film moving, they did a split-screen effect showing different scenes at the same time, and it just didn’t work.
It was on SciFi for a few years and then The Movie Channel got it. It turned out to be a good thing for me. I went to Fangoria conventions and talked to some people; they knew me from that movie for a little while. I went to a convention in Pasadena and I went to a screening and this guy came up to me and asked, “Weren’t you in ‘Dragon Fighter’?” and I said “Yeah,” and he said, “I’m doing CGI for it!” Jason Shulman is his name.
SW: Did you read with Dean in the audition?
RDT: No, the way that happened was, it was written by a guy named Johnny Johnston [AKA Michael Johnston, credited as Michael Baldwin in the “Dragon Fighter” screenplay]. He had several [aliases], but that was his name when I met him. He was my agent starting in the late 1990s. He did a movie I can’t find, that was completely improvised, called “Open Wide.” [NOTE: the second film that DiTillio can’t find anywhere is called “Hugging the Edge,” directed by Cliff Vasko and starring Bil Dwyer.] I did a scene in “Open Wide” that he loved. He really wanted to be a writer so he started writing scripts, and he wrote “Dragon Fighter.” They were all ready to shoot, and they lost the guy that originally had my part. And he asked if I’d be interested in auditioning, and he sent me to this place, UFO Films. They were shooting a lot of stuff in Bulgaria. And I did really well in the audition. Two hours later, they called and asked if I wanted to go to Bulgaria. And a week later they sent me there.
SW: Another quirky film of yours that I loved was “Martini Mom and Devil Spawn.”
RDT: I was taking classes with Judith Weston, she’s pretty famous as a directing coach. She wrote a book called “Directing Actors,” it’s become one of the film school bibles. And [director] Devi Snively and I were in the class together. She liked my work and she just asked me to do the part. She had an apartment in Los Feliz and she converted it into the Martini Mom’s apartment, for like three months. She’s terrific, kind of a punk/goth sort of girl, she’s fun, she’s got a great attitude, whacky sense of humor, so I was on board. I still see the lead actress Cynthia Dane a bit.
I think she initially did it as a web series and then cut it together as a film. I think she brought it to Comic Con.
SW: Was “Dr. Rage” [AKA “The Straun House”—available on Netflix DVD] based at all on “How to Succeed in Advertising”? That was another dark comedy, where Richard Grant has a face growing on his shoulder.
RDT: I don’t know for sure. No one said it was.
How I got that movie was—I love Halloween. I used to decorate my old apartment elaborately, it was the focal point of the neighborhood. Kids would come to our block to see it. I did that for about 10 years. And one year, this guy [writer Stephen Polk] came with his kids and said, “I really like your decorations. I’m doing a horror film I wrote.” And I asked if I could audition and he said, “Leave your resume in the windshield of my car, and when I’m done taking the kids around, I’ll look at it.” And lo and behold, he called me for “Dr. Rage.” I wouldn’t be in that movie otherwise.
We shot it downtown at a former DMV. It was abandoned, it was a little bit disgusting, but it was a great job. I spent like four hours in the makeup chair. Initially, they were gonna do the head on my shoulder as a mechanical head, but it didn’t look good. They replaced it with CGI. I got to work with Karen Black, she was really cool. Andrew Divoff was cool. John Kassir, who was the Cryptkeeper on “Tales from the Crypt,” he was hilarious.
Jeff Broadstreet, I gotta tell you, he wasn’t the greatest director. He directed “Night of the Living Dead 3-D” as well, which I thought was gonna be better—I was in that as well—but he was a little bit hands-off. And Stephen—in a way I gotta thank him because he put me in the film—but he had kind of a big ego. He wanted the film to be all about him, he was starring in it. It was a little bit tense. He and Jeff would get into a lot of arguments about things. The scene with the bonesaw, it looked a little stagy in the end, because Jeff didn’t really know how to direct action. Stephen didn’t like the way Jeff directed me, and maybe he had a point, but I don’t think he knew how to make a movie either!
One day, I was there for 10 hours and they shot for like five minutes with me, and it was just an insert shot of my hand! It took so long because Stephen wanted to add a sex scene with him and Denice [Duff], and he wanted to show what a virile guy he was. It was a total vanity scene that didn’t need to be there, and they spent the whole day shooting it! I was annoyed because I had a lot of holiday [errands]. I told Jeff I was annoyed—though it wasn’t really his fault—and he gave me some extra money. They could have just knocked my scene out in the morning and let me go home, but he wanted to start with this stupid romantic scene.
I thought the pacing was slow, and it was because Stephen Polk wanted a hold on himself in every scene he was in! It has a good climactic sequence, but the time it takes to get there—it could’ve been better.
But it was great to make. I got to do a lot of cool stuff. It got a little bit of play. They did some good promotion. It was featured at a Fangoria convention and I got to be on a panel. I’m on the DVD commentary. That’s the only time I got to do that. And there were some good gore effects.
I thought they should have kept [the title] “Dr. Rage.” They changed it to “The Straun House” for the US release and I thought that was a crappy name. But hey—my face is on the DVD box!
SW: I also wanted to ask about “The Olivia Experiment,” a break from form for you–a romantic comedy [about an adult virgin who fears she is asexual]. You had a pretty prominent role.
RDT: I got that through the acting class, too. The director [Sonja Schenk] called me, no audition. And there were other people in it I knew, from the same class. Sonja’s left the trade, she does sculpting and painting. The scene we did was fun and sexy. It premiered at the Dances with Films Festival and that was a very good experience. That was one of the films I got to see on a big screen. It was very well received. There was a red carpet, we went to the opening and closing night parties of the festival. Just a great experience.
SW: So tell me about how you made this short film, “The Book Club.”
RDT: My wife Christine came up with it. I threw in a couple of ideas along the way. We know some people that are a little annoying. Not bad people, they just don’t have social skills, they say inappropriate things. So there was this concept of having a book club, and having this annoying person there.
Christine is an avid reader, books are her passion, and she wanted to write about something she knew. She doesn’t really belong to a book club, because she doesn’t like discussing them as much as reading them—it’s too much like a class. And also she likes to read what she wants to read, not what best sellers are out.
She wrote that in 2015 as part of a competition at We Make Movies, and she was a finalist but she didn’t win, so we had to produce it ourselves. [NOTE: on my last phone call with Robert, Christine chimed in with: “Robert is always very goofy, so he was definitely going to be Loman, no question. And Robert and I do improv a lot, so there were some characters that, I’m sure–maybe not consciously–I was thinking of from previous characters that Robert had done in improv.”]
SW: What was the budget?
RDT: We raised $4,000, and then we got our whole sound setup donated, and lighting equipment, and the RED camera we shot on, and lots of food. We only rented about $100 to $200 worth of equipment.
SW: Finally, tell me more about your script for “Easy to Scare,” which I know was a finalist at the recent We Make Movies competition.
RDT: I used to do major Halloween decorations. I had a full-sized coffin, it’s all wood, it has that Western diamond shape, and I used to put it out on my lawn and lay in it, in makeup, and then when kids would come to the door I’d pop out and scare them. I don’t do that anymore, because there aren’t any trick or treaters on my block. It’s a cul de sac on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and a little dangerous, so parents don’t bring their kids.
Anyway, I was talking to someone at a party once about what could scare someone, and I thought, “If you told someone that you saw someone in their window, and they knew that nobody was in there, and then you keep saying, ‘No, I saw someone,’ that’d be pretty scary.” And then I thought I could expand that into a movie. It’s two people who have a rivalry they started in college, about who can outscare the other one. I decided it might be interesting if they were all women. But I needed a third character, who asks questions and makes comments—sort of a comic relief character. And I needed someone else who was a newbie, a naive person.
It will be my directorial debut as far as film, so I’m excited. The budget is only $1,500, which is way less than “The Book Club.” They’re gonna lend us cameras and cover insurance.
RDT: It’s pretty easy to isolate where we live and we’ve actually been super busy the past few months. We’re catching up on a lot of things we’d put off for years, because we didn’t have any spare time. We’re updating our demo reels and various websites related to our careers. And we’ve been getting self-tape auditions since the pandemic started, so [we’ve spent] a lot of time recording and uploading those. I’m thinking about maybe shooting [“Easy to Scare”] in October, that would be the earliest. That way, I can take advantage of it actually being Halloween season, and I can get a lot of B-Roll.
The only thing we haven’t had much time to do is relax! But we’d like to get to that in July and August.