Interview: Martin Guigui, Beneath the Darkness

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, son of famed Symphony Orchestra Conductor Efrain Guigui, Martin Guigui grew up in New York, Puerto Rico and Vermont. He began his film career while a student at Hofstra University and soon thereafter won several festival awards for his shorts and documentary films. Guigui directed and produced music driven documentaries about the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and Sun Ra. A grounding quality of Martin Guigui’s heart and soul is his extensive musical background.

I had the pleasure to talk to Martin about his film, “Beneath the Darkness”, a thriller featuring Dennis Quaid as a homicidal funeral director and mortician with more than few issues. I loved it and enjoyed hearing a bit more about the making of the picture…

GS: The film has references to Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” and Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”. I understood the reason for the first one, but I’m not clear on the second…

MG: I, quite frankly, didn’t either. Writer and producer Bruce Wilkinson is a big fan of Shakespeare. I think if we were to ask Bruce — and he is no longer with us, but I’ll channel him — his answer would be that he’s a fan of Shakespeare and he wanted to create some sort of quirky environment for the students, the actors.

My answer is that I believe Bruce was a calculated screenwriter. This was his first screenplay, and he offered a smorgasbord. It has a lot of different elements. I would ask him, “Why is there a ghost? Is this a thriller or a horror movie? What is the focus?” And his answer was always that he wanted everything in there. This was his way of putting many genres in there, and maybe in the back of his mind he thought, “Maybe there are people who like Shakespeare, so I’ll throw some of that in there.” (laughs) It’s a good question.

GS: I could also draw parallels with “Psycho” and other things, but I will ask you — as the director, what sort of look were you going for, what was the inspiration?

MG: I was attempting to create a suspenseful tone that was focused on the psyche of our psychotic character. I really wanted the picture to be stylistically all about what was going on inside this person’s head and why is he the way he is. Why is he turning this town upside down? What is the reason behind his dark side?

I chose to approach it from a traditional standpoint because those are the thrillers I enjoy watching. The screenplay did not feel contemporary, so I felt to match the screenplay I needed more traditional music and cinematography. I didn’t want a fast-moving, shaky camera. I wanted a very even-paced approach to create an uneasiness in viewers. What really gets under your skin in the thriller genre is the calm before the storm — you know something’s going to happen, and the way to create that is the way Hitchcock and others traditionally did that. We still have some who approach film that way today — Polanski, DePalma, Peter Jackson and David Lynch. Creating an uneasiness by keeping the camera low to the ground and moving slowly, putting the action in close-ups.

I studied the genre quite a bit before diving into this picture and chose to go traditional.

GS: And I think that shows. While the use of high school kids is probably more contemporary, there is an overall 1960s feel to the film.

MG: Right on. You’re right on the money. That’s what the script called for — a town outside of time. No cell phones, texting. We talked about modernizing it, but we didn’t want it to be a cookie cutter project. The heart of this film is the small town, staying true to American values. The 1960s is exactly it.

GS: During casting, what about Dennis Quaid made him stand out as your villain?

MG: I’ve known Dennis for many years, and he always wanted to play a villain. He had been looking for years for an opportunity to dive into the dark side. He didn’t want to do it with a big studio picture, because it was important to him to keep creative control and maintain his character’s integrity. In a smaller, independent film like this, he took to the material immediately. I think he liked the traditional feel, which also attracted Aimee Teegarden to the project. Dennis was an afterthought. I’m sure you can come up with half a dozen actors who fit the role…

GS: The usual suspects, yeah.

MG: Yeah. But then at one point we decided to cast against type and go the unexpected route. We took a chance, but I think it paid off. Dennis went all the way with it. There were even outtakes where he went over the top. We took those out because we thought the extremes would hurt his performance, but he nailed it.

GS: I can’t disagree with that at all. You lucked out in knowing Dennis, because he carries the film.

MG: I agree. We were very fortunate in that way. And he had a blast, he had such a good time. He was jumping out of bed to play this guy. (laughs)

GS: Maybe this was in the script, maybe not, but I felt like the teenagers in the film swore more than the average kid would…

MG: Yes, we were also not a fan of that. In fact, I’ll tell you that we ended up going back and turning a lot of the f-words into “frickin'”. We had the teenagers come in and clean it up. So what you have now is actually only about 20 or 30 percent of what was actually in there. It was improvised on set, and it was okayed at the time by the writer and producer, Bruce Wilkinson, who wanted a sense of realism. Our mantra in this picture was realism. But once we had test screenings and sat in the editing room, we started saying “ouch, we don’t need that”. So we split the difference. Bruce wanted to keep them all, and we wanted to get rid of most of them. Once our distributor came on board we were able to tighten it up even more.

GS: I loved “Beneath the Darkness”, so I can’t help but wonder what’s next…

MG: I’m a busy boy these days. I’ll give you the reality list, the films that are actually financed. I’m directing a comedy here in Los Angeles called “Big Finish”. It’s an homage to all the legendary, old-school comedians. I’m doing a basketball, sports drama called “Sweetwater” about the first black player in the NBA (Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton). It’s a bigger budget film, shooting in New York in the fall. I have a project called “The Film Thief”, shooting in Argentina in Spanish. I’m from Argentina originally, so it’s a real honor to be able to go there an make a beautiful film and then have it distributed here as a foreign film. It’s a throwback to “Cinema Paradiso”, a magical story about movies…

And I’m still hovering around this “Raging Bull II” project that I’m the screenwriter on. And now I’m also attached to direct. That film should be getting made sometime over the next 12 to 18 months, if not sooner.

GS: So, basically, you won’t be sleeping this year?

MG: That’s right, and not even because I have kids. (laughs) But I love it. I dreamt of this when I was 9 years old and knew this is what I wanted to do. This, and produce music. If I’m not shooting a film, I’m in a studio recording a record. So I feel very blessed and fortunate. It requires an insurmountable level of energy and you have to work your tail off to get these things done, but I love it.

GS: Awesome. I hope we get the chance to talk again, this has been a good talk and could go on all day, I think.

MG: I look forward to that. Good questions, very insightful.

GS: Thank you. Have a good day.

MG: Thanks!

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