‘What Have You Done, Daniel?’: An Interview With Extreme Horror Director Domiziano Cristopharo [Exclusive]

What Have You Done Daniel

If you have spent any time reading this column, you may have noticed that the name Domiziano Cristopharo has popped up a couple of times. He is both the writer of American Guinea Pig: Sacrifice and the director of eROTik. His films cover a large swathe of human experience, without shying away from any sexuality or violence that might be considered taboo. His films bring a very particular aesthetic and tone that separates them from a lot of other extreme horror. As such, it creates a fascinating oeuvre. 

Recently, it was announced that Cristopharo is working on a prequel to Sacrifice, called What Have You Done, Daniel? Luckily for me, Cristopharo sent a screener as an exclusive for Dread Central and this column, and I was able to have all those questions answered and even more raised.

What Have You Done, Daniel presents itself as a psychosexual family drama, placing Daniel in the center of a conflict between his loving mother and abusive father. The film grows steadily darker and more abrasive, while also never losing sight of the characters that form the backbone of the film. Their struggles, pain, and emotions inform the action of the film, while also preparing our protagonist for the events of Sacrifice.

Hot off the film winning the Best Horror award at the 6th Andromeda Fest in Turkey, Dread Central sat down Cristopharo to talk extreme horror, gore, writing a prequel, and more.

(This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity).

Dread Central: When did you get the idea to make a prequel to Sacrifice? How did the idea evolve over time, or did it come fully formed?

Domiziano Cristopharo: The idea actually came from the mind of Roberto Scorza [the actor who played Daniel]. During the shooting of Sacrifice, we always discussed and exploited (in a creative way) everything that wasn’t explained in the film. Sometimes we did it for fun. Sometimes it was to help Roberto to develop the right emotion for a scene (It was his first movie ever). After a private screening of the complete film (just me, him, and Poison [Rouge, Director of Sacrifice]) he said: “Why don’t we make a prequel that explains also to the audience what’s happened with the father, how and why he got the ritual tools, and the origin of the diary”?

After a few days, we met for coffee to discuss the idea in a more serious way.

Poison was very [discouraged] by the filming experience (especially the HUGE backlash received online when fans of the American Guinea Pig saga thought she was “stealing” something). She wasn’t comfortable coming back to set, so I decided to go on anyway and do it myself.

We started shooting at the end of 2018, but we knew already—due to the success and worldwide distribution achieved by American Guinea Pig 4: Sacrifice—that we wouldn’t release the prequel until the “intense journey” of the Poison Rouge chapter would come to a more static point.

Now, in 2022, I think we are ready.

What Have You Done, Daniel? seems to take cues from non-horror sources, with parts reminding me of Sirkian melodrama. What were the main inspirations for the film?

DC: To have my name in the same sentence as Douglas Sirk is an honor for sure. Also, I’m glad that it is clear and visible in the film. More than a “simple” horror, it is in the first place a disturbing drama. But as I said before, we didn’t get inspiration in anything else other than the desire to explain all the stuff in Sacrifice that we had decided to leave unexplained. The only “homage” that I did at a conscious level, is the one where “the stepfather” (a great Francesco Giannotti in a very uncomfortable role) put the underwear of the son in his mouth, recalling a famous abuse scene from Papillion by Schaffner.

Roberto Scorza returns from Sacrifice and his performance here is fantastic. The work between him, Lynn Lowry, and Francesco Giannotti anchors What Have You Done, Daniel? What was it like to work with the three of them?

DC: Trust me: it is the dream of every director (not only indie) to have a cast so tight-knit. I felt very blessed on this set ‘cause every single person involved was amazing. Both in a professional way and also as humans. Talking about “real professionals,” I must mention the amazing cinematography that Daniele Trani did for the film. He and I developed during the film a feeling that brought us to direct together (a year later) the official reboot of Cat In The Brain by Fulci, a film called now Nightmare Symphony written by Antonio Tentori and again with Frank Laloggia (this time in a lead role, while in What Have You Done, Daniel? he have just an intense “cameo”). I must also mention the amazing work that Salvatore Sangiovanni and Susan DiBona did for the music. It’s an incredible minimal score that plays with silences and emotional contrasts.

Lynn Lowry (Shivers, The Crazies) is a pretty legendary actress in horror circles. What was the process of bringing her on board?

DC: Actually she saw one of my movies at a festival. She loved it and she wrote to me that she wanted to collaborate. Can I say no to a legend? Impossible. We had a lot of fun and developed a sweet friendship. Besides all the things I’ve learned from her (having her on set was a “free cinema” lesson every day), I’ll remember all the time spent filming—and not—together, as one of the best times of my life.

The film explores a lot of interpersonal relationships and the effect they have on people. Was this a conscious decision?

DC: This is probably my movie with the highest number of characters/actors, and also the one with the most accurate depiction of the influence that bad decisions have in someone else’s life, which can have lifetime repercussions. This is not my point of view, clearly. In real life, I’m very positive. But the movie is a movie and doesn’t represent me or my vision of life. What Have You Done, Daniel? instead represents my vision of the fate of those characters and, sadly for them, their lack of hope.

Roberto and I rehearsed weekly to create the basis of the characters and the story. Andrea Cavaletto completed the job introducing the theme of the BLUE WHALE challenge, a matter that recalls the idea of the “social idol” created by screenwriter Samuel Marolla in Sacrifice.

To avoid a happy ending is pretty difficult nowadays but… someone must do it!

I don’t want to get into spoilers, but the film uses the shell as a central image for a lot of sequences. Does this represent Daniel coming into his own identity?

DC: I don’t want to reveal much either, but… the “damned” sexy cousin (an incredible Elisa Carrera Fumagalli) says in a scene: “you must be like the shell in order to survive: strong Outside and empty inside. Hopeless”. I think this says a lot. The spiral in some exotic cults is the symbol of “Enlightenment”. But it can also represent the descent into a personal hell, or a vortex that traps your thoughts and soul without being able to find an escape. In some cultures, it is also the symbol of the female genitalia, and generally a female supernatural entity/goddess, so the theme of Ishtar also returns.

The use of ritual elements and repetition in What Have You Done, Daniel? creates a rhythm that allows us to see the changes in Daniel throughout the movie. Were the ritual elements difficult to include? What research did you do beforehand?

DC: We followed the stereotypes of many urban legends, but also modern and ancient real rituals. We created a mix between possible and impossible because in the end, it is a movie that faces the supernatural. I think it’s not right to search for too much realism in a field that is for its nature a mystery and unexplored.

Your films frequently deal with changes to the body and how they reflect the internal changes of a person (addiction in Red Krokodil, trans identity in Sacrifice). How do the ideas inform each other?

DC: Almost all my movies deal with the struggle of what we are and what we appear to be: from House of Flesh Mannequins to Museum of Wonders, passing through to Hyde’s Secret Nightmare and the others mentioned by you. My monsters are all inspired by real-life events, so they are all real, and all the horrible things they do are possible. I think that this is more scary (in a deep way) than to see a “creature” of fantasy ‘cause after the movie’s end, something remains attached (seeded) to the brain and generates thoughts and insights.

I’m very happy when a movie is released and people write to me on social media to say “I’m still thinking about it, even after days”. I’m also very happy to see that (in comparison to other indie films) my movies still are present on the market, re-released and sold even after 10 years. This means that the ideas outlast the trend of the moment and stay timeless and always relevant.

You also work outside of film in other artistic mediums such as music and theater. Do you take ideas from one medium and use them in your other areas of interest?

DC: Clearly the training I got through the theater and the work “on stage” (as actor/dancer, through to work as costume designer or art director) could be visible—in a subconscious way—in the films. But, no, what I do with my theater company is pretty far from horror: we do BUTOH and Contemporary Dance and the themes we touch are meant to enlighten, fulfill and not to scare or disturb the audience.

You’ve never been a filmmaker to downplay the visual of the human body. Your works frequently show the human body at its most beautiful and its most debased, where does this approach come from?

DC: My past/present as model/dancer and student of fine arts.

Like the body, you also don’t shy away from sexuality of any kind in your films. What is your stance on the depiction of sexuality in film and your approach to filming these things?

DC: My stance is a quote from Picasso that I always repeat: “Art is never chaste and we should keep art away from ‘pure, innocent’ ignorants. If it were chaste, it wouldn’t be art at all.”

I also worked in the porn industry (as director) with some of the most famous and beautiful divas so, I know the matter I’m talking about. But, besides the realism of the sex scenes in my films, all is fake, and we have lot of fun filming those scenes, in the same way we have fun filming death and murders. Movies, and everything is represented in a movie, is an illusion… or at least it should be.

Your films also sometimes include gore, but not generally for its own sake. The use of violence is always in service to the plot, theme and tone of the film. How do you strike this balance?

DC: I’m a fan of splatter (Evil Dead, Bad Taste), but it is not a genre I feel is right for me.

In the matter of torture and gore I think realism is pretty much more effective on the audience of an extreme film, and… this is what we wanna do, right? Disturb our audience. The splatter goes – generally – more into an unrealistic style of entertainment. In my movies, more than just entertainment, I try to also develop a message (doesn’t mean that I do it right) and I think a drop of blood can be actually more effective than gallons.

If we think on the original Asian Guinea Pig saga, and then the American Guinea Pig saga, we think about movies with tons of blood and guts… but SACRIFICE shocked many people instead… and if we consider that for the WHOLE movie we used less than 1 liter of blood, so my theory is confirmed!

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to the Dread Central readers?

DC: If I delayed on purpose the release of What Have You Done, Daniel?, the COVID pandemic also froze the release of the following projects. At this point I have lot of stuff readyto release, but with the risk of creating a lot of confusion in the audience [due to the amount of films]. So, even if for now I’m quitting the filmmaking field (I’m filming my last horror movie in the coming months) to follow my Theater Company, I’m afraid that for few years movies of mine will be released and present in the market (like the 2 upcoming Tetromaniac films: CONFESSIONS OF A NECROFILE GIRL, and the new co-direction with Poison Rouge 61: THE SCORECARD KILLER, inspired by Randy Kraft).

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