Antonio Pantoja is an independent filmmaker and fine art photographer who began building a following and clientele with his short films and photography. He wanted to direct and shoot his first feature length film, so he took a stab (pun intended) at his first feature script. Two years later, One Must Fall, an 80s slasher comedy starring Julie Streble is racking up laurels at horror film festivals and will be shown May 25 at Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest, where it has been given six nominations.
Despite facing challenges like leaving school after 8th grade or sleeping in a car as a teenager, Pantoja says that writing a feature script is the hardest thing he’s done in his life, but he did it and now the film has another 78 festivals to go.
In One Must Fall, a crime scene cleanup crew is on a job that turns deadly when they discover that the killer never left.
Jess: Where did your love for horror come from?
Antonio Pantoja: My father was an immigrant laborer. He worked long hours, and I rarely got to see him. So, when he did come home, he’d say, “Everyone get on the couch and let’s watch a horror film.” Maybe I felt closer to my dad or like I had a family at all doing that. I’ve seen everything horror related—every foreign film, classic horror film, everything. I think that’s where the obsession came from.
Jess: Tell me about the awards you’ve racked up so far and the coolest moments on the festival circuit so far:
Antonio: 2019 Independent Horror Movie Awards (Best Humor, Best Gore, Best Feature);
2019 Top Indie Film Awards (Most Terrifying, Best Special Effects – by Vincent J. Guastini); 2019 HorrorHound (Best Actress – Julie Streble); 2019 Benton Park Film Festival (Best Makeup).
Meeting the people is the best part. The awards and accolades are cool, but the relationships you develop are the best. That’s really where the pot of gold is here.
Horror fans are awesome. I don’t know why we like horror so much, but there’s something there I can’t quite quantify. I think a lot of horror fans have been through a lot at some point in their lives whether it’s bullying or seclusion or isolation and seeing all those people together is really cool. There were like 40,000 people at HorrorHound.
Also, getting to see a lot of really cool films before they are out.
Green Glass Door was Antonio’s first short film, completed within 48 hours for the 48 Hour Film Project.
Jess: Your first film was a short film (above) for the 48 Hour Film Project in Louisville, Kentucky and it was also a torturous story set in a warehouse and won several awards. Did it influence One Must Fall?
Antonio: No, but I did that one based on budget restrictions. There was supposed to be a guy to write my script and I waited till 2 a.m. for the script, but he never sent it. So I just filmed it without one and ad-libbed.
Jess: Your journey in cinematography started with a desire to make memories of loved ones last and that led to becoming a tremendous photographer and cinematographer; what drew you to screenwriting?
Antonio: Sadly, I did it out of necessity. I love doing it [filmmaking] so much. That’s the first step of the process…and it has to be something you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you’re not gonna’ love it. You’re gonna do something you don’t even want to do. I think I did that for 10 years, doing stuff I didn’t really want to and I’m not going to anymore. I have people hand me scripts they want me to direct or be the director of photography on but like I told someone recently I care about, “If I’m not passionate about it, you don’t want me on this project.”
Also, I knew I needed to write to budget. So I started with that. I said, “I know I want to make a slasher film, because I can do that with my budget.” I knew I wanted to get rid of cell phones, [so the characters wouldn’t be able to call for help]. “How do I get rid of cell phones?” I didn’t want to say “We don’t have any service in here.” That’s such a cop-out. “Okay, I’m going to do a period piece, which will probably eat most of my budget. What if I put them all in the same outfit?” Otherwise, the costume budget would exceed my entire film budget. So, I was thinking of cheap things that I could buy now and that would be around in the 80s, and I found hazmat suits. Well, what kind of jobs were around that would wear hazmat suits? Crime scene cleanup. So, sometimes a limited budget can cause you to get very creative.
Jess: Can you tell me your process for breaking down the budget from your script? I know you said you wrote to your budget, does that mean you had a spreadsheet with the budgets for different departments lined out and then you wrote, or you had a loose idea, wrote and then created your budget?
Antonio: I knew how much money I’d have to work with because I crowdfunded and two friends had given me some money, so I knew I only wanted to do the movie for that amount and no more. So, I basically stacked my team according to the budget as well. Making sure each piece fit within it. But, I changed the budget 10-15 times probably. I was willing to “go without” in certain areas to put money into things that I thought would make the movie slightly better. But of course, I didn’t pay myself a penny. I paid to do this.
Jess: What suggestions do you have for other filmmakers writing their own scripts when it comes to writing to budget and the process of taking an idea to production?
Antonio: I would just say let the budget guide you creatively. Those boundaries will make you even more creative than just throwing money at the problem. If you are sitting in front of a blank screen, staring at a blinking cursor, it’s much easier to say, “I’ve gotta write a suspense movie that takes place in my aunt’s diner with a ninja sword I got from Japan” than, “I could write about anything in the whole world.”
Write within your limitations and use all of your resources. And write something based on the things you already have access to, and you’ll see how creative you can be! I outline everything, but you don’t have to. Sometimes people like to compare themselves to the person walking through the cave with a lantern or scaling a mountain and they do it best when they don’t know what’s in front of them. Just do what works for you, but try everything.
Jess: Did you read a lot of scripts similar to yours?
Antonio: I try to watch movies that are similar to the ones I’m writing so I can be loosely inspired. I have to know a movie backwards and forwards or the script won’t register for me and I won’t get anything from it. I downloaded the Beetlejuice script the other day; that’s the only one I’ve done so far. I haven’t gone through it yet.
I just did a bunch of classes and as many Youtube videos as I could find and read like 50 books. I listen to audible books and take notes, because I’m an audio learner, and I’ll take notes on my phone.
Awakening is a short film written and created by Antonio Pantoja with screenplay by Rue Volley.
Jess: Did you research crime scene cleanup?
Antonio: There’s not a lot of information out there about crime scene cleanup. I got on the phone with a James Cheyne who owns a crime scene cleanup company in Connecticut. I got a lot of direction from him. Mostly just verifying to see if what I said was accurate and make sure I wasn’t shitting all over their industry. I think a lot of writing is researching and making sure it all checks out.
Jess: Since this was your first script, what kind of resources did you use?
Antonio: A lot. There were some that I didn’t get much from, but I definitely used Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Hero With a Thousand Faces, and The Hero’s 2 Journeys by Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge. I also sometimes do Seth Whorley’s Storyclock Notebook to help me figure out what goes where.
Outside of that, I felt like researching the characters was more important. I probably spent 50 or 60 hours researching serial killers. What I learned about them is they have no motive. So, I thought that was super interesting. I felt sick after watching it all. For them to be so stone cold and just always have been like that. Just “Oh when I was little I wouldn’t want to play dodge ball, I just wanted to take a kid and see their insides” or “I wouldn’t want to ask a girl on a date. She was so pretty, I wanted to kill her.”
Jess: Can you give me an example of how these books helped you?
Antonio: Everything I read basically said the plot structure is the same for all popular movies and they hit all the same beats. And the more you look into them, they really do. So I was just making sure OMF hit all those beats and that I wasn’t skipping over any.
I noticed it didn’t have all the recommended beats like the inciting incident or the refusal to the call to action.
[After fixing] you get introduced to the world, and then the dilemma, then the call to action, then the debate. That’s actually kind of hard to figure out. I had to think, what stops them from wanting to do the crime scene clean up job? Or whatever the dilemma is, what’s going to stop them? So, I had to insert something there. All the other people are callous to the job, but she is like “Shit, these are real people, this is someone’s real life.”
Now I know all the technical terms for the stuff I thought was wrong with stuff like “on the nose.”
Jess: I know there can be a lot of timing that is important or jump scares. Is there anything about writing for such a visual genre you found challenging? Coming from the cinematography background, did you find it difficult to express those moments in words?
Antonio: It’s very difficult. I’m not huge on jump scares, but I did put a few in OMF only because I didn’t want people to trust me. I killed off a main character really early you think will last to the end; he’s the first to die. I read somewhere audiences can’t feel speed, but they can feel acceleration. So they can tell when I’m about to ramp it up high and then bring it back down low; they can feel that. I kind of went that route. I just wanted people to feel emotionally unstable and think “Wait, I don’t trust you.”
Jess: Can you share a sample from the screenplay that shows how you handled tension?
He flips on the light switch. Overhead, a metal lamp is swinging, causing the sound.
Now with the light on, it illuminates beneath – only where it swings.
It moves back and forth.
Daniel appears to have spotted something in the corner.
CREAK. SQUEAK. LIGHT. DARK.
Once the lamp swings back in his direction again, we see the huge, bald man in a LEATHER APRON, only illuminated from behind.
Jess: How did you get Lloyd Kaufman (Founder of Troma Entertainment) and FX artist Vince J. Guastini (I am Legend, Requiem For a Dream) involved?
Antonio: You can track down anything on the Internet. I shot them emails and introduced myself. Most of them [email addresses] are super simple and readily available on their web sites. That’s where technology is beautiful these days.
Jess: Did you send them work samples?
Antonio: I don’t remember. I think so. Vincent researched me and said he only called me back because of my photography.
Jess: Do you allow actors to change dialog on set or do you make them stick to the script?
Antonio: If something doesn’t sound right, I’ll change it right there on site.I stick to it kind of, but I want it to sound right. Sometimes what comes from my pen doesn’t sound right from their mouth.
Jess: What would you say is the benefit to writing to direct and shoot yourself?
Antonio: I think that it can be good and bad. Since you know exactly what you want and the way you imagined it, it can be great. But then again, sometimes you won’t settle, which can hinder the schedule or timing of a specific shot. And you can’t be too precious. And from a director’s perspective, sometimes you get a little too passionate about a shot that you spent way too much time on that might not help the story move forward, and you have a super hard time throwing it away if you need to. But sometimes you’ve gotta kill your darlings.
Jess: Since you were writing to direct and run the camera yourself, did you find yourself thinking about lenses and the technical aspects while you wrote and do you think that aided you in writing or got in your way at all?
Antonio: Absolutely, the entire time! I think it definitely changes the way you write; it almost puts limitations on it, though, because I only know what I have access to, so it sort of puts me in a box. Sometimes I wish I could take that cinematography hat off while I write
Jess: Can you give me a specific example of a scene where your brain started thinking about the technical aspects while you were writing?
Antonio: I’d think about doing a slow push in with the camera from behind a wall to reveal the killer’s table full of his instruments. I wanted the camera to be close to the wall and the wall to cover the lens. Then the camera would slide from around the wall in the foreground to reveal the shot. I knew I’d have to have a 28mm lens to be able to get what I needed but I didn’t know how to explain that in the script. Only I knew it. I knew that [putting the technical information in the script] would be difficult for the actors to interpret so, I had trouble figuring out how to write that in so that we were all on the same page.
Jess: What was the most challenging part of writing your script and the most challenging part of shooting your own script?
Antonio:Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. Completing a feature film script is way harder than shooting the movie. I wrote it without the intention of anyone ever seeing the script because I planned to shoot it.
It was hard coming up with ideas from scratch, building a world that doesn’t exist, creating characters that don’t even have a voice yet. When I write, I sit there and slouch in my chair and I’ll be the characters and act out the characters in every scene in their own voice. I will never show that to anyone (laughter), but I will do that to make sure it feels right, it feels natural. Sometimes I’ll notice, “That definitely doesn’t feel right.”
Jess: Any thing you’d do differently knowing what you know now?
Antonio: I almost regret not making her (the protagonist) more weak in the beginning, so we could see a bigger change in her, but it’s okay. There’s so many regrets I have with it. I’m going to try a different method next time with note cards. I know all the scenes [in the next film], but I’m trying to figure out where they go.
Jess: Tell me about next time.
Antonio: It’s called Elena’s Guardian, and it’s about a little girl who lost her parents in a car accident and can only walk through crutches. She’s in foster care with a family who mistreats her. She goes to school but they fuck with her. She wishes a monster would exact revenge on them [and gets her wish].
I’ve done the outline like 25 times at least. I don’t like the character, or it gets a little foggy here, and I’ll throw it out and start again. I don’t think it has to follow a formula every time, but if it’s not hitting those beats, once you write it, you have to go back and you’ll know where that’s missing.
Sonny Gerasimowicz, the art director for Where the Wild Things Are, has begun work on the creature designs and will be overseeing the creation of the puppet.