For horror film fanatics, the name “Jason” provokes riveting chills and anxieties. With his iconic hockey mask, one of Hollywood’s most infamous slashers has put the Friday the 13th franchise into the silver screen pantheon.
But for filmmaker Vincente DiSanti, Friday the 13th goes beyond entertainment. It’s an integral stepping stone for his cinematic ambitions. The Westport native has taken his passion for these thrillers and made it a professional launching pad. His fan film versions of the Friday the 13th brand have earned him admiration from fans and a reputation amongst peers, marking the start of a career that has taken him from the industry epicenter of Los Angeles to the fertile trappings of his South Coast homeland.
DiSanti’s Hollywood education is paying off as he returns to the region eager to build on his film-making resume. He has recently contributed as a production assistant for the filming of Finest Kind, a feature film written and directed by New Bedford native Brian Helgeland that was filmed in Fairhaven and New Bedford from April to July of this year.
To DiSanti’s credit are his director roles in the Friday the 13th fan films Never Hike Alone and Never Hike In The Snow, both available on YouTube. DiSanti will contribute a third installment in October 2023, Never Hike Alone 2. He has also launched his own production company, Womp Stomp Films, and is currently planning to film multiple projects in Massachusetts.
Not long after graduating with a film production and editing degree from Worcester State in 2007, he packed his bags and traveled to southern California to hook up with friend Brian Gazdik and start his film career in earnest. While working as a production assistant for animation features, he learned lessons he could not have learned in school. And he always remained true to his goal of one day returning to the South Coast to make movies. For the 38-year-old that day has arrived.
New Bedford Light: What do you like about the visual medium?
Vincente DiSanti: I grew up loving film. I used to watch films a lot when I was a kid, back then it was VHS tapes. My favorite thing to do after a long week of school was to go to the rental store, pick out three scary movies and watch them on repeat all weekend. I fell in love with the experience of being wowed by the special effects, wondering ‘How are they able to do this on screen and make it look so real?’ That’s what got me interested in filmmaking.
When camcorders came out I was always playing with my family’s camcorder, making little short films. I would make skate videos and snowboarding videos … anything to get my hands on a camera. I really loved taking pictures and shooting video and that’s something that has never left me.
When I was in college I began to fall in love with the idea of filmmaking. I got involved in editing and directing and using cameras, and it drove me. I loved the idea of telling a story. It was a combination of me being a storyteller and pairing it with a camera that was interesting.
Looking at kids growing up these days, I’m sort of jealous because everything is now video. Everything is now filming things with your phone. Having access to something that can take a photo or video instantly. There’s no copying it from tape to a computer, there’s no going to CVS and dropping your film off and waiting a day for it to get developed. Instantly we can make things and edit things and create videos and post them. Something that now takes hours used to take a couple of days.
NBL: What attracts you to horror films and Friday the 13th in particular?
VD: My mom was an avid reader of Steven King, so I remember seeing the books on the counter at a young age with the pictures on them that looked a little scary. But they were interesting to me. I wanted to know what it was about. I grew up watching Tales From the Crypt and Night of the Living Dead. I would stay up all night, thinking that Jason was going to kick in my door, or Leatherface was going to start up a chainsaw and I was going to have to run. I think part of it was thinking that if I was in this movie, how would I get away?
Growing up in Westport near Watuppa Pond, that was my world. So when I saw a horror movie I thought of going swimming every summer. And after seeing Friday the 13th, swimming in Watuppa Pond became a different beast. I thought that Jason Voorhees was chained off my dock. That somewhere in Watuppa Pond, Jason Voorhees was under the water waiting for me, and he was going to grab my foot.
NBL: Did you have a moment when you realized you wanted to be a filmmaker?
VD: Definitely in college. In my first editing class I really knew I wanted to pursue film. Being able to put ideas down, cut them up, and put them together with more care and finesse, I realized that I had a real love for it. I love telling stories and putting things in order, creating these sequences of images or sound that make people feel something.
The feeling that I was going after was born when I went to see the movie Saw during college. It had this amazing ending that I did not see coming. After seeing it one afternoon I immediately went home and asked my friends if they wanted to see it. I told them, ‘You won’t believe it. I want to see if you can figure it out.’ So we went to the theater and I sat in front of everybody. When the end of the movie happened with the big reveal, I turned around and watched all of their eyes light up and their jaws drop, and I knew at that moment that was what I wanted to do. I want to make people do that. Every time I get behind the camera I want to make people go ‘Wow!’ I think I did that with Never Hike Alone.
NBL: Why did you start with a ‘fan film’ for your first major film?
VD: I’m looking at this as an investment in my future. This is my opportunity to do something I’ve always wanted to do, so why not take the opportunity to do it now? This is one of the greatest opportunities of my life. I grew up as a kid wanting to work on a Friday the 13th, and with no help from the studios and with no help from anyone but my friends, we were able to create something of our own that lived up to our own standards and other fans’ standards. We gave them exactly what they wanted, something that will always be tied to the franchise that we love. It’s like growing up and wanting to play for the Red Sox or the Yankees. To me that is Friday the 13th, and I want to make the most of that experience before I do other things. There’s something special about doing this.
This is helping me become more polished. I’m meeting more people. I’m making connections within the industry. I can say I executed a $300,000 production, delivered it to YouTube, fans enjoyed it and the quality is consistent. That gives an investor the incentive to look at me and say, ‘OK, I will trust you with a million dollars to go and make this original project.’
Maybe there’s another property out there that’s looking for a director that’s good at finding fresh material for that franchise, and they’ll hire me and know that their film can be trusted in my hands. Right now I’m not interested in doing something that will win me an Emmy. I’m interested in doing the things that will make me happy. And seeing the Friday the 13th fanbase happy is rewarding.
Our fan films have been an amazing archetype for my team and I to build a company on. It gives us motivation because people watch them and want to see more from us. That fan support allows us to generate budgets for our projects that give us access to resources that will make our projects bigger and better. My ultimate goal is to come back to Massachusetts and use those resources to make original films here.
NBL: What did you learn in Los Angeles that you couldn’t have learned in school?
VD: In school it was learning about the basics. But when you come out of film school there’s nothing like getting into a production. Everything about film is communication. Being able to understand different departments and what their needs are, how things run on the set when you’re out there actually doing it, how things run behind the scenes, the political aspect of it, the work ethic and dedication it requires.
In film school grades are important, but you don’t need grades to pay your rent. When you actually get into the film industry, that’s when everything you do really counts. There are jobs on the line, sometimes there are even lives on the line. There are intangibles like ‘Who are you working for? Who are those people alongside you that you work with every day? What are the challenges going on in their lives? What are their skill sets, their strengths and weaknesses? How will that help or hurt this production?’ There are intangibles that you can’t really learn in school. It’s something that you can only learn from experience and getting to know people.
It’s such a team effort to make a film. And even if you follow a director’s or a producer’s creative path it takes an entire village, from the highest level producer to the lowest level assistant. Everybody plays a role and it’s important that everybody does their job. It’s funny when you hear Bill Belichick say it, but it’s true. In every aspect of the industry it’s understanding your role.
When coming out of film school, the mistake that myself and a lot of students make is that we think we graduate as refined filmmakers, ready to take on the big world. We’re ready to just do it. But for the most part that’s not even close. We have a lot of work to do before we really understand how the engine runs, how time is money, how everyday decisions affect the budget and people’s lives. At the end of the day we’re making movies. A lot of people take it very seriously and things can get heated on the set. Days are long. Conditions are not always ideal. Film school doesn’t really teach you the sheer responsibility of what it takes to properly make a film and follow through. There’s a lot more people who start than finish.
NBL: Hollywood is so competitive. In your estimation, what does someone have to do to become recognized?
VD: They just have to keep working. The secret of Hollywood is to just not give up. A lot of the way things happen are by chance, and if you’re not playing the game, then you’re eliminating your ability to work that connection with somebody who either believes in you or your work or thinks you’d be the proper fit for a project. Sometimes people go to Hollywood and they make it right away and for others it takes two decades. I’ve seen both stories play out in front of me. Honestly, as long as you keep writing, keep creating, and finding a way to get your vision and voice on the screen, you’re going to open up opportunities for yourself to ascend to a higher level in the industry.
NBL: How do you stay inspired in such a competitive environment? How do you keep your emotional head above water?
VD: Doubt is a big part of the entire process because so much is unknown going into a project. There are so many things that can go wrong. There are so many ways that something can be derailed and the only way you can really fight through it is just to get up every day, do as much as you can, and weather whatever storms come your way. When things don’t go as planned or somebody has a conflict, or somebody drops off a project, you have to find a way to overcome that.
To stay motivated throughout the course of my career, I always seek out the opportunities and jobs that I can learn something from. And there are so many things to learn about in the industry. There’s so many departments and phases of movie making, it can take decades to truly learn how the business works, from the moment an idea for a film is created to the moment where it’s going out to theaters and streaming services and physical media releases. There’s so much to soak in. I like learning because I want to know how the entire process works, and that’s truly helped me as a filmmaker. I understand how to get my projects from an idea phase and even have them considered as projects that somebody would want to finance and distribute.
The more I know about the process, the more informed I can be when I make decisions as a director or a producer, and navigate my production towards a successful outcome.
NBL: What inspires you to make movies?
VD: Real life experiences. Things that have happened to me in my life that I relate to are usually where a lot of my ideas come from. Or just observations of life in general. A lot of things I’ve written about are simple questions to ask the audience. With Never Hike Alone it was “Could I survive a night in the woods running away from Jason Voorhees?’ What would that experience look like?
When you’re developing a premise you’re sort of wondering ‘Who is this movie for, aside from yourself?’ As filmmakers we can make things for ourselves all we want, but ultimately we’re looking for other people to watch them and enjoy them, so a lot of the time I just look to find subjects that I enjoy and either tell my own version of them or use some of the elements from classic stories to inspire new versions of them set in modern day.
I usually try to find connections for the audience so they feel like this could happen to them. That even as fantastical or unrealistic as some of the scenarios can be in these movies, at the end of the day it connects to a character and they understand the character’s plight. That’s my ultimate goal — to get the audience connected to the main character and want to follow them from the first to the last frame of the film.
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NBL: A lot of rock stars say their biggest thrill is hearing their songs on the radio. What is it like to see your films in a theater full of people?
VD: It’s a rewarding experience. Seeing your film in that large format you really get an idea of everything you’ve done in the process of making that film. We spend so much time looking at it on small monitors and TV, but nothing compares to seeing it up on the big screen. It makes it feel like a film.
Another important aspect is sharing that experience with a live audience, because the audience is there to watch your hard work. It’s rewarding to see them react to it audibly, or see people hiding their faces or turning away or leaning forward when things get interesting. It’s not just an experience of watching it on the screen, which is amazing, it’s the experience of watching an audience watch your film. For filmmakers that’s what we love about it. We love to see an audience enjoying the experience of watching a film.
NBL: Do you have to work in Hollywood to make a good movie?
VD: No. There’s lots of other pockets of filmmaking communities around the country and the world. Massachusetts has become a booming industry. Ever since the early 2000s films have been shot here regularly. Working on Finest Kind I talked to several people on that production that had been working non-stop for two or three years straight out of school. Prior to that, if you didn’t live in New York or Los Angeles you couldn’t have that opportunity. But out here you can. A lot of filming is done in Georgia now, as well as New Mexico and other states passing film incentives. There are opportunities for any state willing to invest in their local industry where there are incentives for Hollywood to come out.
With the advent of digital technology, anyone who studies hard enough and is willing to go through their own trials and tribulations to make a movie doesn’t necessarily have to work on a film or be a part of the industry to make something great. You can shoot things with your phone. You can buy a cinema quality camera for a few thousand dollars. And with the advent of YouTube and Master Class, you can teach yourself a lot.
The one thing I would give as advice is you can do it all yourself, but it’s a lot more fun and easier when you get other people to do it with you. The true skill of filmmaking isn’t how much you can do as an individual, but how many people you can get to follow you into the process of making the film. A filmmakers ability to incentivize cast and crew to join them on the set and do their jobs well is an essential part of the process. Because it’s better to get the best out of 25 diversely talented people instead of just one.
NBL: Why did you decide to return to the South Coast?
VD: I love it here. I missed it. I would visit family and friends and come back as often as I could. Once I started to see that there was an opportunity to come back and really build my career doing what I love, it was a no-brainer. It was always my plan to come back. It took longer than I thought it would. Originally I said I’d be back in five years. That didn’t quite work out, but I think that everything works out in its own way for a reason, particularly in this instance. I’m coming back right at the perfect time. I feel like I’ve been able to learn so much from my experience in Los Angeles and now there’s a lot of opportunity here in Massachusetts to continue that pursuit. I am excited about being able to return home and do what I love to do, which is making films.
NBL: What are the virtues of shooting a film in New England?
VD: New England has that reputation for being a great place for the horror genre. Steven King is in Maine, there’s Salem and the witch trials, and the Lizzie Borden House in Fall River. I have a series of short films I would like to start producing out here, one of them being a ghost story, and ghost stories are very common in Massachusetts.
Where we grew up is a really unique place. No matter where I’ve traveled in the world, I’ve always had so much affection for the way this entire community is constructed. Having access to lakes and the ocean, and then a few hours drive and we’re in the mountains, or if we need to get into a metropolitan area there’s wonderful cities that allow us as filmmakers to choose from a plethora of different landscapes to tell our stories.
Anything we would need is within reach, and within the South Coast specifically there are lots of opportunities to go to places where cinema hasn’t really been yet. We’ve seen a lot of Los Angeles and a lot of New York, and when they shoot Boston they usually stick to metropolitan Boston, but the South Coast is such a beautiful area and there’s lots of wonderful locations here. You can get the space you need to do some really big productions if a film were to come here and do that.
There’s also a lot of history here — old houses, classic antiques and architecture — all of these different opportunities. If you want to go back in time, it’s really not going to be that hard to find something to shoot from any era, going all the way back to colonial times. So if you have a blank canvas and you want to choose a place to tell your story, there’s a pretty good chance that no matter what you need, South Coast is a great place to film, and it will look amazing.
Finest Kind was as big as anything I worked on in Los Angeles. It had all the same resources, it had all the same equipment and cache, except it was being shot in Fairhaven. I didn’t have to be 3,000 miles away from my family to do what I love. It was a 10-minute drive from Westport to get to the set. I felt like I was home.
Sean McCarthy is a New Bedford area freelance writer.