Growing up in Baltimore in the late 1980s, Dan Griffiths and Jeremy Kasten knew each other just enough to be wary. When, as freshmen at Boston's Emerson College, fate cast them as roommates, neither was exactly thrilled.
"I called the school right away," says Griffiths, "to say, 'Hey, I kind of know this guy. Is there a way I can not live in this guy's room?' "
The two men roar with laughter. If the housing people at Emerson had only listened.
But they didn't, and now, some two decades later, these two Baltimore guys are sitting together on a couch in a largely deserted West Baltimore school building. For the next three weeks, the imposing structure, its hallways mostly empty, its classrooms in disrepair, will double as a set for the third horror movie they've made together. Griffiths and Kasten both call Los Angeles home these days, both make a steady living in the movie business. But today they're really home, back in the city that nurtured their childhood cinematic dreams. And they're thrilled.
"Since Dan and I first became friends, and really partners in filmmaking, in college, we've had this idea of coming back to Baltimore," says Kasten, 38, who will be directing The Dead Ones when filming begins Tuesday. "The idea of coming home to make a movie was always incredibly thrilling, both because it's home, and because Baltimore is charming. It's a real thing, there's magic in the air here."
Griffiths, 37, looks at his friend and nods in agreement. A former kid actor - look closely, and you might find him on the dance floor in John Waters' 1988 Hairspray - he'll be producing, keeping an eye on the business side of things, ensuring that The Dead Ones stays within its $600,000 budget.
"I feel a real connection to the idea that independent film really comes from Baltimore on some level," says Griffiths. "Baltimore can rightly lay claim to that, because of John Waters and that fierce independent spirit that came from Baltimore. I think Baltimore seems like a place that really does things on its own terms."
Both men look their parts. Griffiths appears decidedly the more conservative, clean-shaven, his hair closely cropped, his shirttail tucked in, while Kasten appears happily disheveled, his hair going in all directions at once, his shirttail flapping, a goatee giving him a vaguely sinister look. Maybe that's why they work so well together.
Kasten, who grew up in Mount Washington and attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, says he knew from an early age that he wanted to make movies. And he was lucky enough to have parents willing to work with that dream.
"From the second grade, my parents were very supportive," he says. "But they were smart. They bought me a super-8 camera, but I had to buy the film and pay for the processing. I had to earn the money, from my allowance. So I made a movie maybe twice a year, I made the props, I wrote the script, I did everything."
One of his first movies? The Guy Who Killed Because He Was Bored. Sounds like the perfect springboard for a career in low-budget horror.
"Yeah, some of my early films, when I was a kid, were inspired by John Waters," says Kasten, again invoking the name of Charm City's favorite cinematic sleazemeister. "Some of those movies, they were almost intentionally bad, and I found that kind of inspiring. That independent brashness - that's a Baltimore reality."
Griffiths, who grew up in Ruxton and graduated from Friends School, and Kasten spent time on local movie sets, gaining experience and perspective that would eventually come in handy. Besides his work on Hairspray, Griffiths shot a scene for Waters' Cry-Baby (unfortunately, it ended-up on the cutting-room floor). In 1988, a teen-age Kasten spent three weeks as an extra on Her Alibi, hanging out with supermodel Paulina Porizkova and her brother. ("She took us under her wing and tormented us," he says cryptically. "I knew, at that moment, that my life had great promise.") He later spent two weeks as a production assistant on He Said, She Said, a romantic comedy starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins.
While Kasten was honing his moviemaking chops, setting out on a path that would eventually lead to a career, Griffiths was pretty much spinning his wheels. He had dreams of being an actor, but after stints in New York and Boston, realized he didn't have the discipline necessary to succeed. So he moved to San Francisco, where he wound up with a job as a publicist on a low-budget film that really didn't need one.
"I called Jeremy one day and told him I was a publicist, and he sounded really disappointed in me," Griffiths remembers. " 'That's not a thing you should be. Why don't you be a producer?' He basically said that to me. And I thought, 'Well, what do I think about that?' "
A little later, after working on some forgettable movies and even more forgettable TV pilots (including one for a series called Gorilla Grunge, about some thawed-out Neanderthals living with a young girl and her anthropologist uncle), Griffiths called again. This time, Kasten was working on his own movie, an off-and-on project that stretched out over four years called The Attic Expeditions.
"He said, 'Do you want to be a producer?' And I said, sheepishly, 'OK.' So I quit my day job, and I started doing it. Being a producer, it clicked with me almost right away."
For a first-time effort, The Attic Expeditions, about a convicted murderer in an insane asylum who begins to question whether the crime ever happened at all, turned out pretty well, earning money for its investors (including Kasten's aunt and uncle) and eventually getting bought by Blockbuster. "Because they bought it, there were, like, 13 copies in every store, spread out over two shelves," Kasten remembers with a smile. "You'd walk in, and there it was. I walked into Blockbuster once a day for the first three months. I still occasionally do."
Since The Attic Expedition's 2001 release, Kasten has directed a handful of films, including Gayosity (2004), All Souls Day (2005), The Thirst (2006) and his second film with Griffiths as producer, The Wizard of Gore (2007), a remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 cult classic about a hypnotist with a somewhat extreme stage act. He's also become an in-demand film editor, working on cable-TV making-of documentaries for such films as Spider-Man 3, The Pursuit of Happyness and the recently released The Ugly Truth, a romantic comedy starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler.
Griffiths, when he's not producing his friend's films, heads up a company that brokers deals for international distribution for American films. "I only produce a movie when Jeremy and I come up with one," he says.
Which brings our tale back to The Dead Ones, in which four teen-agers (local actors Katie Foster, Torey Garza, Sarah Harper and Brandon Thane Wilson) find themselves trapped inside a haunted school building. Griffiths and Kasten, who have put this movie together pretty much by themselves, can't wait to get started.
"This movie is the first time where we were able to raise the financing, and we were able to put the business model together," Griffiths says. "We were able to say, from Day 1, that this is what we're trying to do. Nobody's been our boss this time."