Rolfe Kanefsky Interview on Art of the Dead

Since the 1990s, Rolfe Kanefsky has directed dozens of original films, and written at least twice as many. He has explored the worlds of horror, comedy, sci-fi and erotica, and sometimes all at once. Among them is 2019’s Art of the Dead, a spiritually driven horror story featuring Robert Donavan and Tara Reid. He provides his valuable time in discussing his career and his recent film in this interview.

First of all, thank you in advance for your time and the opportunity to discuss your movie and the industry. What prompted your interest in filmmaking earlier in life? What made you decide to pursue that particular field as a means to express yourself creatively? Were there other interests you considered pursuing prior to film?

The world of Abbott and Costello movies. My father introduced them to me when I was around 4 years old and I would watch them every Sunday morning at 11:30. I then wanted to be a clown which was quickly followed by wanting to be a comedian. I was always writing stories. I started with my own original Abbott and Costello tales. Then I went through a Winnie-The-Pooh phase and then finally created my own characters, Nick and Neel who were two funny detectives in the vein of Abbott and Costello meets The Hardy Boys. I got my first video camera when I was 13 and started shooting short films with neighborhood friends. This quickly escalated to making my first feature when I was 16 years old in high school. I also started taking a professional screenwriting class at HB studios in New York which lead to writing my first feature-length screenplay. That was followed by many, many more over the years. I’ve always loved telling stories and entertaining people. I fixated on motion pictures, deciding at the age of 14 that I wanted to be a filmmaker and never looked back. I’ve pretty much devoted my entire life to this. 100% dedication for better or worse.

Who or what were your biggest artistic inspirations on the path to filmmaking?

Well, I fell in love with Steven Spielberg movies early on. “E.T” made a big impression on me as did “The Blues Brothers”, “Psycho 2”, “After Hours”, “Fright Night” and “The Stepfather”. But probably the biggest influence was Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” and “Evil Dead 2”. His work had a lot to do with how I made my first professional film, “There’s Nothing Out There” in terms of style. In terms of dialogue, I loved reading Neil Simon plays and Agatha Christie mysteries. Plus, films of the 40s like “His Girl Friday” and anything by Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder quickly became favorites. And I can’t leave out the slapstick genius of Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards with their “Pink Panther” movies. In terms of films that scared the hell out of me, 1979’s “Invasion Of The Body Snatchers”, “Phantasm”, and the original television movie, “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” were among the tops.

What was the inspiration behind Art of the Dead? It feels like a feature length nod to the 30 minute horror shows of decades prior, such as Tales from the Crypt or The Outer Limits. Was that in any part the intention?

Yes, but moreso Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” and “Twilight Zone”. I really wanted a 70s/80s feel to the movie. In many ways the film is a series of connected vignettes and there are nods to many of these kind of anthology stories. That was one of the fun challenges in writing the script and making the movie. Juggling six tales at the same time while building them to all climax at the same time without knowing exactly what’s going to come next, how dark it’s going to get, or what the conclusion will be. I think to keep audiences guessing.

This film combines practical gore and creature effects with a bit of CG. Who or what were the biggest surprises in production for Art of the Dead? Were there any unplanned setbacks or pleasant surprises in balancing the effects? 

We had a decent amount of pre-production to really discuss how to pull off all these practical effects. Luckily, I had Vincent Guastini in charge of the creature and gore. We’d work together a few times and always try to do something new and creative. Most of the effects went pretty smoothly due to all the planning but there are always setbacks. When shot some of the big finale at a real ranch about 3 hours outside Vegas. We were dealing with rugged terrain, bad wind storms, drone issues, multiple creatures, water, mud, children, live snakes and we only had two days to film the whole thing. That was very tough but somehow we made it all work.

Robert Donavan is a powerful onscreen presence in Art of the Dead. How did he come to land the role? Was he your first casting choice?

Yes, Robert was my first and only choice. I’ve been working with Robert Donavan since 1996 and he has been in almost every movie I’ve ever directed. Robert is great to work with, a tremendous character actor, and a national comedian. He can do anything and make it better. However, the producers; Michael and Sonny Mahal, had never worked with Robert so he had to audition. When they saw his audition tape, they didn’t care for it and wanted a different actor to play the role. I really had to fight for Robert and he was nice enough to audition again. Finally, the Mahals approved and they never regretted their decision.

Over the course of 3 decades, you have 30 directing credits under your belt, and twice as man writing credits. These span several different styles and genres. Do you go about the process with a particular genre in mind, or does that end up falling into place once your story is complete? 

Every project is different. Sometimes I’m given a genre to work in, like with my neo-noir thriller “1 In The Gun” and watched a lot of film noir before coming up with the story. Other times I’m given a story idea and work from that. With my own spec scripts, I like to make it up as I go along and discover the story while writing it. That’s a lot of fun when the characters dictate the action. Many times I’m surprised by what happens which is great. Because of the writer doesn’t know what going to happen next, probably the audience doesn’t either.

You have written and directed several installments of the cult classic Emmanuelle series. Is the approach to writing or directing any different for those movies? Does the general perception of any given type of film influence your approach in any way, and how would it compare to the approach for something like Art of the Dead?

All of the late-night erotic comedies I made had a pretty strict format. You had to have three 3 minutes love scenes every half hour in a 90 minute movie. So, roughly every seven pages had to lead to another sex scene. At first it was tricky but once I had the formula down, I wrote these scripts pretty quickly. With “Art Of The Dead”, I had a lot more freedom. The producers just wanted something that had to do with evil paintings, make it scary, gory in places, and get some nudity in there as well. They pretty much left me alone to create the script and loved my first draft. Very little changed from that first draft to what we wind up filming.

In general in terms of writing, I usually ask myself the question: Who is the target audience for this film? And then I write with that in mind while trying to please myself and not bore the potential viewers. That’s why I tend to have lots of stuff going on in my movies. They are usually pretty busy with a lot of different tonal shifts taking place.

What are the biggest obstacles you have encountered in the business? How would you describe your typical reaction to those obstacles, adjustments or challenges?

For me the biggest obstacles are finding the money to make my movies and then finding decent distribution so they will be seen. Since I have never directed for any major film companies, this is always a major battle. I’ve also worked with a lot of producers who don’t know what they are doing and have given up on the movies for one reason or another. Only the films that I have actually produced as well have gotten small theatrical releases or medium sized one because I never give up on my movies. They are all my babies and need to be cared for until they are out in the world. You have to pick your battles in this business and adapt to personalities but most of my films say “A Rolfe Kanefsky Flick” which basically means I got to make the film I wanted to make, despite the obstacles.

One never has enough time or money in the low-budget world but you do the best with what you got and try not to bore people. I’ve had to shoot films in as little as 5 days but I always give 110% in an attempt to entertain.

As someone who has explored so many styles and genres, what would you say has been the boldest move or decision you have made as an artist, either within a film or behind the scenes? Can you pinpoint any particular moment?

The four films of my career thus far that I feel have been the most challenges and most important are “There’s Nothing Out There”, “Tomorrow By Midnight”, “1 In The Gun” and now “Art Of The Dead”. They may not all be my most commercial but they are all saying something about life and my world in different ways. They are entertaining and have a bit of social commentary as well.

I can also say that in most films that I’ve done there is usually one moment that scares/confuses people and I’m told not to do it. Those are the moments I hold on to for dear life because they are usually the most memorable and what audiences seem to talk about. I am probably still best known for the “boom gag” in “There’s Nothing Out There” which nobody on my crew wanted me to do. It’s now the most famous joke in the movie.

What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?

I’m currently all over the map. In terms of completed films on the horizon, first off there’s a cool sci-fi horror thriller I co-wrote with Garo Seitan, who also directed, called “Automation” about a robot that malfunctions badly in an office building. It’s getting released through Epic’s Dread label on December 3rd and is winning tons of awards on the festival circuit. Also in December might be the release of a Hallmark Christmas romantic comedy I wrote entitled “Picture Perfect Royal Christmas”. Then in December, I’m supposed to direct my own Lifetime thriller currently called “Pool Boy Nightmare”. In January of 2020, a family film I wrote goes into production in the Bahamas called “Dolphin Island”. And in February, a weird comical sexy thriller that I co-wrote years ago called “Ring Of Desire” is supposed to shoot.

Hopefully after that, I really excited about a cool werewolf movie I wrote for first-time Vegas filmmaker, Eric Mathis called “Rougarou” that currently has Kane Hodder attached to star once they find the funding. There’s a teaser trailer for it on YouTube now. I also wrote a cool sci-fi horror script titled “The Astronaut” for Vincent Guastini to make as his feature directing debut. And last but not least, I have four television series that I created about to be pitched around town. One is a supernatural horror series and the other three are comedies. So, I’m keeping business while trying to make a living. It’s been a pretty productive 2019 and I’m hoping 2020 is even better!

Thank you very much and we look forward to seeing what comes next!