Interview with Nico Mastorakis
To coincide with the Arrow Video Blu ray and DVD release of director Nico Mastorakis’ classic exploitation film “Island of Death”, I’ve interviewed Nico and asked him a number of questions regarding the film:
DPH (me): Hi Nico, thanks for taking time out to talk to us.
NM: My pleasure, David. How else could I promote IOD’s anniversary release?
DPH: You began in Television. What was your role and what kinds of programmes were you working on?
NM: I started as a photographer at 14, then as a journalist at 18 and as a radio DJ at 19. Television came into my life at 25 when the station was watched by some 50 households and all shows were live in a 8x8m studio. Since then, I’ve done practically everything and truly everything for the first time. Game shows, “This is Your Life,” daily on site reporting (when there was no video and we had to shoot everything on 16mm,) series, sitcoms, specials. I singlehandedly created Antenna TV which became the most popular network in Greece and then, in 1993, I made Star Channel from scratch. Oh, making movies in between.
DPH: Although many consider “Island of Death” to be your debut feature, you actually shot “Death Has Blue Eyes” first. What were your experiences/memories of that production and what did you learn that benefitted you during the creation of “Island of Death”?
NM: Having shot a lot of film for series, “DHBE” wasn’t a totally new experience. Making the first paranormal thriller in English and for export, rather than local exploitation, was a hoot. Mixing Greek and British actors was fun. Shooting some action sequences without stuntmen was an exercise. Altogether a training day.
DPH: You’ve said on many occasions that your decision to make “Island of Death” was a purely commercial one after seeing the financial success of Tobe Hooper’s low budget “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. As a creative, what were your thoughts on Hooper’s film from an artistic perspective?
NM: Honestly? I didn’t find any artistic values, nor was I looking for some. That film simply opened a door for me, a door leading to the new era of horror movies.
DPH: How did the story idea for “Island of Death” come to you?
NM: To this date, I haven’t discovered the mechanism which generates ideas. I believe that there’s always a subconscious trigger, something you see, something you hear, something buried there for years. But, really, after having written some 40 screenplays, some 140 episodes of both dramatic series and sitcoms and two novels, I can’t really trace where story ideas come from!
DPH: How did you obtain financing for the film?
NM: Friends who thought they weren’t risking much. The total budget was $ 30,000 which may seem miniscule by today’s standards but in 1975 was enough for Kodak raw stock, a crew of 20, lodging and feeding all and working with an enormous and heavy blimped Arri, which I had to operate for a week.
DPH: The casting of “Island of Death” was interesting. Why did you decide to cast Robert Behling and Jane Lyle? And how were they to work with during the production?
NM: Local modeling agencies and stopping people in the street. Bob was well known from several flicks, Jane was a debutant in the business. Working with them was a breeze.
DPH: What were their thoughts when they saw the finished film?
NM: I have no idea, as I lost track of them long before post was completed. As for me, I said, “it’s OK, I could have done it better.” You know, directors always have an excuse for not doing the best job and it’s usually time and money. Unfortunately for them, directors who make flops like “Lone Ranger” can’t use that excuse.
DPH: How comfortable were the actors with the sex scenes? Were they always fine with what you were asking of them as a director?
NM: I believe they were more comfortable than I was directing. They were pros and did the job without nagging, bitching or arguing. And at the end of the day, we all had a good laugh and a lot of fun.
DPH: You chose Mykonos as the location? Why Mykonos and not one of the other Greek islands?
NM: It’s the kind of location that, even if you drop the camera, you get a great shot. It also played well with the look of the protagonists, killers with angelic faces. The island too had an angelic face but, even off-season, did hide some demons and devils underneath its all-white, all-innocent facade.
DPH: Were the locals on the island aware of what kind of film you were going to shoot? What was their reaction when they saw the finished product?
NM: The locals have been trained in weirdness for decades. Every summer, they deal with the most colorful crowds, they understand the philosophy of “anything goes,” and they have miraculously remained intact from a cataclysm of idiosyncratic behaviors. They’re still the same good, old Myconians.
DPH: The actual shoot itself was incredibly fast, roughly 18 days. What were the biggest problems you faced and were there any major difficulties during the shoot?
NM: Would love to have horror stories to tell you but, no, there was no drama. The island was all ours, a vast movie set, and we could shoot anywhere, even in an empty monastery, with no permits and no fuss. Piece o’cake.
DPH: Looking back, was there anything you wish you could have done differently or any shots that were missed because of lack of time? That always seems to be the complaint of directors when they look back upon their work?
NM: I wish I had money to pay a good actor for the part I was forced to play. I was dreadful but, even in a lousy performance as mine, there’s some entertaining undertones.
DPH: You made the film for commercial reasons. Did it perform to your expectations?
NM: It’s been selling again and again for forty year. What do you think?
DPH: It seems to have had an interesting distribution history: disappearing in America and being banned in the UK. What exactly happened in the US? Were you surprised by the UK ban?
NM: My first sale was to Winstone (a subsidiary of GTO Films) in London. It was because of IOD that I got to know (and like) Lawrence Meyers, a terrific guy in our business, who then became my co-producer in “The Greek Tycoon.” My second sale was to Bryanston, Lou Peraino’s company – and I dealt with the infamous Lou himself. He actually paid the license fee in cash. He loved the film and the music and songs. The movie was released theatrically but eventually Lou went to jail and Hollywood abandoned Bryanston, despite a fury of activity in its first few months. As for the UK ban, not surprised at all. Greece had just come out of a dictatorship and I had encountered censors equally medieval with the Brits.
DPH: “Island of Death” clearly has a large cult following. Have you been surprised by that? Why do you think it has such devoted fans?
NM: Yes I was surprised, until I learned that cults are made by the followers and not by the leaders. Forty years later and it still draws fans, generation after generation, and it still has reviews that amazed me, like for instance the recent one in “Starburst” magazine which called IOD “the most daring exploitation film to date.” Well, I can’t argue what both critics and fans alike are saying!
DPH: How would you describe “Island of Death” to somebody that hasn’t seen it yet?
NM: Repulsively funny, unpretentiously cheap, honestly low budget, violently perverse, unbelievably daring for its hypocritically conservative times, and a good reason for distributors to buy it once more! It jumped from being a low budget flick to being history and that, to me, is amazing.
DPH: Arrow Video has just released the 2K Restoration. What are your thoughts on what you’ve seen? Were you surprised on how healthy it’s looking for a 40 year old low budget film?
NM: Arrow -- both as a company and as the individuals there -- is a pleasure to work with. Their passion for the film and the care it gave the original negative, clearly show why that company is so successful with genre films. I went out of my way to help them with bonus materials, shot a documentary re-visiting the old locations and spent two months of my life making sure they got what they needed. And the result of the HD version does look stunning, which is one more proof as to how valuable 35mm film can be 40 years after it was shot.
DPH: Do you follow the modern horror genre at all? What are your thoughts on the type of horror films that are being made these days?
NM: The horror genre is the monolith of movies, the only one with a steady following. For as long as people love to get scared, horror movies will be made, better and better but, unfortunately, with some repulsive deviations from the classic formula. Trying to push the envelope into child porn and necrophilia isn’t my idea of a fun horror movie.
DPH: What are you up to these days? Does film still hold the interest to you that it used to?
NM: I’m developing a big tentpole movie for one of the studios, while working on new HD versions for my movies. We did “Hired to Kill” at Deluxe and we are now going to revive “Zero Boys,” another flick which has a strong following. Naturally, I’m in the middle of the script for Island Of Death 2.
DPH: We’re in the digital age and new filmmakers can now make their own films with only a Digital camera and edit software on their laptops. What would be your advice to filmmakers looking to make a film today?
NM: Because it’s so cheap and so easy, the market is saturated with cheap and easy product. So a filmmaker should struggle to be original in a world where everything “has been done before.” My advice to newbies is not to be carried away by the technical shit but to tell a solid story, to painfully cast it with good actors, not take forever to shoot it, as the adrenaline of a short shoot brings energy on the screen, and then edit it fast and get it out fast, as, undoubtedly, someone else is already doing the same thing.
DPH: Nico, many thanks for your time.
NM: See you again on the set of Island Of Death 2!
(This interview was done May 2015. “Island of Death” is released 25th May 2015 on Blu ray and DVD by Arrow Video)
David Paul Hellings
Image provided by author.