Following a horrifying domestic attack, a young mother slowly realizes that her reality isn't quite what she believes it to be. Purgatory is a short film directed by Michael Ambrosino. Michael is also the writer and the producer of this short thriller which was recently an official selection of Venice Shorts in California.
It was our pleasure to speak to Michael Ambrosino for LA Indies.
What was the inspiration behind the making of Purgatory?
It was something about the opening scene of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet that really made me want to shoot something in my backyard garden, which is indeed where most of Purgatory ended up being shot. I love the vibrancy, the color and the whole idyllic look of that sequence, but at the same time something feels so nightmarish about it. Funnily, the end result of Purgatory is absolutely nothing like Blue Velvet, but that’s where the initial bit of inspiration came from – to make something that looks pretty but, at its core, is about something very, very dark.
When I actually sat down to write the script, I was hit with this visual of a woman and a man sitting across from one another at this outdoor table; they were both wounded and bloody to some extent, the man had this Norman Bates gaze going, and the woman had this extraordinary fear in her eyes. And it kind of just developed from there... what they were doing there, why they both had blood on them, why he was looking at her that way, why she was so fearful... that was the jumping-off point for me and one thing just led to the next.
What were some of the challenges of making the film?
Post-production was pretty difficult. The ending had to change a few times. What I had originally didn’t really work for a couple reasons. Then we went with a Plan B, which didn’t work either. Plan C was pretty much invented on the spot, and it actually looked and felt the best out of everything else, so it all worked out.
Otherwise the rest of the process went pretty smoothly. It took a lot of planning and coordinating and back and forth between myself and everyone involved to really ensure that we were well-prepared for the day, and it certainly paid off. I had an amazing group of people working on the film.
When did you realize that you wanted to make films and what was the first film project that you created?
I’ve loved movies and especially the experience of going to the movies for as long as I could remember. It was probably the big blockbuster movies from the early- to mid-2000s that I would see as a kid, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Peter Jackson’s King Kong and so on, that really spoke to me and influenced my love of movies. And as I got older I’d go back and discover this whole library of cinema, from classic films to foreign cinema to the very original summer blockbusters from the 70s and 80s and 90s that sort of informed the ones that got me interested in cinema in the first place.
But since I first got interested in movies, I would constantly write and just do anything I could to keep whatever creative energy I had alive and pumping. I would always write short stories and small scripts and things like that. I remember in middle school a friend and I wrote our version of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and another friend and I wrote this big, zany origin story of one of our teachers. The first film project I ever actually got up and filmed was in high school, and it was this little, 20-page short film called The Friend Zone. I remember using the iPhone 4 to film it and forcing a bunch of my friends into it, using their houses and basements and so on. It was a very weird movie... kind of a cross between The Matrix and Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Which directors have been influential in your work and why?
I’m a huge fan of modern South Korean cinema. I think filmmakers like Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Na Hong-jin, Kim Jee-woon and Yeon Sang-ho, among so many others, are making some of the best movies ever right now. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy in particular is my all-time favorite film at the moment.
Otherwise I really love Martin Scorsese, Edgar Wright, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen Brothers, Sam Raimi, Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Lynch, William Friedkin... to name a small lot. I’m a fan of a lot of horror filmmakers, too – Wes Craven and John Carpenter are favorites of mine, and I love a lot of David Cronenberg’s work and Roman Polanski’s early work.
Then there’s the low-budget “backyard” films that are really influential to me and made me realize anyone could just pick up a camera and make a movie, regardless of where they are or how much money they have... so Kevin Smith’s early movies, Spike Lee’s first couple of films... El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez, Slacker by Richard Linklater, Following by Christopher Nolan, Absentia by Mike Flanagan...
And of course so many new filmmakers now are doing amazing stuff. I’ve been especially following the work of Ari Aster, Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle, Robert Eggers, Greta Gerwig and the Safdie Brothers.
What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on?
I’ve been writing thrillers and horror films. The two short films I made in 2020 are both thrillers. I’ve been drawn to that kind of thing lately.
What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent film?
Having no budget really sucks, but it also forces you and everyone else on the project to be super creative and leverage whatever you have around you. The projects I’m writing now are pretty small-scale, and I try to write with my sure-fire resources in mind and not something that’s totally out of reach.
What is your plan for further distribution of your film?
Right now, Purgatory is just out there on Film Freeway. It’s been submitted to several festivals, still pending. So we’ll see!
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
Cinema is a really powerful artistic medium in the sense that it can influence your emotions and even your point-of-view towards certain things. Film can move you, it can teach you, it can you show things you’ve never seen before, all while taking you on this incredibly immersive visual journey. Filmmakers can and should leverage the medium to of course tell all kinds of stories and entertain people, but also promote whatever forces for good they feel passionately about, and if done with noticeable care and effort it can certainly have a major impact.
Cinema is always going to leave an impact at the end of the day. Whether you’re a filmmaker making a documentary about global warming or a 90-minute romantic comedy, you’re impacting an audience by taking them on an adventure.
What is your next film project?
I’m not sure yet. I have a couple of short films written that I’d really like to make. There are currently three of them I’m more confident in than the others. One is a horror film about grief, another is this super small Twilight Zone-esc thriller, and the last one is this really eccentric horror-comedy about the pandemic.
Why do you make films and what draws you to the language of cinema and directing?
I make films because I feel like I need to. I’ve been making short films lately to show people and submit to festivals and try to improve my craft with each project. But at the end of the day, I’m really making these shorts for myself, to satisfy that intense hunger I always have to just tell a story.
And I think what draws me to cinema and directing, in particular, is just the absolute beauty of the medium – telling a story through a collection of visuals and music and dialogue, all sorted and assembled onto one large canvas, and trying to convey a certain feeling or emotion or tone in capturing those individual pieces. It’s a beautiful thing.