Name: Michael Varrati
Birth Place: Gallup, NM
Notable films: Tales of Poe (2014), A Christmas in Vermont (2016), He Drinks (2018)
When did you know you were queer? When did you come out?
Michael Varrati: I don’t know that there was a definitive moment that I knew I was queer. For a lot of my teen years, I actively tried to ignore that part of me. Growing up primarily in the Midwest in the late-90s, being gay was just not something that was part of the conversation. I think I thought if I just never focused on those feelings I could avoid them forever.
It took awhile for me to sit down and recognize myself for me. My mom tried to ask me if I was gay a full year before I came out, and I got very defensive, even though her inquiry came from a supportive place. I finally came out when I was 19. It was Christmas Eve. I told my mom first, and then my dad a few weeks later. A weight had been lifted, but it also was a Herculean journey to get there. I was lucky to come from a family that loved and supported me. Even then, it was not an easy process.
Once you’re out, there’s a whole separate journey of finding your people and your place. I was always empowered by storytelling and movies, and that’s often where I found solace. I was glomming onto things like Psycho Beach Party and The Rocky Horror Picture Show before I even had the language to understand why and how they applied to me. I was drawn to their unapologetic celebration of otherness. I wanted to have that too. So, as I got older and started making movies and telling stories of my own, it became imperative for me to create things that would help, excite, and empower kids like me.
How did you get into filmmaking?
MV: I was always drawn to storytelling. I started writing short stories and narratives at an early age, and that’s something that really never stopped.
I’m first and foremost a writer. Out of college, I worked as a columnist for several major publications, as well as did an office gig as a copyeditor, but I always knew I wanted to write movies. I started attending horror conventions and connecting with indie filmmakers, and eventually forged the relationships that allowed me to take a crack at writing films.
Once I did that first movie, it was like a drug and I wanted more. Luckily, someone foolishly allowed me to keep going. I’ve written indie horror films, TV movies, streaming series, and more. My work has played film festivals, been on networks like Lifetime, Hallmark, and the Disney Channel, and beyond. And honestly, I just always assumed that was all I was going to do: Write, write, write forever and be content doing it.
But then a project came along that I didn’t want to give up, and I thought: “What if I didn’t just write this one…but also directed?” And I did. It was a learning experience, and I won’t say I did everything right. But I learned, and it made me want to do more…to keep creating and keep getting better. I love it. I still write, and always will, but these days I don’t give all of my scripts away. I also save some for myself.
As a horror creator, what is it about horror that attracts you?
MV: Because, to me, horror is the most powerful genre. Horror, by its very definition, is a genre of subversion and otherness. You can use the mechanisms of horror to say things you may not normally get to say. Horror can represent our deepest fears and anxieties, or let loose our darkest fantasies. It’s salacious and savage, often scary…and occasionally sexy. Honestly, horror is just plain fun.
What films (queer or not) have made a significant impact on you and your work? In what way?
MV: I always had an affinity for movies, and found early on that the more fantastic or outrageous they were, the more likely they would capture my attention.
A pivotal moment for me was the discovery of a USA Up All Night airing of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I recognized immediately that it was a silly movie, but it also revealed that there was a world beyond what was being shown at the multiplex. I became obsessed with films that felt underground or off the beaten path…that had a sense of the forbidden.
Naturally, I gravitated toward horror and cult cinema. And, in an era where accessibility to queer content at the movies and on home video was still few and far between, I would eat that stuff up too. Especially because, on a subliminal level, I was looking to see myself reflected in something, anything.
Another movie I saw on Up All Night that I’ve spent much of my career heralding is Phillip R. Ford’s Vegas in Space. It was this weird, kitschy sci-fi movie featuring a cast of adventuring astronaut drag queens. I had never seen anything like it before. This was in the early 90s in the pre-Drag Race era where seeing drag queens and queer people on television was almost unthinkable. And yet, here was a whole movie populated by only drag queens and queer people. It blew my mind. It felt so punk. Similarly, I loved the cult energy of Rocky Horror and the rock ‘n roll glamor rage of Divine in those early John Waters movies. On the flipside, the exquisite and quiet beauty of the films of Derek Jarman were an artistic revolution to me.
The queer cinema that shaped me, much like the horror movies, always felt like it was taking a stand. I loved that. I still do. Other movies that really left their mark include Night of the Creeps, Cemetery Man, Get Real, The Velvet Goldmine, Evil Dead, The Toxic Avenger, and Phantom of the Paradise. I want a movie to let its freak flag fly. Those are my kind of flicks.
You’re a filmmaker, an activist and a podcaster so you’re plugged into a number of different industry channels. How progressive or welcoming is the filmmaking industry for queer creators right now?
MV: Obviously, while there are strides that have been made in queer visibility, there’s still a long way to go to get the kind of representation on screen that we need.
That being said, we are in a good moment in time for queer content to be created. With the advent of the world of streaming and digital, there are more places than ever before for content to find a home. Just as there are dedicated platforms for horror content, there are several services that cater directly to shining a spotlight on LGBTQIA+ content and creators. It may not be the big studios or networks providing the opportunities yet, but at least there’s someone somewhere who is saying, “If you make this thing, it deserves to be seen and there’s a home for it.”
To me, that’s a rallying cry. If you have something you want to make, there’s no excuse to not go out there and make it. Want a zombie movie where a trans action hero saves us from apocalypse? Make it. You want a web series where the final girl falls in love with another girl and together they kick the slasher’s ass? Make it. The time is now.
It probably goes without question that your sexuality informs your films given how queer many of them are. Why is that inclusion an important component of your work?
MV: It’s important for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that when I was growing up, seeing queer people represented in film, TV, and print was extremely few and far between. For so long, our stories were swept aside or coded, and we were asked to identify with narratives that intentionally ignored us.
As a filmmaker and screenwriter, I want to make the movies I didn’t have. As a producer, I want to help other voices tell their stories. There are whole communities out there who need better representation on screen. Even more so, there are some who haven’t been represented at all. Every step we take to creating a more diverse palette of cinema, is a step for the better. As a creator, I have to do that for me and for my community. I want to make the movies I always wanted.
Do you subscribe to queer readings of your films?
MV: I subscribe to them and I encourage them. A creative piece is malleable in that it goes beyond the creator once it is unleashed onto the world. The audience brings their own ideas and experiences to watching/reading/engaging with a story…and if that means they also find something within the art that is significant to them, even I didn’t intend it as such, there’s still merit there. Sometimes it even causes me to look at my own creation in a new way!
Have you interacted with many queer horror fans over your work?
MV: Thanks to my work on Dead for Filth and my hosting of many queer horror live discussions at locations like Comic Con, I’ve had the good fortune to interact with a great number of queer horror fans out there in the world…and it has been truly amazing and humbling.
For the most part, despite their various walks of life, the people I talk to all seem to come together on the communal power of horror…and how for many of them their love of these movies has been a catharsis. Horror is a genre of otherness, and few understand otherness quite like queer people. If you’re a fan of this stuff, it’s a space you relish and celebrate. And when it’s something like an episode of my show or a movie I’ve written that provides that escape or excitement for someone, it’s a great feeling. I have nothing but gratitude for each and every person out there who has taken the time to watch, listen, or read my work. It makes all the difference.
You’re a very busy man – I know you have The Office is Mine, a new workplace horror short touring the festival circuit this summer (I previewed a few stills here) and you’re contributing a segment to the holiday anthology Deathcember. Do you have other projects in the pipeline?
MV: Yes! I’m very excited for The Office is Mine and Deathcember both to be unleashed at film festivals this summer and fall, respectively. Beyond those, I do have a few other things coming up relatively soon. It’s a pretty well-documented fact that outside of my work in the realm of horror, I work relatively full-time as a screenwriter for TV projects. A new movie I wrote, The Wrong Stepmother, starring Vivica Fox and Cindy Busby will be premiering sometime this summer on the Lifetime Movie Network. Similarly, another movie I wrote about a killer babysitter just finished shooting and will likely debut in the autumn. I also just wrapped up some writing and directing on the third season of Dragula, which was an amazing adventure. Of course, there will also continue to be new episodes of Dead for Filth.
Also, as I’m sure you heard, it was recently announced that I’m part of a new documentary all about the history of Queer Horror. The project is being helmed by my horror comrade-in-arms Sam Wineman, and has a great team behind it, including Fangoria’s Phil Nobile and Kelly Ryan. I’m serving not only as a Consulting Producer on the film, but also a talking head, working with Sam to chart the course of the intersection of queerness and genre. It will drop on Shudder later next year. It’s very exciting and feels like the culmination of a lot of work.
…and, in addition to everything else, I just officially co-founded June Gloom, a production company centered on the creation of queer horror and queer social commentary projects. Created with my dear friend and production partner Brandon Kirby, we hope to utilize June Gloom to not only further curate and create our own projects, but also help produce works from other filmmakers and creators whose vision aligns with ours. The Office is Mine was the first movie shot under the June Gloom Productions banner, and we’re already at work on the second and third projects, a piece that Brandon wrote and is directing and I’m producing called Is This a Date?, and a queer space horror movie directed by Andrew Ceperley (Narcos: Mexico).
So, as you can see, no rest for the wicked. If there’s more stories to be told or queer horror movies to be made…I’m always ready.
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