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Interview with Frank LaLoggia: Director of Lady in White

Lady in White Eye

An interview with Frank LaLoggia, director of the classic and beloved film Lady in White.

Frank LaLoggia

HL: Your film, Lady in White, it’s a beautiful, but simultaneously chilling movie. It’s a ghost story, but it’s not excessive in its horror tropes. I’m curious, what was your first attraction to telling this story? Did you set out to make a melancholy ghost story or did you plan to use it as an allegory for some of the sub-plots in the film? Basically, in other words, why did you say yes, I have to make this movie?

FL: I initially said yes, I have to make this movie, when I started thinking about creating something that had to do with my past, something that I had experienced, and my family. I wanted to create something that was an homage to my family because I missed certain members that were gone. And so, that’s really what started it gelling. The thing that I can remember that most compelled me forward as to this specific idea was the cloakroom.

It all started with an image in my head that had to do with being in the cloakroom, and Frankie being locked in the cloakroom. I knew that I needed to create a structure that would allow me to embellish those memories that I held so deeply, that would work from a storytelling point of view. The movie is really about loss, that’s what drives it. I can’t say that I knew that when I was writing it, but I think that’s what makes it so compelling to so many people.

HL: It’s superbly written, superbly cast, and I think it’s a pitch perfect portrayal of an Italian-American household. I think that’s one of the things that registered with me personally when I first saw the film. How much were your characters built from your own family and furthermore, what moments of the film were drawn from your personal experience?

FL: Well, Frankie’s dad was based on my dad. Frankie was a combination of myself and my little brother, Geno, and mama and papa were my Sicilian grandparents on my father’s side of the family. As to mama and papa, everything that happens in the film between them was based on my remembrance of them. They were a constant and vivid part of my younger years. When my grandfather died, my grandmother moved in with us right around the time I was ready to go to college.

HL: Were there other moments, specifically, that are in the film, that are drawn from personal experience. For instance, you were never locked in a cloakroom, right?

FL: Well, if I was, I weathered it fairly well (laughs). No, I wasn’t locked in a cloakroom. But I had a fear of that place, its coffin-like surroundings. The familial elements of the film had to do with my own, personal experience. The ghostly elements have very little to do with my own experience.

HL: How did the Scream Factory release come about? Did they reach out to you or vice versa?

FL: I had gotten in touch with MGM and asked them whether or not they would be able to provide me with a high-def copy of the picture because I had never seen it in high-def. I knew that they had a high-def master that they had created back in the mid-2000s because I worked with them very closely on their release of the picture on DVD. They told me that Shout Factory was going to create an HD Blu-ray release, so I got in touch with them. They didn’t call me, I called them.

Then, I thought it would be a good idea to try and put together an Extended Director’s Cut based on an IP (interpositive) I had struck and preserved of my very first cut, the first cut I took to answer print back in 1987. (An interpositive is essentially a copy of the negative.) I had struck that interpositive because I wanted to make sure that that cut was preserved, knowing that I was probably going to have to go back in and re-edit the picture. I hadn’t made any deals, at that point, with any distributor because the picture was made independently. We raised almost five million dollars to make the movie. I had a very solid idea, that once I started shopping it around there were going to be all kinds of opinions (from a distribution point of view) and that I might have to make some edits to get the picture properly released.

However, a problem arose when Shout Factory told me that they couldn’t locate this IP and its corresponding soundtrack. My verbal agreement with them was that we would create this Extended Cut in exchange for my participation. They tried to renege on our agreement. The truth of the matter was, and I knew this based on what they were telling me, that they did have the correct IP in hand. There were three IPs, one for the theatrical cut, one for the MGM DVD release, and the third was this one. When they finally agreed to go back and check the IPs again, they admitted that they had had it in their possession all along. What we actually couldn’t find was the accompanying soundtrack. I resolved the problem of the missing track by getting in touch with my friends at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y. In 1987, I had given them a composite (35mm) print of this very first cut (what essentially became the new Extended Director’s Cut for the Blu) for their archives. They struck a copy of the missing track and the problem was solved.

All of the delays related to the new Blu’s release were due to Shout’s incompetence, I’m sorry to say. I’m also sorry to say that they broke their word regarding their promise to “clean-up” the optical effects as well. That was disappointing because I wanted very much to be able to do that. But, that’s the way it goes and the release, ultimately, turned out quite well.

HL: The film has such a powerful atmosphere, and I think that’s part of the reason that it’s had such a lasting legacy, but why, in your opinion, does the film carry such staying-power?

FL: Well, to tell you the truth, I’m amazed at all of the attention the film is getting with the release of the new Blu. I always believed that the film had a loving audience. Over the years, people had gotten in touch with me to let me know how much they loved the film. It’s always been, obviously, a very touching and wonderful thing to hear from people who care about Lady, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Not even in the picture’s initial release. The picture was not a big success theatrically and that happened for a number of reasons. Primarily, because the distributor simply, once again, did not fulfill its obligations to the film, as to spending (advertising wise). It wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the film, it was simply because they were at the end of their reign. They were running out of money as a company and about a year after they released Lady, they shut down.

But getting back to your question, I’d have to say once again, based on the reaction the film is getting now and has in the past, that it’s universal in its themes. There’s something in the film that everyone can relate to. There’s nothing about the film that categorizes it or makes it solely a film for a particular core group. For example, I’ve never considered Lady to be a “horror film.” I never believed the film to be anything as to categorizing it. I never thought of the film as anything other than a story I wanted to tell, period. Within the context of the story there were a lot of elements that drove it forward that were thrilling, that were mysterious, that were exciting, and that’s what good storytelling is all about.

Russ Carpenter (the Director of Photography) and I sat down with a storyboard artist and storyboarded every single shot, over 1,500 drawings. We spent an extensive amount of time discussing the look of the film, how we were going to approach it. All of it had to do with creating an entertainment, a story that was compelling, exciting, and moving.

HL: The use of “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,” I think it’s incredibly haunting as a plot point and I was curious, was that specific song written into the initial script, and if not, were there any other options that you considered?

FL: How that song came about was serendipitous. I was working out the story for Lady in White and was at the very beginning of structuring it, putting it together, writing it out in prose prior to going to script and mulling it about. I was living in LA at the time and an Eddie Cantor picture was going to be on television. I’d never seen an Eddie Cantor picture before, so, I thought I’d take a break and watch it. The song was featured in the film; a silly, funny, musical number. When I heard it, it was like an epiphany. Suddenly it just hit me that this was going to tie everything together, conceptually. That’s how “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” came to be such an integral part of the storytelling.

HL: I’ve noticed that there’s a pretty sizable gap between the release of Fear No Evil and Lady in White. I was curious, what happened in your life, both professionally and personally, between the making of those two films? What was the journey from Fear No Evil to Lady in White?

FL: Fear No Evil was a real let down for me. We had raised the money (my cousin Charles LaLoggia and I) to make the film independently. I took it all the way to work print (a rough cut of the film) and we needed another $200k-$300k to finish the picture. My cousin insisted that we screen the picture for one distributor in its unfinished form. The distributor he wanted to screen it for was Avco Embassy Pictures. In that era (1980 to be specific) they were a kind of “boutique” distribution shop for this kind of film. I agreed to screen the film for Avco because I had no choice. Charlie refused to raise the completion funds. I was hoping, frankly, that Avco would turn us down and Charlie would be forced to raise the money to complete the film. Instead, they “bit” and he insisted that we make the deal.

So, we made the deal, they gave us the money to complete the picture, and I was forced to work with one of their executives, Donald P. Borchers, to complete the film. I fought constantly to try and maintain my vision of the picture, but I couldn’t do it, so the picture turned out as it did. It was not satisfying to me and it was not satisfying to its audience. We didn’t make any money on it because the deal that my cousin signed wouldn’t have allowed us to ever make any money on the picture. The film went out worldwide and made a good deal of money for Avco Embassy, but we saw nothing. I was broke, didn’t have a dime in my pocket, and I wound up “pitching pencils,” literally, for a couple months.

After a while, a number of things started to happen. I re-cut a couple of pictures for a company called Film Ventures. Not very good films. Then, Charlie came to me and said ‘Look, we may be able to do this again (raise money independently) if we go public.’ He said that there was a possibility we could structure a penny stock offering to raise the money to make another film. I talked to him about the possibility of developing Lady in White and some of the ideas I had. So, that’s what we did. It took us quite a while to structure this public entity called New Sky Communications. We had a number of brokers around the country selling stock for Lady and it took us about three years, from beginning to end, to bring Lady in White to fruition.

HL: Just curious, the penny stock situation, do you think someone could do that now?

FL: I don’t know. As far as I know, nobody else has ever done it since (gone public to finance a single film). This time, I made sure that no (distribution) deals were going to be made until the picture was completed and that I would supervise all those deals. Charlie was agreeable to that because he had to be, otherwise I wasn’t going to move forward. We managed to do it. Could it be done today? I suppose so, but it would depend on whether or not someone could find a network of brokers that would be willing to sell the offering.

By the way, I’d like to correct a misconception. Lady in White is mistakenly thought to not have been a success financially. That is not true. It did not do well theatrically in the US, that’s true. But I structured three independent deals for Lady once the picture was completed. The US theatrical deal, the foreign deal, and the video deal. By virtue of structuring those deals separately, the movie recouped every penny of its negative cost (4.7 million) before it even went into theaters in the US. The way that happened is that the Samuel Goldwyn Company picked up the picture for foreign sales and they gave us a one million dollar advance against sales. The film went through the roof foreign and we collected 70% of all sales. Goldwyn took it to Cannes and sold it all over the world. Via foreign alone we pocketed close to three million.

Then, Virgin Vision, which was the entertainment arm at the time of Richard Branson’s company, Virgin International, advanced us two million dollars against video. Both of those deals happened prior to the theatrical deal. The picture had recouped every penny of its negative cost before it went into the US market theatrically, and it continued to make money based on those two deals for many years after. So, it’s not correct that the movie didn’t re-coup its costs. It did BETTER than re-coup its costs. We made quite a significant amount of money on Lady in White.

HL: Each of your films, they’re very different types of stories, in regard to tone. I would say, Fear No Evil is an exploitative horror flick, Lady in White is a poetic ghost story, and Mother is an intense thriller. What has made you choose each subsequent project and have you felt the need to do something different each time?

FL: Fear No Evil, quite frankly, was about making my first feature. Charlie came to me and said ‘I think I can raise $200,000-$300,000 if we make a horror movie.’ I wasn’t opposed to the idea of making a horror movie and he asked me to come up with a concept insisting that we use a place called Boldt Castle, in the Thousand Islands. Sometimes I think I wasn’t ready to make that film. But if we hadn’t made Fear No Evil, Lady would have never happened.

Mother (alternate title: The Haunted Heart), which was written by our dear friend Michael Angelella, came to me via a company called King’s Road. They wanted me to direct the picture, solely. I turned it down two or three times, primarily because I was involved with another project that I had a very fierce and strong motivation to try and get made. Eventually, I decided to do it based on their allowing me to work with Michael, to re-work the script together, and we did. When the producer, Stephen Friedman, said okay to my ideas and Michael was okay with the idea of our working together, I got involved. We had a really decent little picture on our hands. But, once again, I did not have ultimate control over the project. I was a director for hire. And that’s what unnerved me right from the word go.

Sadly, I was also working with a notorious producer who had a reputation for destroying everything he got his hands on. Well, he destroyed this film. He took it away from me and re-cut it. Even shot additional scenes on his own… horrendous stuff. I had no control over the picture and he made a disaster of it. Fear No Evil was about getting my first feature off the ground. Lady was about creating something from the heart, that I had a very personal attachment to, and controlling it from beginning to end. Mother was about trying to achieve the impossible and I couldn’t do it. I did have other deals in the interim between Lady and Mother and even afterwards.

For example Irwin Yablans, who produced Halloween, came to me with a treatment that he had, a story called Entangled and I made a deal with him to write and direct. Irwin was a wonderful guy, just the nicest man imaginable and he had no need to work at all because his deal on the original Halloween allowed him to participate (financially) in every sequel that followed, so he was very rich. As a matter of fact, I remember we got together and had story conferences on his yacht, an extraordinary vessel docked in Marina del Rey. Ultimately, he simply decided that he didn’t want to go through the hell of making a picture again and trying to get it out there. And he never did.

Then I was attached to a picture at Universal, as writer/director, that was called Creature. It was based on a book by John Saul. As a matter of fact, Richard Matheson had written a draft prior to mine. But the executive at Universal who was in charge of the project was let go and when that happens, all the projects that are relegated to that specific person generally go down the drain and that’s what happened with Creature. I was attached to Spider-Man, very early on, as writer/director when 21st Century had rights to the picture. Menahem Golan was the producer. I wrote a treatment and then decided that I couldn’t work with Golan, so, I left.

HL: It seems like after directing Mother, you’ve been very specific about the type of films you want to make and I think that speaks to your character as a unique voice in filmmaking. What have you been trying to develop? I read a little bit about the Michelangelo film, The Giant, about the creation of the “David” sculpture.

FL: The Giant was a film that I wanted desperately to make after Lady and, because our company had a significant amount of money due to Lady‘s success, I was able to travel to Italy to write the screenplay. I spent a year, prior, researching and absorbing myself in the period of the story, that being the 15-16th centuries. The Giant is the story of a young Michelangelo and the creation of “The David.”

Six months after I finished writing the screenplay, I returned to Italy and brought Russ Carpenter (the DP of Lady in White) with me, as well as Andy La Marca (Lady‘s co-producer). I brought a storyboard artist by the name of Peter Ramsey who has now become a director himself. We were in Florence for six weeks, budgeting, storyboarding. Once again, more than 1,500 detailed drawings were made. I hoped that I would be able to raise the money to make the picture independently, as I had with Lady. But, in this particularly case, I was stuck having to go the more traditional channels, due to the film’s much larger budget. I tried for years. I came close on a few occasions, but it never got off the ground.

HL: Are you interested in storytelling in other mediums besides film?

FL: I have a deep respect for anyone who can write prose and do it well. I’m terrified of it. I don’t know that I could do it. I don’t feel secure enough to be able to do it. I’ve, on occasion, thought about the possibility of writing The Giant as prose.

HL: Because Halloween Love is all about October 31st, and Lady in White is one of the most fantastic recreations of the holiday, what are your fondest childhood memories of Halloween?

FL: Well, a number of them are portrayed in the film. I mean, the idea of selecting your costume, carving pumpkins. I think my fondest memory was Halloween at school, as portrayed in Lady in White. I just loved going to school and being with my classmates and celebrating the holiday in costumes.

HL: What are your plans for Halloween this year?

FL: I’m thinking about throwing a Halloween party at the house. I haven’t done that for many years. When I lived in the Hollywood Hills, I’d always get together with a group of friends and we’d costume and go to West Hollywood and have a blast. I live in Italy now and the Italians don’t really celebrate Halloween the way we do. It’s become a bit more of an event in recent years, but it’s not the same as in the states.

HL: Are you currently developing any projects you’d like to share with us?

FL: There is a project that I’ve been working on that I created a 10 minute promo for, a film called MIRO/MIRANDA!. It’s an original musical comedy.

HL: (at the request of Black) At HL, we love getting weird. Anything bizarre, random, or off-topic you’d like to share? Maybe something that fans didn’t know that you think would be interesting about the film or anything else.

FL: I can tell you a story. Something that happened to Karen Powell, who portrayed the ghostly lady in white in the film. One day, when the film was airing repeatedly on cable, she was sitting on the train, in Manhattan, on her way to work. Sitting next to her were two teenage girls. One of them was excitedly going on and on about this movie called Lady in White that she’d seen on TV the night before.

She’s detailing the plot, breathlessly telling her friend about it, how wonderful it was, how she must see it. Karen’s sitting next to her, she’s listening to all of this just waiting to “spring.” At a superbly timed moment, Karen taps the girl on her shoulder and says “Excuse me?” The girl turns around and Karen continues “I’m the LADY IN WHITE!” According to Karen, this poor kid jumped out of her seat absolutely terrified while screaming “Oh my god! You ARE! She is the LADY IN WHITE!” (laughs)

HL: You know, Lady in White is one of my favorite films, and I know Black, the head honcho at Halloween Love, feels the same way. It’s such a touching film and it’s brought me to tears many times, so I just wanted to express our gratitude for you as a storyteller and let you know your work has immense meaning to us. So, thanks for taking the time to chat. We really, really appreciate it Frank.

FL: You’re welcome Chris.

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Chris LaMartina is a horror filmmaker from Baltimore, MD. To date, he's directed seven horror features including "WNUF Halloween Special" and "Call Girl of Cthulhu". He is currently in production his eighth, a clickbait social satire entitled, "What Happens Next Will Scare You".

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  • AxelPalmer

    Great interview…very candid and informative.