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"I grew up on horror films," Massetti explains about his preferred cinematic genre. "Classic horror films. They stuck with me. I can't create moody pieces with these light, bright comedies. I like something that's visually interesting with this dark and brooding story."
He considers George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, to be the greatest horror films made. "Night shows what people do in a crisis situation," Massetti says. "There are things coming at them, yet they're fighting amongst themselves over pretty petty stuff. It's the character study of human nature that I love about that film. It's us attacking us. You see the characters going through this no-win situation. It blows my mind.
"You shouldn't run away from what you're afraid of. That's why I think horror films are so important -- to confront your fears. It's the same in a nightmare where there's a monster chasing you. If you stop in your dream, turn around, and confront it, it makes you stronger."
Yes, he confesses, his real fears are in his films. "I don't like to admit them, but they're in there. If I'm not afraid of it now, I was at one point. It's a kind of psychology for me."
Massetti was born in Chicago and was barely into his teens when he first saw the movie that would set his course of life: Star Wars. "I saw it 20, 25 times," he recalls. "I was considering a career as a lawyer, but that movie made me feel: This is what I want to do, make movies that make people feel this way. I saw filmmaking in a different way with that movie."
The high school he attended didn't offer filmmaking, so he took the closest thing to it: film history. When the final exam came up, Massetti proposed making a film instead. He turned out Night Prowler, a ten-minute slasher on Super 8 named for a popular AC/DC song at that time. He edited it with splicing tape.
His parents were lukewarm to his announcement that he wanted to become a filmmaker. His father, he says, ultimately gave him the kind of qualified approval not uncommon to young artists: "Yeah, you're probably not going to make it, but if it's what you want to do, then pursue it."
He enrolled at Southern Illinois University in 1982, which at the time had a well-regarded film school, he says. When he began taking film classes in 1984, however, the movie genre he so loved met resistance. "My initial film instructor was a woman who didn't like sex or violence in films," Massetti remembers. Undaunted, he made his first short film, Obsession, about a guy who becomes fixated on a girl and her boyfriend. "He kills him to get her," he says. "So I had this scene where the guy stabs the boy. We shot it on campus, though we hadn't told anyone in the campus police. At one point, the guy's got a nylon over his head, blood on his hands, and he's running all over campus." Although he escaped the wrath of the law, the instructor was less forgiving about the content and graded him down because of it.
"I didn't know how to react," he says. "So just to spite her, I made a movie called Violence. The main character watches violent scenes on TV. Then you go into his mind where, in strobe effect, he's destroying stuff -- getting it all out -- and then he comes back to the screen, which is now blank." After the instructor graded down the ten-minute film once again, he "had a little debate with the school" about what he considered censorship. "The film department didn't do anything to support me, and that's really why I dropped out."
Before leaving school, however, he made his first comedy short, Pretty Woman, which he entered in the Canadian International Film Festival, where it received a special commendation.
After a year-long break, he enrolled in the film school at Columbia College in Chicago, where he found screenwriting the most valuable experience. "If you can learn how to write a screenplay, you know how to make a movie," Massetti declares. "That's the bare bones of a film." He remembers that Martin Scorsese's ex-wife taught the advanced screenwriting class he attended.
His final thesis project at Columbia was a short on 16mm film called Alone with Grandma. "It was about a small child, through his eyes, left alone in a house with a decrepit grandma who he saw as a monster because she was so old," he says. Unable to find an authentic-looking granny, he cajoled his younger sister to play the part with a mask. "I shot her dark and quick," he explains.
He graduated from Columbia in 1988 feeling confident about filmmaking but immediately at a loss about how to break into the business.
"The school didn't teach the business side of it," he explains. "I didn't want to go to California because I didn't feel prepared to go; I didn't know who to go to. That would have just been a bigger pool to be in. I was lost for a while." On a lark, he and a friend moved to South Florida in 1992 with just the clothes they wore and enough money to get by for a month. He managed a movie theater for a while, then a video store, then a nightclub. "I was still trying to figure a way to get into the film industry," he recalls of the passing years. Then he met his future partner for Fear Film.