By Joel Silverstein
Matthew D'Abate arrived at filmmaking quite by accident. The creative director and founder of Brooklyn's Le Chat Noir Productions moved to New York from New Orleans to be a writer. He took a job writing features at Harlem Today Magazine.
Then, like Robert Johnson in Mississippi, D'Abate came to a crossroads.
He was on a date with an actress.
"You don't seem like a writer," she said after a while, "you talk too much." She suggested he get into directing.
A few years later, D'Abate is releasing his fourth short film. The gritty horror flick "Werewolf" will premiere Thursday at a benefit party for Le Chat Noir's upcoming collection of short stories, "Drinking with Papa Legba," at Public Assembly (Click here to watch the "Werewolf" trailer).
Thursday also marks the unveiling of Le Chat Noir's new film production moniker, Tchula Junction - named for the place Johnson is said to have sold his soul to Satan in trade for his transcendent guitar picking.
"I'm obsessed with the bargaining it takes to get somewhere," D'Abate, 34, said last week, in a ball cap and black jeans in a booth at Kellogg's Diner in Williamsburg. Papa Legba, as it were, is the Haitian deity that stands at the crossroads of this life and the next - the gatekeeper.
When D'Abate first moved to Williamsburg in 2005, he expected to find a community of peers - writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers working alongside one another.
"I didn't find a scene," he said. "I found a completely disparate group of artists trying to make it on their own." He founded Le Chat Noir, a film, music and literary arts collective based in Williamsburg, in 2008, "in the spirit of camaraderie," he said.
"People in this neighborhood seem hungry," he said. He's since served as a gatekeeper of sorts to those willing to lend their time and talents to a common idea.
After deciding to adapt his short story "I Shall Lie Beneath the Ground and You Will Walk in Sun" (Nietzsche's last words to his sister) into a film, D'Abate went to the Greenpoint Library and took out a handful of film books, including Camille Landau and Tiarre White's What They Don't Teach You at Film School: 161 Stategies For Making Your Own Movies No Matter What. He gave himself a crash-course in directing. Then, he met his Director of Photography, Joe Pasciscia at the Abbey on Driggs Ave. in Brooklyn, where D' Abate tended bar. With a five-person crew found through putting up tear-aways at NYU, Le Chat Noir produced the short film "Cross Bone Eyes."
Pasciscia has served as DP on all of Le Chat Noir's films, including "Cut," D'Abate's second effort as writer/director. "Cut," which was shot in black and white on Super 8, found D'Abate exploring things that disgust him, like rape, drug use, people cutting each other, themselves.
Women ask him why he makes these types of films. For D'Abate, like Larry Clark or R. Kern, it's an exploratory process.
"As an artist, dealing with your own fears is the best thing you can do," he said. Chances are, others share those fears.
"Werewolf," for example, is primarily about marital violence. The 18-minute short features actors Georgie Caldwell and Solomon Shiv as a pair of Williamsburg writers, one of whom (Shiv) gets bitten. And it's graphic.
D'Abate worked closely with Caldwell to develop her character, the Tisch-trained actress said. "He's got a very strong voice," Caldwell said. Despite scenes of violent abuse, Caldwell always felt safe on the set, even when Shiv was "shaking the shit out of me," she said.
"Really, even though it was horrific and weird, it's work," she said. "Going those places emotionally is not easy. You can get lost in a role, but it's still not real."
Caldwell also met D'Abate while he was behind the bar at the Abbey, and the two realized after a short conversation that they were "madly in love with each other artistically," Caldwell said.
Aside from her roles in Le Chat Noir shorts - she had a walk-on cameo in "S&M" and a role in the ensemble cast of "Cut" along with "Werewolf" - Caldwell most recently appeared in the off-Broadway hit, "(No) Boys Allowed" at the Manhattan Repertory Theatre. She's also appeared in a number of SVA and NYU student films, and as an extra in features. But she takes delight in tangible creative air on D'Abate's sets.
"Le Chat Noir, to me, feels alive," she said. "I really believe in him."
To D'Abate's mind, there's three paths a short film can take: well-funded, funny, or explicit. "Werewolf" falls under the latter.
It's the company's longest and largest production. D'Abate and his nine-person crew shot for a week, working 12-hour days. And he prefers the working-class feel of his work to high concept art, he said.
"I'm not trying to be Godard," he said. He is trying to do something new, though. His next short, a breast-themed jaunt called "Them," will be Dario Argento horror meets Times Square skin flick. But no nudity.
"You don't want another boring Mumblecore movie," he said. On his sets, D'Abate is open to input from actors, producers and crew. "I like that sort of lawlessness. We're organized, we're just not quite sure how we're going to get there."
Along with the "Werewolf" screening, The Papa Legba party will feature screenings of the Le Chat Noir Short "S&M" and Shahriar Shadab's animated short, "Revolutions," along with live performances from Brooklyn bands Madam Trashy, Radar Fiction and Crazy Pills, and an open Sam Adams bar from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m.
D'Abate, meanwhile, stands at the threshold of still another career milestone: he finished his first novel, Mika, last fall.