Ann Hutton

Author, essayist, journalist, poet


On the set, photo by Kale Kaposhilin

Last week I talked with Vincent D’Ononfrio about his film Don’t Go In the Woods, to be featured at the Woodstock Film Festival this year. Familiar with his quirky reputation as an actor’s actor who none-the-less gets under the skin of female Law & Order: Criminal Intent viewers, I want to shout to all women, “Breathe my air.” But that would be unseemly for one ten-plus-years his senior, and after a mere business phone chat.

Instead, let me say that talking to this sweet, generous, voluminous and talented man was an entirely satisfying experience. He is no-nonsense about his endeavors. He does not play it coy. For D’Onofrio, it seems it’s all about craft, moving ahead, doing the next best thing.

After inhabiting roles in 50 films these past 30 years—notably Men in Black, Full Metal Jacket, Mystic Pizza, The Player, Ed Wood, Dying Young, Steal This Movie, The Whole Wide World and a long list of others—and by playing the off-center Detective Bobby Goren for many seasons on LOCI, the next best thing was to direct a feature length film. Don’t Go In the Woods is a product of screenwriter Joe Vinciguerra and composer/songwriter Sam Bisbee, with D’Onofrio making his directorial debut (he also did a short piece Five Minutes, Mr. Welles), plus a cast of young people who were chosen specifically because they are not professional actors.

Billed as a slasher musical and filmed on his property outside Kingston, the story revolves around a band that heads upstate for a weekend of recharging their creative batteries on a campout. When their city girlfriends show up by surprise, you just know that a killer will soon be on the loose, and mayhem will ensue. The horror formula is intact, while the inclusion of a quite decent rock soundtrack that will be available once the film is distributed provides a surprising variation.

Bringing his sensibilities to the action the same way he assumes the various roles he plays, D’Onofrio talks about guiding this cast into a sort of “Linklater/Slacker/80s tone.” “We wanted to find really good singers who’d never acted before. We thought it would be a cool concept—flat, pure, honest acting with not a lot of affect and style. Just honest kids with words coming out of their mouths. When you watch the movie, it definitely has an uncomfortable tone to it.”

When asked how it was to direct a group of untrained, inexperienced young people, he explains how they spent ten days together laying down the music, a process that got them all used to each other. “I would talk to them every day, not about what they were going to do, but about the tone of the film and how important it was for them to just be themselves. We had a couple read-throughs of the script, and any time anybody was acting or started to have fake inflections in their delivery, I’d just stop and say, ‘You have to speak in your own voice, I don’t want any more than that.’ So by the time we started shooting, we had total trust in each other, and they would do anything I asked them to do.”

Obviously, the sheer luck to be chosen for the project weighed in as a factor. “They wanted to get it right; they didn’t stand in front of themselves. You asked them to do something and they’d do it. There was no pause, no wondering whether it’s right or wrong. As you know, when you get involved with a bunch of people doing something creative, there are layers of politics that go on. There was none of that on the set; it was very straight forward. It was really a good experience for everyone. I think [the actors] did feel obligated, but they didn’t try to put on airs, didn’t try to act like they knew more than they did or less than they did. There was no manipulation going on; if they were confused, they’d say it, if they weren’t, they’d do it. Like that.”

With an intended audience demographic of 18 to mid-20-year-olds, the film has already been screened in colleges around the country. I asked if the fact that this cast was picked to participate in something outside their range of experience, even outside their aspirations, resulting in this measure of success, it might be inspiring for the audience in unexpected ways. “When you’re in a college showing a movie, and I’m there with whomever of the performers can be there, I’m sure the combination of watching the film and hearing the background and being able to talk to us after, for sure they’re going to take something away. When it comes to being released, unless [viewers] are inspired to be artists, and they go on the internet and learn how the film was made, I can’t imagine them taking much more away from a musical slasher movie than just the entertainment. It’s not that deep a movie.”

I asked whether further editing to this film might be done if, after making the college and film festival circuit, this gets picked up by a big distributor. D’Onofrio says, “It’s a cerebral type horror film. I’ve tried many different cuts of it and always go back to my original cut. I cut it more like an album than I did a movie. Scripts are never finished until a film is shot. There are certain exceptions to that, but in my experience I’ve never worked with a writer, director or producer who considered it done until the film was in the can. This is a film that we made in just 12 days for people to enjoy, with music to listen to—a teen angst horror film. That’s all it is and will ever be.”

Like other seasoned actors who take on directorial responsibilities, the progression seems to be a natural one. D’Onofrio can’t imagine doing anything else with his life. He has a family and a household to manage, and says he sometimes feels guilty about not giving them all his attention. Working in the industry allows him to sort of compartmentalize his focus, especially if he’s doing a role that requires a specific time commitment. “But if I’m involved with something from the get-go to the end, I prefer to give it 100 percent of my time.  I did a lot of things when I was a kid…but if I weren’t in the entertainment industry in some way, I’d definitely teach the arts. I’d either be building something or teaching something—even swimming or surfing—something other than sitting behind a desk.”

That said, stepping behind the camera seems instinctive for him. “It has been pretty natural so far. I’m not a very good business man. It’s tough. There’s a lot of disloyalty that you don’t get with truly creative people. When it comes to the business side of things, I let other people handle it. But the actual work, the time that you put into it, the camaraderie with the crew… That doesn’t mean I’m any good at it. I’ve always had the attitude that I’m going to act until they stop letting me, and I feel the same way about directing. It’s hard to measure your talent so you just have to give up on it and hope for the best. I was talking to Patti Smith about this. We were saying to each other that you never really achieve 100 percent, but you can’t give up trying. You have to trust that what the audience sees is your struggle to achieve, and that’s basically the best you’re gonna do.” For D’Onofrio’s growing fan base, that’s more than enough.

Starring Eric Bogosian and newcomers to the big screen, Bo Boddie, Cassandra Walker, Matt Sbeglia, Soomin Lee, Nick Thorp, Casey Smith, Jorgen Jorgensen, Gwynn Galitzer, Alyssa Jang, Kira Gorelick, Nuriya Almaya, Ali Tobia, Janet Kim and Kate O’Malley, the film was produced by Erika Hampson and Ken Christmas. Don’t Go In the Woods is being shown on Friday, October 1 at 8:00 p.m. at the Emerson Resort & Spa on Route 28 in Mount Tremper. Simultaneously, Bitter Feast, directed by Joe Maggio and produced by Boiceville resident Larry Fessenden, will be screened. Billed as “Fright Night: A Woodstock Film Festival Double Horror Header,” the event will include a pre-screening feast and a post-screening party with the filmmakers.

Tickets for the whole horrific night are $50. The WFF box office is on Rock City Road in Woodstock. For tickets and further information visit or call 845 810-0131.