Apr 13

Director Thomas Mignone talks about his new movie The Vanessa Del Rio Project



If you have ever watched metal music videos like Sepultura‘s Roots Bloody Roots, Mudvayne‘s Dig, Soulfly‘s World Skum, Slipknot‘s DVD Welcome To Our Neighborhood, or the film On The Doll you might know who Thomas Mignone is. In case you still unfamiliar with the name, he is one of the top music video directors that had worked with a variety of musicians, in and out of the metal scene during the last two decades.

Currently Thomas Mignone is working on a brand new film titled The Vanessa Del Rio Film Project about the life of the legendary adult film icon, and her experiences in New York’s Times Square during the 1970’s, where crime was a daily occurrence making it a dangerous destination, and a survival of the fittest zone at that time.
But you might ask, what does the story of an adult starlet of the 70’s has to do with metal?. Well, the answer is simple, Thomas Mignone had cast Glenn Danzig (Misfists/Danzig) and David Vincent (Morbid Angel) as characters in the film, and is in current negotiations with Paul D’Amoure (ex-Tool) and Max Cavalera (Soulfly) to work on the sound design for the film. So the metal component will be there.

During our visit to Los Angeles, CA not long ago, we had the chance to meet up with Thomas Mignone and talked about the film, filming techniques he might use, the musical component of the film, and the tentative actors and actresses that could play a role in the film.



We are here at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood, California, with none other than Thomas Mignone, director and MTV award winner.  We are talking today about his new project, the Vanessa Del Rio Film Project, which is based on the life of Vanessa Del Rio during the ’70s in Times Square, the time the adult industry kind of started, and with the backdrop of the crime organization in that area.

Could you enlighten us a little more on that and say what motivated you to start this project?


I attended a book signing event for Vanessa Del Rio by the prestigious book publisher Taschen. I was impressed with her from the moment she walked into the room. She had a very dynamic and kinetic personality, very warm and friendly. She was also a very vivacious woman who just charmed everyone, including myself, and I was naturally drawn to her.  As I spoke with her, I realized her story of being a young woman in Times Square during the chaotic ’70s and ’80s was one I was becoming very enamored with, and that it had never been told as a feature film.

It’s really a story about New York City, which is where I was born and raised, so I have a particular affinity to it. New York was going through an interesting and tumultuous transformation in the late 70’s.  The country itself was in economic doldrums.  Wanting to improve this, the federal government was exerting pressure in sync with local authorities to clean up Times Square.  It was the entertainment capital of New York, and the direction the city would go would be precipitated by how well it was doing.

Unfortunately, or however it can be described, Times Square was run to a large part by mob-controlled businesses.  Organized crime had their footprint on 85 to 90% of the smaller shops.  It was a very gritty, visceral time, as seen in films like Mean Streets, The French Connection, and Taxi Driver.  There were a lot of drugs, prostitution, and crime.  It blighted the city and gave it a very negative reputation.

To clean it up, the government passed eminent domain laws to force the adult industry out.  The reason given was a new disease called AIDS that had everybody terrified, and people had no idea how it was contracted or passed along.  Many of their loved ones were dying from it, and the adult industry got the finger of blame pointed at it because of fear mongering by the politicians who, along with real estate and commercial developers, were interested in getting those smaller, less-profitable (to them) businesses out so that they could bring in larger more family-oriented (and profitable) corporations, like Disney, ESPN, or Viacom.

To that end, the adult industry was in dire need of dollars to fight the litigation they were under.  They turned to new revenue streams to exploit the Latino and African American communities, which up until then hadn’t been serviced by them. And Vanessa was right there at the right moment. Up until then, ethnic performers were usually depicted as secondary players: the hired help, the maids, the ladies with the fruit on their heads, or whatever.  When Vanessa came along, she was instantly beloved by her fans because she was so willing to put herself out there, that she became this new face for the industry.  She was able to step outside the typical, somewhat puritanical and formulaic films.  Home video was a brand new technology, and a lot of new opportunities and sources of revenue were suddenly created because of it. Vanessa happened to be in the middle of all this chaos and became the new adult icon.

There were also a lot of very beautiful theaters in Times Square that had become dilapidated because of the economy, so they were being used as live sex houses and grind houses.  Burlesque shows and go-go dancers that had once been on stage were now suddenly coming off it and into the laps and up against the walls with the clientele.  It generated more interest by the customers in the dancers and the adult film stars as they were much more accessible to them now. New ways for customers to experience these fantasy ladies such as lap dancing became immediately popular. The women were more interactive as performers and were being featured in the adult films, and Vanessa was right at the forefront of this action, and thus became an instant star.

It was fortuitous timing for her, and more than anything, what I realized about her story was that while most of the performers of the time were drug addicts, abused, or molested, Vanessa was not like that at all. Vanessa came along with an attitude that was the complete opposite of that.  She wouldn’t allow herself to be victimized. She was very proud of her sexuality and her confidence. As long as she wasn’t hurting anybody, and as long as no one was hurting her, she was okay with being who she knew she was – a strong, confident, sexual woman.

The ability to transcend the typical, victimized performer was something that distinguished Vanessa, and it set the tone for what was to come.  A lot of the ladies who perform today, like many of the musical artists who have written songs about her; they reference the fact that she was so comfortable with who she was, and that’s what made her so likeable.

Parallel to what adult filmmakers were trying to do, musicians were also trying to push the envelope.  There were a lot of changes in society in the mid ’70s due to the ongoing sexual revolution. Metal, rock, rap, and hip hop were pushing limits, and lyrics were becoming very edgy. Right wing conservatives were taken aback by what they felt were examples of moral decay, and they started to enact legislation in efforts to curb it. Songs, films, and TV shows were suddenly being censored and stickered with warning labels like never before.

Many musical artists were feeling the pressure, and they were reacting negatively to that.  They aligned themselves with what Vanessa and the adult industry were trying to do.  They wanted to be much more expressive with their lyrics, and a lot of them threw out lyrical props to Vanessa. People found her to be very relatable.  She became a figure of unification amongst musicians and actors, and a celebrated voice of going against the mainstream.

I found all of this to be very compelling. I realized there was a lot happening in New York at that time, and it could be seen through Vanessa’s eyes. I’d heard a lot of this from my family and friends that lived and worked in New York.  So I spent a year doing research, and I wrote a script that Vanessa liked very much, and now we’re taking it to the next level of developing it as a feature film.


It is a big story, not only about the adult industry, but also about changes in the music industry.  As you said, artists were more expressive with their lyrics and more expressive on stage at that time.

With your first feature film, On the Doll, you used different techniques in order to transmit certain feelings and recreate certain memories. Without giving anything away, what techniques are you planning to use in the film?


That’s a great question.  A lot of it is a progression of a style I’ve developed, with the music videos I’ve done and with my previous feature film.  I’m a big fan of vivid, saturated colors.  The MudvayneDig” video is an example of that.  I’m also a big fan of stop-motion photography.  I think it’s a very beautiful aesthetic. The On the Doll bird sequences were filmed exactly the same way I filmed several videos for Max from Sepultura and Soulfly, as well as for Paul D’Amour from Tool.

I’d like Vanessa’s film to be organic this way. Rather than try to recreate a muted ’70s sort of look, I want something a little more unique. What I want is a look reflecting if we could take our high-def cameras and technologies of today to the time back then. Certainly the production design and art direction will be genuine and authentic, and it will also be eye-popping and crisp. And all of it will be supported by the music in the film.

A lot of friends for whom I’ve shot and directed videos in the metal world have stepped up.  They’d not only like to provide music for the film, but also appear in it. It’s great because the storyline is so relevant to what metal and hardcore music went through. I feel like it’s very appropriate to have that edginess. There are certain artists who write very intense lyrics and have very intense sounds.  I can’t really compromise that.  I don’t want to, so I want the film to be as edgy, as gritty, and as visceral as the music will be.

Rather than go with a toned-down, muted nostalgic kind of feel, it’ll want to feel like it can tear your heart out, right now, today, as if we were living back then but with our current experiences and the film & sound recording equipment available today.


So far, you are looking into getting actor Michael Rooker of The Walking Dead and musical artists like Glenn Danzig and David Vincent into the project. What are the options for an actress to portray Vanessa?


Mike Rooker is a good friend of mine. I cast him in a video for American Head Charge, and he and I are discussing him appearing as one of the “heavies” in the film.  I think he’s a total badass on his TV show.  He’s an incredibly talented actor.  I’m hoping his schedule will allow him to appear in the film.

I have a wonderful Casting Director named Anne McCarthy – she cast my previous film, as well as some films that I really love, especially Requiem for a Dream. She also did Three Kings, another edgy kind of film. Anne and her team are helping me with some great acting talent, and we’re putting together a very unexpected cast that will have a lot of strong chemistry amongst the various players.

I work with many musicians who also wish to act. I’m a big fan of films like Heat, for instance, where Henry Rollins played a role as a bodyguard.  He has a strong musical persona, and his onscreen presence is equally as strong. Dave Vincent and Glenn Danzig are the same way, so we’re looking at appropriate roles for them, too.


Are there any rock stars that you would love to have aboard, besides the ones that already wanted to appear?


I’m reaching out to my circle of friends, and there are a handful of actors, actresses, musicians, and even sculptors, painters, and artists. They are all artistic people who share the same kind of mindset of being on the same team, and they are pulling together to make this project come to life, so there will be some very interesting surprises, I think, for people to see on the casting and musical sides. I think the chemistry amongst the artists has to also compliment the project.


Fair enough. Paul D’Amour of Tool has worked with you before, and he may work on this project, too. Max Cavalera may also write the score for the movie, and this I believe would be his first time. Can you tell us a little more about that?


I’m talking to Max about some new music, and also to Paul, who scored my previous film.  Because music is such an integral part of a film, I want to get certain artists working together, along with ones that maybe haven’t worked together before, so it could yield some very interesting combinations.  There will be different capacities for scoring and various musical cues.  All these elements will blend together.

As an example, I’m good friends with Ian McCulloch, the vocalist for Echo & the Bunnymen.  I’ve worked with him on a bunch of projects, and I’m a big fan of the music he writes, and his lyrics in particular.  We’ve been talking about his words and music and how they can pertain to scenes of Vanessa and her family and friends.  Ian is a true poet, and he has had some highly original ideas on how to convey the powerful emotions between the film’s characters through new music and lyrics.  I find that very exciting. It’s the same with Max and Paul.


Talking about artists, what do you look for when selecting them, such as their musical influences, their careers, and how their music will fit the movie?


I’ve been fortunate enough to direct music videos for many different artists and genres. It doesn’t matter if it’s rock, metal, rap, hip hop or alternative.  If they truly believe in their music, if the lyrics have something vital and important to say, then that moves me as an artist, too.

An important consideration is how it compliments the imagery in the film.  I’m a very big fan of music, and for me it’s a vital part of the film-making experience.  In many instances, when I see a film, music almost acts like another character.  I had dinner with Serj Tankian a few nights ago. We talked about different characters having different melodies or themes.  So when a scene is going to be foreshadowed with a character, and you hear a melody that was introduced earlier for that character, you might recognize it on a subliminal level, and then the character appears. That’s the intensity I like for a soundtrack.


Closing up, when are you planning to release the film?


We’re on a good path with regards to our pre-production.  All of the creative elements seem to be coming together well.  We’re looking to shoot in the summer, and we’re going to have about an eight-week shooting schedule. Then we’ll start post-production, and do all the sound design, picture editing, visual effects, music scoring, etc.


Looking forward to watching it when comes out in theaters. The people involved on it like Glenn Danzig, like David Vincent and Max Cavalera, they are all amazing. Thank you very much, Thomas, for taking the time to talk about the film


Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure to speak to you.

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