A church on Main Street in a small New England town hides a house of horrors. This could be the elevator pitch for a horror movie, but in this case it’s an accurate description of the offices of Woodhaven Media, the independent film production company housed in a former church in downtown East Greenwich. The company made a name for itself producing low budget, locally shot horror flicks featuring cult movie icons like Tony Todd (Candyman), Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th) and Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street). At the same time, Rhode Island born-and-raised filmmaker Tommy DeNucci was making a name for himself. Between 2013 and 2015 he served as writer, director and producer on three horror features for Woodhaven – the most recent, 2015’s Almost Mercy, is currently streaming on Netflix. Now DeNucci’s branching out from horror, helping a new generation of local filmmakers get the opportunity to bring their vision to life and even getting called up to the big leagues in Hollywood. A jack-of-all-trades behind the camera, and an actor to boot, Tommy DeNucci is putting the grind in grindhouse.
East Greenwich is far and away from the center of the movie-making universe, but it’s where producer Chad Verdi has set up shop. Verdi, who most recently produced the locally-shot Vinny Paz biopic Bleed For This and Martin Scorsese’s long in development passion project Silence, is the founder of Verdi Productions and Woodhaven Media. Last year, DeNucci and his longtime partner Sam Eilertsen took over as president and CTO of Woodhaven, having both come up as interns working for Verdi. The house that horror built, Woodhaven has been under going a rebranding under DeNucci’s direction, taking on commercial projects and working with bands like Godsmack.
It had been a busy month when I caught up with DeNucci just before Thanksgiving. Bleed For This had just opened nationwide, landing in the top ten its first weekend, an accomplishment all the more impressive when you look at the competition: Marvel’s Doctor Strange and the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. “We’re up against some heavyweights,” he says, apologizing for the boxing pun.
DeNucci had a small role in the film and assembled the film’s electronic press kit, consisting of behind the scenes videos and interviews. He also used his being on set as an opportunity to observe and absorb, taking note of how things work on a bigger production. He even earned the invitation from director Ben Younger to wear a pair of headphones one day on set.
“What people don’t realize is that when you’re making a movie you can’t really hear what’s going on,” he says. “Ben looked at me holding a pair of headphones and says ‘You wanna listen?’ I felt like he let me behind the curtain a bit.”
Everything he picked up from being a fly on the wall during the shooting of Bleed For This was put into practice on the set of Woodhaven’s latest feature, Anders Manor, which was shot in October. With a budget around $100,000 and 13 days to shoot, DeNucci was applying all of his acquired experience on and off camera to someone else’s dream project. For the first time, he found himself on set strictly in a producer’s capacity.
Written by Glenn Jeffrey and Matt O’Connor, two cousins from Narragansett and Cranston, Anders Manor stars Christina Robinson (Dexter) as a young woman who, after releasing herself from a mental institution and the custody of the state, embarks on what DeNucci describes as a “vacation gone horribly wrong. A family reunion from hell.” This is the first feature for the two cousins – that’s both the name of their production company and the way they were addressed on set – who had approached DeNucci in a bar with their script. After a few meetings and a successful fundraiser, the cousins convinced DeNucci that they were willing to give their all for the project. To helm the film, he tapped his longtime assistant director Jon Schermerhorn of Warwick. This would be Schermerhorn’s first at bat directing a feature film, but he and DeNucci have a long history.
“When I tell you there’s not a more deserving guy to get an opportunity like that… he’s the guy,” DeNucci says. “I went to New England Tech with him. We made zombie movies when we were teenagers. Twelve years later, to be on an actual movie set with real cameras and real makeup artists… it was a really surreal feeling. It was fun to feel like we were still a couple of kids just playing in the backyard making our movies.”
The production came together with a mostly local crew, and has a cast consisting of Christina Robinson – a regular on Showtime’s Dexter – in the lead, WWE’s Kevin Nash playing against type as the leader of a “hippy cult of positivity” and Godsmack frontman Sully Erna as a redneck up north on a hunting trip. DeNucci used connections he’s made over the years, including a frequent working relationship with Erna and Godsmack on entrance videos for the band’s live shows, to continue in Woodhaven’s tradition of bringing recognizable cult figures to their productions.
DeNucci, who cut his teeth on making scrappy, low-budget horror flicks is taking that next big career step and becoming a producer in his own right. Just as his mentor had seen the potential in him as a writer-director, giving him opportunities tomake a name for himself in Rhode Island’s small but vibrant independent filmmaking world, DeNucci is in a position to recognize that potential in others and help bring up another crop of local talent.
“Chad Verdi is very inspiring. I wanted to take a page out of his book and just concentrate on producing this to be the best movie it could be,” says DeNucci. “I wanted something different and I wanted to see what it was like to just produce the film.”
Which isn’t to say that DeNucci’s days on screen or in the director’s chair are over. Last year he got the biggest phone call of his life to fly out to LA to direct a family comedy starring Joey Lawrence, Arlo: The Burping Pig, which is on DVD and video on-demand. DeNucci can now claim pig wrangling as a professional skill, but more importantly, he can say he’s a director who was chosen to work in the big leagues.
“As a kid from Rhode Island it’s only a dream to get that phone call and go out there,” he says. “That’s the home run phone call a director waits for his whole life. But when you’re so far away from there, to get that call is a really special thing.”
Proving that a real renaissance man’s work is never done, connections made while shooting Arlo led to a landing a role in Altitude, an action flick about hijackers and thieves on a plane starring what he calls a “pop culture grab bag,” including Denise Richards, UFC’s Chuck Liddell and Ivan Drago himself, Dolph Lundgren.
“My directing career has overshadowed my acting career, but it’s something that I’ve always loved to do,” he says. “I never wanted to go to LA to just be an actor. My plan was always ‘let me build this career here, make some connections, learn about the craft the whole way through.’”
It’s safe to say that plan is working. Acting may have taken a backseat, but DeNucci has helped carve out a niche for independent film in Rhode Island. Whether he intended to pave the way for other ambitious, aspiring filmmakers doesn’t change the fact that that’s what he’s done and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Before I let him go to continue editing Anders Manor – he and Sam Eilertsen still cut footage like they always have, in a small room in his house surrounded by action figures – I had to know: did he meet Scorsese? He sighs, and that tells me all I need to know. “Obviously I wanted to meet him. It’d be like meeting Yoda.” At the rate he’s going, he’ll get that meeting soon enough.