Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Interview with Toby Wilkins, Director of "Splinter"

Ted's Note: It's not to say that Brad doesn't get excited very often. In fact, he does. However, very rarely do I see him get as excited as he did about this particular film and the subsequent fact that he had the opportunity to discuss it with the director. I will agree with him, though... this film is one of the best horror films of the year, so far. Anyhow, on to Brad...

A short while ago I rented a film called, "Splinter". After seeing it on the shelves I remembered listening to an interview Leo Quinones had with the director, Toby Wilkins. I remembered how it sounded like a pretty cool indie flick and how Leo seemed very excited about the movie as he was interviewing Wilkins.

After watching it I quickly understood why

"Splinter" is a rare indie horror that excels on every level. Not only that, the creature is amazingly well done. It's the kind of movie you want to go out and tell all your friends to rent after you watch it. And I love it when I get that feeling about a movie. I instantly told Ted how much I dug the movie, so you can imagine how thrilled I am that we were able to land an interview with Wilkins himself

I can't say enough great things about, "Splinter". It's a must see and I hope everyone that reads this that hasn't seen it will check it out and discover what I did: a renewed enthusiasm for the genre.

On a side note, Magnet Releasing is a company to watch. The last few movies I've seen from them have been fantastic: "Shuttle", "Special" and "Donkey Punch".

Dead Harvey thanks Wilkins for this fantastic interview. Keep 'em coming brother!

First off, tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences and what got you into filmmaking?

I tend to be most influenced by directors who’s work spans many genres, like Ridley Scott, Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, David Fincher. Filmmakers who manage to bring their exacting standards and individual vision to their projects regardless of the genre. As far as the inspiration for getting into filmmaking myself, I would say that it was pretty inevitable. I grew up loving movies, and took every opportunity to grab the family Super-8 camera and experiment as a child and I started really focussing on making professional short films and getting them into festivals about ten years ago.

Film school: yes or no?

No, I always hated school, got out as soon as I could.

What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to realize your dream as a director and what steps would you recommend for those starting out?

Realize my dream? I’m definitely still on that journey, but I would pass on the same advice I got from some big name directors I had the privilege of working with early in my career in post-production: If you want to make movies, just do it. There’s nothing standing in the way of filmmakers today, you don’t need permission to pursue your dream.

What did you shoot “Splinter” on and how long was the shoot?

We shot using a pair of very high-end digital cameras from German film and camera innovators Arri and principle photography was completed in about twenty days.

Where did the idea from "Splinter" come from and how were you attached as director?

The original creature concept was something a friend and I had been toying with for several years while we tried to find the right story to bring it to life. Then, I was handed a script by one of the producers of the film, originally called “Tooth and Nail”, and it seemed like the perfect vehicle to bring the creature to the screen. I was quickly attached to the script, and after several meetings and pitches to financiers we were green lit.

Unlike many horror films, the male and female protagonists (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) seemed to genuinely care for each other and didn't have a relationship crisis to overcome. As an audience member, I instantly felt more connected to these characters (mostly because i wasn't listening to them bicker through the entire movie) and found myself rooting for them. Was this a conscious choice?

Absolutely. I think the “couple in crisis” idea is a pretty tired cliché in Hollywood films and as Kai Barry and I developed the script we worked hard to try and create something that steered clear of those tropes but had it’s own thing going on. The dynamic between these two people is quite complex, and runs a little deeper than most people expect in a horror movie I think. Jill and Paulo did an amazing job with the characters.

The origin of the creature isn't explained, which I felt added greatly to the element of suspense and fear. Was there prior version where we find out just what this creature is and where it came from and, if so, what made you decide to maintain the element of mystery?

Since the entity itself was something I was bringing to the script, there were no drafts written that explored its origins, only tiny hints, which are all in the final film. I felt that it would be more engrossing if the audience knows only as much as the characters they are watching, and any ideas put forward about how this thing behaves, or what it is, would be guesses based on exactly the same information the audience has.

I believe one of the most difficult things for a horror film to pull off is to be legitimately frightening and suspenseful. Other than a few tongue in cheek remarks from the characters, the film stayed intense from start to finish. Was there a temptation to go into an over the top camp style like so many horror films do and can you share any tricks that helped to keep the mood suspenseful throughout?

Camp is not something that comes naturally to me at all, I tend to concentrate on creating realism, even in my comedies. But there are a few scenes in “Splinter” that are really fun, and I especially enjoy watching those scenes with audiences. The scene with the running hand is one example, and that’s an homage in part to “The Beast With Five Fingers” and in part to the face-hugger chase scene in “Aliens”, but I’m not sure that sequence qualifies as camp, even taking it as far as we did.

As far as creating tension, I think the scenes where it works best have a combination of things in their favor; great performance from actors who are seeing everything the audience is seeing because we used almost all practical effects, an amazingly atmospheric score by our composer Elia Cmiral which we used quite sparingly, and months of arduous exploration and experimentation in the edit bay with myself and editor David Maurer. What I have learned is that it’s very subjective, what works for one audience member might not work for the next, but there’s no one trick to suspense as far as I have discovered, and it’s never easy or simple to achieve.

"Splinter" centers mainly on the gas station location. What were the pros and cons of filming in a one location setup? Part two of this question: what do you feel are the most important elements you utilized to keep the film captivating while dealing in one location throughout most of the film?

I knew that if I was going to ask the audience to spend most of the film, trapped in a confined space with these character that they had to be real, flawed, believable people that we would care about, and I leaned heavily on our cast to bring their characters to life in a realistic way.

On the more technical side of things, cinematographer Nelson Cragg and I worked to create subtle differences in lighting, color, and shooting style from one area of the gas station to the next. So the audience perceives a constantly changing setting for each subsequent scene, and not just more of the same. This extended into editing and sound design also, using both to create a varied sense of place within the limited confines of our single location.

It felt like there was a concentrated focus on getting great performances from the actors without losing any of the gore and action us horror fans love. This was nice to see since so many horror films out there lack in the acting department. Describe your process of selecting and directing the actors and did you allow for rehearsal time in pre-production?

On this scale of filmmaking we were lucky to get any time to rehearse at all, we would use the short break before any major scene to run through the beats and work out the tone, but we had little time for actual rehearsal. We shot almost entirely in script order, knowing that what we filmed yesterday, or before lunch that day is what had just happened to the actual characters. That made it a little simpler to keep track of mood and tone from one scene to the next. But for the most part we just had an amazing cast who really gave everything to the film. Shea Whigham (who plays Dennis) was the first to join the cast, and I think when you have someone with his charisma, and a resume like that, it really raises the bar and expands on the potential of the script.

Aside from terrific performances from all actors involved, the creature was definitely the star. Describe the process for deciding on the concept and presentation from pre to post production. Were there any tricks you used to make the creature more frightening or films that influenced its look and presentation?

As I mentioned before, the concept of an entity that attacks you from the inside was something that had been living in my head for a while. So throughout the script development process I experimented with digital animation, and artwork to show people how an infected body might move, what the creature would do to its victims. But I knew the only way to make the thing believable on screen was to do as much as possible with practical effects. So we brought in the special effects make-up and creature design experts at Quantum Creation FX to develop the final look of the thing, and figure out how to get as close as possible to what was in my head without actually breaking people’s bodies. They did an amazing job.

As for influences, we didn’t turn to existing films for the look or movement of the creature, because we were trying to create something that audiences had never seen before. But certainly the decision to do as much as possible using old-school practical techniques came from my love of movies from the ‘70s and ’80, like “Alien”, “Dawn of the Dead”, and “The Thing”.

You recently directed, "The Grudge 3" for Sam Raimi's horror production company, Ghost House Pictures. Tell us about the experience and how you became involved with Mr. Raimi.

In 2005 I had a short film making its way through the festivals, “Staring at the Sun”, it played at genre festival ScreamFest, which was founded in part by Stan Winston, and had many horror legends on the judging panel, including representatives of Ghost House Pictures. The film ended up winning the award for Best Horror Short that year, and Ghost House called me shortly after that to start making short films with them. Over the next few years we would collaborate on a number of projects, including shorts for the Grudge franchise, a FearNet original series “Devil’s Trade”, and most recently “The Grudge 3” which just hit DVD. Working with the team at Ghost House Pictures, and occasionally Sam Raimi himself, has been an absolute pleasure. They really care about the genre, and about making the best film possible.

Are there any plans for a sequel to, "Splinter" and, if so, what will the audience be in store for this time?

There has been a lot of interest, but there aren’t any hard plans in place for a sequel yet. If it does happen I would love to expand on the world a bit. Really show what the Splinter creature can do, and maybe cut off a few more limbs? There’s so much potential to explore the ways this parasite can manipulate its victims, it would be a shame not to revisit it.

Where can people find out more about, "Splinter" and, better yet, buy themselves a copy?

The official web site (including a store to buy the movie, and details of how to watch the film instantly) is SplinterFilm.com, my blog has all the latest news, events, and reviews at Splinter.Tumblr.com, and you can follow my Twitter feed at Twitter.com/splinterfilm. The film is working its way around the world, hitting theatres in several countries right now, but in the US and UK the film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from all major stores and rental chains.

Thank you for your time! Dead Harvey gives, "Splinter" a strong endorsement and will look forward to all your upcoming work!

Stay tuned for our upcoming interview with the film's editor: David Maurer!

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