Special Effects genius Gabe Bartalos on the Jean Cocteau nightmare aesthetics of his feature film directorial debut SKINNED DEEP (2004).
TV STORE ONLINE: Where did the idea for SKINNED DEEP come from?
BARTALOS: Well, what got me into special effects was my interest in filmmaking. When I was younger I was making Super 8 movies and no-one wanted to do any of the effects--so that left me to do them and I really had a great time with it. I began to write the script for SKINNED DEEP when my mind became really ripe with ideas. I knew that instead of writing something with just one character--I'd have multiple characters. Each of the characters in the film represents some aspect of the commercial work I do every day. I get asked to create hard-edged monsters--but I, myself, am really into absurdism and the surreal. I really wanted to create something that featured a whole palette of characters. The film is very much a representation of self, and it's one of those weird and strange films that I tend to celebrate when I find them.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where do you think that interest in surrealism comes from? Is there also a interest in dream/nightmare aesthetic-logic as well?
BARTALOS: Looking back--I'm still a very big fan of ERASERHEAD (1977). One of the things about surrealism or dream logic in cinema is that it can be thrown-away when it's in the wrong hands. The challenge of it--and this is if you plan to put any sort of intellect into it--is to make sure that the things that you're presenting make sense. Even though it's a dream--it still has to make sense. You have to be overly disciplined when you're working that way so you make sure that it works. You have to have a very rigid blueprint when you approach anything from that aesthetic--so it's not for the sake of having a lack of ideas but taking ideas and making them work inside of a dream logic. That's a cool challenge.
TV STORE ONLINE: Yet, there's a dual-aesthetic approach you're taking in SKINNED DEEP. There's the interior dream aesthetic of it, but on the exterior--inside the actual filmic approach--you've made the film look like a really cool low-budget early '80s horror film...The film is grainy....It reminds you of Frank Henenlotter's BASKET CASE (1982) or DEADLY SPAWN (1983) or something like that with it's filmic style....Were you always going after that look?
BARTALOS: Totally. I was aware of my financial limitations of doing a feature film. I told everyone that worked on the film at the time that I'd be happy if, textually, I could file SKINNED DEEP somewhere between THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and BASKET CASE (1982). I wanted you to see the film grain to a fault. When films like BASKET CASE and THE EVIL DEAD came out--those were very important films to me. The texture of those films--the looks of them--are like their flags of pride. It's like they said, "Look, I know that we're working with restrictions--but we're still going to make this movie because we have a ton of ideas that we want to get out!" There is no shame in doing a modest movie. When I first saw BASKET CASE I said: "This movie is declaring its independence!" It was like Frank Henenlotter was saying," Okay. You got it? Now I'm going to move past all that and here's this weird little story I want to tell you..." Having had the good luck to work with Frank Henenlotter myself--he has galloped past all of those limitations with the films he made that came after BASKET CASE.
I was determined to make SKINNED DEEP on film as well. It was my movie and so I wanted to also do some really interesting things technically as well. We did a shot with a steadicam that starts when a crane brings the camera down before it even starts to move with the steadicam. It made it a lot of fun to make because of that struggle with how it looks textually and then how I was trying visually to make it look like it was a IMAX film..
TV STORE ONLINE: It certainly doesn't look or feel like a $600,000 dollar movie. I love, for example, that sequence with the girl in the room with all of the newspapers on the wall and how you restrict the camera and only allow for it to flop and twist...
BARTALOS: For sure. I joke, but on SKINNED DEEP I was just happy that I was able to get the film moving through the camera. I really wanted to learn film language on SKINNED DEEP. With the literal--I thought if you were that girl and you were trapped in this house and that dementia of newspaper--how do I get the audience into her head? So we brought in the steadicam. I loved how the newspapers sealed all the seams of the room. It was weird to shoot. To be in that room and shoot that was really strange. All of the crew members really got into that while we were doing that.
TV STORE ONLINE: American film audiences don't seem to understand or even consider base cinema aesthetics when they go into a film....They walk in with expectations, they want a narrative and they don't want to have to work for anything....As a filmmaker who adheres to similar aesthetics such as yourself--is your film and your aesthetic approach worth the risk of the audience who is more than likely not going to understand your work and in the end lambast it?
BARTALOS: I think it is. When you're making a film, especially an indie film--there is less to lose than if you're making a big film and have to answer to your backers. With a indie film you can really zero-in on what you want to convey. I'm a big believer in dreams. I track my own dreams my whole life. I've read so much about dreams. I've come up with my own reasons for liking dreams. I've come up with my own analysis. I've read quite a bit about neuroscience. I keep up with that stuff. Scientists are wondering why we are sleeping and dreaming. Why is it so significant? We do we spend a third of our lives sleeping. It's something significant. Scientists have just discovered that the main function of sleeping--is like our hard-drives backing up. They are finding in studies that people that are suffering from long-term memory loss is a result of lack of R.E.M sleep. The brain is not in a relaxed-state when you're sleeping. It's actually going into a hyper-activity. It's almost like it's calculating or filing and sorting. I try to take all of these things and find parallels in their logic and how they relate to my projects. The hands-on of doing the film independently allowed me to have my fingerprint on every single frame of it. The film comes from my own reasoning. Being so insular--there is no way that you'll have a mass status-quo approval--I'm fine with that. I'd rather have a limited audience that can get excited about it or have a connection with it or a scene from it. Because that's how I am.
TV STORE ONLINE: In SKINNED DEEP you seem to be playing around with Protagonists as well. We have this girl who is the lone survivor of the family, and then we have these digressions where other characters begin chasing after other characters away from what many would consider the narrative with the girl. Also bad guys become something else in the film as well. Are these digressions of the narrative or do they owe themselves to being from some element of your psyche when we consider the Cocteau dream-like aesthetic of the film?
BARTALOS: I think it owes itself to the idea of how when we watch films we can find ourselves somehow rooting for the bad guy. And it doesn't matter if its conscious or not. Look at Oliver Stone's WALL STREET (1987)... I think that film was so successful because of how Michael Douglas portrayed the bad guy. We were supposed to click with the Charlie Sheen character and we did, but we also connected with "Gordon Gekko". Who doesn't want what that character had? Obviously, it was a cautionary tale, but when the film was over you were left questioning yourself as to why you liked Gordon Gekko in the first place. I think I was trying to do that. I was trying to mess with my own laws. You know how your own psychology works. We told you at the beginning of SKINNED DEEP that "Plates" was a bad guy, but when I split Plates off and had him go after that motorcycle gang in the desert in SKINNED ALIVE I wanted to explore more territories and in doing that you started to root for the bad guy.
|Surgeon General at work.|
TV STORE ONLINE: Where do you think that imagery for "Surgeon General" comes from for you?
BATALOS: Well, it's fairly straight ahead. If you blur your eyes and look at the image of him on the movie poster his face looks like a skull. There's a little "Invisible Man" in there as well, and his bear-trap mouth--I always thought it would be cool to rip people apart with a bear trap mouth. It has those primal iconics as well: skull equals death.
TV STORE ONLINE: He reminds me of "Vic" the band Megadeth's mascot that they used to feature on their album covers in the '80s...
BARTALOS: Yeah, well..people have told me that they see all kinds of things in him. I guess it just depends on what reference point you're using and when it came to you in your lifetime.