There have been a small handful of horror films this past year that really worked. In between a few poor remakes and PG-13 bore fests, it is refreshing to see a movie like
SPLINTER. While it is not the most original idea, it is still one of the best horror outings in quite awhile, with its well crafted take on survivors being attacked by a strange and deadly killer that is unlike anything Iíve ever seen before. It just goes to show that even with a familiar story, you can always weave a web in a fresh and exciting way. SPLINTER is part DAWN OF THE DEAD and JOHN CARPENTERíS THE THING. The creature is one of the most interesting beasties Iíve seen in a horror film in a long time.
When I spoke to Toby Wilkins, the films director, I found him to be exactly the kind of filmmaker that this genre needs. Although this is his feature film debut, he offers up a very assured and scary picture that will have plenty of audiences screaming. We talked about the casting, the creature, and even the state of horror today. So this coming Halloween, make sure you take a look at your local listings and search for SPLINTER. It is a creepy flick thatíll get under your skin and it is much better than the OTHER horror offerings in the past couple of weeks that hit the cinemas. So this Halloween, get poked by SPLINTERÖ I had to say it.
Well first off, I loved the filmÖ
Thank you very much. Itís great to hear. I havenít seen it with an audience yetÖ
You need toÖ
Yeah, so tonight is the big night for me. I still donít know, Iím too close to the movie to know. But everybodyís reaction has been great and thatís awesome, but Iíve got to see it with my own eyes. Iíve got to see how people react, because you donít learn if you donít see what people react to and what people respond to. That is certainly an aspect that I am really looking forward to tonight.
Are you nervous about that?
Iím excited, Iím not nervous, no. I mean, I think that I see everything as a learning experience. Certainly there are things that Iíve done that I could have done better on this project, and there will be things that I couldíve done better on every project from here on out, Iím sure. But itís not until you see it in the dark as a shared experience that you really get your head around what those moments are and what works and what doesnít.
Iíve gotta say that I really liked the homage to THE THING here, am I correct on that?
Sure, and also DAWN OF THE DEAD. I mean, what really sort of got me hooked on doing this movie in the first place was that itÖ I keep using the same phrases and Iím trying to avoid doing thatÖ [Laughing] [the phrase] was the first one I did and it was such a great phrase, I think Iíll stick to it [Laughing]. I grew up, as everybody in my generation did, watching those great movies from the Seventies and the Eighties. Like DAWN OF THE DEAD totally stuck with me, this sort of perfect location for a siege. Youíre in this mall and youíve got everything at your disposalÖ the gun store and all of these great things and the fun to be had with thatÖ That was what I loved about these movies as a kid, it was this very clean siege movie that was all about how these characters interact with each other and how they deal with this situation. And for me as a director, itís all about the characters and creating believable, interesting, flawed and quirky characters and seeing how they react in those situations. Itís the journey that you take the audience on by having them identify with those characters that really makes a movie a movie. If youíve just got a bunch of people together and theyíre strangers at the beginning and theyíre strangers at the end of it and they are all killed off, and all youíre seeing is how they dieÖ for me as an audience member, there is nothing really to grab a hold of and to identify with. So this framework and this very simple story, you know, a minimal cast and a very contained environment is a really powerful thing to latch onto in the beginning.
What is it about being in the middle of nowhere at a gas station or what have you, it is used so often and yet it is still damn creepy?
I think the gas station or the rest stop or the convenience store in the middle of nowhere is in our everyday lives, is this sort of haven, or oasis of civilization in the middle of nothing. And, you know, as creepy and as strange and alien to us as those random rest stops we stop at when weíre on a long road trip and everythingís new and the people are different, there is something comforting about them. You can guarantee that theyíre gonna sell this list of things that you know you can pull up to any convenience store gas station and buy. And there is definite comfort to be found in that environment. So I think, taking that haven of safety and flipping it, is certainly something that everyone can identify with. Like if Iím stuck in the middle of nowhere, Iím going to go to one of these places and thatís where Iím going to find all the things I need to survive the situation.
I think that true horrorÖ what is really scary is when you are faced with something unknown and terrifying and you are in a safety zone much like HALLOWEEN taking place in a suburban area. But that is an interesting point to bring up, seeing a place like a gas station as a comfort zone, it makes sense.
And there is also the isolation factor of being in the middle of nowhere [which] gives you another layer of defense. Either you spend the whole time figuring out ways that the killer or the creature or whatever is preventing people from getting out, because in a movie like HALLOWEEN there is the house right next door, you just have to figure out time and time again how to keep people contained. Which becomes a big part of what is so interesting about those movies is how come they just canít get out. That problem solving is one thing, but if you add this sort of isolation factor to that then throw a creature that is on the outside that could get you if you tried to get out, thatís a lot of fun too.
And this creature is very impressive, in fact it is one of the best ďcreature featuresĒ Iíve seen in quite awhile.
Dude, you have no idea the journey of this movie and how long itís taken to come to fruition. To hear people like yourself, aficionados, real fans of the genre to say stuff like that is really great. I mean, I hopeÖ I find it fascinating, and I have from the couple of years this has been living in my brainÖ We were trying to figure out how this would manifest itself. How would it spread the infection and how would it kill you and how long could you live. Youíre basically dying from grievous bodily harm from the inside out. And all of that stuff that is so horrific, [it] was fascinating to me to explore that over the sort of gestation period of the creature, [it] was great. And when this script arrived on my desk and I put the two together it just really clicked. [It was] a manageable scale story to bring this creature thatís been stuck in my head, and combine the two together into something that I can actually achieve. You know, rather than something Iím just dreaming about making one day, as a big scale movie or thatís just something thatís talked about. I can actually bring these two things together and it can come to life on screen.
How did you bring it to life?
Predominantly practical effects. I mean, the conceptÖ once you get your head around the idea of a human being just being broken and distorted and manipulated, the core of the idea is fairly easy to understand certainly from the perspective of someone who builds creaturesÖ itís like, Ďokay, yeah, itís a human beingÖ itís a broken human being.í So I used a few visual effects tools, just sort of a CG wireframe version of a human being character, broke it and distorted it and did a few little animation tests to communicate to the crew how in my head it moves and how it looks. And then just said, ĎSo how do we make this happen on the day, I donít want to do it CGÖ I donít even want to attempt to do it CG, it would just be a failure. So how do we bring this animation to life without actually breaking people.í [Laughing]
So it became a combination of three different people in different pieces of the suit, different stages of the suit. We had a national championship gymnast in the suit at one point. We had a guy with years of mime training to do, sort of the physical expression type stuff, the stuff that is more quirky and jerky movements. The gymnast was doing sort of the more acrobatic movements; jumping, etc. And then a stunt guy who would be the guy in harms way, when we were trashing the store and sparks were flying. The real dangerous stuff. And from one shot to anther, you canít really tell whoís in the suit at what particular moment. But everything was done practically. Everything on the creature was done practically.
A few of the growing splinters were done in post, just becauseÖ I mean, a lot of those were practical as well, like anytime we could just get spikes and push them through something from behind and make it look like they were growing out of something we would. You know, there were limitations to physics for what we could actually achieve. And a few of those were doneÖ just a little augmentation of what was actually there. I find it veryÖ you know, itís never rewarding for an actor to act opposite a tennis ball on a stick. To pretend like something is there. Any opportunity you have to show what it is theyíre reacting to. To put people in the same frame as the thing and have them physically interact and emotionally interact with it is obviously going to raise the audiences connection with that character and the connection with the creature. And how all those things come together. Itís very seldom rewarding to see people acting in a green screen environment.
Speaking of actors, you made some really interesting casting decisions including Paulo Costanzo who usually plays more comic roles.
Yeah, Paulo. He fit the mold of what I had in my head as Seth perfectly. And he was able to bring this sort of nervous intensity to that character combined with this just magnetic personality and sense of humor that was needed to explain how he was in this relationship. If heís really not stepping up as the classic male model of a horror movie leading man, how does he get this girl? And he gets it through all his other traits. During this telling of the story of the movie, is how he discovers that the things that he perhaps perceived as shortcomings in his personality are actually going to help win the day. And the same is true of all of the other characters.
Including a bit of an, excuse the term, star-making performance from Shea Whigham.
Well I mean, heísÖ look at the body of his work. I mean, Shea Whigham is a powerhouse of acting, he really is. From TIGERLAND on forth. Heís got five movies in the can right now. Every performance he givesÖ I mean he is an amazing actor. He was the first person to sign up. And talk about taking risks, signing up for a low-budget independent horror movie shooting in Oklahoma in twenty days with a first time feature director. And to take that kind of risk and bring to it the level of investment and intensity he brought to this movie really set the tone for the whole movie. And he really set the bar for the rest of the cast.
And the same is true of Jill Wagner as Polly becauseÖ again, I didnít want to create a typical horror movie heroine who was the damsel in distress. You know, she breaks her heel and sheís runningÖ none of that stuff appeals to me. Iíve seen it before and I know what is going to happen. And during this sort of slight gender swap of these two characters, it was really important to me just to do something that was different and have something interesting to do and direct and explore as a character work. So the casting of Jill Wagner was obviously a no-brainer based on her credits and her fan base and her look.
Obviously she is drop dead gorgeous. She has this innate charisma and confidence about her which is absolutely the character in the beginning of the movie. Sheís happy-go-lucky with a very confidant nature. And to know from the audition that she could go to the other extreme and that she could open up and become vulnerable and explore the darkest side of that characters personality. When she auditioned, we had no idea who she was, she was one on the list of twenty-five names on the sheet that day. And she walked in with this amazing charisma and confidence and we explored for awhile. It was a long audition, an exhausting audition for her.
I was amazed at the range that she could go from how she naturally holds herself to really opening up and being vulnerable. It was great to see and I think sheís done an amazing job in the film.
Let me know what you think. Send questions and/or comments to JimmyO@JoBlo.com