Going beneath the surface of Magnet’s creature feature
To make an effective monster movie it almost seems that one requisite is to starve the director of a budget. That’s right, deny said visionary the green that flows freely on Hollywood productions. Prod him (or her) to tap deep into the synapses of their brain and drink freely of the creative ingenuity they’ve got stored in their noggin’. Then see what they come up with. The ’80s exemplified this with films like Q: The Winged Serpent, Pumpkinhead, Critters, The Deadly Spawn and Humanoids from the Deep. (Of course, that decade is renown for giving birth to The Thing where John Carpenter and Rob Bottin proved you could have a budget and still deliver on pushing the boundaries of the imagination.)
Directing for as long as he’s been at the visual effects game, London-born Toby Wilkins submits his feature debut Splinter (review) to the genre’s lengthy love affair with classic monsters, mutated bugs, demons and a myriad of other creatures. Scripted by Kai Barry, Ian Shorr and Wilkins, the story introduces viewers to a prickly parasite with a penchant for infecting its host – whether it’s a cute forest creature or a human – spreading voraciously through the body, then transforming it in a violent, abstract fashion. Actors Shea Whigham, Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner, play the trio of protagonists locked up in a remote gas station scheming to make a clean break from the creature that has trapped them inside.
Splinter is a film well aware of its limits. It’s a contained beast nibbling at its cage like it was on speed knowing full well it can’t break free of its restrictions. But it’s going to do its damn best to try anyway. Wilkins shot the film on a small budget, yet his efforts are rewarding and genuine.
Wilkins has worked on effects for over 20 feature films. This is what he calls “paying the bills.” Since ’99, shortly after moving to the U.S., he’s been directing short films for himself and for Ghost House Pictures. He’s the first director to put his stamp on The Grudge franchise with Ghost House’s Tales from the Grudge series in 2006 which, until that time, had been guided by Takashi Shimizu. This followed with the on-line series The Devil’s Trade. “That opportunity was amazing,” he says. “To do seven episodes and tell a story over that kind of arch…it was kind of like doing an entire season of television, but in tiny, tiny segments.”
Splinter is Wilkins’ shot at exposure on a wider scale. Amassing a slew of short films is one thing, accomplishing a feature film puts one on another plateau. Especially a feature going theatrical – which Splinter will do on October 31st through Magnet Releasing.
Wilkins agreed to meet with me at Luna Park on La Brea in Los Angeles on a Friday morning to talk about his film. Our plans are dashed when we find the joint isn’t even open yet, forcing us to move to a coffee shop down the street.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: What made Splinter special enough for you to commit to it?
Toby Wilkins: It came to me as a script and was a very different movie. It was the same framework and the great classic siege movie. That is what I really responded to. I had this insane creature concept in my head that my friend George Cawood and I had been talking about for a couple of years at least before the script came along. We had all kinds of brainstorming sessions to figure out what the story would be that we could bring this creature to and then the Splinter script came along and it just clicked. The two seemed to go together perfectly.
Shock: The nature of the parasite in the film almost seems like a natural fit for the film’s low budget.
Wilkins: The way the Splinter creature manifests itself is essentially an adaptation of whatever its victims are. So in our case human beings are fairly easy to replicate. You don’t have to, on a limited budget, try to create a massive thing with teeth, an animatronic face, eyeballs and things like that. So you’ve got essentially dead human beings as the template for what the creature is. And then your imagination can take over how that would be distorted and broken and repurposed for a creature that has no regard for how your skeleton is supposed to behave.
Shock: Where did you find that gas station to shoot in?
Wilkins: We were outside of Oklahoma City in what was literally – before we got to it – an abandoned gas station, or it had maybe been a gas station maybe ten years prior and it was just a concrete box. My production designer Jennifer Spence and her husband Tom just ripped into it. They tore the front off it and turned it into something that was what I saw for the movie which was this big fishbowl glass concept. I think that’s a really scary thing. You stand in front of floor-to-ceiling windows and it’s completely dark outside and you’re in this brightly lit sort of cage. That in itself I think is terrifying. It’s been used in a lot of great horror movies. That concept of looking out through glass, something so fragile to begin with, looking out through glass into total darkness and not knowing what’s out there, and knowing that you’re on display. We had four weeks to shoot the film, so 21 days I think it was that we shot. Twenty principle days and one second unit down there, which was a crunch. I don’t think there were any days that we were shooting less than four or five pages. And there was a day towards the end of the film of action sequences in the movie where we were shooting entire action sequences in half a day with one take because, as you can imagine, once you start trashing the place, the reset time would’ve been two, three hours to rebuild the store and put everything back together.
Shock: On movies like this, I imagine one could get easily carried away with the monster angle, were you confident going in that you could also handle the character drama and the arcs they go through?
Wilkins: Absolutely. I mean that’s primarily my focus which I guess was a surprise even to me when I first started directing. I love actors. I have a lot of friends who are actors and I find that part of the process to be the most rewarding. The gags, the special effects and working with those crews is something that I’ve always done, and it’s something that I get a huge amount of enjoyment from, but it doesn’t feel like much of a challenge anymore. I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but I speak to a lot of directors who don’t like doing the gags, they find it tedious, they find the minutia of it to be frustrating and I’m exactly the opposite. If I get in the right headspace I can shoot a knife going into someone’s neck for five hours until I get it exactly right. In the script stage [I like] to make sure that these characters are bringing something interesting to the movie and they’re going to be interesting to watch. Especially in a movie like Splinter that has that group of strangers basically trapped together and we’re putting the audience in that situation too. Those characters have got to be interesting.
Shock: I got a thrill out of this movie because it reminded me of the late-night flicks I’d watch growing up in the ’80s. What creature features did you have swirling around in your head while making this?
Wilkins: Obviously The Thing is a huge influence on this movie because it’s so contained and because it’s this creature that takes people over. I think in all those movies, in zombie movies, in 28 Days Later, in The Thing there’s sometimes a very brief moment where people are aware that they’re infected before they’re turned and then it’s no longer an issue. In The Thing obviously they’re turned into, essentially, walking ghosts of themselves, and they’re not aware that anything’s gone wrong. In 28 Days Later it’s a matter of seconds between when they’re infected, and you know it’s coming. So in Splinter being killed by a creature is one thing, but not being killed by it and having it manipulate your skeleton from the inside, that to me is way worse than fate. So that was my twist on that. Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorites. Alien is the number one movie on my top ten list. What those movies all have in common with Splinter is this sense of separation, isolation, of being under siege, and having to make the most of the resources you’ve got. In all of those movies people are improvising weapons, and improvising ways to solve this problem.
Shock: Did you find it a challenge to put your own stamp on the siege formula or purposely try to avoid harkening back to films like Splinter?
Wilkins: I’m not going to shy away from doing something again that I saw in a movie. There’s a scene in Splinter that’s an absolute homage to a scene in Alien. Although it was a gas station and not an awesome spaceship, but the basic structure of the scene of searching for something is the scene where they’re in the lab and they’re searching for where the creature. And there’s a similar scene in Splinter, which I tried to get near that level of tension in Alien. Obviously, Ridley Scott did it first. [laughs] I’m in awe of all of those movies and if we came anywhere close to those at any point in the movie I would be very happy.
Shock: I picked up on a slight environmental angle in the story. As if man had accidentally encroached on unfamiliar soil and disturbed the parasite in some way. Am I far from the mark?
Wilkins: The original back story for the creature in my mind is that it’s always been there and that it’s sort of an evolved version of some kind of deep sea urchin creature, a sea urchiny hermit crab distortion of things that we all know actually exist at the bottom of the ocean. Oklahoma is not near the ocean but it does have two environmental aspects that lend itself very well to the audience’s supposition of where this thing actually came from and we do hint at it at two places. Within a mile of the set there were probably five or six oil drilling locations. So there’s that aspect of “disturbing the environment.” And actually Oklahoma, as I mentioned in the film, has some of the oldest undisturbed forest areas in the U.S. More so than the Sequoias, not as tall as the Sequoias, but as old as those, and they just don’t get explored that’s all. There’s just no reason to. So those two things combine to give us a, at least, slightly believable origin of the creature that there could be something out there. When it’s in a dormant state as we see occasionally in the movie it just looks like road kill basically with spikes growing out of it. And once it reaches its dormant state it’s not going to move or spread unless something accidentally comes along and puts itself on it and starts the process again. And the life cycle of an infected creature is actually short. If a forest animal gets infected, freaks out, runs around, tries to find another warm blooded thing to infect and fails, it’s just going to become a dormant thing that failed quickly. So the outbreak has a sort of innate flaw that means it could go undisturbed and unnoticed for a long time.
Shock: The creature is executed practically. A deliberate decision on your part?
Wilkins: Absolutely. I hate, as I think every horror fan does, I hate – and I don’t think that’s too strong a word – bad CG creatures and bad CG effects. And it’s something I try on 99-percent of the time to avoid. There were a couple of shots where it was unavoidable because of unsafe stunts, impractical rigging, things that were just way beyond our reach that I had to use effects for and I still wish I hadn’t had to. But for more than 99-percent of the shots on the screen, the thing is practical and that was my approach from the very beginning. We could not, on this budget, afford to do a good CG creature at all. There’s just no way. We’ve all seen big budget studio creatures pictures when they’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on creatures that are totally unbelievable. We’ve seen it. It’s not like we’re getting any better at it.
Shock: Interesting. Some directors believe just because they don’t have a budget they can lean on CG to solve their problems.
Wilkins: The approach definitely from the beginning was a combination of a couple of things. One: Achieve as much with believable, practical effects as we can. Two: Shoot it in a way that gives you glimpses and convinces you you’re seeing things that you actually aren’t – the type of photography and editing style definitely influenced by the Bourne movies. I know we’re getting a lot of criticism for the shaky camera and the handheld approach, but honestly, The Bourne Ultimatum has got to be one of the best movie I’ve seen in a while. We found, while shooting, these action sequences where we would do basically a continuous take. We would shoot a stunt action sequence with explosions, lights flashing, shit flying everywhere, and people firing shotguns. We would shoot those like a play. We would basically have them play out, and shoot it, and then we would yell, âStop.â And âIf anyone gets hurt just stop.â And when I yell cut, just everyone stand still, let the dust settle, and then see what we got. The camera crew would be panting at the end of one of these sequences because they were working so hard just to make sure we could catch everything because there’s no second take.
Shock: Did you hire special, limber performers to play the victims infected by the parasite?
Wilkins: We, at different times, used different techniques. The very first victim from the opening scene of the movie plays a creature that goes into his dormant state very quickly so that doesn’t fit into the bulk of the movie. But his training actually included four years of mime study. We used him in the suit a lot to give it very quirky and expressive movements. We also brought in, and I worked extensively with, a national championship gymnast who incidentally was from the Oklahoma Sooners which is the sports department of the University of Oklahoma. If you watch the Olympics gymnastics, some of the U.S. Olympic team came from the University of Oklahoma. We were lucky to have access to those guys. And we had one kid, Jamie, who came out and put on the suit and was able to go through his physical strength to do things no one else would be able to do in the suit. Then we had a stunt guy who put on a suit to thrash around. It was really a combination. I don’t think you can tell in the movie. I hope you can’t tell in the movie, but cutting from one angle to another we would change who was in the suit.
Shock: Who’s responsible for the practical effects?
Wilkins: Quantum Creation FX did all the prosthetics. They did an amazing job of creating a suit that, from the original plans, was reversible. From one flip direction, they’d be wearing the suit with the face facing one direction, and then as they land and flip into another position, the suit would be reversed. I don’t know if you can tell even in the movie because of the way we shot it and the way we edited it, but that much thought went into how those movements were going to be executed. The suit itself was physically challenging. We had a national championship gymnast, with years and years of physical training, just driven to the point of exhaustion in this suit. It was heavy and it was 100 degrees inside the suit, 100 degrees outside the suit. Those physical challenges certainly took a toll on those guys working hard to bring this thing to the screen for me.
Shock: You went from directing Splinter to reuniting with the Ghost House team for The Grudge 3. Did you notice any significant differences in the experiences, was there anything that change for you?
Wilkins: There were stylistic differences, but fundamentally it’s all about characters. If you’re going to put people in peril and expect the audience to care, the rules are exactly the same whether or not it’s shot handheld and Bourne style or whether everything is very smooth and very calculated and precise in his filmmaking in the techniques like Takashi Shimizu uses. It’s very smooth and paced very, very precisely. It just boils down to story telling. It’s not really about how whether it’s a monster, a ghost or a dead human being…that piece of it is such a small element to the bigger picture of the story that basically it’s the same thing.
Shock: Do you see a sequel to Splinter on the horizon?
Wilkins: That would be awesome. I don’t know. I think we have to see how it goes. I’m keeping an open mind actually. I’ve been reading an awful lot of scripts. I have several scripts sort of in my pocket that I’d love to make. Whether now is the right time or not remains to be seen. I think it’s wise advice that I’ve heard a lot of directors say to have way more projects lined up than you can possibly do because you never know when one is going to happen.