By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
With an array of colorful credits and filmmaking collaborations with Frank Henenlotter, Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi, and, most recently, Zack Snyder, Gabe Bartalos is one of the foremost special effects and makeup artists of his day. Outside of his wildly imaginative work for some of horror’s foremost luminaries, Bartalos has also expanded into directing his own features. Though fright fans are more familiar with his absolutely unhinged 2014 sophomore effort, Saint Bernard, Severin films has just brought an essential earlier chapter of Bartalos’ career back from the grave with an all-new release of his directorial debut, 2004’s SKINNED DEEP. A rural clan of psychotic freaks raise hall in this demented riff on the familiar setup, delivered in Bartalos’ suis generis style and starring the artist’s frequent collaborators, Warwick Davis (Leprechaun) and Jason Dugre (Saint Bernard).
Bartalos invited us into his workshop to discuss SKINNED DEEP’s new facelift, his ethos as an independent filmmaker, and just when fans might expect another unfiltered journey into the nightmare maker’s beautifully deranged mind.
How would you describe SKINNED DEEP to readers who are just now hearing about it for the first time?
I guess I would describe it as a high-energy surrealist horror film that consciously grabs familiar territory and then quickly spins it on its head.
What made you take the leap to directing back in 2004?
As a young lad, I was interested in fantasy films, I loved everything about them, and then got fascinated with the special effects aspect, especially the makeup effects, and then was lucky enough to turn that into a career. In a weird way, making SKINNED DEEP was almost a return, looping back to the initial spark that got me involved in the film industry. I wanted to create a narrative that featured a lot of the characters that were forming in my imagination. Like I just stated before, I wanted to initiate the storytelling with scenarios that I loved in other films, but then go off the beaten path to the type of surrealism and metaphoric storytelling I really enjoy, which would allow it to also have a signature, my own style of film.
As an effects person, do these stories tend to come to you from a visual place first?
Very much. I think what I’ve always loved about film: it leans heavily into the visual, and that, really, one could argue, is the basis of the cinematic experience. At least for me, it’s what I most focus on. As I got deeper into the actual filmmaking process, I found myself getting really excited about exploring just that. How do I story tell with imagery? That became really exciting. Almost imagine if it was a silent film – can you push forward a narrative that’s in your head [with] just the command of the visual image?
That expanded into the mosaic sets, the busy, strange locations. All those began to be so important in really driving the narrative, so instead of written words describing and motivating while people are doing it, let the images carry it along. That felt so exciting and so pure and a real challenge, almost like back to the basics of cinema. I really realized that that was a strength. I like to play too and took that much further, even on my second feature film, Saint Bernard, where I really tested myself make every shot, every set, every series of sequences…[make it] visually driven to see if that can put talent forward. For me, that’s a really wonderful way to look at making movies.
I’m curious what your scripts might look like. Do you enjoy the writing process or is it just an annoying yet necessary step to getting the very visual films you’re imagining made?
It’s a good question. I do enjoy it, actually. I’ve always loved all aspects of filmmaking, and writing the scripts are really fun, especially since you know they’re going to happen. It’s very different if you were a spec script writer writing stuff you had no boundaries on. In a sense, that’s probably very liberating, because you might get a hundred-million budget, so let your imagination go. These are different, where I’m writing them because I know I’m going to film them. You do get backed into certain corners, but it’s also really fun, because when you’re in a groove, it’s very much like sculpting. The characters almost tell you where they’re going to go.
Like in sculpture, if I’m working on the facial features, creating a new look, a prosthetic character, I may have ideas before, but once the actor is cast and their face is in front of me for me to sculpt on, it becomes “telling” me where I’m going to go with the features. I’ll look at that jaw, look at their brow, and start to use that. So, it’s really exciting when you’re writing a script and the characters you have begin telling you, well, if you’re really immersed in the world, this is what they would do. The scripts are amazingly gospel to the finished films. I think that surprises people because they get pretty lunatic, [but] it’s almost exactly what was written. That’s one of the things that I was always conscious of – when you’re doing things that are abstract or seem stream of consciousness or very fever dream, there is a danger of being criticized. “Are they making this up as they go along?”
There’s something about the pedigree of film that you know you can’t make it up as you go along. [Laughs] There’s always 8 or 12 people standing around, and the sheer cost and the tech of film, nothing is left to chance. It’s been rehearsed, it’s been set, and hopefully everything’s been motivated to make every bit of it count. I think, in a way, that heightens the insanity of these films. The message is heightened because of the medium of the film.
How do you balance heading up effects and directing on a film like this?
Actually, it’s not that difficult because, if it organically grows from being an effects artist to daydreaming the characters, you then start to leapfrog to, “I wonder what they would be wearing? I wonder what their setting would be? I wonder what the location would be?” And the narrative would be to get them to that location. So it’s an organic growth. I guess it’s a challenge because, yes, you’re actually doing the hands-on makeup effects, but on these films themselves, I’ve realized how important producing your own projects is. It really gives you the control to prioritize how the money is spent. Every effects artist who has their own studio, in a sense, has been practicing their whole life, whether they know it or not. They’re constantly breaking down budgets, trying to distribute the finances to be really effective. It’s no different, and, in fact, maybe it’s even more inspiring when it’s your own project.
It’s really important if you make a decision between 80 extras or a crane because they come down to the same cost. To me, it’s weird that the director, the artist, wouldn’t have a say in that. So, by default, I also produce the projects I’m involved in, which makes it where heavy effects days don’t become what, at a snapshot, might be a burden. They’re really carefully planned out, and the idea is to have fun and really kind of show off on these films so that, not only is time allowed for it, it’s meant to be made comfortable [enough] that we can really indulge the crazy fetishes that they probably are at the end of the day.
Severin has described SKINNED DEEP as something of a forgotten film. What happened after release? Did it have distribution problems?
I don’t think I had problems. I think what it really amplifies is how independent distributors like Severin have really found their stride. In 2003, another label picked up SKINNED DEEP and they were chugging along quite well. They had a nice stable house of similar types of films that they knew there was a market for and they could make some money off of. It fit in quite well and they did terrific in marketing it. In fact, almost in what seems odd to us now about visiting overseas film festivals, having booths, doing full catalogs and magazine spreads and things that may seem almost excessive, in a sense, [but] it was perfect for the time. What was creeping around the corner was the explosion of social media and the Internet, and what we’ve seen with independent film companies, the ones who survive keep getting stronger and stronger, and if the people that run a company, like David Gregory and Carl at Severin are smart, which they are, and genuinely nice people, and know their product, and are able to continue to grow and expand each year.
David had even said to me, “You’ll probably be surprised at what kind of a new audience you’ll find.” In my mind, when a film’s been out, it’s out, [but] we’re finding that SKINNED DEEP is getting a significant second breath of fresh air, and the fact that they did a restoration from the negative, it’s as good as it could look. That’s why it’s wonderful it was shot in film; there’s so much information baked into that negative. With the technology now pulling that out, it looks stronger than ever. We have an unrated cut, it’s never been on Blu-ray, and did another polish of the sound. It’s really nice to see a wider audience finding it because Severin also continues to do their job well.
Severin previously released your sophomore effort, Saint Bernard. What are the biggest differences between that film and SKINNED DEEP for somebody who might be interested in picking this up?
It’s interesting. Film and golf are the two only things out there where money really matters. [Laughs] I don’t know the world of golf, and I don’t really want to, but I know it’s about gear and stupid clothes, and all that costs money. Film, whether you want to admit it or not, you could take a really modest picture, and if it looks good, with massive sound design, massive music, and distribution, it could do okay. So, money does, for better or worse, equate to some level of…I don’t want to say success, but some level of quality control, for sure. I think that I was determined to make SKINNED DEEP, even on a modest budget. I guess the biggest difference is, both are independent, but SKINNED DEEP wears its modesty on its sleeve and celebrates [it]. It almost declares, “It’s okay to make a film if you don’t have every dollar you want, [but] have imaginative ideas and the right energy behind it.” I think that that would be the success story of it.
There’s about a decade separating those two films, and we’re nearly there again waiting on your third. Is the long gestation period a part of your creative process?
Yeah, right? I don’t plan on that specifically. There’s nothing calculated time-wise, but, yes, I almost can’t help it, the ideas do start forming, ridiculous thoughts start turning into sequences. [Laughs] I try not to worry too much about the calendar. I realized some of the best music I’ve listened to, and the best films, come from, not an executive with a cigar tapping his finger on a leather desk, but an artist that feels like he’s got something to say and put it out. Hopefully, I would fall into that category. When the bug bites again, it means it’s ready.
No pressure, just curious!
I realize you saw a pattern there that I didn’t even notice.
Readers will be jazzed to know that the film features an appearance by Forrest J. Ackerman. How did that come about?
I knew Mr. Ackerman through the horror community, and I visited with him a few times. I had written a sequence with a senior motorcycle gang called the Ancient Ones, and actually wasn’t even thinking about him at that point. You have this arthritic, hobbling motorcycle gang still trying to hang on to their toughness of years gone by. We see them a couple of times through the film, [and] near the final confrontation, a friend of mine happened to be with him, and they were reaching out to see about hooking up socially. I was like, “You know, in a couple of days, we’re shooting a scene, and if he wants to be in it…”
He was completely charmed by that. He was well known at that point for making cameos in films. I sent him the pages of the script. He thought it was really funny, and he was happy to be on board. It was a great way to spend an afternoon. When people start getting to a certain age, I become aware that you really never know when time is going to run out for them, so it was really nice having that time with him. What I’ve always felt about films is that they’re wonderful time capsules. It [was] really great to have him in it, because it totally speaks his language.
You also have a great relationship with Warwick Davis going back to the Leprechaun, series but was he always onboard when you told him you wanted to direct?
Yeah, I was really pleasantly surprised! A career is something an individual carves out, and it is significant, it’s your livelihood; the films you are in are reflective of you. Warwick and I built a great relationship through the Leprechaun series. I didn’t take it for granted, but I brought up that I was putting this film together, and, to his credit, he kind of was like, “Let me read it.” I was thinking about him for [the character of] Plates and I’m not exactly sure what I would have done if he wasn’t interested. [Laughs] I never thought of that.
But he said, “Absolutely, I would do it,” and he understood the spirit of the film, and at that point wasn’t doing a lot of films that hadn’t buried him in makeup. In a weird way, he probably knew, even if it’s a ridiculous film, and maybe not the type of highbrow thespian stuff he’d foresee himself [doing] in the future, it was showing his chops in a different light. I think, as an actor, you’re a little safe, because you just do your thing, whether it’s a big budget or low budget. It could be a good film or a bad film, you’re kind of at the mercy of the filmmaker. As an actor, you could just shrug and go, “I didn’t make the movie, but I hope you liked my performance.” He just laughed all the way through it, and he completely understood what I was going for. I think more importantly overall, he saw this entire universe I was painting and how his character fit in.
It’s very much, when you’re directing, and really close to the film design, it is like sculpture. If you take a deep groove in one area, you’ve got to balance it out somewhere else. It’s definitely a give and take. And when you have extreme characters like Plates or Surgeon General, you have to find a balance with [your leads] or the narrative has to take a breath. The hours we spent in the chair, we would always just make up silly scenarios and talk, and make up ridiculous narratives for non-existent projects. I think he knew there was a natural tendency for storytelling in me. As a friend and a colleague, he was actually excited to see that I was going to make it happen somehow independently. And I was very aware that it was generous of him to say yes. It’s amazing how many people really, really like his performance. They still scratch their head over the film and what the hell he’s doing, but there’s no denying, whatever he’s doing, he’s doing it to a ten and nailing it!
Revisiting SKINNED DEEP now, what are you most proud of in retrospect?
I guess it’s nice to see it get a bit of a face lift with technology that’s out there. Peter Strietmann, the cinematographer, did a great job. We shot in 16mm, and it’s amazing, like I said earlier, how much information is in the film that scanning from negative can pull out. It film looks very good, has an almost comic book feel. I really love bold colors and painting with a broad splashy brush, and that’s really alive and well. The sound design in the film is very strong, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed, and I’m kind of amazed that more filmmakers don’t understand the importance of sound and music. I guess it’s nice when you’re judged on anything from the film, your creative writing, or, hell, your looks, [and] 14 years later, it gets a face lift, that’s exciting.
I think maybe it’s just the fact that, again, there is the same tenacity I have now to try to blaze a path that has an individual style. I think that’s really cool, and when I hear that acknowledged by others, or I could clearly see it when I look at my films that there’s definitely a pedigree it’s coming from, I think that’s really neat, and it keeps it worth doing for me, whether it’s in makeup effects, creature constructions, or my own films.
I hope it’s not too long before we have a third, so we have a Bartalos trilogy!
There you go, right? I think that’d be really cool.
SKINNED DEEP is available now on 2-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray from Severin Films.