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Splat Chat: 'Splinter' Director Toby Wilkins

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I figured Toby Wilkins would make for a fairly simple Splat Chat discussion, given that he's only directed one feature film (so far), and a pretty good one at that. (It's called Splinter and it's on DVD now) But I didn't take into account the man's vast experience outside the director's chair, his long list of short films, The Grudge 3 (available on DVD today), and his overall adoration for the horror genre. So it actually turned out to be one of the longer Splat Chats yet, it's also one of the coolest. Plus if you're an old-school FEARnet fan, you'll know this guy from the rather cool Devil's Trade series, and it's always nice to revisit an old friend.

Scott: OK, so what were the big formative horror flicks for you?

Toby: I was always a big fan of survival horror as a kid. Post-apocalyptic scenarios, end of the world type stuff. Dawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, stuff like that much more than Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th. Alien and The Thing are two of my all time favorites.

Scott: So you must love the original Hills Have Eyes then...

Toby: Strangely, not so much. For me that falls into another category completely, a sub-genre that I find pretty hard to enjoy. People doing horrible things to other people for no reason is not high on my list of things I need to see.

Scott: Fair enough. Seems like you've worn a lot of hats prior to becoming a feature director: producer, writer, FX technician, even opening credits designer. Do you think doing all that stuff helps make a guy more prepared when he IS the director?

Toby: Absolutely. I was always into photography and graphic design, even as a child, and that's where my career took me. So when I moved to Los Angeles that was my way in to the industry. I think a broad variety of experience is a great background, a great way to learn the ropes ... Doing visual effects, titles sequences, even color correcting trailers for other people's films gave me an insight that I couldn't have got any other way. And I got to work with some amazing people on some amazing projects. It really helped set the bar for my own work.

Scott: That's something you just cant get overnight: working WITH people who grow to like your style and respect your decisions. That's gotta help too.

Toby: When you're doing work for people who you idolize and respect, it really makes you work hard, and give it everything you've got. And that's what I now do when I'm working on my own projects.

Scott: So are you a filmmaker who looks for horror-oriented projects, or is that just how it's turned out so far?

Toby: I have always had an eye for the darker stories. Even my comedies are pretty dark, like Kidney Thieves, for example.

Scott: Yeah, there are some VERY interesting short films on your website, but since we're on FEARnet right now, can you talk a little bit about Devil's Trade (which is viewable right now right here)?

Toby: Devil's Trade was my third project for Ghost House Pictures. It was a great collaboration between myself and the team there, writer Ben Ketai, who is a great director in his own right. I have had work premiere in all different mediums, and to have a series like that launch online, and on HD On Demand was really cool. It was the biggest thing I had done at that time. Incidentally, Ben went on to write, both the 30 Days of Night series for FEARnet (Blood Trails), and directed the second season, Dust to Dust.

Scott: And you worked with Ghost House once again on The Grudge 3...

Toby: That's right. Shortly before I finished shooting Splinter I started talking to them about the story for The Grudge 3. It was great to be collaborating with them again.

Scott: What's your message to the horror fans who may be skeptical of the video sequels --but are usually more than willing to give a new one a fresh shot?

Toby: Well, remember that the original Ju-On films were released on DVD too, so this is nothing new for the series.

Scott: Is there an unfair stigma attached to video sequels? Or are we past that point yet?

Toby: I think the industry is getting past that stigma slowly, but the change is going to happen very quickly now I think. With indie films and even mainstream projects being distributed digitally, and on DVD, and streaming from services like iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix. And sites like FEARnet, obviously. The line is blurring. The reality is that it's incredibly expensive to release a movie in theatres, and it just isn't the right place for a lot of films.

Scott: I must agree. technically, Inside was a DTV release in the states, and I don't think anyone would call that a bad horror film.

Toby: And as online piracy takes a bigger and bigger chunk of a movies' chance to make back its costs, we have to look for other ways to distribute smaller films.

Scott: Once it's on the shelf, a movie is a movie, regardless of what medium premiered it...

Toby: I agree. I think there is an unfair stigma attached to DTV movies simply because, traditionally, that's where bad movies went to die. But I look at all projects the same way, whether it's for theatres, for DVD, or for the internet ... or hell, even mobile phones. I'm always going to put all my energy into making the best possible movie I can.

Scott: OK, we'll get to Splinter in a sec, but regarding Grudge 3, is it tough to be creative when you're coming into a well-established series? Or do you like painting between the lines and seeing what you can come up with?

Toby: I wanted to make a film that would fit with the existing American films, since it was a continuation of that story. And I was very respectful of the work that Takashi Shimizu has done in creating the world of The Grudge. I had played a little in that world once before, in creating the Tales of the Grudge series of short films to promote The Grudge 2, so I was already quite familiar with the style. But I also can't help bringing my own style to the film too, that's what directing is after all. You have to trust your own instincts and do what you feel is right.

I hope the result is something that will feel like it fits with the other films, but also brings something new to the world of The Grudge. Also ... this is the first R-rated American Grudge film.

Scott: Oh, that's a good thing to mention! Reader interest just went up 24%! So was it nice to not have to deal with the MPAA?

Toby: The MPAA still have to allow it to carry the R.

Scott: Ah right, you did say R, not unrated. But that's still an upgrade for fans who like their Grudges a little grudgier...

Toby: There is some gore for sure.

Scott: Here's a smooth segue, because Splinter has lots of cool gore (and I gotta say I dig the sound FX too). You managed to create a severely creepy monster with not much money.

Toby: Glad to hear it. My brother Ben Wilkins was responsible for the sound design on Splinter. He's been doing sound effects on movies way longer than I've been directing.

Scott: So how would you describe the antagonist in your monster movie?

Toby: Haha.

Scott: It's biological, strong, aggressive, and DISGUSTING. And pointy.

Toby: It's a kind of parasitic organism, it takes over its victims' bodies, and breaks them anyway it needs to survive and infect again.

Scott: On set it was nothing but gray goop, so let's hear it for the sound FX, the editing, and the actors. They "sell" a lot of that creature.

Toby: The idea from the start was to use as little CGI as possible. I always get yanked out of a film when I see CG, and I see it always because that's my background. So we did almost everything on set, in camera, with practical effects created by Quantum Creation FX. Then I and a very very small group of other VFX artists added tiny tweaks here and there. Painted out wires and puppeteers hands, and added details like the growing and shivering splinters. But for the most part, it's entirely practical, old-school latex and goo.

Scott: CG is an excellent tool, and I'm all for it, but for monsters and splatter and such, in-camera is my preferred flavor...

Toby: It's not just the audience that feels the difference, either. The actors are the first to suffer if you try and do stuff like that in post.

Scott: Ah, good point.

Toby: If the actors can see what the audience is seeing, it's always going to connect more.

Scott: What I like about Splinter is that there's tension (some real, some amusing) between the characters, which keeps things interesting between the attack -- so talk a bit about, say, the importance of the characters over the actual monster.

Toby: Oh absolutely. Character and story are really my main focus. Once the audience is along for the ride, once they are invested in the characters, most of the work is done. There's nothing scary about watching a bunch of characters you don't care about run around screaming. And I knew that we were going to be stuck in this one location, with just a handful of characters for most of the film. So if I was going to ask the audience to do that, they had better be real, believable, genuinely human and flawed characters. It had to feel like we're right there with them, and be part of the action.

Scott: Plus you can't go wrong by casting Shea Whigham in anything. He and Viggo Mortensen should do an action movie together as pissed-off brothers.

Toby: Shea was amazing, from the moment we met I knew he was going to raise the level of the film, and that's what helped us get the rest of the cast too. Once he signed on to the project it opened a lot of doors. You can bank of Shea Whigham to make an impact in anything he's a part of, but our whole cast was amazing on this project.

Paulo Costanzo, Jill Wagner, Rachel Kerbs, they all really stepped up to the plate in a way that just made everything click on set. I didn't want to do a bunch of stereotypical horror characters, a damsel in distress with inappropriate shoes... give me a break. I wanted to do something interesting and mess with those clichés as much as I could.

Scott: So the film had a limited release this past October. what was your favorite and least-favorite reaction to the flick?

Toby: I've been blown away by the positive reaction most of the legit critics have had to the film. I mean, how many indie horror movies get a rave review in The Wall Street Journal? The critics have been amazingly supportive. On the flip side ... there has been a lot of knee-jerk chatter on the net about our use of the hand-held camera style, which personally I love. People seem to think that "shaky-cam" as they call it, is an invention or a curse of modern digital cinema and TV shows like NYPD Blue ... but look around, I just re-watched Ridley Scott's first feature, The Duelists, from 1977 and it's full of awesome hand-held action sequences.  I LOVE the Bourne movies and Battlestar Galactica and Frost/Nixon and House, and all the other examples of excellent active and reactive hand-held camerawork.

Scott:  So where would you say Splinter "belongs" in today's horror landscape?

Toby: I think a lot of people, myself included, have gotten tired of torture porn, and really hard body horror. I made this film as an homage to the horror films that got me excited about the genre, and movies in general when I was a kid.

Scott: But that's the cool thing about horror. there's plenty of room for dark, fun monster movies AND The Last House on the Left.

Toby: Oh I totally agree. There is room for all kinds of horror, but I feel like there has been so much of one type of horror for the last 5-10 years that it has contorted what people think of the entire horror field.

Scott: Another good point.

Toby: I have had so many people come up to me after screenings of Splinter saying essentially "I don't normally like horror films, but I love this."

Scott: Its a jump-on-the-bandwagon genre, unfortunately, which is why FEARnet (and lots of other great horror sites) love to find a smaller movie like Splinter, that was clearly made by someone who DOES love the stuff.

Toby: That's the thing ... it's sad to me that anyone says "I don't like horror" because it really is a genre that has something for everyone. From Gremlins to Saw, it's all great.

Scott: Jaws is horror ... and I'm sorry but so is Jurassic Park.

Toby: Duel is horror.

Scott: King Kong!

Toby: The Mummy!

Hell, look at the list of other nominees for the Saturn award Splinter is up for: The Happening, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Quarantine, Splinter, and The Strangers.

Scott: Yeah, well, congrats on being nominated against some big heavy hitters, I'd only call the last three titles actual horror films...

Toby: And then there's the excellent Let the Right One In...

Scott: Which brings us quite conveniently to our friends at Magnolia. (Hi guys!) The region 1 Splinter DVD had a slight delay in release date, but for all the right reasons. Elaborate that for me.

Toby: Yeah, we managed to record two great commentary tracks, one with me and most of the cast, and then another with myself, Nelson Cragg the cinematographer, and David Michael Maurer the editor. I handed over a bunch of my personal behind the scenes footage and Magnolia managed to cut together some really fun behind the scenes features too. Oh, and Blu-Ray! So, yeah, well worth the wait.

Scott: And I'll mention the DVD release date (4/14!) in exchange for some scoop: Any word on Splinter 2: Splintier?

Toby: There's nothing in the works for a sequel.

Scott: Ah cool, so Splinter will be the first good horror movie in eleven years to not get a sequel.

Toby: I think it's a great idea. There's a lot more to be done with this creature, and I would love to see it set loose on a bigger scale. When my friend George Cawood and I originally conceived of this creature, several years before I read Ian Shorr's script then called "Tooth and Nail", we saw it as a much bigger scale infestation.

Scott: (In other words, you already have part 2 and part 3 written somewhere.)

Toby: When Quantum Creation FX started sketching out designs for the actual creature practical effects, they handed me a page of maybe a dozen drawings. I picked one, and that's what's in the film. But there were eleven other awesome creatures on that page! That's my pitch for the sequel.

Scott: Well, let's hope enough DVDs sell to make someone get a little greedy -- because I think it's a very fun flick, but also a mere jumping off point for this monster.

Toby: Well thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Scott: Two things before we go... 1. Name something (not movies) that really scares you.

Toby: Funny you should ask, because I know exactly the answer, and I used it as a scare in The Grudge 3. You know when you walk into a room at night, and you flip the switch, and the lightbulb pops like a flashbulb? That scares the crap out of me every time. That and disease.

Scott: 2. Good ones. Now give the FEARnetters a big hug and tell them how great they are!

Toby: I think it's great that FEARnet is giving the horror fans some unique and original content. The horror world needs more stuff like the web series and shorts that FN brings us.

Scott: Plus I think they have a really brilliant film critic.

Toby: Well, he liked Splinter, so we know he's somewhat smart.

See more of Toby at his official website!

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