[INTERVIEW] A Graham Skipper Retrospective: Almost Human
I have the pleasure this week of hosting Graham Skipper’s new film, Sequence Break, at my local Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, Tx with both Graham and star Chase Williamson in attendance. Both are hometown heroes born and raised in Ft. Worth, Texas and in celebration of their triumphant return and release of their new film on Shudder, I took a look at three of my favorite Graham Skipper films that he starred in before sitting down in the Director’s chair. With these retrospectives, Graham graciously gave me an interview covering each film all leading up to a final interview on Sequence Break!
My first pick is an independent film that was a jumping board for Graham as it took him right off the stage of Re-Animator The Musical as Herbert West and into Stuart Gordon student Joe Begos directorial debut, which is a celebration of horror and sci-fi where slasher meets extraterrestrial in, Almost Human.
Seth is set in a daze of confusion and fear as he speeds off to his friend Mark's house after witnessing his friend's abduction into the sky by a beam of light. Upon arriving at Mark’s home, strange things begin to occur as Seth and Mark’s girlfriend Jen watch the abduction of Mark into the sky. Years later Seth’s entire life has been shaken as he constantly dreams horrifying images and suffers from random nosebleeds having been accused of Marks disappearance. Trying to cope with what’s going on and his visions, he goes back to Jen to try and reconnect with her, someone else who might understand his problems and the warnings he’s been receiving. The warnings are not mere visions but indeed signs of Marks return as something far less human and more deadly than Seth and Jen could imagine.
Every few years or so there is a new independent low budget genre film that harkens to the days of the 80’s goregasms and the spirit of the masters of Horror. This is definitely one of those films. What works best for it is it wears its independence on its sleeve and utilizes that in the story. It’s an intimate slasher/revenge story wrapped up in a veneer of an alien invasion. These characters in this small town all are affected by this mysterious event that’s probably the biggest thing the town has ever experienced being so small and in a time period where news doesn’t travel as fast. The world seems smaller in this little patch of small town heaven that’s then opened to this otherworldly event and Seth as a character is burdened with knowledge beyond his towns imagination. It gives the film an intimate quality and elevates the aspects of horror presented by the alien. These aren’t A-list celebrities passing as middle America. This is the true people dealing with something truly scary. Director Joe Begos used local actors who worked blue collar to populate his film save for his veteran friends he had known previously with Graham Skipper and Josh Ethier.
The three main actors in the film portraying Mark, Seth, and Jen all have brilliant performances. Josh Ethier, who has been friends with Begos for many years, portrays the film’s creature with menacing poise. His frame and movement echo slashers such as Michael and Jason with calculated attacks and relentless assaults on his victims representing the creature overtaking his mind. His emotional range is conveyed by voice and dialogue but not by look. It’s an interesting performance to watch as he has to play Mark, a character whose humanity has slowly deteriorated over the years, but still shows signs of wanton human desire. Basic needs such as procreation and ownership of what was his. Begos is a huge fan of genre film and I think the greatest accomplishment with the combined efforts of both Ethier’s performance and Begos writing/directing is they hit perfectly what Larry Cohen wanted to do with the Maniac film, make a human version of Jaws. Ethier's facial expression reminds me of a certain shark, “ lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes.” Vanessa Leigh as Jen is a bit of a roller coaster throughout the film. Just like Seth, we get to see her briefly before the life-changing moment as she awakens to sheer terror when Mark is taken. Trying to escape that night and her false accusations against Seth, as him causing Mark’s disappearance is the only logical explanation to her and her blurred memories, she has moved on to a new fiancé, home and is just trying to get by. How does one go on living life after a traumatic event like that? Losing who could possibly be the love of your life? Getting a job at a diner could be all she can get after all the problems that night and the media attention has caused her. We don’t get much on that idea but a few clues that she isn’t financially stable and it seems she, like Seth, hasn’t been her same self. The horrors she endured upon seeing Mark once again revel in genre classics as a scene I would refer to as “the impregnation scene” echoes the jaw-droppingly crazed intensity of the tree scene in the original Evil Dead and the Dr. Hill head scene in Re-Animator. The final act of the film easily gives Leigh status among many great Final Girls but it is her transformation near the end that showcases her acting abilities perfectly in sync with Ethier's performance. Graham juxtaposes Ethier perfectly. As Seth loses his connection to humanity having lost all his friends and spurned by society, Mark has his humanity physically taken away from him. It quite literally gives the title dual meaning. At first, reveal Seth’s character is drowned in fear and terror and as the film progresses we still see fragments of that character but, it’s much more mired in regret and tired of the world’s offerings and constantly worried of Marks return. Graham’s performance is kind of heartbreaking to watch as we see this person basically drained of all life and what it means to be human. Taking almost no joy in anything and emotionally unavailable to anyone other than himself. Why should he give any emotion to anyone else the way he’s been treated though? Labeled a murderer and having lost those he cared about. It just makes you cheer for him more as a protagonist in the end when he rises to the occasion to battle Mark, trying to save Jen’s life because in those acts you start to see that humanity return and he finally faces his horror.
One of the things that I love the most when sitting down to a Begos film, other than his obvious love of the genre, is his resolve on how to make a film. “Why spend thousands of dollars to CGI something that’s going to look like shit when you can spend way less to make something practically and it looks better?” Coming from the school of Stuart Gordon, having been stage manager for Re-Animator The Musical, Begos loves practical in-camera FX. He takes anything and everything he can find in very Sam Raimi spirit to make an effect work and amplify it. The gooier the better. From cocoons releasing rebirthed human hybrids, to head explosions and headless alien creatures attacking our heroes there's no amount of blood and gore spared in Almost Human. Besides the creature filled climax, my favorite moment would have to feature the most badass gas station attendant ever! Mark completely gauges out a hole in a guys neck in a shower of blood to steal his car and without hesitation, an old man managing the gas station jumps out shotgun cocked ready to blow his head off, only Mark beats him to it with a knife! It’s a glorious moment of gore that also made me miss crazy ass random characters that would populate movies like this. What elevates these FX is the phenomenal sound design Begos and Ethier did on the film with each kill. My personal favorite being a throat slit that is accompanied by a whammy bar sound effect.
It’s an amazingly fun and beautifully constructed movie that I don’t think enough people appreciate artistically and it helped launch several peoples careers into different amazing areas and Graham Skipper still remembers it fondly in our interview!
Ghastly Grinning: Having come off of doing an intense broadway stint going into Almost Human, how did that jump from stage to film feel? Was it less grueling? Did you feel you had less or more time to become intimate with the character of Seth as opposed to Herbert West?
Graham Skipper: You know, stage and film are such entirely different beasts that its sort of comparing apples and oranges. What was great about going straight from the stage into Almost Human is I was already in such a mindset to really dive into a complex character. Obviously, we didn't have any rehearsal time, but doing a run of a show you really get a feel for the spontaneity of the moment, and I was able to draw from that a lot for Seth. But yeah, they're really different in how you approach them, so it was a fun challenge moving from one right into the other.
GG: Seeing as both you and Joe are big genre fans, what films did you guys discuss in preparing for this film in particular?
GS: We talked a lot about THE TERMINATOR, FIRE IN THE SKY, and of course the slasher classics. But The Terminator and Fire in the Sky were definitely the two major ones.
GG: The title, Almost Human is interesting because it can seem to pertain to both you and Mark as in one night you both lost pieces of your humanity. Him physically and you mentally. Did that ever play into any of your character choices throughout the film?
GS: The title didn't play into any of my decisions because we didn't have a title while we were shooting! I think the title came about as an idea sometime during filming but I know there were several temporary titles before that. Extraterrestrial was one I remember, or my favorite was BEARDS & FLANNEL, inspired by all the dudes with beards and wearing flannel in the movie. That was actually on the clapboard for a while as I remember.
GG: Which was more intense to endure the FX work in Re-Animator the musical or Almost Human in comparison from Stage to film?
GS: Well, Almost Human's FX were grueling because we were outside in the cold for so much of it, but I think the sheer repetition of the Re-Animator gags were more grueling. I had tomato juice shot up my nose every night for 200 performances! That could be pretty brutal. Or being wrapped in a bloody intestine having to crawl down a trap door on top of Joe Begos (who was stage manager on that production - it's where we met!) who was pumping blood out of it like a hose. Yeah, that was rough - but fun!
GG: Working with Stuart Gordon and having had Joe Begos as his stage manager, did you see similarities in the directing styles? What was the evolution of seeing Joe grow into becoming his own kind of director?
GS: Well, Joe's a total natural, but similarities I saw were in both of their sort of calm surety about what they wanted. Both are willing to listen to everyone's ideas, and really foster a sense of collaboration, but they also have no qualms about telling you when they disagree. Which is a great quality in a director. Stuart is really amazing with actors, and I've heard Joe talk about how that was inspirational as he was embarking on his own directing career, to see Stuart be able to craft performances in the way he does. Stuart is also the epitome of a team player - he would be there with us to warm up before every show, and he even ran the light board for almost the entire run! So for both Joe and I, I'm sure that has fed into our general sense of "all hands on deck" guerilla-style filmmaking.
GG: Being in such a close intimate set where so many people took on so many job titles did you ever get to do extra work on the film besides acting? Did you learn anything new on this set for the filmmaking process? If so what did you enjoy the most?
GS: One time I ran and caught a light bounce that was blowing away in the wind! You know one thing I definitely learned is that it's important to let each department and each individual do their jobs without getting in their way or micromanaging. Joe is great about choosing a team, giving marching orders, and then letting them do their work. I found that to be a really smooth and respectful way of making a movie, so I tried to emulate that on my own set.
GG: From behind the scenes you guys all seemed like a pretty big happy family that united under a common goal. What was your favorite memory on the set? Did you have a least favorite that you can now look back on fondly?
GS: We were absolutely a big happy family. I think my favorite memory has to be shooting the opening sequence, with the abduction. We knew we had to nail that moment, and it was a huge effect for us, so Joe built in a ton of time to get it right. Even then, we were running up against the clock and dawn was swiftly approaching, and even after a long day, we went full throttle until the light was too bright to film anymore. It was grueling and hard on everyone in every department, but when you get to go home and crack open a beer with everyone at 7 in the morning in celebration, that's a pretty special moment. Really that whole experience was spectacular. I loved every second.
GG: With the diverse acting group from all different walks, be it from LA or local to the shoot did you learn anything new in acting exercises or techniques that you thought were interesting in developing characters?
GS: You learn from everyone! The beauty of acting, to me, is that every individual brings their own personality to every role, and because it's such a personal profession, everyone sort of has their own approach! So I've definitely learned something new from everyone I've gotten to work with.
GG: Begos has mentioned before that he has an idea for a sequel to Almost Human that it would be set in a hospital ala Halloween II where the bodies from the previous film would infect the hospital. Has there been any movement on that idea? I would imagine it would be a great opportunity to maybe change your character into a similar Josh Ethier role to become more alien and kind of complete the circle of your metaphorical loss of humanity since you were shot at the end of the film. Any ideas you have yourself?
GS: I have been aching for that sequel to happen! I remember Joe talking about it a lot after AH first came out but tell him you want to see this happen! I would be honored to be Josh Ethier v2.0!
That's my retrospective and interview with Graham on Joe Begos' ALMOST HUMAN! Stay tuned for when we talk about the Begos follow up. THE MIND'S EYE!