[INTERVIEW] A Graham Skipper Retrospective: The Mind's Eye
Almost Human was an indie hit that quickly developed a cult following and started branching out everyone involved into different avenues in the industry. What I respect the most though as Begos began his next foray is his unyielding need to create something new and interesting. He was immediately offered bigger movies but did not want to relinquish his creative freedoms and absolute resolve in creating practical FX masterpieces. For a while he had wanted to do a movie with telekinesis and decided it was time to go for it, thus The Mind’s Eye was born. Selling an FX extravaganza like The Mind’s Eye on a small budget got him laughed out of many meetings but those naysayers only fueled his fire that it could and would be done. What was accomplished was an evolution in his filmmaking and exercise in film departmental coalition to create a genre film that fires on all fronts from acting, cinematography, extremely thematic lighting, directing, jaw-droppingly unique FX work and sound design that becomes a character all on its own. As the opening cue card to the film states: “THIS FILM IS MEANT TO BE PLAYED LOUD”
A rise in telekinetics has overcome the US in the late eighties into the early nineties. Zack and Rachel are two such gifted people who have been imprisoned in an institution to dampen their abilities under the care of a man named Dr. Slovak. Slovak has a deranged need to harness the power of telekinesis for his own from his patients giving way to dangerous results. For two years he has kept Rachel and Zack apart and Zack has finally had enough making a daring escape from the institute with Rachel as they are pursued by Slovak’s team of killers led by one of the most dangerous telekinetics, Travis Levine. Zack and Rachel must escape from Slovak’s clutches as he becomes an insanely powerful and dangerous synthetic telekinetic.
First and foremost Begos is an excellent storyteller and composites his shooting style to the truest forms of storytelling creating a perfect marriage of the senses. The overarching theme I love is the age-old story of puberty. Much like the X-Men, the gifted in the film are misunderstood and not given any rights or help. Their powers are feared and they are labeled freaks as their natural abilities they gain through adulthood are shunned. This beautiful transformation of life is bastardized by Slovak. They are not trained but inhibited as he literally steals their gifts for himself. Taking their own blood and injecting himself with their powers while keeping them drugged. It’s like the idea of a religious man condemning someone for their own sexual orientation or cultural background while he himself secretly wants those ways of life. In these times as a horror viewer, it helps to immediately identify with our protagonists as we feel for these outsiders. One scene, in particular, is one of the most beautifully constructed scenes in the film and really drives the point home. Zack played by Graham Skipper and Rachel played by Lauren Ashley Carter share a very intimate moment where it’s revealed why Zack ran away from home and why he’s so frightened of his powers. In that moment they become intimate in a very passionate sex scene that’s juxtaposed by Slovak’s transformation into a Monstrous telekinetic. The scene is bathed in hues of blues, reds, and purples that perfectly simulates the idea of the brain and its power. The scene cuts back and forth between Rachel and Zack's passionate lovemaking and Slovak becoming a monster. It’s so tragically symbolic of this beautiful act of two people becoming one, having shared so much and dealt with so much heartbreak, that in that moment a monster is born of their blood and powers stolen from them. It not only sets up the bastardization of their beauty but perfectly sets up the showdown between Slovak and Zack at the end of the film.
The acting in this film is phenomenal. Of course, we have return players such as Josh Ethier and Graham Skipper, but we are also treated to newcomers like Lauren Ashley Carter and John Speredakos with a very special appearance by Larry Fessenden. Graham dials his entire persona to eleven as he is constantly covered in viscera and his body pulsates with raw power. He’s very much like the Hulk in this movie as the angrier he becomes the more unstable his power is, yet it is focused and raw like a Sith from Star Wars. You can’t help but squirm and clench at the sight of him using his powers for how painful it looks. Each individual character had their own ways to show off their powers but more importantly, with the help of Graham Reznick on sound design, each character is given a sound for when their powers are in use. Graham’s being my personal favorite, as it sounds like a baseball card hitting the spoke of a bike wheel.
Lauren Ashley Carter as Rachel is tragic to watch as she deals with so much. She is the anchor for Slovak and his obsession as she is kept drugged and confined solitarily to a cabin away from everyone else. Constantly being drugged and blood being taken. You really feel for her throughout the film as she tears through things quite literally with her powers through emotion. Larry Fessenden as always is sheer fun, but also his introduction to the piece gives way to a lot of heart for Graham’s character and sets up one of the most passionate scenes of the movie. Of course, though you can’t have Larry in a flick without him spitting blood and a tooth out while he attempts to kick the crap out of someone in a very brutal fight sequence that has Larry looking down right into the camera with blood spilling all over the lens as if the audience were being blood-spattered! John Speredakos as the villain of the piece, Slovak, easily goes up with some of the greatest and quotable antagonists in a film. Chewing up every scene he’s in with pure raw hatred and vitriol toward our heroes. He is very reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in the Shining with how far his insanity goes. It’s been said before each take Speredakos would already be shaking with rage, sweat beating down his brow and spittle emitting from his mouth and every single bit of that anger is shown on screen. I can only imagine what the aftermath of Graham Skipper and John Sparadokis’s voices were like after their final battle which was utter perfection. Each conveyed absolute pain and suffering as they lifted each other through the air, thanks to wirework, set to a musical score by Steve Moore from Zombi as the FX team from Stakeland, Brian Spears, and Pete Gerner has their veins erupting from their heads and blood-soaked orifice! What else do we need? Just some stunt work from the stunt coordinators of Scorcesse’s The Departed and Shutter Island!
Initially before this movie came out, what drew me to it the most was the simple fact that Joe Begos had said that he flipped a car through the air. No CGI. He just really flipped a car through the air after he hung out of the speeding car with a giant camera rig strapped to him. I LOVE George Miller and how amazing his action set pieces are, especially in the Mad Max films, but the idea that a man with little to no budget decided he was going to fling actors around sets on wires and have them throw things, blow each other up and in one case float an axe around that decapitates somebody I was hooked. Bego’s action sequences are sheer blissful barrages of all the senses. It’s hands down my favorite Begos film and if this is only his second movie his third feature may be one of the greatest genre films of the decade if he keeps up the pace he’s at.
In remembering The Mind’s Eye, I got to talk to Graham about the struggles of his character in conveying so much emotion in his physical performance and the thrill ride that was the shoot! Spoilers Ahead!
Ghastly Grinning: In the final confrontation between you and Slovak, it’s a tragically beautiful moment because Zack has to unleash the power that killed his mom upon him in order to win. You convey every bit of pain in that decision and heartbreak in that moment. What kind of subtext prepared you for that scene and did you have perhaps a flood of memories you prepared for yourself as an actor in that moment of Zack and his mom?
Graham Skipper: Thank you! Yeah in preparing for Zack that was a big part of him that I really wanted to nail. One of my biggest fears personally is the idea of not being able to trust myself. That's why movies about going insane are the most frightening to me, generally. So with Zack, it was about taking that idea - that I can't trust myself, even with the people I care about most - and letting that drive every decision he makes. And yes, at the end, he has to tap into that which terrifies him, in order to do the right thing.
GG: Your team on The Mind's Eye had become a very tight-knit group thanks to Almost Human and you guys have the usual suspects making appearances throughout the film but you also had a lot of new talent and pretty big established actors brought in like Lauren Ashley Carter, Larry Fessenden, John Speredakos and Jeremy Gardner. What was it like meeting them and what were your favorite moments with them in the film? How well did they adapt to coming on board to the team?
GS: I was sooooo excited to work with all of them! Larry is a true legend, and an artist I've looked up to for a long time. And my favorite film of his is Wendigo, so of course getting to work with John after being such a fan of that was an honor. I adore THE BATTERY and Lauren's work as well, so I was really fanboy-ing out! And each of them is an incredibly lovely person, so they fit right in. It's hard to think of favorite moments because there were so many: with Jeremy it had to be getting to murder him with that axe. I'm up in the air and looking down at him and flinging axes through the air and...what more fun could you ask for? With John, it had to be our final confrontation there on the road. Flames shooting 20 feet in the air, the two of us flying on cables, covered in rain and snow and freezing cold...just wonderful. Lauren was so great to work with, and every scene with her was a delight. The monologue about what happened to my mom stands out because it was a really emotionally intense scene for both of us, and she was right there with me, locked in. That's a real gift to have an acting partner like that. And Larry! Just sitting on set and hearing him tell stories of his movies was almost reward enough, but I think my favorite on-camera memory is when I'm supposed to be staring at him on the ground off-screen in a bloody puddle, and he offered to lay there off-camera, still soaked in blood, just for me to have someone to look at. He didn't have to do that and it meant a lot. He's incredibly classy.
GG: You got to help out with the production design of your room and I know you managed to get a Barbara Crampton photo on the wall, was there anything else you got to help out with in building the surroundings of your character?
GS: The production designer Allie asked me what sort of things I would have in my room and most of everything I said she had already thought of! The Barbara poster came about when she asked what kind of images I'd have up on my wall, and of course, I love Barbara so that was such a perfect fit. But yeah, Allie was great about reaching out and being very collaborative in terms of bringing the design up from a position of character.
GG: You’ve talked before about how each telekinetic in the film has their own kind of way of using their powers and how their performances are structured around that. What would you say were your performance nuances to using your powers and did they change through the movie as the character of Zack grew or revealed more power through the movie?
GS: I was really just going from a place of "focus all of your energy out from your eyes to make what you want to happen, happen." So it was all from the eyes for me, and the forehead. I tried to make it more of a physical thing, like punching or ramming your head through a wall, only driven by thought and intention. Then, the bigger the act, the harder you have to push, but the more you practice the easier it gets. That was the nuance I tried to find as the film progresses.
GG: I know Begos showed you First Blood, which truly is an underrated achievement in acting, to prepare you for the opening of Minds Eye. Stating that you were basically John Rambo in the opening of the movie. With that idea, there’s a rich backstory to that character prior to the events of First Blood. Did you or Joe make up the missing time that led up to the opening of the film and what was it?
GS: Yeah, we definitely talked about it, and I drew up a lot of ideas both on my own and talking with Lauren prior to filming, to give a little bit more history to what had happened before. There were some early drafts of the script, too, that had some other scenes that talked more about what happened previously, so I had some of that to work from too.
GG: I love how hardcore Begos went to get this movie made, that a lot described as unfilmable with the budget and ideas he had, where he would literally trudge through the snow with a giant camera strapped to him or be hanging out a speeding car with a camera trying to get the best shots. This was obviously a lot harder in some aspects to make than Almost Human, what was that like to watch him direct and did that influence you in any way to get through any and every day?
GS: Joe is a true captain of his army. He is the first one on set and the last one to leave. He's the first guy out in the blizzard getting things set up and he never takes a break. That is truly inspiring and it definitely bled into each of us that as things got tough on the set, our leader remained fearless and so should we.
Stay tuned as I take a look back at Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates, where Graham reminisces about meeting up with Sequence Break star, Chase Williamson!