[INTERVIEW] A Graham Skipper Retrospective: SEQUENCE BREAK
Recently at our local Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, Texas, I got to host a screening of Graham’s Skipper’s directorial debut, Sequence Break. Graham and I had been acquainted for almost a year thanks to my first Blumhouse article in which I gushed about my love for Jackson Stewart’s Beyond The Gates. Knowing I worked for Alamo he contacted me to set up a screening for which he and Chase Williamson could host a Q&A with myself. I’m a homegrown Texas native of Oak Cliff and Chase and Graham were both raised in Fort Worth so it was a real pleasure and honor to have these hometown heroes back and host them for this wondrous occasion. Over the night I got to sit down to dinner and drinks with Graham and his family and finally get to meet him in person and become friends. Out of all the celebrities I’ve met and gotten to host alongside Graham and Adam Green have been my favorites. Horror celebs are some of the best because they just seem to get it more and are more wholesome and fun than most. I told Adam he’s the Kevin Smith of horror and now I got to say just seeing Graham and interacting with him he’s easily up there in the running for nicest and most fun loving guy ever. In his film career acting for Begos and Jackson I considered him their Ron Perlman but as a director, I have to say he’s following in the footsteps of Cronenberg with a George Romero attitude. Finally watching the film I was blown away by the voice that echoed through it. A great film is the sum of all parts and Graham has every avenue covered. His dialogue and character development give way to originality that grips your very heart in the best ways only to yank it and boggle your mind with an auditory and colorful visual barrage of sights and sounds. Having gotten to interview Graham on the films he’s starred in directed by some of my favorite auteurs of the horror genre I was intensely curious to see how those experiences affected him. To say the least I was shocked at how amazingly far he went for a first time film and how like a true artist he took bits of what he learned and made those techniques all his own with his own sensibilities and craft. Here is my final interview with Graham Skipper on his film, Sequence Break!
GG: What was the initial inspiration to finally direct and write a film? And where did the story come from?
GS: Many years ago, in college, I read an urban legend online about an arcade game that killed people, and I always thought it would make an interesting movie. But over the years whenever I'd try to write something along those lines, it never quite came out right. Then while we were on the festival tour with The Mind's Eye, I found myself revisiting a lot of Cronenberg's work, as well as struggling a bit with trying to balance my personal life with my professional ambitions, and one night it all came together in my head. I needed to tell a story about a young man caught between two passions, told through the lens of body horror, and an evil arcade game would be the perfect lynchpin around which all of this can happen. So it happened pretty organically. As to why I wanted to write and direct, I've always been a pretty prolific writer, and for years I'd been trying to get something I'd written made into a movie, although I was never precious about needing to direct it myself. There was something about this story, however, that felt so personal to me - and I could see how I wanted it to look in my head - that I felt passionately that I should direct this myself.
GG: Having seen the movie, it honestly doesn’t feel like a directorial debut because you have such a good eye for visuals and editing. Was it mostly working on such intimate sets like with Joe Begos, Jackson Stewart, and Stuart Gordon or did this seem like second nature to you?
GS: Oh I absolutely learned from working with those guys. And also just being on a set, and seeing the process from start to finish, it gave me an appreciation and understanding of all of the different aspects that go into making a film. It's not only the performances, it's the editing, the sound mix, the sound design, the production design, the visual language of the camera...so having seen all of those things come together helped make me aware of the importance of building a good team, and that so much of what the director has to do is be prepared, and then delegate responsibly. Be able to communicate what you see in your head to your team. The best piece of advice I tend to give to people that ask me about how to prepare for directing a movie is always "go be on a set." Do anything, just be around. Be a part of the process. Because it's very complex and I imagine can feel overwhelming if you've never experienced it.
GG: As an actor, I feel some of the best ways to hone the craft is to be able to know the construction of a script (subtext) the placement of the camera (blocking) and directing (scene construction). How did you feel your long career in acting prepare you to direct and how do you feel the two hats relate?
GS: At the script level, I think being an actor really helped me. Characters act with intention and objective, and that's how an actor has to think about his own character. So I really tried to think that way as I crafted these characters and their relationships, which I think are the most important things in any script. Relationships. As far as blocking and constructing a scene, I knew from being on sets the importance of blocking the scene in the space, to get a sense of flow and movement. One thing that always feels static whether you're acting in it or watching it on a screen is a shot where people are sitting still and not moving. The same is true for stage. So it was a matter of letting the actors do it naturally, and then adjusting based on motivation and what would look most interesting. It's all about keeping these things natural and fluid, so that when the crazy shit happens it's coming from a grounded place.
GG: Having gotten to know you and hang out with you, the opening of the film feels very Graham Skipper as it’s dialogue is fast fun and at times dirty. It makes the film flow so well and really invests you in the characters. How long did that rapport take to write and how much of it did you pull from your own life and conversations?
GS: I really just tried to make things feel natural! Some adjustments were made based on how the actors really talked, too, so that it would all be as natural as possible. It's a balance between that and finding a good rhythm and getting out all the information you need to, but I think starting from a place of believability and how the people really talk is important.
GG: The love story between Tess (Fabianne Therese) and Oz (Chase Williamson) is one of the best onscreen romances I’ve ever seen. Without that love story working the entire movie falls apart. As a geek with an amazingly beautiful geeky girlfriend myself, that type of relationship is rarely seen onscreen but you managed to capture it and make it accessible to everyone. Where did you pull that from and how much of that relationship is like you and your own wife?
GS: Thank you! I'm so glad you felt that way! I think that blossomed out of starting with Oz and figuring out what kind of person would he not only be attracted to, but who could reach in through his shell and connect with him. And what kind of person would be attracted to a guy like that? And thus Tess was born. And while my relationship with my wife isn't based around a love of video games, there are certainly elements I drew from about common connections that made us both realize "oh wow he/she doesn't think I'm weird."
GG: Chase and Fabianne as the film’s main love interests help sell the movie so well and amazingly make your words come to life. They had previously played lovers in John Dies at the End but that romance was very brief, what was it like watching that chemistry build and what did you as a director do to capture such a beautiful performance of two souls becoming one?
GS: Yeah I was so lucky to have both of them. Their chemistry was palpable from the beginning - obviously, I knew Fabi's work previously but when she came in and read with Chase, there was an electricity and a life between them that felt so natural. One of the challenges in the script is that their romance has to blossom and become love very quickly, so we talked about Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in The Fly, and how it's so believable that they would instantly fall in love and then be willing to go down this insane road together. Plus they're both so insanely talented that they were able to track that romance believably, so I didn't have to do too much work there.
GG: The film very much feels like two parts. The love story and tragedy of a childhood dream dying against a second act that is a trip to the unknown. A body horror film that twists the ideas of the first half of the film. It made me think of how Spielberg combined his family drama with an alien film to conceive E.T. What films inspired each part of the movie and what was that writing process like?
GS: I would say the love story was heavily influenced by - as I said before - The Fly, Punch Drunk Love, Spring, and Upstream Color. Among others, obviously. Then the body horror elements were films like Videodrome, Beyond The Black Rainbow, Altered States, Jacob's Ladder and Tetsuo The Iron Man. In terms of dialogue and trying to keep things feeling natural I also was drawn to films like Primer and Dead Ringers. Just very natural, very fast rhythmically. And then you sort of combine all of those ideas and see how to make them work for these characters and these stories. What draws you to each of those films, why are they effective, really examine the way the script uses text to tell you as much as possible in as little dialogue as possible. Show, don't tell.
GG: One of my favorite stories in indie filmmaking was Robert Rodriguez’s idea of taking random things you have and making a movie. He had a turtle, a guitar case, and friends in Mexico so he made El Mariachi. That then spiraled into Kevin Smith making Clerks because he had a convenience store. Was there any thought process like that that helped you build the movie? Something you already had at your disposal?
GS: Well I own a couple of arcade machines and frequent an arcade repair shop down the street from where I live, so that was certainly a major element that was in my life that helped solidify the story and what I wanted it to look and feel like.
GG: For those of us who grew up with arcades and Blockbusters and the amazing places of our past that molded us it hurts to see so many of those places go away. The story of the owner of the video arcade and having to close it really hit me hard and we see that partially spiral the character of Oz into bad places. Does that concept come from a real place for you in seeing niche stores like that close? What are the things our generation had that you think this generation is missing out on because of it?
GS: Like most of our generation, I'm certainly nostalgic for the video store. For me, it was the Blockbuster on Hulen Street in Fort Worth. I loved the Friday ritual after school of going there and spending an hour sifting through titles I'd never heard of, discovering gems, the excitement of getting to pop it in when I got home. There was something about the mystery of it, and the lack of access, that made it more exciting than flipping through a Netflix cue. Now obviously, I think we're in a real golden age now, we have millions of titles at our disposal and they're mostly of high quality visually (no more adjusting the tracking), but there is something to miss about the old times. Same with arcades - I love arcades, and it makes sense why we don't have them anymore, but there was something so great about having a place to go that was dedicated to fun. Where your parents could leave you to your own devices for a couple of hours. I love this sort of renaissance in the form of barcades and such, so that's exciting to see coming back, but again I can wax nostalgic about the old days there. But I think that's a part of the message of the film: it's okay to mourn these things that have been phased out by modern technology, but we also have to look to the future and be excited about what's in front of us. It's very sad, but it just becomes our journey to pass along what we found important to those that come after us.
GG: I have loved watching the students of Stewart Gordon blossom, from Begos and Jackson to you. I’ve always thought of you as their Jeffrey Combs and now you’ve stepped up to the directing chair but the through-line I love that you all three have in common is your brilliant lighting. It’s something Hollywood desperately lacks nowadays is that they bathe their shots in little to no light but with the dark blues, purples and reds Begos perfectly visually articulated the mind. Jackson gave us an ethereal otherworldly purple and blue hue to the world in Beyond the Gates that elevated its ambiance. You bathed every scene in the games realm with a green light that is so evocative. How important was that light scheme and where did it’s ideas come from?
GS: The light and color were vital from the beginning to me, and Brian (my DP) agreed. I'm always drawn to dramatic lighting in films: Suspiria, From Beyond, Pumpkinhead, Brain Damage, The Exorcist, Vertigo...all films that are unafraid to give us dramatic light and color that - even though they are unnatural - feel natural as you watch them. I think Stuart is a master of that - his movies are heightened, often totally bonkers story-wise, but you never doubt their veracity. They're always coming from an honest place. So I think it's about setting up a world and then being unafraid to let the audience in on the fact that they're watching a movie. It's okay to mess with reality, so long as it all feels within the truth of the world you've created.
GG: My favorite message I ever got from you was you asked me to make sure the volume was turned up high for the screening we held. That was the moment I knew, “We’re in for some insane shit.” After watching it, it reminds me of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to him before where he said he wanted to bombard the audience with sound evoking the embodiment of hell. What was the influence on the score and what did you want to evoke with it?
GS: I knew that sonically this movie was going to have to be insane. Sound is SO IMPORTANT in movies. People don't think a lot about sound but it's really one of the most important elements that can make or break a film. By the end of Oz's journey, I wanted the audience to be as exhausted as he is, to have really crawled through the trenches with him and come out the other side, so in designing the sound we wanted it to be immersive, assaultive, and very forward. As far as the score goes, we wanted it to flow seamlessly in and out of the sound design, so they bled into each other. And we were influenced by (of course) John Carpenter, the Neon Demon score, Disasterpeace, and stuff like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. That stuff always feels so dreamy and ethereal to me, that it felt appropriate for the world we were creating here.
GG: Having been Chase’s brother in Beyond The Gates, what was it like stepping up from being fellow actor into leading him?
GS: It was super easy! We both have a respect and appreciation for the various roles we were playing, and we like each other, so that part flowed super easily. I know how to talk to actors and so it made for a pretty smooth adjustment.
GG: Where did you find the other actors and what was it like working with them?
GS: Well Fabi was brought in after Chase recommended her and was, of course, perfect - and as I said it was a pleasure working with her. Really it was a pleasure working with everybody! Lyle Kanouse is my godfather and he produced the film along with his wife Audrey Wasilewsky - Lyle plays Jerry and Audrey plays the sagely bartender. The two of them are veterans of film and television so of course, I had to put them in the film! You can't turn down access to talent like that! Then Johnny Dinan, playing the mysterious Man, was brought in by Lyle after they had worked together on another project, and he just totally blew us away with his intensity and understanding of some pretty out there text. And everyone was really a dream - having actors like this made my job so much easier. I just needed to point the camera and let them do their magic!
GG: You worked with the Russells as an FX team on Beyond the Gates and brought them on board for some amazingly cringeworthy body horror effects! What was their reaction to the script and what was it like working with them on your vision as opposed to being the guy they covered with blood?
GS: They were all in from the beginning. Having become friends with them I knew they shared my love of the bizarre and the goopy, so from the get-go they loved the script and their vision was totally in line with what I had in mind. They were amazing to work with and also helped in setting up the effects so that they would look as great as possible on screen. They really know their stuff - I loved working with them.
GG: Was this your first time editing anything together and did you enjoy the process?
GS: I'd edited some shorts and stuff, and had learned a bit from Josh Ethier as he worked on Almost Human and The Mind's Eye, but this was my first time sitting down for such a big project. And I learned a tremendous amount! The most amazing thing is just how much you can change your film in the edit. But yes it was a fascinating process and a really rewarding one.
GG: After all the hard work, what was your initial reaction to seeing it with an audience and what did it feel like?
GS: Totally surreal! You spend so much time with something and are so close to it, and then suddenly it's out in the world and the train has left the station. But it was great, and super exciting. I loved seeing peoples' brains working and hearing the stunned silence at the very end of the film. I loved imagining what their thoughts were as the film reaches its climax. I loved the laughs at the sweet banter between Oz and Tess. And the Q&A's have been really cool too, people always asking really smart and thoughtful questions, and sometimes about things that I hadn't even considered! A film truly becomes its own creature once it's out in the world, and it's been amazing to see people take it and adapt it to different parts of their own life and experience.
GG: How did Shudder acquire the film and how long did it take to get the deal together because I remember the first time hearing about it was on an episode of Shock Waves when you and Joe Begos were promoting The Minds Eye.
GS: Well I think maybe you're remembering when I mentioned that I had made the film and it was coming out, but I'm pretty sure no deal had started by the time we did that Shock Waves episode. But yes, Shudder acquired the film out of the Cannes film market last year, and then as with all things the process is methodical to get finalized. But it all really happened pretty quickly. We were thrilled when they said they wanted us and they've been a really amazing company to work with.
GG: With its success and festival runs have you gotten to meet any idols or had an awesome moments meeting someone whose work you revered after they saw the film?
GS: I'd known Chris Cargill (who wrote Sinister and Doctor Strange, among others) and have always been a huge fan of his work. He was at the world premiere in Chattanooga and he had some really nice things to say after the film that have stuck with me. So that was really nice. Or Jonah Ray from MST3K saw it in LA and that was another huge thrill for me. Just having filmmakers and artists you respect and admire see the film and respond to it has been just a joy and an honor.
GG: Only because I know you guys are such good close friends was there ever any point you considered putting George Wendt in the film?
GS: I love George! I'd known I wanted Lyle to play Jerry from the beginning, so George wasn't really a consideration this time, unfortunately. But I would, of course, love to work with him on anything! He's amazing.
GG: What was it like coming home and showing the film at Alamo Drafthouse with many of your financial backers and family and friends in the audience? Were you nervous? Your parents are amazing by the way!
GS: It was such a treat! To get to bring the film home was really a lovely cherry on top of this whole process. And I wasn't really nervous! I love this film and am so proud of it, so this was such a lovely way to show my hard work to the folks back home and just sort of say thank you to a lot of the Texans that helped make it possible.
GG: Now that you’ve completed your first feature film and have had time to let the world see it, would you want to keep acting or directing or do a bit of both?
GS: I'd love to do both! I just love creating worlds and bringing them to life, in whatever way I can. I'm very lucky to have gotten to do both at all, so I'll consider myself fortunate just to keep getting to play in the horror sandbox as long as I'm able to.
GG: What kinds of films would you be interested in making next and who would be dream come true actors, musicians, writers or FX people you’d like to work with?
GS: My dream - my absolute dream - would be to work with Clive Barker on something. An adaptation of his work, directing something he's written, acting in a Barker-produced film...anything. I'd also love to work with Stuart on something again! But really, there are so many talented artists out there that whatever comes next, I'm excited as hell about it and am grateful to whatever Elder Gods are looking out for me that I get to do what I do.