Although it may be only human for filmmakers to invite their extended family to the public debut of their first film, the difference between the gleefully gory “Almost Human” and your typical premiere may have made it a surprise for many in the audience at the Toronto Film Festival’s Midnight Madness to hear that writer/director Joe Begos’ grandparents drove up from Rhode Island to see it.
“I think ours is the only horror movie my mom’s ever actually sat through,” says Josh Ethier, one of the film’s stars who streaks across the screen at one point with a mysterious substance dripping from his skin.
Then again, “Almost Human” is the only horror film one might need to see, wearing the influence of a thousand other horror and sci-fi films on its sleeve, as, quite literally, does Begos, who showed up to our interview wearing a “Tenebre” T-shirt with a “Dawn of the Dead” tattoo peeking out on his left bicep, apparently just one bodily homage of many. Yet that isn’t to say that “Almost Human” is in any way derivative, with Begos and a dedicated cast and crew creating something entirely new and exciting from the best parts of the films they loved growing up.
Taking the curiosity of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s alien arrival films and using it as the basis for a relentless slasher flick, the film features Ethier as Mark, a man who disappeared in a haze of blue light and comes back two years later to his hometown in Maine where his friend Seth (Graham Skipper) and his girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) begin to notice strange behavior, something Seth predicted years earlier after seeing strange activity in the area just before Mark vanished.
What follows is a blood-and-goop-soaked thrill ride that defies description, though shortly before the crew traveled from Toronto to Fantastic Fest in Austin, Begos, Skipper and Ethier tried their best as they described the scrappy nature of the production and making a film that both their biological parents and their genre forefathers such as John Carpenter could be proud of.
How did this come about?
Joe Begos: We were all friends when we started and I’ve been making shorts for so long. It was time to make a feature and I wanted to do something that could stand out and that I would love to see. I had an idea for an alien abduction movie that I figured would fit perfectly in that small-town setting. I had met Graham working on “Re-Animator: The Musical,” so I wrote the role for him, hoping he would do it and I wrote the role for Josh, knowing that he would definitely do it.
But I heard Josh had no idea that he would actually act in this.
Josh Ethier: When I first read it, I had no idea which role he had in mind. At first, I thought I was going to be the guy in the hardware store [a smaller part], but Joe told me that I was going to be Mark and I was like, okay, cool. Then he was like, “Yeah, you have to be naked.” So that was–
JB: Just for me.
JE: To get the part. [laughs]
JB: The audition process. [laughs]
Since less crazy things are asked of Graham, why was Joe not as sure of your participation?
Graham Skipper:I don’t know why he was unsure at all because I love horror movies. We hit it off immediately doing “Re-Animator: The Musical” and traded horror DVDs back and forth. He introduced me to all sorts of cool stuff that I had never heard of before. Then he said, “Hey, I wrote this movie and we’re going to go out and shoot it.” I read it and thought, how awesome is that? An alien abduction slasher movie? It’s the kind of movie I want to make.
The film takes place in Maine and definitely feels like there’s a familiarity with the terrain. Are you from the New England region?
JB: We shot it in Rhode Island, which is where Josh and I have lived most of our lives. I lived in Maine for a couple years, but Rhode Island and Maine are similar in their settings and I was always so attracted to Stephen King stories growing up. They just had that desolation in them in these small towns and because I was so familiar with that, that’s just what I responded to.
Were you the kind of kid that goes out in the woods with a video camera when you’re like 12 or 13?
JB: That’s how we met. [looking over at Josh]
Obviously, John Carpenter was a big influence as well – the film uses his font for the credits. Why did you want to put something like that upfront?
JB: I saw no other option. Like once I put it up, you know we just temped it out and said let’s put the John Carpenter font. I feel like if your titles look cheesy, it immediately puts you off and obviously, we didn’t have the money to do any awesome optical titles like I really wanted. So we did something simple, white on black and once we put it in, it just worked. I had the Halloween III theme as the temp for our opening credits, but unfortunately, I couldn’t keep that. But it was kind of a Carpenter wankfest.
You really do embrace the low-budget nature of this rather than try to hide it. Was that something you wanted to do from the start?
JB: You have to. Some of my favorite movies – “Bad Taste,”,”Evil Dead” – it’s just part of that no holds barred fucking ridiculousness that’s so attractive. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had these really ambitious practical effects, and I would rather put the money into making full effects and getting as much time to shoot in cool locations as we could. And the fact that we have practical effects in there that are lo-fi is so much better than having CG effects. Two hundred million dollar movies can’t make CG effects look good, so how am I going to do it? My outlook was go big or go home. Put it all out there and be serious as fuck with it and see how people respond.
Did that feed into the energy that’s evident in the final film? This moves at a beastly pace.
JB: I would have loved to have shot as much as possible, but we scheduled it so that a lot of our big dialogue scenes, we’d be shooting seven pages of dialogue a day and like two to three effects shots a day. I wanted to keep it really relentless and the pace really high energy and fast because I wanted to play to my strengths. I love writing set pieces and I compare [my storytelling] to dropping out of helicopter right into the middle of the fucking war. That’s how I start movies, it’s like the audience has to catch up and they’re right in there figuring out themselves which gets them more invested. There was a lot of fat on it, which the Josh helped trim so it’s as lean and mean as it possibly could be.
Josh, I had heard that because you would later be editing the film, there was a disconnect for you as an actor since you’d have to decide what you’d cut out of your own performance later on. Was it a strange experience?
JE: It’s very difficult because when you’re on set as an actor, you’re just trying to give as much as your can performancew-ise so that there’s options for the editing room. But then when me and Joe are sitting there editing ourselves, we’re viewing the takes and just have to be incredibly critical of everything that’s happening because you want to make sure that you’re putting your best foot forward for the movie. That’s where I realize, I should have done other things on set. We were able to make it work because mainly my role was a physical role, and we always had Graham to go to, who is fantastic. I think it worked out just fine. But yeah, it was a little difficult sitting there, taking my own performance realizing well it’s me, I can’t be that rude to myself.
Graham, there’s a lot of great reaction shots from you in the film. Was it fun to spend a good deal of time mouth agape and eyes bulging?
GS: Yeah. Horror sometimes gets a bad rap because the characters often make stupid decisions and our goal with this was to make these characters act as you really would act if given the situation. That’s why a lot of these moments where I’m walking into a room and I’m seeing something horribly ghastly happening, I’m going, how would I react to that? I wouldn’t be able to immediately just jump into the fray with an axe. I’d be going, “What the fuck is going on?”
The whole movie is set over the course of 24 hours, basically and when you think about the fact that this guy was working at his job six hours before and now he’s surrounded by goopy alien monsters in the woods and horrible, horrible things are happening to him, it’s going to throw him for a loop. It was totally fun and the set had this atmosphere of let’s have fun, let’s go balls out and you could make any choice you wanted [as an actor], but it has to be towards the goal of making this as awesome as possible. That really guided the whole production.
JB: There was one reaction shot where there were very few people who could be in the room for [a climatic scene], so [Graham] hadn’t seen it until I rolled camera and I was like, “Alright, we’re just going to shoot it” and now I walk into the room and I actually shot his first reaction to seeing [a horrific prop] the first time.
GS: It’s very true.
Do the practical effects help? You’ve got to feel differently when you’re dripping with corn syrup on you.
GS: It’s always been my dream to be in horror films and along with these guys, I totally admire practical effects over CGI. To get gooped with a bunch of blood on my face and covered in slime, it was wonderful. And it was cold [in Rhode Island], so it very uncomfortable. Trust me, you never want to eat pizza at lunch with this weird syrupy blood goop all over your beard. But it was great and I certainly had it easy compared to Vanessa, who plays Jen in the movie. At least, I got to wear clothes. She was not so lucky.
I’ve heard she only came into the production six days before the film started and now she’s got a tattoo of the title on her arm. It sounds like she was really dedicated.
JB: She was perfect. All three of us are such horror geeks and she’s a horror geek too, so it was just awesome to have so many like-minded people on set. We love horror and we don’t think it’s ironic, we don’t think it’s just a step to the next level. This is what we want to do and you get all creative friends and people who are into that same stuff, and none of us see it as a job. You know I wrote all this crazy nudity into this movie and people that I’m barely paying, all these crazy, ambitious practical effects, tons of action set pieces. And I look back and I’m like, “Jesus Christ, how the fuck did I expect people to agree to all this?” But thankfully everybody did.
GS: There were a lot of moments, too, where for whatever reason, maybe things didn’t work out or we were running out of time where we had to change ideas or an effects shot, but it happened exactly the way that everybody thought it would. We’d change the idea around and there was all sorts of on-set collaboration and thinking on our feet. It really enhanced the movie and those spur-of-the-moment decisions we ended up working out were [often] better than what the original idea might have been anyway. It was that sort of atmosphere that if something doesn’t work, you keep going and figure something else out.
JE: When we actually finished and we stopped and thought about what we had finished and thankfully, we were in a bar at that moment, so we really enjoyed it, but we just realized we went and made a movie.
What’s this moment been like? Your premiere at Midnight Madness was crazy and Colin Geddes, who runs Midnight Madness, has made a point of announcing your presence at nearly all the Midnight Madness screenings.
JB: It’s pretty much been a dream. I’m going to be kind of depressed when it’s all over, but that just means more ambition to come back and make an even better movie next time. You’re just sitting there, the room’s electric and you’re just watching these great films and then to actually be recognized as a filmmaker — I guess I actually feel validated as a filmmaker more than anything.
GS: This is an incredible experience, Colin is such an amazing guy and such a lover of genre films and it’s so nice to be with people who really get it. Like Joe said, you’re surrounded by people who are there because they want to be there. They love the same stuff you love and I’ve been introduced to all this cinema from around the world that I never would have known existed. Last night, I saw my first hopping vampire movie from China. That’s crazy and my eyes have been opened, so I definitely want to come back here. And the best way to come back here is to make a movie, so make a movie.
“Almost Human” was recently picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight. It will play Fantastic Fest at the Alamo Lakeline in Austin, Texas on September 19 at 11:45 p.m. and Monday, September 23rd at 11 p.m.