It's not often we give a glowing review to a direct-to-video horror flick - a brutal kicking is usually the order of the day - but we've made an exception for Splinter (out on DVD on 30 March). This low-budget monster movie with shades of The Thing concerns a weird alien organism that causes sharp black splinters to grow out of the bodies of anything it touches and infects. Worse than that, it also absorbs the corpses of its victims - or their detached body parts - into itself, growing into a shambling mass of flesh. We gave it a four-and-a-half star rating in the latest issue, and seriously recommend you consider buying a copy . Here director Toby Wilkins tells about the process of making his first feature film.
What was the starting point for the film, the germ of the idea?
The creature concept had been gestating for a number of years: my friend George Cawood and were playing with the idea of a parasite that could control its victims’ bodies from the inside, while distorting them to move however it wanted. It seemed like a cool visual, and pretty horrific, but we were hitting a wall when it came to finding the right story. So when I read Ian Shorr’s original script, which was then called Tooth And Nail, it all just clicked. Shorr had created a story and a setting that spoke to all the things I loved about horror, growing up. My favourite horror films were always movies like The Thing and Dawn Of The Dead where a small group of interesting people were trapped in a contained environment and forced to deal with the terror that unfolds. I was always along for the ride watching those films because they were very intimate stories, and that’s what I loved about the script. So putting the two things together seemed like we had found the perfect home for this creature.
This is your directorial debut, but you've been working in the industry a long time - can you tell us a bit about your background?
I have been directing since about 1999, but Splinter is my first feature. I came up through graphic design, doing title sequences, visual effects, and various other work in post-production for a huge range of films. Much of this work included shoots, and on-set supervision. I was working for some really inspirational filmmakers, and some really great projects and being exposed to all of that was a dream come true, and all the while I was making my own short films, and teaching myself the ropes. Within a few years I had signed with my manager David Gardner and my agent David Boxerbaum as a director, had two shorts premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2005 after winning the ScreamFest Award for Best Horror Short, my work caught the eye of the folks at Ghost House Pictures, which is Sam Raimi’s horror production company. Of course I leapt at the chance to work with them, and I created a number of short-form horror projects for them over the next year or so. I was just finishing up their first horror web series for FearNet called Devil’s Trade when a friend of a friend, producer Ted Kroeber called and asked me to read the script that eventually became Splinter.
What was the most difficult practical challenge in making the film?
Probably the compressed shooting schedule. Most studio films have between 35 and 60 days to shoot: we made Splinter in twenty, which means we were shooting no less than four or five minutes of the movie on any given day. There were major action sequences towards the end of the film that had to be done in one take simply because there wasn’t enough time to reset all the smashed shelves of merchandise, the destroyed lights, the blood-splattered walls... It’s a testament to the cast and crew that we able to get everything we needed for those sequences and still have enough time to do justice to the story and character scenes - sometimes on the same day. I am always very focused on the actors, and getting the performances right, so everyone worked very hard to give our amazing cast as much room to explore as possible, while balancing all the technical stuff, the creature work, the gore, and the action, which of course are essential ingredients to make a horror movie fun.
Was there anything you wanted to do that it became apparent wasn't achievable with the time and resources available?
There are always dozens, maybe hundreds of things like that on a movie, and that never goes away, even on huge budget pictures. There are always compromises to be made, and corners to be cut. The trick is to bounce back and work around them to deliver what you need to tell the story. One of the great things about working with a small and enthusiastic crew like the one we had on Splinter is that you can quickly adjust to situations that come up. If we were hit with rain on an outdoor scene, everyone would scramble to turn around and shoot something inside instead so we made very good use of the resources we had, and really the beauty of the script was its contained nature. The fact that we were in one location for most of the film made for a very efficient shoot, and with few exceptions - things that would have been extremely elaborate stunts, or unnecessarily expensive creature effects - we managed to shoot everything that was on the page. Another thing I was keenly aware of from the start was the danger of showing too much. We certainly didn’t hold back on the blood in this film, and while there will always be people who want to see more of the creature, more of the gore, like a shark in the water, what the audience doesn’t see is often more powerful. For me it’s the fact that we don’t always see what the splinter creature does to its victims that makes it so terrifying.